Recently, I brought you some of my favorite tips for overcoming writer’s block while writing nonfiction, a challenge that all writers and journalists will run into from time to time. While there are a great many similarities between the tips for fiction and nonfiction writers block, I would say there are a great many differences too. Writing fiction employs a variety of skills that don’t necessarily overlap with those utilized for journalism or nonfiction. That does not mean it is easier or harder, simply different.
Here are a few tips to for the fiction author to combat writer’s block.
- Have a conversation with your characters: One thing that all writers learn is that characters drive a story. It is the human element of a book or article that fundamentally crafts the narrative. It doesn’t matter if a story is set in ancient times or the far distant future, if your readers don’t have a connection to the protagonist, they’re going to put it down. And it’s not just the good guys who need to be interesting, but the villains or characters who challenge your hero need to be large and developed enough to warrant the role. So talk to your characters – see what dialects they use, how they swear, do they babble or close lip? The more you know, the realer they feel and the more your reader will care.
- Have your characters talk to each other: Alright, you know how they communicate with you, the author, but that’s just one person and it’s outside of their world. Looking at the way a heroine talks to her lover versus her boss will indicate a lot of who she is. How does she communicate with her antagonist – is she curt, expressive or withdrawn? What sort of parent is she? Play your main characters off of each other as a way of delving deeper into who they are, how they respond and what makes them tick. If you’re working with a lot of characters, engaging several at once will help you keep them straight and write them as more unique and individual people.
- Rediscover your outline: Maybe you developed an outline for this story or maybe you didn’t, but if you’re stuck, it’s a good time to determine the bare bones of a road map. Now, some authors love outlines and some don’t. I’m not the kind of writer who can go in without a clue as to where I’m headed, but if you are that’s great. Still, if it seems like the next scene just isn’t forthcoming, no matter what you’re doing, now might be a good time to write a sentence for each of the upcoming scenes to help you figure out how you’re going to get there. This might change later, so don’t panic about commitment, but it will ease you through the tight spots to determine the most important part and will help you to determine if a scene is really necessary at all.
- Consider what the book is about: If you’re writing genre fiction, mystery, sci-fi, romance, you have a certain set of guidelines and signposts that will help keep you honest. Specifically, romance has a Happily Ever After and mystery has a big reveal that require a certain amount of maneuvering to achieve. Fiction needs something similar – be it large or specific. Where does your book eventually need to end up or what theme needs to be apparent at the conclusion? If you don’t have particulars, that’s fine, but if you have no idea at all where the book is headed, it’s going to be really hard to write. Consider jotting down a single sentence – the theme or message, if you will – and taping it above your desk. That way if you forget the point, you can always look and see: family is challenging but worth it, love conquers all, a life without adventure is not worth living, etc. These concepts will help you to focus and to determine the most important part of the story you are telling.
- Give ‘em hell: Your characters, I mean. If it seems like your book isn’t moving forward quickly enough, it might be because there’s just not enough of a challenge for your heroes or heroines. Maybe the antagonist isn’t strong enough or maybe there aren’t enough buildings on fire, or maybe the person your hero loves is now walking down the aisle with another man. It’s important to push what is called the black moment until your reader truly and completely believes that there is no hope for survival or happiness. Now, each book is going to have a different style black moment, but if the challenges aren’t big enough, we don’t care as much if the hero succeeds.
- Raise the stakes: It’s a lot easier to torture the heroes and heroines in your story if there’s a lot to lose. For instance, if a character’s job is on the line and they need this job to take care of their child, that’s a pretty high stake. Now, if it turns out that the child has been kidnapped and is being held in a building rigged with explosives, our hero will likely tell their boss to screw off so they can go and save their kid – much, much higher stakes. Giving the characters something to lose – and it has to be big enough for the reader to care about – pushes the story along. The author is then able to dangle that loss in front of their character to see how they react.
- Goal, motivation, conflict: Alright, they have a lot to lose, but what do they want? Now, often what they want goes hand in hand with not losing what’s at stake. For instance, all they want to do is get through this big presentation so they can keep their job so they can support their kid. Great. That’s the goal and the motivation. They want something. Why do they want it? Those are important questions to ask because then you can move onto the plot driven question – what is stopping them from getting that thing they want? The answer to that will help set up your road map for the plot of the story.
- Write a different scene: Sometimes we just can’t get through the one we’re on. Maybe it’s a challenge because we need to better understand our characters or do some more research. There are a thousand reasons for writer’s block and I’m sure we’ve experienced all of them. So, instead of giving up on writing for the day, make a note on your document and skip to a scene you’re interested in writing – the balcony where two lovers meet, the final shoot-out where all seems lost. There’s a lot of value in writing what you really want to write – you get to know your characters better, which might help you to move through those difficult scenes, and you get your juices flowing, which might just mean a very productive writing day after all.
- Research, research, research: Yeah, I said this in the last article, but it has a bit of a different impact when writing fiction. Recently, I went to set a scene in a casino in Brazil, so I searched photos of casinos in Brazil. It turns out gambling is illegal in the entire country, which forced my hand – I either had to change the location, or find a way for my characters to gamble surreptitiously. Research for fiction could be anything from street names in foreign cities to the agricultural calendar of a ranch in Montana. On my Facebook page, I often run a Strange Search Saturday list, which highlights some of my weirdest research for the week. And it is weird, but getting into the nitty gritty provides a better understanding of your environment, as well as many other things. It’s also really important to keep a book accurate, so never shirk on research.
- Do a free write: Maybe it’s just the book, but now you’re stuck and you can’t get out of a funk? Well, before tossing your computer out the window, consider running some air under your overheated engine. Set a timer for ten or twenty minutes, put your phone on airplane mode and just go on a stream of conscious free write. Consider turning off spell check and forgoing the delete button, just to see what happens. You might actually find some inspiration for your book, or you might just loosen up some tight muscles, which will make it all the easier to get back to work.
- A Reiteration: Instead of repeating in depth some of the similar points that work for nonfiction and fiction, I’ll list the ones to check out from my previous article because they are equally as effective in writing both genres: Talk it out – never be afraid to get plot or character help from a friend or critique partner. Take a break – getting away from your computer might be the best way to jumpstart your creative engine. Determine your audience – Our stories and the way we tell them vary remarkably, depending on who we’re writing for. Go work on something else – Seriously, there must be something calling your name. Just f**king write – Sometimes, the only way to the other side is through.
As you might have seen in last week’s post, Hello Rejection, My Old Friend, writing is a complicated and not always fulfilling process. We have our ups and downs, we have our acceptances and rejections and we have the days where will double our word count and the days we can’t manage a measly page.
For better or for worse, that’s the process and one we’ve chosen to dedicate our lives to. For that, I consider myself lucky. Because if I can make it through the challenging writing days and the rejections and the writer’s block, I have a job that allows me, requires me, to build castles, destroy cities, fight evil and bring about true love and, really, how many people get to do that? ♦