The Under Ground Writing Project

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Writer's Blah, Part 2

Posted by Ali on January 30, 2013 at 7:00 PM

Last week, I wrote about having trouble writing, (I forget, is that irony?). Jenny and John both had some answers for my question: How do you get over the blah?


Riffing on Jenny


Jenny had some good ideas, like setting arbitrary constraints for the story, writing out of order, and hopping between stories to focus on what was most interesting to me at the time.


Let's talk about the arbitrary constraints first. It may seem silly to mandate that one of your characters must be a gorilla and that each scene must end with someone saying, "banana." However, the nice thing about constraints is that it allows you to play. Since certain things are now set ahead of time, you have to be a bit more creative to make those things fit.


Writing out of order is an excellent piece of advice. When I was in college, I did this all the time. I'd start with a concept, paragraph, or quote that was fully formed in my head and, by starting where it was easy, I gained momentum/warmed up. Generally, that paragraph I started with led me to another idea, which reminded me of this other thought, and soon I had a few pages written.


When I was teaching freshman composition, I had conversation with a student that went something like this:


Student: Miss E. I'm stuck with this paper.

Me: What's giving you trouble?

Student: I can't figure out what I wan to say in my introduction.

Me: Do you know what you want to say in the rest of the paper?

Student: Yeah, but I just don't know how to start it.

Me: That's fine. Don't worry about the intro right now. Start in the middle. Come back to the intro later.

Student: I can do that?!


When I saw her the next time, I asked her if the new approach had helped. She was almost done with her rough draft. She was so surprised that you don't have to write the first things first that when I gave her permission to start wherever, it freed her up immensely.


I just fully realized, in writing this post, that this is something that is so clear and already something I do with non-fiction, but I rarely follow this advice with fiction. Oops.


Riffing on John


John also had some good ideas about getting back to the basics of story craft, focusing on a deadline, and sticking with one story at a time. Note how this last recommendation directly contradicts Jenny's.


Working on the basics is always a good idea, whether you're a beginner or a seasoned pro. As with athletes, surgeons, or anyone else, the goal of perfecting the basics isn't really to practice until you get it right, it's to practice until you can't get it wrong. I don't care who you are, if you can't make us feel invested in your main character(s), your story/novel is not a success, no matter how fancy your language or surprising your plot twists.


The back to basics advice was also the same thing I was telling myself. I was getting tied in knots about plot, so I took a step back and spent some time thinking about basic plot construction. People have to do stuff. And, when you're trying to decide what to make people do, an excellent place to start is by thinking about bad choices. This is the "What could go wrong?" question. Answering it is a good way to come up with an idea of how to worsen the conflict, give a character something they need to overcome, create motivation for an action, add a bit of liveliness, or simply figure out what happens next.


On the deadline note, John and the crew know me well enough to know that I'm stubborn and have a competitive streak. We have, from time to time, engaged in contests based on "Who can write the most words in the next two weeks?" This dynamic isn't what works best for everyone, but it is super productive for me. It's a clear, measurable goal. When I'm focused on a concrete deadline, it takes some of the pressure off of trying to make it perfect. If it has to be done tomorrow, it's more important for it to be done than perfect. There will be time to go back later and make it pretty.


So, what happened with my blah? On Sunday I walked into the meeting with copies of the completed story inspired by the Duchess of Bathory. John made some smart remark about how his submission was a page longer, but since our formatting was different, I pointed out that my submission has almost 1,000 more words, so if it's a contest, I win. Just saying.


But wait, there's more writer's blah to come! Tune in next week as I hash out some more strategies for getting past the wall and give you helpful links from around the web.

Categories: Writing Process, Advice, psychology

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1 Comment

Reply John Ridge
12:10 PM on February 1, 2013 
Actually, the original terms were that both of us had to have something written, and we both did have something written. So, really, in this round we're both winners.

But, you had a head start, and I had to start from scratch, so I'm more of a winner than you.

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