Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dissolving the Wall

You’re breezing along, the words are flowing, and pouring out onto the page almost faster than you can think them up. Your nimble fingers zoom like greased lightning across that keyboard. A grin cracks your face because your character has just said the wittiest thing.

Then it happens. Cue the sound of screeching tires. Throw in the crescendo of shattering glass and the crunch of metal and plastic.
Because you’ve just hit a wall.

But things were going so swimmingly, you think. Your story was writing itself. You were in the zone. Zoned.
Now it’s just you and the wall and the chirping crickets.
Sound familiar?
While I’ve had a similar scenario happen in the midst of just about every story I’ve written, I have never had a more extreme case of wall-hitting than when it came time for me to write a sequel.
I went in with a plan and I went in knowing my characters. Having been through the process of writing and publishing a novel once before, I also went in with more knowledge, better tools and more experience, too. Why, then, was the process so much more difficult than anything I had ever undertaken? 
The full answer to that question might require a book itself. But one reason I had trouble was because I kept getting stuck. I would cover some good ground and then my motor would stall. I would get a little on the page and then night would fall over my brain and the crickets would begin their lonely song. But it wasn’t all calm summer nights—there was quite a bit of panic thrown in there as well because, unlike my first book, I was now under a deadline.
So I had to adapt. I had to do my best to prime the pump, to keep things flowing. And here a few ticks that I learned.

·         Walk away
One of the hardest things to do when you’re in the midst of a creative project is to walk away from it. Especially if you have a due date looming around, rattling chains in your head like some kind of Marley the Ghost wannabe. But perspective is important in regards to creating and so is distance. Taking a step back from the story and resolving NOT to think about your current story AT ALL for a short period of time can help to refresh your mind and restore your imagination. I have often found that, if I walk away from a project and take a break, when I come back, the problem I was having before seems smaller, more manageable and, God forbid, maybe even easily solved.

·         Walk it out
If you reach a point in your narrative where things dry up, or you have a plot issue you can’t seem to untangle, take a walk. Now this is different from walking away because this time, when you walk, you are literally taking a hike. That, and you pack your current story problem/plot issue to take along with you. Walking was an integral element in the crafting of my second novel and, in truth, I think it’s safe to say I “walked out” the entire book.

On your walk, you must not take your phone. You must not take your dog. No friends. No children. No one. You and the pavement, the grass, the trees and your story. Go for at least fifteen or twenty minutes. Thirty minutes is even better. While I can’t promise that when you return you will have the solution to your specific problem, I can promise that you will return with more clarity. Even if you don’t get the answer you were looking for, you’ll come back to your work with more answers for the overall project than you had before. Now this isn’t my idea, so you don’t have to take my word for it. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way and creativity coach extraordinaire, highly advocates walking as a block-dissolving tool. You can read more about walking and other tools to combat writers block in her books The Artist’s Way and Walking in This World. Julia says that “Walking is an exercise in heightened listening. As we walk, we awaken our neural pathways and make them more sensitive.” 
Action in our bodies helps to loosen the debris in our heads. Which brings me to the next tactic.

·         Do something repetitive and mindless.
If you’re stuck somewhere in your writing and you’re just not sure what should happen next, take a break and go find that pair of knitting needles your grandmother gave you. Or make friendship bracelets for your critique group. Do you have a room in the house that needs a fresh coat of paint? 
Why do you think so many legendary creators and geniuses have epiphanies in the midst of going about every-day activities? Wasn’t Archimedes about to take a bath when he shouted “Eureka!”?
Often, break-throughs come in the form of “suddenly.” Suddenly, I realized why my main character didn’t want to share his pizza in chapter one. Suddenly, it dawned on me that my protagonist wasn’t human at all. Suddenly, I knew that secondary character had to die at the end of chapter twelve.
I sometimes get my best ideas when driving. Now I know why. When I’m driving, I’m focused on something else. And, for whatever reason, that allows my answers to float to the surface all on their own.
·         Talk it out
 I offer this suggestion with a word of caution. When you are in the initial stages of creating a story, sometimes it’s best not to share the still-scattered nuts and bolts of your current project. Sometimes, though, if you find the right listener, you’ll end up unraveling the knot and answering your own questions out loud. What you’re looking for is a sounding board, not someone who will nit-pick. The nit-pick friend will be an excellent resource for later drafts, when your story is more solid.
 On several occasions, I have blabbered on and on to a friend, asking countless questions. Then, before my friend has a chance to answer, I’ll shout “OMIGOD, WHAT IF I DO THIS AND THEN THIS AND THEN THAT?” In response to this outburst, my friend will nod and smile and, in the meantime, I will thank him profusely for his help. In some instances, I can share my problem with a friend and, since she is on the outside of the project and I am on the inside, she will be able to make some very simple observation or suggestion that had not occurred to me because my focus and worry was too intense—“forest for the trees” and all that.
 Sometimes, a good listener can help you find the light bulb switch.
The big question here is how to know when you’re ready to talk about what’s going on in your book. The answer is simple. You will know. If you’re thinking about asking someone about your story but your words dry up when you go to him or her, then it’s not time to talk yet. It’s sort of like when you’ve had a dream but then the moment you start to put the dream into words, it loses its magic. It doesn’t seem as mystical as it did before and, suddenly, you want to keep it to yourself until you’ve had a little more time to digest the imagery.

·         Method writing
Ever heard of “method acting?” Actors who practice method acting saturate themselves in the world of their character. They will often place themselves in an environment similar to the one their character dwells in. If their character has a certain occupation, the method actor will try his or her hand at that, too. As a writer, you can do the same thing. Say you have a character who loves to draw, but you have never drawn so much as a stick figure. Try it anyway. Going through the actions your character goes through will help you to get in touch with their personalities and this also counts as research. If your character plays the piano but you have no rhythm, that doesn’t matter. Just the simple act of sitting down at the piano bench and pounding out “Pop Goes the Wessel” can provide insight, excitement and, yes, a breakthrough, too. This can get really fun if you’re writing fantasy. For instance, if you have a character who can fly, try taking a ride on an extra fast and scary roller coaster, or try parasailing.

·         Have a chat with the people in your head
Sometimes our characters can begin to feel stale or two dimensional. They clam up, and you wonder why. Ask them. Open up your word processor and start a dialogue. Ask your character why she doesn’t want to follow your plot and then start typing. Try an interview or quick word associations, maybe even an ink-blot test. If you don’t know something about your character’s past but you need to know, try ask him or her outright. Type fast. This is an exercise and it is part of the drafting process, so tell the inner editor to sit this one out.  

·         Be artsy
Picking up a separate creative project (non-writing) can work wonders. For instance, you can start a painting, take another look at that song you’ve been composing or add a few moves to that dance number you’re choreographing. The arts go hand-in-hand and sometimes switching gears and staying creative at the same time can help to free up those clenched writing muscles.

And there you have it! May your writing days be wall free. But should you hit the occasional brick building, I hope these suggestions will help you blast through.


Lisa Tapp said...

What great suggestions! I think I'm going to take my laptop out on the screened in porch (I'm willing to sacrifice some, but bugs? No way!) and work for a bit. My WIP takes place in Mid-July, in a hot and muggy setting.

Kristin Lenz said...

Lots of great suggestions for sequel stress and any other time writers run into a wall. Walking always helps me, too, and as much as I prefer to carpool when traveling a couple hours or more, I've had some good insights on the road by myself. Thanks for sharing!

Kurt Hampe said...

I'm a walker. A walker and talker, actually, circling the block and telling myself stories. After nine years here, the neighbors have stopped staring.

Nice work, Kelly.

Colette Ballard said...

Great post, Kelly! I agree, there's nothing like a change of scenery and a good walk: )

Ann Finkelstein said...

Brilliant. Thanks for the many suggestions.

Kristen Simmons said...

Oh I so needed to read this! What a good list of suggestions. Thank you Kelly!