That one very strange, panicked Spore post aside, I’m feeling better about getting the writing juices flowin’. Writers hit roadblocks sometimes, and it can even happen after things have been going smoothly for a while. Because we’re the only ones who experience our stories-in-progress, it can take time to figure out what the sudden issue even is, before we can strategize how to get around it.
“This chapter sucks for some reason, I just know it. I can’t stand to write any more on this topic, with these characters—but what, specifically, is wrong with the piece?”
Here is how I learned to work backwards, to find out why your writer’s instincts may be going haywire.
It happens to all of us
After trying different leads for a while with no luck, you begin to look at your first chapter with an even larger feeling of writer’s block, and now it feels like impending doom. Your outline and story notes don’t help. You just feel badly about what you’re doing, though you do seem to be writing regularly and covering the basics.
Before falling asleep each night, you dream of your characters in their beautiful world that you know well, but can’t effect for some reason.
Maybe over years, the whole effort could just peter out to ‘something I tried once, in my twenties.’
Ouch. And that line really scares me today, because the thought is with me a lot, and I’m sure other writers out there have experienced this. A dream deferred…
But, then again, those last-ditch dreams of my story were starting to get really good.
Try this. With a slightly more positive attitude, lay down one afternoon and shut your eyes. Begin to daydream. When I did, my Princess character, who was giving me so much trouble, moved through ideal scenes, lit beautifully as if in a movie. Her love interest was also there. They were sharing their lives together. I worried. This was the very thing I feared I could never create myself… but then I kept going. I watched, then enjoyed seeing them exchange harmoniously. I took chances, and I fully relaxed. In time, I caught her finally saying something that I liked. Hit pause! Replay that please? Yes… that’s perfect. But why is she doing it?
I had a sense, I could guess her motivation, but now I needed to try writing it. I did not rush back to the pressure of the story-in-progress. There were a lot of unknowns in Chapter 1, and this Princess character was only one of them. So, I tried some freewriting through a familiar scene most people go through each day, like pouring out some cereal for breakfast and seeing what she and her lover say to one another over snaps, crackles and pops. Usual meal-time chat began to suggest those same rare personality quirks I’d been sensing all along, but had trouble drawing out with the additional pressure of plot and theme development, using just the right language right then and there, and so on…
I can demonstrate the successful exercise by using two characters from a different manuscript. Damsel is not the novel-in-progress I am working on right now, but these characters will be more familiar:
“Eve, which cereal do you want?”
“Cymen Ruecross, I don’t understand why you are asking me.”
“It’s not a test, dear Eve, it’s just cereal.”
“I’ll pick the one with marshmallows and colors, and then you’ll call me a heathen.”
“You’re not a heathen for wanting to ruin your health. You’re just…”
And Eve waits for him to say it, “Eve, I am going to throw that other box out. It’s not right for you.”
“But it’s my decision!”
“I’m your savior, here on the breakfast table as well as out there in the moral world… And honestly, one less box of Choco Charms isn’t going to damn you to hell.”
“But that’s precisely what I’ve been trying to tell you—”
“And do not forget to say your grace before the meal. Hands together. ‘Dear Father, please continue saving this pre-diabetic woman from herself…’ ”
So there’s an example for you, from another story you’re familiar with, of how well this can work. Cymen, the knight in shining armor, is gentile for offering to fix Eve’s breakfast. That part, I knew about him. Now, I get the feel that he’s arrogant. Yes, he’s interested in saving her, but he’s starting to behave as if he’s too good for her. Eve is already defensive, since she’s a rogue-type to begin with. That I sensed about her as well, when I started the exchange. But as this goes on, she doesn’t threaten Cymen or take the cereal box out of his hand, for herself. Eve pleads with him to accept her choice—a strange moral decision about healthy cereal. And then, we wonder, if Cymen is so adored that Eve would let him be in charge, who bought and then brought Choco Charms into the house, in the first place? A tenderness is implied. Cymen also has a weakness for Eve. They will continue to have silly little arguments like this and we even want to see them doing it. Now that we know them better, swap in a burning castle, a dragon and a world-ending crisis, and let’s see how their spat drives plot and excitement.
“Eve, which way do we go to get that fire out? I don’t know the halls of the Shrine so well as you do.”
“I… might not know them either. Maybe I could conjure water from the air? Maybe it’s too dry? Maybe you should let me go back downstairs to the cellar and get another drink.”
They duck a stained glass window exploding, from the heat and pressure outside. The low curdle of a dragon, delighting in his violent play, raises over the sharp directives of fleeing nuns and squealing school children. The beast shakes out its neck and his scales settle back into line, down its red back. A match to the blaze hastening up the walls outside and flickering at the edges of one last pristine window, from where they could see. The dragon breathed again and smoke flushed through the broken windows with tongues of fire and embers that settled over the altar and its white cloth. Cymen and Eve looked to the rows and rows of empty benches and they began to burn, by the same elegant Corinthian carvings over the sloping backs that they and everyone else in the kingdom loved. A scroll of oak leaf caught fire, and then several acorns dotting a delicate braid of carved limbs. Several pews burned together as the flecks of dirt and fire rained down on them. This was startlingly beautiful, before the next hot flare of dragon’s breath—this one made the air itself simmer—and the whole back of the church was engulfed.
They were going to die. Cymen forced his fingers into Eve’s hair, tight against her skull. “Oh yes, kiss me in the end, sweet worthy one…”
“No! I’m feeling your skull, Eve, for the brain I know is in there—” he shook her, “…you said you knew how to get down to the cellar from the church-level. Is it back through the shrine this, way, or east, behind the parapet?”
“You selfish, heartless idiot! How many years have I been waiting for you, and you won’t even kiss me in a fire? Maybe I want to stay in the flames and die here dramatically before your eyes, as you deserve—”
“Eve! I am not going to break my vow with you because we are not about to die, now come on, let’s try each way…”
She pulls on him, as he drags her. She swats an arm at a burning wax candle stick from the edge of the altar, grabs the bottom, laughs mad-woman while coughing and brandishing at him as if by hand-guard.
Cymen lets go of Eve long enough for her to sing her hand, and finally learn-by-doing. “Now, come on!”
“Wait, only wine is on the parapet side, Cymen. Holy water is on the other…” And so finally, both of them are off, to the kingdom’s rescue. Or, Eve may have been thinking mostly of her hurt hand. And Cymen could have been more focused on being correct, than working a miracle, when helping the nuns to evacuate or facing the red dragon head-on would have been more effective for a trained knight. But that is not what the priests will write, nor what the historians will say after that, so let us presume it was right that they, specifically those two, found the water and lived.
Well, that was fun.
So, try it out. Rather than be afraid you can’t recapture your dreams, start with dreaming and then work backwards to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. After, freewrite in a stress-free literary setting to fully explore your characters. Build confidence, and try again.
If it doesn’t work for you right away, at least you’ll really enjoy an hour or two of writing, as I just have. Lovely, that was so silly and dramatic!