Frozen – How to Beat the Blank Page!

What do you do when you sit down in front of that blank piece of paper, blank screen, or partially complete manuscript and you have nothing, I mean NOTHING to say? Let’s face it, this is an experience we’ve all had as writers, especially fiction writers. Whether you’re just starting a story or smack in the middle of it, we’ve all frozen up.

shutterstock_63759181And after the freezing comes the fear:

  • Is this story wrong?
  • Will I ever have a good idea again?
  • Do I just suck as a writer?

After years of writing, I’ve found the source of my deep freeze usually stems from two areas:

1. Am I missing something I need to know about my world?

  • This applies both to realistic and fantastic fiction, though your approach to answering that question may differ. For example, in a recent, non-speculative fiction novel, I had to write a scene about a man who was having a heart attack. The story was set in modern day, but characters had neither a working cell phone nor a landline telephone. I had a number of characters on the scene, one who was trained in CPR. My story got stuck rather quickly because I needed some basic information: (a) how long could a person be under CPR before being reasonably revived (b) how long a person could perform CPR without succumbing to exhaustion (c) how far the runner would need to go in order to find someone with a working cell-phone? A bit of research into the terrain and the intricacies of CPR and I was good to go!
  • The same thing can apply more deeply. For example, is your magical system unclear? What do people eat in your world, what are the obligations of a host to a guest, how long does it take to travel from village A to B and etc. Sometimes the answer is just learning more about your world, whatever it is. The danger of this, of course, is spending the next two weeks playing the research game. So how do you escape this trap? For me, I always ask myself, what is the minimum I need to know to write the scene? Get specific. For example, I need to know what the obligation of a host is to a particular guest, but only insofar as it’s relevant to the scene at hand. I can fill in the rest later, should it become relevant. The more important a detail is to your story, the more you need to fill it in, but if it’s a minor thing, don’t spend more than a ten or fifteen minutes looking/making it up.

So how do get yourself unfrozen when faced with a world building problem? Here is my favorite site for developing my world: Patricia Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions. It is VERY detailed, and I don’t start with doing everything here, but I try to touch on the high points as I like to have a fair amount of worldbuilding done before I start writing. I also find that these questions apply just as well to science fiction as to fantasy worlds.

LINK: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

2. Am I missing something I need to know about a character in the scene?

  • Main character: Is there something important that I don’t “know” about my main character that I need to know in order to start this story/write this scene? Do I know enough about this person’s past in order to understand her present? Do I have a good feel for her voice?
  • Supporting Characters: Is there something I need to know about non-main character in the scene? I especially love to ask this of minor characters. What’s the butler’s story? How about that kid in the corner shining shoes? The fool? The family dog? The most important question for me about minor characters is “what do they want?” Either that or, “what is their secret”. Both of these are fun. Even something as simple as the man serving wine wants to get back to the kitchen and see his  boyfriend gives me some idea of how he’s acting in the scene. His boyfriend is the main character’s brother makes things even more fun.

So how do you learn more about your characters? For me, the best method for finding out what I’m missing is to do a character journal. If it’s a main character, I’ve generally done a character journal either before I start the book or at least somewhere in Chapter 1. But for minor characters, I may not know anything about them at all. So my first step is to look at each minor character and ask myself, “What are you doing in this scene? Why are you here?” and most importantly, “What do you want?” or “what is your secret?” Usually my instincts for this are pretty good, and it only takes 1-2 characters for me to find out who the important (seemingly unimportant) person in the scene is. Once I know who this person is, what they want, and what they’re hiding, the scene usually gets unstuck rather quickly and it’s full speed ahead!

My favorite resource for character journaling is in Alice Orr’s book No More Rejections. I’ve used the character journaling techniques in this book for over a decade and they’ve work for me. What I like about her approach is that you answer the question in the first person and there are many questions like, “I think my best feature is ____” which allows you to really get into the psychology of how the character feels about herself as opposed to merely a physical list of traits. I’ve applied this approach to character lists I’ve found for free online, but hers is the best, in my opinion.

LINK: http://www.amazon.com/No-More-Rejections-Secrets-Manuscript/dp/1582972850/

So that’s my approach, first I check my world, and then I check my characters. What do you do to get unstuck? Feel free to post in the comments below.

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Some Thoughts on Revising

I’ve been revising. A lot. I recently sold a short story I’d started in 2006 to an amazing anthology, and even though I’d rewritten the piece a number of times in the intervening years, it still wasn’t quite right.

Only I’d gotten too close to see what wasn’t working, and so had my critique partners, who’d read a few drafts. So enter the wonderful anthology editors, who got right to the point and showed me exactly what needed to go.

Once I got that story cleaned up and turned in, I moved on to another piece I’d written last year. The Sirens had critiqued it, but I’d never gotten around to revising. Now that I am, it’s amazing how spot-on and vital others’ comments can be in helping you fix your own story.

All that said, here are some thoughts I’ve compiled over the past few months.

Underwoodfive

  • You absolutely need others’ eyes. I don’t care if you’re a gigantic name splashed over the New York Times bestseller list for forty weeks in a row with rights sold all over the world. (May we all be so lucky.) You need others to show you where holes remain in your work, where you can tighten things, where you can and should cut.
  • Trust your own writing. In the anthology story, I’d repeatedly shown a character doing/feeling something and then gone ahead and explained it. (To be fair, a lot of this was holdover from previous drafts. See above about being too close to to the material.) If you’ve done your job right, you don’t need to explain these things to your readers. They’ll get it from context.
  • Sometimes even those of us who tend to write in more poetic voices can have the most impact by saving those poetic images for the actual magic/supernatural moments in our stories. Not always, but it’s something to consider.
  • One clear image is much sharper and more effective than a jumble of two or three. That undercuts their power.
  • You don’t automatically have to kill your darlings—you should like what you’ve written!—but you do need to make them work for you. If you can’t find a way to do that, then yes, cut them. I’ve heard it said that each scene should either develop character or advance plot or establish setting (ideally all three), but I’d add that this pertains to every sentence, too. Make your pretty prose/cool character/awesome idea hold its weight!
  • Sometimes the right elements are there in the story; they’re just in the wrong place. Moving them around and applying the putty of transitions, etc., can often be just the thing you need.
  • Wonderful, unusual ideas are exciting, but they need to be supported by an emotional payoff in some way. Not every character has to be likable, but the reader does need to be able to form some sort of connection to them. Basically, know what the emotional stakes underpinning your story are, and make them clear.
  • Your story doesn’t have to be absolutely linear, but for the most part, unless you’re doing something experimental, the reader needs a bit of foreshadowing and the suggestion of structure. You want them to think, Of course it would end that way!—not because it’s predictable, but because subtle clues were sprinkled throughout, creating a sense of inevitability. Otherwise, the ending feels unearned and confusing, and the reader goes away unsatisfied. Know where your story is going, and lay a path to get there.

So those are some of my musings on the process. Do you agree? Disagree? Have anything to add? Tell us in the comments.

What Rappers Can Teach Writers

Recently, I watched Something from Nothing: the Art of Rap, Ice-T’s first documentary. It’s on—you guessed it—the art of rap, and it brings in some of the biggest and most respected names in the business to talk about how they craft and refine their art. (It’s on Netflix and Amazon and everywhere else, so see it. It’s pretty amazing.)

As I watched, it occurred to me that so many of the insights these artists offer up are things that writers should listen to. Now you are probably smarter than me, so you probably immediately thought “Duh, of course writers could learn from rappers. Rappers ARE writers.” Well, yes. But I was so used to thinking of rappers as musicians and collaborators that I never considered that a lot of their work still takes place inside their heads, or alone in a room. Just like writers.

So, I pass on to you just a few pieces of knowledge this film captured:

Skip the setup. “Once you grab the mic, in the first bar of your rhyme, you have to swing the crowd to you.” KRS-One tells amateur rappers to hit the ground running. Don’t tell people what you’re going to do, just do it. Writers hear about this concept a lot (hook readers in the first page, the first line) but it’s important not to forget it. No one is going to give you a gold star just for showing up; you have to show what you’ve got. Bring your best and the audience will follow you. But you can’t drag them there. They have to want to go along. Speaking of…

Learn how to listen. “If you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.” DJ Premier is talking about understanding hip hop versus jazz and blues…but the same thing is true for writers. If you’re going to write in a genre, learn the genre. “You have to know the language” says DJ Premier. For writer, that means reading the classics of the genre, learning what the tropes are, seeing how things have evolved. Don’t assume you can fake it, because the readers who love the genre will definitely spot your ignorance…and they’ll tear you apart. Which brings us to the next lesson…

You’re gonna get booed. Eminem tells his story of getting booed during his first attempt to rap in public, an event that got recreated in the movie 8 Mile. He’s up front about it being traumatic. He initially felt like he was done after that…and who would blame him? (At least beginning writers can read their rejections in private.) But obviously, he didn’t give up. He says “couple days later, week later, hour later” he realized he had to get up and do it again. And eventually it worked out. Are you guaranteed to achieve Eminem-like levels of fame if you keep at it? Of course not. But you sure as hell won’t achieve more if you quit now. Which brings us to…

Know how to work. Immortal Technique discusses his…well, technique for how to write. He often works out or boxes, saying “I come back with my blood up…but instead of physically fighting, I focus on fighting mentally.” Everyone has a way to get into the flow of writing. Maybe you need silence. Maybe you need loud. Maybe you need to eat. Maybe you need to not eat. Figure out what gets you ready to write and then stick to it. One warning about this idea: don’t let your habit become an excuse. Just because you don’t have your special yellow legal pad and #2 pencil with you doesn’t mean you can’t write. The pen is just an instrument. So is the computer. The writing comes from you. If you find yourself making excuses, maybe you need to…

Make sure this thing is for you. Dr Dre says once you decide on your path, “you have to give it the passion that’s necessary.” Why listen to Dre? Out of a 27 year career, he took two weeks off. Two weeks. That’s dedication. If you’re a writer, you need to give the same dedication to your craft. You don’t have to write every single day, but you have to be consistent, and you have to care. And, finally…

Be yourself. Speak with an original voice, make it your voice, and make the best thing you possibly can. That’s how you get to be the best. In the words of Snoop, who closes the film: “Find yourself, find your art, find your heart.” Aw, Snoop. You said it.

There’s a lot more where that came from (seriously, just watch the movie…you’ll be smarter at the end). As writers, we should constantly look for ways to write better and improve our craft, and that means learning from every source, even ones that don’t seem obvious at first. Got it? Now go write!

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.