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.

Craft of Writing: Rewriting TWILIGHT

Rewriting Twilight — Discussion and Contest!

What does it take to be a successful writer? And how does one define success, anyway?

  • Number of books sold?
  • Critical acclaim?
  • Fan letters and emails from your readers?
  • Movie deals?
  • Awards?
  • Making a significant change in how someone or many someones understand the world?
  • Some indefinable other?

This question was inherent in the structure of our most recent writing discussion and exercise, where we took the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of Stephanie Meyer’s bestselling book Twilight, analyzed it, and then rewrote it with our own spin.

At the end of this entry, you will also be offered the opportunity to try the same writing exercise out for yourself, and the author of the rewrite voted most successful (by the criteria we’ll explain below) will WIN:

  • Your exercise highlighted as a post on our blog with suitable accolades and promotion!
  • A link to your website (or the website of your choice, such as http://cat-bounce.com which is good for hours of entertainment), provided it’s not your local chapter of the KKK or something equally reprehensible.
  • The honor and glory of having WON!

So let’s get started:

A number of writers and readers (including myself) have criticized Twilight for its style, themes, coherency, and etc, but the fact of the matter is, no matter what the rest of us think, Stephanie Meyer is laughing all the way to the bank. So for this discussion, instead of reading through the question ″what’s wrong with this?″ we decided to read through the question of ″what’s working about this text?″

Note: For some reason, in this book, the “prologue” was called a “preface,” which I totally ignored because I never read prefaces, hence this first chapter is not intentionally the hook of the book. Oops!

First Paragraph of Twilight:

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt–sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka. 

So looking over the first paragraph sentence by sentence we noted:

  • Sentence 1: We get a fair amount of information that implies movement on a significant scale:
    • Our main character isn’t able or willing to drive him/herself to the airport and is being driven by a living parent, hence they are likely young.
    • The temperature isn’t too cold as the windows are down. Also, this implies that possibly the car is old, or that the mother is frugal about using air conditioning (or just likes fresh air) as they don’t have the AC on.
    • Going to the airport is a significant event in many people’s lives, so this shows promise.
  • Sentence 2: We get information that supports our assumptions from the first sentence:
    • It’s 75 degrees, sunny, and nice weather (that the main character is getting on an airplane and leaving though s/he clearly likes this weather.)
    • We’re in Phoenix.
  • Sentence 3:
    • Now we have some evidence this character is female, as she’s wearing a sleeveless, lace shirt. It’s possible she’s a cross-dresser with a very open mother, but a female main character is more likely. She also has girly taste in clothes.
    • This is a farewell gesture, which means that she is leaving someplace significant (including her mother, who is driving her TO the airport, not WITH HER to the airport) to go somewhere else.
  • Sentence 4
    • Wherever she’s going, it’s not going to be 75 degrees and sunny. Also, her flight doesn’t seem like it’s that long as she only has one carry on item and it’s not a book or some sort of music device even.
    • I’m also assuming (this is Naima) that this takes place pre 9/11 because she doesn’t seem like she’ll be sitting in the airport too long, either, or else she might have brought something with which to entertain herself. And I’m assuming this is an in-country flight.

What we found difficult to grasp was the actual mood of this paragraph, though the phrase ″farewell gesture″ does imply some sort of grand emotion, so what we decided to do was twofold:

  1. See how much information we could convey in a rewrite of this opening.
  2. Do it while expressing a randomly generated mood (thanks, Barb, for this idea).

The four moods we had for this were:

Nervous, Vengeful, Depressed, and Sexy.

Feel free to read the below paragraphs and see if you can tell which is which and leave it in our comments section.

Jocelyn:

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. Neither of us said a word. I put my hand out the car and felt the dry air rush by too fast. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the desert sky cloudless. I was wearing my favorite shirt — sleeveless, white eyelet lace — as a farewell gesture. It was probably the last time I’d ever be able to wear it, the last time I’d see a perfect blue sky. My carry-on item was a parka.

Barbara:

My lover drove me to the hotel with the windows rolled down. It was hot in Phoenix—so hot—the sky a seductive, sensuous blue. I was wearing my favorite chemise—sleeveless, white see-through lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture for my lover. My bag contained scented candles and a Barry White CD.

Shveta:

My mother closed my car door even though I clutched at her sweater and before walking around to the driver’s side. I didn’t even have time to protest before we were off on the highway leading to the airport. My stomach curdled, and I tried to roll myself into a ball in the seat. But Mom had rolled the windows down, even though she knew anything could have come through them, maybe bird poop or a pebble at high speed. If those things could crack windshields, what would they to do us? The sky was clear and blue—not even a nice, thick cloud cover to protect us. In defense, I’d put on my favorite shirt, black with the Nine Inch Nails logo, but even that probably wasn’t enough to keep me safe.

Naima (who just really didn’t feel like writing in first person):

Bella’s mama drove her baby girl to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was sunny and seventy-five degrees,the sky above a cold, clear blue, the eyes of a distant God who saw all, recorded it his ledger and punished the guilty far too late. Bella had two pills in the right pocket of her jeans, one for her daddy and one for herself. She was unsure about the last pill, suicide being a sin and all. She was wearing her favorite shirt, a gift from her Aunt Tracy, sleeveless, white eyelet lace; she was wearing it as a farewell gesture. Her only carry on item was a parka.

Got it?

Now you try!

  • Go ahead and pick a random emotion from this generator: http://bit.ly/16K2AAQ
  • Rewrite the first paragraph of Twilight in your own style, working to convey the emotion/mood you were given.
  • Email the emotion for your submission along with your name to naimajohnson92 AT gmail DOT com.
  • Make your contest submission a comment on this entry.
  • Look at the other submissions and try and guess what mood the piece is trying to convey. Write your guess as a response to their comment.
  • Whoever gets the most votes that are the closest, wins!
  • BONUS: Whoever guesses the most correctly will also have their submission featured on the site as well!
  • BONUS #2: The first person to email naimajohnson92 AT gmail DOT com with the correct mood for each of the above paragraphs will also win, thus giving us a total of potentially THREE WINNERS!

Deadline for submissions is Sunday, October 13th at 11:59om EST.

Deadline for guesses is Wednesday, October 16th.

Winner will be revealed shortly thereafter!

Now, let’s start writing!