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I've learnt a lot from people on this forum before so I'm hoping someone out there can help (or, at least, adminster a smart slap in the face)
I'm working my way through a novel and feel completely blocked. I know what *happens*, plotwise, but I don't really know who my characters are. So I've spent four days working on one tiny paragraph.
I have realised, a little late in the day, that I might not have the talent/discipline/motivation/genes/bone structure for this writing lark.
My advice to myself (to save you all the trouble of reading my post) would be, give up, go and do something else.
Unfortunately I am halfway through a writing course. By the end of the summer, 40,000 words has to come from somewhere. So I'm thinking, I need some kind of emergency kit to get me to Sept.
Does anyone have any advice, other than walking into Waterstones, getting a book, ripping the cover and writing "by pest control" on the front? I've been procrastinating by reading your posts- favourite writing places...favourite techniques...my god, I'd love to be at that stage. Rather than the rocking gently in the corner stage.
Thanks for any help, and apologies for testing your patience.
I suspect the problem lies with your characters. If you don’t really know them well enough to know what they’ll do in any given situation, you're bound to struggle.
Can I suggest you write a 1000-word bio of your two or three main characters. You should know their physical appearance, where they were born and brought up, the education they had, what their parents did, do they have any siblings, their tastes and hobbies, favourite films, books, food, whether they're short tempered or cool in a confrontation… I'm sure you get the picture.
Once you know them better, they will begin to take control of the plot – then all you need to do is record what’s happening.
Thank you Dee. Really good advice.
I think, as well, I'm confusing myself by trying to say too much in one tiny episode. Thinking, well, I have to show this about them, and this, and this...whereas in fact this is a *novel*, so there is lots of time.
Dee's advice is good: it does sound as if you've almost answered your own question, that you're not convinced enough by your characters to let them come alive within the plot. You may need to let go of this episode, in order to get past it. Regard it as a place-holder for whatever really is happening, in the confidence that at some point you'll know what that is, and move on. Having the plot is good - the structure's the hardest thing to change retrospectively - but you may find it liberating to realise that everything else you write is easily changeable later; nothing has to be just right first time.
Another way of tackling this sort of thing is to free-write about one of your characters, or indeed another aspect of your book - a place or important car/house/room/garment. Take an anchor phrase to do with a character, something really simple like 'Jane Weldon is...' or 'Joe Willis says...' and keep writing without stopping for say 15 minutes. The only rule is you don't stop, or cross out or correct punctuation or spelling. Don't pre-think, don't try to control it or keep to what you've decided of the novel. Any time you get stuck, just write the anchor phrase over and over until something floats up to extend it. There's usually a wall of boredom and bafflement at some point, and again, you keep writing till you're through. That's usually when things get really interesting. You'll find all sorts of things coming up, in among the burble, and somewhere there'll be some nuggets of real truth and insight - a few words, a phrase, the kernel of a scene - which you didn't know you knew.
I soooooo know what you are going through. And I agree strongly with Dee and Emma. I have just come to the end of a long period like this, which was making me really miserable. I finally realised, as Dee suggests, that I didn't know enough about the most important character. What I did was to switch from third to first person and try to get inside her head a little. It has really worked for me. I can now see where to go a bit more clearly. Don't give up!
I also know exactly how you feel, and often find the plot is stronger in my head than the characters.
But,(probably unwisely) i don't worry too much, I find as the pages progress the characters 'take over' a little, and develop in ways i hadn't expected them to - and can do this, because i haven't a finite idea of them in my mind.
Also, with my first novel last year, i developed my characters on the re-write. I just concentrate on getting the first draft done.
But please don't take this as advice, i'm just saying you are not alone!
Thanks everyone for your help. If real writers such as yourselves find it hard from time to time, then maybe there's hope for a beginner like me.
I have to agree my problem is that I have never been able to let my characters off the leash. I've read loads of posts where people say, oh yes, my character surprised me by doing X or Y today, and I think, what on earth are they talking about? How does a writer get to that stage? Hopefully your free writing techniques will get me there.
Either that, or I'll have to request possession: Stale Writer Offers Humble Abode to Homeless Spirit in Return for Light Ghost Writing Duties. Bills inc.
Seriously, you've been really helpful, so thanks.
|I have to agree my problem is that I have never been able to let my characters off the leash. I've read loads of posts where people say, oh yes, my character surprised me by doing X or Y today, and I think, what on earth are they talking about? How does a writer get to that stage? |
I used to think writers were just being pretentious when they said this... and then yes, it happened to me.
Well, sort of. What actually happened was that my plot said that she did such-and-such, and I found myself thinking 'But no. She just wouldn't.' We all have complicated and far more well-developed instincts about people than we're conscious of - how often have you sensed something about a person, and then it's been confirmed? That includes our characters. The free-writing thing is a wonderful way to get at those instincts.
I'm sure it's not that you aren't built for the writing lark. It's that you've hit one of those moments when your ambitions and desires have outstripped your technical skills. We all have them, and we all must and can get over them. Long term, I think the way you get to that stage is mainly to do lots and lots of writing - free writing, and writing directed towards a finished product. It's worth being attentive to your own process so that you're aware what works for you. It's worth reading Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer
, which is all about getting at that instinctive part of your writing self. It's perhaps worth seeking out the kind of writing class/course/circle which is more focused on process (setting things up so instincts can fly) than product (producing a well-turned story for comment). Another terrific book for people who're feeling their creative forces have got stuck is Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way
I think Emma might have nailed the problem there. It’s called ‘character-driven’ writing and, when it works well, it does feel as if the characters are writing the story. What it really means is that you know your characters so well you can't force them into situations unnatural to them. If you’ve worked out your plot before getting to know your characters, it’s almost inevitable you'll come to a stumbling block.
| I'm sure it's not that you aren't built for the writing lark. It's that you've hit one of those moments when your ambitions and desires have outstripped your technical skills|
I tried a couple of writing classes and courses – and they were all useful – but I learned far more from posting work on here, and comparing notes with other members, making sure I understood what they meant when they pointed out mistakes, picking up tips.
In addition to the books Emma mentioned, I can recommend Writing Down The Bones
by Natalie Goldberg. Its subtitle – Freeing The Writer Within – explains all.
I think we all have bad times when we just can’t write or what we write doesn’t work. I can’t write successfully unless the characters have been talking in my head. I need periods of what looks to people around me like day dreaming. As a child I used to have long narrative fantasies of which I was the hero/heroine of course and I think that’s what I do now, only its the characters in my book who take part. The key seems to be not trying to write but letting myself dream. And it doesn’t happen if I’m actually trying to type. I can set myself of target of two thousand words in a day and achieve it but if it isn’t based on this kind of dreaming it comes out like wallpaper paste – thick and bland, or is merely crude, plus I find that the characters are behaving out of character so to speak.
I sometimes find that a change of surroundings helps – and physical activity so long as it doesn’t require any attention – walking/pulling up weeds for example.
Sometimes actually finding (as opposed to simply inventing) a voice and/or appearance for a character can help to make him of her real in your mind. If you have time to take bus journeys or sit in cafes, you can find faces, bodies, voices or hear detached snatches of conversation that can be used. You can also sit near enough to see but not near to hear someone and invent a personality for him or her. This works on the Tube if you are in a city with an underground system, because people often just sit doing nothing. In this situation you can watch someone and try to guess/invent what they are thinking. People’s faces are often very expressive when they are just thinking and not paying attention to their surroundings. The added advantage of this is that you have a face for your character if you want it. It helps to have a notebook in these circumstances.
Something you could try which might help you to develop/know your characters is to take each one in turn and place them in situations they won’t actually encounter in your book – perhaps quite remote from the story you are writing. Then decide how they would behave. This might free you up a bit because you know you aren’t working on the actual story.
Another thing you might do (I haven't tried this yet) is get them writing letters (again not for the book itself - just to help you). Who they write to will depend on when your novel is set but successful characters have to have strong views and feelings it could be that your MC writes to some figure from the historical past or a contemporary public figure. He/she could of course write to you the writer, telling you what you need to know, or complaining about the way you've characterised him/her so far and his/her role in the plot.
I agree that knowing your characters is key, so do whatever it takes to make them clear in your head. For example give yourself some time to write some scenes as if you were meeting each character. What would they look like, what would they say, how would they behave? Then do the same thing but from their point of view.
It's a technique that's worked for me in the past and as no-one's going to read it, it's just an exercise so it doesn't have to be fantastically written.
Another thing to do is give yourself permission to write utter tosh. You might be holding yourself back by becoming overwhelmed with getting everything correct straight away.
Don't worry about it, don't fret and don't think that it needs to be perfect first time. Just get the rough basics down and then you can shape it and edit it later.
Pitching in, Pest, to say that if I had a sheet of blank paper for every time I'd reached the place you're at and almost thrown in the towel, I'd be knee-deep in blank sheets of paper (waiting to be written on, of course!). I'm finally at the stage where I'm realising that writing is almost 100% hard graft - you're in the perfect place to hone your skills, on the writing course, and while I can appreciate that just feels like one more pressure right now, it's better than being on your own with this doubting. Talk to the people on your course, to your tutors - to WW - and you'll soon find how much common ground we share. For me, the mutual support of a place like WW is what's finally making the difference to my motivation to stick at this near-impossible task I've set myself.
Good luck - and don't give up.
|This is called ‘character-driven’ writing and, when it works well, it does feel as if the characters are writing the story. |
I don't disagree in the least with this, but it did make me think (with a smile) of a section from the Max Beerbohm short story, Savonarola
. Max has been told that "the characters will write themselves!" so he sits down waiting for this to happen:
"They did absolutely nothing. I sat watching them, pen in hand, ready to record their slightest movement. Not a little finger did they raise... Now and then, overcome with weariness, I dozed at my desk, and whenever I woke I felt that those rigid creatures had been doing all sorts of wonderful things while my eyes were shut. I felt that they disliked me. I came to dislike them in turn and forbade them my room."
First of all, we are all writers like you...you are no less or no more a writer than any of us.
We have all stared at a blank screen and wondered what happens next.
I had a major block with my book, until I sat one day and really thought about my MC and my God, then it all became obvious to me and it was like 'Grace' was writing the story herself.
It is amazing when it happens, but deeply frustrating when it doesn't- or when you have to wait for it.
I agree with TB- mostly, it's 10% inspiration and 90% hard graft and keeping at it even when you have lost faith in yourself, and think you are destined for failure.
I think sometimes we all focus on success (as perceived by others) rather than the personal triumph of writing a novel.
Leave the outside world out of it and reclaiming it as your own quest should take the pressure off a little.
This 78 message thread spans 6 pages: 2 3 4 5 6 > >
Lots of good advice above and your 'blockage' is very common, believe me. Here's another trick. As well as being hard graft, writing can even be fun! Sit down and write about something that amuses or interests you. Part way through, when the words are flowing a bit, take a sudden left turn back into your plot and see how far your new-found momentum takes you. The stuff you wrote before the left turn can be thrown away, or, saved for when you're famous and issued as a series of over-hyped random jottings, which only sell because you've already made your name.