Talking Through Writer's Block

You've hit that inevitable road block. You've written to a point that you can't get past. Characters have stopped talking to you, scenes aren't appearing in your dreams anymore, and even though you know where you're supposed to end up you can't seem to get there. Time to brainstorm, right? What happens when your brainstorm misses the lightning rod? You've got all kinds of dead cattle in the field and charred trees but no forward progression. What do you do?

Brainstorming itself is a solitary solution to writer's block. Heck, writers tend to be solitary by nature. Our craft demands it. How many writers can sit down and write out a scene while carrying on a conversation with someone else?

Surprising people with what we come up with adds to our own personal imprisonment. We're like magicians who can't tell our secrets. As such, we keep our stories hidden under lock and key until we think they're ready to be seen. We have to struggle through all of the troubled spots on our own otherwise we're not really writers. It relates to the Novel in a Day post from yesterday.

For the longest time I've had the notion stuck in my head that unless I do it on my own, unless I come up with all of the ideas, all the twists and turns in the story, all the witty turns of phrase, then I'm a hack. With help the end product ends up as hollow as the eyes of my early drawings.

It might be another one of those daddy issues that I have. When your father was abandoned as a child and then raised by a jerk who barely tolerates his presence in 'his' family, you find that he grows up not expecting help from others and finding ways to do everything on his own. That inevitably gets transfers to the children and is reinforced when the parents divorce and both of them have to make it on their own. I saw family help out when I was a child, but rarely was it heartfelt barn raising kind of help, more like begrudging “I've got too much to do to bother with this” kind of help. I also can't remember friends of my parents being called on for help. Heck, I can't really even remember friends of my parents. Divorces have a funny way of shattering things. And maybe that's why when someone who is not family offers to lend a hand I say, “Thanks, I'll keep that in mind,” and then never call on them.

It becomes even trickier with your writing, when every suggestion can come off as criticism. I don't know about you, but I find it easier to prepare myself for criticism once the story is done. In the middle of the work there is a good possibility that the wrong words might derail me. And so I hang on to my troubled spots, trying desperately to work through them on my own.

Recently, my two crit partners have been there for me, helping me work through things that I was avoiding. My writer's block had derailed me and I was going to sit there and let it happen, trying to heave that entire train back onto the tracks all by myself if I had to. But thankfully both of these young ladies are as stubborn as I am, and they insisted that I talk things out with them.

It was sort of like losing your keys in the trunk lock. You rushed home, got the groceries out of the trunk and now you can't get into the house because you've lost your keys. They're right there clear as day but for the life of you, you can't see them. It takes a kind neighbor walking by to point out, “Hey, did you know your keys are in your trunk lock?” The solution to my problem was that obvious, but I honestly don't think I'd have seen it had my crit partner not mentioned it as an aside, sort of like, “So you'll have him do this?”


“Well he does this next, right?”

“Oh my god, that's it. That's what I'm missing.”


I don’t think we can dispute that we need help. The question is; how do we get ourselves to open up to the possibility?

Prepare For Criticism: Often we’re not ready to hear criticism at this stage of the game. We don’t want to hear that something is not working or that it is hackneyed. But know that if a friend doesn’t tell you, you’ll likely never hear it because an editor is not going to take the time to point it out for you.

Trust in Friends: Have crit partners that you can depend on, people who know your work and your style. You need to play a friendly game of mental ping pong, and who better to do this with than a friend.

Be Clear: Clearly define what you need. Don’t throw the entire piece up for a critique if you’re not ready for it. Outline where you’ve been and where you’re going and then talk out the moments leading up to the scene that you’re stuck on.

Open Up: Remember, the only way you’re going to make progress is by being straightforward. You might want to keep some things hidden from your crit partner because you want to see how the surprise you have in store works on them, but be aware of what you’re holding back and how that might limit their ability it give you good feedback.

Putting People Out: My biggest problem with asking for help is that I often consider it to be bothering others. It never occurs to me that they might actually enjoy helping. I for one love helping my crit partners work through a problem. It’s sort of exhilarating, like trying to solve a mystery. And it can be quite satisfying to get to the solution and hear, “Oh my Gaia, thank you. I never would have come up with that.”

And yes, once again a topic that I thought was going to be short has turned into yet another “opus” as one of my crit partners so affectionately puts it. Therefore I’ll save the witty ending for another post. Besides, I have to get to the update below.

On an unrelated note. Last week's rant was about the first-time-unpublished-series-author. There was a lot of back-and-forth in the comments about whether or not my advice was sound. It just so happens that literary agent Rachelle Gardner recently blogged about the Five Myths about agents. Myth number five? “Most agents won't consider any manuscript over 120k words in length.” How depressing for me, wrong again.

Oh, but wait! She was pulling a fast one on us. She goes on to say that this is “NOT a myth - this one is true! Until you've proven yourself with a couple of books that sold well, you're not likely to sell an epic or saga much over 100k. There are always exceptions, of course. But if you're trying to break in, your 180k-opus is probably not the ticket.” (It should be noted that Rachelle does not represent Sci-Fi or Fantasy).

Not trying to pat myself on the back too hard here, (although I am in need of a good massage after the pounding I took during Sunday's biweekly basketball game with the fellas). I just wanted to point out that I don't pull ALL of this stuff out of my ass, just most of it. :)

Today's fantastic artists: Smell of Solitude by KatjaFaith, and Derailed by emmajeanjumpingbean


S.F. Robertson said...

Nice post.

When you're taught to stand on your own two feet it's sometimes hard to ask for a hand up, in any endeavor. Dare I say, this post shows vulnerability and is relatable? I know that goes against your calm cool know-it-all persona, but don't worry... I'm sure you'll be back on your game tomorrow.

Just try to remember that you've got people you can talk to. :)

David Noceti said...

Oh no, I was talking about a hypothetical me. A me that lives in a parallel universe who grew up all insecure and stuff. The real me doesn't do this. I'm infallible. This is well documented by a group of message boarders who despise my existence. :)

And thanks, I'm sure I'll take you up on that talk soon enough. No really, I will.

Amber J. Gardner said...

It's so cool that you've found such great crit-partners and I hope to find my own too.

I'm the same, always feeling I have to do everything myself (mostly because I was left on my own recently and with no family and little friends, it's hard not to be like that). I'd really like to find writing friends I can depend on and have them depend on me. Or maybe even find a mentor. I guess I should follow your advice and be open first. Thanks for the great advice. ^__^

Oh and I hate bringing this up again, but I can't help it.

Rachelle Gardner talked about books over 120k, but that doesn't mean you can't have a trilogy or series and each book be under 120k words. It still leaves the issue whether agents like or don't like to work with a project that's an already planned trilogy or series. Though we now know for sure that books longer than 120k is a big no-no.

David Noceti said...

Yes, good crit partners are indeed hard to find. It's almost like dating, though they get away with more. :) I'm going to be doing a series on critiques pretty soon, and a part of that is going to deal with crit partners, so I'll save what's on my mind for right now for those posts.

And I'd like to find a mentor too. Seems like once the big guys get big, it's hard to sneak in, or they want money that we don't have to enlist their services. I'd definitely suggest checking out Their podcasts are great (as Paige will attest to) and it's almost like having a mentor, although you don't get that special one on one that you'd get with a real mentor.

As for Rachelle . . . Humph! :) Kidding. That's a good point, she doesn't specifically mention series. I should have noted that when I noted that she doesn't represent sci-fi and fantasy. But she does talk about proving yourself, and I think that's important.

I more or less just posted the update because I wanted to get damihjva all riled up. :)

damihjva said...

Hahahaha, David. I will not rise to the bait. You know very well that this was not a point in of my arguments. (Thank you Amber for jogging his memory!) :p

Besides all that, Rachelle Gardner "does not accept submissions that contradict the Christain worldview." She sells to the Christian markets. (Which is probably why she doesn't represent SciFi/Fantasy.) Don't make me get the rubber stamp!

Even so, yes, you were right about having a doorstopper for a first novel not being your best choice for breaking in. (Though again, that wasn't the agrument.)

Damn, did I end up rising to the bait anyway? Lol.

That being said, to anyone else reading this, I would like to clarify that just because David and I may occasionally disagree, the intention behind my commentary isn't to undermine but to offer a difference of opinion. (And to razz David while doing so because it's fun!) David spends long hours doing what we all do: research. He is both insightful and wise on many things and I have the utmost respect for his position.

Even when he's wrong. ;)

David Noceti said...

Yeah, I normally wouldn't point out Rachelle Gardner but the agent that I'm looking to pitch Diviner's Eye to, (Jennifer Jackson, Jay Lake's agent) brought her up on her blog. Most notably, she mentioned that she agrees with her points. So while it was said by an agent that some of us normally wouldn't bother listening to, the call was trumpeted by one who's opinion matters most to me.

Mwa hahahahahah research rides again!

And I'm getting in trouble for not being at the breakfast table. So I'll let you off easy on the rest of it.

damihjva said...

Hmmm, Jennifer Jackson. *nods* I would take heed too in that case.

Let me off easy? Damnit, you know better than that.

Mellow Dee said...

You were only in trouble because you recently griped at me for being a minute late to the table for dinner...Considering I'd warned you breakfast was almost ready a couple times AND you were still significantly late, I think my chastisement of your thoughtlessness was justified ;-)

damihjva said...

This is totally where I chime in like the brat I am and say, "Ha ha. Mom got mad at you!"

@ mellow dee - *blink-blink* I'd never be late to your breakfast table like someone else we know. ;p

S.F. Robertson said...

All I have to say about this discussion is that somebody has to put that boy in his place sometime.

*high five to mellow dee*

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