Any writer you talk to is familiar with writer’s block. There’ve been scores of articles and maybe even entire books written about it and how to deal with it in one way or another.
It’s a scary thing to go through. There you are, hummin’ along just fine. You know where you’re going with the story, know how you want it to end (if you write like I do, at least). Sure, you know it usually doesn’t end up exactly as you originally envisioned it, but you’ve grown used to that by now. And you know that there are times when filling out the middle of the story can be hard to do. Beginnings and endings are easy compared to middles. The middle is where many a good novel has died an ignoble and sad death.
Sometimes, I think that phenomena feeds on itself. You know the middle is coming up. You know you’re not sure what’s gonna happen there. So you start stressing about it, wondering if you can make it work this time. Of course, if you’re an outliner, this rarely happens to you. But for us seat-of-the-pants types, it’s a common occurrence. Much more common than we’d like to admit.
I’ve struggled for years with how to break my own writer’s block. I tried outlining, but that just made it worse. I simply can’t work like that. To be honest, in a way, I’m a little envious of those who can. Outlining lets you plot deeper in advance, lets you see if the story will even hold up and go somewhere before you ever write a word of it. Depending on how detailed your outline is—and I’ve heard of writers whose outlines are almost novel-length—by the time you finish the thing, the bulk of your work is done. Now you just gotta fill in between the broad strokes and turn it into a story.
But that takes the spontaneity out of it for me. I have to approach writing a story in much the same way I read one: by being largely ignorant of what’s gonna happen. When I begin a novel, I generally know about as much about it as you’d read on the back of a paperback. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I know what you’d read on the flaps of a dust jacket.
Not usually, though. That means that, when I finish writing a novel, my real work is about to begin. I have to go back through and take out the false trails I started down, or at least turn them into plot points (they can actually be great frustrations for your character). I have to make sure things are consistent—not always easy for me with a 90,000- to 100,000-word novel. That’s one long and elaborate lie, folks. Luckily, I don’t write Robert Ludlum thrillers, so I don’t have a hundred little subplots to keep track of.
My methodof getting through writer’s block—which I have to keep reminding myself of—is to trust in the process. I can’t plan too far ahead. I have to leave that kind of thing for the edit. All I need to do is stop my daily writing while I still have something to write about. That helps me start up again the next day.
And I have to write.
If I think about it too much, I procrastinate. I start wondering how I’m gonna get from the beginning of my next scene to the end. And if I let that thinking get to me, I freeze up. I have to remind myself that the best way through all this is to sit down and write. That’s always been my way.
Well, I learned a new way this week.
Those of you who’ve followed this blog know that, when I began Pipeline, I ran into a computer problem IT people call thermal creep. Basically, it means that when you turn you computer on and off, the heating up and cooling down can cause chips and/or clips to come slightly unplugged. My machine wasn’t that old then, and I didn’t have my laptop yet (or maybe I’d already given it to Jesi), so I felt a mild sense of panic. My friend Jack—may the IT gods bless you with competent users—took it off my hands, said he’d build me another one. On the way, he discovered the real problem because it’s one of the basic checks they do.
Well, I ran into another problem this weekend. I was watching a documentary (Dancing Outlaw, the doc that inspired The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia) when I heard this loud pop! down near my computer.
At first, I thought it was my UPS, but my machine was still on. Everything seemed okay.
Then the DVD froze up. And Windows Media Player locked up.
I did a hard shut-off when I couldn’t bring up the task manager.
And thought, Oh, my God.
The computer booted back up. I could open documents. I heaved a sigh of relief. Took a break the rest of the afternoon and finished Killing Floor, the first Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child. Left the computer on the entire time, a little afraid to shut it off.
Late that day, I got back on the thing, intending to write. First, though, I clicked on the Computer icon, then right-clicked on the DVD drive.
My desktop, with the exception of the wallpaper and sidebar, disappeared. And I couldn’t get the computer to come back on.
I messed around with it all weekend, and I’ll spare you the details. I was despairing. I’d already had something of a bad week, and this was like the final straw.
The worst of it was knowing I hadn’t backed up my copy of Hillbilly Hunt, the new novel I’m about halfway through. I was working on the revision for Pipeline: Startup to give it more action up front and I’d stopped entirely on Hillbilly Hunt. Now it looked like it might be lost forever.
Please, God, don’t let that happen. I want to write. And that was such a good novel.
Monday morning, just on a whim, I turned on the computer again. Hit F10 for the boot menu. Tapped Enter. It asked me, for something like the third time, if I wanted to open Windows using Startup Repair. Well, okay, what do I have to lose? It hadn’t worked before, but maybe I should give it another chance.
When the dialogue box popped up, it sat there for a minute, telling me it was checking for problems. Then I noticed it had a message I hadn’t seen before: Checking hard disk for problems. This could take up to an hour. I’m not sure if it had been there before and I never noticed it or if it was new, but I said, “Okay,” and fired up my PS2 to play Scarface.
About fifteen minutes later, I glanced over to see a new dialogue box up. It said there was one problem it couldn’t repair, so I clicked on Finish, figured that was it. Bye-bye computer.
Are you sure you want to restart your computer?
I froze. Huh? I knew that was a new option. Again, though, what did I have to lose?
I clicked Yes.
Trumpets sounded. Angels sang.
Okay, it wasn’t that dramatic, but it certainly felt that way. My computer booted up. Wonderful desktop. Glorious sidebar. Beautiful wallpaper (it’s a sunset pic my daughter took looking out on Santa Monica Bay that’s truly awesome).
My world was right again.
I haven’t turned it off yet, thought I might tonight. The DVD is still stuck in the drive because it won’t eject, and I’ve stayed strictly away from opening Windows Explorer on it. I know the damn thing’s down. I don’t need to explore it to find out. And since it’s a library DVD, I have to get it out sooner or later.
And, on top of that, my friend Jack is building me an older Dell at work. They have some old computers that run Windows XP they can’t give away, so I get the best of the lot. And I’ll probably never buy a Gateway again.
The point of all this? I’ve been writing like crazy the last two days. My writer’s block is mysteriously, maybe miraculously, gone. The revision is going good, almost too good.
It’s not a method I’d recommend, but it worked for me. I hope to never have to repeat it. I’m backing up my documents daily now. I’ve recovered my newest novel and I don’t intend for this to happen again. And I’ll have a spare computer to boot. I can deal with XP. Lots of people still use it because they just don’t like Vista or Win 7.
So that’s how I broke my writer’s block this time. I still feel like I want to procrastinate about the revision, because it’s far from fun. But Lyle is starting to cooperate with me and tell me an alternate version of what happened that contains more actions and suspense, so something good came out of it in the end.
Back up your work, folks.
PS. An update: managed to get the DVD drive to open last night and found something I’ve never even heard of, much less seen: the DVD had shattered. If anybody out there has ever heard of/seen this, let me know. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had it happen. And if you know why it happened, that would be a bonus.