Most of the “Writing Tips for Students ” have been for beginning writers, reluctant writers, and writers who have to turn in a book report by Friday. This one is a little different: it’s for those who are serious about writing and want to develop their talent (not to mention a blockbuster novel). For most of us in that category, there comes a time when that great idea we had two months ago is refusing to come to life on the page: we get so far on the preliminary concept, and run out of gas. (Is this resonating with anybody?)
For me, there always comes a point around the third or fourth chapter in a rough draft, that I don’t know what to do next. For an essay writer, it could come after the third or fourth paragraph; for a poet, after the third or fourth line. Whatever the unit, there’s that moment when it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. What do you do with a blank page?
This condition is sometimes called “writer’s block,” but I think that’s inaccurate. There’s no barrier in the road that prevents me from proceeding. My main problem is not really lack of fuel (check the gas gauge; still three-quarters full) but lack of direction. It’s not that my options have dried up but that I have too many options. What kind of story is this? Which of the many forks in the road will take me where I should go? Should the tone be hilarious, or mock-serious, or really serious, or down-homey?
And so on. It’s the multitude of choices that paralyzes, not the scarcity of them.
So what helps me most is to explore some of those choices–get out of the car and take a hike, or several. Here’s what that might look like:
If you’re working on an essay or article, skip to the closing paragraph. Then write another conclusion, and another. That will help give you an idea of where you want to go with this.
If you’re writing a poem, don’t take the linear route. Instead of writing straight through, scribble lines as they come to you, then see how they work together. Experiment with mixing up verbal images and come at the main idea from different angles: how would an ant in the grass see it? A bird on a limb?
With fiction, I find the problem is that I don’t understand my characters well enough yet. Most fiction-writers will say that while they’re working on a novel their characters will at some point break away and start acting on their own. Sounds like the plot of a Steven King novel, especially if there’s a butcher knife in the picture somewhere, but fortunately the free-ranging character is still under the author’s control. What the author needs to do is shake his or her imagination loose enough to clomp around in somebody else’s boots for a while. Here are some ways to do that:
- Send three or four of your characters a questionnaire. Write out a list of questions and let each character them in their own voices. Questions can range from “What’s your favorite color?” to “What’s the most frightening thing that ever happened to you?” and “What do you believe about God?” Some characters may not be able to answer all the questions yet, given their age or experience. Some may even refuse to let you know certain things. That’s okay; work with it.
- For each of your main characters, write a paragraph about where they will be in ten years. Not just geographical location, of course, but what they’re doing, what they look like, the major events that have happened to them since your story closed. Some of them may be dead–if so, explain how and when and what their last thoughts were. (Talk about playing God!)
- Write superfluous scenes that aren’t meant to appear in the novel or story, such as what a character did the morning before the climactic scene, or where the antagonist went with her boyfriend at the same time that your hero was discovering how they’d lied about him. None of this will make it into the story–it may not even be all that interesting–but it will give you insight into your characters’ personalities, interests and goals.
- Describe the eccentric neighbor who lives next door or on the next block. He or she may never appear in the story, but will help you round out your fictional world.
- Diagram the house, castle, mansion, kiva, wickiup, or commune where your protagonist lives. You may discover objects or pieces of furniture that will become important in the story.
One advantage of all this peripheral writing is that it makes me feel like I’m doing something. And it eliminates the blank page!