Hey guys, how was your holiday weekend? Hopefully it’s going good. I’d like to thank all the veterans and their families. Thank you for your bravery and your sacrifice. Thank you for facing the dangerous and protecting us all. You evoke admiration and inspiration. Thank you as well to all first responders for your bravery and sacrifice. We are all better because of the work that all of these people do. I hope your weekend was blessed and safe. Should you also need help I hope it is forthcoming.
This post and others titled like it are going to document me sharing writerly thoughts with you. They’ll be inspired by or responses to reading and how it pertains to my writing life and vice versa. I plan to share things with you like how the writing in a particular story really works for me as a reader and how I use it as pointers for my own writing. Or why I think a certain character really stands out or doesn’t reach me at all. I’ll probably also tell you weird random things that cross my mind as a writer, whether it’s got to do with reading or not. I’ll also share writing exercises I make up and think are helpful (like today’s) or I discover and give credit to the person who shared.
NOTE: This is a long post aimed at other writers. After some ranting about writer’s block I get to my point, which is a writing exercise I’ve created. I’m certain it will show you there’s no such thing as writer’s block, we just gotta get to work.
For starters, I do not believe that writer’s block is really a thing. Yup, that’s right. But this wasn’t always so. Long ago I believed in writer’s block because well, that’s what I knew and heard. Writer’s block has just always been a thing because people tell you it’s a thing. But then a writer (sorry can’t remember who) and my partner independently said, I don’t believe in writer’s block, there’s no such thing. That’s a crap lie! My little brain said, ugh
But let’s be honest, my little brain then said, what ever made this true? Why were these people denouncing this wretched curse? And have I ever actually experienced writer’s block? What makes writer’s block a thing versus just being a point at which you’re stuck?
When I wrote mostly poetry I always said I didn’t force my hand, I let ideas come to me. So does that mean that when ideas weren’t coming I was blocked? Nope. I didn’t force my writing but I also didn’t sit idly. I’m always thinking about things through my writer’s brain. While running if I was hit with a strong emotion I would turn the experience of that emotion into a story. What was I thinking, how did it feel, what was happening around me and how did I respond to it or not, through the lens of this emotion? Hear something that moved me on the news? What’s the news, how did it effect me, how did that change my internal chemistry, where might it be leading me? What are the words that will add depth to this story or song and rhythm?
If I wasn’t outright inspired by something but I was craving a creative experience I would go outside, or think about the important, current and/or most dynamic things in my life. I might read. Almost always something would come to mind, whether or not I liked what came out isn’t relevant, I wrote. If I tried and nothing much was coming out I wasn’t blocked, I was hindered by my internal environment, namely focus-defeating-anxiety.
While I tell you about the past I’m also telling you about the present and the future. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. No really, that’s all a myth. Writer’s block is defined as a condition. According to dictionary.com, writer’s block is:
a usually temporary condition in which a writer finds it impossible to proceed with the writing of a novel, play, or other work.
But do you really have a condition? Or do you just not know how to move forward? Is believing in writer’s block hindering you because you believe it’s impossible to move forward? Yes. Is it really impossible that you can’t work? And is it writer’s block if you can’t move forward in that moment with a particular project but you CAN write something else? NO! NO! Write. Write! WRRIITTTEEE! Look you’re cured! You wrote.
This weekend my partner once again got all worked up about this subject. He said “You’re always writing. I’ve never seen you not be able to write. I’ve never heard you say you just can’t write.” I thought with pride about what he was saying.
While I took that as a compliment it’s really just fact. I might not be able to write a poem on call but I can write something whenever, and so can you. This isn’t bragging, this is the nature of writing. If you’re struggling with a certain page or project, switch to something else. Why isn’t their photographer’s block? Because they can just go out and take a photo. That’s the point, not whether or not it’s the same project or the results are any good. You’re not blocked, your brain just needs a jump-start and that might start with a break.
Think about it like exercise. When you’re working some kind of a fitness or weight loss plan don’t they talk about reaching a plateau some weeks after you begin? Yes they do Elpy. Correct. Your body, your muscles get used to the work you’re doing and your progress often slows. So what should you do? Mix it up. Increase the weight you’re using (not too much, be careful) or do different exercises. In other words, don’t keep doing the same thing over and over and not expect some level of fatigue. Okay but how do you apply this to writing? How do you abolish that myth of writer’s block?
Try a change of pace and ask questions. Let’s say you’re working on your plot. Stop and work specifically on one of your characters. What’s their background? What were they like at specific ages? Who do they idolize? What drives them crazy?
What’s that, you’ve done that already? And you still believe writer’s block is real because you’re experiencing it? Okay, don’t worry, I got you. Check this exercise out:
This weekend I finished The Book of Life, the third and final book in the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness (my review is forthcoming). I really liked this series, despite its many flaws, it was creative, original, and so full of great characters and lots of information. I went for a walk after I finished the book and dictated my thoughts, mostly for a post such as this. It got me thinking about all the things that worked and why I thought it was so successful. But what I’m most excited to share is the writing exercise I came up with. It’s not a walk in the park (no pun intended) but I believe it’s guaranteed to break your “block”. AND it’s an ongoing exercise. At present, I’m working on mine.
Start writing the name(s) of your main character(s) at the top of a page or document. Think about this as a chart so work horizontally or better yet use different pages for different characters but keep them handy so you can cross reference. Focus on your MAIN character or characters if you have more than one, main main not sort of main, they’ll be included don’t worry. You’re going to need a lot of space for this but for now just get it started.
Next, list every person (or thing) your main character interacts with. Now this doesn’t HAVE to be the girl in the restaurant who seats your MC and his father, but you can because you never know where your brain will take you. If you know each being’s name go ahead and write it, but you can just say mom, dad, sister, brother, neighbor, bus driver, Lyft driver, etc. If you already know their relationship to your MC then add that in parentheses. You can also put a star next to each person/thing you know to be an important piece of the story. This could be a simple act that ushers the story forward, it’s not the complexity that counts here, just the importance.
Let your creative brain lead you, not your inner critic. They’re not allowed here, at least not yet. If you’re making this list and something pops into your head, write it down. You might be trying to focus on important people, like family, friends, colleagues, and then your brain says the hostess at that new restaurant a town over. What? Yes go for it. I’ve learned it’s super important to allow yourself to follow ideas like clues and fresh leads.
While you put this together if a scene pops into your head, go after it. Of course put that on a separate piece of paper or document. Don’t fill up this list with scenes but don’t ignore them and say oh I’ll come back to that after I do this. No the point of this exercise is to lay the pieces of your puzzle out and run with what presents itself. Keep an extra notebook, pad of paper, notes app open and ready while you do this. Scene comes to mind? Write it down. New character? Add them to the list but more detailed information should go elsewhere. Trust these little clues that come your way. They might amount to nothing but I know without a shadow of a doubt that at least some of them will lead to something. You don’t know which will be which so record them all.
Don’t get discouraged if you’re thinking oh my gosh I don’t know anybody else in this story but my MC and her group of girlfriends. Awesome! That’s the point of this exercise, to explore, to follow, to build, to compile… Start with who you know your MC interacts with. Then think outward. Ask yourself questions. Do they have family? By default when you ask this question 10 more will sprout. Every question you answer should bring up more questions, if they don’t then you’re not asking the right questions. Either that or you’re resisting the process. And I dare say writer’s block might not be real, but a writer blocking themselves is real all day.
Do they have family?
Yes —> Mom? Dad? Siblings? Extended family? In-laws? What’s their relationship with these people? Do they have one? No? Why not? How’s that affect them?
No —> Are they an orphan? What’s that backstory? What about the people at the orphanage? Are they a foster child? What’s that backstory? Now you have foster families to account for. Who is like family to them?
As I said, some of the answers to these questions will go in your other notebooks or documents but you can see how they’ll branch out and out and out until they bear some kind of fruit. For the sake of the lists, you’ll use the basic answers, like if they were a foster child and you plan to include scenes from their childhood in the story you’d list their foster parents, foster “siblings”, case worker, maybe the judge.
If you have people who don’t interact with your character(s) in the story but they’re important to the story then put them off to the side or at the bottom with an asterisk/star. You might have a whole list of people or things like this, and they might only be there for your use or knowledge. That’s fine, do your thing, but this list is for interactive characters even if it was once a upon a time, short, a montage, whatever.
If you feel overwhelmed at this point, don’t trip out. This is part of the job of a writer. Don’t let this scare you, at least not long enough to stop you. Move forward with the task at hand and know that all writer’s get overwhelmed from time to time, it’s the nature of the work. And like I said this is an ongoing exercise so you don’t have to complete it in one sitting. You don’t have to know squat but your main characters to start this. Heck you could use this exercise to START a brand new project! If you don’t like outlines but need some structure, here you go. This is also a great opportunity to iron out some more details about your MC(s) because you’ll want to know some basics like their gender, age, race, location, profession, etc. You might not need to know all of those now but they will help you build your list. For instance, age is a super important one because if they’re young they’re probably still in school, in which case you’ve got a healthy list to build of teachers, counselors, friends, bullies, principle, bus driver, janitor, etc. For an adult you know they need a job or maybe not, maybe they’re homeless. If the latter than you’ve got the local shelter, other homeless people, people they pass on the street, police and first responders, etc.
Then, move down the list. Go to the next person under your main character, start a list for them that includes any of the other characters from the MC list that they interact with. Did I word that so it makes sense?
Main Character: Thomas
- neighbor to the south
- neighbor to the north
- neighbor to the east
- manager at work
This list will go on as long as you need, and add to it or subtract as you work through your story. Oh I left out neighbor to the west because no one lives there. See, go with whatever. The second step is you’ll take “father” then list who below or above him he interacts with. If you have another main character you will also cross-reference Thomas’ father with that list. You could letter or number these characters if that would help you. Then list the letters after each person.
- A. Father – B, C, E, H, I, K
- B. Mother
- C. Sister
- D. Aunt
- E. Uncle
- F. Nbr to S
- G. Nbr to N
- H. Nbr to E
- I. Mngr at work
- J. Girlfriend
- K. Ex
Father doesn’t interact with his wife’s sister, Thomas’ aunt, because of a falling out 12 years ago. While the neighbors are Thomas’, because he’s a grown man, his father has developed a friendly relationship with the neighbor to the east while visiting his son to help with tasks around the house, starting with the time he mowed his yard while he was out of town. He also meets his manager at work from visiting his son, calling his work, and picking him up from time to time. And last but not least, Father doesn’t know the new girlfriend but oh he remembers that crabby ex-girlfriend. He could really do without running into her around town.
Again, by default you’re building your story and your characters by building this list and asking yourself how and why, when and where with each instance. You don’t have to know all the answers now, but record them if you get them. I can’t stress this enough; do NOT WORRY if you don’t know, make stuff up, try characters out. Write some of these experiences on a side sheet. Having trouble? Ask more questions.
Let’s say you don’t know where your adult character works yet you know they work. Okay, write boss, manager, colleague, ex-colleague, customer/client on the list as place savers and something to look at and think about as you work.
Then you’ll move to mom:
Mother: A, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K
Of course mom talks to everybody in Thomas’ neighborhood, drives him crazy. And I wasn’t going to add I. because mom doesn’t like him but I have to because there are at least a few instances she has to talk to him. Or maybe no, maybe mom really never interacts with the manager or you don’t add them to her list because she’s not a main character and their interaction took place in the past but won’t in the story. With these secondary characters you don’t have to be as detailed but by all means if you’re driven to then do it. And mom hasn’t met the new girlfriend either. Remember this list is for interactions that happen in the story, create a list for other types of characters. Later you might not include some of these interactions after all but each detail you work through or delete will help you shape this thing.
But wait Elpy! You said add everyone who these people interact with, so just because mom and dad haven’t met the new girlfriend doesn’t mean they won’t before the story’s over. Gotcha Elpy! Well sure that’s what I was just saying to myself and then I thought, nope, Thomas dies and his parents never meet the new girlfriend because she leaves town. The story backtracks his life. BAM!
So you will keep working down this list and across to the list of your other main character(s). This exercise is a big one that could go on and on. You might find it’s easier than you thought or it’s more difficult. For my novel I wouldn’t say this is difficult per se but it’s not as easy because I need to go back over what I’ve written so far to list characters my two main characters interact with. But this is great for me, and will be for you, because it means I have to look at my story as a big picture, then hone in and work out the details. It’s also showing me where there are some holes in my story and cast of characters. One of my main characters is an angel, another is a woman who is an artist of sorts (I’m still working out just what her art is). As I build my lists I recognize that I don’t have much going on with her work and who she interacts with. Also how much if any time do we spend with the angel before he dies? So do we ever see him with friends? If so I better add them.
If you have more than one main character circle the people in their lists that also interact with the other main characters.
Create other lists for elements, things, creatures, the environment and environmental factors like the weather. If such interactions aren’t relevant to your story, fine, but at least give it a thought because such a list will help you fill in character and plot details. For example, maybe your 46 year old male MC played football in his youth and injured his knee. Now when it’s cold and/or rainy his knee hurts, which means any such scenes might find him less physically able or at least distracted by the pain. Or maybe your story involves a lot of animals. Maybe your story is like I Am Legend and all these other movies that follow one MC and basically no one else. In that case your list of interactions will be composed entirely of environmental factors and creatures among whatever else you can think of. Suit your list to suit your story and characters. Add things like ship’s bathroom, ship’s kitchen, volley ball, robot, trees, the sun, the engine, dog, office orchid… NEVER be afraid to edit the list. NEVER be afraid to add some random thing or person or being that popped into your head.