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"Chloe Harris" really is the pseudonym for two writers, Noelle and Barbra, who've joined forces to write intriguing and sexy stories. A quintessential eccentric southerner, Noelle seems to find a story in almost everything. Ever ambitious to change her stars, she has a degree in Communications. Barbra lives together with her cat ('Princess Mimi'), who isn't very happy that she is spending so much time on writing. But this folly of the living can opener with opposable thumbs is mostly tolerated.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Writer’s Block is a Gift

by Barbra

Yeah, right. Can I return it?

Oh wait. Let’s think about it for a moment:

It so happened as I was typing this chapter of our second novel that all of a sudden the writing became harder and harder until the words wouldn’t come at all. Naturally, I was whining and wailing to Noelle about it. She read the draft I’ve written and basically told me what I already knew deep down but didn’t want to admit. Somehow I didn’t concentrate enough, hence that ghastly bit of even uglier prose came out that showed characters that were not the H/H I’m supposed to know so much about.

What did I do to remedy that? I plotted. Again.

Well, as a plotter/outliner I have an abundance of tactics at hand to do that. Something called a “9 Card Plotting Method”, something else like the “12 Points To Consider”, another one called “The Ultimate Novel Outline”... you get the idea. There are many ways to plot and I thought I found the right one for me - until I got stuck. Big Time.

I had plotted that scene and it still came out wrong. So I said to myself if I have to plot it again, I’d better use a different method or else the outcome would be the same. To cut a long story short: I plotted differently, the writing came easily, there was no block anywhere in sight.
And I knew this plotting method is THE ONE!!! Of course I tried to tell Noelle about it, but she ignored it very elegantly.
That’s when it hit me: Every plotter has got to find their own way!

Well, duh!!!

Knowing that in theory is one thing, but experiencing it is quite another.
There is no such thing as "the one true method". The way Noelle plans a scene is completely different from how I plan a scene. I can’t work with how she plans and vice versa! But no matter how we plan, it’s the result that matters: another “Chloe Harris”.

I’m always talking about plotters here. But we all know there are pantsers/blank pagers out there as well.
There are two kinds of writers: those who want a detailed outline in place before they start to write actual prose, and those whose creative juices flow when they contemplate a blank piece of paper waiting to be filled with a story. [...] Each group tends to regard the other with suspicion: surely nobody could be crazy enough to write that way? [...] Neither one is wrong or right. Some writers begin in blank page and then outline when they hit page 100 or so; others draft outlines as rough guides and then throw them away when they get into the Zone. The key is to discover which basic process works best for you and modify it as needed. (Wheat 2003:155f)
There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both processes. Outliners can easily get caught up in research and/or planning so much that they forget about their goal: actually writing a story. You can research and plan as much as you want, but in the end you must be aware that there’s no such thing as the perfect outline. Some secondary characters, tiny things, small details may change if you’re lucky. But at least you know where you want to go - roughly.
Blank-pagers are wonderful at starting books, at creating gripping situations that bring the reader into the story.
The crunch comes when the story has to go somewhere. Blank-pagers often come into my classes complaining that they’ve written one hundred pages of a novel and stopped because they had no central plotline. Great scenes, but no payoff. Several threads of story that never wove themselves into a coherent whole. The downside to spontaneity is that a novel needs a spine [...] Only the scenes that move the main story along will remain–and the ten chapters you started with may boil down to three and a half. (Wheat 2003:162f)
On the other hand Wheat (2003:160) points out that “[t]he essence of outlining is throwing away.” We plotters therefore narrow down the focus beforehand and don’t get tangled up in subplots that aren’t important to the story we want to tell.

But also pantsers use to narrow their stories down. “The Blank-pager spills all her ideas onto a page and culls later.” (Wheat 2003:160). But, let’s be honest, throwing away a stack of ten index cards with notes scribbled on them is much easier than deleting ten pages.

Not too long ago I read this book. Storyline was clear. H/H were The Lost One and The Charmer type. And then, suddenly, out of the blue, unexpectedly, boom - just like that, something happened in the middle of the book, and the H/H became The General and The Boss types, like in the prequel. The novel even ended like the prequel. And immediately I knew that the writer was a pantser and halfway into the book she lost interest in the story (which had been promising but apparently some plotting would have been needed) as well the characters (which were not so easy to write as we already found out by analyzing the protagonist types). Reading the last half of the book was as frustrating for me as writing it must have been for the author - her frustration really dripped off the pages. Needless to say I won’t read the next story/stories in the series. I’m a loyal fan, but if you disappoint me once, you'll lose me for sure.

So, what then immediately comes to (my) mind is: if you’re a pantser, how do you avoid those typical pantser mistakes like writing out of character, changing them to something completely different by, say, a deus-ex-machina, for example?
The employment of some unexpected and improbable incident to make things turn out right. In the ancient Greek theater, when gods appeared, they were lowered from the “machine” or structure above the stage. Such abrupt but timely appearance of a god, when used to extricate characters from a situation so perplexing that the solution seemed beyond mortal powers, was referred to in Latin as the deus ex machina (“god from the machine”). The term now characterizes any device whereby an author solves a difficult situation by a forced invention. (Harmon 2003:145)
Well, evidently some pantsers don’t avoid that. But even pantsers must admit that “some plot elements have already occurred to you [...]; it’s hard to picture a character in a total vacuum” (Kress 1998:163), which invariably means that they have already created a vague outline in their heads at some point before they sit down to fill that blank page with their prose. Which again means that they have already thought about the nucleus of the story:
The Story Question is the one that keeps the reader reading. In a mystery, it’s “Who killed the victim, and how will the detective catch him?” In a horror novel, it’s “Will the hero survive the monster’s attempts to kill him?” In a romance, the overall story question is, “How will the hero and heroine overcome the forces working against them so they can fall in love and reach their Happily Ever After?” [...] For EroRom, the general story question is, “Will our Hero and Heroine overcome the forces working against them so that they can stay together and find their Happy Every After?” [...] [A]ll romances are driven by that question to some extent, but in many mainstream romances, the heavy lifting is done by sexual tension. (Knight 2007:25ff)
Whether we are plotters or pantsers, we always need to know our character’s goals, motivation and conflicts that must be strong enough or else we don’t have a story to tell. Writing is a never-ending process of learning how to improve, or to quote Edgerton (2007:235f):
When you’re green, you’re growing; when you’re ripe, you’re rotten. [...] Tomorrow I’m pretty sure I’ll discover I’ve been doing something in my writing craft that I shouldn’t do. Or, I’ll find a better way to do something. That doesn’t mean what I did before I gained the new knowledge is worthless doo-doo. Not in the least.
That’s what’s happened to me recently - and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the last time I got stuck. But with that new plotting device and that epiphany that not all spontaneity is bad I’ll move on to the next stage... I hope.

Were you a pantser and have become a plotter? Why? What drove you take that huge step?
Or have you been a plotter all along? Why?
Is plotting is necessary or not? Let me know your thoughts.

abbr. Bibliography:
Edgerton, L. Hooked. 2007.
Harmon, W. A Handbook to Literature. 2003.
Knight, A. Passionate Ink. 2007.
Kress, N. Dynamic Characters. 1998.
Wheat, C. How to Write Killer Fiction. 2003.


Susan Lyons said...

A great post, Barbra. I'm a pantser and you've totally nailed it about needing to know your characters. It's not in my nature to figure them out in great detail ahead of time (as with a new friend, I like them to reveal themselves bit by bit). So I start with an idea of the characters and story, and as I write I find my way and get to know my heroine and hero.

Then, invariably, I get stuck. I don't panic because I know this is part of my process. I have to go away and think more deeply about my characters - to go beyond the surface and figure out their goals, fears, conflicts, and so on. I think about the H/H archetypes and backstory. Physical motion like going for a walk usually helps my thought process.

Once I've learned enough information, I can carry on, maybe even to the end of the book but often only to a certain point, then I have to again step back and go deeper.

Yes, this does mean for a lot of rewriting! But I do often find that my writerly subconscious (or muse) was wiser than my conscious and most of the good stuff is already there, I just wasn't appreciating its full significance when I wrote it.

I think that, in the end, the truly important thing is that the characters and emotions ring true for the readers. I hate books where a character does something that's wildly out of character, and I can feel the writer's hand manipulating events!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Susan!

You know, I used to be a pantser - well, haven’t we all started out as pantsers?
The thing is I made that huge mistake of writing into nowhere and then I couldn’t decide which story I actually wanted to tell. So my pantser works are still unfinished. Having a clear outline helps me focus, delete the uninvited plots right from the start so to speak.
But I must admit for my own stuff I’m a “pantser-plotter”. I usually start writing the first two or three scenes on a blank page, then I step back and plot the rest.
By then usually a deadline interrupts my creative process *hmpf* which may actually be a good thing because once I’ll get back to it, I may see things differently and me, myself and I will have a blast discussing what’s going to happen next! *LOL*

The way you write sounds interesting. I guess I’ve become a plotter just to avoid panicking. Your taking so much time off is a necessary step, sure, but I’d rather have my safety net (i.e. the outline) ready.
I really admire pantsers who can write a great story without falling into any of those pits (writing out of character, inventing (sub)plots that aren’t necessary to move the story along, etc.). But I guess you can only avoid those by taking a break and thinking more about your characters like you do.
Did you always write like that? Or did you also have to learn the hard way?

Carole St-Laurent said...

Good blog! I'm currently plotting the hell out of my book and doing the synopsis as I go along... since I was blocked also!

Noelle said...

Wow you can tell you're the Scholar in this partnership. :)

Btw: You never whine and most likely I just hyper-focused on another part of the email and forgot to go back and ask you about your discovery. *lol*

I'm a reformed pantser. Before all I was ever able to accomplish were disconnected scenes that didn't go anywhere because I could never see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Now I at least need to do a 5-7 page synopsis. But I can't get too detailed with the synopsis or plotting a chapter or I just feel too stifled.

@Susan before a write a new chapter I tend to do a similar type of thinking it through that you do. Most of the time it happens in the shower!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Carole!
Why were you blocked? Was it immediately connected to writing? I mean, did the characters give you a hard time?

Anonymous said...

*LOL* Noelle! And thanks.

Well, go back and read that email again. *tsk tsk* I can’t believe you missed that point!

A synopsis surely helps with pointing me in the right direction, sure, but I need more details. What’s suffocating for you is just right for me. I need to “feel” a scene in order to write it - and I’m not talking about the naughty bits. *lol*

Samantha Kane said...

I have become a PLOTTER. Yep, capital letters. I have my new book plotted, outlined, storyboarded, pictures to help me focus, character studies, you name it, on a trifold presentation board. I have plotting software that helps me use the 3 Act/ 8 sequence plotting structure.

But...I still veer from the outline occasionally. I started out as a pantser, my first three books were written that way. But when I started writing longer books I needed more plotting. Once I discovered how much easier writing became with a detailed plot in place, I took off running and haven't looked back.

Noelle said...

I have a great character study questionaire from a class in romance writing I took 13 years ago. At some point in the last 5 years I think I transfered it to Word.
If anyone is interested I could try to dig it up.

Anonymous said...

*lol* Yes, I need minute details too, otherwise I can't write. I spend twice as much (if not more) on plotting a scene than on writing it, because, like you said, it's so much easier and faster to write then.

Although I must admit I plot scenes - in minute detail, have I mentioned that? with visuals, smells, sounds, touches, tastes - rather than the whole thing. I have an idea about the whole thing, a simple thread to cling to so to speak. Then I think about how I can make it work.
I start writing a scene as soon as I've plotted it - in minute detail, have I mentioned that? *lol*

Although... I may have scenes in my head that aren't connected to the whole thing. I usually write them right after the first two or three scenes on a blank page. Then I think about connecting all those miscellaneous scenes with scenes that I plot - in... oh, I think I already mentioned that once or twice. Hence I call myself a pantser-plotter.

Rebecca J. Clark said...

I am neither a pantser or a plotter. I'm just a mess. :) Seriously, I'm a recovering pantser who's trying to become more of a plotter in order to write faster. With previous books, I'd just write the darn thing as fast as I could, but I'd suffer from many bouts of writers block during the first draft and my plots would go every which way. Revising was a total nightmare. Yes, I can end up with a decent book with this process, but it's so agonizing. So...I'm working really hard on being more of a plotter. We'll see how that goes.


Noelle said...

Hi Becky! I so feel you!!
You know I think it just takes those one or two books or workshops that finally click for you personally.

For me it was last summer. I was trying to become a plotter and I was getting there from things I had learned in some workshop.
But it didn't really really click for me until I read Blake Synder's "Save the Cat Goes to the Movies." Suddenly through the context of films I'd seen I could see the bones of a story and how to construct my own kind of story framework to build upon.

That doesn't mean I don't still have struggles but at least that part is better now.

Keep the faith. I'm sure it will happen soon for you too!

Anonymous said...

Hey Becky, don't say you're a mess. You just haven't found your way yet. Me, I've been struggling to find my way for two years - settling for one of the dozens of ways to plot because I need direction. But then - like I said in the post, I really found the one way to plot that suits me best of all. And so will you!

Rebecca J. Clark said...

I've completed seven books, so you'd think I'd have found my way by now. I think I just need to embrace the fact that my process is a complete mess and it's agonizing, but somehow it all works in the end. That said, however, I'm still trying to learn to be a bit less messy.