Friday, 10 January 2014

Fun Ways To Say "In Your FACE!!" To Stalled Story Syndrome.

Writer's Block is like a unicorn, as I believe I said in this post from way back when.

If you believe it exists it makes you cry bitter tears, smash your head repeatedly on the nearest flat surface and fear your writing life is over until you can rid yourself of the cursed affliction. If, however, you don't, it makes you roar denial like a Baskerville Hound in the face of anyone who says the phrase in your presence - while your brain whirs like helicopter blades trying to come up with an alternative explanation that doesn't sound like you're just saying 'I can't be arsed anymore...'

(Possibly. The above may be slight exaggerations of real life - sorry, that's just what my brain does...)

In cases of General Writer's Block (That Doesn't/Does Exist), where writing anything feels like an impossible task, there are gazillions of resources to trawl through; on the web alone there are entire sites dedicated to writing prompts in the form of random ideas and phrases, images - you name it. There's a way out, they tell you. Mostly because, in that situation, you haven't yet gone into anything.

But what if you're already working on something - an actual, specific project - and now it's been hit by the bad brain-voodoo? You switch to something else for a while, like all the advice says - and your writing mojo comes back, and as the words come pouring out once more you cry "Yaayy! I'm cured of this Writer's Block (That Did/Didn't Exist) - now I can go back to my original project and kick its butt!" Only to find... you're back to being stuck again. The creeping fear sinks in. This aint just lack of inspiration or creative stagnation; this is Stalled Story Syndrome.

Are you wondering why I've brought this up? Pfffft, nah, of course you're not, if you've read any of this blog in the past  - you'll already have guessed. Yep, 'The Renegades' and I recently suffered from a bad bout of Stalled Story Syndrome. As I've said in the past, short stories, stage plays and lyrics have mostly been my bag up until now; this is the first full-length novel I've written. It's one hell of a learning curve for me, and I've been making devoted use of whatever advice I can get my hands on regarding the novel-writing process from Those Who Know. And Those Who Know say that a stalled story is a sign that something's wrong with it somewhere. So... if I want to get this novel to publishable quality (and I do) I've got to put it right. Pronto.

And so I've read tons of advice from a myriad different sources on how to hunt down the flaws and deal with them. There's the CSI Approach to it; analysing clues, revisiting the scenes and performing forensic examinations and anlysing the evidence. All very thorough - but kind of... dull. And then there are some more creative approaches. Being the person that is me, I decided to try out some of the latter (and they'd work just as well for short stories, I would imagine.) So, in the spirit of sharing, here are some of the ones that are not only huge fun - but seem to have helped:

1 - Go to a language translating website (Google Translate is pretty good.) Copy and paste in a chunk of text from your work, and then translate it into another language (it works best if you can pick a language where their syntax and grammar usage is quite different from English; Chinese and Japanese work well for this, as does German.) Copy and paste the translated text over your original English text and then translate it again into another language - and then copy and paste that translation over the previous one to translate it back into English again. With any luck, there will be parts where your original words had been interpreted in an entirely different way - and that may inspire you to think of new directions for your story to go in.

2 - A lot of writing advice recommends 'interviewing' your characters to get to know them - but what about doing it in the style of one of those 'tell-all magazines?' (A British example might be 'Hello' or 'Heat' magazine - for the US, something like 'National Enquirer.') Write an article as if it's your character giving a front-page 'exclusive interview' where she 'opens her heart' and tells her side of the story regarding some key plot point that's causing a problem. Then maybe switch and do the same thing for another character - perhaps with a very different perspective on the same event. They may 'reveal' new things about themselves, other characters or events that you may not have known or thought about before. Things that could take your story in a whole new direction - or at the very least show up where 'your' version of events might be flawed.

3 - Imagine your story is going to be turned into a movie or tv programme - and that you have the absolute cherry-pick of the showbiz world with regard to casting. Find pictures of the actors you would cast to play your characters and collect them together; if you're feeling really creative, maybe even mock-up a movie poster complete with titles and blurb (So what if it looks like The Photoshop Screw-up from Hell? After all, no-one else has to see it.) Putting real faces you can actually see to your characters can not only bring them to life in your mind, but also help with defining their roles in the story. (For example, you probably wouldn't choose action-hero-type Vin Diesel to play your painfully shy and withdrawn male librarian character - just like you wouldn't have vulnerable-neurotic-type Nicole Kidman play the knockabout comedy Fat Friend of the leading lady.)

4 - Take a point in your story where there are a series of events occurring that don't seem to be working for some reason  - maybe a scene, or even a whole chapter. Go to any one of these events, and rewrite it so that the opposite thing happens instead. For example, if your male lead dumps his girlfriend have him ask her to move in with him instead. Obviously this will mean having to change the girlfriend's choice of reactions, from being upset or not upset about being dumped to agreeing to move in with your male lead or turning him down. Or is there a third option? What else could she do? What would be the most ridiculous response she could have?  Then try the next event, applying the same principles. Yes, it may look like you've suddenly upended a barrel of WTF? into your story. Or... it may be a lightbulb illuminating that dark corner with the 'something' hiding in it that you didn't see before...

Obviously I can't promise that any of these tactics will magically 'fix' a story, or cure it of Stalled Story Syndrome once and for all. Heck, I'm no expert - I'm still learning all this stuff as well. But I know what it's like to be eyeball-deep in your writing and worrying that, instead of just being immersed, you might actually be drowning. Writing can be a lonely ol' business sometimes - and feeling like it's not coming together quite so easily anymore feels worse when it seems like you're the only one going through it.

You're not, of course - every writer goes through it, even the famous and revered ones. There are lots of different tricks, tips and strategies to get past it - but it seems you can basically boil them all down to one little mantra; as Dory from Finding Nemo says "Just keep swim-ming, swim-ming, swim-ming..."

And rest assured that, somewhere out there, there's a ton of your writer-kin who know exactly how you feel.


  1. I love the unicorn analogy! I was one who didn't want to disbelieve others' struggles with writer's block but was a bit dismissive of it until it hit me. I'm still struggling with it months later, but I'll fight through.

    The language translation exercise sounds both fascinating and fun!

  2. When you've got it, it's like a big grey cloud blotting out the sun, that's for sure. I use to try and rebrand it 'Lazy Brain Syndrome,' as that seemed to apply to me - until I realised that when it got really bad it actually made me prefer doing housework to sitting down to write. (ME. Doing HOUSEWORK. In PREFERENCE to ANYTHING, never mind writing!)

    I hope your writer's unicorn block clears soon - you're right, I think the only way is to keep on going until you reach the other side. And the language translation thing certainly produces some bizarre results. After translating some sentences from The Renegades a couple of times the phrase "she shot him three times in the chest" had morphed into "she shot a three-year-old in a chest of drawers"!

  3. If it helps, all of my stories stall about a third of the way through. Now that I've written 4 books, I'm a bit more relaxed about it because I know it's just the way it is. I might try to do a proper outline for the next book though and see if that helps me through it a little bit quicker.