Defeat Writer’s Block with Sufficient Preparation
I have this awesome idea! I’ll start writing and it will all just flow out of me seamlessly and without pause…right? Well that depends. Demolishing writer’s block begins with developing a plan, and part of that planning involves knowing both yourself and your target audience. Or as Sun Tzu would put it, if you know yourself and your enemy, then you will triumph in every battle! Um, what? *embarrassed chuckle* Moving on…
Knowledge is Power
So…are you a plotter or a pantser?
A pantser is someone who has a “fly by the seat of their pants” approach to writing. Improvisation is their superpower. Sometimes it’s referred to as stream-of-consciousness writing. The pantser can write and write and write until–boom–here’s a rough draft completed and ready for the first phase of editing. A plotter is simply that–a writer who plots out the main points of the story before they write it. Planning is their superpower. A plotter requires more structure than a pantser, some sort of map of the story they wish to tell. Without prior planning, a plotter will dash out maybe twenty pages and then get stuck, wondering what’s supposed to happen next. I know because this has happened to me. Multiple times. So many stories began and never finished! It’s how I figured out I’m more of a plotter than a pantser. And, yes, there is an entire spectrum between pure plotting and pure pantsing. If either of these situations sounds like you, then roll with it. Figuring out where you fall on the plotter/pantser spectrum is the first step into a more successful writing life.
Who are you writing for?
The second step is knowing your target audience. Think of it this way: you’re writing the story for someone in particular. Let’s suppose you’re writing a YA novel, like me. In this case, your story is directed at people between the ages of twelve and twenty, roughly speaking. If you’re having trouble getting started, simply begin like you’re writing a letter. Have in mind a teenager or middle-schooler you know personally–a niece, perhaps–and “address” your writing to them in the form of an anecdote, a letter, an email–whatever works for you to begin the story. Of course, your book is most likely not going to be published as a rambling letter to your niece, but that’s why we revise and edit our work. The point here is to get started and write something. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you can’t fix a blank page.
Organization is key
Remember what I said about the difference between plotters and pantsers? Well, even hard-core pantsers benefit from having an outline. I know one who does. And just because you make an outline doesn’t mean you have to stick to it point for point. Your outline can evolve as your story evolves. Still stuck? The following are some tips that have worked for me.
The “B” word
Begin by brainstorming. Profusely. There are different strategies and tools you can use for this. Some folks write things down on meticulously labeled index cards or set up a storyboard with sticky notes. Others compile detailed information in a loose-leaf binder. I generally use Google Notes to collect all my “ideas” for plot, setting, important items or McGuffins, character traits, desires and goals, lines of dialogue, key scenes, backstory, etc. The resulting document is extremely messy. I find it necessary, though, before I map out the entire story’s structure or the fabula. If you already have ideas for dialogue or scenes in your head, include these in your notes so you don’t forget them. Most likely, you’ll find a way to weave them into the narrative later. Or you’ll come up with something better along the way.
The “O” word
Once you have a nice slush pile of ideas, you’ll need to wade through it and assemble a rough outline, or “macro-outline” for your story. This is a big-picture, blow-by-blow list of major plot points. You could also write a basic synopsis using a paragraph format if this works better for you. After plotting out the bare bones storyline, it’s time to beef up your outline with details. For instance, expanding on elements like character development and world-building. Then, build your scenes. Don’t worry if you end up constructing them out of chronological order. You can always hammer the pieces together later in the process.
There’s a lot here for you to consider and try for yourself. I could write an entire series of articles on story structure alone. For starters, there’s the Plot Dot and several variations on the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet method. You can always adjust these methods for your needs. However, the most successful stories include–at bare minimum–certain elements. Eventually, I’ll get around to comparing these different methods.
The “R” word
Still stuck? Ask yourself if you’ve done sufficient research. This applies especially to writers of non-fiction, historical fiction and hard-core science fiction with lots of nit-picky technological information. However, if you’re writing a tale that begs for knowledge outside your wheelhouse–e.g. sailing, nautical jargon, and ship anatomy–then learning about these things could improve the story’s verisimilitude. Warning: Don’t go off on tangents in forums or down Google rabbit-holes; stay focused on your topic!
You can avoid this by deciding beforehand:
- what information you absolutely must include (keep it simple)
- is there an expert you can interview (briefly)
- which resources are the best authorities on the topic (limit the number)
Research complete? Time to organize the information. I suggest using a binder to sort it chapter by chapter (or scene by scene) for easy access. Then, you can reference it when you get hung up on a technical detail.
Speaking of verisimilitude…Sometimes you need to go to a specific place to get a “feel” or “connection” for your story’s setting or a particular culture. Please don’t break the bank traveling, though! If all else fails, then write the story using a setting with which you’re already familiar. When you write a great story with interesting characters and unique plot twists, you’ll find it’s every bit as engaging set in the world you know as it would be in an exotic locale.
I’m sure you noticed I used the word “sufficient” before “research.” It is possible to do too much research and never get around to writing your book. This can also happen at the brainstorming and outlining stages. There comes a point when you need to set it all aside, stop procrastinating, and simply start writing.
Well, scribbler friends, that’s all I have in me for today. More advice next week!