Yes, Virginia, There Is Such a Thing as Writer’s Block

In my first post here, I said that the “… characters mutinied, took over the project, and left me swimming in their wake, trying to catch up.” That sounds like I just leaned back, put up my bunny-slipper-clad feet on the desk and relaxed while the book wrote itself.

Would that it were so.

What actually happened was when I came home from my job writing for Cisco, I spent my free hours writing the novel. Relaxing from writing by writing doesn’t exactly soothe the soul and refresh the spirit, but I finished the novel about six months after I started it. Finished it the FIRST time, I mean.

Then I paid a fantasy writer to review the manuscript and give me feedback. Her feedback was extensive and thoughtful, though I didn’t agree with everything she said. Her premise was that the heroine has to be tough and tearless, not given to feminine weaknesses such as crying, which my heroine does once or twice when thwarted.

Well, in a certain kind of fantasy fiction, a sword-wielding (or laser-cannon-wielding) über-babe is entirely appropriate. But my story centers on an ordinary woman living an ordinary life until her reality is fractured by the supernatural. Ordinary women sometimes cry when frustrated or unhappy. So I didn’t change Sierra’s nature, but I did add characters and plot complications. I also changed some basic premises of the story and created an entirely new ending. In the process, I think I strengthened my heroine’s character arc, bringing her to a new level of self-awareness and personal power.

How long did it take me to finish the novel the second time? Five years. And why did it take me five years to rewrite a novel that I had written in six months?

Well, writing for a living while writing for creative expression issue was undoubtedly a factor. I addressed this by taking a couple of “stay-cations” where, instead of going to Hawaii or some other dreary place, I plopped down in my desk chair every morning and wrote all day (or most of it). I rewrote everything past the end point of the original draft—and then came to a screeching halt. I could not for the life of me figure out how to end the new plot. I knew how I wanted it to end, but I couldn’t think how to get there from where I was.

This was the first time in my life I have ever experienced writer’s block. I have always sneered at writer’s block because I had a foolproof way to avoid it. Whenever faced with uncertainty or lack of inspiration, I just start writing. The first few pages might be garbage and wind up in the virtual trash basket, but the act of writing has always gotten the creative juices flowing.

But now, try as I might, I could not construct an ending. I attempted to spur a flash of insight by writing a précis of the story from the bad guys’ point of view. I reread the novel several times from the beginning. I tried writing a chapter outline, which I thought might inspire some new ideas. Nothing worked.

Finally, I asked a new friend to read the book and give me some ideas. I wanted fresh eyes and an untainted brain. The friend offered a few suggestions, though she was unable to suggest an ending. However, I suddenly felt like I could do this thing, and sat down to try again.

And that’s when I discovered the problem. There is a scene towards the end of the book where some of my characters are about to hike into the woods on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Two highway patrol officers see them and stop to warn them about not hiking off-trail, due to rotten limestone and hidden caves. As the rangers depart, one says to the other that they should notify the park rangers that someone may be hiking in a dangerous area. Later, I thought it would be a great idea to have the rangers discover my heroes in the company of one of the bad guys—which led to the necessity of explaining to the authorities a number of strange circumstances, and resulted in a complete dead end, story-wise.

Once I realized I had painted myself into a plot corner, I removed the interfering rangers and took the plot into newer, richer, greener pastures. And finished the effing story.

I am a reformed character, of course, and will never again curl my lip at the notion of writer’s block.

Photo by Emergency Brake

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