By Shawn Stjean
If you can’t solve day-to-day challenges creatively, what chance will your characters, with their high-stakes conflicts, have?
Many articles exist on this topic, and suggested solutions (“Seven Ways. . .”) range from the gimmicky to the sublime. I’m here to suggest only one–it works every day for me–but it is more like an ounce of prevention than a pound of cure. After all, it’s better to never catch the disease in the first place, especially if you occupy the position of treating writing like a job, or better yet, a vocation.
That’s a good position to be in. Above all, you must remember that, as rewarding as it is to finish, publish, hold a book in your hands, and cash a royalty check, those days come few and far between. The vast majority of your hours will be spent drafting, thinking, revising, taking sips of coffee, heaving heavy sighs, scratching your head, and typing. And this is the FUN part. (Fun at least compared to formatting, proofreading, promoting, and all the associated networking).
There’s the key: this is your working life; it’s FUN. Not like a roller coaster ride, but in the way a watching a great movie or engaging in spirited debate or contributing to a difficult class period is fun–it grows your brain, makes you recall there’s more to existence than_________(insert your various modes of drudgery here).
So, this strategy involves optimizing the fun that’s in the work, in a non-logical way: through creation of anxiety (so a bit like a roller coaster,after all.)
I draft my characters into trouble, and confront them with difficulties, that I most often cannot see the solution to, myself, in advance. This may sound risky, but consider this: if you can see the answer around the corner, how far behind might your best readers be from doing the same?
These difficulties need not necessarily signal major plot events, though they might: I’ve used everything from a protagonist trapped in a plummeting airplane, to simply agonizing over whether to lie to his wife, and what to convincingly say. This unsureness about what’s coming next lends the narrative verisimilitude it might otherwise lack. Also, of course, you might be telling a story with familiar archetypal or historical outlines. Everyone knows the Germans lost WWII, so the climax is not in doubt–it’s HOW your little squad of misfits is able to pull together, despite their differences, to contribute. So the dramatic tension of your fourth chapter might simply consist, not of how to win a battle, but of how to simply get along with each other.
But does this strategy cure (or avoid) writer’s block? Aren’t you simply substituting one problem for another (perhaps greater)one?
Yes, and no. NOW you’re moving, and your neurons are firing, and your fingers are typing, where before they weren’t. The first solution, or several, to a problem may not be the ideal one, or even a plausible one, but you can worry about that later, in revisions. You’re now in challenge mode, but not blocked. You’re only running, scrambling, juking to get over, under, around, or through the current obstacle, even as you’re moving forward. It’s a lot like playing a sport. Living in the now.
See, what professionals in any field know is that you can only think and prepare and research for so long, but the time comes when, as the slogan says, you “Just Do It,” for better or worse (But recall that Nike means Victory, in Greek.) Much of what you accomplish goes on the scrap pile, later. Every bit is not gold. In short, pros know enough to get over themselves. Amateurs treat every move like it will be the last, caught on tape, memorialized in stone, as if their time and effort is too valuable to waste. It ain’t, man. Next week’s another game.
True, it also helps if you have a rough outline, like a coach has a gameplan–written down–of the overall plot structure. It’s flexible. This could be a line graph with labels, a Harvard outline, or post-its–whatever works so you can keep the big picture in mind. Then you’re in a position to see whatever you’re working on as merely an episode. Perhaps what you write for the next hour will function only as a temporary placeholder, to be replaced by something more brilliant later. So be it. The character(s) are at point A; they must arrive at point C; how are they going to get there? You are now at point B: start typing. Don’t think. Type.