Issues for Indie Authors: Combating Writer’s Block; or Diving Into a Corner, on Purpose

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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.

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: The Wicked Witch Versus the Wonderful Wizard

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He looks the part–but can you trust him?

By Shawn Stjean

We return to this series, as we often do in October, to devote a little analysis to the better understanding of commonly seen (and often misinterpreted) figures and events in storytelling.  Or, as I prefer to call it, our cultural mythology.

Entire blogs and books are devoted to the subject of witches, so I’m treating them here in a special circumstance: when appearing as half of two lesser-known figures that function together as a pair.  Other examples, beyond the familiar Oz universe,  of this pairing include:

-the Oracle and the Architect from The Matrix films

-Morgan Le Fey and Merlin of Arthurian legend

-Eve and Adam

-Pandora and Prometheus

Sometimes the witch-figure is masculinized, though the specific male-witch character will often exhibit feminine traits of nurturing and guidance:

-Gilliam and Wilford from Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer

-Gandalf and Saruman from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

-Arioch and Donblas from Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga

-Even Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader  function this way.

The fact that these two figures often covertly conspire together, or at least operate with a tacit understanding of the need for the other’s existence, signals their true nature at the archetypal level.  On the surface, the two might be bitter enemies–“Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West,” commands Oz–but perhaps “rivals” might be more accurate.

Beneath the local storytelling level, the couple are really two parts of a whole: the “witch” is an agent of the primal, universal force of Chaos, and the Wizard a custodian and operative of Order.  This fundamental addiction to dualism in storytelling results from the inability of mortal human beings to reconcile existence into its transcendent reality as One, as Joseph Campbell once told Bill Moyers.  However, this working together for balance, a yang-and-yin harmony, is the storyteller’s acknowledgement  of the need for both. One without the other?  You may as well ask for an ebb without a tideflow, a moon without a sun, female without male.

For westerners, this primal level can be hard to penetrate because of our cultural bias against Chaotic forces, identifying them as “wicked” or “evil.”  The original inhabitants of our American continent held no such biases.  Whatever was useful was good; otherwise, try to avoid it.  For example, in Lakota  mythology, Iya (the Eater) and Iktomi (the Spider) are siblings.  The Native Americans instead prefer a “Trickster” figure (a la Hermes among the ancient Greeks, as opposed to brother Apollo,) who sows disorder in a Boethian way–through ignorance, selfishness,stupidity, and accident, but without intent to harm.

(By the way, this shift in emphasis is not be taken as a philosophical argument that evil never exists.  Clearly, Hitler stood for fascistic order, and the Allied forces opposing him stood for a more tolerant, democratic order.)

How, then, to spot these figures in a story, and recognize that the story of “good vs. evil” is often really our cultural shorthand for a tension that exists in each human being, even at the biological level–every pump of the bellows of the heart, inhalation/exhalation of the lungs, every emotion and countering bit of logic?

Science and Technology are manifestations of Order as a force; Magic/”Powers” are manifestations of Chaos as a force–wherein the laws of physics, biology, mathematics, are voided.  Characters with command of magic don’t “play by the rules.”  A spell or enchantment violates space, or gravity, or free will; a prophecy violates Time.  But when a machine is built to accomplish these same feats?  Everybody wants one.  As old as the antagonism between reason and mysticism, is this divide.

There’s a complicating factor in the West: gender.  Cries of “Witch” at first glance signal acknowledgement of the presence of a powerful woman, but really mean a woman beyond control–and the use of the slur is a final desperate attempt to regain that power, to call in the force of the collective against the relatively vulnerable individual.  The parallel gender slur “Bitch” is a variant, defining the woman as merely a female, at the animal level.

Women have been villainized because they are unconsciously identified with Chaos–lack of control, emotion, a lure to sexuality, even insanity.   “She” embodies the human inability to understand (“Weird,” we say–as in Macbeth‘s Weird Sisters–as a placeholder for that which we have yet to comprehend.)  Recall that Circe–the most powerful female antagonist of Homer’s Odyssey–was denigrated from her proper status of goddess to a mere “witch.”

Often, agents of Chaos appear as Oracles–a brilliant trick, as it appears to sort things out–reveal the future.  But prophecies are riddles that are subject to, and often are, misinterpreted, a storyteller’s way of warning us against too-slavish devotion to Order.

And the Wizard?–well, let us not forget one thing: he’s a fraud.  Oz hides behind a bombastic projection of technology, Vader is half a robot, the Architect retreats to his room of computer screens.  Order is at least as artificial a construct as Chaos, and as tenuous–as anyone who has ever experienced the danger of over-reliance upon technology–a flat tire, a dead cell phone battery, a corrupted hard drive–can attest.  We crave order, routine, solidity beneath our feet, and we resist change, dynamism, and unpredictability–and yet these are catalysts of growth.  The struggle of losing control, regaining it, and losing again are the very rhythms of life.

Agents of Order often appear as policemen and soldiers (the Sheriff of Nottingham or Sherriff Will Teasle or Javert) versus the intrusive elements and undesirables (Robin Hood or Rambo or Valjean) that threaten the community’s authoritarian stability.  Thus we arrive at another of the tacit recognitions that Chaos is not inherently evil: the Western tradition of the rebel-hero (beginning with Prometheus versus Zeus).  Only relatively recently have women been gaining access to these non-stygmatized roles, appropriately enough as adolescents (Bella Swan of Twilight, Beatrice Prior of Divergent.)  Here, age prejudice intersects with gender prejudice in a kind of double-double standard.  It remains largely to be seen if adult and mature women of Chaos can gain heroic acceptance as anarchistic rebels, and cease being dismissed as crazy old crones.

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Scary, yes. But wicked?