Help me, Obiwan, you’re my only hope

Regular readers of my blog will no doubt have picked up on the fact that I’ve hit a bit of a slump with my writing.  I was going guns blazing on the first draft of ABSENT, charging towards the finish line like a bridezilla on the scent of a sample sale, and then…fizzle.  Since I started writing seriously about two years ago, this is my first real encounter with so-called “writer’s block” (yuck…hate that term).

There’s plenty of advice out there about what to do when ennui overcomes a writer at the 60K mark on their first draft of a novel.  I should know.  In my procrastinatory efforts, I read it all.  Sum up all that advice and you have one and only one solution that makes any sense (at least to me):  knuckle it out, bozo.  Doesn’t matter how hard it is, you have to push through.  Write ten words a day.  Hell, write one.  Just keep going.  Find inspiration wherever you can (under the couch, inside a bag of potato chips, whatever), skip ahead if you need to.  Just don’t stop and don’t look back.

Yeah, yeah.  Sounds like good advice.  But when you’re overcome with a burning desire to to be doing ANYTHING other than writing (Hell’s Kitchen, anyone? No? Bachelor Pad?  That’s the ticket!), finding the inspiration and will to soldier on is easier said than done.  What finally helped shake me loose from the grip of my malaise was a little good old fashioned work.  Yeees, folks, I said work.  Practice.  Labor at the ole’ craft-building machine.

In particular, pulling out Donald Maass’ “The Breakout Novel” workbook that I bought six months ago, slid onto my bookshelf, and proceeded to ignore, and doing some of the exercises inside.  What do you know?  These are remarkably helpful.

I had gotten to the point in the ABSENT draft where all the plot threads were about to come together, where the characters were going to have Big Moments where they act on Stuff They Learned, and I suddenly felt that I had no idea who my characters were or why they were doing any of the stuff they were doing.  Where did these people come from?  Did I really make them up?  Not likely, since they now seem like mysterious strangers to me.

Maass’s exercises to the rescue!  I sat down with pen and paper and went through the exercises one-by-one.  Brainstorm 5 ways to deepen their motivations.  Check.  Create contradictions in their nature designed to generate conflict (internal and external).  Check.  Give them backstories that provide juicy overlap with other characters.  Check.

And so on.  In the process I discovered all sorts of amazing things about the characters and came up with new plot twists, sub-plots, and scenes to add complexity and depth to my current manuscript.  Of course, now I have to sit down and actually make those changes…but one step at a time, right?

I found two things to be especially valuable about the exercises.  First, they were a bit like having a reproving schoolmistress looking over my shoulder and tsking at me.  So list-like, so organized.  I felt obligated to do them all, and in their specificity they really forced me to focus in on difficult questions and issues that I’d been skimming past.  Second, each question asks for many possible iterations.  Don’t just find two places in your manuscript to amp up the  tension, find five.  Don’t just come up with a defining quality for your protagonist, come up with two qualities, plus a few contradictory ones, and find four places in the manuscript where you can show them acting on those qualities.  The exercises are, thus, both high level and very specific.

Of all the writing books I’ve bought over the years, this one strikes the best balance between dispensing information about the elements of a story, the process of writing, and the business of writing and offering very concrete ways to actualize the information and advice offered.  Glad I finally pulled it off the shelf ;).

So, has anyone else read or used any of the Donald Maass books?  What did you think?  I know he also runs workshops; are they worth the time and money?  What are your thoughts on his advice and the processes he suggests?


Most days I like to think I’m pretty damn good at keeping all my juggler’s balls in the air.  Home life.  Work life.  Writing life.  Social life.  Most writers, even successfully published ones, have day jobs they must structure their writing around.  Many of us have families.  All of us have unexpected joys and tragedies to deal with.  It’s part of life.

Those of us who’ve decided to make our writing a priority have devised ways to work it into to our daily lives, carving out spaces and times that we try to keep inviolate.  For some it’s a set time each morning or night, hewed from the dark hours before or after kids and spouses and pets and chores and day jobs claim our attention.  For others it’s a set word count for each day or week, or an office no one else can enter while we’re working, or a cafe we can slip away to.  In the usual ebb and flow of life, these strategies tend to work.

But what about when the unexpected happens?  A baby enters your life.  Someone close to you dies.  You get bad news about your health.  You move houses, or jobs, or spouses.

What do you do when the Big Life Decisions intervene, when that carefully constructed scaffolding gets bumped and comes tumbling down in a shower of ill-fitting pipes and jagged-edged 2x4s?  How do you keep up with your writing then?

Finding the time to write isn’t the only problem here.  So is focus, creativity, and space to think.  When you’re consumed by important things happening in your life (good or bad), how do you summon the mental discipline to focus on fictional worlds and characters, on the struggles of people you’ve given creative life to, but who – quite frankly – will still be there when your personal situation settles down?  Sometimes I can channel whatever is consuming me personally into my writing, other times all I do is hit a wall my mind flatly refuses to find a door through.

I don’t have answers here, just questions.  But I’d be willing to bet nearly every writer I know has faced these same problems at one time or another.  If anyone has insights or advice to share, I sure would welcome them!

And now…I’m off to use my mind lasers to cut a way through this damn wall and WRITE.