Writer’s Block

I have a few minutes to spare and thought I’d respond to a question posted on the ‘About’ page of this blog about writer’s block and how to get over it. This comes from a reader who has a great story to tell but just can’t seem to get it out.
I ran into writer’s block this year, big-time. I had maybe four months in a row where I struggled with telling my story. For that matter, any story.
I had an idea for a sequel. Bring my Cuban detective to Canada (that door is open at the end of the first book, The Beggar’s Opera) and let him see it through the eyes of a visitor, with all its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies.I just couldn’t get going. After twenty pages or thirty pages, I had bored myself to tears.
I put that manuscript aside and tried writing a different story. I had also had an idea for an Aboriginal detective who was kind of an anti-hero. I’ve worked for over twenty years in Aboriginal land claim and resource negotiations, so I know First Nations communities and issues inside-out.  I thought I’d set him up in a situation where he had to reluctantly head back to the rez to investigate the death of one of the many missing Anishnabe women who keep disappearing on the highways. Sort of like The Trail of Tears in British Columbia.
Forty pages in, I was stuck again. Worse than stuck: set in concrete. I really liked the character, I just couldn’t quite figure out what to do with him once he got there.I kept going back and forth between the two stories, trying to make at least one of them work. I’d tease out a page or two, and then give up. Try again. Wander off to do the dishes. Sit down. Type. Delete. Start over. And start to wonder if I was a one-trick wonder.
Finally, I put them both away and began to write a third story. And it bored me, too. The plot was too thin to carry a whole book.
I was in Europe this summer, when I finally realized what I’d done wrong. My most interesting setting — where I’d placed the entire plot of The Beggar’s Opera — was Cuba. And I’d completely left it out.  So I added a Cuban subplot.  And I started to shift the dialogue and the scenery back where it belonged. I went back to the story involving the Aboriginal detective. I liked him, and particularly his backstory. I realized that I could bring him into the same story as the others; that he didn’t have to be a standalone, but could be part of the ensemble. Why save your best stuff for a book you may never write?
I pulled some of the chapters I had written about him from that manuscript into this one. Suddenly, the story clicked. I wrote 16,000 words one weekend at the lake. It’s the most I’ve ever written. It didn’t take long to finish writing the book.
I’m waiting for my agent’s detailed comments. But so far, he’s really enjoyed it. And it helped him deal with a concern he had, namely,  that I might be writing a sequel instead of a stand-alone story in the series. (A sequel is harder to sell, because people buy books in random order. Unlike movies.)
So what can you do when you have writer’s block?
I think it helps to keep your most interesting character in mind.  Try making him even more interesting: add some complications to his life, some internal obstacle he needs to deal with. Then try writing a few more sentences from his perspective.  You want readers to pick up the book looking for that character. Don’t disappoint.
I find it helpful sometime to write random chapters that I think are interesting and just store them away in a ‘basket’ file, meaning I don’t know how they’ll fit in. That takes the pressure off, and so far, I’ve ended up using all of them. It’s like your subconscious knows what you want to write long before you do.
If the setting you’re using isn’t working, try a new one. Find some way to transport your character there. And if your characters are getting stale,  introduce them to another great character and watch the sparks fly.
After all, what do we do in our own lives when we’re bored? We go out. We try new things. We travel. We meet new people. We spice things up.When our characters have a chance to do the same, they start to tell  their stories. And that gets us over the blocks.
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