Morass

Before the post, I want to let you know about the online Everywhere Book Fest on May 1st and 2nd. When an in-person festival was canceled, participating authors got together to move it online, and this is the result. I’ll be on a panel on writing historical fiction with the wonderful writers Linda Sue Park and Anne Bustard for forty-five minutes on May 1st at 1:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time. You can watch on Facebook or YouTube (at the festival’s site, not mine). The panel will be live, so you can ask questions in real time. Here’s a link to the festival: https://everywherebookfest.com/. Hope you can e-come!

Also, there’s a blog post on HarperCollins’s website that I wrote about my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells: https://harperstacks.harpercollins.com/blog/writing-familiar-strangers-gail-carson-levine-on-her-familys-long-history-of-migration/. The post doesn’t say, but I’ll tell you, in the photo of the two boys on a pony, my father is the younger boy. Cute, wasn’t he?

And, you may know that I’m reading a chapter a day of Ella Enchanted on my Facebook page, at 11:00 am Eastern Daylight Time. Some of you, I know, are watching. You can comment, so I can know you’re there, which is heartening.

Onto the post!

On December 5, 2019, future_famous_author wrote, How do you guys deal with being stuck? Like writers’ block, but you know where you want to go, you just don’t know how to get there?

Writing Ballerina wrote back, I read a great blog post that summed up what writer’s block really is: https://jerryjenkins.com/writers-block/.

If this doesn’t help, I’d also say to write the part that you know is going to happen, then go back and show how you got there. Writing the part might help you figure out how you’re going to get there.

Interesting link, Writing Ballerina! I’m with Mr. Jenkins, except about the “faucet of creativity.” My faucet comes out in drips, occasional spurts; and sometimes it’s pretty clogged.

I see two questions here: how to deal with being stuck; and how to move a story where you know you want it to go, but you don’t have a clue about how to get it there. The second question, in my opinion, is about plotting.

I agree with Mr. Jenkins about setting daily goals, in my case a time goal rather than a page goal. Something usually happens when we place our fingers on our keyboard or pick up our pen. We write, maybe not, seemingly, to the purpose we’re hoping for, but we write something, maybe about what’s going on in the world or how annoying certain people in our lives can be. These ramblings are likely to loosen us up. At worst, we understand better what’s going on with ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that. At best, our ruminations eventually move to the territory of our story. We start to write what’s going on there, what’s frustrating us, what the roadblocks are.

I do all this in my Ideas document for every book I write. Ideas is where I go to get unstuck (and it’s also where I try out new ideas and even write parts I’m uncertain about). Sometimes I say I’m going to write for twenty minutes without stopping about what’s going on in my story and how and why it’s giving me trouble.

Everything is up for grabs when we’re stuck. For example, Writing Ballerina writes that she knows where she wants her story to go. Well, in Ideas, I might question even that. I’d wonder if my story, without letting me know, has decided it wants a different ending, and maybe that’s what’s holding me up. Then I’d think about why it may have made that decision and what the new ending might be.

Of course I lean on lists when I’m stuck, and when I am, it’s especially important to remind myself that nothing on a list is stupid. I can include an ending in which all my characters turn into caterpillars, if that occurs to me. That kind of freedom is, well, freeing. I feel as if my skull is actually cracking open–in a good way. Stupid-is-okay is un-glue when we’re stuck.

Now for plotting.

The dynamic at the heart of our story is our MC and her struggle. What does she want? Or what is the dilemma she’s in that she has to get out of?

If we know what that is, we can look at our ending and see if it reflects her success (or failure, if we’re writing a tragedy). We can make sure that our ending is about her and not a more general resolution. If it is about her, we think about how to make achieving the end hard for her. How can we use our characters, her own inner demons, and our world to create scenes in which she fails and tries again? (If this will be a tragedy, the trajectory will be different, because, usually, we want her to get closer and closer to success, until, finally, boom! everything falls apart.) In our plotting we can think about using each one (other characters, her own flaws, and the setting) to make trouble for her. Meanwhile, we keep an eye on the ending, and see which failure can be decisive to bring her to success and our ending.

If our ending doesn’t reflect what our character wants or needs, we can rethink one or the other. Maybe we have to tweak our ending to bring our MC into it more so that the general success is her success. Or, we may have to think about her and what she wants and make that line up more with the direction of the story.

Using our Ideas document, we might lay out a timeline for our story. How much time passes between the beginning we have and the ending we imagine? What scenes do we absolutely want? We can write those scenes out of order, just because we know we want them and they’re bits we can hang onto and actually write during our stuck period.

Once they’re written, we can think about scenes that might go before the new ones and come after them, like writing a story as a series of dots along a line. We have a line that starts with our beginning and terminates, you guessed it, at the end. We don’t have to fill in every–or any–dot in order. This is a pantsing method that gets us where we want to go.

Here’s another technique. We have a beginning and an MC who wants something or is in trouble. (If the MC’s problem isn’t set up, try some of my ideas above). Then we’re stuck until the end. So we go to our beginning and ask, What if? We list the possible things that could happen next and choose the one that interests us the most. We write that scene and repeat. Repeat. Repeat. We’re guided through our What if?s and the resulting lists by two considerations: our MC’s problem and the ending we’re aiming for. We’re asking ourselves along the way, Will this What if? idea get us closer or farther from solving our MC’s issue? If the answer–closer or farther–is yes, that’s good, because we’re either creating crises that are connected to our central issue or resolving them. If the answer is that it doesn’t get us either closer or farther, we should rethink the What If idea, because it may lead us into a cul-de-sac.

Here are three prompts:

• Remember the fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare? I like it because if a movie studio picked it up I’d be a good choice to play the tortoise. But it’s a dull story. The tortoise just puts one horned foot in front of the other. The reader knows the beginning, the middle (which can be summed up in a short sentence), and the end. Where’s the drama? Who are these characters, besides being steady or flighty? How much do they care about the race? Is there a prize? Do they like or hate each other? Take the fable and turn it into a real story. Your characters can be the actual animals or people or any kind of creature.

• “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is unsatisfying, too. She just wanders into the bears’ cottage and, after behaving badly and being discovered, she runs out. What are the consequences for the bears, for Goldilocks? Do they ever have a relationship? Maybe she wasn’t polite, but the bears don’t show much compassion, either. They don’t ask if she was starving, if she’s homeless, what’s going on in her family. Make it a story. Decide on an MC and what his or her or their problem is. Imagine an ending. Write it all.

• Off topic, but make up a noun that means the opposite of glue. Unglue is a word, but only as a verb. There should be a noun! Please post your nominations. I’m curious. Maybe there’s a word in another language, which you know. If we all use one that you provide, we can introduce it into English.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Inspiration deprivation

On February 29, 2012, Maddi wrote, I’m having some trouble getting “inspired.” I have my plot worked out, I’m just having problems with the in-between stuff like character development and other small events. I’m not even sure if I can make it into a good quality piece of writing. I’ve been turning to Legend of Zelda fanfiction. It works, but I want to produce something that is my own idea. Lately my spelling has been really off, even though I’m a pretty good speller. Any ideas?


Then this week TsuneEmbers wrote, I’ve been having way too much trouble w/ my own writing lately, as in it won’t come out and actually get anywhere. This makes me sad since I love writing stuff. I think I kinda lost my drive there, when I realized that one of my ideas was way too complicated, and not working at all. =/ I tried simplifying it out to a more workable form, but it still doesn’t actually feel like it can work yet.


I am toying with another idea of mine though, but of course, my usual plotting problems bit that one, so I’m currently stuck with not writing anything. I have a few major characters in my head already, and a vague idea of what I want to happen to them, but that’s about it. The vague idea could be considered a plot in a sense, I guess, but it doesn’t give me any idea over where to actually start the story. Not to mention that the word plot tends to make me scared every time someone mentions it, because I’m really more of a character person, and I don’t get this plotting thing as well.


Any advice? This whole thing has just been frustrating me here for a while now.

Creative work, writing in particular, is peculiar. We writers love to write. We feel complete when we’re doing it. And sometimes – sometimes often – many of us, including me, hate it. At these times I’d rather go to the dentist than write.

I feel most understood in the company of other writers, because almost all of us struggle with the same demon. An enviable few relax into writing. If you’re among them, count yourself lucky.

I have a theory about why writing, or any creative expression, is so hard. When we create we confront ourselves but not directly. If the confrontation were direct, we’d have an easier time. After all, we do difficult things all the time, take on new challenges, carry out unpleasant chores, speak hard truths. But when it comes to fiction, we’re confronting ourselves indirectly. We’re making something out of nothing, and what if we come up empty? What if we disappoint ourselves?

It’s scary. I wrote about this in Writing Magic, that when I’m writing a first draft and inventing my story I feel as if I’m locked in an iron cell without doors or windows or furniture. After a while a little moisture condenses on a wall, which I scrape off, and that’s an idea. I use it and wait for more condensation, the next idea.

How pleasurable can it be to inhabit a cell like that, to have to depend on our mind to come up with the moment-by-moment of a story but not to be able to force it to produce? No wonder we get frustrated. No wonder we occasionally despair.

The solutions the writers I know employ are mechanical. Some write at a certain time. The hour arrives, they sit at their desks and hope that routine will prime the muse’s pump. Some free write before they enter the “real” manuscript. Some edit the work of the previous day before they pen or type a new word. Some start before coffee, some only after their blood is fifty percent caffeine; some eat their way through an entire book (carrots and celery, to be sure).

My method is to keep track on paper of the time I spend writing. My goal is at least two-and-a-quarter hours of writing a day, so I write down my start times and stop times. I may write for twenty-three minutes and stop to answer the phone. Before I pick up the receiver, I note the time.

Often I do reread a little of my work from the day before but generally not much. And I don’t do the free writing or eating, and I’m not a coffee drinker. But I do rely on notes. When I can write nothing else I can write notes, which are sometimes unappealingly full of self pity. The nice thing about them, though, is that they don’t have to be carefully crafted. There’s no threat, no disappointment in notes.

My other assist is the knowledge that I’m a writer. Writing is my obligation, my duty, and I’m dutiful (my curse, just like Ella’s!). I’m not talking now about earning my living, because I felt this way during the nine years it took me to get published.

The point is that mechanics, not inspiration, helps us soldier on, and the soldiering on eventually earns us inspiration. Habit – I can’t emphasize this enough – keeps us going. Those of you who participate in NaNoWriMo may understand. For the month of November, writing is your job, and you do it no matter what – whether or not you make your word count at the end.

Forgiveness also helps. Sometimes I don’t make my time goal, and I forgive myself, because heaping coals on my head does no good. The coals burn! And they make getting started the next day even harder.

I don’t mean it’s all joyless. In the writing, in getting something right, in surprising myself, there’s sharp pleasure, which, underneath everything, keeps us going.

Please notice I haven’t said a word about quality. We talk about craft constantly here, but the global term, good, rarely comes up. I try to keep that word and it’s opposite, bad, out of my thinking. In my stories I work at characters, dialogue, action, setting, expression, all that, but I avoid as much as I can asking if what I’m doing is good or bad. Leave that to the critics.

So my advice is:

1. Establish writing habits, whatever they are, a particular time to write, a number of pages that have to be written, a time goal. If you choose my method, the time goal, write it down as you go. Don’t let it be vague.

2. Know that you are a writer and your obligation, possibly your calling, is to write. Writing is your fallback position.

3. Forgive yourself if (probably when) you fall short.

4. As much as you can, avoid judging your work. When you find yourself doing it, shift your thoughts elsewhere. Remind yourself that you’re really good at setting the table or walking quickly, and confine your judging to that.

Maybe I went into a rant here, and there are specifics in both Maddi’s and TsuneEmbers’s questions that I didn’t address, so I’ll continue next week. In the meanwhile, here are some prompts, which come from the summer writing workshop, which Agnes from the blog has been attending:

∙ Hope is the daughter, or Harold is the son, of the king’s highest advisor in the Kingdom of Kestor. She (or he) has been warned that there is a traitor who is plotting against the throne. She’s been invited to tea at the palace of the king’s youngest brother. She has reason to suspect that one of the other guests is the traitor. Write the tea and make the reader suspect several guests by showing them through Hope’s or Harold’s eyes.

∙ Now write the tea from the point of view of the character who is actually the traitor.

∙ Now make the traitor a good character.

∙ Use all of this in a story or a novel or a seven-book series.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Character block

On December 30, 2011, Tisserande d’encre wrote, I’ve been having a problem with my MC. Some time ago I discovered I didn’t know my character at all. We have tried reactions to problems, thoughts and things she likes, but I still can’t discover her personality! Because of this, I’m unable to say how  she will react to the situation or how she relates with other people. Nothing comes up to my mind. The first pages were easy to write because I knew her feelings, and ten pages ago I still did. But now she has closed to me. How can you get free from character’s block? I still have a plot, but it feels like I’m having the script in my hands and an uncooperative cast! I thought I knew her, but now it seems I don’t. And that doesn’t thicken the plot, it thickens my worries… Any advice, word, help on this?

Character block! A wonderful expression!

These two terrific responses came in to the blog at the time. This one was from Julia:

Sometimes when I don’t really know a character’s personality very well, I take this personality test (http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp) and answer the questions the way I imagine my character would answer them. At the end of the test, it links you to a detailed description of the character’s personality. I’ve found the results to be amazingly accurate. I hope this helps!
And this from writeforfun:

I have two suggestions that worked pretty well for me when I’ve had that problem before. In one version, I knew the personality at first, but it sort of slipped away as I wrote. So, I read from the beginning to the point that I thought I knew her best, and I tried to get a fuller picture of her at that point, and then I did a little writing exercise with her that was completely different from my story, so that I could see what she was like in a different environment. The other time, I didn’t know my character in the first place, so I decided to pick a stereotype and use that as the personality. The stereotype can be whatever you’re familiar with; I chose a dog. You may laugh, but I made the particular character friendly, optimistic, easily distracted, energetic and forgetful. It worked great, because I love dogs, so whenever I thought “what would he do?” I could think, “What would my dog do if he were human and in this position?”

You can also ask your character directly, in writing, of course, what’s going on. You can say, Bonnie, speak to me. Why are you holding back? What do you think of the story I’ve set out? What are your feelings? And give her time and space to answer.

Another possibility may be to bring in a secondary character to move things along. *SPOILER ALERT* In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, the high-handed Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth, and one consequences of this visit is that Darcy declares himself. In an ancient movie version that I despise, she’s a deus ex machina, but in the book, her effect is believable, subtle, and character-driven.

What pushes a character or anyone to action? Often an intolerable condition, which can be serious or not. We write letters to the editor usually when we’re annoyed. Your secondary character, rather than offering pep talks, can so offend your MC that she flies into high gear.

Or, dropping the secondary character, the intolerable condition can be the driving force of the story. Tisserande d’encre, you may not have hit on the problem that will energize your MC, and you may want to think about what that might be. In my The Two Princesses of Bamarre the intolerable condition is the illness of Addie’s sister Meryl, which so motivates Addie that she sets off to find a cure despite her near crippling timidity and shyness. The intolerable condition doesn’t have to be as big as an alien invasion or a kidnaping. It can be a little thing. Bonnie’s Uncle Steve can call her younger brother Lenny “unpromising,” which can set her off on a campaign to prove him wrong.

In Ella Enchanted, the intolerable condition is internal: Ella’s curse of obedience. When Ella tries to persuade Lucinda to rescind the curse she’s treating it as external, which doesn’t work because the problem is inside her.  In Fairest, it’s Aza’s appearance and her own self-consciousness, which is borderline inside/outside. In your story it could be a character trait. Bonnie may be a perfectionist; anything below her standards is a goad to action. Or she may have a super-hero complex; if there’s a wrong, she has to set it right.

As a plot-driven writer, I look for characters who by nature will go in the direction of my story. For example, in The Princess Test, my take on “The Princess on the Pea,” I had to come up with a character who had a shot at a lousy night’s sleep in the lap of luxury, so Lorelei is hyper-allergic and super-finicky. This isn’t very restrictive. She can be overly sensitive and mean or overly sensitive and kind, and smart or stupid and humorless or funny and anything else. She can be as complex as anyone else who has allergies.

Tisserande d’encre, you started with an MC who was defined in your mind. She and the plot meshed at the beginning but then it all blew up. So take a look at your plot. Did it develop in a way that moved away from her inclinations? Maybe you need to redefine her so she can continue to act in your story. Or maybe you should redirect the plot to satisfy her needs that you’ve already established. You may have a character-plot logjam rather than a single character block, and you may have to shift back and forth between the two to bust it open.

You may question if your plot is unified. Is there an intolerable condition that runs through the whole? If it bumps from incident to incident, Bonnie may react to one and be indifferent to another.

Writing isn’t efficient, at least for me it isn’t. You can try a scene one way and then another. Bring in a new character, Charlie, and see what happens. Have Charlie provoke Bonnie. Or make him so appealing that she wants him to think well of her.

Try changing the setting. She may be activated by unfamiliarity, or you may be.

Here are three prompts:

•    Bonnie is depressed. Action seems hopeless. Nothing will do any good. Her alarmed parents start making her wishes come true in order to cheer her up, with results that are temporary at best. Give her an intolerable condition that activates her. Write the story. At the end she can be depressed again, or not.

•    Allie’s father is arrested for shoddy building practices. People have died at his construction sites. Angry citizens are picketing the house. No one can leave without being hounded by the press. Bonnie wants to live her life, go to the local swimming pool, take in a movie, walk the dog, visit her dad in jail. She has a mother, Mrs. Miscreant, and her brother Lenny. Give her an objective and write her story.

•    Bonnie wins the lottery and the prize is in the millions. She is a do-gooder. Get her in trouble with her new life as a helper of others.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Playing with Blocks

After the post two weeks ago, Debz asked about writer’s block and ways to overcome it. Also, a friend has asked about self-loathing in connection with writer’s block.

Self-loathing first, I always say.

Several months ago I applied for admission to an advanced poetry workshop and sent along six of my poems that I like a lot. I was rejected. The professor takes only ten students. The woman who gave me the bad news said that sixty people had applied, which wasn’t much comfort. Six million applicants would have been comfort, a little.

The rational one percent of my brain told me that this teacher wasn’t right for me, that the rejection was fortunate because I shouldn’t study with someone who didn’t appreciate my work. The rest of me felt bad, and all of me didn’t write a single poem for a month, although I had one bubbling up in me. I certainly wasn’t punishing the teacher, who didn’t care if I never wrote my kind of poems ever again. I was punishing myself for not being good enough. That’s a dose of self-loathing.

Yesterday I wrote a poem, and not a revenge poem either. I’m past the self-loathing for now, although I have set aside a dab of other-loathing for the teacher who rejected me.

Time helped me get past the self-loathing, and understanding what I was doing to myself also helped. Anyway, self-loathing, in my opinion is one of the hardest feelings to bear, much worse than clean, blistering anger. Understanding why I’m mad at myself is usually the cure, but sometimes I just have to tough it out and wait for the spell to pass, which so far it always has.

I have never gotten the kind of writer’s block where I can’t write a word – hope I never do – but I can get stuck in a story and not know where to go next. This can happen when I can’t tell the story I want to tell. For example, in Fairest I wanted a lot of the story to be about the insecure queen, Ivi, and the ways the evil creature in the mirror uses her insecurity to manipulate her. I wanted to show evil at its evilest, at its most insinuating. This Ivi-mirror element made it into the book, but very thinly, nothing like what I had in mind. I couldn’t tell that plot thread fully. Maybe someday I’ll be able to, but probably at that point I’ll be trying to write about something else. I’ve said this before, that ideas are different than words on paper. The story that is possible for me to tell may be very different from the one I want to tell.

The same thing happened with The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I was trying to tell the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but I couldn’t figure it out, and I was stuck and blocked, and it took a long, slow time with lots and lots of notes for me to find the story I could tell.

Writer’s block is like insomnia. It’s your brain that won’t let you write, obviously, and it’s your brain that won’t let you sleep. In insomnia, you’re tired, but your brain refuses to relax. The brain gets just as tense and uncooperative in writer’s block.

I read a great and helpful book about insomnia, not that I have a problem, called The Insomnia Answer by Dr. Paul Glovinsky and Dr. Arthur Spielman. It’s a reassuring book. The good docs take the pressure off, and some of what they say applies to writer’s block, among other things, that a missed night’s sleep is not a tragedy. A day without progress in a story is no tragedy either. Hey, I may have a great writing day and then wind up cutting everything I wrote. I feel better than on a blocked day, but the result is the same.

They advise the frustrated sleeper not to stay in bed indefinitely, but to get up for a while and do something boring, something that won’t be fascinating enough to prevent a return to bed after a while. We frustrated writers need to put in time at our desks, but eventually we need a break too, and a boring break may be just the thing to allow a good idea to surface. Take a walk or a bubble bath, chop vegetables, play solitaire (mystery writer Lawrence Block’s remedy), and let your mind swing free.

The brilliant doctors write about the sleep drive, which will eventually get an insomniac sleeping. There is a writing drive, too, which will at long last overcome the barriers our silly brains throw up. This writing drive is our most important ally. I may sound New Age-ish here, because trust is involved, and mistrust is the enemy. If you are convinced that the block will never crumble, it still will, but it will linger longer than if you know that it is doomed. You gain trust by experience, and maybe, I hope, by trusting me. Take my word for it: Writer’s block will pass.

While you’re in the midst of it, however, be kind to yourself, as if you were a child down with a fever. Don’t yell at yourself. Don’t reduce yourself to tears. Don’t even think the word bootstraps or failure, unless you are taking pleasure in your wallowing. The point is, even in writer’s block, have as much fun as you can.