Monday, November 23, 2015

Hitting the Wall

What happens when your manuscript, which has been moving along smoothly, beautifully, without a hitch, suddenly slams into a block of granite a mile high and a mile wide and takes you and its characters right along with it? How do you (and they) recover from your resulting and very nasty injuries, let alone find ways to get back on track?
Granted, this isn't a brick wall, but you still wouldn't want to run into full tilt.
Why, that would be ... unbearable.
Okay, I'll go away now.

Any author worth his or her pile of discarded ideas will admit this happens to them at one time or another--and more likely, on a regular basis. There's just something about a book-in-progress that begs to be flattened against something unmoving and uncaring. I'm not talking about writer's block, a malady some authors suffer that also stops them cold. I'm talking about a book, not a mind, that comes to a screeching halt when just hours before it was racing toward its conclusion, or second or third act, or ending, or heck, its dedication. The point is, it had a vision and was heading toward completion of it, but then that vision either disappeared or petered out or just lost interest in itself.

That happened to me with my latest book and it took me ... gulp, years to recover. Yes, years. Oh, it's not that I didn't write a word on it all that time; that was the problem. I worked on it day after day after day and made no progress whatsoever. Yes, I made my word count, I developed the storyline, fleshed out my characters, basically did everything correctly. I should have been tickled pink with my progress.

But I wasn't. Deep down inside, I knew it wasn't the book it could be. And because it wasn't what it could be, should be, it might as well have been nothing. Scrap paper. Liner for the kitty litter box.

It took a while and a whole lot of rewriting and sweating and praying and no doubt subconscious thought, but it finally became what I knew it was destined to be. You can feel it when you find that sweet spot, just as a football player knows when he's flung (or tossed or whatever they do with the ball) perfectly and it's going where it needs to go. Just as no one knows your book better than you, no one knows how it's supposed to begin, proceed, and eventually end better than you.

What can you do when you hit that wall? First of all, know that your injuries aren't life-threatening to you or your book. We've all been through it. They're a minor, albeit very annoying setback, but nothing more. You're still a writer, and you're still good at what you do. That said, I'm not sure what will work for you, but here are some suggestions:

1.  You can do what I did and simply wait it out. Keep working on your manuscript, toiling over it, and chipping away at that granite wall you and your book are wedged against. Sooner or later, you'll break through. If you're on a deadline, you might want to look at #2. But remember, there's nothing like the cold eyes of a deadline staring you in the face to make your creativity burst forth. Creating as a defense tactic is quite effective. That alone might help you bust through to the other side.

2.)  You can do one or more of a myriad of writing exercises to jumpstart your creative juices. I think we're often just mentally exhausted and our neurons are tired of travelling the same pathways. Give them someplace to go, to explore, and eventually they'll be ready to return to the path you want them to traverse.

I like to choose a person at random at the mall, a restaurant, church, or parking lot, and develop a dialogue between them and their spouse when they return home that night. Is it loving? Antagonistic? Did one of them overdraw the checking account--again? Did he/she lose their job, get a raise or promotion? Are the kids moving out/graduating from high school/in jail/having a baby/giving them fits/joining the National Honor Society/Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines/running for president? Are they going out for dinner and a movie? Excited to see one another? Bored? Livid? You get the picture.

If dialogue isn't your cup of tea at the moment, try describing what you see out your office or car window, then close your eyes and describe only the sounds or smells you detect. Imagine you're stroking the hide of an elephant. Describe how that might feel. Switch to a lion's head (or a baby's or your dog or the petals of that mum plant on the front porch). Use the senses we take for granted because we're so accustomed to using them. One of my favorite exercises is to describe how that first cup of coffee in the morning tastes, smells, feels going down. Describe that sugary doughnut ... whoops, I mean that half-cup of plain oatmeal or grits. We have so many wonderful sensory experiences each day; I think we forget to dip into that vast pool of experience when we need to the very most. These examples aren't mind-boggling or particularly creative, but they do the trick for me. No doubt you can come up with something that works for you.

3.  Lastly, try putting the manuscript away for two, three, six weeks--whatever it takes to make you yearn to get back to it. Yes, absence  makes the heart grow fonder, but purposely keeping creativity from bursting forth drives it nuts. It hates to be penned in just as your heart detests being kept apart from who or what it loves.

Eventually, your book will be the book you want it to be, the book it should be. Then, and only then, will you feel good about releasing it to the world. It's rough out there and none of us want to shove our babies out into the cold, cruel world until he/she/it is completely ready.

And that granite wall behind you? Use the weapons you used against it the next time when you run into its brother.

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