Part 1 Hitting a Brick Wall
So there you are staring at half a page of text and it's page 130 of your novel, but not one single WORD will appear in your mind or flow from your finger tips.
This is an occasion for sweating bullets if you have a DEADLINE looming, a check you cashed and spent, and a dire need for the on-delivery check.
Not only that, but your credibility as a writer depends on making this deadline -- you'll never get another contract if you don't deliver, and it had better be publishable material.
But every single suggestion that swirls through the edges of your mind is just crappy, cliche, artificial, hollow. The characters won't talk to you and the plot just won't MOVE.
If you write anything, it'll be a chronicle of a character going from one setting to another, arduously describing every stain on the public bus seats, every taxi that splashed by and left him standing, every red light, every drunk sleeping in a doorway. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
The character is bored and the plot is stuck.
The difference between an amateur and a professional is knowing what to do when this happens -- when, not if.
Here are some previous posts where such problems are mentioned in passing, though this collection is not specifically part of a series:
You may have mastered all the techniques, elements, craft skills, and tricks of the trade discussed in previous posts on this Tuesday blog series -- and that can make you into a writer (maybe a great writer). Your stories will be solidly crafted, and entertaining to your readers -- you might even be drawing hoards to your blog or selling a lot of copies on self-publishing platforms.
But that's not what it means to be a professional writer.
Being professional is not just a matter of getting money for what you do, but rather of doing what you do for the sake of getting money (not JUST money, but without getting money you won't do it at all.) That's the difference between a hobby and a profession. A hobby is what you do when you're not doing your profession. (for the astrologers, that's 10th House vs. 6th House -- getting the rulers of those two Houses into harmonious cooperation is a major trick in living an HEA ending.)
"Professional" anything means that's what you do for a living. It means if you don't do that, you'll die (literally.)
A profession isn't what you do when you feel like it or when you're inspired, and it may not be what you do best, but it is what you do, day in day out, slogging through the snow, faithfully delivering to your customers as promised, do-or-die and at high quality.
You do it not because it's what you want to do. You do it because if you don't, you can't buy food.
Desperation is what has produced the greatest novels of all time.
Go read some classics, then read the biographies of those writers. From bards slogging from village to village hoping for a free meal at the tavern to starving musicians and acting troups and writers looking for a Patron in the middle ages, to the "commercial artist" of today, what has sparked the production of Literature that lives through the generations is desperation for a meal.
In the last century, the entire business model of the writer has changed drastically.
Since "mass production" appeared, and the printing press was exploited (the Dime Novel -- look it up) to mass produce fiction, a new profession has evolved. Commercial Art.
"Commercial Art" is a contradiction in terms -- Art is personal, Commercial is impersonal.
Art is all about what makes you unique. Commercial is all about what makes you the same as others.
Putting these two together and trying to blend them is an ongoing experiment that may be about to fail or morph into something new.
Why is that? Because the Internet and electronic self-publishing allows for smaller readerships to make a project bring in a living wage.
We are very far from that point at this time, but it is definitely the direction things are going in.
Personalization, customization, -- watch the video game RPG market (yes, I'm in it). You have stories in which the "reader/viewer/player" creates their own character by assembling attributes from a set list -- and eventually technology will let players contribute attributes for others to use. That is already happening in some venues, and that is where the business model is churning.
So that point of utter desperation will rarely be reached by those specializing in the e-book and/or self-publishing market, and it will become even more rare as the writer's business model continues to evolve beyond "Commercial Art."
However, the trouble shooting process called for by either business model is the same, is easy to learn (if you've been reading this blog and doing the suggested exercises), and yields definitive results with very little effort.
When you hit that brick wall at the 1/4 or 2/3 point in a manuscript (or the half or 3/4 point, which is only a bit different), you have a series of decisions to make.
Regardless of your business model, that series is the same, and ought to be done in the same order. If you get the decisions right, you'll finish the manuscript and it will be a solid piece of fiction designed for your market.
Keep in mind that, no matter how depressed you are or how shattered you are by hitting that brick wall in a story you were so fired up about, the solution is routine, well known, and easy to do.
1) Was this story worth starting? Does it have a market? Was it worth all the work done so far?
2) Should I work on something else, and shelve this project indefinitely - or until inspiration strikes?
3) What would it take to fix this story? How much time do I have to fix it, and can the specific fix needed be done within that time limit?
4) Should I junk this into the shredder, delete all files, and just start from scratch to fulfill the contract? (is that even possible, given the time limit?)
5) Is what I'm being paid for this worth the time/effort/angst necessary to turn out a finished product?
6) If I just scrap my original vision and craft this manuscript into something publishable that will fulfill the contract, will the result be "good enough" to put my primary byline on it? Will the editor who paid my advance accept this with a different byline? (contracts usually specify byline, and if a byline has a track record, they won't allow a change.)
7) If I scrap my original vision and just fill the contract competently, can I then use the scraps to create something that would showcase that original vision?
Note that these questions are somewhat like a game of chess (or a war campaign) -- they focus more on the future, on the next 4 moves, than on the present problem.
The Beginner's Defeat usually starts with an inability to foresee a future for the project in question.
The focus has to become (and this is an emotional turnabout when you're stunned by hitting a brick wall at full speed) -- "So Now What Do I Do?"
So let's start with the assumption that 1) has been answered with "Oh, just wait until they all read this! It'll be so good!" -- so yes, the project is worthwhile, but it's just that you can't do it right now.
So then what?
#2 indicates that the choice is to leave this project aside and work on something else, OR to just sit there staring at a blank page.
That's not the choice, but it's always what the subconscious produces when it's stunned by that impact into the classic brick wall.
Framing a question incorrectly invariably leads to ineffectual swipes at non-existent solutions.
So let's examine what's wrong with 2) -- Should I work on something else and wait for inspiration on this?
Well, the first error in that question is that it's way premature in the process to resort to such drastic measures.
It skips steps.
Beginners often do that, no matter what craft or skill they are beginning to learn.
The #2 question should be something more along the lines of, "What will I be teaching my subconscious if I shelve this project at this point simply because I hit a brick wall?"
And the obvious answer is that you will be teaching your subconscious to formulate and present you with IDEAS that have an inherent design flaw such that you will keep running into brick walls, no matter how marketable the basic concept might be.
As I've pointed out any number of times in these Tuesday blogs, writing is a performing art -- like dancing or playing the piano or driving a car. You don't LEARN IT -- you TRAIN TO DO IT.
If you quit on a project just because you ran into a brick wall (or over a cliff, which is a different sort of problem), you are training your subconscious to take the easy way out and ignore everything you've been training it to do.
In a gym, we know "No Pain: No Gain." The same is true for writing -- it's training, muscles, sinews, flexibility, speed, endurance, all the athletic parameters have an equivalent in writing.
So when your characters punch you in the nose and take off for the hills, what do you do?
You train harder.
You take the pain and make the gain.
What pain is it that you are avoiding by wanting to shelve the project?
It's (not always, but often) the pain of facing facts.
The part of you that refuses the pain of facing reality is your subconscious -- which is the part that does all the heavy lifting in fiction-writing.
So the objective of this exercise (picking yourself up and surmounting the brick wall) is to train your subconscious not to produce structures with brick walls in the middle.
You teach it, "You don't like brick walls? OK, don't make any."
How do you do that?
Well, remember when you were learning spelling? To learn to spell a word, you write it -- over and over and over. If you make a mistake, you write it a hundred times, preferably on a board in front of the class, and believe me you will never make that mistake again!
That same process is how you train --- not learn -- to do anything. Repetition, and some kind of incentive like public embarrassment. Whatever works for you - no two people are exactly alike.
But whatever process you use, to be successful, it will have the same attributes that all successful training has.
1) STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING -- a dance instructor calls STOP.
2) CHANGE POSITION -- a dance instructor takes her cane and pushes your leg higher, scolds when you fall over.
3) DO IT AGAIN -- and do it right this time
4) DO IT -- DO IT -- DO IT -- over and over with the correction integrated, until you do it smoothly.
So applying this to the writing process, what do you do when you hit a brick wall?
1) STOP WRITING -- just freeze in place. Leave your desk, and go stalk about the house screaming your head off (then pet the dog you upset).
Some writers just slam out of the house, jump in the car and go shopping.
Some go to a movie, then have chocolate ice cream.
Some go trap shooting. Or to the gym. Or sailing on a quiet lake. Or to a concert in the park. Or jacuzzi.
Whatever you choose, it's YOUR blow-off-steam activity.
2) In an hour or two, back at the desk, you CHANGE POSITION.
You slammed into the brick wall on page 133, so you go to another page.
#3 in this process is DO IT AGAIN -- so what the writer does is REWRITE.
But rewrite what into what and how and why?
After you figure that out, you go on to #4, and do it and do it and do it until you can do the moves smoothly. Practice is how you get to Carnegie Hall.
Note though that I used the dance instructor analogy.
You don't have a "writing instructor." A beta reader is not a writing instructor. An editor is not a writing instructor.
There are no writing instructors because no two writers are alike enough for the processes of one to work for another. No two people do this the same WAY.
But the end-product of professional writers is all uniform enough to fit into the delivery channels their marketers have designed.
So keep your eye on the end product you are aiming to produce, and let that end product be your "teacher."
The best way I know of to envision such a "teacher" or end product goal to shoot for is Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! trilogy of books on screenwriting. He has created a list of examples of big selling story forms -- not formula, but a creative understanding of what makes a certain kind of story "work" for large numbers of people.
So when you hit a brick wall, you STOP, (blow off steam), and come back to your TEACHER.
One useful way to do that is to find the story-type you are working on in Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES, go to the bottom of the page and read the list of movies that are prime examples of your type of novel -- then dig one up on Netflix or Amazon Prime or wherever, and watch it. Sometimes two or three times over -- taking notes.
Now go back to your desk and CHANGE POSITION -- as if your dance instructor had jabbed her cane into your knee to move it just so!
Go to PAGE 1 of your manuscript.
Check that page against all the elemental lists I've given you in these blogs and against the "beats" Snyder lists, and against your notes on the film you saw.
This works equally well with novels. If you hit that brick wall in your novel, go reread another one that is like yours, or from the same publisher and editor, or by a writer you want to emulate.
You may want to write a contrast/compare essay between your first page, and your model novel's first page -- or the first 5 pages of a screenplay.
The question -- the PAINFUL STRETCH of a question that your subconscious drove you into a brick wall instead of asking (because it's way too painful to ask it) is:
WHAT DID I DO WRONG?
If you shelve this project and go work on something else instead before you ask that question, you are training your subconscious to spur you into starting projects that can not be finished. You are training your subconscious to force you to fail at your profession.
If you shelve a project after you have asked this question, answered it several different ways, evaluated all those ways and chosen the best answer, then looked up HOW TO FIX WHAT YOU DID WRONG, and attempted to employ that fix (duck tape works sometimes), and found that the fix is beyond your abilities -- then you will not be training your subconscious to produce unfix-able projects strewn with brick walls.
It's that numbered process that does the trick here:
2) CHANGE POSITION (to correct one; it does no good to practice mistakes)
3) DO IT OVER (correctly)
4) DO IT AGAIN AND AGAIN (practice until it's a smooth performance).
So if you shelve a project that is irretrievably flawed, but instead of just going off to write something else on another whim, you rub your subconscious's nose in the mess it made and discipline it to FIX THE MESS one tiny, painful-boring, repetitive step at a time, you will be becoming a professional writer -- a writer who can write anything for any market at the wave of an advance payment.
In future installments in this WHEN SHOULD YOU GIVE UP ON A MANUSCRIPT series, we'll look at the individual trouble shooting steps for finding out what you did wrong, and either correcting it in this manuscript or creating another manuscript project specifically designed to acquire, polish or practice the precise skill set that caused the mistake.
Brick walls are caused by skills-failure.
Writing professionally is a skill that does not depend on inspiration, is not random, and does not leave the writer as a victim of subconscious vagaries.
It's harsh. Nobody wants to hear it. But it is true. I didn't make this up. I didn't discover it all by myself. I got it from the best in the field. They got it from their previous generations of writers.
If your skills fail you, you will not eat. Build strong skills that don't fail when your spirits flag, when "life" hits and knocks you over, when disaster threatens, and when the baby cries.
You can't learn this stuff. But you can train and train and train until your core skills are strong enough to keep you going no matter what. Best of all, you can train your subconscious (by making it do-over all the failures) not to produce brick walls.