Wrecking Ball For Brick Walls
Last week we concocted a list of 10 questions to answer after you've hit a brick wall and can't finish a manuscript.
Here are the prior 2 parts in this series on the classic brick wall problem:
The main question in this series is in the title -- "When should you give up on a manuscript?"
The answer, last week, was never.
As we'll see, that isn't always exactly accurate - at least not the way a beginning writer looks at the process of "having an idea" and then "writing the story." Professional writers live in a different world.
"Having an idea" and "writing the story" are two separate processes. The Brick Wall that you hit in the midst of writing the story originates in the "having an idea" process, but the solution has to be applied in the "writing the story" process. So in this analysis we are "working both ends toward the middle" of the problem.
The problem is that you have a contract to deliver a story on a certain date. But as you blast out the words at your highest typing speed, sure you know exactly what this story must be, suddenly there are no more words.
You just can't go on.
That's the brick wall. The "excuses" your subconscious throws at you for your particular brick wall in this particular manuscript will vary from project to project and epoch to epoch in your career.
You may be bored with the characters (that's fixable).
You may simply not know what happens next (that's fixable).
You may have had ANOTHER IDEA that's ever so much more entertaining to write and you just don't want to write the sold story. You just would rather write the sizzling hot new story. Your subconscious is in avoidance mode and wants to distract you. (that is fixable)
You may have "written yourself into a corner" -- the plot doesn't go anywhere -- (that's fixable.)
Those are all mechanical fixes, pure craft. It's teachable. It's learnable. We're going to talk about how to learn it.
There's another sort of brick wall the fix for which is not craft.
That's the psychological one, that can take 20 years to overcome.
That's a matter of the material you are dealing with. For example, if you sell a story set during a divorce, and you planned to walk your main characters through the angst and tearing anguish of that situation, then suddenly find yourself or something close to you (such as maybe your sister) going through a divorce, you are just not likely to finish your story any time soon.
There is such a thing as being too emotionally "close" (in time) to the material you are writing. It can be too personal, with too much unresolved internal angst, to make a good novel (yet).
You "should" not "give up" on such a manuscript, nor should you table it or set it aside, because that's just rewarding your subconscious for presenting the Idea prematurely.
You set it on your desk (or computer desktop) and you just leave it sit there where you must stare at it any time you are not actively doing anything. You carry it as a monthly reminder on your google calendar. You put a post-it note on your bathroom mirror about it. You pick it up and rewrite it at least once a year, or every time there's a lull between book contracts. It's important to do that kind of tweaking and twiddling, or writing scenes about those characters. Don't reward your subconscious for refusing to resolve this emotional issue, but don't under-rate the potentency of that issue or the legitimacy of the pain that's causing your subconscious to balk.
When a dog has been traumatized, it takes a lot of petting and tiny incremental exposures to similar experiences to overcome that wild aversion. A subconscious responds to similar kinds of approaches. Don't be mad at yourself; be kind to yourself while applying firm self-discipline.
Self-discipline is not a subject much discussed or taught about in school. Read up on it, study it, apply it, practice exercises, then apply that process to the brick wall in that novel that's just too emotionally fraught.
Of course, there is the instance of selling a story idea, then having the core issue of that novel rise up in your life and rip you apart inside.
In that case, you have to shelve the manuscript and find something else to write about.
But that's "shelve" not "toss." One day (20 to 30 years is not unusual for such an instance) it will very possibly be your Masterpiece simply because it's so potent and so personal.
During that 20 years, you must continue to acquire writing craft skills while at the same time working on your personal psychology.
In the meantime, if you have a contract that you can't fill because of a personal issue arising, call your editor and brainstorm another novel she would accept in fulfillment of that contract. DO NOT DELAY MAKING THAT CALL. Business is business.
So, given that your current Brick Wall is not one of those circumstantial ones that will likely require years or maybe decades to demolish, what is your next step?
All the fixable brick walls noted above can be demolished with the wrecking ball we started building last week in Part 2, with the list of 10 Questions.
1) Is this story idea salvagable?
a)if not, what do I do? (shelving the MS is not an option)
b) if it is, what do I do?
2) Why did I want to write this story?
3) What does this story have to say and to whom (to what market?)
4) Why did I start writing at the point in the life-story of this couple that I did? Why didn't I have (or stick to) a firm road-map from beginning to end with a dynamite MIDDLE SCENE to pivot around?
5) Why did I choose this Opening? This first scene? This first paragraph?
6) What Ending did I plan to use?
7) Why is that Ending unreachable from this Beginning?
8) Which is more important to the FUN my readers want, the ENDING or the BEGINNING -- or maybe the MIDDLE?
9) If the MIDDLE event is the most fun in the story, why don't I make that the ENDING?
10) If the BEGINNING is the most fun, why isn't that the ending? (meaning, back up the timeline of these characters' lives to the point where their story really starts)
Do you see the system here? Question decisions that you made consciously, then question the decisions you made subconsciously.
So step 1 in creating a wrecking ball is to answer those questions, all of them, in writing, articulating the answers by pretending you are talking to someone who understands what you're doing -- maybe an editor, beta reader, fellow writer.
BTW this brick wall problem is what all those thank-yous in the acknowledgements of a novel are all about - sometimes it's the person the novel is dedicated to who provided the wrecking ball. Often, it's the beta readers or writing group supporters who prevent the writer from creating a brick wall in the first place -- and sometimes they prevent the writer from smashing head first into their brick wall and wasting time being stunned.
Brainstorming, emotional support while the writer stalks about the house and snarls at the dog, tickets to the ballet, running commentary during reruns of favorite TV shows, maybe even a "table reading" of the dialogue by a writer's group, are all contributions acknowledged without being detailed or named. Effective techniques vary, but the point is to TALK (out loud) and detail the answers to those questions (and maybe others these key questions suggest).
Some writers prefer to just mutter to themselves, and sometimes your problem in life is that you have no friends who understand you or who have time for your frustrations.
Being cut-off like that from people who understand you is common among writers hailed as "Great."
Very often, friends just want to write their own stories, superimposing them upon what you've written, so their suggestions veer your manuscript in an unacceptable direction.
Most of the time, it's a waste to try to write someone else's story into your story -- but listening to what they WANT TO READ can give you the essential clue to finding the answers to those 10 questions and the market you really want to write for.
On the third hand, by writing someone else's story as a brick-wall-demolishen exercise, you might discover that you're not a writer but a ghost-writer. There's more money to be made as a ghost writer, so don't knock it.
See the series on Editing, Part 7, for how to decide if you're not a writer but an editor at heart.
Writing stories, though, may be where life is for you. In that case, be prepared for a life of learning something every day, fighting through the acquisition of new skills, staying on the cutting edge of technology, and reaching for the depths of human psychology - the brightest and darkest places in creation.
If that's who you really are, then swinging your new wrecking ball at your personal brick wall will not be back breaking. You will have the strength to BREAK YOUR STORY, to SHATTER YOUR PLOT, to divide your characters or combine them, to restructure the inside of your imagination until it produces material that is comprehensible (and entertaining) to others.
If the story idea itself is salvagable, go to question 2.
If the story idea is not salvagable, pull the plot and the story apart, find the binding theme, analyze it, check each subsequent scene for any deviation from that theme, and delete any material that belongs to, or is generated by, another theme. (save that material; it's a different book).
Then take what's left, write the theme on a note somewhere you can't avoid seeing it while you work, and REWRITE each scene to illustrate that master theme. Just do it. Nevermind if the result will be publishable.
You are not writing a novel here -- you are training your subconscious not to produce unusable material. This is part of that self-discipline process I mentioned above.
During this rewrite, you will very likely stumble upon THE "fix" and realize how to salvage this manuscript. It may actually turn out better than anything you've ever written. So it's worth doing this exercise.
After decades of teaching writing, I have found that these fixable mid-point brick walls are caused by errors on page 1, usually paragraph 1, certainly by the end of Chapter 1.
The beginning is where you have to stand to swing your wrecking ball (composed of the answers to those 10 questions).
The following presupposes you've been reading this blog for a while and understand the nature of THEME -- brick walls generally happen because of errors in THEME STRUCTURE (because that's where the emotional punch of a story resides.)
If you have missed most of this discussion, please read the following post and follow the links in it to Index Posts, read all those entries and follow the links inside them. You will see how it all fits together.
They key bit of information to apply to the brick wall wrecking process is the answer to Question 2 -- why do you want to write this book?
The answer to that question is your THEME for this book.
It is also the reason why any reader would want to read this book.
It is what this book is about.
Veer from that one philosophical point and you lose your momentum in writing and drift off into side issues.
The THEME is what you started out to SAY -- it's what you have to say and the reason you want to write this story.
Lose that "want to write" and you hit the brick wall where there are no more words and nothing happens next.
Veer away from that theme, and you will get bored (so will your reader) with these characters and just not want to write this any more. Then some other bright idea will pop up that you'd rather write, and if you allow your subconscious to do that, then you will be creating a life littered with unfinished projects. Too much of that, and you will become depressed (probably not clinically depressed, just listless.) If you aren't clinically depressed, you can even come to hate yourself or look down on yourself for not finishing what you start. Obviously there's something wrong with you. NO THERE ISN'T.
There's nothing wrong with you. It's only a craft error on page 1. Big deal. Fix it.
Veer from that theme in any scene (do read that Review blog entry), concoct something fascinating or interesting that you just really want to throw into this story but that is not derived from that theme, then you will hit a brick wall of the "I don't know what happens next" type.
Nothing "happens next" in this plot because it's not connected to what happened before.
Remember how I harped and harped on the plot being the sequence of events on a BECAUSE LINE -- the story starts with this Event, and because of it, that happens, which causes this next Event because of which another Event happens.
BECAUSE LINE -- you fall off the because line when you lose sight of your theme.
The "because line" is your plot, and it has BRICK WALLS on either side of it. It is a channel, a tunnel, a sunken roadway between the beginning of the story and the end.
You fall off the because line because you veered from your theme, and that runs you into the brick walls on either side of the because line.
Same structural problem happens with story.
The story is the evolution of the character's outlook on life. The story is the emotional because line. The Events of the Plot impact the characters and cause them to CHANGE.
That's called character arc. We've discussed that at excruciating length and detail in these blogs.
If you've judged this brick-wall-work to be unsalvagable and you pull the story and the plot apart, you will find them glued together inside a CHARACTER. That's where the THEME resides, deep inside the main POV character's sense of right and wrong, idea of what constitutes success, and the difference between pain and pleasure.
If the work is unsalvagable, pull that character apart, analyze the THEME that is the "story of that character's life" -- and make TWO CHARACTERS out of the one character.
The brick wall will evaporate like it never existed and your subconscious will learn how to structure a story before presenting the Idea to you.
But to train your subconscious to do this, you must write that book (or books) generated by pulling the plot and the story apart.
One source of brick walls is having several competing (not incompatible, but competing for reader attention) themes mushed into one book.
Here are more links to craft techniques which, if an error in application occurred, result in hitting a brick wall. If you hit a brick wall, re-read these and do the work over again from scratch, training your subconscious to make writing easy.
The next craft technique to apply to "fix it" if you deem the work mostly salvagable is to look at what you've written, and do a scene-breakdown.
Make an OUTLINE of what you have written.
Maybe you want to make a printout and write on it, or do whatever method fits your kind of thinking.
But the result has to look something like this:
THEME: Honesty is the Best Policy
Mary meets Ed on a bridge over a river.
She's considering suicide because she just got fired (again). She spills her "I got fired" story out to him.
Ed needs (whatever Mary does) and hires her, believing her excuse.
Mary screws up on her new job -- big time and for same reasons she got fired so many times before.
Ed loses his job because of what Mary did, and so does Mary.
Ed, being an entreprenuer type, is not upset at being fired. He's planning to launch his own company, but he can't do it alone.
Mary tells Ed all her "I got fired" stories (that led to her contemplating suicide). But this is her point of view, making excuses to confronting reasons. It's always the employer's fault.
Ed is unhappy with Mary's lack of self-esteem (not with her getting fired). He investigates why she got fired, wondering if she's unemployable and if she was spouting excuses not reasons.
Mary makes Ed a connection with a source of funding for his new business launch -- or maybe a cheap but NICE store or office to rent. She provides something he needed but had no way to get, thus making Ed's not wanting to hire her for his new business seem churlish.
Ed discovers Mary's unemployability, and a psychological source for that, and confronts her, telling her how to fix her life but refusing to hire her until or unless she does.
Chap 7, BRICK WALL
QUESTION: Is it salvageable? Why do I want to write this? Whose story is this? What is the theme, really? Where did I make a mistake?
Note how I illustrated the bare-bones format to extract from what you've written after you've answered the 10 questions in that list. No locations, description, character sketches, -- no DETAILS.
Now, with that bare-bones outline in front of you, answer those 10 questions again.
Compare both sets of answers.
Do a new outline of what you have written, this time including not just what plot-points advance during a chapter -- as I illustrated -- but also a scene-by-scene breakdown within each chapter.
Include opening situtaion for each scene begins, and the situation is at the end of the scene, and what changed during that scene.
Once done, make a new FILE, give it a different title or draft number, and save the original version just in case. Go back over your new copy of the manuscript, and delete every scene that does not ADVANCE BOTH PLOT AND STORY by changing the Situation (where situation is a technical term).
Remember ACTION = CHANGE OF SITUATION.
Romance readers are particularly enchanted by ACTION (just not necssarily the fist-fight type).
Romance readers want to see the situation between the principle characters CHANGE in each and every scene (espcially the sex scenes).
You'll end up with a swiss cheese manuscript, but don't fret. The brick wall is GONE, and you don't even have to know what exactly caused it. Your subconscious knows, and has learned not to do that any more.
Take the scenes that are left, and test each one against the theme.
Delete any scene that does not explicate the theme.
Go to the beginning, the opening scene, write down what HAPPENS there.
Go to your original outline, and see what ENDING you planned. Check the MIDDLE in that outline.
Lay out those 3 story/plot pivot points next to the THEME.
Ask yourself again why you wanted to write this story.
Start with the first sentence, and SHOW (don't tell) the reader WHY THEY SHOULD READ THIS STORY.
The ending is where the conflict delineated in that first sentence, the conflict nascent inside the theme, is RESOLVED. At that point, you have delivered on your promise to the reader on page 1 about why they should read this story. That's the very last sentence.
Make sure the ending you are targeting is a resolution of the conflict begun on page 1, preferably in paragraph 1.
Remember paragraph 1 contains the entire novel -- but only symbolically. You will unfold those symbols until the 3/4 point where you will explicitly state the theme.
With the opening and the ending in mind, construct the middle.
If the opening is a high point (two lovers meeting for the first time), the ending (an HEA) is a high point, that means the MIDDLE is the lowest point, the point of utter loss, complete discouragement, total defeat. In other genres, the highs and lows come at different percentages of the manuscript.
In a 3-act structure, as preferred by Hollywood today, that DEFEAT point is the 2/3 point, the middle is the TURNING point or pivot where fate is sealed.
The typical novel is a 4-act piece. That's why the movie made from a book is never quite "right" in a satisfying way.
So, with a new beginning, middle, and end laid out under a sharpened thematic statement, you are ready to rewrite this thing, without a brick wall to stop you.
You may create a new detailed outline -- taking each of the scenes that is left, and filling in the gaps between where scenes had to be dropped.
Or you may go with a more sketchy outline because now you really know what you're doing.
In either case, write with an eye on that final scene where the conflict of Page 1 is resolved.
If you don't know what the ending is, you don't know what the beginning is. So expect to have to rewrite the beginning to fit the ending you actually write.
No two writers do this the same way. But the end result is always the same. The beginning, middle and end are a matched set -- Black Snyder calls these "beats."
If you get stuck again, go read SAVE THE CAT! (all 3 of them) by Black Snyder.