All writers have been, or will be, there at some point: in front of a mental brick wall that keeps them from writing. They will pound it. They will wonder why they ever started writing in the first place. They will wonder if their writing will ever be good enough, and then make another cup of tea, and cry into it, and call their best friend, and drink that cup of tea and tears, and try to discuss solutions with that friend only to have them go back to where they started.
Okay. Maybe not all of those things.
But when some writers hit that point, they are tempted to hit that delete button, and want to throw the whole thing out, or the part they just wrote, without adequately exploring why they are in a bind in the first place.
And I’m here to tell you, as a fellow novelist and contrary to the rhetoric floating out there, having that urge is okay.
It’s what you do with that urge and when you use it that defines you as a writer.
Trusting Your Feelings
While working on my novel a few days ago, my protagonist ran away, hid, and had a complete emotional meltdown in the second chapter.
I kept typing the scene, thinking that I was on the right track.
But after I finished the scene, I felt a little sick.
Something in that scene felt wrong, like a flag going off in my head.
Oh, great, I thought. Another writer’s block.
So I stayed away from writing for a while. I went back to my books on writing, and one of them, The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, not only helped me learn more about portraying emotion, but also helped me learn more about writing and writer’s block.
This block I encountered was something I created unintentionally.
Listening to Your Characters
According to The Emotion Thesaurus, emotional expression should happen, ideally, in an arc, or rather, the arc dictated by that character’s personality, upbringing, etc. Characters who have a lot of pride might have an easier time getting from irritated to infuriated. Those who are melodramatic can swing from happiness to sadness in a matter of seconds, because they know that playing up their emotions makes it easier to get what they want.
The novel that I am working on is about the emotional journey of my protagonist, whose has trouble expressing emotion due to past trauma with a parent. Yes, a meltdown in the second chapter would her struggle with her emotions and her past, but I’m not presenting her struggle logically.
It’s more logical that I have her repress her emotions in this scene, because it will create intrigue for the reader instead of confusion. Seeing my protagonist fight to control her emotions will signal to the reader that they may break that composure later on. If she were to break too soon and break multiple times throughout the book without proper set up, the sense of surprise and interest will be lost.
The scene that I was typing didn’t make sense for it to happen so early, because the emotional meltdown is what my protagonist was afraid of happening to her, not what she should logically do. She is afraid of being emotional, and thus represses her emotions. To run away, hide, and cry would be letting her emotions take complete control of her.
This is something she wants to avoid.
And she avoids it by feeling numb.
Throughout the story, there will be moments to test her on how well she can control her emotions, and this constant inner conflict is what should drive the story forward.
Now, this is not to say that every protagonist can’t have emotional meltdowns in the opening pages of your novel. Take, for example, a war veteran in the early stages of PTSD. They might have nightmares and flashbacks and emotional meltdowns all in the first chapter, because the problem is just that immediate to them. Other characters with PTSD might be more emotional numb in the first chapters, by the time the story opens, they might have battled it for longer, or are not the emotionally expressive type.
The story you want to tell and the characters you want to portray will dictate how and when your character grows.
And the key to knowing what’s right and what’s wrong—what’s a writer’s block and what isn’t—is knowing yourself as a writer and reader.
Being Your Own Doctor
“I wrote the words; I made the block.”
This is my new mantra.
I have to check whether my worries are logical or illogical–if the thing that is wrong with my writing is actually something problematic or something that is of little concern. In this case, my suspicions were right.
But I know that there will be other times when I don’t know what is wrong with the work as I’m writing, because I have limited knowledge of the problem or have writing biases.
That’s what having a beta reader and editor are for.
Doing What’s Right for You
A lot of people encourage writers not edit as they are writing. And on some level, I can agree. When writing the absolute first draft of my story, I don’t want to do any editing. I want to have as much creative freedom as possible. If I come up with an idea, I run with it, seeing how far it will take me. Editing is the least of my worries.
However, after I write that first draft and go on to the second or third draft, I have a better idea of what I want the story to become. I want to plan it out more and give it some structure before I dive in, because, for me, it doesn’t make sense to write something I know is inherently wrong and keep it in there for later revision.
Why create my own writing blocks and hurdles when I know they can be easily avoidable?
This is not to say you should aim for a perfect draft every time.
But it’s also okay to want to make writing and editing easier on yourself. It’s okay to take a step back and reassess the situation before moving forward. It’s okay to look at those 2,000 words you’ve written and think, “There’s something fishy here that I know is going to bite me later on. I better nip it before it gets out of hand.”
Writing blocks are typically known to be sources of pain, but they can actually be good for us.
Because they have the potential to teach us something.
Writing shouldn’t be a struggle. It should be a joy.
A joy unique to you, which means that you might take up my methods or you might not. You might edit after the draft is done, or you might plot it all beforehand, and try to make as little edits as possible after. Or you can try something in between.
Whatever it is, I hope it helps.