It’s that time of year again. NaNoWriMo is upon us. So I wanted to take this time to answer a question that came up in my writing accountability group last week.
A friend of mine asked, ... how can I stay in the groove with my writing so that I don’t have to write a bunch of words that I know I’m going to throw away?
We’ve all been there. Whether you’re a plotter who outlines each moment of your story meticulously, or a pantser who starts with a blank screen and writes into the dark every writer has days and writing sessions that are easier, and days and writing sessions harder. And every writer has had at least one moment in their career where they wanted to chuck their whole manuscript because they had no idea what to do next.
In looking over my notes of all the books I’ve read and classes I’ve taken on storytelling and creativity I think I’ve found a solution to making the act of creation a less painful, more joyful, more effortless process.
There is a course called The Trigger Approach taught by Richard Syed on iactingstudios.com where he teaches actors how to breakdown a script so they can be in the moment (in the groove) more consistently. In the thinking over my friend’s question, I realized that when I’ve move forcing words onto the page, constantly second-guessing whether or not they belong there at all, all that means is that I’m not in the moment of my story.That’s when I found my solution:
Finding the Flow State: Five Journalism Questions to Remind You Where You Are and Help You Keep Writing
Q1: Who is your Point of View character in this scene?
Q2: What does your point of view character want and why can’t they have it?
Q3: When are you in the story sequence? Are you writing the beginning, the middle, or the end?
Q4: Where does the scene you’re writing take place?
Q5: Why is your writing stuck here?
Q1: Who is your point of view character in this scene?
Every scene has to have a point of view character. The point of view character is the lens through which the reader will experience the world that you create for them. Readers don’t have their own senses to rely on when experiencing your story. They have to rely on the senses of the point of view character to guide them as to how they should feel about a specific setting or event.
It’s also important to think about whether you want your audience to like your point of view character or not. If your audience likes your point of view character they will probably agree with or sympathize with your characters thoughts, feelings and reactions to the events of the story. If your point of view character is the villain and detestable the audience will probably disagree with that characters thoughts, feelings and reactions to story events.
Think of Harry Potter. We always rooted for Harry, the likable orphan who stood up for the little guy. Think of all of the different professors of the dark arts throughout the series. The only professor I liked who took on that subject was Professor Lupin in book 3. If you read this series you know this is because of all the teachers of that subject Lupin was the only one who wasn’t an antagonist Harry throughout the novel.
If you reread those books you may be surprised to realize how much you despise those teachers and how they thought about Harry, especially Professor Snape. I know what I was as I reread to see series to analyze its structure.
So, when you’re stuck ask yourself, who is my point of view character? Do I want my audience to like them or not?
Q2: What Does Your POV Character Want and Why Can’t They Get It?
This question comes directly from Dwight Swain author of Techniques of the Selling Writer and Creating Story People. Aaron Sorkin (oscar winning writer of The Social Network) puts says every story needs a main character with an intention and an obstacle.
Story is conflict. If you’re not writing a scene where the point of view character wants something and something or someone is standing in their way effectively thwarting their desire your writing a non-scene and a boring piece of fiction.
Conflict comes in all shapes and sizes. You can have your point of view character trying to stop a bomb from exploding and killing hundreds of innocent people. You can also have your point of view character trying to get his mail. This is what Jim butcher does in the opening of Storm Front the first book in the Dresden Files series.
The thing is as a writer of fiction your subconscious mind can sense when you’re writing a boring non-scene, and it will stop you from continuing.
When you’re stuck ask yourself, do I have a strong point of view character in this scene? Is it clear to the audience what they want? Is it clear to the audience why they can’t have it?
Q3: When Are You in The Story Sequence?
Every story ever written has the same basic sequence. The beginning, where all of the main characters are introduced and their relationships are defined. At the end of the beginning the story problem pops up. Then comes the middle. The middle is where the protagonist tries to solve the story problem and things get more and more complicated until the climax. Finally we have the end of the story where the story problem is resolved, and everyone lives happily ever after, or not.
Where you are in the story sequence can change how I characters act, react and relate to one another. Also, things are revealed as the story moves forward and tension rises. Where you are in the story changes who knows what and how much.
So, when you are stuck ask yourself? When is this scene happening in relation to the story sequence?
Q4: Where is this scene taking place?
Readers read stories to go on an emotional journey. The problem is readers aren’t living in the world of the story. They have no direct sensory input to analyze. So the only way readers can go on the emotional journey they crave is if you give them a strong point of view character that they can ride along with through the story.
So who is your point of view character in this scene? What do they see, hear, smell, taste and touch? And how do they feel about those sensory impulses?
I’m writing this in my bedroom sitting in my wheelchair staring at my computer screen.
While that’s a description, it’s certainly not a point of view that draws the reader in so they can ride along with me on my story.
Let’s try it again.
As I sit here trying to ignore the random gurgling of my empty stomach, dictating this blog post to my laptop, my eyes are assaulted by the mindmap that I created to organize my thoughts. That’s because I’m maybe 8 inches away from my massive 35 inch TV which doubles as my second monitor. The gray light coming through my curtains on this overcast day isn’t helping matters.
So I look down to give my eyes a rest and see the wonderfully managed chaos on my desk. Portable hard drives and electronic devices maintain residence next to random individual pieces of paper, refugees from my overflowing trash can.
Behind me I hear the whir of my electric space heater as it oscillates back and forth valiantly trying to keep the cold out of my bones. I feel the heat through my wheelchair back. I feel my muscles relaxing every time the rotation of the heating unit pushes the heat in my direction.
I smell dampness in the air and wonder how long it will be before these overcast days turn into snow days, forcing me to remain barricaded indoors against the weather like an angry black bear incapable of hibernating.
From across the house I hear a muffled door slam, and my mother calling my name. Finally I can eat something and turned down the intensity of this gnawing hunger.
See how I use my senses and my opinion about what I felt to anchor you into the scene? You can do that for yourself as a writer by simply asking, Who is my POV character, what are they experiencing through their senses and how do they feel about it?
Why Am I Stuck
If all else fails simply asking yourself this question and have a conversation on paper (or your computer screen.) Having a written conversation focuses the mind on the problem at hand and allows you to observe your thoughts as they occur. Writing allows you to follow longer chains of logic then you can follow just thinking in your head.
If you can identify the problem on paper than your subconscious mind will go to work helping you to solve it. All you need to do is be as clear as possible about what the problem is so that your mind goes to work on the right things.
The secret to maintaining the flow state of creation that all fiction writers strive for is to, as much as possible stay in the moment with your characters as you create the scene. There are five questions you can ask yourself that act as a sort of GPS to move you in the direction of your desired destination a finished manuscript.
1. Who is your POV character this is the character your audience will use as a land to experience the story.
What do they want and why can’t they have it? Story is conflict. If you want writing about conflict or a character’s reaction to conflict you should probably cut the non-scene you’re writing.
When does the event/scene/moment you’re writing about take place in the story sequence. a story is a record of the character moving through time. Where you are in that record often affects how a character relates ask and reacts to events and other characters.
Where does this scene take place? What sensory details exist in the setting and how does the POV character feel about them? what does the POV character see, hear, touch, taste and smell in the setting of the scene? What are their reactions to those stimuli?
Why am I stuck? when all else fails, ask this question and have written conversation with yourself to see if you can’t identify the problem. Often, clearly identifying the problem leads directly and quickly to the solution.
Being stuck as a writer is a demoralizing feeling especially if you beat yourself up for having writers block. If you ask yourself these questions and get clear about the answers you will be in the moment with your characters more often and it will be easier and more fun to tell the stories you want to tell.