Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (day five)


I said I’d write about the long (or short) dry spells that happen during the writing of a novel. I’ve just come out of one. This summer my mother died and she was very sick for about four months before her death which meant that it was hard to predict where I was going to be. She lived in another town and I needed to go to her during her health crisis. That’s the major thing that causes a dry spell: LIFE. When your own situation is just too demanding or too sad or too something to write.

That doesn’t happen to me very often. I was the single mother who learned to write through anything. Once I got in my car and locked the doors and wrote a short story well my daughter and her friend sat on the hood of the car looking in. But this summer I gave up trying to write although I made notes and thought about my novel. My mother was my first concern. As she should have been.

The other thing I’ve learned in my thirty years of writing fiction is that if I’m not having a good time there’s something wrong with what I’m doing. If I’m finding myself in a dry spell chances are I have taken a wrong turn in the narrative. Or I’ve been writing in the voice of the wrong character. Problems in the story are what cause a writer’s block for me. If I can’t get any further it means I have more thinking to do.

Since I started last Christmas, I’d been trying out voices in my novel. Recently, I’d been writing in the voice of the daughter of the white collar criminal. She wasn’t the right person to tell the story because the story I wanted to write wasn’t about her– it was about the white collar criminal and his son. So I took the female voice and made it the sister of the white collar criminal instead of his daughter. Then I re-wrote my first one hundred pages in the point of view of the criminal.

I’d already written a novel about a father and a daughter and it felt like the tag-ends of that novel were trying to attach themselves to my story. Maybe I wanted not to work that hard. Maybe I didn’t want to bother creating a new voice. Actually, I did.

I’ve been working on this novel off and on for about seven years. I’ve been thinking about it and researching it. And although I don’t exactly know how each scene is going to unfold I know what my story is about.

Of course, I’m still on the first draft and often the first draft is about getting to know your characters so all these problems I was having with voice were par for the course. Let’s face it – writing the first draft is like throwing mud on the wall. Or spaghetti, for that matter. You throw and then you wait to see if it sticks. So here are ways I’ve found to get around a writer’s block:

  1. Try another voice.
  2. Write a dialogue out between yourself and the main character or minor character and ask why the novel isn’t going well. This really works. But when you write in the voice of your character, you must let yourself free associate and  say the first thing that comes into your mind.
  3. Take a day off and daydream. Go for a wander. Movement helps thinking.

That’s it for now. Except for one thing. The dry spells are inevitable. Because problems are going to come up in any narrative. It’s not going to flow out of your computer screen as easily as all that. You may get in the zone for a while but it’s hard to sustain it through a whole book because novels are long. So that’s what I tell myself anyway. Dry spells can be a chance for something more exciting to develop and if you have patience it probably will.

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