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Wednesday, April 06, 2005



Milton Trachtenburg
copyright, 1998

Writer's Block can be the two most frightening words in a writer's vocabulary. In my daily experiences online and off, I hear so many "stuck" writers asking for help and calling their problem "Writer's Block." I hear a multitude of remedies offered: sit down and write, work on other writing tasks, edit, work on submissions and research. Some say that the way to break the block is to force yourself to sit in front of your desk even if you can't write, or even if what you write is nonsense. Others claim that imagery or writing exercises will open your mind to creativity.

In my opinion, there's good news and bad news regarding all the solutions offered. The good news is: all of the above methods work. The bad news is: no one method works for everybody. For myself -- and I'm not promising this method would work for anyone else -- when I am unable to decide how to begin writing a story, or don't know where it is going, I get into the head and life of a character. When we write, we need to think of a story as a flow of events. Life always goes somewhere and if you flow with the character, she will solve many of your problems about what to write. Ask questions such as: What would the particular character do in the plot you created? Before we were old enough to know the alphabet, some of us filled our lives with amazing characters. At age three, the characters were as real to us as anyone else in our world. The trick to writing amazing characters is to allow that same capacity to function for you as an adult. My four-year-old granddaughter taught me a few new twists on creating characters from my then four-year-old granddaughter when she told me all about her imaginary sister who was bull-headed, mouthy and bossy and wanted to do what my granddaughter did. With a character like that, I thought, I would simply record her actions, I could never dictate her actions, thoughts or feelings.

Stories are difficult to write -- at least for me. When a story comes to an abrupt halt, I try to get back into the characters that are stuck rather than the story that is stuck. Where are they going and where did they want to go at the beginning? What motivates them into action? Is the road you chose for the character one she would have chosen for herself? Sometimes, you back a
character into a corner from which she can't extricate herself because she could in no way have made the decision that got her there in the first place. For example: A shy, God-fearing, church woman of high moral values finds herself torn between two men who are as opposite as day and night. One offers her security, love and devotion. The other offers passion, lust and danger. To force this woman into a position of choice, the writer must first find a way to strip her of her moral upbringing. Every behavior, every choice a character makes, requires justification. When you find yourself blocked, it is often because you have not prepared the character to move forward, or if you haven't begun your story, it may be because you do not have a character with enough interesting quirks and qualities to force you to write about her.

Sometimes, you have to retrace your steps to see where you went off the road that you needed in order to take you to the story's conclusion. Every chapter or story segment is like a fork in a road. Take a wrong one and you may reach a dead end even though you have a promising beginning. Allow the character to make a different choice at a critical juncture where the story went astray. If you look at all fiction as a biography of characters, you will see yourself writing about the life adventures of interesting fictional people you create from your own memories, intuition and experiences. For example, if you were telling the story of Hilary Clinton after having done all your research, would you be likely to hit a roadblock? Treat your characters as if they were celebrities and you will find you can never say nearly all there is to say about them.

To demonstrate how I might create a story, I will try to create a character "on the fly," one I never used, never thought about and only this moment will begin to develop and enhance. I will start with a character, develop the premise for the story out of the character, then try to demonstrate how you might write a story without first having a plot direction.

I'm going to take you through my thought processes with me as I flesh out the details of a character's life. Hopefully, as I discover where the character has been, a potential plot of what might happen may develop. First, I need a character . . . . I prefer a female protagonist. My writing focuses upon relationships and feelings. So, here goes . . . Her name is . . . Niki. How
do I know? I see her face, narrow, thin-lipped, grey eyes, big as saucers, bright as quarters. She's . . . fourteen years old. Behind her, I see a trailer court -- the kind that sparked the stereotype -- trailer trash. To her left is a washed-out woman -- same face, same eyes -- fifty pounds heavier, gray eyes deader than coal-ash, appearing older than her years, hair, frizzy-permed like her daughter's hair. I never met either character before this moment, but as I imagine them from a writer's perspective, characteristics, traits, loves, losses, desires, quirks and
moods develop before my eyes. I've known Niki in other roles in life and I could meet her and her Mamma on The Jerry Springer Show, or on the city page of the daily paper where people like Niki and Mamma are bred for trouble and only with Herculean effort can they overcome the lack of learning that was needed for raw survival in a dangerous and defeating world.

Now, I've combined my own experiences and knowledge to develop two fictional characters that have potential to become the center of a story. They will both need a great deal of background and justification to make them believable. After the characters become almost real to me, my job as a writer is to present them with a series of obstacles and challenges they must either overcome or be defeated by them. The characters, not I, will make the choices. If they choose to solve the problem in one shot, I have flash fiction. If they smack into a few brick walls, it is a short story. If, however, they take the piece of string I hand them and turn it into the Gordian knot, I have an epic novel!

Now for a premise. Niki has big dreams. She wants to study ballet. Before I write another word, I ask Niki if this fits with her dreams. The only ballet she has ever seen was on a broken-down black and white television. In her fantasies, she wants to become a professional dancer. When she looks in the mirror at her lithe, muscular body, she imagines herself on a stage wearing a diaphanous costume, and held aloft by the powerful hands of a stud-muffin dancer. I will remember that line because when she is confronted with reality, I may have a comparison between dreams and reality that will engage the character and the reader. Mamma had the same
dream 15 years earlier. Her dream ended in a sweaty tryst in the back seat of a ratty car. She remembered that her foot rested in a pizza box as she pretended to experience the throes of passion.

See how the story grows? Ideas keep arriving without thinking about them. Each idea may or may not be significant and may later be edited out, but at the beginning of this story, I believe I could write about 7500 words about a day in the life of Niki Peeples. Just like that, she has a last name.

There are enough clues to write a dozen stories, each ending differently. Had I started with a premise, the characters would not have been as full of energy and conflict. By starting with the characters, their lives expand each time I turn to them. Within about three paragraphs, Niki will have a dozen quirks and Mamma will be fleshed-out with a backstory that sets up a conflict with Niki's desires. Now, I can add, for Mamma, a boyfriend - a drunken misfit, and for Niki, a schoolgirl crush. I may want to begin expanding the list of characters to include a teacher who is an unheeded guardian angel. A perfect way to increase tension is to have a character point out the obvious to the protagonist who disregards the information. The reader then knows something which the character refuses to accept. In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the soothsayer warns Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March.” His failure to heed the prophesy results in his death.

The story begins to take on a life of its own and the only task I will need to perform for the first draft is to determine which words best tell the story. There are decisions to be made. Who will narrate? Will it be Niki? The Teacher? The ubiquitous Third Person POV?

It is obvious to me what tense I would write in -- past tense -- it is already a fait accompli and is being told to the reader. Personal taste: present tense works only if the events are happening as you are writing. Present tense stories need to be told almost in real time. Niki's story is a recollection on the part of someone. I have yet to choose who will best serve the story.

Thinking about writing, writing about writing and writing itself keep a writer from ever having to deal with writer's block. One more thing: if you ever find yourself unable to write, you can always edit a piece you've already written. Editing opens most of the blockages and blows out all the brain flossies that crowd out creativity. However, in order to edit, you must first write. Find the tool that works for you. Start off where you feel most comfortable. My method works best for a professional daydreamer like myself. My childhood was spent creating imaginary playmates and impossible scenarios in which to place them: this was long before I contemplated writing for publication.

On a gray morning that may hold promise of improving as the day progresses, these are my writing thoughts. Hmmm . . . maybe thinking about the slate-colored sky gave me the idea for Niki's gray eyes. Now, I can't wait to sit down and write her story. So, you see, I've just opened a new road I didn't know existed. Will I find it blocked? I doubt it. I'm already intrigued by the characters who have appeared. There are so many adventures and misadventures through which I can take them. Potential for conflict, and conflict itself, are the engines that move the story forward.

If you feel blocked, sit down in a comfortable chair and create characters. Talk to them. See which one has an interesting story about her life. Discover all you can about your character without feeling that you have to write anything. If she intrigues you, write her biography up to the day your story begins. What you have written is her backstory. Now, create a situation that will lead to a conflict within her, between her and other characters, or between her and a force of nature. Allow her to make the decisions as to how she will handle the crisis. Now, you are writing.

Writer's Block? As you sharpen your writing tools you overcome the inhibitions that you call writer’s block. Writer's block then becomes the street where you live.

This article has been an eye-opening, thought provoking experience. I look at how I would write from now on totally differently. Thank you very much Sir.
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