Storms of the Brain

It only occurred to me recently how apt the word brainstorm truly is. Perhaps it was prompted by watching the terrible effects of Hurricane Sandy, but I’m sure it was also related to my own story problems lately.
I’m working on my fourth Tyler Locke book right now, and I’ve been having a hell of a time wrapping my head around why the plot just wasn’t working. I had a synopsis and basic outline, but the elements weren’t gelling into a cohesive story. No matter what I did with the plot I had, it wouldn’t work. It was as if I were trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from three different boxes. The individual elements were all great, but for some reason they didn’t fit together.
It was the dreaded writer’s block. But I’ve written five novels already, so how could that be possible? Shouldn’t I have the process figured out by now? If I were a golfer, I’d curse my case of the yips. The stuff that should be an easy putt by now was suddenly impossible. The mojo was gone, and I didn’t know if it was a permanent condition or more specific to this story.
Then my wife reminded me that this happens with every book. I always reach a point where I want to chuck the whole thing and move on to something else because I can’t figure out what’s wrong with the story. She recited my familiar lamentations back to me: “This is never going to work.” “I’ll never finish the book.” “Why did I start writing this stupid thing in the first place?”
As Christopher Vogler describes in The Writer’s Journey, I had reached the deepest chamber of the Inmost Cave to face the Ordeal. And the defining element of the Ordeal is the hero’s death and rebirth.
So I had to throw out all the assumptions I had about the story up to that point. I had to look at each and every part of it and decide whether to keep it, toss it, change it, or put it somewhere else. It was time to brainstorm.
As with the most violent storms, like hurricanes and tornadoes, everything in the story was at risk: characters, scenes, settings, action, even premise. Then I unleashed the gale. Some parts were ripped away, while others right next to them remained virtually untouched. Whole swaths of the story were decimated, while others were picked up gently and set down intact in an entirely different place.
When the storm was over, many of the individual pieces were still identifiable, but the overall rearrangement gave the story a completely new life. While real storms bring tragedy, my brainstorming was as beneficial as it was difficult. Yes, there’s a lot of cleanup still to do, but I can build something long-lasting from the wreckage.
So my question for the writers out there is, how do you get out of writer’s block? Do you unleash the brainstorm, or is there a less turbulent method to dislodge the block?

11 thoughts on “Storms of the Brain

  1. Great description of what we all go through, Boyd. I’m fortunate to have a co-writer, so through all our thrillers so far, when one of us hits a wall, the other usually has an idea on how to get around it. Having another person with a vested interest in the story can be a life saver in the storm. Another method that I recommend is to be involved in a critique group so that you have others available for brainstorming. If you’re not a member of a group, at least have a trusted fellow author or beta reader to call on when the wall blocks your way.

  2. How reassuring it is to me, a first-time novelist, to know this is something even experienced, published writers experience. I appreciate the honesty of this post and the encouragement and reminder that sometimes deconstruction is part of the creation process.

  3. I just went through this myself with my current manuscript. The answer I went with ended up drastically changing the tone of the ending, so your talk of “unleashing a gale” sounds very familiar.

    Curious to see what other people’s methods are!

  4. Great post! When I hit a wall, sometimes I try a less drastic route first: back up about 5 pages and try a different direction. If that doesn’t work, then I try the brainstorm/rearrange. If I can’t make that work, it’s time to brainstorm with writer friends.


  5. I have a manuscript that has been through multiple storms and is definitely worse for wear. I spent way too much time on it before walking away and working on something else. I’m too much of a Capricorn to toss it completely, so I might strip it down and try to rebuild as a novella, some day in the future when memories of the storm fade enough that I’m willing to reopen the file and survey the damage.

  6. Boyd: Been there! After 40 novels (including the unpubbed) I always seem to hit a “wall” around 30k. I may do a post about this later, but by chance I came across this today from a great site, Advice to Writers:

    [If you have writer’s block] force yourself to write non-stop for twenty or thirty minutes: no deletions, no erasures, no pauses. If that doesn’t work, take a break. Take a walk. Pack up your writing supplies and go someplace new. Sit in a coffee shop, find a cozy spot in a library, go to a park. If you’re truly desperate, go away for a few days. Take a train to a distant city and write onboard (on Amtrak, you can actually plug in your computer. But coffee is essential: without it, the train will rock you to sleep.) It often helps to do something entirely nonverbal, like making a collage or playing music. And it always helps to understand that writer’s block is a widespread malady. To strengthen your feeling of solidarity with the scribbling classes, watch these movies: The Shining, Misery, Barton Fink, Deconstructing Harry, all of which explore the consequences of writer’s block. NANCY HATHAWAY

  7. Been there all to often 🙂 and I find I have to disconnect from the writing for a day or so and let the creative process do it’s bit. Usually the breakthrough comes on a walk with the dog or at the gym. As long as I don’t panic it seems to work but I have to pull back first and trust the process. That is of course easier said than done!

  8. My biggest problem has not so much been writer’s block as writer’s exhaustion. The story is there, but after working all day, narrating most evenings, and taking care of kids/wife/other the story seems to get plugged up behind my yawny eyes and has a hard time getting to paper in a sensible fashion. I’ve managed with that schedule to put 7 works (4 novels & 3 shorts) up on Amazon over the past 6 years, but the time it takes to get one done is growing each time I try. I guess thats why some famous writers only do a handful of works in their life time.

  9. I think I would get lost in a gale like yours.

    When my story stops moving, the problem is usually with one scene that won’t flow. Usually. Sometimes there are too many characters or I have the wrong characters, so they need to be redefined or merged.

  10. I can give you a parallel from the visual arts field. I worked with my (former) husband – a graphic designer for many years. He worked on complex visual information graphics. He used to say that it was when you reached the point when it felt like an un-resolvable chaos, that he knew he was nearly there…

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