Getting over the block

By Joe Moore

I don’t believe in writer’s block. The reason is twofold. First, I’m a professional writer; my job is to come up with ideas. I’ve never heard of a mechanic suffering from mechanic’s block or a doctor suffering from doctor’s block. When I’m faced with an issue in my story, I come up with a solution. That’s part of being a writer.

writers-blockSecond, when I do get writer’s block, I turn to my co-writer for the answer. OK, so the second reason is not something every writer has to fall back on. Lucky me.

I think that writer’s block is about being stuck with coming up with ideas, not words. If I can’t come up with the words, I’m in serious trouble. It’s like that mechanic saying he can’t come up with the correct wrench. A master mechanic has a kit full of tools (words); his job is to come up with the correct procedure to fix a problem.

So writer’s block is really a matter of a writer getting stuck for whatever reason. It’s frustrating but not a show-stopper.

First, you need to focus on why you’re stuck.

The most common form of writer’s block is not knowing what happens next. This is basically a plotting issue. The solution can be found in 5 words: What does the protagonist want? If you backtrack to the last point in the story that it was clear what motivated the protagonist’s actions and how it drove the story forward, the answer to what happens next will usually be revealed. Think about the story question. Did you stray from the process of answering it? Chances are you created a scene that does not contribute directly or indirectly in answering the main story question—the big conflict. Starting a rewrite from that point will usually get you back on track.

Another common issue that will derail your story is facing the dilemma of why anything matters. Who cares? This usually deals with the question: What’s at stake. Whether it’s an internal or external struggle, the protagonist must realize that fighting the fight is worth it. If she loses, what’s at stake? What does she stand to lose? If it’s a high concept thriller, what does the community, country, or civilization stand to lose? Reexamining the stakes can help to put you back on course.

A third issue in suffering from writer’s block is facing the crippling question: Is this story logical? In other words, why would it even happen? You might have a really cool idea, but the reality is that no sane person would follow the path laid out by the plot. It’s just not something the reader would buy into. If this is the case, rethink the story in terms of how it relates to HUMAN BEINGS. Don’t get me wrong. Even the most outrageous science fiction or horror stories still have to relate to human emotions and logic. Otherwise, they become 2-dimensional. If your story is so out there that the average reader can’t relate, try reexamining the human aspects of it. Many writers including me believe that there are only two emotions in the world: love and hate. If your story lacks either, then it becomes hard if not impossible to sell the reader on an outrageous, illogical plot. And writer’s block raises its ugly head.

How about you, my Zoner friends. How do you overcome writer’s block?

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Coming soon: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” ~ James Rollins, NYT bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

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Kick starting your story

By Joe Moore

Have you noticed that everyone is writing a book? Whenever I disclose to someone that I’m an author, the response is pretty much the same: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” Or “I’ve got a great idea for a novel.” Despite all the would-be authors out there, not every potential novelist actually gets to the writing stage. And even fewer produce a finished product. But for the ones who not only have an idea but are burning up with a desire to put pen to paper, I’ve put together a basic outlining technique that might help get things started—a simple list of questions to kick start a book. Answering them can give writers direction and focus, and help keep them going when the wheels sometimes come off the cart along the way. Here goes:

  • What distinguishes your protagonist from everyone else?
  • Does she have an essential strength or ability?
  • How could her strength cause her to get into trouble?
  • Most stories start with the protagonist about to do something? What is that “something” in your story, and what does it mean to her?
  • Is that “something” interrupted? By what?
  • Is there an external event or force that she must deal with throughout the length of the story?
  • How is it different from the original event?
  • How will the two events contrast and create tension?
  • Does she have a goal that she is trying to achieve during the course of the story?
  • Is it tied into the external event?
  • Why does she want or need to obtain the goal?
  • What obstacle does the external event place in her path?
  • What must she do to overcome the obstacle?
  • Does she have external AND internal obstacles and conflicts to overcome?
  • How will she grow by overcoming the obstacles?
  • What do you want to happen at the end of your story?
  • What actions or events must take place to make the ending occur the way you envision?

This outline technique has less to do with plot and more to do with character development. Building strong characters around a unique plot idea is the secret to a great book. Once you’ve answered the questions about your protagonist, use the same technique on your antagonist and other central characters. It works for everyone in the story.

These are general questions that could apply to any genre from an action-adventure thriller to a romance to a tale of horror. Answering them up front can help to get you started and keep you on track. Armed with just the basic knowledge supplied by the answers, you will never be at a loss for words because you will always know what your protagonist (and others) must do next.

Can you think of any other questions that should be asked before taking that great idea and turning it into a novel?

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Opening Chapters

Throughout my years as a published author, I’ve participated in various mentoring programs. This past weekend at the Space Coast Writers Guild Conference. I was assigned to mentor three writers for a total of six hours. This being my first such experience at a conference, I wasn’t sure what to do. Guidelines would have been helpful, but I was out there on my own. So I started by asking my subjects how far along they were in the writing process and what they wanted to learn.

The eager writers were nearly done with their manuscripts and wanted to hear writing tips and how to submit their work, where to find agents, what to do in terms of author branding. So we talked about all of those topics. Then they gave me about 30 pages each of their work to read. It would have been helpful to have had those pages emailed to me before the conference, because after going all day from around 9 to 7 or so, I wanted to relax. But I diligently read through and critiqued their manuscripts that evening.

Sunrise (800x600)
SUNRISE ON THE BEACH
Lois Winston (800x600)
LOIS WINSTON AND NANCY COHEN

Each person wrote fantasy or science fiction so we had those elements in common. That was up my alley since I write sci fi and fantasy romance in addition to cozy mysteries. As for the basics of fiction writing, it doesn’t matter what genre you favor. The principles are the same.

When I read their work, I found the world building blocks to be solid. The problems they shared involved pacing in the first chapter.

Either I found too much backstory repetitively entwined through the current action, with snippets of dialogue from prior conversations running through the protagonist’s head in the middle of a fight scene, or prolonged chit chat between characters that could be shortened. In a couple of cases, I suggested moving up the beginning to the point where my interest really kicked in.

These are not uncommon problems. I’ve revised my own openings endless times, haven’t you? And nowadays, when on Amazon potential readers can sample your first chapter and determine on that basis if they’ll buy your book, these first few pages are critically important. This experience also shows why it’s good to work with critique partners who can view your opening from an objective perspective and tell you if it works or not. So here are the basic points I’d like to reiterate about first chapters:

  • Start with action or dialogue. If you absolutely must begin with a description, make sure it is emotionally evocative from the main character’s viewpoint.
  • Leave backstory for later or weave it in with dialogue. Or drop it in a line or two at a time in the character’s head if it relates to the action.
  • Make sure all conversations serve a purpose.
  • Remember to include emotional reactions during dialogue between characters.
  • Make sure your characters are not talking about something they already know just so the reader can learn about it.
  • Keep the story moving forward.

Are there any other points that you would add?

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Opening Chapters

Throughout my years as a published author, I’ve participated in various mentoring programs. This past weekend at the Space Coast Writers Guild Conference. I was assigned to mentor three writers for a total of six hours. This being my first such experience at a conference, I wasn’t sure what to do. Guidelines would have been helpful, but I was out there on my own. So I started by asking my subjects how far along they were in the writing process and what they wanted to learn.

The eager writers were nearly done with their manuscripts and wanted to hear writing tips and how to submit their work, where to find agents, what to do in terms of author branding. So we talked about all of those topics. Then they gave me about 30 pages each of their work to read. It would have been helpful to have had those pages emailed to me before the conference, because after going all day from around 9 to 7 or so, I wanted to relax. But I diligently read through and critiqued their manuscripts that evening.

Sunrise (800x600)
SUNRISE ON THE BEACH
Lois Winston (800x600)
LOIS WINSTON AND NANCY COHEN

Each person wrote fantasy or science fiction so we had those elements in common. That was up my alley since I write sci fi and fantasy romance in addition to cozy mysteries. As for the basics of fiction writing, it doesn’t matter what genre you favor. The principles are the same.

When I read their work, I found the world building blocks to be solid. The problems they shared involved pacing in the first chapter.

Either I found too much backstory repetitively entwined through the current action, with snippets of dialogue from prior conversations running through the protagonist’s head in the middle of a fight scene, or prolonged chit chat between characters that could be shortened. In a couple of cases, I suggested moving up the beginning to the point where my interest really kicked in.

These are not uncommon problems. I’ve revised my own openings endless times, haven’t you? And nowadays, when on Amazon potential readers can sample your first chapter and determine on that basis if they’ll buy your book, these first few pages are critically important. This experience also shows why it’s good to work with critique partners who can view your opening from an objective perspective and tell you if it works or not. So here are the basic points I’d like to reiterate about first chapters:

  • Start with action or dialogue. If you absolutely must begin with a description, make sure it is emotionally evocative from the main character’s viewpoint.
  • Leave backstory for later or weave it in with dialogue. Or drop it in a line or two at a time in the character’s head if it relates to the action.
  • Make sure all conversations serve a purpose.
  • Remember to include emotional reactions during dialogue between characters.
  • Make sure your characters are not talking about something they already know just so the reader can learn about it.
  • Keep the story moving forward.

Are there any other points that you would add?

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Daniel Hadley is Down in Somerville

This submission for critique has no title, but I think it shows promise. The central character has appeal. Catch my comments on the flip side.

Excerpt
“Daniel’s in stable condition, but he’s been shot.”

I lay in bed, propped up on one elbow, the cell phone digging into my ear. I didn’t even remember it ringing. Had I passed out drunk while talking to someone? But every light in my bedroom was off, save for the pale green LCD of the alarm clock: 1:45 AM. Then the part of my brain that makes sense of words – the part that I normally can’t shut up when I’m trying to go to sleep – kicked in. “Shit,” I said, sitting upright.

“He’s stable, like I said. They’re monitoring him at Mass General.”

“Right,” I answered. “How long?” But the phone went dead.

“Fuck,” I repeated. Then I hung up and got out of bed. I padded across to the closet to pull some jeans off a hanger and yesterday’s bra out of the hamper. A tanktop and a ratty Redskins sweatshirt completed the ensemble. Ninety seconds after getting off the phone I was out the door.

Somerville’s a dense town, so I had to walk a block to where I’d parked my car. The autumn air sobered me up enough to realize I didn’t have a plan just yet. There was one detail I could check, of course. Fishing my phone back out of my pocket, I called Daniel. “Hey, this is Daniel Hadley. I’m either on the phone or -” Damn it. Is there anything longer than a voice mail greeting when you’re trying to reach someone live?

“Daniel, hey, it’s Mara,” I began. “It’s 1:50 A.M. on, uh, Tuesday. Listen, I just got this really strange call that said you were … um. Please call me as soon as you get this, if you’re okay. If you’re not, well …”

I cut myself off there, shutting the phone and fumbling for my keys. I hadn’t fully processed the news yet (Daniel had been shot; holy hell; fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards).

Comment Summary on “No-title” Story:

Generally I like the voice of this woman character. She comes across as a no nonsense person who could sustain a reader’s interest with the uniqueness of her character’s attitude and her low key fashion sense. And her attachment to alcohol could prove to be interesting as baggage. But rather than starting out with the dialogue line (as I explain my objection below), I might start out with how this woman feels getting the shock of the cell phone ringing her out of her drunken stupor. No one likes getting calls in the middle of the night. It’s a relatable moment most readers will understand. These calls are NEVER good news. And establishing this character from that moment might also help in creating her “voice” and her attitude more fully from the get go.

This is a personal preference, but I wouldn’t begin a novel with a dialogue line because it feels too much like the start of any other scene. An intro dialogue line into a scene can be effective and I’ve done it, just not for the start of a book. And whoever is speaking needs to be identified in some fashion, even if it’s just someone generic, like “dispatch.” Try to ID the person as soon as you can after the dialogue.

And speaking of identification, when you write in first person, you need to ID the speaker’s gender in some way as soon as you can. The reader will get an idea in their head—like I did that the narrator is a man—who is a cross dresser, when he reaches for yesterday’s bra from the hamper. I’ve done this before too. (The name of my character was a gender neutral name and was supposed to be a teen girl. But when my beta reader read the passage, she thought it was a teen boy who was checking out another guy’s wranglers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t my intention.) Once you write a first person POV story, you notice things to watch for. And gender at the start of a book is one of them.

I’m writing a YA book now where I have two teens speaking in first person. I identify them by using their names at the top of each scene and try to have one character per chapter where possible. It makes sense for this book and I like writing challenges.

I also wasn’t sure I understood Mara’s question – “How long?” Is this her entire question? If this was intended to be a question cut short, then add punctuation like a dash to indicate this. “How long—?” or “How long…?”

And if the line goes dead, it takes a while before anyone to notice, but in this scene, the character knows immediately. If the line goes dead, make it more realistic by her rambling until she hears dial tone and gets frustrated.

Also, if you have only one character in the scene, I would try to minimize the use of tag lines identifying her. You should ID the person on the phone, but after that, there isn’t a need to clutter the scene with unnecessary tag lines like ‘I answered, I repeated, I began.’ There are four tag lines in a short segment of a scene with only one character in it after the phone goes dead.

And finally the last paragraph. The punctuation seemed odd to me and pulled me from the story. I’ve never liked the use of semi-colons. Break apart the sentence into fragments if you have to, but resist the semi-colon, especially when the character has the informal attitude this one has. (What do the rest of you think about semi-colons—readers and authors? Copy editors try to put them in and I take them out, making other changes that are more my preference.) See James Scott Bell’s post on semi-colons HERE.

I also rarely use parenthesis, except in my YA books where it can be fun to use sparingly. I prefer em-dashes for emphasis, as shown below.

And the use of the metaphor on hockey—“…fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards”—didn’t seem to fit when she was referring to such a serious event as someone getting shot. It makes her sound flip about something that should be more important to her. Also, she’s a Redskins fan AND a hockey fan? I’m sure this is possible, but in one short scene, it seems excessive. You may get more mileage if you made her a super fan of one sport when it comes to her metaphors, rather than spreading her enthusiasm over many.

Even though this scene could be written better, it shows promise with a compelling character voice. I would also consider starting the novel with something else that happens prior to this scene—like maybe Daniel’s shooting. If this is crime fiction, I like to start with a crime. And I’ve also found that you can always go back to write that action scene after you’ve started the book to get a feel for the story and its characters. It might help to know Daniel before you shoot him, for example. (Wow, that sounded awful.)

Any other helpful comments for this author?

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