Dry spots are the worst. I think anyone who has done anything has encountered them. They are a fact of human endeavor, I think. How to break them?
I had an interesting experience in it…
I’d been in a dry spot for about ten years. Or, if you prefer, I had an excruciating case of ‘writer’s block’. It happens, and it can be devastating.
When I first started writing for the sheer joy of telling stories, the ideas came tumbling over each other. I wrote, rewrote, rethought, shifted plot lines and timelines, deepened characters – in short, wallowed. I was younger, I had the energy, everything was going well in my life (I wouldn’t mind being in my early twenties again). I had an immense output and an ego to match.
Creating, for me, is the most wonderful part of writing. Forming stories with my own energy and skill, channelling the flood of ideas, molding them, riding the flow – it’s intoxicating, ravishing, irresistible. And it accounts for only a small portion of the time that a writer spends at his craft. Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Definitely true, but ah! that one percent–!
That is how it was when I first started writing with all my strength. I would catch the spark of an idea and go with it, I wouldn’t stop – how could I when it was so obviously what I was made to do? (I was rather young then.) I remember working on one story – I’m finishing it up after a long hiatus, since I burned myself out on it – where I had produced perhaps 200 pages of manuscript and then decided that a specific character’s development needed to go in another direction. I ripped the plot line apart, redid it, rewrote it – it was a massive effort, and I didn’t blink.
At that time I lacked a computer with electronic storage capability. My early manuscripts were put in binders. The stories and society underlying those early manuscripts changed and evolved to the point where the manuscripts were worthless except as a record of where I started. In the course of moving six or seven times over the years they were packed away and forgotten. It didn’t matter – I’d moved on.
At any given time I was generally working on up to three projects. I would pick away at one if I hit a dry spot with the other. If the first one took fire, I could put the second aside and worked on the first. It helped to cut down on the almost despairing feel that you get when a project is finished. But there is a cost: you can’t sustain that level of activity for very long.
For one thing, life gets in the way, and I had not (at that time) learned to nurture my craft, to bank the fires, so to speak, against a cold night. Things happened outside my writing world that led to pulling up stakes and moving elsewhere. Other concerns intruded, and I lost touch. The spark was gone. Years passed and I looked at what I thought was the wreckage of my writing.
I hadn’t stopped writing, actually. I’d kept my hand in. I used words with my work, wrote articles for clubs, did various types of writing, but nothing in the line I loved. It was like trying to run a marathon with a sprained ankle. I’d produce a couple of pages, maybe a note or two in my notebook, but nothing more. The energy just wasn’t there. I thought it might come back; things were changing, I was starting to feel it, but still…
And then, going through the chaos that is known as the shelves in my garage, I opened a box and found my three earliest manuscripts. They had been the raw material for several other story lines that I still have going (and near completion) but they themselves had been so altered, adjusted, tweaked, rewritten, they were useless. On top of that, since they were manuscript pages, I’d have to retype about six hundred (1.5 space 10 pt) manuscript pages if I had wanted to try to salvage the story line. Um… No.
I frowned at them, and then shook my head, toying with the notion of throwing them out, but then I hesitated. Ah, yes, I thought, It could be fun to reread these.
I took them inside, sat down, put my feet up and read. Gosh, I’d been green then. Lots of energy, but not a lot of polish. I also didn’t know as much about life then.
I leafed through them, read… Yes, all those issues, but still… Not too bad.
I came to a specific scene involving three characters. One character, who had started out (originally) as a villain, had morphed into a hero. In fact, I’d fallen in love with him (did you read my post about ‘Author’s Pets’?) but had enough subtlety not to ram him down a reader’s throat. In this scene, the two heroes, one of them your typical medieval-type heroic hero, had cornered the once-villain and all but accused him of treason. The dialogue was involved, dramatic, there was a fine blast of fantasy, and then a sort of denouement in which the once-villain swears that he isn’t one and the heroic hero leaves, which leaves the second intellectual hero and the once-villain to hash things out (they had known each other before).
The dialogue, let me add, was stilted. At the time I’d written that, people spoke in measured, stately paragraphs. Sitting and listening to one of my characters delivering a warlike address to the governing body would have put any spectator to sleep.
Oh, good grief! I thought. What a mess! I can do better than THAT!
I fired up my computer, transcribed the chapter, and overhauled it, bringing it in line with what I knew now about those characters and their pre- and post-scene histories. The raw emotion was tamed, the dialogue was far more polished, the scene was (if I may say so) splendidly done. And in adjusting that scene, the consequences to the story altered. One very likeable character did not die young; the once-villain was never a villain, and there was no need for him to die magnificently and tragically. The Heroic Hero got his ears clipped in a most satisfying way, and the scene itself ended up being amusing for me, rather than touching.
Here is part of it. The Healer (who doesn’t appear directly in this snippet) is the Intellectual Hero. Sinthai is the Heroic Hero. Lokathi (also known as ‘Haldann’) is the once-villain. To ‘Open’ is a sort of teleportation, rather like ‘beaming up’, that I discarded fairly quickly after I first wrote this manuscript.
The sparkle deepened to a flicker and then a blaze. The blaze intensified to the sound of a rising gale. Sinthai pushed away, his attention riveted on the two pairs of eyes, dark and pale, that were locked on each other. The wind rose to a shriek and the light slowly scattered, leaving Lokathi alone and white-faced in the suddenly dark room. As Sinthai watched, Lokathi collapsed to his knees and doubled against the carpeted floor, his hands clenched at his temples.Sinthai jumped to his feet. “What happened?” he demanded. “What did you do with the Healer?”Lokathi raised his head and stared at him through half-blind eyes. “What did I do with him-?” he repeated through his teeth. He pushed to a kneeling position, one hand braced against the floor, the other at his forehead. “As far as I know, he’s Opened to the Temple. I wish him a happy arrival!”“But he didn’t take you with him!”“He couldn’t,” Lokathi said. “I refused.”“What!”Lokathi directed a pained glance at him through slitted eyes. “I. Told. Him. No.” he repeated slowly and clearly as he climbed to his feet and stood swaying, the heels of his hands pressed against his eyes. “Oh, dear God…”“But you can’t fight a Healer!”Lokathi lowered his hands and stared at him. “Obviously you can, idiot!” he retorted. “…though if I’d known the result it would have-”Sinthai’s’ eyes narrowed. “You just called me an idiot!”‘Lokathi muttered something barely audible about shoes fitting.It was enough. Sinthai rose as Lokathi went slowly to Doren’s chair and collapsed into it, shading his eyes and watching his approach with a derisive smile.“I called you an idiot, Prince-General,” he said through his teeth. “I meant it with all my heart. I’ve wanted to say it to you for a long time, and not just to you only. You have a sword on you, you’re welcome to take it and kill me this moment. You’ve wanted to, seemingly, for some time, and I can tell you’re ready right now. At this moment I’d welcome it.”Sinthai’s color rose. “Don’t talk nonsense,” he said stiffly. “If—” He saw the painful rise and fall of Lokathi’s breathing and broke off. “You’re in pain aren’t you? By god you don’t lack courage! But I still don’t understand what just happened!”Lokathi closed his eyes. “What on earth is there to understand?” he sighed. “I fought him off.”“…And he did a very good job of it, Sinthai” Doren said, coming through the door. “Well done, Haldann! It appears we were wrong in some assumptions about you.”
It flowed. It worked. I had the ability to take a really wretched piece of writing and fix it. Of course I still couldn’t salvage the manuscripts. The story and characters had changed far, far beyond their original concept, but it had been good to wander through there and see what I’d done and what I could still do.
The most wonderful result, for me, was the discovery that the spark had never died. It was there, I was ready, and I had my energy.
So, why did this little exercise suddenly make me able to write again? I asked a friend who is a clinical psychologist. “You touched that period of fecundity, and were able to reconnect with it!” she said.
Well, it sounds interesting, but I think it’s something simpler than that. I set out to exercise my muscles, so to speak. And I discovered that I still had the touch, I just hadn’t used it in the dry years. I also learned that I must discipline myself more strongly. Just going with what makes you sing might be satisfying, but you have to practice. Take notes. Think things through… Just do it.
But it’s working…
You're right. Sometimes a dry spot is a break in productivity, sometimes it's a time to recharge or it might be the best opportunity to just practice, practice, practice.
Sometimes things break down and you just need a forced rest. Practice, practice, practice is the best advice!
Thanks for letting us into your inner thinking. I can see that stretching your writing muscles would feel good, catch your interest and let it grow. I'm so glad it did, so you can share your wonderful characters with the world.