Returning to the Source
This week's post is by fellow Author and Blogger Bruce Carroll. He is currently working on his first novel, and can be followed at www.astoundingbruce.blogspot.com
He was generous enough to share a detailed post about his experience with writer's block, and his unique way of overcoming it.
I was stuck.
My novel had ground to a halt in the first part of chapter four. It stayed there for more than a week.
We’ve all been there.
Writer’s block. Writer’s “force field.” A dry spell.
It doesn’t matter what you call it, the result is the same. You can’t finish your work-in-progress. Either you write nothing at all, or you write so poorly you feel even brilliant editing can’t fix it.
There has been a lot written about how to get through one of these spells. It’s a common problem among writers. Some simply plow through, writing anything, (even nonsense), just to get through the dry period. Others take a walk or listen to music. Some, like award-winning author Reagan Colbert, work on another writing project until the spell passes.
I tried all of these. For days. But at the end of each of those days, I was still stuck.
That was when I started thinking about my source material.
What is “Source Material?”
“Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” That was said by...er, it’s been attributed to different authors, so I can’t say for sure who said it first. Or, as Hollywood director George Lucas put it, “If you steal from enough sources, people will think you had an original idea.”
The truth is most of us don’t steal. Not in the sense of intentionally taking someone else’s intellectual property, anyway. What we do is combine things that are already in our heads in new and creative ways.
My novel (still working on it as of this writing) centers on a fifteen-year-old girl named Akiko. She is blind, has amnesia, and is a martial arts expert. Some of the source material for Akiko was right at the surface of my mind when they combined and she emerged spontaneously, seemingly out of nothing. Let me tell you a bit about those “primary” sources.
I am a fan of Babymetal, a Japanese pop trio of teenage girls. One of their songs is "Karate", which is less a song about karate than a song about striving to do one’s best. Another song is "Head Bangeeeeerrrrr!", which is about a girl’s fifteenth birthday.
I’m also a fan of Zatoichi. Zatoichi is a Japanese superhero of sorts. Set in the Edo Period of Japan (circa 1880), Zatoichi is the story of a blind swordsman who uses his skill to help those in need.
These two sources combined in my brain and emerged as a dream in which Yui Mizuno (one of the Babymetal trio) was fighting off multiple assailants with karate. When she turned to face me, I could see she was blind. When I woke, Akiko had been born. Naturally, she had to be fifteen.
There are also “secondary sources” for Akiko. She is a close "cousin" to Tommy, the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” created by The Who. (Astute readers will notice the name of Akiko’s friend and confidant is Tommy.) She is a more distant "cousin" of Kwai Chang Caine, the protagonist of the 1970’s TV series Kung Fu, played by David Carradine. Caine was a martial arts expert who roamed the Old West and helped those in need. She is even a distant "relative" of superheroes such as Batman and Robin Hood. While I am familiar with all of these sources, none of them was on my conscious mind when I dreamed up Akiko.
What does this have to do with writer’s block?
Everything. Your source material, both primary and secondary, inspired your story. When I was stuck with my novel, I went back to the source.
I listened to Babymetal and watched their videos. I watched Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi. I listened to Tommy, especially Pinball Wizard. I even listened to some music I hadn’t heard before that made me think of Akiko. And it worked! I was able to rediscover my passion for this character Akiko. I could imagine some new stories about her. I could almost hear the dialogue!
Return to the source
If you find yourself stuck on a particular writing project; if you’ve tried plowing through, taking a walk, or writing something else only to find you are still stuck, you may want to return to your source material.
Identify your source material
You may have started your book, short story or article without any conscious source material, but the odds are that, unless you live in a vacuum, there was something which inspired you.
Do some thinking.
How did you come up with the idea for your WIP? Did an image come to mind? Did you think of a particularly clever line of dialogue? Were you first inspired by a character? A specific setting? An idea for an action sequence? Recall what it was that made you first think, Aha! I have a story, and write that down.
Now think of where your idea came from.
It is very possible your inspiration came from a combination of multiple sources. In the case of my story, it was a mashup of a real-life entertainer and a fictional character. See if you can think of two or three things that may have come together in your mind to spawn your idea. These are your primary sources. Write them down.
Find new sources.
Next, see if you can think of other things that may be similar to your idea. Protagonists all have something with which the reader identifies. What other protagonists have qualities similar to the character you created? What songs or poems or paintings can you think of that remind you of your WIP? These were probably a subconscious influence on your creativity, or what I call secondary sources. Write these down, too.
Finally, try to find works (books, short stories, movies, songs, paintings, etc.) that remind you of your WIP. While they did not influence you initially, they may help unlock your creativity. Write these down as well. (For Reagan Colbert, one such work is "The Robe" by Lloyd C. Douglas. Based on conversations with Colbert, it is clear she was unaware of the book when she wrote her Roman Soul Series, but the similarities are hard to ignore. If she were to write another book in the saga of Marcus and find herself stuck, perhaps a reading of The Robe would help.)
Tap the source(s)
Take a look of the list of things which inspired you. More analytical writers may want to examine this data, searching for patterns or trends. I am not very analytical. I simply surrounded myself with my source material.
Whether or not you are analytical, immerse yourself in your sources. If your source was music, listen to that. If it was an image, take some time to look at it. If it was a short story, go back and reread it. Use the things that were not sources as well. Fill your mind with the images, sounds, and ideas that make you think of your WIP to the point you can’t possibly think of anything else. Use these sources to rediscover your passion for your WIP.
What not to do
Do not imitate your sources. If your source was a short story, don’t simply recycle the plot. Instead, absorb the story and let it spark new ideas in your mind.
Also, avoid the trap of immersing yourself in your source material instead of writing. The idea is to get yourself writing again, not to fill your time with other activities.
I hope this helps you the next time you find yourself behind a “writer’s force field.” Here are the steps again:
1. Recall what inspired you to write your WIP in the first place.
2. Recall or discover what primary sources fueled your idea.
3. Discover what secondary sources may have fed your idea.
4. Find other works (literature, music, art, etc.) that is similar to your WIP.
5. Immerse yourself in all of these sources, allowing you to rediscover your passion for your WIP.
How do you deal with "Writer's Force Field"? What are some sources that you could use to help with it? Share in the comments below!