Friday, October 23, 2009

The Angle of Attack

by Helen E. H. Madden

Okay, picture this. It's Thursday night, last night in fact, 8:30PM and I'm sitting at my desk with a document open on the screen. The kids are in bed, and by all rights I should be too since I got up at 5AM, but I can't go to sleep because this week's story isn't finished. Normally, I would have gotten my week's writing done by Wednesday morning, Thursday AM at the latest. But not this week. Even though I'm a pro at churning out the tales, events have conspired this week to put me behind schedule. I've been sick. I've had insomnia that's left me half-dead during the hours I would normally be writing. I've had doctor's appointments that ate up half my work hours. One of my kids was sick, thus eating up the other half of my work hours.

Oh, and I've had writer's block. Joy.

Writer's block doesn't happen to me often, but when it does, it always strikes at the worst possible time. Writer's block likes to sneak up on me when I'm pressed for time or not feeling well, when I've got too many things to do and not enough time to do them in. Usually, this happens in the summer when both kids are home and spending all my time with them trumps sitting at the computer typing out stories. But this past October has been pretty bad with me being sick in bed twice and my youngest spending a week home with strep. Naturally, I cannot write under such circumstances.

Just as naturally, I refuse to concede I cannot write under such circumstances.

If you want to cure writer's block, commit yourself to a deadline. I mean really, truly commit yourself. And not to a deadline you set, but to a deadline someone else set, a deadline you promised you would meet no matter what. In my case, my deadline is set by my podcast, Heat Flash Erotica. I have to write a story a week for this show or I'll be sunk. I've got an internet radio station, www.RadioDentata, waiting for me to hand them the latest episode for Thursday evening. Then that same story drops into my podcast feed first thing Friday morning, when several hundred listeners are waiting to download it. You see, I made these folks a promise to deliver the goods every week, and I have to follow through or my name is Mud.

And honey, my name is never, ever Mud.

Here's how my lousy week with writer's block went. On Monday, I sat down at my desk like I always do, opened up my writing notebook, and looked at the ideas I had written down for this week's story. They all stunk. Oh, I had so half-assed scribbles about someone attending their own funeral, but no specific idea of where to go with it. So I spent my writing time that morning scratching some more in my notebook, trying to see where that idea would go. It went nowhere, of course.

On Tuesday morning, I had to finish up some production stuff on the latest episode of the podcast. I had meant to do this last Sunday, but I wasn't feeling well then and I had promised to make Halloween costumes for the kids that weekend, and well, you know how it goes. So there I was on Tuesday morning, editing audio and uploading MP3s to Radio Dentata and my podcast feed, thinking, "It's okay, I've still got a couple of days to write this story. And I don't really have a good idea yet. I'll work that out later today." Only I didn't work out my story idea later that day because I had to go to the doctor's office, and then I had to run errands and then I had to get to work on this new website I'm designing, and well... The story continued to go nowhere.

On Wednesday morning, I got up, determined to write. I didn't feel good, and I wondered if I had caught the strep throat my youngest had had the week before. I managed to stay up long enough to write 800 words of a story before crawling back into bed. I got another hour of sleep, then got up, saw my oldest off to school and, oh wait! Wednesday is play date day, the day my youngest stays home with me. (Wasn't she just home with me all last week when she had strep throat?) So after making the beds and folding the laundry, I take off with my daughter and we spend all day at Chick-Fil-A and then I come home and there's still that website to design and I haven't answered e-mail in two days and my god, look at how much e-mail there is sitting in my inbox, I've got to sort through that mess now and you know, I just realized that 800 words I wrote this morning is the wrong damn story! I hate when that happens. It's a perfectly good story, but it's going to be about 10000 words long, and I can't get 10000 words written by my Thursday deadline, not to mention which stories for the Heat Flash podcast are supposed to be short, meaning 3000 words or less. That means I'm going to have to start all over again tomorrow morning...

And so my story continued to go nowhere.

Thursday morning, I had to drag my sorry ass out of bed. I still didn't feel well, but I had to write or else I was screwed. So I crawled my way up to the office, sat down at my computer, opened up the story, trashed just about all of it, and started all over again. The new story was better, and I got another 800 words written to replace what I'd tossed earlier that morning, but it still wasn't quite right. What the hell was wrong with it? What was wrong with me? I knew there was a story in there somewhere, something about a man with too many wives who dies and suddenly has to make amends for not telling these women he'd been married to more than one of them at a time. It was there! I could feel it, but there was a wall around it, a big thick cinder block wall between me and my story, and I didn't like that one damned bit, no siree Bob.

Thus yesterday I had reached the point where the rubber meets the road. I had a story I couldn't get at. I had a writer's block I couldn't see around. I had a deadline coming up too damn fast. My weekly stories have to be written by Thursday night, because I'm supposed to spend Friday and Saturday morning recording and editing, and then get everything posted by Sunday. Now I'm no fool. I write my stories a month in advance so I wasn't in too dire straights if I busted this week's deadline, but I've been writing a story a week for over two years now, and I was damned if I was going to ruin my good record now!

So Thursday evening, after the Hubster came home and took the kids off my hands, I climbed back up to my office and sat down at my computer and rolled up my sleeves. "This is it, you son of a bitch," I said to the story on my screen. "It's me versus you. One of us is going down tonight, and it ain't gonna be me!" And then I started writing all over again from the beginning.

Writer's block is like that old children's song about tramping through the wood until you reach an obstacle like a river or a mountain or a wall. You can't go around it, you can't go over it, you can't go under it, you gotta go through it. And that's what I did. I sat down with my story and attacked it from every angle. I slapped my main character around until he told me a few things I needed to know. I killed off some of the secondary characters, sending them to that great secondary character graveyard in the sky. I forced another character to become someone entirely new, and then I tortured and twisted the plot line until suddenly I had an idea that made sense. Well, it made sense to me anyway, and that was all I needed. Then I sat down and typed, from start to finish, and occasionally I jumped around a bit, fixing this line here and that line there as the story slowly began to cooperate and come out from behind that damned wall. It took me two hours to write 3000 words. And suddenly my story was done.

This is how it works with writer's block and me. If a story doesn't work one way, I come at it another way. I switch up the angle of attack, assaulting the problem from every direction. It can be difficult, especially if I don't know exactly what the problem with the story is. But it's not impossible to solve. I just have to keep pounding away at it, fighting with the damn thing until it cries "Uncle" and gives me what I want.

It ain't pretty and it ain't nice, but I tell you what, it gets the job done.


  1. Helen,

    To me this looks like the 'Dirty Harry' approach to dealing with writers' block.

    Great post, and a brilliant single-minded approach to dealing with the problem.



  2. Whew, Helen,

    Your military training is showing...!

    Seriously, though, I agree that determination is the only way to get through the experience of being blocked. I like your idea of coming at things from different directions as a strategy for shaking a story loose. It's a bit like free association, which I sometimes use. Okay, there _this_ now what does it remind me of...

    I do hope you are finally feeling better. And congratulations, by the way, on your new Mundania series.


  3. I use the Nike motto, "just do it"

  4. Ashley,

    Yeah, it is pretty Dirty Harry style, isn't it? But hey, I've never done it any other way. I can't stand writers who think, "Oh, I must lure my muse into revealing what I should write." I'm definitely the kind of gal who would rather wrestle a story into submission than wait for inspiration!

  5. Lisabet,

    You know what's funny? Yesterday afternoon, before I wrote this post, I spent an hour in karate class, practicing sparring techniques. One of the things we worked on was "angle of approach." It didn't even occur to me until after I posted this article that I had been attacking *something* in one form or another all day!

    Thank you for the congrats! I better update my book in the sidebar, huh?

  6. Secretia,

    Exactly! Why sit and whine about writer's block? Just do the damn writing already. Even if it sucks, you've still got words on the page to work with!

    Thank you for the comment ;)

  7. Helen,

    Attack and conquer! Sounds about right. If it won't work one way, go at em from the rear. I kinda like that idea. LOL

    One thing I'd argue. The self imposed deadline can be just as rigid as one imposed by someone else. If you're stubborn, it really doesn't matter. Not that I'm saying your stubborn... but well... you know. LOL

    Good post!


  8. Jude,

    My deadline is sort of self-imposed, but it took on additional weight as the audience for the podcast grew, and then even more weight when it got picked up by Radio Dentata. I agree that for the stubborn, self-imposed deadlines will definitely work, but unless my deadlines have definite consequences beyond, "Oh well, it just didn't get written," then they don't work so well.

    Thanks for the feedback ;) Now to get ready to seize the day on next week's story!

  9. Nice approach to an PITA block, Helen. I've been fortunate that writer's block hasn't been a problem with me, but there are days when you just cannot bring yourself to produce anything.

    Plus there are those pesky "real life" situations that get in the way.

  10. Great post, Helen. I wouldn't want to come up against you in a dark alley, that's for sure!

    Have a great weekend.


  11. Liz,

    It's always real life that causes me problems. My imaginary life (i.e. my stories) are much easier to deal with. Unfortunately, I cannot slap around the problems of my real life like I can my story characters ;D

    Thank you for the feedback!

  12. Jenna,

    You know, you're not the first person to say that to me. I don't know why people tend to think I'm scary. Honestly, I haven't killed anyone in ages!

    You have a great weekend too, Jenna!

  13. Having a character-driven process, I can't slap a character into being what he/she is not. I can, however, choke the story out of the POV character/s.

    Glad you got it finished.


  14. "One of us is going down tonight, and it ain't gonna be me!"

    Wow. What man hasn't longed to hear those words from a woman.

    I read your story on ERWA!. It was fun, I liked it. Your hard work on it shows.


  15. Undoubtfully great article u have here. I'd like to read a bit more about such theme. Thnx for posting this material.
    Agnes MORRIS


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.