Friday, February 16, 2007

Writer's block and hats. (There is a connection. I promise you.)


So I know I started this whole tracking words, etc. thing a couple of weeks ago, and then had to backpedal this week while I went back to juice up a manuscript. (I have written 5,000 words of fiction -- primarily romantic in nature -- this week, in case you were missing the counts. I'm hoping I did what I set out to do, but may have to go back and address it a third time. Fingers crossed that that is not the case.)

Anyway, assuming that my rewrite is in fact done for now, I will be back on track on Monday. Well, Tuesday, really, thanks to President's Day. (Aaargh. Stupid school schedules.) On my new book. Which is languishing at around 13,000 words, and which I was hoping would be at least 20K long by now.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about today.

What I really want to address is the two hats an author wears. Or at least might consider trying to wear if she's feeling stuck. (See, I told you there was a connection!)

I had lunch with a fellow author just a few minutes ago -- she's written mainly SF and fantasy, but got an idea for a mystery recently, and wanted to talk with me about how to go about making it happen. She's got great ideas, as it turns out, with lots of twists and turns and interesting characters -- but when she pulled out the document I'd sent her -- ten blank pages punctuated only by chapter headings -- I remembered suddenly how daunting the whole concept of writing a book can be. Blank page syndrome. Only instead of filling one, you're supposed to fill about 300.

So I told her what I tell anybody who asks, and even occasionally people who don't. (I know I've talked about this before, but if you're a writer who suffers occasional writer's block, it's really important, so bear with me.)

Whenever I come up against the "Oh my God I have no idea what to write" wall -- which happens to all of us -- I step back from what I'm working on and split my writer self into two halves. Or two hats, as the case may be: the planner, and the scene-writer. The planner comes up with the scenes that need to happen -- enough scenes, hopefully, to fill a book. Then she lays them out for the scene-writer, as in "These three things need to happen in chapter one."

The scene-writer, on a given day, looks at the assignment the planner has set for her, sits down, and says, "All I have to do today is get this person from point A to point B and have her car blow up when she leaves the parking lot." Or something (hopefully) equally interesting.

The scene-writer doesn't have to worry about what happens in chapter 24, or even five pages down the line from what she's writing. She just needs to finish her assignment for the day. And if something interesting happens during the writing of that assignment? She pitches it back to the planner, who can incorporate it into the whole plan and adjust future assignments to compensate.

Now, some people are 'pantsters' -- seat-of-the-pants writers. And I am becoming more of one as time goes on. But when I'm feeling stuck, I just go right back to my planner/scene-writer split until things get going again. Because even if I write the worst scene ever written, at least I've got something to work with. If I throw in the towel and go to the movies, I'll have nothing to dissect, and I'll have a stomach-ache from all the Milk Duds I ate to distract myself from the fact that I'm not writing. Or maybe that's just me.

I have a document I use in my classes called a 'book map,' which helps my personal planner put things together. If you're interested in having a copy, feel free to e-mail me ( and I'll forward it to you.

For now, though, I'm off to exercise and then pick up my kiddo. I hope everyone is doing well and has exciting weekend plans. I don't, unfortunately; my planner is limited to scenes lately, alas. But who knows? Maybe someone will whisk me off to Bermuda.

I'll keep you posted...

And by the way, how's YOUR writing going? Was it a good week? A great week? A Milk Dud week? Inquiring minds want to know.


At 6:33 PM, February 16, 2007, Blogger Ruthie Black naked said...

Lordy, beautiful blog!

I like Milk Duds too. I'm like you, I think characters are EVERYTHING in a story!
Like me, you are a "character" yourself, I'll bet.

At 10:23 PM, February 16, 2007, Blogger Karen MacInerney said...


I may be a character, but you've got me beat in the name department. :)

Mmm, milk duds. You're making me hungry again. :)

Thanks for the blog compliment, by the way; yours is pretty fun, too! (I checked...)

Have a great weekend!


At 8:28 AM, February 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Goodmorning Karen,

I'm finally shoveled out. It took most of Thursday to do that because the snow was packed so heavily and iced over that it was nearly impossible to remove. So Thursday I got very little done on my manuscript. Yesterday, sore & not feeling well in general I set myself on the sofa after I came home from work and stood there for the night. I read a little, watched t.v. and never turned on the computer. Though, during the day I worked on a scene that was giving me problems.

I hit a wall when the scene I wrote no longer fit the plot. But it had a great cliffhanger. I there was no way I could make it work. So I went to bed Thursday very frustrated. Lying in bed I worked out a plan and how it could work and leave an equally good cliffhanger.

So far this morning I've read through another chapter and my goal today is to go through another four chapters.

I like your split personality theory. There is a part of us that needs to plan (heavy outliner or general outliner - me!) and a part that needs to be creative and breathe life into those scenes. I like story mapping, I think it's a good thing to do. When I started this book I had read a how-to book on mystery writing and the author used (mind is blank even with 2 cups of coffee - rough week) circle with lines coming off of it for suspects, timeline, etc. I really liked that and used it. It got me focused when I really needed to be.

I better go get a third cup of coffee.

Have a great day,
Debra S.

At 9:06 AM, February 17, 2007, Blogger Karen MacInerney said...


I think we read the same how-to book: Writing the Modern Mystery?

And it sounds like you had a relaxing day after fighting the weather; it's good to take care of yourself like that, especially when you're not feeling 100 percent. And that's probably what enabled your brain to shake a solution free!

I hope you have a wonderfully productive day. I plan to go to the grocery store, help move furniture, and do a load of laundry. I'm taking the weekend off from work... writing work, that is.

Sounds like you're tearing through this book you're working on. Keep me posted!

At 7:21 PM, February 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HI Karen,
Correct me if I'm wrong-- but I think you once said (in the class that I took of yours)that you meet with a writers group regularly and critique each others' works--something like a chapter each time. I thought that was a great idea. But didn't you also say that you shouldn't go back and work too hard on re-writing what you've written (because you could get stuck there)-- and instead finish the book and edit it later?
Thanks. Judy W.

At 8:05 PM, February 17, 2007, Blogger Karen MacInerney said...


I do go to a critique group, but since everyone in our critique group always has perfect chapters, there's never a problem!


In reality, I do get critiqued weekly -- sometimes there are minor problems, and sometimes there's a saggy chapter -- but I write quickly, and am usually writing at least ten chapters ahead of what the group is critiquing.

I generally take their comments and address them within a day or two of receiving them -- but in time that's not my normal writing time. In the meantime, I forge ahead.

(If it was a major issue that would affect the whole book, I might stop for two or three days to address it, but otherwise, I just keep going.)

I think the most important thing to do -- particularly if it's your first book -- is to soldier on as much as possible, and save the editing for later. Barring a quick daily fifteen-minute review of the previous day's work, that is -- that's essential for me. But avoid messing around too much -- especially with those first three chapters, which always end up needing the most work.

How's your writing going, Judy?


At 5:06 PM, February 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thankyou, Karen.That makes a lot of sense. I really like your idea that you shouldn't spend too much time correcting what you've written --and to just move on... Great advice. The mystery that I'm working on was started in NY and put aside when we were in the process of moving here. I decided to go back and work on it around the time I took your class and am now nearing the end. In fact, I'm finding it tricky to end it! I want to reveal the murderer-- but I want to do it in a way that will "pleasantly" surprise the reader.

At 6:03 PM, February 18, 2007, Blogger Karen MacInerney said...


I am SO excited that you're almost done!


Please come tell us when it is, so we can raise a celebratory glass/mug/bottle etc. in your honor...

What an accomplishment!



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