Writers’ Wall

Brick Wall by I, Xauxa.

Sometimes you just hit a brick wall.  At which point there are several things you can do.  You can sit, rubbing your nose or forehead or elbow or whatever part of you took the impact.  You can look for a way to scale the wall (or get around it).  You can do all the things you need to get done before returning to deal with the brick road.  You can wonder whether you really want whatever is on the other side of the wall.  (That last is particularly pernicious–I have never had a piece of writing that, at some point, did not lie there  muttering “really, wouldn’t you rather do something else?”)  Yes, I’m talking about running into Writers’ Wall.

In my mind, Writers’ Wall is different from Writers’ Block. I would say Writers’ Block is the inability to write–that feeling of terror every time you look at a blank piece of paper.  Writers’ Wall, on the other hand, is the sudden inability to write a certain specific thing.  Very often, when I hit  Writers’ Wall, I know what’s on the other side, I just can’t get to it.  Yes, frustrating it is.

Back before Christmas, due to a concatenation of things–a healthy pile of LIFE, including work, college application season (for my daughter, not me, but the process does not leave parents unscathed), the holidays, the family, etc., I put aside the current WIP.  I took up a second–because one of the things I do when I see that wall upcoming is try to dodge around it by working on something else–and tootled away merrily on that one for a while before–SMACK–I hit a wall there.  So I took up a third, a short story I’d been toying with, and got some real traction there until…well, until I didn’t.  Another wall.  And then it really was the holidays, and other chaos, and I lopped the end of my finger off on Christmas morning, and I caught a cold, and and and.  That’s three separate pieces of fiction that have run, like little cartoon roads, right into the brickwork.  It’s disheartening.

Okay, so now it’s February.  The college applications are in and we’re in the waiting phase.  The royalties accounting for BVC is done and in.  We’ve run out of holidays and birthdays for a while.  We’re in a slight mid-season lull at work.  My finger is healing, and the bruises from smacking into that wall are fading. It’s time.

I have taken up the three WIPs (the fourth Sarah Tolerance, a stand-alone San Francisco-set urban fantasy, and a short story) and looked over them.  The short story, which needs only about three pages to be finished, is the obvious starting point (I stopped three pages from the end?  Who does that?).  So I’m tackling that first, to get it done and in some sort of scrabbly shape to pass it along to my writing workshop.  The San Francisco book has some structural issues I need to think about before I return to it, and I suspect the brick wall in that case, was my apprehension about looking at those issues (like, where the Hell is this story going?).  And the Sarah Tolerance book–again, some structural issues that need to be addressed, but something else as well: this is a series (my first, most likely my only) and I not only need to keep it internally consistent with the first three books, but allow the characters to grow (and move toward my plans for the fifth book). Also, it has to work as a story and as a mystery. I am one of those writers who starts out, barrels ahead until she cannot go any farther, then stops to regroup and rethink, the wall I have run into is not exactly a shock.

Early in my career, I literally used a ladder to get over a wall in the story.  You probably only get one of those.  Sometimes, when I know what’s on the other side of the wall and just can’t figure out how to get past it, I just pick up from the new point, write forward from there, and return later to the brickwork, which, by that time, has often crumpled on its own.  Sometimes the cure is the same as with writers’ block–give myself permission to write crap and fix it later.  And sometimes, if I haven’t already got other stalled works waiting for my attention, the answer is to flex those muscles on some other project.

Am I alone in drawing a line between Block and Wall?  Maybe it’s a meaningless distinction, but (as with so many other things about writing) it works for me.

By the way: the image above comes from WikiMedia, which was linked to what turns out to be a fascinating article on WikiPedia about brickwork.  If I hadn’t gone looking for a Creative Commons image of a brick wall, I would not now know about Monk Bond, Rat Trap Bond, or any of the other patterns of bricklaying.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Writers’ Wall — 5 Comments

  1. With the usual caveat that every writer’s process is different, and yadda yadda, it sounds like you know what’s wrong with all three pieces: something in the structure of each hath gang agley.

    What works for you in examining structure? Some people love index cards. My brain can’t deal with that. My only method of looking at structure, whether for short story or novel is to outline the main points on a single piece of paper. (I find this most useful after a whole lot has been written, actually. Though I do play around with outlines before, too.)

    I’ve heard of people making structure trees, beginning the trunk with the central conflict, and building up from there.

    Then there is always the Long Shower method. (If you’ve been super busy, maybe you haven’t had time for the magical soak? Um, given the drought, maybe that ought to be a scented bath. You get the idea. You’re in the tub, far from the computer, which means ideas are bound to flow. This method is much better than being stuck in a traffic jam on the interstate, which is another surefire way to break the log jam)

    Anyway, I hope something will work, because I am very excited at the prospect of more Sarah Tolerance!

  2. Ah, the donut hole method — just skip and go round to the other side. I am a linear writer, so this is a big gamble for me. Suppose nothing ever appears to fill in the hole?
    I know of writers who outline everything before they begin. The chapters, the scenes, maybe even the paragraphs. I knew a guy once who even charted the sentence structure, little squibs like ‘detail, detail, VERB SUBJECT detail.’ This is so, so not me. And clearly not you either.

  3. Since most days I have a 20 minute walk from the train to the office, that is sometimes the logjam-breaker. Sometimes. But part of the Life that has been happening has involved my leaving for work later than usual and getting off at a different stop, whence I have to take a five minute bus ride. And five minutes isn’t really long enough for useful meditation for me.

    Sometimes I write a list of what has to happen on the other side of the wall. It’s as close to an Outline as I get, really. At this point, the Wall has simply been there long enough that it’s sort of a fixture, and I have to break it up.

  4. I definitely see the difference between Block and Wall. I am rarely Blocked, but Walls abound. I use the ladder all the time, being a “discovery” writer. I figure that [ ] these were invented to show me where I will eventually write something that at the moment is lurking in my unconscious. Or wherever these things lurk.

  5. Skipping ahead to where I know what to write is a wonderful technique. Sometimes you don’t even need to go back and fill in the stuff between.