A Novel Observed #13 – Plotting Through Writer’s Block

The Writing Stage

The Writing Stage

As the title suggests, chapter 6 was not the simple jaunt that the previous couple of chapters had been. It was hard work. So hard was this work, in fact, that it almost justifies calling writing a ‘job’.

Why was it hard work? Writer’s block. Or is it Writers’ Block? Probably doesn’t matter – it’s the same thing either way. I don’t have a definition of what it is, but it happens like this:

I’ve got the laptop open. The document is on the screen in front of me, and I’ve just written, “‘What happened to you?’ asked Emma”. And now I’m stuck.

What has happened to Sebastian? What can he say in answer to this question? Why is Emma even asking this question? What does this question even mean?! What are these words? What are words? Where do they come from? What am I doing?

I probably don’t verbalise these questions, it’s more just a build up of creative frustration as I become overwhelmed by the impossible task ahead of me. Even if you’re not a writer, you know the feeling. It’s when you really want to do something – are desperate to do it – but you can’t. Not because someone’s stopping you, but simply because you feel stuck. Imagine driving to an important meeting that’s eleven minutes away, but you’ve only got ten minutes…. and you don’t know how to get there, because you’ve got no map. It’s like that.

When I was a child, I used to have this recurring nightmare in which I was faced with an overwhelming task, which, if I didn’t complete it, would land me in serious trouble with my parents. Over time, my memory of the actual content is sketchy – I seem to recall needing to redecorate a wall that I’d spoiled, before my family got home, but I could only paint it with a tiny brush and the wall was vast beyond belief… and my family was already at the front door – but the sense of crushing impossibility and frustration is still very vivid.

That’s what Writer’s Block feels like. And that’s how I felt as I sat in front of that screen.

I Couldn’t Write

So what’s the answer when you get stuck with this sort of Writer’s Block (I say, ‘this sort’, because there are other forms, which we’ll no doubt come across elsewhere on this voyage)? The problem in this instance was the plot.

This is all that I had for that section:

  • Having collected the eggs – and getting chased by the same hen as the previous day – he goes to the village church with Neil and Virginia
    • Though he finds the service a bit dull, he is pleased to see Emma there and they speak briefly afterwards

Yeah. That’s it! Sparse to say the least. Staring at the screen was not going to do any good, either for the book or for my stress levels. It was time to walk away and think about what was going to happen to Sebastian in Steepleford church. So off I went. I fed the chicken. I played a couple of songs on the piano. I did some work in the veg garden. I avoided getting dragged back to the laptop. And while I did these things, I thought about the things that might happen in the church: What would other characters be doing if they were there – the butcher, the landlord, the vicar? What would an Anglican service be like to someone who’d not been for years? Why might Emma have expected to see Sebastian the previous day?

Little by little a micro plot developed with the following points:

  • Emma expected Sebastian to go back to the shop for the dental floss
  • The butcher keeps staring across at Emma’s mother, but Sebastian assumes he’s glaring at him
  • The standing/sitting/liturgy catch Sebastian by surprise
  • He can’t focus on the sermon due to Emma’s knee touching his
  • The shared cup of communion disgusts him
  • She interrupts his monologue and makes him feel awkward

So, once these were all shuffled into chronological order, I sat back down at the laptop and started writing:

He nudged her back. ‘What do you mean, what happened to me? When?’
‘Yesterday,’ Emma whispered, her voice only just audible above the erratic organ playing. ‘I was expecting you to come back and get your – what was it? – dental floss?’