I’m starting to see why my friend didn’t continue with the lessons. When I started—and I suppose this was true of my friend as well—I was eager to get to the “good stuff.” I figured all the introductory material would soon be expanded with details and pithy secrets and methodology. With Week 3 completed, it’s becoming obvious that there aren’t going to be any details or secrets revealed.
The first Week 3 lesson is Writer’s Block. According to Robert B. Parker, it was Elmore Leonard who said, “Writer’s block is just another word for lazy.” I heard him say this at a book signing in Massachusetts and, having heard it and the explanation, I’ve thoroughly believed it to be true ever since.
I’ve hung out with writers for a long time, and I’ve heard several complain about having writer’s block as if it was mononucleosis or some other physical disease that takes a long time to recover from. One person told me they’d had writer’s block for three years. And they were serious. They were looking for sympathy. My thought (which I didn’t say out loud) was if they hadn’t written anything in three years, they weren’t a writer. They were a wannabe.
Because writers write.
If you’re stuck on a story, the best way to get over it is to write something. Anything. Or take a walk and then write something. Or color in your coloring book and then write something.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struggling with planning my next novel. I was faced, not with a blank piece of paper, but a brand new Scrivener project, because that’s the way I write. I put in three index cards—the beginning of my outline—and realized I had no idea what else happened. I did not call it writer’s block. I called it “resistance.” That’s what Steven Pressfield calls it in “The War of Art.” It appears that all writers, including very successful ones, face this resistance.
It wasn’t until I discovered NaNoWriMo that I learned to overcome resistance and just write. During NaNo, the object is to write 50,000 in thirty days. Not good words. Not even words that necessarily make sense. Just 50,000 words. That’s 1667 words every day. When the pressure to write The Great American Novel is taken off and the object is to have fun, it’s easy to write 50,000 words in a month.
James Patterson says something similar. (Remember, I’m not going to quote his lessons because he owns them, not me.) This lesson also includes a lot about his writing practice: how he writes, when he writes, etc. It’s interesting and, if you think you have or have had writer’s block, it’s probably useful. I had Elmore Leonard via Robert B. Parker.
Oh. And the logjam broke this week after I went for a walk and realized what my problem was. A series of ideas came to me, which I wrote down when I got home. I woke up this morning and couldn’t wait to get back to my new novel.
The second lesson, Lesson 9 in the course, is on creating characters. This is the best lesson so far because it includes details and lots of examples from Patterson’s own work. He talks about making characters interesting and, anticipating your question of what makes them interesting, asks what makes people interesting in real life. He does segments on the hero, the villain, and secondary characters. He also talks about creating characters who are real not only to the readers, but to you as the author. It reminded me of a story J.K. Rowling told about leaving her writing room in tears one day. When her husband asked what was wrong, she replied it was because she’d just killed off a character she loved. My opinion is, if you don’t cry at least once while writing your book, you’re not invested enough in your characters.
The third lesson of this week is entitled “First Lines.” I tend to tune out on discussions about first lines because I think much too much emphasis has been put on them. Are they important? Yes. Are they as important as some people think they are? I don’t think so.
I think part of this depends on genre. If you’re writing thrillers, like Patterson, yes, your readers are expecting a first line that sucks them right into the conflict of the novel. If you’re writing historical fiction or women’s fiction, not so much. Those readers are more patient. They’ll give you a page or two to catch their interest. Cozy mysteries, which I write, tend to be in the middle somewhere.
The rest of the lesson is more about drawing the reader in and how much effort he puts into first lines and the first chapter. Again, I have a problem with this. It goes back to entering contests where you usually submit just the first chapter or first three chapters. Writers spend months—years—polishing and rewriting those so the judges will give them high scores. But so many novels peter out after that because the author doesn’t put the same level of effort into the middle and the ending that they did toward polishing that first line. I’d rather have a bang-up ending than the perfect first line.
Now, that’s not to say you should bore the reader. I have a quote hanging on the wall of my office that says, “Stories are driven by tension, not events.” Steven James said that. It’s much too easy to get into the “This happened, then this happened, and then this happened” mode of storytelling. Those are events. If they don’t have tension, if they don’t have emotion, if there aren’t some kind of stakes involved, no one cares what happens.
And so ends week three. Week four has four lessons. I’m curious as to what they will bring.