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I've noted there are other aspiring authors on this site, so I thought that I would bring this issue up to see how others deal with it. If, that is, anyone does.

Let me first quote Ayn Rand from The Art of Fiction to lay a context.

"When you get stuck on a piece of writing, the reason is either that you have not sufficiently concretized the ideas you want to cover or that you purpose in this particular sequence is contradictory... " "It consists of the inability to write anything or of the fact that your writing suddenly comes out badly..."

Ayn Rand The Art of Fiction pages 4-5

Now this is a discussion of the squirms in the process of writing. I get them before the planning stage, the stage where an idea for a story is sought. It feels like stage fright. It is a mighty fine day when I get to just write with some idea in mind. I have not actually had the squirms in the middle of writing. But, I can go months being terrified of even coming around a computer (except to play solitaire and browse).

It is not like ideas do not come to me, I have them all of the time. But, once I sit to work them out I damn near go into an anxiety attack.

Sometimes I think that it could be the genre I prefer - science fiction/ fantasy. There really is very little limitation on subject matter and theme there.

Has anyone had this problem? Anybody overcome it?

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Now this is a discussion of the squirms in the process of writing. I get them before the planning stage, the stage where an idea for a story is sought. It feels like stage fright. It is a mighty fine day when I get to just write with some idea in mind. I have not actually had the squirms in the middle of writing. But, I can go months being terrified of even coming around a computer (except to play solitaire and browse).

It is not like ideas do not come to me, I have them all of the time. But, once I sit to work them out I damn near go into an anxiety attack.

[...]

Has anyone had this problem? Anybody overcome it?

I love discussions about writing problems. I am glad you presented this problem. However, I need to ask some preliminary questions first, to clear the brush a little.

When Ayn Rand speaks of squirms, she is addressing a problem at the draft-writing stage. You are talking about feeling anxiety before the planning stage. Squirms are not anxiety. They are the feeling of inner blockage -- that is, no flow from the subconscious either because the pipes are not connected correctly (internal contradictions) or are not connected at all (failure to concretize or plan in other ways).

If you want to talk about squirms, we can do that. But I suggest that the problem you have identified is something else -- anxiety over the prospect of planning the story.

How do you plan a story? Top-down? That is, after defining your theme, plot-theme, and key characters, do you make a rough outline of the plot of the whole story at one shot? Do you then zoom in on one piece at a time in sequence, gradually moving from abstract and general down to concretes (which is mostly what the reader "sees")? Or do you take some other approach?

I have many more questions and suggestions, but now it is your turn.

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Now this is a discussion of the squirms in the process of writing. I get them before the planning stage, the stage where an idea for a story is sought.  [...]

Has anyone had this problem? Anybody overcome it?

Sure.

I'd like to recommend a wonderful book that has helped many a fiction writer at all stages of writing. It is a perfect complement to Ayn Rand's Art of Fiction and, in fact, it is a step-by-step guide to the process.

It's called STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL by Meredith and Fitzgerald and you can find it on Amazon.com here.

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Sure.

I'd like to recommend a wonderful book that has helped many a fiction writer at all stages of writing.  It is a perfect complement to Ayn Rand's Art of Fiction and, in fact, it is a step-by-step guide to the process. 

It's called STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL by Meredith and Fitzgerald and you can find it on Amazon.com here.

Thank you for the suggestion!

I will get it. I'm usually scared to death to even touch one of those kinds of books; I have read some god awful ones. I think one of my problems is process anxiety. The fact that you can go about it from so many different angles I think may conflict with my somewhat compulsive orderly personality.

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I'd like to recommend a wonderful book ... It's called STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL by Meredith and Fitzgerald

My friend Sue Parker has about a dozen similar titles in her library. I looked through them all, and this one was the best.

However, has there ever been a classic created by following a how-to book? I doubt it.

So: use such books selectively ... and sparingly. Use "The Art of Fiction" for a wider philosophic orientation. But use YOUR OWN most PERSONAL values as your foundation.

Never forget: YOU are the driver. What should you write about? Who should be in your story? What should happen? What should it all mean? ... There is no substitute for being a PASSIONATE VALUER ... and creating what YOU want. For your own PERSONAL satisfaction. Not to save the world. Not to educate people. If you want to educate, go into teaching. Create what YOU want. (Cf. "The Art of Fiction," p. 58, on the importance of tapping your emotions.)

Creating a world in your own image ... based on your own, personal sense of life. That's what fiction writing is about.

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Burgess Laughlin,

I appreciate your response and questions, which I will set out to answer now.

I would still call my problem a block of some sort, but let's say it exists on a preliminary level. I know that I explained it in terms of anxiety, but that is merely the end product of the problem. It was, I think, the wrong way for me to describe it, but I actually felt myself clenching up as I was trying to explain it!

When I have managed to get to the planning stage and through it, I go all the way. Almost exactly as you described it, but I go a little further. Years ago I wrote this huge piece on the similarities between an author and a director of a movie. And how, ideally, the director owns the movie as his projection much like a painter owns his canvas.

I approach it the opposite of those authors that say they just thow up a bunch of characters and see what happens. If there is a scene that takes place in a living room, I want to know the color of the lampshade on the table next to the (green!) couch before I'll write it. I'll even act out scenes in my office if I think it will help me with the dialogue.

I think I am starting to see where my anxiety might be coming from! I never really looked at what I do when I do this. I even pick out music that I'll want to play while I'm writing a certain piece.

So, yes, I do the main three parts first not in any order for the germ of the idea of course (theme, plot, characterization) then I like to rough outline, then I like to break that down until I get every scene down (that I know at that time to be in the story-additions and subtracts have to be expected) and sometimes until I know (if I feel like knowing, but not include it) that there is a half jar of Smucker's jelly at the back of his fridge.

I think Betsy may have mentioned something that could be a problem. As I indicated I do a lot to prepare a story, but I do not have any order in it at all. It is like an unprioritized list. That would be a aspect to consider.

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I would still call my problem a block of some sort, but let's say it exists on a preliminary level. I know that I explained it in terms of anxiety, but that is merely the end product of the problem. It was, I think, the wrong way for me to describe it, but I actually felt myself clenching up as I was trying to explain it!

I am not sure I understand. You seem to be saying that this block occurs sometimes but not other times. When it does occur, however, it occurs prior to the planning stage. At that point you have some idea for a story but you have not begun planning (developing) the story. Is that right?

Is the feeling you have when you are blocked at this stage a feeling of being overwhelmed and thereby paralyzed? If so, then I know a solution. I feel that way -- for a few moments -- on every writing project I do. But I have learned how to deal with it: Divide the forest into successively smaller and smaller pieces until you get down to the level of one tree. This is the advantage of the "top-down" (generalization to specific, abstraction to concrete) approach. It is crow-friendly at every stage.

When I have managed to get to the planning stage and through it, I go all the way. Almost exactly as you described it, but I go a little further. [...]If there is a scene that takes place in a living room, I want to know the color of the lampshade on the table next to the (green!) couch before I'll write it. I'll even act out scenes in my office if I think it will help me with the dialogue.

Yes, this all seems appropriate when you are down to the level of planning particular scenes. You can construct -- imagine -- far more details than will ever appear in the draft. That's appropriate. For your subconscious to pick 5 items, it must have 10, 50 or whatever from which to pick.

I even pick out music that I'll want to play while I'm writing a certain piece.
Romance story writers do this to get themselves "in the mood." That is a technique for priming the subconscious. (By the way, this is an example, of why you should devote some time continually reading the "how-to" books of other successful writers. Even if you don't like their fiction, they may have effective techniques here and there to offer for actually producing stories. You have the values and right esthetic principles. What you are missing is specific techniques -- which they sometimes have.)

So, yes, I do the main three parts first not in any order for the germ of the idea of course (theme, plot, characterization) [...]

Right, there need not be any particular order. You can start with any of the four doors into the Story Room: Plot idea, theme idea, character idea, or situation idea. From there the process is spiraling -- going from one to the other to the others, around and around, each spiral leading you deeper into understanding (developing) those three or four elements. It doesn't matter where you start -- with plot, theme, character or intriguing whole situation (for example, a tsunami striking a town).

P. S. -- I almost skipped over this thread when I saw the main title. It was meaningless to me -- and repulsive. The subtitle hooked me however. You might consider using main titles that are more directly informative. For example: "A writing problem" or something direct like that.

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I am not sure I understand. You seem to be saying that this block occurs sometimes but not other times. When it does occur, however, it occurs prior to the planning stage. At that point you have some idea for a story but you have not begun planning (developing) the story. Is that right?

It happens everytime. But the duration is what makes it an issue for me. A few days is fine. I would guess that a lot of authors have that and to an extent it is natural. It is the stretches of weeks and sometimes months that scatter things so far afield that I actually have to go back through my writing aims and goals and purposes to realign myself. And you are correct that is the point at which it happens; between the idea and planning stage.

And it is absolutely like being paralyzed, almost like being rebuffed by a unseen force. And with computers you have to be careful or you will have spent five hours playing a stupid game, or typing "dog-poo" on google to see what response returns. Sometimes I miss my Royal typewriter.

(By the way, this is an example, of why you should devote some time continually reading the "how-to" books of other successful writers. Even if you don't like their fiction, they may have effective techniques here and there to offer for actually producing stories. You have the values and right esthetic principles. What you are missing is specific techniques -- which they sometimes have.)
Your point here is entirely correct I think. I already have the philosophic armour, so to speak, it would be entirely safe to go out there and pick up techniques that I can judge to be productive and sound. Painters learn the techniques of combining colors and brush strokes, the whole of the creative process is still in their hands.

P. S. -- I almost skipped over this thread when I saw the main title. It was meaningless to me -- and repulsive. The subtitle hooked me however. You might consider using main titles that are more directly informative. For example: "A writing problem" or something direct like that.

Yes, that was a little vague. As far as the repulsiveness goes, you can rest easy. I borrowed it from phrase in computer repair called the "blue screen of death", it is an error in a Windows environment that causes the computer to freeze, your screen goes blue, and you need to reboot. It is a fitting analogy, but it doesn't reveal the subject.

Thank you for your responses. :P

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My friend Sue Parker has about a dozen similar titles in her library.  I looked through them all, and this one was the best.

However, has there ever been a classic created by following a how-to book?  I doubt it.

I am not looking for a how-to book. What I want is snippets of technique (actually the thought hadn't occured to me until Betsy's post) from those that have already ran through the goal line a couple of times.

Just non-artistic techniques, like you said the art has to be all you.

I am definitely looking into the issue of unit-reduction in the process now. I think trying to swallow the forest instead of single trees could be just the trigger for a paralysis I experience.

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In speaking of a sort of block appearing between (1) the initial idea for a story and (2) the next stage, which is the more and more detailed planning of the story, you said:

It happens everytime.

Of course it happens every time. It is perfectly natural to be blocked between idea and planning -- if you don't do what is necessary: do the preliminary questioning and answering and more questioning and connecting and differentiating that needs to be done when you think about something. All these mental activities must go before you begin planning and as you spiral through your planning from general to specific.

What do you do as soon as you get an idea for a story? Do you carry a notebook with you? Do you jot down the initial idea and any other ideas that pop out of your subconscious mind? Do you enter the idea into a journal and begin asking yourself questions? For example, if you begin with the fourth "door" into The Story Room, a whole situation (such as a tsunami hitting a town), you might immediately start thinking about and writing down such questions as:

- Wait a minute, why does this intrigue me so much? Well, because it is a terrifying fact of overpowering destruction by nature, and I am fascinated with how different people with different values react to facts of nature.

- Okay, now I see a bit of a THEME emerging (facts and values), so what kind of CHARACTERS would inhabit a story like that? Well, I would certainly need a range of characters to show a range of reactions. And their divergent reactions would easily set up the story for ...

- PLOT! Yeah, I see, the conflicts between the characters about what to do to save the town, which the main character loves, would make the backbone of the plot. But where should I start? With the wave itself? No, probably I need to set up a conflict ahead of time. Maybe I could ... and so forth.

Do you see? No planning has started yet. It won't until you have simmered and stewed and brainstormed and researched. (How fast do tsunmais really move? What can stop them? What sort of geography represents the greatest threat and the best opportunities for prevention? Etc.) This intermediate period is not wasted. It is absolutely crucial for getting to the next stage, planning. Your conscious mind can't plan, a mostly conscious activity, if you have not stoked the boiler, the subconscious, with plenty of wood.

You can't plan until you have done your homework. You must have facts and insights and imaginings and what-ifs from which to work before you can do any more than the simplest planning.

But the duration is what makes it an issue for me. A few days is fine. I would guess that a lot of authors have that and to an extent it is natural. It is the stretches of weeks and sometimes months that scatter things so far afield that [...]

This sounds like you don't know what to do. Your mind-manager isn't giving you assignments such as: "Okay, if you are starting with situation, then you should think of what kind of characters you want here. Now, start thinking about that." Make a list of such assignments as they come to you. You are the boss of a sometimes not so swift employee who must be given specific assignments every day. But you give him space too because you know he does have imagination.

[...] I actually have to go back through my writing aims and goals and purposes to realign myself.

I repeatedly go back to my aims for every writing project. That is how you stay focused. This process of repeated "realignment" (and refueling) is the normal course of writing. It is not a sign of failure in any way.

And it is absolutely like being paralyzed, almost like being rebuffed by a unseen force. And with computers you have to be careful or you will have spent five hours playing a stupid game, or typing "dog-poo" on google to see what response returns. Sometimes I miss my Royal typewriter.

You don't need to do that if you know what to do at this intermediate stage and if you give yourself specific, doable, discrete action items.

Have you studied -- and I do mean studied -- The Art of Nonfiction? It is as valuable for fiction writers as for nonfiction writers. I and another writer -- he is a beginning fiction writer -- met monthly to discuss one chapter at a time. It has a ton of information in it. It is much more craft-oriented than The Art of Fiction Writing, which mostly focuses on the esthetics of romantic fiction.

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This sounds like you don't know what to do.

I am starting to see that. It would also explain the tug and pull between having to plan vs. just jumping in and writing which is a really long way to go about it. I have completed pieces by writing a zillion drafts: "No, that is closer...what's missing?" Then hitting another "unstewed" or unbrainstormed wall.

I think you have uncovered (at least to me) a whole sphere of pre-writing that I hadn't even considered. I think that the process I use is actually to cut off my subconscious from the activity. I get an idea, bam!, plot, theme, characters, write. I am theorizing that I am asking my subconscious to be an instant plot creator on scant data.

Have you studied -- and I do mean studied -- The Art of Nonfiction? It is as valuable for fiction writers as for nonfiction writers. I and another writer -- he is a beginning fiction writer -- met monthly to discuss one chapter at a time. It has a ton of information in it. It is much more craft-oriented than The Art of Fiction Writing, which mostly focuses on the esthetics of romantic fiction.

I have not even read it. For the main reason that I don't have any personal interest in non-fiction. However, I will certainly check it out. I wish Barnes and Noble would have a single book in-store that I want!

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I think that the process I use is actually to cut off my subconscious from the activity. I get an idea, bam!, plot, theme, characters, write. I am theorizing that I am asking my subconscious to be an instant plot creator on scant data.

This is very perceptive. In the long run you will do very well as a writer, I am sure.

Throughout The Art of Nonfiction, Ayn Rand (in Dr. Mayhew's edited transcription) discusses the constant dance back and forth between conscious mind and subconscious mind. At one stage (the draft writing stage, for example), mostly the subconscious might be the main resource (but not the only one), and at another stage (explicating the theme concept, for example), the reverse might be true. Even within stages, you as the mind-manager must be a traffic cop saying, "Okay, now Subconscious, you cross the intersection ... now Conscious, you cross."

After awhile, you will automatize these processes to a great extent, but you will sometimes have to stop and ask yourself which to rely on mostly at a given moment.

If any more points come up, I hope you will add them to this thread.

Edited by BurgessLau

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Do you carry a notebook with you? Do you jot down the initial idea and any other ideas that pop out of your subconscious mind? Do you enter the idea into a journal and begin asking yourself questions?

Dostoyevsky's working notebooks (for several of his novels) have been published. You'd be amazed how he started out with such bad ideas ... and struggled. Often he would come up with a bad idea, work on it, modify it ... still bad ... work doggedly ... slowly, painfully ... until a year later, things suddenly started to fit together or crystallize ... and he now had a good, workable plot-theme!

My own novel "The Outcasts" evolved the same way ... through a hundred pages of notes, exploring one bad idea after another ... with only here and there an idea that had potential ... searching, trying, and failing ... until after a year I finally ended up with a really promising plot-theme. Working out the entire plot took another 3 or 4 years of exciting, exhausting struggle.

Burgess Laughlin--whose skill as a nonfiction writer should be evident to everyone--is even more spectacularly talented as a novelist. Roughly ten years ago I had the privilege of reading his two unpublished novels. Both were very well written, with unforgettable characters and meaningful plots; and I learned an important lesson from him on how to concretize abstractions. And they were inspiring! To my great sorrow, he was not interested in publishing his novels. I very much hope he will change his mind and publish them, someday. I consider his novel about the struggles of a Renaissance printer, to be absolutely one of the best books ever written. I still cherish it, in my mind.

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Some thoughts on the general topic:

1. One common source of anxiety is perfectionism. If you hold on some level the idea that nothing less than an ideal, perfect work of art should effortlessly flow from you, then any stumble, pause or error will terrify you. It commonly leads to immense procrastination.

2. Books on writing techniques, literary theory, non-fiction writing, grammar, etc. can help you diagnose particular issues as you write. Having a working knowledge beforehand can't hurt, either. Check out Aristotle's Poetics and McKee's Story. (The latter is intended for screenwriters, but is useful for all fiction writing. Think of it as a guide to the mechanics of plot structure, characterization, scene composition, etc.)

3. Another source of anxiety is making decisions. There are thousands of choices to make when writing, and you can't know in advance what those will be. So you have to commit to a choice, then work from that to another one, etc. But you can't see all the way down the multiple paths your story can take. So if you get stuck down one path, do you hammer away at that point, or back up and make another choice? Or scrap the whole thing and start over? This way you can feel overwhelmed with choices that need to be made. Perhaps the cause here is a fear of making a mistake. This could also be another form of perfectionism.

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Have you studied -- and I do mean studied -- The Art of Nonfiction? It is as valuable for fiction writers as for nonfiction writers. I and another writer -- he is a beginning fiction writer -- met monthly to discuss one chapter at a time. It has a ton of information in it. It is much more craft-oriented than The Art of Fiction Writing, which mostly focuses on the esthetics of romantic fiction.

I just got it today. First new thing I have read from her in years. What a renewed delight to be repeatedly astounded! Haven't digested anything yet, but she's already flagged through at least a dozen errors of mine! It is like someone coming in and removing mountains from your path with a sweep of an arm. Still have to walk through the valley now before me (and really digest the material, of course) , but what a book!

And you were certainly right about its practical use for any kind of writing in general. This would even be of use in the simple activity of writing a letter to my mother.

Thank you a thousandfold for the suggestion! I can't wait to unrestrain my subconscious. I can hardly contain myself just on the little I've gotten out of it already!

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