This is a part of a larger series of articles which are tools for me to form together a basic and general course on writing for my local town, God willing. I have recorded the first two lessons, but have not yet made any money. If you would like to support me in order to see more, you can go to paypal.me/nathanielslattery. I need to make $50 per class to justify it currently. Because of the nature of it, I will assume that you are reading the article in order to learn what I have proposed with the title. Therefore, I will not attempt to tickle your ears with any other frills in the introduction.
The second problem which tends to cause a writer’s block, or rather the second category of problems, are all technical. That is to say, writers often do not possess the technique necessary in order to progress their story. This is unexpected for some. That is because writing is an art and in the field of novels especially, a very ill-defined one. Other forms of writing and composition have a similar problem not because there are no rules, but rather because people are no longer willing to set rules on anything, lest they limit creativity. But it is very obvious to anyone that there is no creativity without rules. That is the lesson of the Ten Commandments. To not follow the Ten Commandments is not to be creative, but rather to be destructive, and if destruction appears similar to creation, it is because sufficient time has not yet elapsed to reveal its nature.
In order to begin to address the “rules” of writing, which I only grasp imperfectly (because of the pitiable state of my generation), it seems prudent to begin by defining the sorts of stages which a writer may pass through as he develops his abilities. This allows him to have a map of the whole region in which he lives and travels, so that he may know where he is and to where he is going. This, I think, will be the best immediate alleviation to the feeling that confronts any man who looks at a blank, white page, and forgets whatever it was that he wanted to say and do.
This is a high-level way of looking at it, meaning that it is high up in perspective, and these stages therefore are large categories that encompass a complexity of more specific technique and principle that are not necessarily wedded to the stage, but may exist in one or the other at a different time, as a sort of commerce between them. For instance, a person at the stage of writing short stories might have a great skill of description and be capable of filling pages and pages with description that is pertinent to the story. This is more appropriate to somewhere able to complete a novel. But if he is deficient in other necessary areas, than that prevents him from being in a further stage.
Besides the benefit of simply knowing the stages, I have also endeavored to come up with a few solutions for advancement at each stage. All of this is based on my personal experience.
The stages are: Ideas, Scenes, Short Stories, Novels, Series, and Ending Well.
I progressed through the first three from ages 8 to 13 or so, when I completed my first novel, Splendor, that I recently rewrote and rereleased. At this point it is hard to say that I was in the stage of writing novels, because I had not yet developed the consistent skill and habit of doing it. That is important to know. You may have written a novel, or written a short story, or written a scene, and yet still be in the previous stage. This applies as well to the later stages. Someone may have written a great book with an excellent ending, effectively putting him at the last step of the process which we are now approaching, and yet be still in the first stage. That is because it is a definition of what you are able to consistently do, a sort of progression in the occupation, rather than any single achievement.
The idea stage is characterized by having more clear pictures in your head than you are capable of putting down on the page. This is interesting to note, because good authors often find that they have put more on the page than they had in their head. That is because the act of writing becomes a manner of developing their thought, which is the appropriate use of it. You will see this I think in the Church Fathers. I have seen it in St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. I think that these good and holy men, as they wrote, were able to better grasp and understand the very considerations that were passing through their mind, because of the solidity of the medium.
This is why this stage is the first and represents a complete inability and undevelopment in writing. It is the formless chaos with which God begins.
Before moving to separations and division, God produces light. We have to do a similar thing at this stage, since we have absolutely nothing yet produced. Many people at this stage waste their energies and efforts with outlines, maps, character biographies, and similar tools. These are not appropriate at this stage, since you have a preciously small amount of creative energy, and all of that needs to be funneled into making something new.
Therefore, you can do these things:
1) Take the ideas in your head that are greater than the page, and retain them carefully. Do not write them down, but leave them in your head. When you go to write, write what is necessary in order to get to these things. That way, you have something pulling you onwards.
2) Study the books and authors you know. Focus on their small methods within chapters that generate the story, such as dialogue, paragraphal transition, description, action, object, and the like.
3) Read more, both fiction and non-fiction (in the form of writing manuals).
4) Force yourself to write. Understand that every jot and tittle is valuable at this point, in the way an infant’s movements are valuable, because they are the beginning of a faculty that you have only just discovered. Writing is a long and complex labor. Do not have an impure motive, but be attempting to glorify God by teaching yourself a thing that has a special role in society.
5) Take what you have written, once you cannot go further, and compare this to a good book. Try to find a similar scenario, even if it is much better in quality, but similar in components (for instance, action, then dialogue, then description), and see what comes next in their sequence. Then artificially make yourself do what they did, the same component, even if you have no inspiration.
You know you are in this stage when you have written the beginning of five different stories that are completely unrelated to each other. Rather than continuing what you have already written, “inspiration” seems to be always driving you to the next thing. This is like trying to start a fire and always setting off sparks. The problem is likely that your kindling is not arranged to work together.
The solution is simple, and I have written about it before in the article “I Will Teach You How to Write”, where I do it right in front of you. After you have written your first scene, when inspiration comes for the next one, go ahead and write it down if you have a poor memory, but change everything which you need to in order to make it fit the last. Practice detachment to your work.
This is the main method I find, and the one which I used that finally got me moving forward to make a book. You might also share what you have written with someone else and ask them what they are wondering about it or what they think might happen next. However, do not use that tactic if you are easily discouraged.
You now have a plot. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, with at least one character. But it is probably only a few pages long, or at best maybe twenty. Theoretically, you could go up to about fifty.
The problem at this stage is sheer capacity. You do not have enough within you in order to put it on the page. That is why things ends so quickly and so simply. You would be well-served by going out in the world and experiencing more things, observing the way objects work, people speak, and events occur. Consider journaling. Take time to reflect over events in the course of years, think through their details, and see how things run together.
When I read a short story today, I am not sure how I used to write them. There are so many unanswered questions! Even when I wrote them, I was mysterious rather than succinct. And that is the thing about short stories. They can often be made into entire novels if a person just had the diligence and capacity to do it.
What you can do is this:
1) Write anthologies. That is, collect your short stories together, if you are in the habit of writing several. Then examine them to see common elements. Next, write them all along the same topic or in the same setting. This is very similar to what is done in the previous stage, except that there are more complexities and components with which to work.
2) Continue to study novels. See their full structure. See what should happen next and what causes further events to unfold. Usually, characters have deeper histories or futures; travel causes new settings with new problems on the way to the destination; or challenges are larger than at first appearance.
3) As you study these novels, look at how much time they devote to different large mechanics such as background of a character, description of a setting or object, action, dialogue, and then apply this same quantity to your own writing by force.
4) View yourself as experimenting. You are an apprentice attempting to make one good item, used to only making the small constituent parts for someone else to finish.
5) Incorporate a discipline such as one hour a day, one page, etc. I would write eight pages in a handwritten notebook, which was about one page typed.
A novel is a large and complex endeavor, as I have said. It may be one thousand or one thousand pages, five thousand or one hundred thousand words. This is hard to believe when you are writing your first scene and look to see how much blank space is below you. But when you actually have done it, you will find that it feels very incomplete.
Think about the number of things that occur to you on a single day. Now think about a single hour. Think about all the things which you see and do not see. Now think about all the people in the world experiencing a similar amount of input, the people in your nation, the people in your neighborhood. These things can fill pages very, very fast.
The truth is, it is not about filling pages. There may be some brief times where you find yourself doing that, but you will spend most of your novel writing time (if you get to this point) cutting out and removing the useless bits. This is how God makes things. He produced everything in the beginning with a single thought and in a single instant, and then He spent the rest of the six days separating and dividing. Still He is doing that today. That is what He does with us, and that is why we live our lives in time, so that the evil can be separated from the good.
So in your novels, imitate Him. We operate in an art form, the only one I know, which has more in it than it has to say.
It is obvious when you are in this stage because you have written a book. It may not have a very good ending. Very usually you have ended it at a somewhat arbitrary point, promising yourself that you will address the rest in a sequel.
The main advice I have for anyone at this stage is to not think you have done this for the purpose of a single book. You are not that important. Now, you can walk away if you like, but I personally think that at this point you have the most to gain and the least to lose. Whatever you have already written is probably just the beginning of what you could actually do. But unfortunately, most people get seduced into the marketing game, or some other aspect of promoting their writing, or something tangential to the actual creative work, and they stop here. As if you were doing this to get rich.
You need to keep writing. Start a new book right away. Challenge yourself to a new genre, new topic, new setting, new gimick, whatever, something that pushes your edges. Or else write your sequel. That is fine. There is something challenging and interesting about continuing the ride with the current passengers, since life is eternal anyways.
You are now a journeyman, and you are gaining experience.
Now it is fun and easy. You write and write and write. You are not like the people who got their one book and thought they deserved a break. No, it is a part of your way of thinking and acting, where you just produce stories.
At this point, it is not so much a new act of beginning, since you have a constant flow that waxes thick and thin. Granted, there is a sense in writing, since it is such a laborious process, that you might ever run out of things to say and grind to a halt. I have not yet discovered if this is an illusion or not. I have stopped writing for up to two years here and there, but it itches and grinds at me all the time, even if I have nothing to write. I always end up doing it again.
Now the trick is to improve what you are doing. This is the time for the tools which were your distractions in the beginning. Use your outlines, your maps, your whathaveyous. Anything. Especially as you come close to the ending point of a story. Do not just whip it out there like the goal is to finish. Try to really do something special this time. You will do it better if you know your own content very well.
However, do not reread your books too much. You will become numb, and it will pass through you without making an impression.
This then is the goal. Great novels end well. You walk away thinking about it, and you have a hard time ever stopping thinking about it. As Thomas Aquinas and apparently Aristotle describes the intellect when it encounters an intelligible object, it has been added to your form, it has permanently affected the shape of your intellect. An example springs to mind in Tale of Two Cities and that was just Dickens, who did not even have the right Gospel to help him.
There is a lot to be said about this stage. It is an ongoing thing permanently in this occupation. I have said much more about it, and you can find that here: https://youtu.be/mPu5Zn8PGCU?si=j9xe7O2MwQNdmUvq
May the Lord reward you,
St Jude pray for us,
In Cordibus Sancta Familia,
Mr. Nathaniel Slattery