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Almost every day I come up with new titles and rough ideas for new books to write. I e-mail them to myself, happy and longing to write them down. I have published two books, and I know I can write. But for some reason, I cannot formulate my ideas to finish one story. I get stuck, I don't find what I really search for. I find it hard to find the motivation to go through the text and find THAT ending, THAT start, THAT tone, THAT character.

I guess a lot of writers struggle with this in different ways. When this happens I say to my self: just write, just sit down, just concentrate. But what I do, is starting the next story if the first one doesn't turn out well, and then the next, the next etc ...

Maybe I had a lucky start, but writing my first two books was easy for me. The first one I wrote in less than a week, and the next one during a summer. I didn't have to force anything. I found images, turns and ends quite easy without having to overanalyse anything.

I sent the manuscript to a reputable publisher and to my surprise and joy, they accepted, both manuscripts without many changes. A common denominator between the books is that they both derive from my own childhood feelings, although the stories are fiction. I wrote them in a flow without judging what I wrote. And in the end most of the text was cut out, it was part of the process, refining the story.

It is three years since I last published a book. And I get stressed of all my colleagues that publish new beautiful books every year, and I am just struggling, having all these ideas, but can't find the essence in them that would do to send to a publisher. I don't believe that " I´m not good enough". I guess the only way forward is to write. But I wonder if there is something more, someone out there could send as a good advice. Because soon I don't know what to do, if I can't bring forth one of my stories soon.

  • "I have published two books". Can you explain the process you went through when you published those 2 books in the past? – Totumus Maximus Sep 4 '18 at 14:10
  • That is an amazing and almost unheard of story --I've never heard of ANY beginning author having such early success. I'd love to know the name of your books if you are willing to share. // Your early experiences reinforce my sense that my advice to you (in my answer, below) is correct. You need to regain the sense of freedom, openness and playfulness you had with your earlier books, and let go of judging what you are writing. It may or may not have the same success, and that is OK. // You might want to read The Alchemist, it has a lot to say about early success followed by difficulty. – Chris Sunami Sep 4 '18 at 20:43
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Usually, writer's block is a result of your inner editor overpowering your inner writer. This is a very common problem that can especially affect experienced writers, critics, and others with a large amount of knowledge about good writing, because they can't help judging their work as they write it. (There is even a well-known book and movie called Wonderboys about an author who is paralyzed by the pressure of trying to live up to his successful first novel.)

You'll probably do better if you write freely and without judgment first, and then edit and judge only after you are all finished. Of course this can be easier said than done, but there are many techniques to help. One I've found very effective is to write at a time of day when you are naturally sleepy. Another is to "prime" yourself with several pages of complete nonsense first. Some writers self-medicate (NOT recommended).

You may also want to let go of the goal state, and just enjoy the process more. I imagine when you wrote your previous books, you enjoyed the writing. Now, however, you are making it a job for yourself, and focusing entirely on the goal of publishing. I've had similar issues myself, and I've learned that being too goal-focused can be counterproductive. Earlier you were writing for yourself, and a publisher loved it. Now you are trying to write for a publisher, and it is throttling your voice. Your next book may or may not be a success --or even publishable --and either way is OK.

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Although there is more than one way to the end goal, my experience (as a fiction writer and an academic) has made me realize that most books pass from the following stages:

  1. Idea
    This is what you described. You might be watching a TV show, then you have an "a-ha!" moment. Sometimes it might come in the form of "what if this happened?"
  2. Plot
    The next stage is when you begin to formulate (either in your head or actually taking down some notes and making an outline) the basic structure:
    • What kind of people will explore the idea? (characters)
    • What kind of thing will the protagonist have to achieve? (story goal)
    • What is the problem/obstacle in achieving the goal (narrative journey)
    • Perhaps the most crucial aspect: Why is it important for the protagonist (and vicariously for the reader) to undertake this journey?
  3. Narrative
    The narrative is the part where you have to decide how to artistically portray all of the above. Will you show the past, and why? Will the protagonist have this or that trait, will s/he have this or that flaw (and why?) What kind of stylistic choices will you make (say, 1st-person narrative or 3rd? Or both? And why?)
  4. Novel
    The novel is the final product, when all of the above have been taken care of.

    As one can realize, there is a long, long way from having an idea to writing a book. Subconsciously most ideas are discarded for a very good reason: there isn't enough narrative momentum to carry them forward. And now comes the big twist, which most inexperienced writers ignore:

    Plot isn't the most important aspect of a novel

    You see, ideas (in the way you described) are almost always about plot, not about affect. The history of literature is replete with masterpieces that talk literally about the most mundane things. Yet they are made in a way that packs a lot of affective power. Think of Murakami or Shriver.

    As a final word, I have two pieces of advice for you:
    • You really, really can't force it. If you have to wait 3, 4, 5 years, then wait.
    • Experience. Live. Think. Read a lot. Get angry with the world. Love. Timeless ideas (= having to do with affect, not plot) come when one experiences. Ultimately, writing fiction is about needing to create a better reality than the one you're experiencing.
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My view:

To get yourelf to do something, there has to be some reward in it--a reward for you. And I'd go further--a reward for your brain. People get burned out at many jobs despite the reward of a paycheck, because their brain is numb to the paycheck and needs some other reward.

It sounds like you got lucky and for your existing books, you were rewarded all the way through--the excitement didn't ebb.

Now you're not getting that immediate reward. You keep switching to a new idea because the excitement rewards you in the beginning, and then the reward ebbs, and then you go on to the next new, rewarding thing. But until you find a way to deal with the ebbing-reward part of writing the novel, you're not going to get the lasting reward of finishing one.

So my advice is: Find a way to sufficiently reward yourself while sticking with one novel.

That's what has gotten my novel close to a finished first draft, and what I hope will get me to the end of that first draft. I discovered what rewards me. Rewards for me include:

1) Writing the scene that most fits and satisfies my current emotional state. If I feel deprived, if I feel frustrated at work, if I feel unsafe, if I feel free and happy, I write a scene that fits that feeling. I magnify the feeling--I may feel unsafe because my boss's email might have sounded a little curt, and the resulting scene may have life-threatening violence. The point is that riding with the flow of my current emotions is experienced by me as rewarding.

2) Polishing each scene as I finish it. In practical terms, this is a complete waste of time. Roughly half of those scenes get thrown away--partly a consequence of (1), partly a consequence of (3), partly because I'm a discovery writer who writes out of order. But reading a good polished chunk of my writing pleases me, and that's a reward.

3) If I can't write a scene that I need, I write whatever I darn well please, but it must be within the confines of the story. It must occur after the novel's beginning, before the novel's likely end, and it must involve at least one of the characters. This gives me rewards (1) and (2), and keeps me in the writing habit, and keeps me in the current story. And surprisingly often, I find that the scenes actually do fit in the story. I suspect that this is because if I want to write a scene despite seeing no purpose for it, there's some enjoyable "punch" about the scene that, once it's written, I discover a use for.

Those are MY rewards. I think that you have to find YOUR rewards, designing them to keep you writing one story until it's done.

Well, one or a very small number--it's possible that you might find the freshness of hopping from one story to another rewarding to your brain, sort of like hybrid vigor in corn. I absolutely wouldn't recommend it, but if you find that you simply can't keep your brain sufficiently rewarded with one story, you might try it.

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An idea is an image. Consider, for example:

The fraternity of critics, in reality a dark brethren, linked by profane rites and blood vows. To destroy an author they sacrifice a child and perform a critical mass…

This one is from Neil Gaiman's Sandman, one of many ideas that flow out of a character who has been cursed with having too many ideas. (That Neil Gaiman would posit this as a curse speaks volumes too.)

Now that you have an idea, start developing it. Ask questions: how did this situation come to pass? Why? What are its consequences? If you've got an end, what was the situation before? If you've got a beginning - what brings about the change? What sort of change? Your character - what do they need to learn?

Look at the idea above; there are many ways it could be developed into a story. Look at another one:

A boy falls in love with a girl from the enemy group.

This one has been developed into many different stories.

The key is in the development.

For myself, I do not stop at asking questions and finding an answer. I explore different answers, different ways the story could be developed, until I find something that feels right throughout.

So, to answer your question, take one of your ideas, the one that you find most interesting or appealing, sit down and develop it. Explore it. Ask questions and find answers, until you have not only an idea, but the rough shape of a story. Then you can sit down and write that story.

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I am a discovery writer. I recommend it highly.

For me, I begin with a character. All my characters have something "special" about them, something they are good at, as well as a flaw, often something they are not good at, and will need to get around or overcome.

Then I start putting them into "throwaway" conflict situations, which I write out, in novel form; editing and tweaking as I go. By "throwaway" I mean conflicts that won't necessarily be part of a plot or part of the book, it is just waking up with the power out; or not being able to start the car. Or their phone that they rely on heavily is suddenly dead. Basically they have some problem from their everyday life and have to solve it, so how do they do it?

For me, this helps define their setting and time, their relationships, their job, and their personality. Their "normal world". The story is going to be about this character dealing with problems, they need to be proactive and search for ways to do that. In the end it is these "throwaway" problems that will tell me what the BIG story-driving problem is going to be.

I am still not "plotting". But the goal is to find a character I find compelling, make her human, understand her normal world, and then give her a problem to solve that will change her life.

I do the same with any main characters she will meet or team up with along the way, although they will not necessarily have a life-changing problem to solve (they might, if she is saving the world, but also may just be helping her achieve her goal without changing their own lives).

If you have characters that feel real to you, and you don't let your hero stall on the problem, then the story will turn out somewhere. You don't need a plot, you need your character to have a single-minded focus on pursuing a solution to the problem, and effecting non-neutral change, what she does results in setbacks or advances, nothing neutral.

Pick your scenes so that nothing happens in a chapter that can be undone, for example, do not write chapter 7 in a way that chapter 8 can nullify chapter 7, and leave the story back at the end of chapter 6! What happens in each chapter should change her knowledge, a relationship, the situation, who is alive or dead, who is a friend or foe, irrevocably. Doing that, the story has to come out somewhere!

I only write book length stories. The greatest problem discovery writers have is with endings. The rest is easy, I don't "force" my characters into a plot. Similar to real-life friends, I have built up a "mental model" of how my characters will behave in various situations: They do what they would do. Let the chips fall where they may.

Getting to an ending: I generally have a specific ending in mind, and I keep notes on how the story could probably end, and why.

If I write a chapter, and in the process of keeping my characters true to themselves something happens that rules out the ending I had in mind, I have to come up with a new ending, at least as good. Preferably even better. If I cannot for the life of me see how to do that, I have to scrap the chapter and come up with something else; or find a way to change it that still has my characters acting consistently but making a different decision, or with a plausible but innocuous chance change in circumstances, that preserves the original ending idea. I do find new and better endings frequently, often two or three times in the course of writing.

That is my advice. If you Google "Discovery Writing" you can learn more about how this technique is accomplished. Stephen King and many others are discovery writers; aka "pantsers", meaning they write by the seat of their pants and make stuff up as they go along. I would compare that to "plodders" or "outliners" that try to figure out their whole story in outline form and then stick to it.

Even if you ARE a plotter, taking this approach to starting a book, with a strong character you have developed by writing scenes, may trigger an idea for a complete plot you can outline and want to write with this character. Nothing says you have to be one or the other; many authors hybridize these two approaches to meet somewhere in the middle.

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