When Something Isn’t Working

When something isn't working, there's a reason.   Doll_head_snow_264063_l

I know.


But how many times have you sat at your computer, beating your head against your desk, trying to make something work that isn't working?  Trying to force a character to do something she doesn't want to do, or writing a scene in a location that just doesn't resonate with you, or creating a plot point that seems forced and unnatural?

I've done this a million times, doggedly writing even when the nagging voice inside of me informs me that something is wrong.  Something isn't working.

And often it takes quite awhile before I listen.

It happened again earlier this week.  I've been diligently getting up to work on my novel first thing every morning.  I love, love, love the idea for the plot of the novel.  But I've not been able to wrap my brain around the protagonist.  No matter what I did, I couldn't bond with her.  Couldn't feel her voice inside me or get it onto the page.  But I kept writing, telling myself that the voice would come.  Except finally, one morning, I realized that what I was writing was so dull and lifeless that nobody, even me, would want to write it.

Now, I know full well that it is not a good thing to listen to such voices when you are writing. Except for when it is.  

When you are writing and writing and begin to feel like your driving a car on snow and you can't get any traction, it is maybe time to take a wee break and ponder. Which is what I did.  Luckily, on the day I decided it was time to hit the brakes and quit spinning my wheels, I had an appointment with my coach.  We discussed the problem in detail and I finally realized that I was trying to force myself to write about a character in a profession I knew nothing about and didn't care to learn.  So that gave me the freedom and the courage to start over–not with the plot, but with the character.

But, here's the deal.  If I hadn't been writing, I wouldn't have figured out that it wasn't going to work.  If I had sat around thinking about it, I'd still be sitting around thinking about it.  I wouldn't have discovered that there was a reason for my writing paralysis.  And so, even though in some ways I've gone backwards, today I'm a happy camper. 

Because knowing what's wrong lights a path to change it.  And, figuring out that there is something wrong in the first place is sometimes the most illuminating moment of all.

What about you?  How do you figure out when something is wrong?

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10 Responses to When Something Isn’t Working

  1. janet 03/12/2010 at 07:35 #

    Seth Godin wrote The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (affiliate link) where he talks about this very thing, albeit not from a writer’s point of view. It’s about being able to determine whether you’re going through a rough patch, or making the tough call to throw in the towel.

    It’s true what you say, though. The best way to discover what isn’t working is by doing the work.

  2. Charlotte Dixon 03/12/2010 at 09:18 #

    Janet, I keep meaning to check out Seth’s new book, and now you’ve given me reason to. Thanks for the line, “the best way to discover what isn’t working is by doing the work.” You always sum things up so succintly

  3. Elizabeth 03/12/2010 at 10:07 #

    I let my characters write letters to me telling me what they need, where the want to go, what they want to do, if they even belong in the story. They’ve told me when I need to change their professions or write their hair red instead of black. I let them nag me to write them; I let them tell me things about themselves that will never appear in the novel. They’re so much more interesting and aggressive than I am.

    I know this sounds crazy, like I’m hearing voices or something. And maybe I am, but what a fun way to live, huh?

  4. Charlotte Dixon 03/12/2010 at 21:07 #

    Elizabeth, I think it takes a certain amount of crazy to be a writer…and that is why your suggestion sounds very sane to me. Thanks for a great tip.

  5. Patty - Why Not Start Now? 03/12/2010 at 22:50 #

    I like this story, Charlotte. It reminds me of the one in “Art and Fear” about the instructor who splits the class in two. One group is tasked with making the perfect pot, the other with churning out as much work as possible. Of course the churners end up doing the most beautiful art, learning what works and what doesn’t all because they are constantly creating. Just like you who kept writing. I’m not always so good at that but I absolutely know what you’re saying is true.

  6. Derek 03/13/2010 at 01:11 #

    “If I hadn’t been writing, I wouldn’t have figured out that it wasn’t going to work.” Wow.. I like this! I can so identify with it!

    I have to go through all the ‘wrongness’ and all the ‘not-working-ness’ to discover what is right and what is working. After all, right depends on wrong to be right and working depends on not-working to be working.

    “Except for when it is” How very Zen Charlotte!

  7. Angela Artemis 03/13/2010 at 07:45 #

    When I’m writing and it isn’t working – at first I force myself to keep going to see if I can push through the junk to get to the good. If that doesn’t work I stop and take a break. I will move about to get the juices flowing again, or meditate and ask my higher self to send me the information I need to set me back on the “write” path. When I quiet my mind – the answer arrives on its own.

    Elizabeth, I don’t think you’re crazy at all. Writing a letter to your characters and allowing them to lead you – is a wonderful way to receive intuitive insights.

  8. J.D. 03/13/2010 at 04:47 #

    Not only is her head detached, she is . . . blond as well!

  9. Walter 03/14/2010 at 22:41 #

    When we take actions upon our goals, we will learn something that we would not otherwise know. This is the beauty of making an act rather than be stuck in ruminating. Without making an effort in trying, we can never expand our learning and experience. :-)

  10. Charlotte Dixon 03/15/2010 at 20:51 #

    Patty–I’d forgotten that story, and its a good one, thanks for the reminder. I absolutely know that it is true that the answer is just to churn the work out, but it is hard for remember when the work isn’t going well!

    Derek–Yes, we have to go through all the wrong sometimes and it can be a very Zen experience, that’s for sure!

    J.D., her head blew off because something wasn’t working and she couldn’t stand it any longer!

    Angela, Good advice. Sometimes we keep pressing and pressing and nothing comes and then it is even more discouraging!

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