Carol Berg: Blowing up the Dam


CarolBerg-smallerI would love to say my stories blossom fully formed, and the words always flow like water from a faucet, ready to fill the empty vessels of scenes and characters, ever easy to turn on and off. But, alas, not so. Sometimes, I just can’t get that word count to budge.

The world-at-large calls this condition Writers’ Block and expects that a writer who suffers this debilitating condition might be sitting around for an indeterminate time waiting for it to ease, like toughing out a bout of spring allergies. But a working writer can’t just say oops and blow off a day, a week or a month. Working writers have deadlines.

Does this occasional incapacity mean I’m a bad writer? No. My books are by no means perfect, but I am very happy with them.

Does it mean I have a bad process? No. My creative process works very well for me. And this happens to writers who use all kinds of processes, from rigorous outlines to purest develop-as-you-go. It happens to people who are much better writers, more organized, and more experienced than I am. (Whew!)

Does it have one particular cause? Heck no. Maybe we shouldn’t call it Writers’ Block at all, as if it is a single disease or something outside of ourselves. Blockages stem from our own particular circumstances, and identifying the cause is the first step to getting past it. In my case, the inability to move forward on a writing project usually has one of two causes: fragmentation or wrong turns.

First Cause: Fragmentation

Point one. Like an old dog with a bone, my brain wants to be occupied with only one story idea (or work project or remodeling job, or whatever I’m doing) at a time, and finish it before starting something else.

Point two. I write complicated stories. They focus on one or two principal characters, but deal with multiple plot lines and the characters’ shifting understanding of the events, mysteries, and other characters that surround them. My stories are set against the background of great events in worlds that are not this one. Worlds I have to invent.

Point three. I use what many people call an organic writing process. (I hate the word pantser). I begin with some very specific ideas about characters, situations, and world, and I know where I want to go, but I develop detailed plot, settings, and characterization as I write.

The combination of these three points means that I need extended periods of concentration to hold myriad ideas in my head and produce new ideas for scenes. When my days are chopped up by visitors, unusual business demands (eg. send cover copy ideas or develop a point-of-view workshop for a writers’ conference), traveling, home projects, or even the best kinds of distractions like holidays or vacations, it limits my “clear space” for work. That’s when I can find myself unable to get moving again, even when life calms down.

Sometimes I just have to keep inching forward for a while, but when I’ve been really fragmented and progress has ground to a halt, there are two drastic things that help me dynamite the snag.

Immersion: I do a complete reread of the story-so-far and all my pages of notes and ideas. Often that’s enough to propel me forward.

Displacement: I get out of my usual home work space. The most effective displacement is a retreat to my favorite little hotel in the Rockies with some writer friends where I have nothing to do but focus on the story. (And there are eyes to notice and voices to scoff if I sit there playing spider solitaire.) Second best, a visit to a coffee shop with bottomless tea cups, bringing only pen and paper.

In either case, words happen.

Second Cause: Wrong Turns

The way I develop my stories means I start out writing a scene – or a set of scenes – with a particular expectation of where they’re going. This is the scene where Lucian meets his new contract master. Or this is the one where he sneaks into the Tower to see the doctored portraits. I bring in details of action and emotion, conversation, twists and turns as I write. But sometimes, I hit a wall. It could be in page three or chapter eighteen. but I just cannot push on, no matter how many hours I sit at the computer. Yes, I deny it, and continue to allow distractions like solitaire or email or facebook to hide the problem. But once I admit that I’m stuck, I have a few tried and true strategies. I pull out the analytical side of my brain and:

Look at structure. Where was I last happy with the way the story was going? Where was the last DustandLight_middecision point? The last plot twist? Did the developing story veer off into the weeds?

Make lists. Sometimes it’s simple confusion that gets in my way. For the Collegia Magica books, the mingling of a double-agent mystery with fantasy, I had to write out parallel lists of what my investigators knew and when, and what my villains knew and when, and what my renegade sorcerer knew and when, and such like. Following the threads allowed me to figure out what was missing. Sometimes I need to work on a timeline. Sometimes I need to trace through a character’s actions and dialog from the beginning so I can clarify goals and motivations.

Ask questions. Hard thinking is usually the answer to any story development problem. If I can’t figure out where to take the story next, I try to ferret out fundamental questions of goals and motivations. What does he want? Why did she do that cool thing I just invented? Why shouldn’t she have done it? What could she have done instead? Whose portraits have been altered? Have I made the wrong person the villain? Is this guy too obvious? If not the one I chose, who else might it be? Even if you are a strict outliner, you might come to realize that the choices you made are the wrong ones.

Call for help. Every writer should have someone – spouse, writer friend, first reader, muse – to bounce ideas off of. I am fortunate to have a most excellent friend who allows me to bombard her with the current state of my WIP, including the circumstances of the current snag. Often it is the very act of explaining with my voice instead of my fingers on keyboard that allows me to see the problem. Sometimes it is a simple question she asks that illuminate the dilemma. “But what if it wasn’t?”

Not only do these things get me moving, I very often find that the answers and insights I gain from this hard thinking are exactly what I need to take the story to a higher level.

Right now, I’m working on the second half of Lucian de Remeni’s story. Here’s hoping I can forge ahead to the end by October despite any snags along the way.

Good luck with your own snags!


Though a devoted reader, Carol Berg majored in mathematics at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado, so she wouldn’t have to write papers. Somewhere in the middle of a software engineering career, she started writing for fun, and the habit ate her life. Carol’s fourteen epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. They’ve been read, so readers tell her, on five continents, on a submarine under the Mediterranean, in the war zone of Iraq, and on the slopes of Denali. Her newest, Dust and Light, is the first in a new fantasy/mystery duology about a sorcerer who draws portraits of the dead. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls Dust and Light “captivating and satisfying” and RT Book Reviews names it “outstanding.” Carol camps, hikes, and bikes in Colorado and lives on the internet at



9 comments to Carol Berg: Blowing up the Dam

  • Nice post, Carol. I’m definitely an “Immersion/Look at Structure” kind of guy. Those are my go-tos when things start to fall apart. And my take on writer’s block is that writing is hard — it’s not supposed to flow all the time in steady currents. What some people call “writer’s block” I call “writing.”

  • deborahblake

    This is great. My critique partner just saved my butt yet again by helping me to find fixes I wasn’t seeing.

    This only part of this post that I would disagree with is the bit where you say your books aren’t perfect 🙂 I’m currently reading Dust and Light, and it most certainly IS perfect.

  • Razziecat

    First, I must agree with deborahblake. I adore your books, they’re so beautifully written and well-crafted. 🙂 I’m fascinated to hear that you don’t use detailed plot outlines; I also prefer to write without one, although like you, I usually know where I’m going (or where I’d like to go–sometimes the characters have other ideas!). This post is very helpful, as I have a couple of stories that ran off the rails and stalled; so now I get to go back and see what happened and why, and (I hope) fix it.

    Cannot wait for the second book of this duology! 😀

  • Good point, David! Yes, writing is hard work and a lot of the hard work is hard thinking.

  • Thanks, Deborah and Razziecat, and glad the post made sense.

  • Fantastic post, Carol. Thank you for all of these great suggestions. I’ve tried a few of them, but others I hadn’t considered. Looking forward to trying them out the next time I need a push. 🙂

  • Good luck, Laura! And thanks.

  • sagablessed

    Quite excellent. I have had the same issues and this helps. I am also part of a writer’s group, and am going to see if we can ‘partner’ with another member to bounce the ideas off of. I LOVE that!