So how do you avoid the horrors of severe writer's block?
A professional writer has a toolkit filled with techniques that help him manage his novel. I wrote in my last blog about two tools: theme and premise. Here's an example. "I'm writing a novel about justice. That's my theme. My premise is 'an outsider can't find justice in a small, isolated town.'" That tells me right there that my scenes are going to support my premise.
Write a synopsis or an outline, whichever one works for you. I prefer a synopsis -- not long. I can summarize my story in three or four pages, hitting the main plot points, including the ending. The plot is different from the synopsis because it is the collection of events that you choose to tell the story and prove your premise. A synopsis is an overview, hitting only the main events and noting the theme and premise. It's for the writer's benefit, but an agent may request it so she can see how you've shaped the story. It can tell an agent a lot about your writing skills without her needing to read the entire manuscript. Another writer might choose different events to tell the same general story.
Some people prefer to "find their stories" by writing and writing until they emerge. A woman I knew chose that method. About one hundred and seventy-five thousand words later, she still didn't know what her story was about.
In addition to theme, premise and synopsis or outline, the central dramatic question should be a part of your toolbox. It's the question that ties your plot together and helps form the narrative spine, the series of scenes that support your premise. The central dramatic question should turn up fairly soon in your manuscript. In the case of my first novel, The Starlite Drive-in, it's in the first sentence: "I wasn't there when they dug up the bones at the old drive-in theater, but I heard about them within the hour." The sentence prompts the reader to ask, "Whose bones are in that grave and why?" The central dramatic question (CDQ) isn't revealed until the last chapter of the book and is intended to keep the reader turning the pages to find out the answer.
If your story doesn't lend itself to asking the CDQ in the first few pages, you can introduce other story questions that are answered early in the book and lead your reader to the CDQ. The central dramatic question is less abstract than the theme or premise. The theme of The Starlite Drive-in is "entrapment," and the premise is that "love can free the human spirit." The CDQ should be very clear to the reader. It's not a guessing game.
To summarize, your writer's toolbox should include the following:
3. Central Dramatic Question
4. Narrative Spine
5. Synopsis or Outline
I'll talk about further techniques in future blogs.