Writing Troubles

I don’t know how many other writers have this problem, but if I can’t visualize a scene, it’s like banging my head into a brick wall to get through it. I’ve hit that point in my current work in progress. I have a solid opening to the novel, and I know where I want to go with it. I have clear ideas about the themes, tone, characters, motifs, plot, and many of the settings. Now, usually, I just go from the last section I’ve written and see if things start to connect up. Usually, once I start writing, I start being able to picture the events unfolding, and it all goes fine. So what happens when, like now, the scene doesn’t start playing out on its own?

It’s not exactly writer’s block. I can write what the character is thinking just fine. It just isn’t going anywhere. Here are some steps I generally take to move forward:

  • Keep writing what the character is thinking – I can always trim it to a “scraps” file if it isn’t necessary to the book – until something clicks.
  • Work on the setting. Where is the scene taking place? Did I pick that setting for a reason, or was it just the first thing I thought of? If the former, then why is that setting important? What about that setting helps move the scene forward? Is there something the character notices in the setting that causes a reaction or a realization? If I picked the setting because it was just the first idea I had, then (a) Was there actually a purpose to the setting that I didn’t realize? and (b) if not, is brainstorm at least three alternative settings and try them out. For example, did I pick a coffee shop because that seemed like a “normal” setting? Do I even want a “normal” setting for this scene? What if I picked a library’s room for rare and antique volumes, an abandoned train station, or the alligator house at a zoo?
  • Work on the details. Going off the previous idea, if I want to picture a setting, I need to think about the details if they aren’t coming automatically. Usually the first place I start is making sure I have at least one detail per sense – sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. And touch doesn’t have to be texture. It could be air pressure, humidity, temperature.
  • Find something external that inspires you. For me, music is often the key to getting my brain going. If I hear a song that fits the story or the character, everything can just click into place at once. Some of my favorite scenes from Erica Flynn came about entirely as the result of daydreaming while listening to music. Something I like to do these days is look around Pinterest for inspiration. Between the architecture, nature, art, and travel pins, there’s usually something that strikes me and gives me something to start with.
  • Writing exercises. There are plenty of writing exercises to get you going when you don’t have a story yet, but there are also plenty out there to help you once you’ve got a story going – and even for the revision process – and are having trouble getting it where you want it. My personal go-to when I’m struggling is Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, which is chock-full of advice, examples, and exercises for character, plot, setting, tension, bad guys, good guys, and everything in between.
  • Back up. Instead of trying to force a scene that’s lying there like a miserable blob on the page, consider that it might not be working because you’re trying to do something wrong for the story. Are you ignoring a character’s reservations about something? If so, back up and use those reservations to create inner conflict – that’s prime stuff! Are you trying too hard to make something happen that doesn’t need to happen? Are you trying to put in a scene that isn’t necessary, that’s just padding in the end? Are you writing yourself into a corner? Sometimes you subconsciously know better, and it’s worth listening to the signals. For example, I just realized that I’m totally ignoring the fact that, even though my character has motivation to do something she’s been asked to do, she currently has no reason to be in a hurry about it. *facepalm* Maybe that’s why I’m stuck, d’ya think?
  • Talk to someone. Another writer, a friend who likes to read, a friend who hates reading but likes good movies….anyone you trust to give a damn if you need to vent about your writing frustrations. Sometimes, like anything in life, you’ll find the answer in talking about it. Sometimes, other people ask good questions and have good suggestions. And sometimes, you end up with a great brainstorming session.
  • Chill out and do something else for a while. It may not look or feel like you’re writing to anyone else, but some of your best work as a writer happens when you’re not typing or scribbling things in a notebook. Daydream for a while. Cook. Draw. Color. Go to work. Get groceries. Take a shower. Take the dog for a walk. Go to the park. Call your mom. Go out with friends. Sleep on it. Your brain will still work on your story. The best part of your brain – your subconscious – is always working on your story. Just make sure you sit down at that computer or scribble in that notebook again tomorrow.

Well, since blogging about my frustrations seems to have pinpointed a trouble spot, I think I’ll go do something else for a while and then try sitting back down at the laptop again later!

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yWriter 5, and Why I Might Become an Outliner

Thorough outlining is not generally my thing.  My attitude is usually more like, “Well, this is a cool storyline, and I know where I want it to end up.  Here’s a couple cool things that could happen in the middle.  Let’s connect the dots!!!”  But.  It’s very hard to pace an entire novel with the by-the-seat-of-your-pants method.  It can be done (though probably not in a first draft, unless you’re the Mozart of novelists), if you’re willing to tear the entire thing apart and put it back together a bunch of times.  But.  I’d like to make it a little easier on myself for the second Underworld novel, especially since there will be multiple points of view involved.  It was hard enough keeping things on track with just Erica, let alone the crazy-ass hooligans who’ll show up in Book II!

So I’m using yWriter 5, a free program by Spacejock Software for novel outlining.  What, good ol’ pen and paper isn’t good enough anymore? you ask.  Index cards were good enough when your mother started HER second novel, you sneer.  But, dear reader, it was my mother who told me about the yWriter Project, so…dear reader, kindly shut yer gob.  (J/K, you know I love y’all!)  Point being, yWriter is pretty sweet.  It seemed a little complex and overly-detailed to me when I first started playing around with it, but now that I’m really trying to get this novel laid out, I’m seeing the usefulness of all of the program’s tools and reports.

Example 1:  You can rate each scene’s relevance to the main plot, as well as its humor and tension level.  Then you can look at a chart of all your scenes and see how the flow of your plot builds, the build-up and release of tension, and the ebb and flow of humor throughout the course of the novel.  If there’s no forward movement of the plot in the entire middle section of the book, you’ll see it visually right away.  If you have no tension in the first section of the book, you’ll see it in the chart.  And if the first half of the book is funny and the second half is pure tension and anguish, you’ll know you need to fix that before you plunge into full-on writing.  Example 2:  Characters, locations, & items.  Especially for a series, this is great.  You add characters to the file and then add them to whatever scenes they appear in (and which scenes are from their viewpoint).  Since your character descriptions, biographies, goals, alternate names, etc. (you can even load a photo or drawing into their  file) are clickable from the outline, it’s easy to keep everyone’s stories straight (no pun intended) and everyone’s hair/eye color in mind (don’t you hate when you mix them up?)  You can also put in specific locations and items, each in their own separate files within your project – again, helping you keep your details straight, or reminding you of settings that your characters might need to return to, avoid, etc.  Nifty!  You can also pull up a report to see how many scenes each character appears in, which is a great early-warning signal that somebody might be trying to hijack the book to be All About Them when it isn’t.

Of course, nothing ever goes as outlined – I know once I get started, a billion things will shift around and run off in different directions and go at a different pace than I wanted…but that’s the fun part!  I like writing best when my stories surprise me with being more awesome than I could ever have planned on purpose!

Friday Exercise – WHAT Did You Just Say To Me?

Oh, misunderstandings!  You are the curse of the social animal.  Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, from minor to life-changing, miscommunications happen all the time.  Write an exchange of dialogue in which 2 characters are completely missing what the other person is saying.

Maybe one is being completely straightforward and clear, and the other is assuming subliminal meanings or ulterior motives that aren’t there.  Maybe they’re both playing coy, but misunderstanding one another’s meaning because neither one is being clear.  Maybe one is taking what the other is saying the wrong way, or seeing a threat where none is intended.  Maybe one of them is flat hard of hearing, and literally can’t tell what in the world the other person is saying.  Maybe connotation is in the way – what’s offensive or insulting to one person isn’t always a bad thing at all to someone else.

There’s the prompt.  Now see where it takes you!

Pacing & Payoffs

On the subject of the middles of stories and novels, the foremost topic that comes to my mind is pacing.  The road of pacing is fraught with many perils, traps, meanderings, and pitfalls.  It’s one of the single hardest things to fix about any given part of a story, if it goes wrong to begin with.

Pacing, like most things, is a continuum with two extremes at either end.  Slow pacing is boring because the story drags out longer than necessary to get to any satisfying point(s) in the storyline.  Fast pacing is also boring, because too much is going on to take any satisfaction in the events of the storyline.  What’s the key in both cases?  A sense of satisfaction.

Before you can be satisfied with something, you have to start out by having a desire – take eating, for instance.  If you’re hungry, you eat something, and you feel satisfied if the meal is good.  If you’re not hungry, maybe you still have a craving for a certain food, and if you eat that certain food, your craving is satisfied.  If you’re not hungry and you don’t have any desire for a specific favorite taste, then eating is anything but satisfying – even if you eat compulsively, the whole point is that you are never satisfied.

So you have to make the reader want something from your story, to begin with.  That’s your series of narrative hooks, where you plant the seeds of interest, curiosity, questions that need answers, the wish for a character to excel or be crushed, etc.  Once you have that established, the trick is to give them payoffs along the way while simultaneously planting more hopes/wishes/questions in their brains for the story yet to unfold.

Some tips about middles, payoffs, and lead-ups:

  • Sufficient payoff for the amount of lead-up attached to the event or realization.  If you’ve spent the whole book leading up to this moment, then this scene is your climax, and you need to make it count.  If there’s been only a hint or two, this either needs to be an unexpected major turning point, or it needs to be okay that this scene is only a minor moment of satisfaction – a hint to your audience that you know what you’re doing and they can trust you to give them more.
  • If you’ve built this up as something important, it needs to alter the story and/or the characters in some way.  A big action sequence that leaves the characters and the story right where they were before the action is a waste of words and a waste of time.
  • A payoff scene should raise the stakes, change someone’s mind about something, reveal a new side of someone, alter the dynamics between two or more characters, move the plot or at least a subplot forward and/or link a subplot to the main storyline, and/or answer at least one question raised in the earlier part of the story.
  • Your protagonist must suffer to achieve his/her satisfaction.  There is no growth without pain, and there is no story without growth.  Readers want to root for someone who’s having a hard time and toughing through it the best they can.  The reader’s sense of satisfaction in the high points of your protagonist’s journey are only as strong as the severity of what the protagonist faces at the low points, and how well he or she bears that suffering.
  • Until you’re approaching your wrap-up, continue to raise questions, doubts, internal waverings, and so on as you write scenes to answer for the previous questions and doubts and so on.  Every choice closes one door and opens three more, as you head toward the climax.  The immediate lead-in to your climax is where that changes, where choices narrow and everything suddenly hinges on THE HERE AND NOW for your characters.
  • Give a moment, even just a line or two, of reflection after a big change, heavy action, heated dialogue, etc.  Make sure you give voice to the aftermath, the undertones of your characters’ feelings, etc.  After an argument with someone you’re close to, you may be angry, but there are raw vulnerabilities rattling around in your head that you normally ignore.  There’s emotional exhaustion.  There might be unexpected tenderness toward the person you’re at odds with.  There may be a battle in your head about whether to push the person away or whether to pull close to them again.  Bring this stuff out in your characters in these “aftermath” moments, and your pacing will be the better for it – your story will be deeper for it, too, and your characters more accessible and more “real” to the reader.

Friday Exercise – Compiling Conflicts

A crisis occurs in your story.  Doesn’t matter what kind of crisis; any crisis will do.  Obviously, that means there’s conflict occurring – but don’t stop at one conflict.  Dig a little deeper into the situation, and find at least 3 forms of conflict within this one event.

As an example, say one character is threatening another.  The obvious conflict here is one character vs. another.  But then there’s the threatened character’s response to account for – are anger and fear battling for dominance?  The desire to strike first vs. the fear of repercussion or vs. the desire to do the “right thing”?  What about other external factors?  Is another character pushing one of the others toward a certain decision, angling for a certain outcome?  Or is the threatener internally conflicted, too?  Or do the police get involved?  And are there legal considerations at odds with one another in this instance?

The more angles you have on any conflict you write about, the more depth you can put into it, the more you can make it count, the more your characters will come across as “real people”, and the more intriguing the events themselves will be.

Middles and Endings

I’m thinking of devoting my Wednesday posts to topics on middles and ends.  It seems only fair, since my Friday posts are exercises – and exercises are generally for the purpose of getting started.  Beginnings get all the glory, with writing, and in some ways that makes sense.  After all, nobody will get to the middle or end of your book if you don’t have a stand-out opening.  Readers and agents judge you by your first few pages, your first few paragraphs, your first few sentences.  I, myself, as a browser of books, have often put a book back after reading the first line.

However, there’s nothing more disappointing in the world of readership than a book that starts great and goes steadily (or abruptly) downhill from there.  It’s frustrating, because the writer has gotten you invested in the story, convinced you to care about the characters, and lured you into taking the time and attention to find out What Happens Next, only to let you down.  I hate it when I’m invested enough in a book that I can’t just stop reading it, but wish I could just stop reading it.

Like most avid readers, I have a hefty stack of titles I want to get around to, and if you hook me into reading your work, I expect something back for my investment.  If I don’t get it, I’ll be disgusted with you as a writer, resent you for wasting my time, and I’ll never buy or recommend another of your books…ever.  This is not the reader response an author wants, obviously.

The beginning’s job is to catch the attention of the reader and make them want to find out about the plot and the people in your story.  Once you do that, you have an obligation to follow through with a middle that does its job well – being the story.  That’s the middle’s job.

All the elements of being the story (questions raised and answered, intrigue and tension built and relieved, complications arising and being overcome (or not), downfalls suffered, redemptions achieved) have to work together to advance your plot in a way that holds the reader’s attention.  It isn’t enough to have an interesting plot.  You have to have the storytelling skills to tell it in an interesting way.  I’ve read a few books, actually, that I loved in spite of a weak plot simply because they were told in a way that kept me turning the pages, thirsty for more, curious about the characters’ next moves.

Which leaves, of course, the end.  Last but not least, dear ending.  You are just as important as the beginning, except during the slush pile years.  The ending’s job, then, is to be the payoff.  Yes, it’s there to wrap things up, but just tying up your loose ends or saying Happily Ever After may not be enough.

True, there are some genres we expect a certain type of ending from – horror usually ends with a twist or a final scare, sometimes the gruesome death of a character who thought he/she had gotten away; romance is often the happily-ever-after scenario; a series will sometimes set up the conflict for the next novel; etc.

Specifics aside, however, I think what makes for a truly great ending is this:

  • A sense of how things have changed, especially in the characters’ internal landscapes.  A sense of how far things have come or how far things have gone.
  • A sort of Zen acknowledgement that things began in a status quo and that things will return to a status quo, even if the new status quo is entirely different from the old.
  • A payoff worthy of the journey, whether your book is a wild adventure or an introspective/interpersonal struggle.  A payoff that suits the story, too.  Don’t get melodramatic if the rest of the book was low-key and subtle.  Don’t have a drawn-out, ho-hum ending to a book full of explosions and gunslinging.  Don’t kill someone off arbitrarily just to end on a poignant note if the rest of your book was light-hearted.

Action!

Action scenes used to be the hardest thing for me to write.  I think partly I had trouble with them because I tend to work stories out visually first, almost daydreaming my scenes before or while I write them.  When the action is high, though, there’s too much happening too fast to write a play-by-play the same way I would with, say, a scene of dialogue between just two characters.  Bad enough to write a dialogue scene including six or seven people, which can get just as jumbled and messy as any climactic battle!

Over the years, though, I’ve gotten very comfortable with writing action sequences.  I still get anxious when I’m coming up on one, worrying if I’ll pull it off or if it’ll be a worthy payoff after a big lead-up – but once I get into the action, it’s almost always smooth sailing.

So how do you control the chaos of an action scene well enough to let the reader follow clearly what’s happening, but keep the feeling of chaos and speed?

Some of the things I try to do –

  • Keep your sentences simple and on the short side.  It doesn’t have to be Hemingway, but it just makes sense that it’s easier for people to keep up with complex action if your sentences are easy to follow.
  • Make your details count.  In fight-or-flight mode, our senses are heightened, but we also orient toward and lock onto the source of threat.  It’s built into our systems.  So with that in mind, are your characters going to notice the beautiful old oak trees in the background, or the tendons of an enemy’s arm clenching as he prepares to lunge forward with a knife?  Maybe there’s a vivid blur of green behind them, giving a sense of the lush forest surroundings, but a ‘vivid blur of green’ gives a lot more of a sense of (a) motion, speed, (b) heightened senses, and (c) the irrelevance of the world beyond the immediate confrontation.
  • Make your details COUNT.  Cliche details won’t get you anywhere with readers.  They’re already filling in stuff about the character’s heart pounding in her ears, because they’ve read it a million times.  So assume they know the character’s heart is pounding.  Great.  You get a freebie.  Now come up with something more personal, more telling, and use that as your detail.
  • If too much happens at once, let it be a little confusing.  Let the character or the narration describe the disorientation of being in that moment, but keep it in that moment.  You can explain what happened later.
  • Don’t spoil your action by telling every little step blow-by-blow.  Action scenes would be pretty boring if I had to read through every thrust and parry of a swordfight.  Give the highlights, the turning points, the moments of terror and the moments of hope, the instant the stakes get higher, and the moment of triumph or defeat.  Everything else is irrelevant, like having a vital exchange of dialogue interspersed with an unrelated conversation about so-and-so’s cute new shoes floating over from the next table.  Sure, maybe it would be there in real life, but that doesn’t mean it should be there in fiction.

The Hook

The Hook is a lie.  Let’s just get that out in the open right now.  Everybody talks about how you need to have your literary Hook, the thing that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to find out more, as soon as possible in your story or novel.  This is true.

The lie is an indirect one – a lie by omission, a lie by understatement.  Because you don’t need one Hook, you need lots of hooks.  You need a trail of breadcrumbs.  You need Reese’s Pieces leading through the forest.  You don’t get to have one big hook at the beginning and then you can meander however you want to and trust that readers will stick with you just based on one thing that was briefly mentioned all the way back at the beginning of the story.  The truth is, readers rarely take it on faith that you’re going to be interesting.  These days, there are plenty of people who assume just the opposite, in fact:  book = boring.  Jeez, it’s not even in Hi Def, and there’s no surround sound.

A story needs some sense of direction, of forward movement, and a sense of mystery, and I don’t mean the genre, in this instance.  An excerpt of my deskside dictionary’s definition of “mystery”: 

(1.) something unexplained, unknown, or kept secret (2.) any thing or event that remains so secret or obscure as to excite curiosity … mystery is applied to something beyond human knowledge or understanding, or it merely refers to any unexplained or seemingly inexplicable matter.

Now, until your plot plays out, there will obviously be stuff that’s “unknown” to the reader, whether it’s kept secret or not, and the key component in the whole definition, in terms of what I’m talking about in this entry, is the phrase excite curiosity.  You want your reader to wonder about things, to feel like a little kid again, asking, “And then what happened?” over and over, until the very end, and maybe even after they’re done reading your book.

Drop hints.  Foreshadow.  Give the reader subtext and clues that the characters miss sometimes.  Throw in setbacks.  Raise doubts.  Bring up questions that will need answering.  Give a glimpse of something bigger on the horizon, but only give enough to make your reader want more.  Build anticipation.  And make the payoff worth the wait.

A hobby of mine is looking through books and magazines on architecture, interior design, and landscaping.  One of the things I read in a landscaping magazine really struck me, and has always stuck with me as a visual metaphor for what we strive for in writing.  In garden design, this landscape architect was saying, one tries to simultaneously provide a view and obscure the view.  While each “area” should look interesting, you want people to be drawn on, through your design, and the way to do that is to show only part of what lies beyond.  Using arches, gateways, trellising (is that a word?), turns in hedges, etc., a designer will open up a glimpse, but not reveal the full effect of the next space in the garden.  It builds a sense of intrigue, makes people want to fill in the rest of the information.  And I thought, “A design hook.  Foreshadowing with hedges!”

I don’t remember what magazine the article was in, or who the designer was, unfortunately, but I think of it often when I’m working on a plot, and particularly when I’m revising.  What am I giving a glimpse of here?  Is that enough to make someone want to take the next few steps down the path?  Am I giving them too much, too soon?  I’d better save something really good for when they get to that part of the story, because they’ll need a big WOW! after that much build-up.

And there you have it.  The truth about narrative hooks!  You must have lots of them, all through the story, right up to the end.

Plot and Fundamental Human Needs

Characters have always been the easiest part of writing for me – they’re usually the first component of any story to occur to me, often the first to flesh out into something three-dimensional in my mind, and the primary source of conflict in most of my work stems from the characters and/or their own inner conflict(s).

However, I don’t like to limit too many of my plots (especially anything longer than a short story) to being purely character-driven.  It’s always harder for me to come up with external conflict I like that’s big enough for a book plot, so I use tools to brainstorm that kind of stuff.  One thing I turn to a lot is psychology/sociology.  Which sounds like it would lead straight back to internal stuff (which it does, sometimes).  But it gets me thinking about the external pressures people face, how different people react to the same circumstances in totally different ways, and how those varying reactions can become another external conflict in the story.

One thing I use to brainstorm is looking over basic human needs.  The precise wording, number, and definition varies from theory to theory, but it’s all pretty much the same stuff, just broken down differently.  There’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which the basic needs like sustenance and safety have to be fulfilled before the “higher” needs even matter to a given individual – which is an interesting point, in story terms.

There’s also a Wikipedia article on fundamental human needs with a nice little table with specific goals, actions, qualities, etc. related to each category of needs.  It defines fundamental needs as:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

How do you make a plot out of fundamental human needs?  Well, as usual with writing, be sadistic to your characters.  Take some of these things away from them, or at least threaten to.  Or make them choose between two.  Or set two characters with two different problems with need fulfilment at odds with each other.  Or explore a community with an unfilfilled fundamental need, and how individuals’ reactions to the issue affect one another, making things worse for the others or better for the others.

To me, the best book plots often don’t have “bad guys” per se, just people who want different things, going about getting what they want in different ways, pulling at each other or pushing each other away, each one internally conflicted and each one affected by the events around them, as well.

Friday Exercise – First Lines

Since I’ve started reworking the opening of my novel this week, it’s only natural that opening lines and opening scenes are on my mind.  Of all the scenes in a novel, however, the one that invariably has to do the most work is the first one.  Not that you can drop the ball once you’re past the first chapter, by any means, but that first chapter had better be spectacular.

And that doesn’t mean it has to start with a fist fight, a murder, or a gunslinging showdown, although it certainly can, if that fits the book.  I think what really makes or breaks a beginning isn’t as much about action as it is about intrigue and movement.  If there is a sense that, “Hey, this is going somewhere!  I want to slip into this story world and see what’s up!” you’re going to win readers over, whether you start with high action or dialogue or, if you do it really well, even description.

How do you give that sense of intrigue and movement from the very start?  A big part of it is hints.  Foreshadowing.  Giving just a little background away here and there and then going back to the events at hand.  Raising questions in the reader’s mind and making them wait a little (or a lot!) for the answers.  And most of all, characters who clearly have goals and/or conflicts (or conflicting goals, which can be incredibly fun to write).  Aimless characters are boring characters, most of the time – just because Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was hilarious, heartbreaking, and horrible, that doesn’t mean every writer should try for a similar character.  Yes, there are aimless, lazy people in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to write about them or read about them, unless you write as well as Dostoevsky…and I know I don’t.  /Rant.

Anyway, on to the exercise:

Come up with 5 optional first lines for a story, each of which hints at something to come, something that’s already happened, or something that is actively happening.  If possible, hint at more than one event!  If your opening line is descriptive, make something about the description be a hint.  Some examples:

  • The year Bill Kabitzki killed himself, two things happened to me.  (The opening line to the horrible book I wrote when I was in my teens.)
  • Being dead has its advantages.  (The new first line to The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.)
  • There was something about the barn, this morning, that disturbed him, although he couldn’t have said what it was.
  • “That’s funny,” I said, glancing at his ID.  “I thought you were lying.”
  • She pulled the trigger…and nothing happened.

Pick one of your opening lines – the one that intrigues you the most – and write the story that comes after it.