How Do You Keep Going?

NaNoWriMo is over for another year.  Since we looked at it before it started (see WW 10-31-12, “Trick or Treat), it seemed like a good idea to return to the question of what goes into writing a book.

The Twisting Paths of Plotting

The Twisting Paths of Plotting

Over the course of NaNoWriMo, I touched bases with a few people I knew were participating.  Most admitted that keeping the story going – especially with the dawn of the holiday season making new demands – was turning out to be pretty demanding.  I’d even go so far as to say that, in a few cases at least, writing a considerable amount every day was turning out to be more of a chore than it had seemed when November had been new and full of promise.

One thing that came up was that, once the story was started, the writers often found themselves getting bogged down.    Matters of plot and characterization that had seemed obvious at the start no longer seemed so clear.

So, how too keep going once the novel is started, the main characters introduced, and that boffo opening written?    Here are a few tricks I use.

My first suggestion is more a matter of structuring your writing time than of stimulating creativity.  Stop writing in the middle of the scene, when you know exactly where you’re going.  It’s best to choose a dramatic point – fights or passionate conversations are both good.  If you’re worried that you’ll lose the momentum you’ve developed, then write yourself brief notes, rather like the following: [Firekeeper next disagrees; Derian comes back with timing issue; Firekeeper sees point; next, depart on  trip]

Second, if you find yourself bogged down in matters of plot, consider thinking about it this way.  You’re bogged down because there’s more than one possible “next.”   For example, you know your protagonist is going to end up  face-to-face with the antagonist.  From the start, you knew that your protagonist would win this first encounter.  So what’s the problem?

The problem is that, even if you know your protagonist is the victor in this particular confrontation, there are so many different types of victories – especially if the antagonist needs to continue to play a role in the story.  Here are a few possibilities I came up with right off the top of my head.

1) That protagonist wins but it’s a qualified victory.  Maybe she’s wounded.  Maybe complications spring up – perhaps with local law enforcement.

2) The protagonist wins, but in order to do so he had to pull out his “big guns” (which could be a spell or other device or even an ally, as easily as a weapon) earlier than he planned.  The antagonist escapes with this valuable information.  Especially if the protagonist counted on keeping that bit of information a secret, the protagonist may feel this is a mixed victory.

3) The protagonist wins.  The antagonist is dead or in prison.  However, a lieutenant now takes over and is worse than the original ever was.  Or the Bad Guy Gang decides to rescue the boss.  Or the boss turns out to be a real charmer and pretty soon local law enforcement is convinced they have the wrong person behind bars.

I’m sure you can think of other alternatives.  The point is, the reason you’re stuck is not because you know what happens next, but because you’re aware that there are consequences to any action. This is a situation is one that most new writers aren’t prepared for.  They figure knowing the general plot is enough.  If they outline, they may have confidently written something like: “First Encounter between Ace of Hearts and Black Spade.  Ace wins.”  They didn’t think hard enough about how Ace won and what that victory would mean to the larger story.

So a third option for when you find yourself getting bogged down once the book is underway is to toss that outline.  Outlines are meant to help you.  If you find yours becoming shackles on your creativity, then do some rethinking.  Try writing a new approach or two, then decide which of these new angles you like best and continue from there.

Related to this is a problem that most experienced writers are familiar with, but neo writers don’t believe is real until it happens to them.  This is when the characters hijack the book and start taking it in another direction.  Maybe you’d predicated a lot of the action on Character A being deeply in love with Character B.  Then Character A turns out to be indifferent to Character B, but actually a little interested in Character C.

Or maybe, as noted above, you planned on the first confrontation ending in victory for the protagonist.  Instead, when you start writing, the antagonist keeps coming up with all these great ways for escaping the protagonist’s carefully laid plans.  Yeah, you can force the plot to go as you originally intended, but you might end up with a much stronger book if you find out where this side road takes you.  Yes.  That road is possibly a dead end, but even that investigation will teach you something about your characters and how they react to adversity.

The strangest thing of all is that, very often, once you’ve solved your problem and the plot is moving along nicely once more, the solution seems so obvious that you wonder why you didn’t think of it from the start.  Then, if you’re like some writers I know, you begin to wonder if what you have come up with is too dumb or too obvious.  Trust yourself.  It probably isn’t.

Right now I’m running a role playing game that’s basically an original story.  When I set up my gaming notes, I commented to Jim, “Gee, I hope this isn’t going to be too direct and too boring for you all.”  Well, it hasn’t turned out that way.  Usually, as we are cleaning up after a session, Jim looks at me and grins, “Didn’t you say you were worried this would be too direct and too boring?  Let me reassure you…  It’s not!”

So my last piece of advice is this.  Even when you’re in doubt, keep writing.  Feel free to go in new directions, but don’t throw away everything you’ve done to that point  because you’re momentarily stuck.  Keep going.  You won’t know how well – or how poorly – the story has turned out until you’re finished.

I’m always interested in learning the ways people get through the complications of developing the plot and characters when writing a book.  If you have any tricks to share, I’d love to hear them.

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7 Responses to “How Do You Keep Going?”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Something I read once, can’t remember where, is always in the back of my mind. When you get stuck, go back. I don’t mean go back and read. I mean, go back and start over. Run to just before that scene starts, perhaps a little further, then write it again as if for the first time. It’s worked for me. In pulling back, the characters seams to note the road block and work themselves and the plot around it. Sometime they don’t need help. Others you need to leave them a road sign that changes things just enough to make the fix.

    The other thing I do is I talk it over with who-ever my sounding board is (in my case, my family). This is a valuable resource I recommend all writers find. Someone they can talk their ideas and thoughts over with who is willing to help, to offer alternate thoughts, or in some cases, to just sit there and let you talk at them knowing they really are listening. Many times I’ve gone to my mom with an issue, and fixed it without her ever saying a word. I just needed the chance to talk it out, and the wall doesn’t work. Plus the wall doesn’t offer little prods or questions when I do need them to get my thinking down the right path.

    There’s also one thing I’m still fighting with. When all else fails, stop thinking. “Wait, what?” No, I’m serious. You’re fighting with this scene. Picking it apart, trying to make it make perfect sense. For sci-fi and fantasy writers especially, sometimes you can try too hard to connect the dots. Don’t try to hard to make it all perfect. Make the statute chisel stroke by chisel stroke. Don’t use an electron microscope to aim your super collider to blow off one molecule at a time. You end up losing the flavor of the art you were trying to create.

    Plus you might create a black hole and suck the Earth into it, but that’s another discussion entirely. 😀

    • janelindskold Says:

      These are very thoughtful suggestions. I know several writers who start their writing day by going over what they wrote the day before. They say it helps them get into the “flow.”

      I don’t usually talk about a book until it’s done — except to Jim and usually in fragments. He’s very accustomed to questions that begin with “I can’t tell you why but…”

      However, from having talked to people who benefit from writer’s groups, the sort of thinking out loud you mention here is of great value. Sometimes just having to explain why the problem is a problem can solve the problem!

      That’s why, even though I don’t writer’s group myself, I can see the value of a good one.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Just for the heck of it, I’ve been trying out the “22 rules of storytelling according to Pixar” to see how they work. It’s interesting, especially Rule #7 (“Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front”.), which makes writing the story more like getting through a maze to connect beginning to end than doing the “hey, cool idea, let’s explore it” road trip. Also, Pixar does cool movies, so I figure I could learn something from them.

    As for problems, I’ve run into a lot of them on this project, and in this Nanowrimo, more of my writing was non-story development stuff than text. One technique I used a lot is that, when I got stuck, was to write about the problem itself in a separate file. Usually I had no difficulty figuring out what the problem was, and then either it solved itself in the writing, or I figured out what more I had to work out.

    My other big experiment this time was writing with Scrivener rather than Word. I rather like it, although it’s a little clunky getting things output to another program like Word.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I can’t agree about coming up with the ending before you do the middle. I have NEVER known my ending in advance (and this is 22 novels and counting, as well as over sixty short stories — and these are only the published ones).

      In fact, if I think I know the ending, I get soundly bored.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      You know Jane, I was sure you were going to say that, so I do appreciate the response. Every writer is different, and I wanted to see what would happen if I wrote this way.

      Personally, I figure Pixar’s work speaks for itself.

      What I am finding is that I’m writing two stories, in effect, one from the beginning forward, one from the climax backwards. Working towards a big-boom, non-obvious ending is a massive exercise in Chekhov’s gun, planting all the material where it’s needed. If, at the climax, the Death Star explodes, how do you get there from a mysterious woman hiding some data in a droid and shooting it off in an escape pod? And so on.

      It’s actually quite challenging, because figuring out why someone might naturally want to go towards that end leads to all sorts of side routes that I was not originally planning on taking. I’m finding it has the same enjoyment as solving a complex maze with many false paths.

      The other thing is that, like a road trip to a known destination, I’m finding that I’m not writing to find out what happens at the end, I’m writing about the details of the trip, all the twists and turns that I would have ignored if I didn’t know where the goal was and just explored the most interesting path.

      Anyway, to each their own. I’m not done yet, so I can’t say how it’s going to all turn out.

  3. Paul Says:

    One of the folks in our local writing group is wild about Scrivener. I may try it yet. Several of us in a library group tried NaNoReMo on a limited basis (assembling for each of the four Saturdays of November to write and bat ideas back and forth). Like Heteromeles, I did more non-story development stuff than text, but it has been helpful. All this is really good writing advice, which I appreciate.

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