The End of the Road

On September 17, 2021, Christie V Powell wrote, Does anyone else struggle with writing the very end of a story? I’m fine if it’s a series and there are more books coming, but if I’m writing the end of a standalone or the end of a series, I have a really hard time focusing on the last chapter or so (the tail end of the climax and the resolution stuff). My brain has already written off this story as done and wants to move on to something new and interesting. I struggled on this with my standalone Mira’s Griffin, and some reviewers picked up on it. Now I’m facing the same problem with the end of my DreamRovers series. Any tips for staying focused on the story through the end?

I wrote this at the time: Here’s a thought: Your story is over for you, but it will still be clinging to your readers. What do you think they’ll want that will make them sigh with contentment?

Every book I write is Mount Everest. I want to scale it: figure it out, write it, revise in ecstasy, and depart to scout out my next mountain. I always want the current one to be DONE! For some reason, Ella Enchanted was the worst. So I’m with you.

If I remember right, Brandon Sanderson said that the problem of wanting to move on is worst in outliners. I’m only fractionally an outliner, but I still feel it. There may not be a solution; we may just have to endure. That said, I have some thoughts.

I just reread the final chapter of one of my childhood favorites, Anne of Green Gables. **Spoilers alert! Spoilers in italics. (If you’ve never read Anne, it’s a marvelous classic for kids.)** The beginning of the chapter, when Anne and the reader learn that Marilla (Anne’s adoptive mother) is in danger of losing her eyesight, and then Anne’s decision in response to the news had me crying–today, at age seventy-four. Not much further on, though, I perked up as romance rears its pretty head, and, shortly thereafter, the books ends. End of spoiler. As a child reader, I remembered the sadness, but I was delighted by the promise of love to come and that’s what stayed with me.

I also refreshed my memory of the ending of my other favorite, Peter Pan, but I didn’t reread it because I disliked it when I was little, and I still do. Ending aside, if you’ve never read Peter Pan, I recommend it highly—another kid-lit classic. **Spoilers alert!**  I think the novel ends tragically. If you’ve read it and remember, do you agree? Adults are set up in Peter Pan as dull and stodgy, utterly unlike their much livelier childhood selves, and yet Wendy, her brothers, and the Lost Boys choose that fate. Peter doesn’t, but he winds up tragically isolated, which he covers with bravado. Lover of romance that I am and was, I was angry with Barrie for ruining the ending of an almost perfect book.

If we’re writing to tell ourselves a story, we can ask ourselves what we want in the ending. What will satisfy us or the child reader who still lives inside us? Then the question becomes how we can provide it.

If we know who reads our stories, we can consider what will please them. What do they come to us for? Aside from our MC, which character interests them most? Can we fold that character into our ending? Will they want an epilogue to wrap everything up?

What will be fun for us to write? In Sparrows in the Wind (coming out in October), I threw something I didn’t need into the ending because I wanted it for my MC.

Most important, naturally, is that the ending solves the problem of the book, one way or another. As I see it, in a character-driven book, like Anne of Green Gables, which is a coming-of-age story, the problem belongs to the MC, in this case to Anne’s becoming a secure, well-rounded person. In a character-driven tragedy, like Hamlet, the problem is a character flaw, and the eponymous hero fails to solve it. In a plot-driven adventure, like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the problem is the salvation of Middle Earth.

So the seeds of the ending are sown into the beginning, the problem that’s the reason for the story. The ending has to speak to that problem. I’m sure Christie V Powell’s stories do, but if our stories don’t, the ending will be hard to write.

I think this is the reason that the ending of Peter Pan fails, that it’s a book (I love) without a clear problem. There are problems. The Darlings, Wendy’s and her brothers’ parents, are heartbroken about the disappearance of their children (though they don’t try to find them). Captain Hook has a crocodile on his trail. But these problems aren’t the book’s problem. That Peter isn’t seriously connected to anyone might be the problem if he saw it that way. For most of the story, Wendy and her brothers are having a fine time and aren’t thinking about going home. Wendy plays at being an adult, and that pleases her. Near the end, Peter, in anger, frightens her into believing her parents have forgotten her and then there’s suspense about their getting away. But they do, and the Darlings are delighted to see them, and they grow into ordinary, boring adults.

So, these are ideas to consider when we write our endings:

  • Include what we look for in an ending.
  • If we know what our readers want, include those elements in our ending.
  • Give ourselves a gift and put in, if our story will accommodate it, something that’s fun to write.
  • Think about our ending—that our story will have to end—when we decide on its major problem.

Here are three prompts:

  • Write a version of Hamlet that focuses on the ghost story element. Keep it a tragedy or give it a happy ending.
  • Write a version of Peter Pan in which Peter realizes how alone and lonely he is, and that’s the problem of the story.
  • There’s no problem in “Sleeping Beauty.” Sure, the princess is going to sleep for a hundred years, but nothing will be changed when she wakes up, except there will be a nice prince kissing her in a sweet, non-creepy way. Give her a problem and write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Flowering in the Great Plot Dessert

On September 9, 2021, Brambles and Bees wrote, Does anyone have any recommendations on how to get ideas for plot and how to cultivate them until they grow into a fully formed story ready to write? I am currently struggling with re-planning because I didn’t find the plot I had given the story I’m working on interesting or detailed enough for my liking. The problem now is that I can’t seem to think of any ideas for the story. I have vague ideas for very random scenes in the story that I might not end up writing, but nothing is giving me inspiration.

A few of you had ideas.

Melissa Mead: That’s kinda how I work, actually. I just go ahead and write the random scenes, and they lead to more scenes. Usually. I hope.

Kit Kat Kitty: That’s something I struggle with too. In my current story, I’ve written two short chapters with the information about the characters and plot that I know. It’s helping me come up with things and understand them, so I can come up with a plot.

I also found something that helps is making lists, (something I actually started doing because of this blog) with the example I gave before, I have a list of about seventeen different ideas, and after writing the first few chapters (all of the ideas were rooted in the same concept more or less) there are probably fourteen ideas I can choose from, and a couple I’m leaning towards. This is helpful for me, knowing that I have options, and I feel like I have a sense of direction and what I’m writing isn’t pointless.

Christie V Powell: Resident plotter here!

The first thing I do is brainstorm a few ideas and get everything that came with the original idea written down. Then I write down a list of the major parts of the story (key event, first plot point, etc). There’s a graphic on this blog point that lists some different systems for naming those parts–mine is the “CVP method”.

http://atypicallyordinary.blogspot.com/2021/06/plot-structure-systems.html

Anyway, then I start breaking up the ideas from my brainstorm and figuring where they might go in the story. From there, it’s a little easier to figure out what goes in the gap.

For instance, the last story I outlined (a gender-flipped Sleeping Beauty) came with a list of conflicts (my princess vs. the villain, princess vs. her parents who don’t know about her forbidden abilities, and princess needing to find her best friend). So fitting them into the story structure framework helped me figure out what steps I needed to take to resolve each of those conflicts. For another story I’m working on, I had the beginning crystal clear in my mind and a vague idea of the rest of the story. So filling in the framework helped me figure out where the middle and end might go.

Kit Kat Kitty, I’m glad lists—which I push whenever I see the chance—have been helpful!

I think the only book I ever started that didn’t have some sort of borrowed structure was The Wish, and I wrote it over twenty years ago. (I started The Two Princesses of Bamarre with “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in mind, but the fairy tale disintegrated as I started writing.) For The Wish, all I knew was that I wanted to write a book about popularity—about an unpopular girl who wanted more than anything else to be popular. Alas, I no longer have my notes, so I can’t reconstruct my process. I know that, early on, I decided she would become popular by having her wish granted by a witch, who comes into the story only once or twice after the initial gift.

The granting comes with an expiration date. Wilma wishes to be the most popular in her middle school, without remembering that she’s going to graduate in three weeks.

So the granting of the wish brings problems with it that my story has to grapple with in the middle. Wilma doesn’t think of her impending graduation for a while. First, she has to handle her popularity and become the kind of popular girl she’s going to be. Is that mean, as some of the popular kids used to be to her? Will she take revenge?

Then, when she does realize, what does she do?

The thing is that what-I-think-is-called the initiating incident (becoming popular) is bundled with problems for our plot. When we think about them, we think about scenes we can create to make them better, as when Wilma has a great conversation with extremely popular Ardis, and to make them worse, as when she brings her dog to a sleepover (and he pees at a bad moment in a bad place–on a sculpture).

Also locked up in the initiating incident is a seed for our ending. Will Wilma be popular after graduation? We have to decide if we’re writing a tragedy: Wilma is not popular, is not reconciled to being unpopular, and regrets the loss for years. Or an adventure or comedy: Wilma remains popular, or she wins a sense of proportion about popularity and has gained a stronger sense of self-respect.

We create scenes to bring her to the ending we want to give her.

I find a borrowed structure easier because the template suggests scenes as well as the problem and, sometimes, even the ending.

Let’s take “Rumpelstiltskin” as an example, which I go to often because I’d like to figure out all the kinks and write it.

The inciting incident, I think, is the miller telling the king that his daughter can weave straw into gold when he has no reason to believe this is true. The incident suggests scenes: in the throne room with the father, the king, and the terrified girl; the girl in the barn, dwarfed by mounds of hay, standing next to a rickety spinning wheel; the appearance of Rumpelstiltskin; etc.

The problem, I think, is the girl’s survival, and, if she lives, can she thrive?

Here again, we decide what kind of ending we want. Sad is easily achieved. In the fairy tale, she lives and saves her baby too, but what kind of life does she have, married to a man who was willing to off her? For adventure or comedy, we have to figure out a way for her to thrive.

We need scenes for this too. What’s the miller’s daughter’s daily life like? How does she approach her future? What does she think? Feel? Does Rumpelstiltskin stay on the scene after she guesses his name? What’s the deal with him—why is he in the story at all? All of these suggest scenes.

Sometimes, when I’m floundering, I reframe my story as a quest. That was the way I managed to write The Two Princesses of Bamarre out of the sea of mud it was stuck in. In this case, the miller’s daughter, whether she knows it or not, may be on a quest for happiness or for a good life for her baby.

Another way to plot is with a timeline. We have the initial problem and a deadline. If the problem isn’t solved by then, we have a tragedy. We create subordinate deadlines along the way. We fill in with scenes to reach them or fail to reach them. When I wrote my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, I used a timeline of actual events leading up to the expulsion of the Jews (in 1492) and, finally, the exodus from Spain.

But we don’t need historical events to do this. Story events will do. For example, our MC, Aggie, has to reach her widowed mother on the other side of the world, in time to prevent her from marrying Mr. Weaselham, whose villainy has been revealed to Aggie but not to her mother. We think of what can get in the way. We set up a timeline. We’re off!

So here you have a semi-pantser’s approach to plot. Brambles & Bees, how did it go for you?

Here are three prompts:

  • Write your own adaptation of “Rumpelstiltskin.” If it’s helpful, follow the method I suggest above.
  • Using a timeline, write the story of Aggie, Aggie’s deceived mother, and Mr. Weaselham.
  • In a world that’s something like the American West after the transcontinental railroad has just begun running, outlaws attack Aggie’s train and derail it in an inhospitable landscape. Write what happens. You can figure out a way for her to continue her journey, or you can turn it in a new direction.

Have fun and save what you write!

Crossroads

On August 14, 2021, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you decide when you’ve got two different routes that your story can take? Maybe you’ve written your list and you’ve got a couple of brilliant ideas, but they don’t work well together. Or maybe it’s an either-or question: should I kill this character or not? Should I combine these characters or not? Like, both options are valid and would make a decent story.

If it makes a difference, right now I’m trying to decide whether to add (gender swapped) Beauty’s father into the plot in the beginning or combine him with “Beauty”‘s army commander. The Beast part is pretty clear in my rough draft, but the father part needs work.

A back-and-forth ensued.

Melissa Mead: What would the father contribute to the story that no one else can?

Christie V Powell: Mainly it’s the connection to the fairy tale. Right now, I’m trying out combining him with the commander, who has a more important role. It changes “Beauty”s motivation a bit, but it also raises the stakes, so I’m hoping it will work.

Melissa Mead: Well, if the Disney version could leave out Belle’s sisters, I’d say you can be flexible.

I chimed in.  

Gail Carson Levine: Do you know the ending? Are you in the outlining stage?

Christie V Powell: I have a loose outline and a really messy rough draft, and now I’m trying to make it more presentable. So I know the basic building blocks, including the ending, but there are still details I haven’t figured out yet.

Gail Carson Levine: I’ve added your question to my list. Your approach is so much more logical than mine, I don’t know how much help I’ll be, but I’ll take a stab. By the time the question comes up, you can tell us what you wound up doing and how you approached it!

Since Christie V Powell asked the question eleven months ago, I looked on her Amazon page to see if I could see if a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling was there, but I couldn’t find it. What I did find, among many titles, was The Great Pasta Rhyme-Off by James G. Powell written either by her son or a very accomplished professor of limerickology, judging by the sample Amazon provides.

Seriously, Christie V Powell, I was charmed—and mighty pleased to see a photo of you doling out said pasta!

Anyway, please let us know if you finished the book and what you wound up doing.

When the question is simply whether to have two characters or one—a father and a commander, or the father is also the commander—I would go with option two.  Generally, I believe in character consolidation; one character is better than two. The reader doesn’t have to take another one on board when there may already be many.

But there are exceptions, like if the single character has to be in two places at once. Or we may want two to bring out different aspects of character. I’m not a fan of the father in the original fairy tale because he dumps the choice of which of them—he or Beauty—should be sacrificed to the Beast. The Beast hasn’t said he’d eat her, but her longevity doesn’t look good if she’s his captive. I don’t know what Christie V Powell has in mind, but indecisiveness doesn’t seem a likely personality trait for a commander.

When my story reaches a crossroad—or whenever I have to make almost any story decision—I write notes, which is one reason I’m such a slow writer. I ask, What if it goes this way? I write possibilities, lots of them if the idea is promising. That way? Different possibilities. Sometimes I reach a dead end quickly, which tells me to go another way.

What I’m looking for are surprises and enthusiasm (my own). It’s a good sign if a follow-on idea is unexpected. I’m convinced, and I set off—

Which doesn’t mean I won’t run into trouble later on. Since I’m mostly a pantser, I don’t anticipate trouble very well. Trouble occasions more notes, but I rarely reverse my earlier choice.

Let’s take a stab at our own gender-reversed B&B, in which we’ll give our MC the boy’s name Beau. He’s bookish and loves novels of manners and poets who write in rhymed couplets. If one of his books weighs more than five pounds, he staggers carrying it to his favorite chair by the fireplace. When his father comes home with his terrible news, Beau rises to the occasion, though he almost drops his mug of hot chocolate in the effort of standing up. Huzzah! Maybe an adventure will lead him to a new interest in swashbuckling stories! “I’ll go, Father.” He smiles bravely and gulps.

Say we go with one character for Beau’s father and the commander, who is in charge of the defense of the kingdom’s capital. When the Beast, an enormous lioness, offers him the choice of his own death or sacrificing his son, he thinks he could bump off the creature himself just by pulling the chandelier down on her, but he wants Beau to toughen up, and here’s the chance he’s been waiting for. This father isn’t indecisive at all! “Take my son,” he says. “You’ll love him.” Heh heh heh.

Now, say the father is just the father. By trade, he’s a merchant. The cargo he traded in before he became impoverished was rare books about botany. He and Beau are twigs on the same delicate tree. When the Beast offers him a chance to live, he grabs it instantly, in a grip that’s barely strong enough to squeeze a kitchen sponge.

But he loves his son. When a month passes and Beau doesn’t return or send word, he visits the commander, who is happy to take on the rescue.

At this point in my thinking, the father seems like dead (but light) weight. If the commander takes over we don’t need the father in the first place unless he has something to do later in our plot.

At this point I’d wonder what that might be. I’d think about how my story is going so far. What’s happening with Beau and the Beast? Is Beau accruing any swashbuckling skills? Probably not. Is he finding ways to sabotage the Beast or to make his captivity bearable? Is the Beast in love with him? Or is she disappointed and getting hungry?

How can the father worsen Beau’s situation or improve it? As usual, I’d make a list.

I don’t know how it would come out, but that would be my approach.

Here are three prompts:

  • Write the list to determine Beau’s father’s story fate. Depending on what you decide, write the story.
  • Write your own gender-switched fairy tale.
  • Write “Beauty and the Beast” from the father’s POV.

Have fun and save what you write!

Supercolliders

On July 27, 2021, i  writing wrote, Quick question about clichés—or one in particular—the MC of my middle-grade novel meets her love interest by literally crashing into him. They both fall over, she gets a look at him, stammers her way through an apology, and walks off in a pleasantly surprised daze. Is this a super-cliche way for two love interests to meet?

Christie V Powell answered with this: It’s certainly a well used trope, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s clichéd. You can find a way to use it, especially if you play with it a bit.

This is TVTropes’ page for “Playing with Crash Into Hello”, which defines different ways that the trope could be used: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/PlayingWith/CrashIntoHello.

I love Christie V Powell’s link. My fav is the wallet one.

And I agree with her all the way. Whether a trope will be tired or not depends on the way it’s handled. Here’s a super early prompt: Read the ones on the link and then list five other ways to fool with the collision-meets-cute romcom starter.

One way we can use a trope—any trope—in a way that will boost its originality and lower its profile is to make it do more than one thing in our story.

Character development: Matt bumps into Sara. She apologizes. He says, “Whatever.” With great economy, we’ve revealed a bit of the characters of each of them. Our plot gets a boost too, because, if these two are going to fall for each other, we sure have a story arc to think about.

To develop our characters, we consider what we want this encounter to reveal about them. How can we make the crash show them at their best, their worst, or their most typical?

To develop our plot: Sara is a werewolf whose shifts are set off by the unexpected. When Matt bumps into her, she begins to transform.

Here, we use the meet-cute to reveal what we know about our story.

To develop our setting: Matt has been wandering through the minotaur’s labyrinth for days. Sound travels weirdly in here. Several times, the minotaur has almost been upon him before he heard its booming steps. Now, he thinks he hears lighter—human?—footfalls, but where? Oof!

Here, in the lead-up to the collision, the reader learns about the quality of sound in the labyrinth.

This is fun!

In each of these, readers may not even notice that this is a meet-cute-by-collision device at all.

But if I ask myself whether it’s best to avoid tropes entirely so we don’t need to think of workarounds to make them original, I’m not sure. The whole meet-cute thing is a trope too, but how many romances start by two people reading Kierkegaard in a Philosophy class? (As you may have read somewhere because it’s a good (true) story, David and I had a cute—sort of—moment when he set his hair on fire during our first date.)

Tropes become tropes by being repeated, and they’re repeated because they’re good. They may even go back to a primordial story shape that satisfies humans like nothing else. We complicate them to bring in originality, and the complications are part of the plot process. A story arc could even be described as a pattern of rising complexity—up, up, up—‘til we reach the crisis, and then lowering—down, down, down—until what’s left comes into sharp focus in the resolution. I don’t know if we can avoid tropes—so why worry?

However, if we want to try, we can start to think, as we should anyway, about the characters of the two. What’s going on in their lives? What are the conflicts, the trajectory of the story they’re already on that romance hasn’t yet entered?

Let’s suppose that Sara joined the debate team at her high school in hopes of reducing her terror at public speaking. Matt uses the auditorium to study because his friends don’t go there, and he can tune out whatever is going on onstage. He’s not doing well in his European History class because he can’t keep straight all the little countries and the wars and the dates.

To Sara, Matt is just there during her debate practice, a helpful presence because she can see he’s oblivious to whatever she says and how badly she says it. He’s not aware of her at all. His family is very invested in his education. An F will put a serious dent in their hopes for him and his hopes for himself. Both run in different crowds, and their friendships bring in other conflict that are part of the story. The reader cares about the two characters but doesn’t see a connection between them, which when it comes, is gradual. They stand next to each other in the cafeteria line in a moment when their friends aren’t around. Matt, who isn’t comfortable with silence, tells her he likes the pea soup. She nods. And so on. Their brief contacts are always pleasant. When he flunks his History midterm, he sees her at the school lockers and says something, just because she seems nice. That’s the meet-not-especially-cute, but it grows from there.

A great example of no trope at all is in Jane Austen’s Emma, because the eponymous heroine has known the future love interest her whole life. There is no meeting.

Here are four prompts based on the scenarios above, plus one that isn’t:

  • Matt bumps into Sara. She apologizes. He says, “Whatever.” Write the scene that follows and the whole romance, if you like.
  • Write this one: Sara is a werewolf whose shifts are set off by the unexpected. When Matt bumps into her, she begins to transform.
  • And/or this one: Matt has been wandering through the minotaur’s labyrinth for days. Sound travels weirdly in here. Several times, the minotaur has almost been upon him before he heard its booming steps. Now, he thinks he hears lighter—human?—footfalls, but where? Oof!
  • Or the non-trope one of the debate-anxious Sara and the history-challenged Matt.
  • Your MC meets the villain of your story by colliding with her. Write the scene. If you like, continue to write the whole tale.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Spy Thrilling

On July 19, 2021, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice about how to nail down what you want the plot of your story to be? I’ve been wanting to write a Spy Thriller for a really long time, (since about November 2019). I started the first draft for NaNoWriMo, but gave up and moved onto different projects (as evidence in this post). Recently, I had another idea for one, which would take place in the same world and country but involve a different main character and take place a few years before the one I started in 2019. However, I’m having a lot of issues deciding what I actually want to happen. I really like espionage, fun action scenes, secrets, dark pasts, many things that are staples of the genre. But every time I try to say “This is who my main character is, this is her main motivation…” It all feels wrong. I’ve tried making lists but I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Christie V Powell wrote back, You might try Brandon Sanderson’s method. He starts by writing down a couple of the goals for the plots and subplots that he wants (character A learns to trust, the villain is defeated, this element of the magic world is discovered…). Then he writes down what steps would be needed to reach each one (so, for “learns to trust,” he might list character A mistrusted someone but was wrong, A is taught a lesson by someone, A likes someone but is held back by her mistrust…). Then, as he writes, he looks at his lists and tries out what comes next. You might try that with your list (espionage can be what secret your character has to discover, the action scenes can be how to bring down the villain, etc.).

I actually don’t do lists right. I usually only get to item three or four, and then my brain latches on to one and decides that This Is The Way. Sometimes I can get a few more on the list by building off of the previous ideas instead of coming up with new ones–for example, if idea #3 is “Perrin meets two mages,” then idea #4 might be “Perrin meets two mages who help heal his friend” or “the two mages have ulterior motives.” I think I would get overwhelmed by possibilities too if I forced myself to keep listing all brand new things. Maybe you could try out building on old ideas instead of coming up with new ones?

When I’m coming up with a new story idea, I start by scribbling down some of the things that I’d like to include. Then I use those ideas to fill out a “beat sheet”, moving them around from spot to spot and filling in new things until it feels right. I wrote a blog post about the story structure/beat sheet I use, if you’re interested: http://atypicallyordinary.blogspot.com/2021/06/story-structure-for-kids-and-other.html.

Terrific!

I’ve made no secret about having a hard time with plotting, even though plot interests me more than anything else. My plot handicap is why I lean so hard on fairytales and myths and, lately, history, which help me not only with my story shape but also with unexpected tidbits that suggest plot directions. Providentially, I’m right now figuring out the plot of my murder mystery that takes place in thirteenth century England and I can give you an example from recent reading:

Fact #1: The murdered woman, who is historical, had a powerful and influential son.

Fact #2: The son lived in a different city from hers.

Fact #3: Little was done to find her killer.

Fact #4: It was easy to escape from jail and hide out in dense forest.

Fact #5: The prime suspect did escape and fled.

Fact #6: Travel, unsurprisingly, was dangerous. (Think bands of evil Robin Hoods.)

I haven’t written anything yet, but my plot as I had imagined it before my most recent research was a bit too straightforward. Now, though I’ll have to find out more, I hope to make my two MCs travel through this scary countryside to reach the powerful and influential son. Without research, I wouldn’t have thought of this promising plot twist.

Out of curiosity, I googled “real-life spies” and found lots of entries. One of them was this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_American_spies, though it may not be the most useful. We can click on a few and noodle around the websites, jotting down discoveries that interest us. In the Wikipedia list, we can click on some spies and read about them. We can sample spies in different eras and see what changes.

In this stage, we can think of ourselves as tourists, lingering here, sampling this war or that crisis, this country or that one. It’s important not to worry. We’re picking flower buds of possibilities. If we’re relaxed about it, the flower buds will drift around. In the backs of our minds, some will make patterns, break apart, and reform. This sounds fanciful, but our creative selves need space where desperation is not allowed.

Later, when we arrange them in our story bouquet, we can figure out where they go. Some may reveal themselves as weeds. Some may bloom with surprising colors and vivid perfumes.

The process is likely to continue as we write. We’re stuck in Chapter Six until we remember a particular factoid we read about a spy in the Franco-Prussian War and a different one from the Cold War. (I’m assuming this will be a fantasy spy thriller since Kit Kat Kitty mentioned the “world” of her story. If we’re writing strictly historical fiction, we’ll have to be more rigorous, and we won’t be able to hop around in time much, but we’ll still need our relaxed tourist experience.)

As we do our time travel, we can speculate in a writerly way. What kind of person did this particular spy have to be to accomplish what she did? There may be several possibilities, which we can list. What might have stood in her way? What stood in the way of a different spy that we looked at that we can plug in? I’m thinking not only of personality but also of physicality. For example, did she have asthma before there were inhalers? Does she have any identifying features? For instance, I would have a hard time getting through a dragnet because of my height.

I love to look at online images, although, usually, after the first four or so, they tend to switch to other people. I don’t care much if I’m not writing real historical fiction. What kind of person would wear this expression? What might have happened to this one to cause those frown lines?

When we’re ready—we can even declare a set time period for our touring, say a month—we can write notes about what we’ve learned. Still in relaxed mode, we can speculate about how we can use it. Gradually, our story is likely to take shape.

I don’t mean it’s easy. This is the part I dislike most. But this is the best way I’ve found to get through it.

The great thing about historical research over spy novels and movies is that we don’t have to worry about infringing on anyone else’s creation. History happened. No one told President Truman, for instance, to make up his mind to drop the atomic bombs because the war’s historical moment was taking too long to conclude and the pacing was faltering.

We do, of course, have to be aware of copyright in nonfiction biographies and history books. The authors of these books shape their presentation of facts and people. If we discover something important to our story, we probably want to find more than one source for it. This is one reason I love Wikipedia, because it’s open source, and we can use whatever we like.

Here are three prompts:

  • In medieval England, the punishment for most crimes—really!—was execution. Your MC has been falsely accused of theft and convicted, but she’s escaped from prison in the tower of the local lord’s castle. She’s following a narrow track through the woods on the outskirts of town when a large person drops down from a tree onto the path ahead of her. Write what happens. If you like, keep going and write the story.
  • Your MC is an executive at a manufacturer of teakettles where the factory workers are trying to form a union and the owner is using aggressive tactics to stop them. Secretly, your MC sympathizes with the laborers and wants to help them even though the repercussions will be severe if he’s caught. Write the story.
  • In this world, a small percentage of the population has the power to time travel. An even smaller bunch has formed a cabal to return to the past, where (when?) they plan to install their leader as prime minister. His policies will be disastrous for everyone except the members of his cabal. Your MC has infiltrated the group and is determined to make them fail. The problem is that she also shapeshifts. The shifts are set off by time travel, and she never knows what form she’ll have taken when she arrives. Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Down With The Tribunal!

On July 8, 2021, FantasyFan101 wrote, Whenever I start a WIP, I make the first chapters as perfect as I can, the way I’d like to see them when they’re published. I constantly go over the first chapters for flaws instead of moving on. I feel like I should start with drafts, but that’s not really the way I write. I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do, but I’m not quite sure exactly how to go about it. Do I make a quick list of scenes, then write out the actions a little, then slowly expand more and more, or just write a quick and, if I may, crappy rough draft?

A conversation broke out.

Erica: It just depends on what you want to do. Every writer writes differently. There are a lot of posts on outlining vs pantsing you can check out if you want to.

On a slightly more helpful note, if you keep wanting to try and perfect the first chapter, don’t break up your WIP into chapters until you’ve finished the first draft. You could also try making yourself write a certain amount of new story before you can go back and edit.

For me, going back and revising an earlier part of the story means I’m stuck on something and I’m trying to get unstuck. Keep an eye on what makes you want to stop writing, and then you can figure out how to get past that.

Katie W.: If you have a pretty good idea of what you want to do, the first step I would recommend would be writing out the idea as fully as you can, to give you a better idea of what exactly this story is going to look like. Once you have that, though, it’s every writer for themselves trying to figure out how to develop the thing. I’m helping with a project someone did where they wrote out a list of scenes and then expanded them, but I myself am the kind of writer who HAS to write a story straight through from beginning to end, because I keep coming up with things that send the story into a completely different direction. My advice would be to try super-detailed outlining first, and then decrease the complexity as you need to until you find a level of planning that works for you. But it’s really just experimenting until you find the system that works for you.

Christie V Powell: You might try the NaNoWriMo style, just as an exercise. You set yourself a goal number of words (the official NaNo in November is 50k words in a month, but you can set something else), and then throw words down.

Editing is not allowed. Instead, I write myself notes about things I would like to change, and then keep going, usually with a hashtag so I can find it easily later (“Her large eyes studied her brother’s family with an expression Indra couldn’t read. #end scene with focus on Indra”).

Sometimes I stop and stream-of-conscious brainstorm right on the page (“This isn’t working. How can I try something new?”). Other times, I’ll write a paragraph about what I want the next chapter to do before I write it (“Indra speaks with Marenna, who frets that she could have helped, but does not admit her special ability yet”). Even those words count toward the goal.

I don’t know if this ends up being your go-to method, but it might be worth a try.

I agree with all of these!

Christie V Powell’s suggestion of writing NaNoWriMo style is likely to be freeing. An even more drastic idea is to tape paper across your screen so you can’t see what you have written and can concentrate only on what you are writing this second. If the stress rises, you can crack your knuckles, stare out your window, walk around your room—and then get back to it, still without looking.

The beginning is probably the ficklest, most changeable part in our story. Even if we write detailed outlines before we commit a word to a first draft, we are highly likely to revise our first chapter in the course of a final draft. I could be wrong about this, but I would bet fairly good money that one of the most famous first lines in literature was revised before it appeared in print. I’d go further and bet slightly less good money that the sentence was unrecognizable or not there at all in the first draft. I’m thinking of Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Unless he was a different and higher species than the one I belong to, he couldn’t have known how to characterize the times until he’d developed his story. However, someone in the blogosphere may know the truth about Dickens’ process. If you do, please enlighten me.

It isn’t only that we don’t know our story and our characters well enough, we also can’t yet see the best way to introduce them.

To not worry about beginnings is one of the first lessons I learned in the writing class that most fundamentally shaped me as a writer, where I was one of the few newbie fish in a school of seasoned pros. My classmates said that we often put in our first chapter background information that only we need to know and the reader doesn’t—or we plunge our poor readers into story water so deep that they drown before they can figure out what’s going on. These are problems we can’t fix until we’ve gotten to the end.

I also love Erica’s sly suggestion to make our whole first draft one continuous chapter so we don’t feel the urge to perfect it until we’re done.

If we’re all like me and love polishing best of all, we will have more delight if we leave it to the end. We can remind ourselves of that as we soldier on.

In her marvelous book on writing, Bird by Bird (high school and up), Anne Lamott says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” She is the champion of lousy first drafts, without which she (me too!) believes one cannot achieve successful final drafts.

Every night, my husband and I cuddle and play e-solitaire collaboratively. When the game sends us hard game after hard game, I say that The Tribunal is punishing us. When we waste moves, I say the members of The Tribunal are laughing at us. There can be an imaginary Tribunal because the version of solitaire we use is opaque. Nowhere is the best achievable score for a game revealed—so we could really find out if The Tribunal has reason to laugh. We can’t discover how the game rotation works, either, to know if The Tribunal actually is sending us a string of tough challenges.

The Tribunal is a funny idea when applied to solitaire. It’s no fun at all if it sits judgment on our writing. There’s more to this analogy: measures of writing quality are as unknown as solitaire’s metrics. No one agrees about what a perfect story or a perfect sentence or even a perfect word in a sentence is. It is a crippling strategy to invent The Tribunal to judge our work, spectrally gathered around us while we’re calling forth our fragile, creative selves.

The For Fun! sign I suggested in an earlier post may be useful here. We can tape it all over—because The Tribunal never brings fun to the party. There are other saying we can make up and write in in colored markers or embroider into our pillowcases. We can make a list:

  • Shakespeare loved lousy first drafts, and he got it from Chaucer.
  • No one will ever see this unless I say so.
  • Revision is the cherry on top of a finished story.
  • Evil judge, if you’re peering over my shoulder, come out where I can see you.

First prompt: Write three more sayings.

Here are two more prompts:

  • Write a day in the life of a member of The Tribunal.
  • Write a day in the life of a resident of the city ruled by The Tribunal, where punishments for lawbreaking are harsh and no one knows what the laws are.

Have fun and save what you write!

Hi, Pal, I’m Water!

On June 5, 2021, Fantasywriter6 wrote, What is the best way to have a form of nature communicate with people? The sort of magic that my MC has is that she can speak to water. I want the water to have a definite personality, but I don’t know how whether to show that personality by having it “speak” back to my MC or simply by what it does and describing the water from her point of view (what she understands about it). The “water-speaking” is telepathic; she doesn’t just walk up to the ocean and say, “Hey, what’s up, Ocean?” But should I write the water responding in (telepathic) words or a feeling that she gets or just what the water decides to do?

Three of you wrote back

Katie W.: Sounds like a group in one of my stories that I call water-dancers. Water carries images from where it’s been, and when the water-dancers touch it, the images appear in their minds. Sometimes with sounds, sometimes not, depending on the circumstances. Which images they get are fairly touch-and-go, but if they focus on a specific thing they want to know about (like how far away someone/something is) they can usually get an answer. So the image transfer goes both ways, to the point where they can control the water by picturing what they want it to do, although how much water they can control depends on the dancer. The most powerful can also receive prophecies, but I haven’t figured out how that would work yet.

Long story short, my MC can both send and receive mental (it doesn’t appear in her reflection or anything like that) images from water.

i  writing: I feel like, if you want the water to have a personality, you should have it reply in telepathic words.

Kyryiann: I have a book where the MC talks to dolphins. The dolphins have different personalities, but they don’t use words. Instead, they send her images and feelings telepathically.

At the time, I wrote that Fantasywriter6’s question touches on worldbuilding.

There isn’t a “best” way for a part of nature to communicate with people, or a best way to do almost anything in writing. The story itself, its problem, can help us figure out what we can use in most cases. This goes for worldbuilding in general. We create the world our story needs—except for the embellishments we may throw in for fun, but not too many because we don’t want to overload or distract our readers.

For example, I figure Fantasywriter6’s MC’s power and water itself are integral to the plot. Is there a drought? Floods? Are wells being poisoned? Are fish—or mermaids—getting sick? Is water distressed over whichever it may be? Or is water angry and creating the problem? Is water mad at the MC in particular?

There are so many questions. Can water decide it doesn’t want to communicate, because its feelings were hurt or it’s annoyed or the equivalent of its throat is sore? Does water have a personality?

Can water express itself clearly? Dogs, for instance, can’t tell us what hurts, which is maddening, especially since they’re good at communicating that something does. And good at expressing many needs. Water could be sort of like dogs.

Let’s imagine that the well that waters the king’s castle has been poisoned and the water doesn’t want anyone to get sick. Our MC is a kitchen maid and has to fetch water for cooking. Unaware of the poisoning, she telepathically chirps to the well water about what beautiful weather they’re having. How does the water communicate about the poisoning? It’s easy if the water can speak telepathically (in the language of the MC or in the language of water, in which our MC is fluent). Since that’s easy, let’s put it to the side and make a list of other possibilities. How else might the well let our MC know something is amiss?

  • Water rises out of the well and splashes her.
  • The water makes itself freeze so that she hears a clank and her bucket comes back empty.
  • Steam rises that smells like sulfur.

Of course, the water does whatever it does only because our MC has the power to connect with it. Anyone else would get seriously dangerous water.

Your turn for an early prompt. Think of five more possible ways the water can express itself. (The reason for five is that they may not be easy to think of. When your brain feels squeezed, it is likely to send some silly ideas and some that will surprise you and yield unexpected possibilities. If five come right away, go for five or ten more. Brain squeeze is good.)

Suppose we pick the splashing. We don’t have to explain everything. We don’t need to tell the reader that the well water, say, gathered itself and created its own version of a basketball player’s musculature so that it could make the water zoom up, because then we’d have to explain how it knew about muscles and basketball, and it would never end, and our story would, so to speak, dissolve. Instead, we can just show the splash and our MC’s reaction when a tiny drop (too little to hurt her) lands on her tongue and tastes sour.

In the process, we’ve advanced our plot with the poisoning. We’ve expanded our worldbuilding because we’ve discovered how water communicates. And we’ve learned a little about the benevolence of water, or at least of the water in this particular well. Plot, worldbuilding, character. And setting comes into it too: the castle and well water rather than water piped in from a reservoir. Not bad!

Here are three more prompts:

  • You were expecting this. Write the story of the poisoned well.
  • Write a story about an MC or a villain who is a cloud persuader.
  • A civil war is in progress, and your MC or your villain has the power to combine and separate. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Self Help

On April 23, 2021, Fantasywriter6 wrote, What are some ways that y’all would suggest to improve writing technique? Aside from writing all the time, obviously. How can I learn to make my language, mood, and overall technique better? (If this is a dumb question, and the answer is just “you have it or you don’t,” then sorry!:) I just have recently read a work done by a peer, and, I mean, I generally think that my language is pretty good, but when I read her work- even just aside from the plot and characters, her language, pacing, and overall voice were phenomenal. I’d like to get better at all of that!

A discussion followed.

Me: Not a dumb question! I’m adding it to my list. In the meanwhile, if you’re thinking about language, I’d suggest you read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, a very old book, which came out in a new edition last year. I used to lick the elegant sentences off the page!

FantasyFan101: I know how you feel. My friend’s writing is, as you say, phenomenal. I’d just say, think about yourself. What do you sound like in your head? Smart, curious, happy, sad etc.? If you’re doing close focus 3rd POV, my favorite, make your voice sound like the character’s personality. My friend from above has a character that is very resentful and has had a lot of loss, and the story definitely revolves a lot around that when she’s writing. It makes her romance especially hard, because she doesn’t want to possibly lose another loved one. She tries to keep herself cold and cut off from any possible friendships. The voice of the story always has to do with the characters involved. Technique, I don’t know. It’s your story, so write it as you want. The mood also depends on what your characters are feeling. If they’re happy, describe everything brightly and joyfully. Sad, you know what to do.

Katie W.: I’ve found that analyzing things you really like can be quite helpful. Not just “Oh, that’s really good,” but “What is it about this story that appeals to me? Which techniques does the author use to create this effect?” Once you have those answers, you can look for a way to incorporate that into your writing. You can also absorb those things by osmosis, but it takes longer and the process is harder to put into words. If you can manage it, I would suggest asking the peer you admire how she got to be so good and see if she might have any tips. But analyzing and osmosis work, too.

Christie V Powell: It’s definitely something you can learn, not something you have or don’t. In addition to Strunk & White, may I recommend Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark? It’s another excellent book that talks about the little ways you can play with language to make it work for your story.

And, of course, read a lot! I usually get so involved in reading stories that I don’t pick apart details as I go (except sometimes some big picture things like plot structure points), but even if it’s by osmosis, you’ll pick up a greater vocabulary and greater mastery of word usage.

Just saying, comparisons with a peer may be unreliable. We are hard on ourselves! I started wondering (ignoring the timelines of their lives, which overlapped by only one year) if Charlotte Brontë may have thought Jane Austen above her in writing quality. Or vice versa. But if you read the two, the question dissolves because their work is so different in mood, tone, and style. They’re both great.

Having said that, it’s always worthwhile to work at our writing. I’m with Christie V Powell on reading a lot, which makes osmosis happen.

I’m also a fan of close analysis of what’s going on in prose I admire. A minute ago I looked at the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (high school and up). The first paragraph is one long sentence after another until the penultimate one, which is just eight words: Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. The shortness packs a punch.

On a technical level, I see how effective sentence variety can be. Fitzgerald also changes things up with a dash in an earlier sentence. We can include a question or two or an exclamation. Even a colon followed by a series can wake up a bit of prose.

And isn’t that sentence fascinating? The whole paragraph immerses us in the thoughts of Nick Carraway and sets him up to be a reliable narrator. (Please argue with me if you disagree. I’d love to know your thoughts on this.)

You can find the paragraph online, and you don’t have to be at least in high school to read the excerpt. We can learn from it about jumping into the strangeness of a character’s mind.

I took a look at Christie V Powell’s suggested Writing Tools and read some of the sample Amazon offers. In the beginning, Roy Peter Clark advises writers to start sentences with subject and verb, and he provides examples of the effectiveness of that approach.

I thought, Whoa! What about Shakespeare’s “To Be or Not To Be” speech from Hamlet? I googled it and read it, and the subject and verb are all over the place. To his credit, Clark goes on to include examples that don’t follow his recommendation and that are still terrific. He draws our attention, as mine never had been drawn before, to subject-verb placement and the effects we can achieve. Cool!

I’m attentive to word repetition when I revise. Generally, I don’t want words to repeat in the same sentence or paragraph, sometimes not even in neighboring paragraphs. These include handy little ones like even or just. Sometimes, I’ll recast a sentence to get rid of them because they create a sameness in our prose.

Paragraph length can be varied too. An infrequent one sentence paragraph can heighten a dramatic moment. But this should be used rarely, or there’s the danger of seeming gimmicky.

We can scrutinize our adjectives and adverbs (the weakest parts of speech in English prose) to see if we need them or if we can substitute stronger nouns and verbs for them, like rushed instead of moved quickly. We can bring in detail to show whatever we’re describing, rather than beautiful building, we can show the reader the marble columns, the balcony guard wall decorated with a frieze of dancers—and so on. The reader will glean that this edifice is beautiful.

Then we can zoom out to consider bigger issues. We can consider how an admired author revealed character through dialogue, action, appearance, and, in the case of an MC, thoughts and feelings. We look for consistency. If there’s change, how was it set up?

We can look at plot twists and whether they were both surprising and believable at the same time. If yes, how did the author prepare the reader? What can we learn?

Same approach with setting and worldbuilding. Did they support the story, or were they just window dressing?  I think a little window dressing is okay, since the author is allowed to have fun, but the world and the setting need also to be woven into the story so that the plot doesn’t work without them. We can think about how the author accomplished that. When did the worldbuilding and the setting enter the story? How was it done?

Of course, we’ll pay special attention to the issues that are hardest for us. How does this author accomplish whatever those are (plot for me)?

We can be critical too. Is there anything in the book we’re studying that doesn’t work? What could we do to fix whatever it is? I twitch when I spot a little mistake that could easily have been revised out of existence. Didn’t somebody notice?

The biblical story of Joseph has myriad plot twists. Two of these three prompts pick a twist to fool with, but you can look the story up if you don’t remember the details and choose different ones.

  • Joseph is oddly clueless about the resentment he will cause by revealing to his brothers the dreams that predict they will bow down to him. In your version, he guesses how angry they’ll be and tells only his brother Reuben, the one who is kind to him. Write how Reuben handles the secret and what happens to the story.
  • Without making any changes to the story, write the scene when Joseph tells all his brothers about the dreams. Choose three brothers and Joseph to bring to life during the revelation and what follows. This one and the one above seem to me to be especially character driven.
  • For a ghost story, the Jews fleeing Egypt in the time of Moses break their promise to take Joseph’s bones with them. The ghost is not pleased. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Success Is Dessert

On March 26, 2021, MissMiddle wrote, I was wondering, how many hours do you write per day? I recently read that the most successful authors write for 4+ hours each day. Do you think that’s necessary? I’d love to see a post about how much to write each day and if you already have one it would be great if someone could direct me to it.

At the time I wrote back with this: I’m adding your question to my list, but it will take me a long time to answer. My minimum daily writing time is 2 1/4 hours. I try to go longer and often do, but sometimes I don’t make even my minimum. I don’t think 4+ hours are a necessity, but consistency is important. If you have little time, try carving out at least 15 minutes a day for writing.

I haven’t changed my mind.

Not long ago, I kept failing to make my time goal. Nothing big was going on, just little diversions that I gave in to. I forgave myself, because forgiveness is the bargain I’ve made, and I think it’s a useful and benevolent one for everyone to make. Otherwise, we pile on blame. We think we don’t have the discipline or the talent to be a writer and we stop writing. But forgiveness turns off the self-recrimination spigot. If we forgive ourselves, tomorrow is free and clear, uncluttered.

When I do make my goal, I feel a little shinier than when I don’t. I think that’s okay.

Mine is a time goal rather than words or pages. If I work the contracted time, it doesn’t matter whether the writing went well or horribly. A page or word requirement would add an additional milestone I’d have to meet to get the shine. Some days I mostly write notes about my story or do research (which I count) and I wouldn’t get to, say, two pages in ten hours. I know by now that if I put in the hours, eventually the writing will figure itself out and I’ll finish a book.

There is no fixed length of time one has to write every day to be successful. We don’t even have to write every day. We’re all different. The only imperative is that we write frequently enough to produce stories. How many stories and how often also vary from writer to writer.

Having said that, though, discipline is essential to writing and to getting better as a writer, which we can’t do if we don’t, er, write. When I’m revising, I can keep at it almost endlessly, but when I’m starting a new story or writing notes about it—the hardest part for me—sticking to the work can be torture. Discipline is no problem during the easy phases!

A daily goal of some kind is helpful for the hard parts. We want to establish a habit. If we get used to writing for, say, half an hour a day, the act will become like brushing our teeth, part of what we do, and we’ll feel strange and unlike ourselves when we don’t do it.

But it isn’t enough for me to say, Just pick a goal and make it a habit. In my own experience as a failed visual artist, I know that expressing our creativity is hard. Not being creative, When I googled Why is creativity hard?, I found this lovely quote from Lewis Mumford who wrote The Myth of the Machine: “Anyone who says ‘I don’t have a creative bone in my body’ is seriously underestimating their skeleton.  More to the point, they are drastically undervaluing their brain.”

What’s super difficult is hauling that creativity from our bones out into the world. During my long writing apprenticeship, I made lots of friends among my fellow wannabes, and I watched quite a few give up for one reason or another, but not because they weren’t creative.

Googling led me to an article in Psychology Today called “10 Reasons Why We Struggle With Creativity” by David DiSalvo—but before you google it too, know that I think it’s for high-school-and-above people. Two of the ten reasons jumped out at me. The first sounds discouraging even self-defeating: that we can attain the self-confidence to produce creative work (writing for us) only by failing to produce work we have confidence in.

The secret weapon, though, is that now you know. We have to fail, probably again and again, to succeed in the end. Most of you know that it took me nine years for one of my stories (Ella) to be accepted. And it’s not that everything I write is a success. In every book, I fail myriad times. Right now, working on my memoir, which I think I’ve mentioned, I’m finding it astonishingly hard to make it chronological, as a beta reader has said I must. I keep wandering off on tangents. But by now I do have confidence. Understanding the necessity of failure will let you fortify yourself. We tighten our stomachs and yell into the wind, “This isn’t working. Too bad.” Off we go, trying again or starting that new idea.

The second reason goes with the first, that the failing we must do sets off memories of other failures and a cascade of self-criticism. How can we ever succeed if we’ve already proven ourselves to—fill in the blank: have only stupid ideas, sputter out every time without finishing, write awkward sentence after awkward sentence, be unable to build a world, stink at endings, stink at beginnings? I can go on and on. I bet you can too. We have to fortify ourselves against our excellent memories. We can replace memories with facts. How long did it take the Wright Brothers to figure out flight? How long did medicine stumble before germ theory was discovered? Failure should be embraced!

Here are three prompts:

  • Write for fifteen minutes a day for the next seven days. You can vary the time. If you have to, do it before you go to sleep.
  • Pick an unfinished story of yours and work on it. Doesn’t matter if you fail to improve it. Remind yourself that in the meal of writing (or creativity), failure is the appetizer and entrée; success is dessert.
  • Write about an athlete training for the Olympics. Make the athlete fail the trial. Decide what they make of the failure and do about it. The ending can be triumphant—or not.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Process

On April 6, 2021, StoryBlossom wrote, The process for writing second and third drafts is so confusing. Most of what I’ve read says something like: wait some time, read it, and then wing it.

Do you have any suggestions for planning techniques and how to be consistent with planning so you get it done in a timely manner so you can get to the actual writing? What can I do during the first draft that will make writing future drafts easier without stifling my creativity by overplanning? In other words, can you expand upon, “Too much [writing] is better than too little, because it’s easier to cut than add when we revise?” I’m thinking this might mean writing every single scene idea whether it fits or not, but that would probably mean adding more during the revision process as I try to fit everything together cohesively.

That’s the problem I had when I started editing one of my WIPs. I didn’t plan my first draft at all. That didn’t even occur to me. I planned my second draft using the snowflake method, but the story ended a complete mish-mash mess. The plot was in my head and not executed properly. I tried again with my third draft, going up to 60ish pages, but then I got sick of the story because I’ve been working on it for six years. There was still so much to more to write to complete the plot.

I took a break from writing because I didn’t know what I wanted to write. I also think I was focusing too much on keeping up with my writing goal (which was ridiculously high) because I wanted to finish within three months. How long can it realistically take for a beginner to write a book? Finally, I ran my ideas through a randomizer and tried writing that one.

I tried writing non-chronologically, where I just randomly wrote scenes in no particular order, but that felt even messier and I gave up on that. I’ve moved on to yet another story, which I already had a half first draft written. I read the draft, which was based on the same universe from the first WIP I mentioned and had to scrap most of my ideas. I invented a whole new universe and started writing a new draft. But my perfectionism and need for speed is getting in the way. I don’t know why I have such trouble planning– I am a planner in most other respects. I don’t know why I want to write quickly– I hate rushing in all other respects.

Several of you responded:

Katie W.: What occurs to me is that you might want to write quickly because that seems like the sort of thing a “real writer” would do. Three months is almost ridiculously fast to write a book. If you really work at it, you can get a first draft in, but you won’t have time for editing. (And yes, I know NaNoWriMo people are probably laughing at this.) I did it once, 60,000 words in a semester, but I didn’t finish the actual story and I never wanted to look at the thing again in my entire life.

I think really the issue here is that you haven’t figured out your special kind of planning, and as a die-hard, there’s-no-point-in-even-trying-to-plan-this-because-it’ll-go-off-the-rails-anyway pantster, I can’t help you with that. Reading your comment, my thought was “Oh, yeah. Just start over with whatever idea you have now and see where it takes you. It’s supposed to be messy, so you can clean it up.” My advice would be to read every writing book you can get your hands on and see if something clicks.

Christie V Powell: I agree with Katie W., in that it sounds like you need to figure out your own process and what works best for you. I can tell you mine and give you resources. It works for me, and it’s fast–I can publish at least a book a year, start to finish, with my method. But you’ll want to adapt and eventually make your own.

I started to write down my whole process here, but I don’t want to take up a ton of space, and I’m probably repeating myself from other comments I’ve made. I copied it all down to my own blog post instead, so you can check that out if you’d like: https://atypicallyordinary.blogspot.com/2021/04/my-writing-process.html.

Melissa Mead: FWIW, it took me 14 years to finish my first book. So you don’t need to push yourself TOO hard.

FantasyFan101: My advice for you is just write. Zip. Nada. No more. Just kidding. Often, I find that when I write, I like to just let the ideas flow until my mind is like, whoa, slow down, change this, it’s way better that way. For instance, my current WIP has an MC who still isn’t quite as polished as I’d like, but looking back, her personality and even description fits better into the story. My friend and I also were able to add more details to the world and backstory as the story built up. Now we have not just words on paper, but the seeds of a world. My point is, most of the time your world and story aren’t going to be perfect right away. You’ll get ideas and inspiration the farther along you get. It can help to get to know your world better later in the story. You don’t want to infodump right at the beginning of the story. Things have to start worse before they get better. You have plenty of time. Just relax. Jot down a few ideas. Talk about it with a friend or family member. Have them read it. They might have some eye-opening insight that changes your whole perspective. Readers can have that kind of influence. I wish you luck, from one writer to another.

These are great and helpful. I particularly love Katie W.’s suggestion about reading lots of books on writing. I did that. Books like Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser, all of which I gobbled up when I was starting out, still stand proud on my shelves. (High school and up.) Every one of these authors is humble about writing and also recognizes that telling a story isn’t as straightforward as following a recipe—because there is no recipe (I wish there was!). Our subconscious always gets involved, creates detours, and wants us to go in unexpected directions. This, I think, is what StoryBlossom is contending with. Has anyone mentioned on this blog that writing is hard?

What helps me is the knowledge that I’ve finished stories a bunch of times, and because of that, I’m relatively, almost entirely confident, that I’ll do it again. I think Christie V Powell has that confidence too and for the same reason. If you follow the link to her blog and read about her method, you’ll see that she welcomes her subconscious in during the daydreaming phase. After that, her tried-and-true method guides her.

But her way won’t work for all of us and probably won’t work entirely or exactly for any of us. It’s like life; even identical twins have paths that diverge, a lot or a little. I looked at the snowflake method, which looks good, but I could follow it only after I finished a book. While I’m writing, I don’t know my characters well enough or see the course they’re going to follow. I find those out during the writing, by showing the details. How will Janey respond to a flat tire? How will Meredith answer a king who asks what she has in her purse? What does she have? Still, I do have an idea of the problem of the book and the ending—or I can’t write it. But some people can.

Knowing the end does keep my first draft from wandering, so that can be a strategy for some writers.

Perfectionism is useful only in the final revision, when plot, setting, and characters are settled. Then we go in and mop up, looking for awkward phrasing, word repetition, typos—like that. Still, we won’t achieve perfection, because, in my opinion, perfection is unattainable. A novel is a long document that has at least one thing wrong with it. As good as we can make it is good enough. Besides, people have different ideas about what we’ve written. A reader may find fault with something that we know is right. Once, a reader wrote to me in considerable distress over the ending of The Two Princesses of Bamarre. She said I had to create a new version that fixed it or write a sequel that fixed it. But the ending was what it should be as far as I was concerned. She said she was losing sleep over it, which was unfortunate for her. It was nice for me, though, that she felt so strongly about my book!

StoryBlossom quotes me about length, but I couldn’t find the spot on the blog, and I wanted to because I’d like to know the context. I’m pretty sure I meant that adding is hard if we get to the end of a story and feel that it isn’t long enough. I doubt I meant that we should pile on scenes. Probably, I was thinking about including enough detail to put the reader inside the action and in the heart and mind of my MC.

Decades ago, I invited some relatives for dinner. No one told me I had to; I wanted to. But then I entirely lost my cool in worry about what might go wrong, from burning the food to no one having anything to say to the toilet stopping up. A wise friend advised me to tape signs in cheerful felt markers in lots of places in our then apartment: For fun! The reminders worked. I sang while I cooked and straightened. I don’t think anything burned or any toilets backed up. For sure, people found things to talk about. I wasn’t drummed out of the family. All of that would have been true if I’d continued to fret, but how nice not to! For anyone who’s worried about their writing, I recommend placing exactly these signs anywhere you’re likely to look. Remember how I end each blog post.

I googled randomizer, and I wouldn’t use it to help me with my plot. That way lies chaos, in my opinion. But I would use it for a poem. In fact, I can’t wait to try it. Thank you, StoryBlossom!

Here are three prompts:

  • Google randomizer and use it to write a poem. Here are some suggestions for what you might put in: three images, like The golden horse weathervane was stationary against a backdrop of scudding clouds (feel free to use this one); a proverb; a fruit or vegetable; a fragment of a memory—and whatever else you like. See, as I’m going to, what the randomizer does with them, but don’t feel obliged to use whatever comes out. Fool with it until you’re satisfied.
  • Going against what I said above, use a randomizer to generate story ideas. Stick in a sentence from ten different fairy tales. See what happens and use what you can.
  • Marco and Juliette are working on a scene together for an acting class. Marco is a perfectionist and Juliette is not. Write the rehearsal. If you feel like it, expand it into a story. If you feel like it, make the story a romcom.

Have FUN!!! FUN!!! And save what you write.