Fickle or faithful

To continue the trend of the last two posts, here’s another word question. As you probably know, English is an enormous language, because it has its roots in several other languages and it’s still happy to accept word immigrants. We writers have a dizzying number of choices for almost anything we want to say. So it always surprises me when I stumble across a word that has no synonyms, like shrug, which I’ve been worrying about overusing, because my characters seem to do it a lot. My question for this post is, What other unique words have you happened across? Or, if you know a one-word synonym for shrug, what is it?

And to all of you working feverishly on your NaNoWriMo projects: Best wishes for smooth sailing and great progress!

Onto the post, which also maybe useful for you heroic NaNoWriMo people. On June 22, 2016, the Florid Sword wrote, How do you stay interested in a story? I have trouble finishing my books because I have a grand idea that works and I write feverishly and then- I get a new idea for the same book, usually involving a new character or a new subplot. And I start over. Either that or I write the first three pages and then lose interest and move on to something else. Needless to say, it’s annoying. Does anyone have any advice about how to stay on a story without changing the plot or losing interest?

Several of you weighed in.

Martina: I would recommend using a motivational sort of tactic to keep yourself on a story without losing interest or changing the plot. There are a lot of good websites out there (Write the World– for young writers– NaNoWriWo, Camp NaNo, etc. A quick Google search will bring up tons of options) that you can use to link in with fellow writers and share your story with them. On many of the websites, they have a deadline for you to complete your project by, and occasional prompts to jumpstart your writing. I find that having other people motivating you and holding you to your word makes it easier to stay on task.

Christie V Powell: I have a box of stories from high school in my closet. Most of them are unfinished (but they are super fun to go back and read). Almost all of the stories that I did finish were ones that I outlined. I had to know where I was going and a couple of steps on the way, so that I desired to get there. Otherwise I lost interest and filed them away. I know it’s not for everyone but that’s what worked for me.

As far as not changing the plot, is that a bad thing? Even we outliners know that our plans are flexible. If we follow where the story wants to go, it’s not going to go exactly according to plan and that’s okay. Instead of starting all the way over, make some notes (in the margins, or a separate document, or in a different text color), about what you’re going to change when you go back and edit. Then keep going.

Ellen: Create a lot of suspense and laughter. That will make it a lot more interesting. I have written a few stories myself, and some are very long. Think of what you would do in the situation. Sometimes I even play a game out of my books. Sometimes I write a story out of a fun game. If you happen to lose your interest, draw some pictures for it. Maybe even draw some pictures for what’s going to happen next. I am sure you are a great writer, you just need to not only catch your reader’s interest, catch your own interest. If you want to change the plot, you can, but don’t erase the rest. Create a new book and maybe even connect the two, like have the different characters meet.

These are terrific!

I love the motivational suggestions. I belong to a poetry critique group that meets every other week, which forces me to come up with a poem. If we’re sharing our work, our fellow writers can help us move forward in our story when they say what interests them, because we may not always be the best judge of where the excitement lies. If they’re fascinated by this character or that event, we may discover a fruitful direction to take our plot, one that interests us, too. Also, as we write, it’s cheering to think, Oh, boy, Megan is going to adore this. Or even, Megan is going to hate this–because we’re anticipating a response. Many of us read to be read. An audience is a great goad.

And Ellen’s ideas are reminders that playfulness is a big part of creativity. When our plot has knotted up, we can act out the problem. Surprises may result. Or we can bring in our other talents. Ellen draws or invents games. How about a computer app game (way beyond my dinosaur capabilities)? Some of you make maps. How about a diorama? In my case, a poem may help. Often, entering another artistic realm can free and reinvigorate us.

And Christie V Powell’s ideas are, as usual, spot on. I agree that abandoned stories are not a tragedy–especially not if we save them. We can enjoy going back to them later and meeting the person and writer we used to be, and they may even suggest new work.

I half wish I’d abandoned Stolen Magic after a year or so. I mean, I’m happy with the way it finally turned out, but I might have written three other books in the time it took me to write the one, so I don’t think it’s terrible to fail to complete a story. And when we’re in the early stages of our lives as writers, we’re trying things out. We can let something go without a backward glance. If we turn out to be writers in the long haul, we’ll start finishing our work when we’re ready.

And, I agree again that it’s fine to change a plot. We can’t know when we start what discoveries we’ll make as we write or what new ideas will crop up. My outlines, as I’ve said here many times, are either minimal or nothing, though often I have a fairy tale in mind that I’m following and filling in with detail, and I, too, find it helpful to have an idea of the end I’m writing toward. So that might be another strategy to use to help stick it out. Before we start writing the actual story, when we’re thinking or outlining or writing notes, we can consider how we’d like it to come out–which may change, as everything else can–but having a sense of the ending can give us something to aim for. When I wrote Ella Enchanted *SPOILER ALERT*, for example, I knew I wanted Ella to end her curse herself, but originally I thought that Hattie, rather than love for Char would provide the solution. So, our idea of the ending doesn’t have to be fleshed out, but it probably should be a little more than wanting it to be happy or sad–although I suppose that can work, too.

Another strategy, which probably won’t work for everyone, to help finish a story is not to jump instantly into the writing. Jot down some notes first. We can let the story roll around in our brains for a few days or a few weeks before we get going. We can let other approaches develop. We can even wonder in this early stage if this is the story we want to write. I usually stick to notes until they bore me and the pressure to write a beginning scene becomes intolerable. Also, even though I haven’t finished Ogre Enchanted yet, I’ve begun to speculate about the next book and to start daydreaming.

Here are five prompts:

∙ In this post, I express doubts about this approach, but try it out anyway. All you know is the ending has to be happy. Put your MC into a miserable situation. Pick a few of these and pile on some of your own: Her family and friends have been wiped out in some horrible, painful way; she’s hated by everyone she knows; she’s imprisoned and has just been sent to solitary confinement; she has a dread disease with little prospect for survival; she is haunted by the ghost of a former dictator. Think of a few more before you start writing. Write the story and–believably–bring it to a happy conclusion.

∙ Now, all you know is that the ending is sad. Your MC is the most fortunate person on the planet. Pick some of these and make up your own: He just won a major award that comes with a big cash prize; his cancer is not merely in remission, it’s cured forever; his family is well and healthy; he lands his dream job or gets into his dream school; everyone loves him. Make it all fall apart. To add to his misery, make some of the trouble be his own fault and make some be caused by betrayal. End it tragically.

∙ If you have abandoned story fragments, go through them. Look for things to admire. Choose four fragments, any four. Jot down ideas that you can use again. Think about how you might cobble together an MC and other major characters. Write a new story that combines elements of the four, but if you wind up using only three or remembering parts of others or bringing in entirely new threads, that’s okay, too.

∙ Pick one of your abandoned stories and think about how it might end. Write the ending as a scene with full detail. Type “the end” under it. Walk away.

∙ Picking up the last prompt. If you want to, wait a week and return to the story and fill in three scenes leading up to the ending. Consider it finished–unless you want to work on it some more, but I think you can declare victory.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Like falling in love… and out… and in…

Before I start, I posted this in comments within the last blog: I asked my tech support, AKA my husband David, about photos or images appearing with names as they often did in Blogspot. This is completely optional, but if you want to, you just have to follow his instructions below:

The blog uses gravatars. Very easy to set up.

Go to http://en.gravatar.com/.
Establish a free account using the same email address as is used on the blog.
Gravatar will send a confirmation email.
Click on their confirmation email.
Log in to Gravatar.
Upload a photo or other image that will be the avatar.
After a brief delay, the Gravatar will appear next to the comments on the blog.

Now for the post. On February 14, 2015, iowareadsandwrites wrote, Does anyone have the same problem where you start a story (with a good plot and characters that are ready to go) and you write one or two chapters, but then the story doesn’t sound that fun or interesting, so you don’t want to finish it.

Am I the only one with that problem? How can I stop that?

Several of you sympathized and chimed in.

From Erica Eliza: Writing a story is like falling in love. It’s fun in the beginning, but then the honeymoon’s over, and you just have to push through until things get fun again. When I’m bogged down, it’s usually because I have it outlined too well and there’s no wiggle room. So I change something up. Make a new character walk in the room, have a fight scene end with a compromise instead of an easy victory, let some fun, far-off event happen earlier than I planned.

From journaladay: I’ve found the easiest way to stay on track with writing a story is to get a friend who is willing to read it as you write it. If you feel like you have an audience it tends to bring out the motivation for writing SOMETHING because you have people waiting on you.

From Elisa: Hah, I have the very same problem a good deal of the time. When that happens I usually either 1. Start working on one of my three “Main” stories, or 2. Work on the geography of the story (I LOVE geography, I also LOVE drawing maps, I would like to become a cartographer someday). Drawing out my maps helps. I get to decide where the mountains are, what the boundaries are, deciding where the towns are, drawing mountains (I totally recommend drawing mountain ranges. It is calming), drawing rivers and deltas, etc. Once I do that, I frame the map (if it’s the right size) or I roll it up and tie it with hemp string (because I think it looks more interesting and story-ish than yarn, although some maps I use color coded yarn ties, to keep track of which are for where.) Then, once that is done, I pull the map out again and use any of my various fun paperweights and place armies strategically with chess pieces, or I decide where my characters go, or stay. I make lots of possibilities and when I find an interesting placement of armies/characters, I form the story around it. I know it’s kinda odd, but it helps me, so I decided to throw out the idea, in case someone else might find it helpful.

P.S. I also listen to music without words and then come up with lyrics and weave them into the story. That’s also kinda weird I guess.

From Melissa Mead (formerly carpelibris): I have that problem with books AND short stories. My hard drive is full of opening scenes. Sometimes I can combine a couple to make something new. Sometimes I leave them for a while and come back to find the spark reignited. Sometimes they just sit and get dusty. 🙂

These are great ideas as well as lots of company for iowareadsandwrites’ misery.

journaladay’s suggestion has been useful to me sometimes, but my reader has to be encouraging. I don’t do well if I imagine my editor, for example, disliking everything I’ve come up with. But if I know he’s a fan, lights start popping in my brain. I think, He’s going to love this! And this!

We can stack the deck in our favor by letting our reader know that we are just a tad fragile about our WIP and we’re looking for encouragement, not the reverse. If a reader can’t do that, he’s not the one for the job. Later, when we’ve soldiered all the way through and have a complete draft, we can ask him to take a more critical approach–critical, not destructive. We never need a bulldozer of a reader.

Before I was published, I lucked into an adult-ed writing class taught by a woman who had once been a children’s book editor. Every week I submitted my new pages, and she responded with a few paragraphs on blue paper and line edits right on my pages. I slaved to have something to hand in every week. If I felt like I was getting lost in my story, I could let her know and she’d respond. Once or twice a semester she’d choose one of my chapters to read aloud for the entire class to comment on.

The class was heaven, and I wrote Ella Enchanted while I was in it, but we can get similar help from a writers’ group. Before that class, I joined several writers’ groups. Most of us were beginners, but we were all good readers, and we did our best to help each other. We can all set something similar up. If our fellow writers are eager to find out what’s going to happen next in our story, we’ll be helped to keep going.

I agree with Elisa that switching tracks can work. Most of you know that I struggled through writing Stolen Magic, and I took two big breaks in the middle. One was just a pure vacation. I gave myself a month of no writing to see if my head would clear. This works for some writers, and you can try it, but it didn’t work for me. My story mist failed to lift. I also took time off to write Writer to Writer, which I think did help. For one thing, I felt productive because I was still writing, and some of what I was writing was about plot, which was my problem with my novel. My advice to readers helped me figure out what to do.

Notes work that way for me, too. I write about what I can’t figure out, and often figure it out in the process. We can all do that.

The point is that, despite Erica Eliza’s charming analogy (which I agree with), our long marriage is more to writing than to a particular story. If we switch to a different tale, we’re still writers. And I agree with Melissa that letting a story lie fallow while we dive into other projects can give our subconscious room to bring up fresh ideas.

I love the idea of crossing over to another art form for inspiration. I haven’t yet tried drawing my way out of a plot impasse, but I will keep the idea in mind. Drawing is more completely right-brained than writing, I think, and the shift may open our inner eye.

Music distracts me, but it does work for lots of writers, so that’s another strategy to try. We can invent lyrics, as Elisa does, or we can just let the music relax us or fire us up. You can experiment with what sort of music is most useful for you.

I’m generally up and down all the way through a novel, and with some novels, alas, it’s more down than up. It may help to remind ourselves, when things go south, of our story’s delightful dimple, our characters’ lovable quirks, the transporting qualities of our setting.

I love the idea of moving a plot point up. Sometimes I delay making a bad thing happen out of a misplaced unwillingness to harm a beloved character. The result usually is that the pace turns to molasses, and I get bored. Of course, if we’re going to jump ahead, we need to make sure that we’re not omitting something essential.

It’s possible that when we have characters who are “ready to go,” they may be too formed, and their rigid shape may restrict our exploration. Say we’ve imagined our character to be courageous, selfish, enthusiastic, and blunt. When a plot point arrives, she may not be able to develop organically, because she has to hold onto the qualities we’ve imagined for her. I don’t do a lot of character description in advance. Mostly I toss ‘em into situations, dream up how they might respond, and they evolve. That approach may keep a story interesting and allow us to move forward.

Finally, there is the little matter of self-criticism. It’s not useful to wonder if our story is fun or interesting. We need to ban those questions. It will never be either one if we don’t write it, and that kind of thinking just slows our fingers. The time to worry about that is really never. We write the story; we edit our first draft and however many drafts follow. Then we put it out into the world, for publication or for friends and family. We let our readers decide about fun and interestingness. If we’re sensible, in my opinion, we don’t ask anyone except the members of our critique group or our special readers to weigh in. Other people will tell us if and when they feel like it.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Expand the story of the three little pigs. Develop their characters. Take the one who builds with straw, for example. What’s his attitude toward the future? How does he spend his time? What’s his take on interior decorating? What are family gatherings like among the three of them? If they argue, how does each one express himself? How do their voices sound? In what ways are they all pigs? In what ways are they different?

∙ Turn the pigs into people, the three daughters of a king who has impoverished his kingdom. The three are homeless, but they still have subjects who depend on them. How do they resurrect their economically depressed land? The daughter who ultimately builds in brick may not necessarily be the heroine, or she may be. Write the story!

∙ Move your pig princesses into the universe of Jane Austen’s novels. The girls are now the daughters of an impoverished parson. They have to go forward, too, and at the end each one has to be paired up with someone. Turn “The Three Little Pigs” into a period romance!

Have fun, and save what you write!

Finish Line

On October 11, 2012, E.S. Ivy wrote, As to why do I finish some (projects) and not others, and why do I fail to finish: I have found that I’m much more likely to finish a project for another person than I am for myself. For example, when I was expecting my first child, I crocheted a dress for my cousin’s baby with a similar due date, but got nothing so elaborate made for my own. :)I noticed a similarity in Lark’s situation. 


My difficulty in finishing, or even progressing, in a book is the fear of not getting it “perfect.” 


I know those are two of my hurdles, but I haven’t quite figured out how to gracefully sail over them yet.

Two topics here:

∙ The ease of finishing something for someone else and the difficulty when the project is just for oneself;

∙ Fear of imperfection.

These are deep-seated issues that many of us struggle with our whole lives. I do! I don’t know how to discuss either one without getting a tad psychological.

When I was little the worst criticism that could be leveled at anyone was that he or she was selfish. If you were selfish, you were evil.

In E. S. Ivy’s example, I suppose it could be called selfish to finish a dress for her own baby because, while the baby may enjoy it, the chief delight will probably belong to E. S. Ivy, in seeing how adorable the baby looks and in feeling pride for having created the effect. And for having created the baby! Mixed in (I am completely guessing here) is the amazing luck of having a healthy child. Good fortune can be hard to tolerate when other people are suffering – and other people somewhere are always suffering.

But E. S. Ivy didn’t cause anybody’s misery.

Don’t get me wrong. Making others suffer so that we can enjoy is terrible. Ignoring the troubles of others for our own comfort stinks. Real selfishness is bad. But we’re not talking about that kind of selfishness. We’re talking about pleasure that harms no one and may help some.

Let’s stick with the baby dress example, but let’s make the crocheter someone other than E. S. Ivy, maybe a character named Barbara in a story, and let’s think about the happiness Barbara’s baby’s dress, created as a selfish act, may bring other people. Barbara takes the baby – Carlie – with her when she goes shopping at the supermarket, and the sight of Carlie in her dress makes the cashier’s day. The cashier’s last customer was horrible, but Carlie wipes out the bad taste. For the whole rest of the day the image of the baby in the great dress makes the cashier smile. That night she even falls asleep with the image in her mind.

In a larger sense, someone else’s good fortune is a blessing for sufferers, a promise that things can get better, a comfort that even if matters are going very badly for me, some are thriving. Not every sufferer will be comforted. Not every sufferer will believe that his lot can improve. But some will. Some will feel the load get a little lighter because of a cute baby in a sweet dress and a happy mother.

When it comes to art the case is even stronger. Creating art for our own pleasure benefits everyone else. The major writers, artists, musicians create out of an urgency that has nothing to do with the greater good. I very much doubt that Monet, for example, painted his water lilies for the benefit of sixth graders on a class trip to an art museum. But some of those eyes are opened, and some of those children live expanded lives forever after.

When I write – when most of the writers I know write – it’s to tell myself a story or to tell a story to the child I used to be. If I tried for an altruistic purpose, to please my readers, I’d be lost. The idea is too vague. One reader likes one thing, another likes something else. So I write selfishly to please myself, and the story goes out into the world and turns out, sometimes, to be just what a reader needs.

Naturally, we have to finish our stories for that to happen, and we have to show them to at least one other person, because keeping them entirely to ourselves may be a little selfish in the bad way, because no one else is allowed to benefit from the tale we discovered.

Finishing is going to benefit someone besides you. If nothing else, the glow of accomplishment will spread cheer.

If your story is published, a wider audience will be enriched. If it isn’t, your friends and family, your teacher, your writers’ group will be the lucky ones. They’ll learn something about you. They’ll read a story the rest of the world won’t have access to, which will make it precious.

On to perfectionism, which takes me back to my childhood, too, and to my poor mother, who was criticized mercilessly by her mother and her two sisters. She became the universe’s biggest perfectionist, trying to do everything exactly right and escape judgment.

So maybe that’s the root of a lot of perfectionism, because criticism hurts!

I caught it from her. If someone comes to my house I want it to look great. Two fragments of tile are missing in my bathroom, and they bother me. When I go out, I fuss with my looks, even if I’m going to be with people who’ve known me for eons. When I’m with a group I want my every word to be clever. This is a burden, and I should get over it.

But when I write I’m not burdened, or not so much. I know the impossibility of perfection, which is what I say in Writing Magic, that there’s no such thing as a perfect book. The best I can hope for is the best I can do at this time. Maybe in a year I’ll do better.

I admit that when I’ve finished writing a scene I go back and fiddle with it before moving on, especially if it’s a good scene and I like it. It’s fun to tweak it to make it funnier or more exciting. And it’s much easier than to move forward into the next scene, which may be hard to write, which may drive me crazy with its imperfections and may even make me temporarily blocked.

Some of you aren’t like me. Some of you blaze bravely on and save the tweaking for the second draft. Good for you!

Even I move on eventually, though. Because I’m darned if the book is going to peter out. It will limp or gallop to the end so that I can start revising and start making it the best imperfect story I can.

Here are a few prompts:

• When I think of Monet, I often think of one of my favorite poems, “Monet Refuses the Operation” by Lisel Mueller. This prompt is just to read the poem and enjoy. Here’s a link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/236810. If you read it, please let me know what you think.

• The first time I made a beef-and-barley soup, I decided to go to the movies while the soup simmered. I came back to fire trucks, an apartment full of smoke, and only ashes where soup should have been. My second attempt was delicious, but my husband’s spoon made an odd, clinking sound in the bowl, and he fished out my key chain and all my keys, dripping but sterile. Use a cooking disaster of yours – or any non-cooking mishap – or borrow mine to write a story or a scene on the theme of perfectionism. If perfectionism turns out not to be the theme, don’t worry. We’re really after story.

• Develop two characters, one selfish in a way that benefits many others, and one selfish in a way that benefits no one. Put them in opposition to each other. Write what happens in a scene or a story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

To the finish

On the evening of Thursday, October 25th, I’m going to give a talk at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Here’s the link, where they ask you to reserve your seats: http://www.carnegielibrary.org/teens/events/programs/behindthebook/. I would be delighted to meet any of you in person.

Just want to say I’ve been listening to the lectures by Brandon Sanderson and finding them helpful and informative and delightfully geeky. He has my number when he talks about discoverers.

On May 30, 2012, Lark wrote, Gail, have you ever done a post on the motives of writing something? I was reading an article in The Writer’s Digest Handbook to Novel Writing (superb articles in there, btw) about what your motives are in writing a novel. It struck me that the only 2 stories I’ve finished I’ve had specific motives behind them– i.e., my short story last year had to be written for writing club (which is a weak motive) and a parody I wrote for the Hunger Games was for my best friend’s birthday– I wrote 7,700 words in 2 days. Whew! (Slightly better motive.) I wasn’t thinking about publishing, or writing a certain number or pages/words/etc. And when I did NaNo last year my motive wasn’t finish my novel, it was write 30,000 words. (That’s probably the reason why I didn’t finish my NaNo novel). When I set out writing a story and I think, I want to get this published, it is guaranteed that I don’t finish it.

And two days ago, flowerprincess wrote in a similar vein, I write historical fiction, and I usually start a story with tons of fire and energy (and very little research) as soon as the idea is developed enough. But by the time I’ve reached what seems to be the beginning of the middle, it flops. I just can’t write anymore. Sometimes it’s because I realize that I didn’t research enough, but sometimes I just find that I have absolutely no workable plot (I’m definitely a character writer). To put this problem in perspective: I am sixteen in a month, but I haven’t finished a draft of a story since I was nine! What can I do so that I don’t keep stopping before the story actually gets started?

I read two questions here, one about finishing and one about writing in the first place. They’re both mysterious.

To get philosophical: People are like locked doors and we may spend our entire lives looking for the key – to ourselves! We have more access to our innards than anyone else. We know what we’re thinking and feeling, and yet… We may have no clue about why we can’t lose a few pounds or quit smoking or not get angry when a certain person says almost anything or finish a story, or why we even start a story in the first place. Sometimes our friends and family can diagnose us better than we can – and vice versa. We may understand exactly why our friend Pamela bites her nails, although she has no idea.

I can tell you why I write: to tell myself a story, because I love books, because I have an itch to be creative that I just must scratch. And why I finish: because I am stubborn and because it feels too awful to fail – it’s intolerable (although at some point I may have to tolerate it). But I can’t come up with answers behind these. I have no idea why I want to tell myself a story or why I’m so stubborn.

So here’s an early prompt: Ask yourself the same questions. Why do you write? Why do you finish your stories or fail to finish them? Why do you finish some and not others? Your responses, regardless of how confused they are, may help you, may guide you in your revisions and your new stories. I would appreciate it if you’d post what you come up with, too, because your answers may help other writers who read the blog.

I’ve finished every book I started – sort of. In thinking about this post I realized that the skeletons of unfinished stories pave the length of almost every one of my books. When I started Fairest, for example, I thought it was going to be about the unrequited love of the gnome zhamM for Aza. Couldn’t do it. There isn’t even a ghost of this in the published book. So the specter of that story is haunting the ether somewhere. In an earlier version of what used to be called Beloved Elodie, Elodie’s mother falls under a spell that makes her totally greedy, that makes her prefer a golden statue of her daughter to the living, breathing girl. I loved it. It was powerful and horrifying. But I couldn’t do anything with it, so it’s hanging out with love-smitten zhamM.

If the problem is that your main story thread peters out, you may find it helpful to assume that wasn’t your real story. Look at what you’ve got. Think about where else you might go with it. Some story choices narrow the future possibilities, which is good when you’re near the end but not at the beginning or the middle. Did you choose directions that limited your characters’ options? Can you see other paths that excite you? This is not failure! This is finding the actual story.

In my case, I always have to simplify to write the book I can write. In my dark hours I feel bad about this and disappointed in myself. But the rest of the time I’m proud and happy that I finished, and I think my books are pretty good.

Obviously we’re all different. Some people do better with a stick and some with honey. Lark, you seem to do best when you set goals for yourself. So do it! NaNoWriMo is coming up. This time make it your goal to type “The End” when the month is over. If it helps, you can say that I demanded it. Write stories for the birthdays of all your friends and relatives. And your pets! Write a story for the major and minor holidays. (Halloween is coming up.)

flowerprincess, in the cases when more research would get you going again, I’d suggest undertaking the research. What you discover may give you a detail that will move your story forward, as has happened to me more than once.

Lots of us work well with small time goals and rewards. I’ll often tell myself that if I write for half an hour I can take a break. Not too much later I demand another half hour of myself. I also have a time goal for the day’s writing. In doing this, I’m not thinking about finishing my book, but underneath I know that if I put in enough time and write enough notes and think enough, I’ll get there. In fact, worrying about finishing may be a distraction. Just write. Just follow the story. Face the ending when you close in on it.

I see two options if the idea of being published gets in the way. One is, don’t think about it; don’t make that your goal. The other has two parts. The first is to imagine yourself published. Imagine a call from your agent to say that your book has been accepted by a publisher and the editor wants to call you to talk about how wonderful it is and how it could become even greater. You can go on to imagine all the stages that follow, the editorial letter and the edited manuscript, you revising, the book in bound galleys, the early reviews, the book in bookstores. The second part is to imagine your book rejected. Think about how bad you feel, how you wallow in misery for, maybe, a couple of weeks. And then you recover (I did, many times) and find that there’s Life After Rejection. And you send the novel out again and resume writing your current project. Then you can return to the first image of acceptance. The idea with this approach is to take the fear and trembling out of the publishing notion. If you live with it, its power will diminish.

Here are two prompts:

∙ Write a ghost story. A life cut short is like an unfinished story. Imagine a character who dies young and have the story be about the life he didn’t have. Bring him in as a ghost.

∙ An unsolved mystery is also like an unfinished story. Dr. Ellen Imoldo is a veterinarian who, in the 1980s, claimed to have discovered a serum that would significantly increase intelligence in dogs. She disappeared along with her notes and her vials. Your main character has found a clue. Solve the mystery of her disappearance and the serum.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Start-stop, start-stop

On June 10, 2011, Limegreen wrote, I find that most of the stories I don’t finish are because I just start writing. I jot down some random beginning to a story and get a random idea for the story. However, when I do that, I have no idea where the story is going and the plot putters out after a few pages or so. But I also can’t seem to find a good way to outline my stories. I either over plot it and have no fun with the story, or I under-plot and my story putters out too. Any advice on how to fix that?

I’m not an outliner either, as I’ve said many times on the blog. Sometimes I attempt outlining, but when I start to write, I realize problems that didn’t occur to me earlier, and the outline doesn’t accommodate them. I suspect serious outliners spend as much time, or almost as much, outlining as actually writing. They anticipate the issues and also manage not to over-plot. Wish I knew how to do it.

Even without outlining, however, you might restrain yourself from starting your story until your idea gels a little. Write notes instead of actual story. Write what ideas interest you in the beginning you have in mind. Consider where you might go with them, loosely, and put your thoughts on paper. Think (in writing) about a few characters who might fit. I also like to think of real people I know whose personalities fascinate me. Can you put any of your fascinating people in, in a fictionalized fashion?

Then ruminate over how the story might end. Write a few alternate endings. You can commit to one if it strikes you as perfect or you can leave them all hanging out there as possibilities. As you write, keep them in mind. One may become more probable as you move along.

I hope you’ve been saving your petered-out beginnings. Go through them and pick one. Tentatively decide that you just didn’t stick with it long enough. Stare at it. See if you can coax a new paragraph out of the void and then another. What do you make of your main character? Ask yourself questions about him. Who are his friends? His family? What’s easy for him? What’s hard? What tempts him into trouble? Can you move the story toward that trouble? Did you start in the right place? Is it possible that your beginning is really the end, and what you have to do is write toward it?

Ask yourself these questions and any others you can dream up. Then go back to your beginning and see if you can make more progress.

Look over your false starts again. Do any belong together? If you combine them, do they move you deeper into your story? If yes, keep going.

You describe your beginnings and ideas as random, but I believe nothing in writing is random. I say in Writing Magic, and I think I’ve said on the blog that writing comes from a very deep place. Even the simplest, lightest stories do. Let’s take “Little Bo Peep” for example. Here we go:

Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
and doesn’t know where to find them.
Leave them alone
and they’ll come home,
wagging their tails behind them.

I may not have broken the lines correctly. Sorry. But there’s profundity to spare here. We’ve all felt the desperation of losing something important, could be homework, money, even trust. And we’ve all (I think) had the experience of letting the lost thing go, and the relief of that. Sometimes the loss is never recovered, but sometimes we get whatever it was back, and it seems that the letting go made the return possible. All that out of a nursery rhyme!

Themes repeat, not just story lines. Look at your beginnings once more. Is there something that unites them? If you can’t find a thread, ask your friends or family to read them and suggest a theme. They may see more than one, which is great.

A frequent story thread I see in kids’ stories is a main character being kidnapped. So what might be going on underneath? You may think of more possibilities, but here are two of mine: the victim, Eloise, is wanted, needed, so desired for some quality (her mind, her lovableness, her beautiful voice, her paranormal power) that the kidnappers put themselves at risk to capture her; or Eloise is in danger of being taken over, of losing her will, even her self, to her captors. Or both. So where can the writer take these themes? How can he play them out? Who are her captors? What are their personalities, flaws, virtues?

In both these examples, Bo Peep and the kidnapping, what chokes off the writing may be the underlying depth. It may be scary to explore, in the kidnapping case for instance, what it means for a main character, the one both reader and writer most identify with, to be so valuable. It reminds me of the sequence in the old movie It’s a Wonderful Life when the angel shows George Bailey what his town would have been like without him. I love that part, but it also embarrasses me – kind of like imagining your own funeral and how much everyone loved you.

Now I don’t mean that we’re aware in the slightest of feeling frightened when we write our failed beginnings. The idea simply peters out. But if we look at our themes, bring them out in the open, that lurking uneasiness may melt away. What we have turns into mere story and we see where we can go with it.

Contrariwise, ordinarily I resist examining my underlying motifs because I suspect that their subterranean natures give my stories power. But these cut-off beginnings are a special case and make the exploration worthwhile.

Here are some prompts:

•    If you too have trouble staying with your beginnings, review your false starts. Seek out your themes. Ask friends for help. When you have a few ideas, see where they take you. If a particular thread makes your heart race a little, keep going. If your heart persists in beating according to its ordinary rhythm, keep going anyway.

•    Expand Little Bo Peep’s situation, showing her story rather than telling it. How did she lose the sheep? Where does she search? What will the consequences be if the sheep stay lost? Who will be angry? How will Bo Peep suffer? If you like, turn the nursery rhyme into a novel or a series, The Bo Peep Chronicles.

•    Look up nursery rhymes, like “Little Bo Peep.” Pick one or two or more and speculate about their deeper meanings. Write down what you think.

•    This familiar lullaby is totally crazy (and creepy), in my opinion:
            Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,
            When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
            When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
            And down will come baby, cradle and all.

      Who put Baby up there? Does somebody want to kill him? Turn this one into a story or a novel. If you want to see my silly interpretation, look for it in my book of mean poems, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It, coming out next March.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Unfinished business

Last week welliewalks posted to the guestbook on my website that she hadn’t been able to post directly on the blog, so I asked you all, and the problem seems to be more widespread than just one person, although not universal. The trouble isn’t with us, says David, my high-tech husband, so we can’t fix it. If you can’t get through, just post your comment on the guestbook (following the link on the right to the website) and I’ll approve it there and move it to the blog. I love to hear from you!

On March 29, 2011, Erica wrote, Okay, so I was wondering, I always have tons of different story ideas (like notebooks full of them) but I can never finish them. At this point I have one short story done and one picture book rough draft for my English class. I can think in my head of almost exactly how I want it to end but I can never get it out on paper. My mom thinks that it’s because if I finish something then I will feel the need to do something with it and she thinks that it’s because I’m afraid people won’t like it. Whatever the reason I don’t know how to fix it. Help?

Many are afflicted with unfinished-itis, and the reasons vary, so here are some possibilities:

Erica’s mother suggested one. Finishing is the first step toward exposing your work to criticism and even rejection in the sometimes cold, cruel publishing world. Your fingers may curl into fists at the prospect, and fists can’t type.

A solution to this may be to find friends, relatives, teachers, librarians, a critique group, to show your stories to even before they’re finished. Encouragement may push you to completion. The writers in particular may have useful ideas about where to go next in your tale. Showing at an early stage can reduce the fear of criticism, if not wipe it out entirely. You’re in an early stage. Naturally your story needs work. Helpful advice is welcome.

And just a word about unhelpful advice and unhelpful criticism. See it for what it is, unhelpful, useless, irrelevant. If somebody reads what you’ve got and says something like,I hope you have other talents, dear,” ignore and do not show your writing to this person again. To yourself you can say, Yeah, and how many books have you written, Mister or Missus?

Unhelpful advice can masquerade as the helpful sort and sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other. Someone might say, “You should try to make your prose more lyrical.” Press for specifics. “What do you mean?” you ask. “Where in my story is lyricism needed?” If your critic can explain, then this may be useful, but if she says, “That’s just what I think,” put it in the unhelpful category.

You may be someone who needs a deadline. If you’re not writing a piece that’s due in school and no publisher is clamoring for your work, you may not feel the urgency, and when another idea comes along, you may jump ship. So set a deadline. If you need to, enlist a friend to help you stick to your writing. Whether you meet the deadline or not, you’ll get more done, and you can always set a new deadline. I think this is why NaNoWriMo is so terrific. It pushes you. Even if you don’t make the word count, you’ve written a lot.

You may not have found the right story, the one that finishes itself. If you keep writing, you’ll get there.

The plodding nature of writing gets to you. You start resisting writing the details. Your story is magical, thrilling. Why do you have to mention that your main character’s feet hurt or that her best friend has a dab of catsup on her chin? And why can’t you just tell the reader that the friend is loyal and also illogical? Why do you also have to demonstrate it? You want to put in the broad strokes, the essence of your story, and be done with it. Eventually you get so sick of the details that you give up and start something shiny and new. Or you write down ideas, which don’t have to be detailed at all.

The remedy here is to limit the task. Write a scene. Don’t think about how many scenes remain. After you’ve written one, write another, little dotted lines along the road of your narrative.

If you despise writing the scenes and can’t bring yourself to complete any of them, but you adore coming up with ideas and planning out stories, you may be more of a storyteller than a novelist. Or graphic novels may be the right form for you.
   
You don’t want the characters you love to suffer, so you get stuck. I suspect this is afflicting me now in the second mystery. I love Elodie, and I have to make some awful things happen to her, so I’m progressing at the speed of an inchworm. Since I’m facing this myself, it’s hard to know what the solution is. In my case it’s probably just inching along, and possibly that will work for you, too. Pat yourself heartily on the back at the end of each completed page.

Or jump right in and bring the dreadful event about. Then write up to it, if you’re not at that point in your story. If you don’t even know what the tragedy will be yet, write a scene in which your main endures misery, which may not be the misery you eventually use. See how he responds. Decide what helps him pull through if he does pull through. Then, when you get to the actual crisis you’ll have prepared yourself. I think I’m going to try this as soon as I finish wrtiting this post!

You haven’t explored any of your ideas sufficiently to know which ones are keepers. Pick three of your ideas or your petered-out drafts. In notes ask yourself questions. What lit you up when you started? What turned you off? What will it take to bring back the spark? (No negativity allowed.) How can you define your main character so you want to have a long-term relationship with her? What fascinates you about her? Ask yourself about setting, plot, other characters. Quit note-writing and move over to the story when you find yourself eager to start.

What I’m suggesting are just ideas, which may not work for you. The most important thing is to keep writing, whether you finish something next month or three years from now.

These prompts need some setting up:

Right now I’m riding home from New York on a commuter train, a wonderful place for observation. Most of the seats face the backs of the seats ahead, like in an airplane, but some, the less desirable ones, where I am, face the fronts of the seats ahead without good legroom between. I’m in an aisle seat. There’s a middle seat and a window seat next to me, across from me the same. When I sat down at Grand Central where the train originates, the only other occupant of our six-seat grouping was a man in the window seat facing me, who had placed his briefcase on the seat facing him, a little piggishly, I think, but it’s not interfering with my comfort so I don’t care.

After a few minutes a woman sits across from me and we arrange our legs so they don’t touch. She puts her huge purse on the seat between her and the man, also a little piggishly. Then a woman comes along and wants to sit in the other window seat, the one next to me, with one empty seat between us. She asks if the briefcase is mine and I say no. The man across from her says it’s his and doesn’t move it or offer to move it. How selfish! The woman doesn’t ask him to move it either and rides awkwardly on the (slightly) raised area between the window seat and the middle seat next to me. How meek! I resist the temptation to tell the man to be a gentleman and the woman to grow a spine.

(Of course they may each have had reasonable reasons for their behavior.) So here come the prompts:

•    Write a scene from the childhood of each passenger that suggests how they became their future adult selves.

•    He is King Oogu the Terrible, ruler of the kingdom of Ploog (or more serious names), and she is a member of a rebel group plotting to overthrow him. Write a scene. How will her meekness play out? How will his selfishness?

•    He is Oogu, dictator of a small republic. She is a diplomat given the task of reforming him. Write a scene.

•    As young people, they oppose each other on their school debating team. Pick a debate topic you know something about. Write a debate with him winning; then rewrite it with her winning.

•    They’re in high school. He asks her to the junior prom. Write what happens.

•    Both are fleeing the devastation caused by Queen Ooga the Awful. He’s the son of a peasant, she the daughter of a scholar. Circumstances throw them together, both in danger. They will survive only if they cooperate. Write a scene.

•    Invent any other situations you like for these two.

Have fun and save what you write!