Keeping On Keeping On

On December 28, 2009 the Tenth Muse posted this comment:  When I write, I have two issues with finishing. My first is that I almost write the story up in my head, and when I attempt to put it to paper, it feels tedious and I usually leave it unwritten. My next is most likely born from the first. 🙂 It’s that, after I’ve written the whole thing down or put it together inside my head, I realize I also want to do something else with the story. Then the new idea begins to take over, and I start second guessing my original ideas. And then I feel extremely lost!

Some authors (not I) won’t talk about their works in progress because talking saps their urge to write.  They believe that they use the same process to talk and to write.  When they return to the writing, they feel they’ve already done it, and they’re not interested in repeating themselves, so then they’re stuck.  Tenth Muse, it sounds as if you may run into the same difficulty just by thinking about your story.  Fascinating.

Of course you have to think.  I believe detail may be the problem, not thought.  I can talk about the books I’m in the middle of because I never achieve the level of detail in a conversation that I need when I’m bringing a scene to life on a page.  Tenth Muse, I’m working only from your question, so I may be miles off base, but I wonder if, when you get to the writing, you’re telling a story rather than showing it to a reader.

Here is a true tale from my family history, which, alas, doesn’t show my relatives in an exemplary light:  My great aunt, whom I no longer remember and whose name I don’t know, was plump plus, and so was my grandmother.  Both were relatively poor, very economical, and not very ethical.  They lived in New York City, where I grew up.  In those long-ago days a subway ride cost a nickel, and they didn’t want to pay two nickels when one would do.  So they put a single nickel in the slot and squeezed into the turnstile together.  And got stuck, and a policeman had to come to get them out.

This anecdote caused hilarity at family gatherings whenever it was trotted out.  It’s a good story, but how much better it would be if it were fleshed out by a fiction writer.  For example, what if the sisters were in the middle of an argument when they got stuck, or one blamed the other for their predicament.  Was it winter or summer?  Were they working their way out of winter coats when the cop arrived?  Did one of them need to go to the bathroom?  Suppose they had purchases that they’d slid under the turnstile ahead of them, which someone now could steal – or did steal, costing a whole dollar, rather than a nickel.  The story can become funnier or more serious.  Suppose this were the 1930s, the Depression, and the purchases were a week’s food.

A story in the writer’s head or transcribed from the writer’s head isn’t likely to be fully realized.  We haven’t grappled with what’s happening inside the story.  In the family yarn above, as I thought of possibilities, new possibilities suggested themselves.  If I wrote it as a real story, I’d start by thinking about what each character was like, their relationship, circumstances, where they were coming from and going to.  As soon as I had them talking to each other, the narrative would start to go down a certain path.  More ideas would come, but some ideas would become impossible because of what went before.  I might turn into a dead end and have to delete back to the beginning of the dead end.

Tenth Muse (and everyone else), coming up with new and divergent ideas sounds positive.  Suppose I thought the story would end up in my aunt’s fifth floor walk-up apartment, but then it seemed better to end with my aunt on a date with the arresting officer.  We can explore those ideas.  The key is to explore them through detail, using narrative and dialogue.  If you slow your story down for detail the tedium may go away or at least diminish.  Oddly enough, slowing down is likely to pick up the pace for the reader, who will get involved with the characters you are revealing.

As for feeling lost, that may be the sensation I hate most when I’m writing and the one I experience the most often.  You and I need to develop a tolerance for it.  For me, finding a story is like picking my way through a jungle.  I know that on the other side of the vegetation is a parking lot and a van with The End painted on the side, but the only trail markers are occasional notches in the stems of a species of meat-eating plant.

To continue through the jungle – rather than standing still and howling, or jumping on the first helicopter out – is hard.  It may help if you get interested in the details:  the fauna and flora around you, the bird whose cry sounds amazingly like popcorn popping, or the flower with petals the color of a sunset.  You’re still lost, but you’re entertaining yourself as you inch along.

This week’s prompt: Take a family story, or take my family story (please!), and retell it with details, probably invented details.  Don’t think that you have to stick to the real events.  Use the ones that appeal to you and toss the rest.  You can rewrite history and send the anecdote in a new direction.  You can be funny or serious.  Teach the reader about your Uncle Matthew and Cousin Isabel.  Let him see the old-fashioned kitchen with the iron sink and the water that comes out in spurts, smell the bread baking or the cabbage boiling, hear the loud voices or the whispers.  Have fun, and save what you wrote!

  1. I just read your prompt and realized that I should seriously start following them. Like this one. Let's see!
    Anyway, helpful blog as ever. I loved the parallel you drew between being lost in the jungle and writing, especially on how to be 'fascinateedly' lost, if you get what I mean. That will definitely help my writing!!
    For me, what happens is, I do not want to skip ahead and write any other scene, and prefer to write in order, like the whole book in one go. I have difficulty in 'feeling'for my characters. If there is a scene I look forward to, I wait until I come to it. And all those scenes are the ones I am actually proud of when I read back. The others, I can definitely see that they need fixing up. Is there any tip you can give us which can help us to stay 'in tune' with our characters and plot, and not get bored? I really like my plot, but lack the motivation to write some (most) of the times, since my characters feel just the little bit too flat, and too listless.

  2. It has never occured to me that detail can speed up a story . . . I'll have to test that out. 🙂
    I personally have more difficulties with an inadequately invisioned scene, not getting bored with it because I've imagined it too many times. My best scenes have been the ones that I replayed in my mind every night for months.
    I am writing a short story, which I call 'Don't Kill the Good Doctor' It's written in first person, and the main character is a captive. So every scene begins and ends with either someone entering/leaving the room or her waking up/falling asleep.
    I'm afraid it might get monotonous for the reader. Any suggestions?
    Also, if the main character is going insane, how would you keep the reader from going insane reading about the main caracter going insane? lol.

  3. F–I write my scenes in order too. Feeling for your characters is a big topic and an excellent one for a post, so I'm going to hold onto it and use it. Thanks!
    Barie-ah Hue-en-la–I think you can vary the way scenes end even in this situation. A scene can end with a threat or a frightened thought. Then you can skip ahead and return to the moment in a memory or flashback. I don't think you need to worry about reader insanity. Luckily, writers are responsible only (with possible exceptions) for what goes on inside their stories.

  4. Hi Gail
    I think you might have already had a post on this but, how do you start your story so that it hooks the reader to read more. I am having trouble with that.

    From: Lizzy

  5. Slowing down and adding detail can speed things up–I like that idea! And I'm so excited for this prompt. I have some great family stories that I've been wanting to tell for ages.

  6. I love this post and I particularly like it because it gives me insight on how to go about writing a synopsis when and if I get to that point. I know that wasn't the intention but it's something to keep in mind. It will make synopsis writing seem easier. 🙂

    Thanks. I feel the same what both of you feel when I'm writing.

  7. Hi Gail!
    Your blog is blissful, and you've set fire to my writing more than anyone and anything.
    Alright, I am having severe trouble. And I need help. See, I've been working really hard on this one series, but awhile ago I nearly purged every copy of the first book from my computer with fire. See, I poured my soul into it. A tale of fairies, and griffins, and pirates, and dragons, and elvish castles and faraway places.
    But then someone read it and told me, "Hey, that's an awful lot like one of Gail Carson Levine's books."
    I gave them a fishy stare. Several of your books I've read a hundred times over, namely The Two Princesses and Fairest and Ella Enchanted. My copy of writing Magic is returned to most every day and has signs of much love and wear.
    So while I was looking at this person suspiciously I did have a nagging fear somewhere in the back of my mind. I know your books like my own.
    "Oh?" I said.
    "Yeah, even the title sounds alike. Your book is called Fairy Quest."
    "So?" Was rather my response.
    I had plans underway for a book called Elvish Quest and Griffin Quest and so on. I wasn't too dreadfully worried.
    But I was still rather worried.
    Well, I hadn't read Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg in a long time. So, just to see what this absurdity was, I did so again. And nearly sobbed myself to sleep and destroyed Fairy Quest, banishing it from the kingdom of my computer forever and ever. (Your always reminding to keep what I've written is what stopped me.)
    Every time I write a book and think, 'this is it, this one's publishing material!'
    I find out it's like another author's book.
    The book plot is pretty different. See, four fairies and a human boy are going on a quest to save this fairy kingdom for the clutches of a dragon.
    But here are the similarities:
    1) They are going to barter with the dragon for their freedom with five treasures for his hoard. Because they ruined one of his old treasures and thus he's angry with their Queen and accuses her of stealing it… but any ways, the bartering with the dragon is the first similarity.
    2) The title, as I have mentioned.
    3) One of the fairies loses her wings and her wing aura because a griffin has kidnapped her and her friends for his 'pet collection' and won't let them go unless he has proof that he had them. So he asks for the fairy's wings. And she gives them, losing her beautiful wings and her beautiful wing aura.
    I'd worked so hard on this book, and I thought it was my own. I'd made maps, worked on culture, built the world, gave time energy and work. The characters where all my own, friends near to me as any, the fairy realms were my second home, and the griffins and the dragons were like my second pets. And then I find yet another of my books bears similarities to another. It happens EVERY TIME, especially with my favorites! I've been encouraged that it's different enough to publish it anyway, but I'm still so distraught with my discovery… I don't know what to do!

  8. Lizzy–I don't think I've written a post on beginnings. I've added it to my list. In the meanwhile, Chapter Twelve in WRITING MAGIC may be helpful.
    Rachel Danielle–Every writer builds on writers who went before. I'm not an expert in copyright, but titles can't be copyrighted and neither can ideas, only their expression. Since you're worrying over this I think you should find out more about copyright. I suggest you start by asking a librarian for help.

  9. Rachel Danielle- I total feel your pain. I too have read Ella Enchanted, The Two Princesses, and Fairest and zillion times. Many times I've had to change a plot,idea, or name because it was too much like Ms. Levine's. I write what I read, which happens to be Ms. Levine's books. What helps me to avoid copyright and keep originality for when I might one day get my books published is stopping and checking. Before you dive too deeply into a plot, stop and think:"Have I read this in a book before?" If you have, scratch that idea and try something kind of similar, but not recognizable to the original story. Or if you name a character Char,Ella,or Aza, stop and think if you've heard that name before.If you have, you could come up with something completely different or name them Charles, Elenore, and Anna. The same theory applies to titles, minor plots, culture, etc. I hope this helps!

  10. I also can't talk too much about the book I am working on, because to put it bluntly, when I say too much of my idea outloud it sounds stupid. And now I think it is because of what you mentioned, Gail, that I can't flesh the idea out enough when I talk. That makes me feel better. Because I now have a book that I have been working on for almost four years and I do hope that when I finally finish it and let someone read it, it won't seem stupid! 🙂

  11. Gail, I have a question I'd love to see you tackle. When I start thinking up stories, I think in terms of novel plots…because I read novels (lots of novels). However, as a new writer, I'd like to practice by writing things in chunks smaller than a novel. Novels are great, and I'm working on one, but they are overwhelming at times for the novice (and the expert probably). I'd like to get the practice of writing something that is complete, with all the components of a story, but thinking in short story terms leaves me scratching my head. How do you pare down big ideas to fit into a short story? What makes a short story plot different from a novel plot?

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