Both Feet in the Story Door

On January 13, 2010 Maybe a Writer definitely wrote, What I can’t seem to get, is what happens right after my beginning.  I sometimes don’t even know where I’m taking the story, but I have a tiny idea for a plot. The story I’m working on is the most well-planed out I have, but I’m still on page three. Any ideas?

Alas, I’m having the same problem right now, and this will be my twenty-first book, counting just the published ones!  I’m on page thirty-one, not three, but I haven’t figured out how to move further into my story.  What I think I’m working on is a fantasy mystery sequel to an old Gothic story that involves embodiments of the south wind and the king of a river.  The issue may be that I haven’t made either of them real in my mind yet, so they’re not working as characters.  So far I haven’t even introduced them into the story.

I haven’t run into this particular problem before, although I’ve written about all sorts of creatures.  I don’t believe in fairies, but I’ve had no trouble making them come alive on the page.  I’m writing notes to figure out how I’m stuck and where I can go next.

For you, Maybe a Writer and anyone else who shares our predicament, there may be something inside your story that’s stopping you.  In 1993 I wanted to write a novel based on Cinderella, but the fairytale itself got in my way.  Cinderella is so disgustingly good and so incomprehensibly obedient that I didn’t know what to make of her, and I didn’t like her.  I couldn’t get started until I thought of the curse of obedience.  When I had that, I understood her and I was able to write about her.

If your trouble is inside your story, try my method and write notes about it.  But notes don’t work for everybody, and they don’t always work for anyone.  You can talk to a friend or relative about the way your story might go.  You can even talk out loud to yourself about it.  It may also help to look at my post of October 28, 2009 about writer’s block.

This prompt comes from a writing book called What If?, which is full of terrific prompts.  (Kid alert:  Most of this book is fine for writers and readers of any age, but some chapters are for high school and above.  Check with a parent or a librarian.)  The prompt comes from the book’s title.  Take whatever you’ve got as a beginning and ask yourself “What if?” about what might happen next.  Ask this repeatedly and write down the possibilities, whatever ideas come to you no matter how crazy they are.  As in, What if the girl in the green dress who is all alone at a party sees a framed photo on the mantelpiece and recognizes one of the people in it as her sister.  Or what if she starts writing on a wall of the living room where the party is happening.  Or what if she interrupts two dancers and starts dancing with them.  And so on.

Write ten what-ifs before looking them over.  Try the one that appeals to you the most and see where it takes you.

This is a variant on another prompt in What If?:  Write ten beginning scenes without thinking about what might come next, and make the scenes at least three pages long.  The purpose is to get away from anxiety and think only about what will grab a reader. 

When you’re finished, pick five and write another scene for each.  Next, pick three out of the five and write another scene for each of them.  Then see if you want to continue with any one of them.

I generally write in order, but you don’t have to.  You might try taking the characters from your first scene, those three pages, and write another scene for them, out of sequence.  If there are no characters yet, this is a good time to invent some and take the pressure off plot.  The new scene could be something you have in mind to happen later in the story, or it could be something that went before.  Or it could simply be an exploration of the characters’ relationships with one another.  Write the scene in the world of the story.  If the story takes place in the kingdom of Wohadfub, keep it there.  If the story is set in your home town, keep it there, too.

If you’re a kid, under twenty-one, say, I don’t think you need to worry about finishing stories.  The problem will take care of itself if you keep writing.  You will eventually start a story that you can finish.

If you’re over twenty-one, you probably shouldn’t worry either, because worrying does no good.  But for me there is always some gritting of teeth to get myself to the end of a book.  And stubbornness.  I’m utterly unwilling for a book to get the better of me.

I’ve mentioned that I’m writing poetry for adults, and I’m unpublished as a poet.  While I would very very, as many verys as can be, like to be published, there is freedom in not being.  Nobody cares what my poems are like, because nobody (except a few other aspiring poets) is reading them.  Little is at stake.  I can take chances and be outrageous.  If you aren’t published, I hope you will use your freedom.  And I hope you’ll have publishing success too.  But for now, experiment!  Have fun! And save whatever you come up with!

  1. It's interesting you say it's easier for kids to finish stories, because I've found that the older I get, the better I am at it. Maybe it's because I'm still in the under-21 bracket (I'm eighteen and a half, a sophomore in college). The first novel I wrote took four years (ages 9-13). The second I wrote between 13 and 16, the third in the summer before I turned seventeen, and since then it's been about one month to a first draft of a novel (I've done eight in total).

    Of course, further drafts take much, much more time. I'm writing draft eight of my 5th – and, I think, best – novel and I just discovered an entirely new ending for it. Part of me wishes I weren't a full-time college student, because when I'm in a class taking notes I get this irresistible urge to write and yesterday 1/4 of my class notes were outlines of the new ending.

    Maybe when I hit 21 it will get harder to finish again. 😉 And maybe (maybe!) by then one of those eight novels (#5?) will be printed on dead trees . . .

  2. I would have to disagree and say that if you're under twenty-one, you can worrying about finishing your stories. I'm nowhere near twenty-one and just a couple of weeks ago finished my 200+ page fantasy. So I think it's different for everyone. Brynn Annae, I can't wait to see your novels published!!!:D

  3. I've found it takes me longer to finish things as I get older, actually. I'm nearly 23 now and have been writing for a long long long time and it doesn't come as easily as it once did. I think it has to do with all these responsibilities and worries you have as an adult: Money, school, social pressures, distractions, spouses, children, pets, etc. I found as I got older I had to take care of myself more (rather than my mom) and so I didn't write as often or as quickly. Though now that I don't have a job and am committed fully to my writing, I've really started to get working. I'm nearly done with the first draft of my first novel I intend to get published!

    Yet now I'm getting filled with this fear maybe a lot of new writers get… I'm sooo close to finishing this novel (like a week or less away) but I feel reluctant to do it. I think maybe it's because I know I can write, but I've never gone any further than that (editing, querying, publishing, marketing). Any advice for a nervous aspiring writer?

  4. I have the same problem, Maybe a Writer. Thanks for the suggestions, Mrs. Levine! 🙂

    Thanks for the suggestions about experimenting with your stories. I sometimes get so caught up with the idea of publishing someday, or showing my work to others, that I think it needs to be ABSOLUTELY PERFECT, even if it's only a rough draft. It's annoying, but I can't seem to stop feeling that way. Hopefully, with this new thought in mind, it'll help me get a novel done for a change. 🙂 Thanks again for a wonderful blog!

  5. I can't tell you how reassuring it is to discover that you also have trouble moving on!

    I'm becoming more and more used to the fact that I won't always know what to do next- in my first drafts or in my revisions. It's an awful place to be, but I'm learning not to be disheartened. It doesn't mean that I won't figure out what happens next, just that I'll have to work at it.

  6. Thanks for answering my question last week. You did such a good job that I've got another one for you.
    I noticed that in Ella Enchanted your characters' vocabulary isn't as flowery as what we might find in, say, Shakespeare. I am writing a book for young readers and it is set in a small, fictional kingdom. I tend to think of kingdoms as "way back when" because the monarchy system has fallen out of vogue. So I see my book as a (sort of) period piece and I want the vernacular to reflect that and be believable. However, if this is really going to be a kids book, how do I get that "not this day and age" feel without going over the kiddos' heads? How did you handle this/what was your rationale in Ella?

  7. I'm 13 and have been working on my main novel since I was 8. It's gone through a lot of change since then, but I am still chugging toward a draft that will work for me.

    I find that talking about my novel with my writing friends and my sister (especially my sister) helps me a lot.

  8. Perhaps this is something you don't struggle with, so you may not be able to answer this question, but I'll ask it anyway (feel free to say, "I don't know" if that's your answer).

    Have you ever had an idea for a story that you love (and love its characters) but were too embarrassed to tell it? Perhaps something that's terribly violent, or overly mushy, or focuses on a topic that you find fascinating but you're afraid of being made fun of for it.

    If you have, what did you do? Leave it? Change it? Tell it anyway?

    I have a story that's been rolling around in my brain for about 10 years that I *love* but have never put down on paper. It's really romantic, and I'm afraid of what my friends and family would think if I let them read it. (Hearing all the bashing of the "Twilight" series only intensifies my embarrassment.)

  9. Wow. Thank you for that – it really is a comfort to know that you get stuck as well. And, howsoever silly it may seem…it gladdens me to know that you also write in order. After hearing so many 'Jump to the scenes you want to write first', I was afaid I might be doing it wrong.
    @inquisitive: Your question is a very good one, and I would love to see an answer. From my experience – as in, how I write – there are some words which just feel wrong in that type of novel – leave them out! These include 'weird', 'shut up', all the modern lingo etc.. They distract from the story, since they are so obviously new. But I would love an answer from Ms. Levine!!

  10. I have "What If?" and it's one of my favorites. :] Actually my sister has it, and she's had it for quite a few years so I don't know if it's the same book you're talking about.

    This is the problem I often have when writing. I write myself into a corner and can't figure out why. I really need to learn how to make my characters more dimensional.

  11. Chantal–Some people never receive a rejection, and some (me) get nine years of nothing but! Still, the writers who send their work out the most (and continue to improve and pay attention to criticism), wind up with the most acceptances in the end.
    Horsey at Heart–I think I need to write a post or part of one on perfection. I'm adding it to my list.
    Inkquisitive–I'm adding your question to my list too, but in the meanwhile you might look at what I say about voice in WRITING MAGIC. I don't answer your question, but you may find some ideas to think about.
    April–Good question, too. It's on the list.
    Jaime–If it's by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, it's the same book. About character development, you may find my post of last July 22nd helpful if you try the prompt. I'll add your question to my list too. Everyone–Obviously it will take me a while to get to all of these, but thanks for the terrific questions!

  12. Thanks this helps a lot! I really want to get Writing Magic but my mom is worried it is geared toward elementary students like writing essays or whatever they might need help writing. I thought it was for young adults. Is it a general age kind of thing or what?

  13. After scanning the other posts I fear this is cliche, but this post really helps. And Dragon Archer I find talking about my story helps me too.Thanx again 🙂

  14. Thanks for the post!
    By the way, I was wondering something. Sometimes, when i write, I start to have writers block in the middle – I think that's what it is. Then I get really bored of it and speed along to the end a lot faster than the beginning part was. When I try to return to it, to like make it longer, it just doesn't turn out. What do I do?

  15. MMinc–You may want to look back at my post of 10/28/09 called Playing With Blocks and also at the chapter called Stuck! in WRITING MAGIC. Try thinking about what would be fun to write that would fit in the story, something that interests you with these characters. But it's possible that you've already written what excited you, and you can move on to something new.

  16. I think my concept of "done" has changed as I've gotten older, more than anything. When I was under, say, 16? Finished was one draft, maybe a few edits, and topped out at 45,000 words give or take a few thousand.

    Now, it's closer to 80,000 and there's four or five drafts between start and finish.

  17. Thanks a ton for answering my question! (I am 15 years old, and a huge fan. I read my copy of 'Writing magic' all the time.)
    I'll try going forward a few scenes in my story and fill in the rest when I'm done. Thanks so much for taking the time to post for us!

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