Morass

Before the post, I want to let you know about the online Everywhere Book Fest on May 1st and 2nd. When an in-person festival was canceled, participating authors got together to move it online, and this is the result. I’ll be on a panel on writing historical fiction with the wonderful writers Linda Sue Park and Anne Bustard for forty-five minutes on May 1st at 1:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time. You can watch on Facebook or YouTube (at the festival’s site, not mine). The panel will be live, so you can ask questions in real time. Here’s a link to the festival: https://everywherebookfest.com/. Hope you can e-come!

Also, there’s a blog post on HarperCollins’s website that I wrote about my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells: https://harperstacks.harpercollins.com/blog/writing-familiar-strangers-gail-carson-levine-on-her-familys-long-history-of-migration/. The post doesn’t say, but I’ll tell you, in the photo of the two boys on a pony, my father is the younger boy. Cute, wasn’t he?

And, you may know that I’m reading a chapter a day of Ella Enchanted on my Facebook page, at 11:00 am Eastern Daylight Time. Some of you, I know, are watching. You can comment, so I can know you’re there, which is heartening.

Onto the post!

On December 5, 2019, future_famous_author wrote, How do you guys deal with being stuck? Like writers’ block, but you know where you want to go, you just don’t know how to get there?

Writing Ballerina wrote back, I read a great blog post that summed up what writer’s block really is: https://jerryjenkins.com/writers-block/.

If this doesn’t help, I’d also say to write the part that you know is going to happen, then go back and show how you got there. Writing the part might help you figure out how you’re going to get there.

Interesting link, Writing Ballerina! I’m with Mr. Jenkins, except about the “faucet of creativity.” My faucet comes out in drips, occasional spurts; and sometimes it’s pretty clogged.

I see two questions here: how to deal with being stuck; and how to move a story where you know you want it to go, but you don’t have a clue about how to get it there. The second question, in my opinion, is about plotting.

I agree with Mr. Jenkins about setting daily goals, in my case a time goal rather than a page goal. Something usually happens when we place our fingers on our keyboard or pick up our pen. We write, maybe not, seemingly, to the purpose we’re hoping for, but we write something, maybe about what’s going on in the world or how annoying certain people in our lives can be. These ramblings are likely to loosen us up. At worst, we understand better what’s going on with ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that. At best, our ruminations eventually move to the territory of our story. We start to write what’s going on there, what’s frustrating us, what the roadblocks are.

I do all this in my Ideas document for every book I write. Ideas is where I go to get unstuck (and it’s also where I try out new ideas and even write parts I’m uncertain about). Sometimes I say I’m going to write for twenty minutes without stopping about what’s going on in my story and how and why it’s giving me trouble.

Everything is up for grabs when we’re stuck. For example, Writing Ballerina writes that she knows where she wants her story to go. Well, in Ideas, I might question even that. I’d wonder if my story, without letting me know, has decided it wants a different ending, and maybe that’s what’s holding me up. Then I’d think about why it may have made that decision and what the new ending might be.

Of course I lean on lists when I’m stuck, and when I am, it’s especially important to remind myself that nothing on a list is stupid. I can include an ending in which all my characters turn into caterpillars, if that occurs to me. That kind of freedom is, well, freeing. I feel as if my skull is actually cracking open–in a good way. Stupid-is-okay is un-glue when we’re stuck.

Now for plotting.

The dynamic at the heart of our story is our MC and her struggle. What does she want? Or what is the dilemma she’s in that she has to get out of?

If we know what that is, we can look at our ending and see if it reflects her success (or failure, if we’re writing a tragedy). We can make sure that our ending is about her and not a more general resolution. If it is about her, we think about how to make achieving the end hard for her. How can we use our characters, her own inner demons, and our world to create scenes in which she fails and tries again? (If this will be a tragedy, the trajectory will be different, because, usually, we want her to get closer and closer to success, until, finally, boom! everything falls apart.) In our plotting we can think about using each one (other characters, her own flaws, and the setting) to make trouble for her. Meanwhile, we keep an eye on the ending, and see which failure can be decisive to bring her to success and our ending.

If our ending doesn’t reflect what our character wants or needs, we can rethink one or the other. Maybe we have to tweak our ending to bring our MC into it more so that the general success is her success. Or, we may have to think about her and what she wants and make that line up more with the direction of the story.

Using our Ideas document, we might lay out a timeline for our story. How much time passes between the beginning we have and the ending we imagine? What scenes do we absolutely want? We can write those scenes out of order, just because we know we want them and they’re bits we can hang onto and actually write during our stuck period.

Once they’re written, we can think about scenes that might go before the new ones and come after them, like writing a story as a series of dots along a line. We have a line that starts with our beginning and terminates, you guessed it, at the end. We don’t have to fill in every–or any–dot in order. This is a pantsing method that gets us where we want to go.

Here’s another technique. We have a beginning and an MC who wants something or is in trouble. (If the MC’s problem isn’t set up, try some of my ideas above). Then we’re stuck until the end. So we go to our beginning and ask, What if? We list the possible things that could happen next and choose the one that interests us the most. We write that scene and repeat. Repeat. Repeat. We’re guided through our What if?s and the resulting lists by two considerations: our MC’s problem and the ending we’re aiming for. We’re asking ourselves along the way, Will this What if? idea get us closer or farther from solving our MC’s issue? If the answer–closer or farther–is yes, that’s good, because we’re either creating crises that are connected to our central issue or resolving them. If the answer is that it doesn’t get us either closer or farther, we should rethink the What If idea, because it may lead us into a cul-de-sac.

Here are three prompts:

• Remember the fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare? I like it because if a movie studio picked it up I’d be a good choice to play the tortoise. But it’s a dull story. The tortoise just puts one horned foot in front of the other. The reader knows the beginning, the middle (which can be summed up in a short sentence), and the end. Where’s the drama? Who are these characters, besides being steady or flighty? How much do they care about the race? Is there a prize? Do they like or hate each other? Take the fable and turn it into a real story. Your characters can be the actual animals or people or any kind of creature.

• “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is unsatisfying, too. She just wanders into the bears’ cottage and, after behaving badly and being discovered, she runs out. What are the consequences for the bears, for Goldilocks? Do they ever have a relationship? Maybe she wasn’t polite, but the bears don’t show much compassion, either. They don’t ask if she was starving, if she’s homeless, what’s going on in her family. Make it a story. Decide on an MC and what his or her or their problem is. Imagine an ending. Write it all.

• Off topic, but make up a noun that means the opposite of glue. Unglue is a word, but only as a verb. There should be a noun! Please post your nominations. I’m curious. Maybe there’s a word in another language, which you know. If we all use one that you provide, we can introduce it into English.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Unglue… Solvent? (I’m embarrassed to admit that the first word that came to mind was “laxative.)

    This post is perfectly timed. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed on the WIP, and I’ve been afraid to get too out of order in case things change so much that the parts no longer fit together. But you’re right. Having to backtrack is better than not writing at all.

    I’ve been enjoying the Ella readings!

  2. I’m pretty sure the consequences in one version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears that I read once involved the three bears catching her and impaling her on a church steeple! I suppose I can see why we’ve changed it since then to be a bit more kid-friendly, even if it’s not very exciting… (also, that just reminded me that I actually did exactly what you described in this prompt, when I was a teenager. In my version, Goldilocks was a persnickety burglar and the consequences were that she was forced to do the hokey-pokey for a charity event that the three bears were hosting. I cannot remember why I the world I wrote that…)

    On a different note – I’ve just finished my current book! Or well, the first in what seems to have turned into a series. There’s lot’s more to go, but I’ve come to the end of this one, at least. So, yeah, happy dance! But ,I’m wondering – I know there are many posts on here about editing so I’m definitely going to go back over all of those – but I’m just wondering, any opinions on the best way to edit a first draft that has changed a LOT since the beginning and is rather a bit of a jumbled mess? I pantsed this book, just to give it a try (I’m usually a planner), and the story has meandered and changed a ton since the beginning, and didn’t really get on a particular track until about halfway through. Normally when I finish a book, I’ll go through from the beginning of the manuscript and just tweak things as I go (which works, since the plot hasn’t really wavered from the beginning so I’m usually only making minor changes); but this time I’m talking major changes – entire characters and plot points that I dropped halfway through, 50-page events that I need to add or remove, or shuffle or swap with different portions of the story – things like that. It’s daunting! How do you keep it all organized? I’m almost wondering if it would be better to start a brand new document and just re-write the story…although, I don’t really want to do that because I ended up accidentally making it about 500 pages long (though hopefully I’ll manage to cut that down a bit)!

    I’m just wondering if there’s any particular great process for editing a book that needs a LOT of changes! Advice? I know some people are great at editing and really enjoy it. I am not, and do not – so if you have a process that works well I’d love to hear about it.

    • One thing I’ve been doing with my WIP is using word’s styles/headings feature and labeling each scene, chapter, and act. It makes it easier to see structure at a glance and to figure out how to move things around. Another tip: save a new copy every time you start a major draft. It gives you more freedom to expiriment (I copied Gail’s suggestion from “Writing Magic” about putting numbers after each draft, although the number of drafts I need has been getting smaller as I keep writing).

    • If you’re normally a planner, then I would suggest writing an outline of your story using whatever method you like, and then rewriting individual pieces to fit the outline better. That way, it’s easier to stay on track and you’re less likely to end up making more big dramatic changes without realizing it.

          • Writeforfun says:

            Thank you!!! I’m actually really surprised to have finished it, because after my computer crashed and deleted my two previous (favorite) novels, I wasn’t sure if I could get up the gumption to bother with writing again. But, I couldn’t stand not having a book to write and characters to meet, so I forced myself to just pick a theme, give pantsing a try, (ask for some suggestions on here, of course!), and just start writing, and I’m so glad I did. This book turned out to be a story I love even more than all the previous ideas I had written or planned before!

            And thank you, I can’t wait for the post. 😊 I wish I enjoyed revising as much as you do, haha!

            (Also thank you, Christie and Erica – right now I’m trying a combination of both of your suggestions!)

  3. Also – Gail, I loved where you said, “What scenes do we absolutely want? We can write those scenes out of order, just because we know we want them and they’re bits we can hang onto and actually write during our stuck period,” because that completely sums up the way I’ve been writing! This is literally how I got through my current book, because I really don’t have time to write with my current work situation (all I have time for is squeezing in a bit of writing at night when I’m in bed and trying to get a little bit done before I fall asleep!). Any time that I do take, I want to enjoy and be able to make it count. I’ve found that writing the particular scenes I know I want keeps me engaged and interested, and writing at a decent pace. Sometimes that has just meant skipping some less exciting parts, and sometimes it has meant skipping ahead to future completely different scenes just because I want to. Granted, that meant that a lot of the scenes turned out to be out of order, and a few will need to be cut because they don’t work, after all. Still, doing it this way has really helped me to keep on writing, and keep on enjoying writing, in whatever spare time I can find for it!

    I know a lot of people who can’t stand to skip ahead and write out of order, which I can definitely understand. But still, it was nice to hear that maybe I’m not the only person who might do it this way, sometimes!

  4. Thank you! This was so helpful, Mrs. Levine! I always feel like I should write my stories in order but I get too excited to write certain parts but force myself not to. I guess it might help my writers block to write everything down without editing until after. And, I will probably also try having an “Ideas Document”. Thanks again!😄

  5. I’m trying something with the novel-in-progress. I’m having trouble with the alternating POV, plus I still think of myself as a short story writer. So:

    I made a file called “A bunch of Malak shorts.” I think about the situation he’s in, and essentially write a story about it: Beginning, middle, and end. I cut and paste it into the WIP. Then I go back and write a story about POV #2, cut + paste, then another about POV 1 that starts where the last one left off, and so on.

    That way, if I want to skip ahead, I do, and save it. If, when I get there, it no longer fits, I haven’t “messed up the novel,” just written a short that I have no use for at the moment. I might come back later and cannibalize it.
    It’s a mind trick, but it seems to be helping.

  6. future_famous_author says:

    Thank you for answering my question!

    I’m kind of getting stuck right now… I think that I’m bored with writing, honestly, because I haven’t been reading. When I don’t read enough, my writing gets bland and I no longer want to write. It’s a terrible thing because all I want to do with my free time is write, but I need to read, but I have too much school work.

    Really, I just need to tough it out and read.
    Actually, I should be reading right out…

  7. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I’m having some trouble with my current WIP. It’s my Camp NaNoWriMo novel. I reached my goal of write 12644 words a few days ago (an oddly specific number, but I had reasons I thought made sense at the time). For a while, I lost all motivation to work on the story, but I convinced myself I did want to finish telling it. However, once I reached my goal, I just lost all motivation. I’ve underwritten most of it, so I’m a little less than halfway through the story.
    However, no matter what I tell myself, I just can’t find the motivation to finish it. Before, when I’ve stopped writing a story I was so far into, it was because something was wrong with the story, and I didn’t know how to fix it. For this story, I’ve seemed to just have stopped… caring. Part of me does still want to write the ending, but I don’t know if it’s worth writing everything else. I really only started writing the story so I could write the end.
    It doesn’t help that there’s another story that’s been brewing in my mind for almost as long as I’ve been writing this one. I’ve only written anything down about it today. I know I’m probably just experiencing something every writer experiences, but I really am wondering if it’s worth it to tell a story I don’t want to tell anymore.
    I guess I’m wondering how to tell if I should stick to this story, even if I don’t really want to tell it anymore. And as I said, I’ve never quit a story because I didn’t want to tell it anymore or bored, I’ve always quit because the story was broken and I didn’t know how to fix it.

    • I had the exact same thing happen with one of my WIP’s. Reached the word count, abandoned it, and only picked it up again because my sister read it and begged me to finish it. Then I edited it for a while, dropped it again because there were a whole bunch of problems and another project I absolutely had to do, and I’m just now starting to pick it up again now that I’ve figured out some of the problems. My advice? If you want to stop, stop. It’s okay to leave a story because you don’t want to tell it anymore. It’s perfectly normal. Besides, if you leave the ending unwritten, maybe at some point you’ll remember how much you want to write it and finish the story then. Whereas, if you force yourself all the way to the end, not only will you (probably) have a bunch of lackluster scenes, you also have no real motivation for ever looking at it again.

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        Thanks! I was so worried that I wasn’t a “real” writer if I quit. I’m happy to know that I’m not alone and that it’s better for the story overall if I don’t try to write it if I don’t want to.

    • I’d say unless you’ve promised someone else that you’d finish it. do what works best for you. FWIW, I’ve let stories sit unfinished for years. Sometimes I finish them later.

    • This happened to me last April, when I did a Camp Nanowrimo. I ended up dropping the story halfway through and leaving it until a few weeks ago. I always told myself that it was the story’s problem, that I had hit a rough spot and couldn’t get past. When I read through it again, I realized that it wasn’t the story. It was me. I was trying to write… just to write! I wasn’t writing the story because I needed to or because it was speaking to me. I was writing it because it’s April and that’s what you do in April. My advice is that if you just stop caring, let it rest until it interests you. There’s a difference in not caring and getting stuck. If you don’t care, move on until you feel it speak to you from the ashes. That’s what happened to me, and I know it worked because I know feel the urge to write it again.

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        Thank you! I’m happy to hear I’m not the only one who’s gotten caught up in the “writing for the sake of writing” problem. It was great to hear that someone else has gone through the same things.

  8. i'dratherbewriting says:

    I’ve been struggling a lot lately with my confidence in my story. Not necessarily in my writing or characters, but I’m just very worried about length. Is there some sort of magic number for chapters or pages or words? I’ve laid out what scenes I know I need, but it doesn’t feel like enough. I’m worried that I won’t have enough. My goal is to write a novel, but I’m concerned that I don’t have enough scenes. I would try to work some more in, but then I feel like it would turn into a lot of bland “filler” scenes. How do I know if I have enough?

    • Write the story you have now, and then add more/cut if you need to. There’s no real point worrying about length until you have a first draft. It might end up surprising you.

    • future_famous_author says:

      Just write! I rarely outline (though I am for WIP) and it worked out for me, at least in the one first draft that I have finished. I didn’t outline for it, all I did was imagine up a character, a setting, and a problem for the very beginning, a problem that is solved quickly and turns out good, and so I need more problems, more characters, and more scenes. I just kept writing, and the words kept flowing, along with my ideas. Each character I added, each setting I added, brought more depth and more ideas for more scenes and a greater climax in the end. I’d say start writing the scenes that you have, and if you’re anything like me, things will scramble their way into your scenes, things you didn’t know would ever be there. For goodness’ sake, I didn’t know who my villain was until I put him on the page- as a good guy, too! It wasn’t until I realized how evil of a villain he would make that I started setting the stage for a plot twist, which led to a climax, which led to a happily ever after. You will come up with more, I guarantee you that.
      (And don’t let the added scenes be fillers! Find a way to make them fit into the plot! Use foreshadowing, or have little scenes for side characters, or describe the setting more! There is more to the story than even you can see!)
      And more to this comment than I saw originally.

  9. I’d love the group’s 2 cents on a dilemma. It’s the “Louie 1 and Louie 2” dilemma. I have a pretty good idea what “Louie 1” is doing for most of the book, but there’s a big gap where I’m not sure what “Louie 2” is up to. Until now, I’ve been trying to alternate chapters, but now I’m stuck. Would I be better off trying to keep alternating, or to write a bunch of “Louie 1” chapters just to keep things flowing, even though it may mess things up down the line?

    • I have a similar problem with the WIP I mentioned in the last post, where there are parts where both MC’s have interesting stuff going on, parts where only one has interesting stuff, and large patches of boring stuff. The solution I’m considering is dividing the story into three parts, where they alternate for the first part, MC 1 has the second part, and MC 2 has the third. But I haven’t actually tried to write it that way yet, so who knows how it’ll turn out.

      • future_famous_author says:

        If you think that “boring stuff” is happening in your WIP, then you could make a list of all the things that the reader wants to happen, or all the things they think will happen, or both, and then come up with an alternate scenario, one that could excite or sadden the reader. Doing this could create plot twists, or just help you to come up with more exciting things to fill up that extra space. You could even end up with another subplot or something of that sort.

    • future_famous_author says:

      I would say just go with your gut. Or, another thing that I think I might try, write a couple scenes from both perspectives. I guess if they aren’t together this wouldn’t really work, but if you wrote a scene from Louie 1’s perspective, and then one from Louie 2’s perspective, and then you could choose which one you wanted to incorporate in the book, or maybe you could use both.

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