Question Grab Bag

On February 13, 2020, Samantha Pixley wrote, What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map? My current WIP is a lot of great ideas that aren’t coming together well – 100 pages in, I’m daunted by the idea that my story isn’t capturing the right feeling that I’m after and I might have to scrap it and start over. I feel almost like I’m losing the essence of my story. Any thoughts on what I should do?

How do you deal with wordiness? I’m 100 pages into my WIP and not even halfway through the plot. Besides this, I keep getting lost in the words instead of letting the story GUIDE the words. I’m floundering in a swamp of words! I’m talking too much and saying nothing!

You said “Curiosity helps me. If I don’t keep writing, I won’t know what I’ll come up with next. If I give up on a story, I won’t find out what it will become. Same for if I stop revising–I won’t discover how it will be after the umpty-ump draft.” Do you ever have the problem where you daydream about your stories instead of writing them and does it help or hinder your story? On that note; as a published, well established author, do you ever find yourself missing the characters or the world of an already completed story and getting the craving to go back and write more? Is that what happened with The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre (one of my favorite books of yours)!

Do you ever go back to a story you wrote a while ago or already published and go “Igth, that isn’t nearly as good as I remembered!”? I do that all the time! I think part of this is because I’m guilty of never really editing that much and so my stories just aren’t that pristine. Another reason might be because I am very much a new writer – I’ve only really been writing for about four years, so I don’t consider myself all that ‘seasoned’ in the process. Is this something that only I do, or do other people go back to their already finished works and say “Igth!”?

Several of you offered help.

Katie W.: I’ve been writing for about the same amount of time as you have, but I can take a shot at your third and fifth questions. First off, I totally daydream about my stories. Sometimes I even sleep-dream about them. (Although, given how nonsensical my dreams are, this doesn’t help as much as you might think.) And what I’ve found is that sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s just annoying. For example, I am totally obsessed with my current MC, and spend a probably ridiculous amount of time figuring out her backstory and random scenes from her life. Sometimes it’s useful, like the sudden realization that her teacher’s motivations made a lot more sense if they were related, and sometimes it’s not, like the fifty bogillion ideas for a scene I might never write. So, I would say there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming, so long as you start writing eventually.

As to the fifth question, I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. I edit something to within an inch of its life, feel really happy, and come back to it a year later and absolutely loathe it. Two stories have been so utterly unusable that I ended up rewriting them without even a glance at the original. Others I’ve just given up on because I don’t want to go to the time and effort to fix them. The only good thing I can see about this is that at least I recognize that they’re terrible, and the fact that I recognize that is a sign that I have grown as a writer. Or, at any rate, that’s the way I choose to think about it, even if it’s not entirely true.

Melissa Mead: I’ll take a shot at “How do you deal with wordiness?”, and maybe a little “What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map?” too.

The first place I sold stories to was a magazine with a maximum word limit of 600 words. I’d write stories of about 1,000 words, and then cut, and tighten, and distill, until the story fit. It usually got more intense and focused in the process.

So for your first draft: Go ahead! Write anything that strikes your fancy. Let it ramble all over the place. If a new character or side quest pops up, roll out the welcome wagon.

Once you’ve got a finished draft, put it away for a while, maybe a week, while you do something else. Then go back to it with an editorial X-acto knife in hand.

Re-read the story. If something’s boring, or distracting, or just not right for that story, cut it out. (I keep a “cut file” for books and long stories. That way you can tell yourself that you can always put it back if you really want to.)
Then cut, and polish, and cut, and polish, until your gem shines the way you want it to.

Song4myKing: About daydreaming, I do it all the time. I don’t have a lot of time to actually sit down and write, but I can still think about my stories and write the fun scenes in my head. I often figure out details this way, and get a sense of where I’m going in the story, and get excited about upcoming scenes. Often, there are scenes that I’ve written out in my head many times over. It probably doesn’t work this way for everyone, but I love writing those scenes. It’s almost like finally performing a well-rehearsed play or piece of music. I also daydream a lot about things that I know won’t make it into the story. I don’t see this as a waste; it’s fun and it’s helpful for world building and character background.

Raina: Story all over the map–I’ve struggled with this too, and it’s one of the main reasons why I lose momentum on a project. What’s helped me is to spend some time thinking about and writing down the “heart” of my story. I like to think of this concept as how I would answer “what is your story about?” It can be a theme, a character, a feeling you want to capture, anything. For example: “My story is about an Unchosen girl who chooses herself. My story is about finding adventure even when it’s not handed to you. My story is about the side characters who get left behind, who aren’t special enough to be the Hero but say screw that and make their own story anyways.” Whatever the heart of your story is, write it down and keep it close. Whenever you feel like you’re losing direction, look back to it. Remembering what you first loved about your story, why you’re passionate about it, and what you want it to be is a fantastic motivator to make it a reality on the page.

Daydreaming–I do this a lot too, but I think it’s a GOOD thing as long as it doesn’t take the place of actual writing. Daydreaming is an awesome place to develop new ideas, test new directions, and flesh out your story more. If you want to feel more productive, it can help to write all of that stuff down. An idea for a character, a snippet of dialogue, anything. That’s what I do. Every single story-related idea I have that’s worth remembering/expanding upon, I write down so I’ll have a reference later. (I use an app called Trello, but you can use a notebook, post it notes, anything.) And for me, at least, that stuff really comes in handy later when I’m going to actually write the story.

Looking back at old stories–I sometimes look back at old stories, and a lot of the time the quality is worse than I remember/what I have now. Sometimes I’m surprised, sometimes I’m not. But I see that as a GOOD thing. The fact that I can now see problems means that I’ve learned as a writer. The quality gap between my old work and my new work is how much I’ve improved as a writer since then, and to me, at least, it feels pretty nice to see the difference. I try not to judge my old work; I’ll either leave it be as a memory of my state at the time, or use everything I’ve learned since then to polish it up into something I’m proud of now. Occasionally I’ll even see something that’s actually pretty decent–a line, a turn of phrase–that I’ll feel proud of myself for thinking of at the time.

I love Raina’s idea about finding the heart of our story. Out of sad experience of getting lost more than once, these days I write a lot of notes before I start my manuscript itself–character notes, plot notes, fictional world notes. As I’ve said here, I have to know my ending in order to write a book. Not everyone does, but for me, knowing my destination keeps me focused.

We don’t have to do this work at the beginning. A hundred pages in is a great place to stop and look around. It’s certainly not too late. We can ask ourselves Raina’s question about the heart of our story. If we’re really all over the map, we may have a bunch of possible hearts. What an abundance!

We can see what we’ve put in that supports this heart or that one. Which thread seems to dominate? Which one interests us the most? What endings are suggested by the threads? Do some of them interlock so they can be pulled together?

It’s hard to remember this, but there is no rush. My favorite and best writing teacher used to say that a story takes as long to write as it takes.

And, published or not, the only person we have to satisfy is ourself.

Joy, if we love more than one idea, even if they don’t all fit the story as it’s shaping up. The others are fodder for more stories. Save them!

Once we’ve found the thread that interests us the most and seems to have the most possibilities, we can ask Raina’s heart question. We can ask my ending question. As we write, we keep the answers in mind. We can write them on a Post-it and stick them on our laptop. Or more than one Post-it and stick them on the fridge, our mirror, our pillow. If we start meandering, we can ask if we’re going off track or if there’s a connection to our main story road.

As for wordiness, I’m entirely with Melissa Mead. I agree about first-draft freedom and the revision X-acto knife. About the first: We’re word people. If we run on, it’s out of exuberance and love of language. Writing is hard! We don’t want to take the fun out of it!

About the second: I wrote a blog post called “Down With Length, Up With Thrills,” which I posted on August 26th of last year. It may be worth rereading.

I don’t daydream enough about my stories. I love when my mind spontaneously visits what I’m working on when I’m not actually working. The daydreaming is more relaxed than writing the book itself or even than writing notes. It comes from the back of my brain, puttering along, puffing out charming figments that are often useful. The only bad thing is if I forget before I write down the conjuring.

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre came from long-simmering ideas about “Rapunzel.” I finally saw a way to use the fairy tale and end it in a more satisfying way than I think the original does–by combining it with a fantasy version of Exodus from the Bible. Then I wondered if it could find a home in one of the worlds I’d already created, and Bamarre came to mind.

I don’t have the Igth! experience you describe. Ordinarily, I don’t reread my books, and I don’t suggest rereading old work unless we plan to celebrate our growth, as Katie W. and Raina say they have. Otherwise, we’re just making ourselves unhappy.

Lately, though, I have been reading my books on Facebook. I’m doing it as my bit in offering some respite to people suffering stress from the pandemic and the economic downturn. I hope that the routine can help. I give the same intro and wear my little fairy pendant, and it’s always my same old face and, lately, my disordered hair, plus a chapter or two of an adventure story that may be nostalgic for some and new to others. When I started, I had no idea how many books I’d get through.

So I am rereading. I’m glad to say I like my books. I’ve even been surprised at how moving parts of some of them are. I don’t know if anyone has noticed that a few times I’ve been close to tears or laughter.

On the downside, I’ve noticed some sentences that I’d recast if I were writing them now. I pick up word repetitions that I don’t like. Since I’ve studied poetry, I even spot sound repetition, like unintentional rhymes, that I’m not happy about. Ah, well.

Here are three prompts, all inspired by the movie, The Wizard of Oz:

• The farm Dorothy returns to isn’t the same as the one she left. Maybe a stranger has come to live with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Maybe the house now has an attic when it didn’t before. List the possibilities of what may have changed. Think about what could result. Write the first scene of a sequel. If you like, write the whole thing. Consider what could be the heart of the new story and how it might end.

• The wizard leaves Emerald City to be administered by the Scarecrow, assisted by the Tin Man and the Lion. What could go wrong? Write the story.

• On the way back to Kansas, the wizard’s balloon malfunctions and he and Dorothy make an emergency landing. Where? What happens? Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Great post! I’ll need to come back to it the next time a story has me wanting to pull my hair out. (And since I’ve been growing it out for nearly seven years, I don’t want anything to happen to it.)

  2. I have a series, a standalone, and one trilogy in the works that were all originally based on daydreams.
    Actually, even including my works-in-progress, there’s only one that doesn’t have a basis in daydreaming.

  3. FantasyFan101 says:

    After reading this, I realize that note taking is an immense part of writing. The thing is, I can’t really find a way to do it. I don’t have a pocket notebook or app that I can pull out whenever I have an idea. And when I do school during the day, I find I annoying to get up, walk to my bedside table, (I’m home schooled) and grab a notebook. And I have many. Lots of people give them to me, because they know I write, but It just doesn’t work the same. My hands get cramped and exhausted, my handwriting is messy, and I just get peeved.
    Any tips on making a habit of notes? I really need it.

    • SluggishWriter says:

      Maybe you could try shortening your notes? Sometimes I feel like writing it all down in detail kills the idea for me, so just writing down the bare minimum can be helpful. It doesn’t have to be legible to anyone but you.

      This isn’t a great habit, but occasionally I’ll let the idea sit for a couple of hours or a day and if I’m still thinking about it, then I’ll write it down. It gives it more time to flesh out and become useful as words on a page. Hope this helps.

    • Hey, I totally get how you feel. I am home schooled too and sometimes don’t feel like taking note even when I get a great idea. What I try to do is put whatever idea in the back of my mind, then when I have a chance, write it down. Sometimes it even helps just to open a new Google Docs page and type down the basics of an idea so that you have a starting place when you actually get to write. Sometimes you just have to stand up and walk to that side table no matter how annoying it may be. Or maybe set a time of day to just remember all of the things you want to put into your writing and take the time to jot it down. If you don’t like physically writing just use a few key words to write down your idea. Hand writing is really important, it helps you remember more so I would suggest that you work on that. If your parents are the ones who home school you and you’re not just doing distanced learning, ask for writing assignments. I do this and it helps me get the time to take notes, outline, research and daydream. Hope this helps!

    • Pleasure Writer says:

      I don’t typically take notes either, but if I have a sudden stroke of brilliance (which honestly isn’t as often as I wish:), I write a linking word on my hand. For example, if the thought of writing a monologue from the perspective of a candle came to mind, I would write the word candle or flame on my hand. It helps me remember the other, say, fifty pieces of dialogue I may have dreamed up in those ten minutes of pondering, and I can then write them down when I have the time. Mostly I use this tactic with name ideas.

    • I tend to let the story simmer in my mind while I’m developing it. I’m an ideaist, which means I struggle on the side of too many ideas. I go through phases where I have three or four in my head. Once I have it developed, I have a file in Google Docs labeled “Ideas”. I write down the summary of the plot, in as little or as much detail as I feel like. Below that, I have “SCENE IDEAS”, which are scenes that I love so much I write their summary down, and “NOTES”, which is where I brainstorm. I come back to this folder every so often and update old ideas (I’m a daydreamer) as well as add new ones. This helps because I don’t worry about losing them and I can work on one at a time. Even if I never write some of them, it helps to have them typed down somewhere.

    • RedTrumpetWriter says:

      @FantasyFan101 I like to use the google notes app on my phone. It’s really nice especially if you have a google account on your computer because you can have it up across devices. If you don’t have a samsung phone you can probably find a different app or maybe it is downloadable. If you don’t have a phone you can always just leave a notebook on your school desk. (I also have many note books and leave them everywhere.)

      • SluggishWriter says:

        I love using google notes! It’s easy to search for things and be able to quickly jot something down for later. Some organization or note taking tools make me feel like there’s a pressure to write down detailed or organized notes but google keep can be a little chaotic and it works well

    • My go-to for notetaking is an app called Evernote. The best thing about it is that you can take different types of notes: handwritten, typed, voice, even scanning a physical document in using your phone camera (this feature is pretty cool)! Plus it immediately syncs with your computer. You can organize notes by notebook and tags, so I have a notebook for each WIP and add notes as ideas come to me. I usually just write the gist of the idea that comes to me, knowing that I can flush it out later. I also write notes in bullet points to help me organize my thoughts better.

      As a bonus, when I can’t use my phone or feel like using a pen, I write things in my Rocket book, which is a reusable notebook! You can erase pages with a damp cloth after scanning and uploading them to your device (and you can even pair it with Evernote, Google Drive, and a number of other cloud services). It’s not for everyone, since the notebooks are a bit pricier and require the use of a certain you’re of pen, but I absolutely love it!

  4. I found out yesterday that two of my poems are going to be published in the Spring 2021 edition of a literary magazine called Capsule Stories! Apparently scribbling something down in fifteen minutes can sometimes be the right path to take.

  5. SluggishWriter says:

    I think daydreaming is sort of letting your subconscious work for you. (I’ve also actually started stories based on actual dreams before! Or at least added moments, scenes, characters to things I’m already working on.)

  6. FantasyFan101 says:

    Cool!!! I’m the person who doesn’t daydream, but is constantly coming up with more ideas. I could be writing 12 books right now, but I have to hold back. In fact, I still play imaginary games with my sisters and friends, and doing so bombards me with ideas. Although I do daydream occasionally. I agree, it’s super helpful.

  7. I really hate the current (placeholder) name of one of my MC’s, but it’s gotten so stuck I can’t get it out. She’s a princess of a country named Verein, daughter of Queen Direndal, who married Duke Taymir. She’s stubborn, protective, loves poetry, enjoys being comfortable, and knows how to use silence to her best advantage. I’ve tried that lovely Behind the Name site, but nothing seems quite right, and the name generator site I use seems to have everything except plain old generic fantasy princess names. Any advice/name suggestions?

    • SluggishWriter says:

      My best advice is to just keep your eyes open for interesting names around you – the name of a director on a movie, the name of a random worker at a restaurant, anything you overhear and think is interesting, jot it down for later. I’ll also look through lists of names and try to think of a way of mixing them or switching out letters to make it prettier or simpler or more fantasy-like.
      And don’t limit yourself to name generators for a specific type of character! I found a name for a princess in my WIP from an AI name generator. Anything works.

    • I usually use Mom Junction. For silent I found these:
      Dimah
      Silent rain falling without thunder
      Sayna
      One who is silent
      Tayci
      Silent girl

      Choosing names is one of my favorite parts of writing. I probably spend too much time on it, haha.

  8. FantasyFan101 says:

    I know of a wonderful website were I got some of my names. It has an advanced searched that can come in really useful if you want a name to have special meanings. I’m writing a book that takes place in Japan, and it took a lot of tries and hopeless cases until I got the right name. My first name was actually Yuki 😬. Sometimes it just takes a whole lot of patience to find the right name.
    As for the website, it’s https://nameberry.com/search/advanced
    Here are few suggestions for names.

    Names that mean or have relation with poetry:
    Virelai
    Morven
    Names that mean or have relations with silence:
    Tacita
    Thulile
    Placidia

    Names that mean or have relations with protection:
    Eirdis (I might use that one 😉)
    Kamali

    I hope this helps

  9. Hi everybody.
    Sorry for asking so many questions, but they just keep coming.

    I love writing beginnings, and middles are fine, but endings always stump me. I can’t writing endings that are a good end to the story.
    My editors say they are extremely anticlimactic. And aren’t a good fit to the rest of the story.
    Endings are the main reason I abandon stories. I once rewrote the ending four times and every time it felt awkward, abrupt, and anticlimactic.

    Anyone have any advice?

    • I have the same problem! Sometimes I try to link the ending to something in the beginning. And I try to focus on the heart of the story- Did the MC get what they wanted? Learn something? Change in some other way?

      If it’s not too tacky to use my own stuff as an example, here’s one that I think works fairly well. It starts with “It was a nightmare come to life,” and “Gallop…gallop…gallop…”, and it sort of ends that way too, but something’s changed. 🙂

      https://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/fairy-tales/melissa-mead/horseman

        • The stories I write feel like they were building up to something bigger then what I wrote down, but I can’t really tell what the story was building up to.

          Sometimes I decide on the ending that fits before I write the book, but that doesn’t work either because as the stories move around the ending I originally thought would work won’t anymore, and I don’t want to try to mold my story to fit the ending.

          • I agree with not molding the story to fit the ending. Maybe ask someone to read the story, then ask them “Was there anything you still wanted to know after you read the ending?”

    • SluggishWriter says:

      I’m still working on this myself, but I find that the most satisfying endings for me are when you can directly tie it back to something in the beginning. For example, a character asks a question or makes a joke early on, then references back to that and provides an answer or some insight at the end of the story. I’ve heard of this being called “brackets,” too – as if you’ve enclosed your story by having one thing at the beginning, then closing it up at the end. And you can layer multiple of these within a story.

    • The climax is the main show-down with your antagonistic force. What has your character been fighting against the whole time? Then think of ways you can make it even more exciting. Make sure that antagonistic force, who or whatever it is, puts up a good fight.

      You’ll also want to look at the major events of the story so far. What could they lead up to? Ideally, all of the conflicts lead up to this one moment. Remember in Ella Enchanted, when Ella is struggling with her curse at the very end? Her mind goes back over many of the major events of the story, showing how all of them have impacted the main conflict (Ella vs. her curse).

      Story structure helps me get a better idea of what the climax should be, since it helps me define the important moments that lead up to it. I use a variation of the 3-Act formula, and I find that it helps me get the bones of the story down, so that my creative mind is free to work on details.

      Since you can’t click on links, here’s a quick overview:
      Act 1.A: characteristic moment(s), high action, inciting incident.
      Act 1.B: normal world, first plot point (“point of no return”)
      Act 2.A: enter the new world, first pinch point (learn about the antagonist)
      Act 2.B: reactions, midpoint (the main character learns a major Truth about the world)
      Act 2.C: start acting with purpose, second pinch point (involve the antagonist, reminder of what’s at stake)
      Act 2.D: act with purpose, often includes a “false victory”, followed by the second pinch point (low point of the story)
      Act 3.A: finish off loose ends, prepare for climax. Trigger (climax set off).
      Act 3.B: Climax with the antagonist, then resolution where the story and character’s beginning and end are compared.

    • I write scripts all the time. It is fun, and easier then writing a novel if you know how to do it.
      It’s good practice to take a part of a book you wrote or one you like and then transform it into a script just as practice.
      Another good thing is to find scripts for plays or movies you’ve seen and read them.

      Or did you need help with the actual writing?

      • I am working on a movie with some other people, they are full of ideas that dont always align so it is my job to narrow down what I want to use and actually write it all.

    • SluggishWriter says:

      This depends on how you’re writing them, but for any type of script I find it helpful to remember that with plays and film or anything visual, the script is only one half. The visual component can carry half of the story, and it’s hard to step back and let to do so. Make the visual part do the work for you as much as you can.

      • I’ve been try told that the cardinal r uh le of script writing is show it dont say it. That has been a challenge for me so far because I am used to writing stories, essays etc.
        Thank you for the help!

  10. I just want to say how much I love this blog! I was planning a comment along the lines of “I wrote a story abut a month ago and had a lot of fun writing it, but when I tried to edit it, I started thinking “This is boring.” before I finished the second paragraph.” possibly going on to say “This is making me feel glad I’m majoring in mechanical engineering, because I’m definitely not cut out to be a writer.”

    Then, I started imagining the comments I would get.

    I heard Gail saying “You should never say that your writing is terrible. Global judgements don’t help. They’re just sticks we beat ourselves up with to make it harder to keep going.”

    I heard several different people say “What about your story is boring? Can you cut the boring part and fit the information in elsewhere? What about it do you love? Focus on that.”

    And now I know all I need to do is cut most of the first scene and write the rest from another POV, and I’m feeling much better about my story. So again, thank you so much for being so supportive and having a backlog of kindness uncertain writers can draw on. (If only I could write stories as easily as blog comments, I’d be done in no time)

    • Its interesting that you said you wish you could write stories as easily as blog comments. What if you tried to write your story as a blog post with comments? The story could progressively take place within a blog such as this, it may not be great but it might be fun and give you more confidence.

      • True. The book the Martian started that way, as a series of blog posts.
        I did something similar. My WIP includes the POV of a fifteen-year-old girl who writes in her journal. I’ve been writing in journals since I was ten, so writing those sections is second nature for me. Incorporating blog posts or comments into the story could be interesting. I believe “Squirrel Girl” by Shannon Hale does something similar.

    • I didn’t even end up doing much to it. I just added a few paragraphs to the beginning and moved some description around. Apparently, thinking “I’m bored. I should edit my story.” is just a bad idea.

  11. FantasyFan101 says:

    That’s amazing!!! You made your story way better by imagining what other authors would say. I should try that sometime.

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