The Inquiring Mind

On August 12, 2020, Erica wrote, In my WIP, my main character hurts his arm in a well-publicized accident, and needs to wear a splint. By the time he gets out of the hospital, nearly everyone has heard about it. I’ve never had to wear anything like that, so I wanted to ask your opinions. How would people react to seeing him with the sling? Would this be different based on whether they were friends, acquaintances, or strangers?

I’m honestly getting rather frustrated with this project. I’ve had the basic idea for the past three years and started this draft a year ago. In that year, I’ve changed all kinds of details, so that the original inspiration is nearly unrecognizable. As I try to write, part of my brain is cataloging all of the edits I’ll need to make once I finish the first draft. I feel like I’ll never actually be able to finish this story, which is a shame, because it’s by far the most ambitious story I’ve ever written. I suppose my other question is: How do you keep writing when it doesn’t feel like you’re making any progress?

A few of us weighed in:

NerdyNiña: Oh, I feel that! I’ve been working on one of my WIPs for about three and a half years, and it keeps changing, too. Like you said, the original inspiration is almost unrecognizable. I can’t honestly say I have any ideas to help. When I get confused, I put it back on the shelf and work on something else. But I do come back to it. I think that’s the important part.

Me: I’d suggest tying your arm in a white dishtowel sling and wearing it (with you masked, of course) a few places.

Melissa Mead: Good idea! Maybe even bring along someone (appropriately distanced) to catch reactions that you might miss. In grad school, my friends and I did an assignment where we had to pretend to have a disability. Maybe it’s because I’ve already got one, but my friends caught stuff that went right over my head.

A jillion or more years ago, when I was in college, I broke my ankle in a few places and was in a cast and on crutches (which did wonders for my pecs!) for a few months. One time, a boy of about six or seven asked his father what was wrong with me, which should have been obvious to a grownup. But this clueless man told his son that my leg had been amputated, even though there it was in plain sight. I don’t remember setting the record straight, but I was angry.

Why did I care, really? The father probably belonged to the Flat Earth Society and believed the moon is a wheel of gouda cheese.

Thank you, Erica, for asking this and giving me a chance to rave about research. My little broken-ankle example qualifies as research to me—and what do we gain or learn from it?

  • An injury can yield at least one benefit, in my case buffed-up chest muscles. (Possibly useful in plotting.)
  • Avenues of speculation open. Did the father even look at my leg? What might have led him, even reasonably, to his conclusion? (Character development.)
  • What caused my anger? What did it say about me? If I’m a fictional character, we can list possible reasons and consider how they might influence my future actions. (More character development.)

Please tell us, Erica, if you tried the dishtowel-around-your-arm suggestion and how it worked out.

In addition to our own experiments, we can see if we know anyone with this particular injury and ask them about their experiences. Ask follow-up questions, for example, about daily life—like, I don’t remember if I had to just wear skirts or dresses when I had the enormous cast or if I was able to pull on pants. I do remember that my cast didn’t like wet weather and had to be replaced a few times. Was I careless? Probably (another character revelation). In the case of an arm, was it the dominant one? How did it affect eating? Writing? And more.

We can google information about wearing a splint. Here’s a link to a Canadian website on the subject, but before I post it, know that I have no expertise and can’t tell if the information is accurate. The link is to further the cause of fiction, not medicine:

We don’t have to limit our inquiry to our exact fictional injury. My ankle experience, I hope, is germane.

If we’re writing historical or contemporary fiction, we have to be accurate when we use our research, or the reader is likely to notice and stop suspending disbelief. But if we’re writing fantasy or sci fi or any kind of speculative fiction, we can deviate. A layer of herbs can be spread on the arm before the splint is applied, or, say, the splint can be made of a material that undulates providing timed massages to promote healing. Or anything else.

Research is interesting for its own sake, and it almost always surprises and generates ideas. I was flabbergasted when that man opined that my leg had been taken off. What else might someone think of other than an ordinary broken bone?

What might one of our characters say? We can make a list:

  • “Her leg will never regain full function. Son, this is why you need to be at least thirty-five before you get your driver’s license.”
  • “A lawsuit made that girl very rich. Her earrings look like silver, but they’re really platinum. Did she share the wealth with her father? I don’t think so!” (I don’t like this guy!)
  • “This is a research hospital. Son, I hear their casts are really seven-league boots. Let’s follow her!”

I also love research because I come out of it knowing more, which may come in handy in another project—or not — knowledge is great for its own sake.

Now for Erica’s second question: how to keep going when we feel like we’re pushing through mud up to our armpits—it’s hard, and it’s happened to me more than once.

When a book is just my normal amount of difficult, I soldier through to the end without interrupting my flow for major rewrites. But when I’m lost and stuck and the lostness and stuckness have persisted, I go back — sometimes, alas, more than once.

If I haven’t kept a running summary of my plot as I’ve written it (I create only the briefest and sketchiest of outlines), this is a good time to do so, chapter by chapter with a few sentences about what happened in each. (While we’re doing this and everything that follows, we don’t allow ourselves to make any quality judgments. Our story isn’t bad or good or clichéd or boring; it’s just in flux.)

When we finish the synopsis, we note where we stopped sailing along. We can ask ourselves if there’s a spot—or spots—where our plot complicates itself, possibly unnecessarily. Are there characters we don’t need? Scenes? Are there places we need to fill in with more writing?

If we know the ending we’re writing toward, we can ask ourselves if we’ve strayed from its direction and if we can use the wandering to get us there in a surprising way or if we have to tweak or change what’s been going on.

If we don’t know the ending, this is a perfect moment to think about it. We can list what it might be, keeping in mind our story so far. We should take care to be free in our ideas at this juncture. Nothing is crazy.

When we have an ending that pleases us, we return to our synopsis to decide what we have that supports it and what may make it unachievable?

What we finally come up with may be quite different from our original ideas, which we still love. Maybe we have to shelve those ideas for another story. I’ve had to. We can write only the story we can write.

This process is not likely to be quick. I say, So be it. A story takes as long as it takes. You can embroider that on a sampler and hang it over your desk.

I’m allergic to abandoning a story once I’ve written, say, twenty pages. This isn’t necessarily a virtue. It’s possible I should have dropped what became Stolen Magic long before it gobbled four-and-a-half years. (A book that was not the story I set out with.) You can put your story in a drawer and, mixing metaphors, let it simmer. When it’s finished cooking, it will leap into your mind.

Here are three prompts:

  • If you remember your mythology, the Minotaur, half bull, half human, lives in a labyrinth and kills anyone lost in there with him. The hero Theseus finds his way by tying a string to the doorpost and unraveling it as he goes. In your story, he kills the Minotaur, turns to follow the string back, and discovers that it’s gone. Tell the story of his escape or failure to escape. Make it complicated. Bring in more characters.
  • Your MC has lost an ear in a bizarre carpentry accident. The bleeding has stopped. Write what happens.
  • Snow White is lost in the woods after the hunter has left her. When she reaches the dwarves’ cottage, they’re eating dinner, which, she discovers by listening at the door is a ragout of the last princess to show up looking for rescue. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Good post! Thank you! I never did try it, mostly because I was about to start at a new school and didn’t want to be meeting people for the first time with a fake sling on.

  2. I like the point about having someone with you help you pick up observations. I’m terrible at reading people!

    I messed up my leg when we were still quarentined. When we went back to church, I was still using crutches. I made sure to have my explination ready, because yes, a lot of people asked what happened. It would be interesting to compare who asked me directly, who heard from someone else, or who overhead me tell someone else. And then, of course, not everyone saw me that first day, so I had to be ready to explain several weeks in a row. Even now, 8 months later, when I’m using a cane, I occasionally run into someone I haven’t seen in awhile and have to explain.

  3. Brambles and Bees says:

    Does anyone have any recommendations on how to get ideas for plot and how to cultivate them until they grow into a fully formed story ready to write? I am currently struggling with re-planning because I didn’t find the plot I had given the story I’m working on interesting or detailed enough for my liking. The problem now is that I can’t seem to think of any ideas for the story. I have vague ideas for very random scenes in the story that I might not end up writing, but nothing is giving me inspiration.

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      That’s something I struggle with too. In my current story, I’ve written two short chapters with the information about the characters and plot that I know. It’s helping me come up with things and understand them, so I can come up with a plot.
      I also found something that helps is making lists, (something I actually started doing because of this blog) with the example I gave before, I have a list of about seventeen different ideas, and after writing the first few chapters (all of the ideas were rooted in the same concept more or less) there are probably fourteen ideas I can choose from, and a couple I’m leaning towards. This is helpful for me, knowing that I have options, and I feel like I have a sense of direction and what I’m writing isn’t pointless.
      I’m not sure this’ll help, but I hope it will.

    • Resident plotter here!

      The first thing I do is brainstorm a few ideas and get everything that came with the original idea written down. Then I write down a list of the major parts of the story (key event, first plot point, etc). There’s a graphic on this blog point that lists some different systems for naming those parts–mine is the “CVP method”.

      Anyway, then I start breaking up the ideas from my brainstorm and figuring where they might go in the story. From there, it’s a little easier to figure out what goes in the gap.

      For instance, the last story I outlined (a gender-flipped Sleeping Beauty) came with a list of conflicts (my princess vs. the villain, princess vs. her parents who don’t know about her forbidden abilities, and princess needing to find her best friend). So fitting them into the story structure framework helped me figure out what steps I needed to take to resolve each of those conflicts. For another story I’m working on, I had the beginning crystal clear in my mind and a vague idea of the rest of the story. So filling in the framework helped me figure out where the middle and end might go.

  4. Hi Gail, I am a student at Simmons University studying to become a librarian, and I am taking a class on the publishing industry. Our professor asked us to research a book to find out the story of how it was published and I wanted to do Ella Enchanted, since it’s one of my favorite books. She said she thought you had donated some of your papers or manuscripts from that book to an archive–is this true? I would be interested in anything new I can learn from behind-the-scenes of that book. (This website has also been really helpful! The writing advice/prompts are quite fun.)

    Thank you!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Yes, I’ve donated manuscripts to the Kerlan Collection in Minnesota, sporadically. I don’t know if you’ll find anything on ELLA’s publishing history there. What I’ve donated is manuscripts in various stages, but no early versions of ELLA, I don’t think. I’m honored that you chose ELLA for your project! I hope you can find enough to move forward. I’m glad you like the website!

  5. Does anyone else struggle with writing the very end of a story? I’m fine if it’s a series and there are more books coming, but if I’m writing the end of a standalone or the end of a series, I have a really hard time focusing on the last chapter or so (the tail end of the climax and the resolution stuff). My brain has already written off this story as done and wants to move on to something new and interesting. I struggled on this with my standalone Mira’s Griffin, and some reviewers picked up on it. Now I’m facing the same problem with the end of my DreamRovers series. Any tips for staying focused on the story through the end?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’ve added your question to my list, but here’s a thought: Your story is over for you, but it will still be clinging to your readers. What do you think they’ll want that will make them sigh with contentment?

      • Thanks!
        I just finished!
        I ended up cutting several “insert happy stuff here scenes”, but I think there’s still contentment. It goes off to my writing group in a week (I was cutting really close to the deadline).

  6. Does anyone know where the planner vs. pantster idea came from? I did a basic Google search (didn’t even click on any links) and the earliest thing I found was a NaNoWriMo blog post from 2010, but Google suggested searching for Stephen King’s writing book, so maybe it came from there? I’m just hoping to have some kind of source for it because I’m working on an essay about my writing style.

    • The urban dictionary says that it came from NaNoWriMo and first mentioned in 2010, so you may have the right source in your blog post.
      It’s been a little while since I read Stephen King’s On Writing, but I don’t remember anything on the term pantser specifically.

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