I think this is worth an extra, quick post, though it’s probably for your younger siblings or your children. Starting a few days ago, Barnes & Noble is sponsoring a writing contest for kids between six and twelve and publishing the winners in an anthology, which will have a foreword by me. (I will not be one of the judges.) Here’s a link for the details: https://www.barnesandnobleinc.com/press-release/barnes-noble-launches-national-childrens-short-story-contest/.
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!
First off, I hope everyone is well, staying safe, and contributing to the safety of others. David and I are okay and very grateful that dogs don’t get the virus.
And, letting you know, in addition to my ongoing daily Facebook reading of a chapter of Ella Enchanted, last week I did a Q&A talk, also on my Facebook page, sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and PJ Library. It’s still there, so you can watch and listen. I can’t say how heartened I was when both Melissa Mead and Christie V Powell showed up in the comments scroll.
Now for the post. On December 5, 2019 NerdyNiña wrote, When you’re writing a fairy tale retelling, how do you make it have a real plot? I’m trying to write a mashup of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rapunzel.” I have my characters, and a good idea of the themes I want, but I don’t know what to have happen to make it a story worth reading. Can anyone help?
Several of you weighed in.
future_famous_author: What I do when I don’t know what kind of story to write is that I just make a new document on my computer (or get a new page in a notebook) and use bullet points. Write what comes to your mind. One time when I was doing this I ended up with a really good story. One of the words that I wrote, though, was a llama, and I did not use that word. And maybe rereading the fairytales, if you haven’t already done that, would help you. Maybe think about how you want to start it and just start writing. I have done this often, where I don’t have a plot, just a character, and a beginning, and the story ends up really good.
Yay! future_famous_author uses lists! I use bullet points, too.
Melissa Mead: I pick the parts of fairy tales that make me ask questions or roll my eyes. For example, with “Snow White,” I’ve always wondered “Why would the Prince want to kiss a dead girl?”
(Gail, if this is an out=of-line shameless plug, rather than an example, please remove it!)
Here’s one answer I came up with: https://dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/twisted-fairy-tales/melissa-mead/white-as-snow-red-as-blood
Me: Not a shameless plug. That was one of my questions when I wrote Fairest.
Raina: If you’re talking about coming up with plots in general, Gail has a ton of great posts in the archives tagged “plot” or “plotting”. One thing that also really helped me was learning about story structure and beat sheets, such as the Save The Cat method, which is what I use. (You can find the book Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder at your local library, or google one of the free summaries online.)
Thank you, Raina!
More Raina: If you’re talking about fairy tale retellings specifically, I think a good thing to remember is that (generally) your story should be an original story first, and a retelling second. It can definitely borrow characters, events, and themes from the original, but your priority should be making sure that those characters, events, and themes all contribute to making YOUR story, rather than trying to make everything match up to the original. For me, the litmus test is when a retelling is able to stand on its own as an engaging story, even if the person has never read the original fairy tale. (Though of course, if they’ve read the original, they should enjoy it even more because they’ll be able to spot the parallels!)
future_famous_author: In my version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Red was actually friends with the wolves, and the “big bad wolf” was a man who was trying to kill the wolves and wore a wolf hide. I hardly followed the storyline of LRRH at all. I had some wolves, a girl with a red hood taking treats to her sick grandma at the beginning, and some bad guys who try and stop her.
Oy! The worth-reading worry! This is a question we should never ask: not when we’re thinking about what to write, not when we’re in the thick of it, not when we finish, not when we revise, not when we send out our query letter, which will not contain words like, “I’m not sure this is worth reading, but I hope you will think it is.” !!! And not even when it’s published or ten years later. It is a question not worth thinking! It doesn’t help; it just hinders. The only important initial question is, Does this interest me?
I agree with everyone above about fairy tale retellings. Mine have run the gamut from close to the original to light years away. Right before I started writing Ella Enchanted, I read Beauty by Robin McKinley, which I love. This retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” hews close to the original and yet stands as a unique creation. I’ve never managed to be that faithful. It’s an achievement–
–that we don’t have to achieve–
–unless we want to.
Most fairy tales have been around for hundreds of years. They’ve lasted because they’re exciting; they’re generally short and packed with action. And they touch deep places in us. For me, the original “Cinderella,” for example, is at bottom about feeling unappreciated–even though I didn’t take the story that way. Cinderella does everything right and tries so hard, and all she gets is grief. We aren’t told if she loves her stepfamily, but they certainly don’t love her. Everybody (or almost everybody) has felt undervalued and misunderstood.
We can use those deep meaning to fuel our plots. The meaning you take from a fairy tale is likely to be different from mine. For me, for instance, “Hansel and Gretel” is fundamentally about abandonment, but for someone else it might be about poverty. “Snow White” makes me think about jealousy and rage, but others may find kindness and love–in the generosity of the dwarfs.
If we go with abandonment, we can give Hansel nightmares and make Gretel more conscientious than a child should be, because both children sense that their parents are unreliable. We can invent earlier incidents during good times when the parents behaved irresponsibly. We can bring in the witch during one of those incidents. If we know what the underlying big issue is, we can figure out how to structure our story. Once the two of them are in the witch’s cabin, knowing what we know about each of them, we can decide how they’ll be together in that very small space. If we’re following the fairy tale, we can plan how the two children manage to stay alive but almost fail a few times. It’s all informed by abandonment and, possibly, their commitment to never abandoning each other.
I also do as Melissa Mead does: look for leaps of logic, plot turns that make absolutely no sense. Why does feeling a pea under twenty mattresses prove royal blood? Why does the prince fall in love with Sleeping Beauty when she’s, well, asleep and he’s never met her and she’s about a hundred years older than he is, even if she doesn’t look it? Why does the Beast frighten Beauty’s father and threaten him if he (the Beast) is really a good guy at heart? Why, oh why, does Snow White fall for the evil queen three times in a row?
We can contemplate these goofy parts and see how we can explain them. Let’s take the prince and Sleeping Beauty. Why does he go on the crazy quest in the first place? We can make a list! Remember nothing is stupid on a list:
∙ He’s on the lam. He stole the golden astrolabe of the Admiral of the Fleet. A party of knights is after him, and there’s this hedge.
∙ His mother insists he marry his distant cousin, Merna, whom he hates. He’s refused, and now he’s been exiled. He’s been riding for days, and there’s this hedge.
∙ He lives in the next town over, and the hedge has grown so high that it blocks the sun from the wheat fields. Crops are failing. He hacks his way through the hedge to find the authorities and tell them to trim the darn hedge!
And so on. A nice list has ten to fifteen possibilities. As you can see, these possibilities are complicated. We probably have to set them up, which could take half a novel. Meanwhile, we have to keep an eye on the sleeping princess and decide how she can complicate the problems and then lead eventually to their solution. I happen to love this approach.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Write the abandonment story of Hansel and Gretel.
∙ Write a version of “Hansel and Gretel” using poverty as the underlying problem. Or pick another issue that strikes you as at the core of the problem.
∙ Write seven more “Sleeping Beauty” possibilities. Pick one of yours or one of mine and write the story.
∙ Write a version of “Snow White” that begins in the dwarfs’ cottage and explain SW’s behavior each time the evil queen shows up.
Have fun, and save what you write!
This isn’t really a post, though there will be one on Wednesday as usual. I just want to let you know, in case you’d like to watch or you have siblings or your own kids who’d like to. Starting tomorrow at 11:00 am Eastern Daylight Time, I’ll be reading a chapter a day of Ella Enchanted.
In New York State, people over seventy (I’m seventy-two) or with health challenges that make them particularly vulnerable have been told to stay home. (Just saying to put you at ease, I have no health challenges.) Stay home period. Groceries are left outside our gate. I’m lucky to have my husband and my dog, to keep company with, and a big backyard to walk in. And to have you guys–to be able to read your questions, discussions, and the way we support each other. Please, everybody, be careful and stay well!
On December 4, 2019, in response to my plea for questions, Melissa Mead wrote, Questions….let’s see…
I write really slowly. Any tips on writing faster/spending less time chasing red herrings?
The WIP has 2 POV characters. How can I balance out their timelines?
I wrote back, About the first, I’m very slow too, and I chase red herrings, which sometimes turn out to be crucial. I’ll take a stab at this one from the standpoint of a fellow easily distracted writer.
I’ve added this to my list, but are they together, interacting, or are they in different places?
And Melissa Mead answered, In different places–and they’re essentially 2 versions of the same person. in different places, interacting with some of the same people, but at different times. They meet up once or twice in the course of the story, and at the end.
My brain hurts just trying to explain it.
Raina came in with these suggestions: For the writing faster, this method helped me tremendously, and I’ll let the original author explain it much better than I ever could: www.thisblogisaploy.blogspot.com/2011/06/how-i-went-from-writing-2000-words-day.html.
The part that particularly changed my way of thinking was Side 1: Knowledge, or Know What You’re Writing Before You Write It. I use her method for outlining scenes before writing them for nearly everything I write now, and now the actual writing goes so much smoother. Of course, my scene summaries tend to be looong and take me a while to write so I don’t know if I’m actually saving time, but it feels so much easier and that alone is worth it for me.
For timelines, I really like this NaNoWriMo blog post about plotting your story like a subway map: www.blog.nanowrimo.org/post/166302962291/nano-prep-outline-your-story-like-a-subway-map. I’m a visual person who loves using number lines to visualize plotting and pacing, so this was right up my alley. Your results may vary, but it’s worth a look, especially for complicated/multiple plot lines.
If you’re talking about in-story *time*, specifically, rather than narrative pacing, I found that a simple schedule helps, at least on a small scale. I planned out my MC’s day like an agenda (12 AM: arrival. 1-2 AM: getting settled in. 2:15 A.M.: visit another character) and it helped me keep track of timing and how long things should take. It also helps to remember that narrative pacing and in-story time can be very different; a 3,000-word scene that’s mostly dialogue can take place in less time than it actually takes to read, while a single paragraph of a character traveling can take place over hours or even days. It also helps me catch when I forget to make characters eat or sleep.
Thank you, Raina! I especially like the enthusiasm side and the techniques to ramp it up. Being eager to write a scene makes everything easier and more fun.
There’s this quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, although the wording varies. It goes something like, “I had a busy and productive day. In the morning, I took out a comma, and in the afternoon, I put it back in.”
He was talking about poetry, and poets are notoriously finicky and precious. Still, everyone’s pace is different, and we should take credit, as Oscar Wilde did, for our productivity (even if the word count is zero).
As I’ve said here, I’m slow. I don’t know if all pantsers are. But lately, I’ve had to face the fact that I allow the online world, especially emails, to contribute to my pokiness. I’ve started limiting email checking to half-hour intervals, and I’ve already noticed improved concentration.
But it isn’t only email. I google too much. As you may know, I’m writing about the Trojan War. Near the end of the war, thirteen Amazon women came to the aid of Troy. Thirteen is a small number, but the Amazons (who really existed) were fabulous warriors, and they cut a swath into the Greek army. I’ve read a book about them, The Amazons, Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. They were Scythians, an ancient people, who were technologically advanced for the time: among the first to domesticate the horse and to smelt iron. Most of all, for my purposes, their bows were far and away better than any others, smaller but more powerful than those of the Greeks. The Scythian bow was complicated, consisting of wood, animal horn, sinew, and animal glue. Making a single bow took a few years, so each one was precious. My MC is a young bowyer (bow-maker), so I need to understand the process.
I’ve spent hours online, reading articles, watching YouTube demos, and–in terms of frittering–learning many fascinating things I may never need. The whole process still isn’t clear to me, but I may have enough for the writing. I now know how to make glue from my dog’s collection of half-chewed rawhide!
So we limit our email checking, our Facebook looking, our tweeting (I don’t do that one), our Instagram gawking (guilty!). We set limits.
Pantser that I am, I now know that I need a fundamental, very basic, maybe just half a page, outline. And I have to know, more or less, the ending. With those two, I’m confident that I have a real story and not a meandering maze. And with them, I write (slightly) faster.
I write faster, too, as I get farther along and the choices narrow, and the excitement builds–I think this is the enthusiasm side. So, it will help us to keep our eyes on the prize, our basic plot and our ending.
A deadline can help, too. It does for NaNoWriMo writers. I have deadlines, but I generally push them so far out that a non-English speaking writer could probably learn the language from scratch and make my deadline. (Slight exaggeration.) Even if you don’t have a waiting editor, you can set a deadline.
However, we all go at our own pace and take our pleasure where we may. I like fiddling and rewriting as I go and making lists and seeing what I come up with. I enjoy framing and reframing a sentence sometimes and sometimes getting an elegant turn of phrase. These do slow me down, I guess, but they also are part of what I love. I won’t come anywhere close to the output of the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who, in his seventy-two years, wrote or edited more than five hundred books–I’d have to live more than five hundred years!
In terms of the timeline for Melissa Mead’s two characters, a chart might help. Since they’re versions of the same character, lets call them Louie One and Louie Two. The chart might consist of a column for each Louie with a third column for dates and times. For some times, when the action is intense, we’ll need to include hours and possibly even minutes. For example, the left-hand column might show Saturday, 9:00 am. Next column: Louie One, dusting the bric-a-brac in his front parlor. Third column: Louie Two, spooning arsenic into his delicious lamb stew. Next line: 10:00 am. Louie One, not in story. Louie Two, ladling stew into mason jars. And so on. (I don’t know if they can be in separate places at the same moment–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde couldn’t be.)
I think the chart can be used either during the writing or in revision–or both.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Jack and Jill live in the kingdom of Desertia, which has been in a drought for fifty years. Throughout their whole young lives, they’ve heard rumors of a well on a certain hill. A pail of water from that amazing well will inexhaustibly irrigate all the farms in the kingdom. There are conditions, though. Not a drop of water may be spilled, and the pail may be lowered into the well only once. In half an hour of real time, write any scene from Jack and Jill’s journey to the hill. Decide if you’d like to spend the half hour writing the tragic denouement.
∙ Jack lives in western Desertia, and Jill lives in the far east. The well is over the northern border in the kingdom of Floodovia. In an exchange of letters, they agree to meet at the bottom of the hill at sunrise on a certain morning. Each encounters obstacles on the way. Jump back and forth between them, and write their travels, keeping track of the time, so that they do arrive as arranged.
∙ Both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are diarists, though their styles are quite different. Dr. Jekyll mulls over every word, and Mr. Hyde writes at a fever pitch, the heck with grammar, spelling, and handwriting. Write a diary for each of them.
Have fun, and save what you write!
On December 4, 2019, Raina wrote her third question in response to my plea for questions (Thank you, Raina!): What do you do when your story turns “deeper” than you originally intended, and a whole bunch of complicated (not bad or problematic, just…complicated) themes and messages crop up, and the story you find yourself writing is no longer the story you set out to tell? I’m really bad at explaining this one, it’s more like a gut feeling. To use some examples from my work, what was supposed to be a fun, lighthearted adventure romp about Santa turned into a story about revenge, power, grey morality, and social media mob mentality. In other words, thematically it basically went from Percy Jackson to Game of Thrones.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like dark, deep, serious, or morally complex books, or that I think that MG readers shouldn’t read these books. I love Game of Thrones and similar works *because* of the complicated characters and grey morality, and I think there should absolutely be books like that for MG readers. It’s not really a matter of a serious tone or “dark” content, either. (I asked a similar question a while back but I don’t think I phrased it well.) It’s more like, as I write, the story is starting to ask difficult questions that I don’t know how to answer and am not sure I want to ask.
And, of course, part two of the question is how do you know if this is actually an issue, and not just in your head? I have a tendency to overthink/over-read into things (like the old joke where the English teacher goes on a long analysis about what blue curtains symbolize, while the writer just liked the color blue) and maybe I’m seeing things between the lines that normal readers would never notice.
And as a note, I know that some stories are *meant* to be serious, complicated works that force the reader to think deeply about the world and its issues. I like to read those and I sometimes write those, but my problem is when a book that *isn’t* supposed to be like that starts turning into that and I can’t control it. Sometimes I just want a fun, lighthearted adventure romp to stay a fun, lighthearted adventure romp.
Melissa Mead wrote back, I can sympathize. Real-life politics are trying to creep into the WIP, and I don’t want ’em there. Themes, sure. Moral issues, sure. But not something I just saw on the news, only with serpent-demons. (Fortunately for the WIP, life’s simpler for serpent-demons. If somebody invades their territory, the demons just eat ’em.)
Raina responded, Yes! That is my problem exactly. I can deal with morally complex big-picture themes relatively easier than I can with smaller, specific ideas that may or may not be reminiscent of real-world issues (though neither are easy to deal with). Themes like power, morality, corruption, etc., have been around for millennia, both in fiction and in history, because humans are flawed, and I feel like I have comparatively more leeway to explore them from all angles because of that. They’re so common, and occur in so many different forms, that you can’t really pinpoint any specific event or issue that those themes correspond with.
But what I’m really afraid of is writing something and have a reader think “this sounds like an analogy for a specific thing that’s going on in the real world, and this is what I think the author is trying to say about that real-world thing” when I wasn’t trying to say anything at all. I admire authors who use their medium to address real-world problems, and I think it can be done well, but sometimes I just want a story to be a story and I’m afraid people will read between the lines and find messages that I never meant to leave.
I feel your pain! Since my Princess Tales book, Sonora and the Long Sleep, came out I’ve heard from readers a few times about–breast-feeding! If you’ve read the book and remember, Sonora is ten times smarter than any other human being. She can talk almost instantly (though with a lisp, because she doesn’t have teeth yet), and she refuses to be breast-fed, calling it cannibalism.
Readers have deduced that I, Sonora’s creator, oppose breast-feeding. Not so! But I imagined Sonora as, intellectually, a twelve-year-old in a baby’s body. At twelve, there is no way I would have breast-fed!
If I’d anticipated this response, would I have changed what I wrote or cut it entirely? I can’t say. This was many years ago. But I continue to like it, because it’s true to my character, and it’s funny.
We can’t anticipate what readers will think when they read our stories. It’s wonderful when they let us know, because they felt strongly enough about our words to reach out to us. (We can answer, or not.)
Going back to the first part of Raina’s question, about serious and problematic themes cropping up unexpectedly, I have a couple of thoughts.
This is just a possibility: These grave topics may be pushing you, wanting to be written about. If we tamp them down, our story may punish us in the ways that recalcitrant stories know all too well how to do.
Raina, I remember that you outline. You might spend a few hours figuring out where the story would go if you let it be serious. If you like what happens, you can go that way.
If you don’t, then you can list ways to lighten things up.
If you’re a pantser like me, you may have to write a lot of pages to find out.
Or you can write both stories. A writer I loved (I haven’t read him in years), the late Donald Westlake (high school and up), wrote comic crime novels under his own name and darker crime novels under the name Richard Stark. In the comic ones, the MC is always the bumbling crook, Dortmunder, and in the serious ones, the criminal MC (but not the villain) is Parker. In one of the funny books, Dortmunder and his gang of idiots have a book by Richard Stark (which is an actual Richard Stark book that Westlake wrote). They decide to commit Stark’s crime exactly, because it turns out well for him. What could go wrong? It’s such a funny premise! Westlake got two books out of one. You can, too.
If we decide we don’t want to be serious, how can we dial it back?
∙ Our characters. This is probably the most important one. Let’s make Santa our MC. We can write two versions of his stream of consciousness:
The dark one: The letters came from this house. Not addressed to the elves or the old elf, who would be me, but to the King of Cold, the bringer of winter, the troll at the top of the world. Been on my mind all year. Don’t they realize I need to be happy? Don’t they know my happiness affects everyone else’s?
The light-hearted one: The letters came from this house. Sent me straight to the mirror to see the troll at the top of the world. I didn’t get what she meant until I shone a flashlight under my chin and forced a snarl. Ho, ho, ho! That was funny. I want to thank this girl. She got me through a dull summer.
If we’re getting too serious, we can examine what our characters are thinking, saying, doing, and make different choices for them. Also, the effects of events on our MC will influence the mood. An MC who keeps trying, who isn’t defeated when events go against her, will keep our story bobbing up no matter what.
Secondary characters can help, too. If Santa shows the troubling letters to his chief helper, that character will also set the tone. If she’s horrified or outraged, matters may escalate. If she, for instance, says, “You want to hear from your public, boss. I wish somebody would once, just once, write to me.” she’ll calm the waters.
∙ The stakes. The stakes don’t have to be high for a story to be engrossing. What’s needed most is likable characters who care deeply about an issue, which could be either winning the snowman-making competition or surviving the global snow-pocalypse caused by nuclear winter. If our story is more serious than we want it to be, we can lower the stakes.
∙ Setting. Might be hard to make The Shining quite so scary if it took place in a Holiday Inn or a private house, say a raised ranch.
Here are three prompts:
∙ I’m never sure how to take the nursery rhyme, “Jack and Jill,” which seems tragic. Turn the rhyme into two stories, one sad and one happy.
∙ Take “Jack and Jill” again. Your MC, Abby, is babysitting for little Bobby, who heard the rhyme at school and was terrified. At home, he brings it up and weeps uncontrollably. Write a very serious story in which Abby, who means well, makes everything worse, with lasting consequences for her, Bobby, his family, and the town of Hillsford.
∙ Santa receives the first name-calling letter in July and begins a correspondence with the writer. Write a few letters back and forth and then have the two meet. Let the story decide for you whether it’s lighthearted or dark.
Have fun, and save what you write!
This is Raina’s second question after my appeal for questions, written on December 4, 2019: How do you approach fixing big-picture story issues that run throughout the entire book (characterization, worldbuilding, voice, theme, etc. Especially characterization) without rewriting the whole book? To use an analogy, I’ve always thought of plot issues like working on a Lego project (everything is connected, but each scene is more or less a discrete part, and many times fixing the issue is just a matter of rearranging the blocks or adding/subtracting/”remaking” new ones), small scale, line-edits like sanding/finishing a woodworking project (you get up close and fix little things one at a time with relative ease), and big-picture issues like a single (or multiple) wrong thread in a knitting project: one bad yarn runs through the entire thing, connected to everything else, and it’s embedded so deep that it’s impossible to pull out the yarn without unraveling the entire thing. Any tips?
A few of you responded.
Erica: I don’t know. I really hate editing my stories (no idea why), and so when I have big problems like that, I usually just start over.
NerdyNiña: No, but I love your analogies.
future_famous_author: Maybe just read it over one time fixing one specific mistake? If your story is really long, though, I’m not sure how you would go about that.
I, too, am a fan of Raina’s analogies. The knitting analogy is particularly great when it comes to characterization (I’m assuming this is a major character), because character and plot are, so to speak, woven together.
Sometimes the problem is that our character isn’t by nature someone who will follow the track of our plot. When a plot turn has to happen, he’s forced to do things he wouldn’t, often things that unpleasantly go against reader expectations.
Let’s take as an example Prince Charming from Cinderella. He’s our MC. Cinderella is important, but she’s on the sidelines. We need a character who is on board with the idea of three balls that are being held expressly to find him a wife. We want readers to like him. We want to like him ourselves, so we craft a prince who has opinions, friends, challenges, whatever they are–maybe the kingdom is badly governed or he doesn’t get along with the prime minister. When we get to the balls, halfway through our book, he just isn’t cut out to care about them, much less notice Cinderella, no matter how beautiful she is, no matter how interesting and perfect for him she is.
We may have to do a lot of writing to make this work, not only revising him but also our plot. What can we add or subtract from him to make him open to the wife marketplace that the balls really are?
Naturally, we can make a list!
∙ Charming has a warm, loving relationship with his parents, which we have to build. The balls are important to them, so, against his inclinations, he takes them seriously.
∙ We make the ball especially hard for him. He has a stutter, a twitch, a bunion–something physical (another list). He doesn’t care about the ball, but he’s unwilling to fail at anything. We revise to show this quality in our story up to now. We show what happens to him when he fails.
∙ He’s a wonderful friend. Think Darcy’s friendship with Bingley in P&P. We build loyalty into him. Charming’s best friend is making a fool of herself at the ball. He gets involved to save her from years of regret, and Cinderella enters the picture.
∙ More that you can make up.
The strategy here is to look at our plot as well as the one character who’s driving us crazy. We may have to revise both for our story to work.
Often there’s a moment when the character first reveals what he’s like and starts behaving in the way that doesn’t work for our story (though we don’t recognize it at the time). When we find that moment, we can adjust him and move forward from there. Of course, as soon as we change him in that spot, there will be ripple effects. The thing that Charming said that led his friend to an action, he won’t say, so the friend is likely to do something else. And Charming himself will be dancing off in an unfamiliar direction. At that point we look at the new trajectory of our story and see what will have to change and what we can hold onto.
Sometimes what we can hold onto isn’t much. Starting with Ella Enchanted, there have been books that have forced major rewrites on me for one reason or another. I wrote two hundred pages of Ella and had to go back to page twenty and start again from there. In that case I veered down a very long plot cul-de-sac. In Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right and rewrote it three or four times before I found my way. The Two Princesses of Bamarre was supposed to be “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and I had to discover an entirely new story. I still don’t know what I was originally trying to do with Stolen Magic, which I agonized over here on the blog.
On the other hand, some books have seemed to want to be written and have almost written themselves, like the first five of the six “Princess Tales,” and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Others have fallen in a mid range of difficulty.
Regarding other big-picture issues, if the plot is affected in a big way, the changes that we’ll have to make are likely to be big, too. I just finished Part One of my Trojan War fantasy. My MC in the first part is Cassandra, who, according to Greek mythology, is a priestess of the god Apollo, but I don’t know much about what it meant to be a priestess in ancient Greece, based only on short passages in two books on daily life during the period, so I sketched that part in very vaguely, and my writing buddy said that’s inadequate. Through another friend, I connected with an archaeologist who’s working in that region, and she recommended an almost three-hundred-page book on the subject, which I will tackle very soon.
Depending on its contents, I’ll face a dilemma. If reflecting actual history upends my plot, what should I do? I can design a fantasy priestesshood that conforms to my plot and let readers know that what they’re reading isn’t historically accurate, or I can do a lot of rewriting. I think it will depend on two criteria: what I decide will make a better story and what seems more interesting and fun to write (as in the have fun that I end each post with).
If the worldbuilding issue isn’t earthshaking, it will be more in the Lego category. We can search our document for whatever we have to redo, make the change and move on.
But voice and POV are also big-picture issues. They may not change our plot much, but they will change its presentation, the lens through which readers view events. For example, some plot points may rise in significance and others may sink. A significant rewrite will probably be called for.
Writing isn’t for lazy people. If we wanted cushy lives, we would have chosen to be astrophysicists.
Writing also (sigh) encourages humility. And learning. We learn to be better writers our whole lives. That’s a great thing.
Here are three prompts:
∙ I’m thinking of time-travel movies like Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future, when an MC gets transported to a different time. The MC is the same; some aspects of her world and some of the people in it are also the same, but a great deal is different. For this prompt, write a scene that takes place in ordinary 2020 during the sweet-sixteen party of your MC, Doneta. Introduce an element of conflict–a disagreement with a parent, an argument with a friend, a disappointment from a romantic interest, or something else–you decide. The next morning, she wakes up in a different world, and it’s again the day of her sweet-sixteen party. This world may be forty years in the past or future or may be on a planet that circles a bright blue sun. Some characters will be the same, some different. The party tradition will be slightly different–you decide how. Write the party scene in this new world and revise the conflict in some way. If you like, keep writing.
∙ Take the Prince Charming who doesn’t care a pin about the ball. Don’t change him to make him care. Write the first ball and what follows. Introduce Cinderella and her stepfamily. Cinderella is still pretty and a decent person; the stepmother and stepsisters are still horrible, each in her own way. Your story doesn’t have to follow the fairy tale, but it can wind up there if you want it to. Keep writing, and keep Charming center stage.
∙ Choose one of your stories that you’re happy with and deliberately fool with it–but first save the original. Change the personality of your MC or a major character. Rewrite at least the first five pages. If you like what’s going on, continue. At the end, you may have two distinct stories or two variants that you can choose between.
Have fun, and save what you write!
Before the post, this is a good time to mention the annual writers’ conference (in the fall) from the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL), which I think is the best, most helpful one-day writers’ conference in the–galaxy! (Alas, you have to be at least eighteen for this.) Here’s a link: https://www.ruccl.org/index.html. The FAQ page is especially helpful. Be sure to take note of the deadlines, the cost, the scholarships, and the fact that the deadline for scholarship applicants is earlier than for people who can pay full freight. What’s so great is that it’s a mentorship program. Mentees are assigned mentors, who are usually either agents or editors and occasionally authors, like me, who go almost every year. Your mentor reads up to five pages of your WIP and meets with you about them for forty-five minutes to discuss them. There’s also a session of groups of five mentees with their mentors to discuss the industry and answer questions. Plus a speaker and a panel. I highly recommend it–and I can meet you. We can have lunch together!
When I appealed for questions, Raina came through with several great ones. Here’s the first: How do you deal with writing burnout, and how can you tell if it’s really burnout or something different? I’m on my 5th draft of my story and at this point, part of me is thinking “I don’t want to look at this anymore” and part of me is thinking “I need to be disciplined and just get it done.” I do have a problem with self-discipline and procrastination, so I’m a little wary when I feel like I can’t/don’t want to write at a given moment. On the other hand, maybe I actually do need to take a break, but I honestly can’t tell if I actually need to take a step back from the book or if that’s just an excuse I’m giving to myself.
On a similar note, is dealing with this different when writing is your job, as opposed to a hobby? Right now I can take a break (or even stop working on a book altogether) when I want, but a professional author writing under contract wouldn’t be able to do that.
Melissa Mead wrote back, I can totally relate to these questions, and I’m itching to hear the answers.
Gee, Raina, I think you have this. A couple of posts ago, you wrote about your method of keeping track of your writing time, which is very much like my method. I’m thinking your method doesn’t apply as well to revision for you. I’ll write about that, as well as the more general problem.
Melissa Mead, I’m not sure if I have answers. I just have thoughts.
Two years ago when I was seventy, at my annual checkup, my (now retired, younger than I am) doctor predicted that I’d be healthy for another thirty years. If his crystal ball is right–as it may not be–I’m mid-career, since I started writing (not being published) thirty years ago. Yippee!
And yet, I wake up some mornings wondering if I could start another, different career at my age.
Is this burnout? I don’t know. I know I had trouble deciding on my present project, about the Trojan War. Everything, including this one, seemed too much like what I’ve done before. But I love Greek mythology, and now I’m into it. And I have an idea for another historical novel after this one.
The point is, writing is hard for many writers, including me. We keep learning–forever!–which may be the best thing about it, but new challenges always crop up, and what worked for the last book probably won’t be helpful on this one.
I’ve written about this before here, but below are some strategies that enable me to continue writing:
∙ I have a daily writing-time minimum goal of at least two and a quarter hours. The goal is a goad.
∙ If I don’t meet the goal, I forgive myself. This is super important. If I don’t forgive myself, it’s harder to start the next day.
∙ I’m especially kind to myself when I’m just beginning a book, because that’s the hardest part for me, so I cut myself some slack. Raina, you may do the same for revisions, which may be the time for you for a little coddling. Praise yourself for as much as you do manage.
∙ I don’t allow myself to make global judgments about my work. No, This is so cliche. No, Nobody will want to read this. No, This stinks. Even, This is great is prohibited, because it’s too likely to lead to, What if I mess it up?
∙ I steer clear of thinking about how monumental the task ahead of me is. A novel is big and daunting. We should concentrate on the task at hand.
A couple of weeks ago I shared my WIP so far with my friend, the writer Karen Romano Young (whose marvelous contemporary fantasy and paean to libraries has just come out–A Girl, A Raccoon, and the Midnight Moon), and she shared hers with me, both in the early stages. The critique was super helpful, but equally helpful for both of us was the deadline. I wrote hard to have as many pages as I could to give to her. We’re going to meet again later this month.
So a critique buddy, a writers’ group, beta readers can help us keep going. The advantage of an exchange with other writers is that we’re all equally vulnerable. You see how imperfect my draft can be, and I see how not-ready yours can be. Neither of us feels stupid, or we both feel equally stupid.
What can we do to make revision more tolerable if we hate it?
∙ We can take small bites, as I do when I’m starting a new project. Half an hour of revision may be tolerable, followed by working on a shiny new story.
∙ We can think ahead of time about what we’re going to tackle and set a limited goal, like today I’ll work on the argument between Jeff and his brother. Or, more generally, today I’ll concentrate on dialogue.
∙ Thought control is especially important here. No, It isn’t getting better. No, How many drafts will I have to go through before I’m satisfied, if I ever am?
∙ This is general, but it may apply especially to revision: No book is perfect. Mine aren’t. We strive to write the best book we can, which is all we can do. We can expect to get better over time, but we’ll still never write a perfect book.
As for knowing whether it’s burnout or something else, well, do we ever finish anything? Or is it just this book that has us stymied?
If we never finish, maybe we should try a different kind of writing, like plays or short stories or poems. Or maybe we should try other art forms. Or we can figure that we’re not in a finishing frame of mind and write as far as we can and then start something news. Then we’ll have lots of threads to return to.
If it’s just this book, then maybe we should put it aside until we’re drawn back to it.
As for writing when writing is your job, having a contract does help. I make my deadlines as far in the future as I can get away with, because the idea of being late horrifies me, so I suppose that’s a goad, too. So does not knowing what I would do with myself if I stopped writing.
By now, happily, finances aren’t an issue so much. I get a small pension from my job before I quit to write full-time, social security, and royalties, and they all add up to enough. I’m not sure if finances were ever a factor. Earlier, I figured that if I wasn’t earning enough from writing, I would find a job. After all, I did have a job and write before I got published.
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.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Your MC has done something terrible, which she regrets and feels ashamed of. What her dreadful deed is is up to you. The do-over wizard arrives and gives her a chance to repair the past. After she’s gone back, matters are different but not better. Write the story with at least seven do-overs until a solution is reached that satisfies her. Have her make discoveries about herself along the way.
∙ Cinderella’s stepfamily are portrait painters. Cinderella is expected to be one, too, and she wants to be! But nothing she paints is good enough, and the art exhibition is coming up. Her stepmom and stepsisters tell her that her work isn’t ready to be shown. Write the story.
∙ The miller’s daughter has to spin straw into gold, and Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t appear, and the king will execute her if he doesn’t get his gold. In your story, have her do whatever it takes to stay alive–figure out how to do that spinning, or something else. Give her a happy ending, but it’s up to you whether it goes well for the king and the miller.
Have fun, and save what you write!
Before I start the post, last week I was interviewed on the pretty new Good Story Podcast, mostly about my forthcoming A Ceiling Made of Eggshells but also about writing in general, because the podcast is for writers. My interview won’t be out until May, but another may interest blog people, the interview with Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. Here’s the link: https://goodstorypodcast.com/.
Onto the post.
On December 4, 2019, Kyryiann wrote concerning NaNoWriMo, I ended with 60,000 words, yet still didn’t finish my novel. The first draft was 76,000 words in the end.
Here’s a question: what about novel length? I like longer novels because I’m a fast reader, but I know that other people like shorter novels because they can finish them in a shorter amount of time. Does novel length have anything to do with genre or audience? I would imagine that middle grade novels are usually shorter.
Yay me on making it hard for myself.
Writing Ballerina wrote back: I’m of middle grade age, and I prefer longer novels, but I’m more of a bookworm than average. A long book like LOTR or things like that are my heaven!! As such, I try to write what I’d like to read and thus aim for longer word counts.
Yay me on making it hard for myself.
And future_famous_author wrote back, too: I have read Little Women (777 pages, but incredibly good for anyone middle grade and up), but I tend to stick to anything between 100 and 350. I know that’s a wide range, but a lot of middle grade books are written in that range. Also, there is information on the Internet about lengths for different genres. A trend I see right now though is that Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are both really long and are both fantasies. I think (I may be wrong) that realistic fiction books are typically shorter than most.
I’m with future_famous_author that there’s a lot available on the subject online. I pulled this from this site: https://careerauthors.com/genre-book-length/. I picked it just because it popped up first:
Readers of individual genres anticipate certain book lengths, and so do publishers. What follows is a rough guide to book length expectations in certain genres.
Romance: 65,000–80,000 words (Most romance imprints have specific word count requirements that writers should know and observe before they submit.)
Mystery: 80,000 words (Subgenres like cozies tend to be a bit shorter, often coming in at 70,000–80,000 words.)
Science fiction: 100,000–120,000 words
Thriller: 90,000–100,000 words
True Crime: 90,000–100,000 words
Historical fiction: 100,000–150,000 words (This may depend on the topic and demands of the marketplace.)
Mainstream women’s fiction: 90,000–100,000 words
Memoir/Bio: 70,000–90,000 words
Literary fiction: 80,000–100,000 words
Young Adult: 70,000–80,000 words
Middle Grade: 40,000–50,000 words
Picture books: 500–700 words
Here’s another site with somewhat different advice: https://thewritelife.com/how-many-words-in-a-novel/.
I’m not endorsing either of these, and I’m not an expert.
A source I do endorse is Harold Underdown’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books. I wrote a blurb for the book (see the back cover), and I know Harold, who is one of the most thoughtful people on the planet and a complete kidlit insider. (I don’t get paid when he has a sale–in case you were worrying.) I took this from page 70 of his book:
Young middle grade: 48 to 60 pages;
middle grade: 80 to 160 pages, occasionally more;
older middle grade: 128 to 200 pages or more;
YA (young adult): up to 300 pages.
A double-spaced page equals about 250 words. I tend to think in pages rather than word count, and a double-spaced page seems to come out roughly to a page in a published children’s novel.
There are many exceptions to the average. The Newbery winning middle grade novel Sarah, Plain and Tall is just 58 pages, roughly 8,377 words. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is very short, likewise Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. At the other end of the scale, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind weighs in at about 260,000 words–1,037 pages. When Harry Potter first came out, it was way longer than most kids’ books. Before Ella Enchanted was published, I brought the manuscript with me to a conference to be looked at by a published kidlit author, who told me that it had to be under 200 pages if it had a shot at being published. Hah! (It’s longer.)
The best writing teacher I ever had, the retired Bunny Gabel at The New School, was firmly opposed to worrying about length. She advised that a book should be no longer and no shorter than it needs to be to tell the story. I mostly agree with that, with the warning that today Margaret Mitchell would have a hard time finding an agent willing to read such a doorstopper of a manuscript–and I’ve read that it was much longer when she first turned it in. Publishing has changed and not always in a good way. I think publishers used to take more risks, and that attitude has been passed on to agents, who, unfortunately, are often the gate keepers.
My books keep getting longer without my meaning them to. I’m hoping that my current project, based on the Trojan War, won’t be much above 200 pages, but I’m on page 91 and I have a lot more to go.
While I don’t have an opinion about page count, I do have one about concision. I’m a fan. We don’t want flabby sentences. We want to watch our adjectives and adverbs, and we want to kill any we don’t need. We pay special attention to words that weaken, like slightly or almost, as in, She was slightly ticked off. If the emotion is worth mentioning, let her be ticked off. We want our writing to take a position, so that our readers will understand completely what’s going on.
And we want to keep an eye on our pacing. Are we doing anything to slow our story down, like introducing a fun incident just when things were getting exciting (as I think I just did in my manuscript)? We don’t have to do anything about it in our first draft when we’re spilling it out, because the fun incident may turn out to be important (pantser talk). But in revision, we should zap it if it doesn’t advance our plot.
Going the other way, we may be rushing our story and leaving out details that will bring it to life. Then we need more words to pick up the pace, even if that seems contradictory.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Write dialogue between Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter. He has a lot to say, but she just wants to know if he can turn straw to gold. Have her keep cutting him off.
∙ Tell a frame story and the story it’s framing. Your MC is babysitting and reading to two children while a flood is rising outside their house. Decide whether or not she knows the danger they’re in. Figure out a link between the frame story and the one that’s being read.
∙ Your MC gets lost on her way to visit her uncle, because he’s sent for her. Imagine her on a variety of kinds of transportation, which may include plane, boat, train, taxi, camel, foot, or anything else. If this is fantasy, she can ride a magic carpet, lace up seven-league boots, or anything else. Trouble erupts on each leg of the journey. Decide how long you want the story to be, and let that determine the number of stages and the problems that come along. But if, when you start writing, you get swept up and keep going, that’s fine. And if your story shape wants to be shorter, go with that.
Have fun, and save what you write!
With this post, I’m starting the thread of questions that came in after I appealed to you. Many, many thanks for the big response!
On December 4, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, How do you make yourself keep writing the first draft? I’m sure we can all agree that writing the first draft isn’t that pleasurable at times. How do you make yourself keep going when the story starts to drag? How do you make yourself write when you don’t want to?
Two of you chimed in, most helpfully.
Future_famous_author: If you write your first draft as some do, almost like you are just puking out ideas and writing stuff on the paper that isn’t really that good but still tells the story, try writing it like a real book. Sure, you can still leave out detail in some places, but you can also write with more detail.
Now, if you are like me and write the first draft well just because you write better that way or have more fun doing it that way, even though it takes more time, try going the other way. Write a “vomit draft” as I have heard it called. Just get your ideas on the page, and then save the character personalities and details and all that for the later drafts.
Raina: I struggle with this a lot too, but here are some methods I’ve worked out, both in regards to writing in general and writing the first draft specifically.
The biggest thing I used to struggle with was self-discipline. I’d always think “oh, I’ll write later when I feel like it or when inspiration strikes” and never do so, and when I did write, I’d frequently only get through a couple hundred words before getting distracted by other things. Then one evening in college I realized that I was never going to get anything done like this, so I told myself “Raina, you are going to go to the library and write, right now, and log the time to keep yourself accountable.” I created a time log spreadsheet with my beginning and ending times, beginning and ending word count, and time elapsed/words written, and I’ve been using it ever since. I think there’s something psychological about treating writing as a structured, scheduled event, like a class or job you have to show up to for x amount of time, even when you don’t want to, that really clicked for me. I used to write in bursts, with good days where I got a lot of writing done (usually during NaNoWriMo) and then long stretches of nothing at all, but having an accountability spreadsheet and set schedule was what made me settle down and be able to churn out words slowly but steadily. Of course, this is just my method and may not work for everyone, but it’s helped me a lot.
The first draft specifically:
It’s easy to get stuck on your first draft, and I’ve found that it helps to take a step back and ask yourself *why* you’re stuck, and then troubleshoot from there. Here are some common reasons that happen to me, and how I deal with them:
1. I don’t want to write right now – sometimes I’m legitimately tired from classes and real life and I don’t have the energy or brain capacity to write. In that case, I show up at the library anyways and make myself try to write for 15-30 minutes. Sometimes when I start writing, I’ll get into a scene and I’ll actually feel more energized and I’ll want to keep writing. But if after that time, I still can’t write, I’ll let myself take a rest and return the next day when I’m fresh.
2. I don’t know what to do next – this doesn’t happen that much to me since I’m a heavy plotter, but sometimes I’ll deviate from my outline and thus need to figure out where to go next from there. When this happens, I’ll always stop and re-plot, like a GPS recalculating its course. When I’m back on track and have a new outline, I’ll keep writing. This method might not work as well for pantsers, but others might have better suggestions.
3. I don’t want to write *this specific scene* – In this case, I’ll always ask myself *why* I don’t want to write the scene, and why I think I *need* to write it.
–> Is it boring? In which case, is it really necessary? If you don’t even want to write it, chances are readers won’t want to read it. Try to think of ways to make it something you’re excited about, or ways to get rid of it altogether.
–> Is it overly long/dragging? Sometimes I’ll start a scene that I’m excited about, and lose interest as the scene goes on because it starts to slog. (This is a problem for me especially because I have a problem with overwriting in general. I’ve written 5,000-word scenes that I later had to cut down to 3,000.) In this case, I’ll usually try to wrap things up as quickly as possible (usually by either cutting content or telling instead of showing) so I can move on, and then promise myself I’ll fix it in the next draft.
–> Does it “suck”? (Nobody’s writing actually sucks. Ever. But first drafts can be messy.) Sometimes I’ll have moments where everything just feels horrible and I don’t want to look at it. At times like this, I’ll usually try to get the scene done with as fast as possible (see the above point), remind myself that it’s okay if it’s not perfect in the first draft, and that I can always fix it later. (There have been times I’ve left comments to myself in the document that say “this needs to be completely rewritten but I don’t want to deal with it right now.”) The important thing is to get the story done. Sometimes in school I’ll turn in assignments that are not my best work because I just want to get them over with. That’s my mentality for first drafts. The only difference is, you get unlimited revisions until you’re happy with the end result.
4. Something is wrong with the story that I recognize on a gut level but don’t know how to fix – this one is more a feeling than anything, so it’s important to listen to your instincts. I still struggle with this a lot, but my advice is to stop, take a step back, and think about things. Make a list, take a walk, or whatever helps you make decisions. There have been times I’ve pushed on and dealt with things later. There have also been times I’ve backtracked and deleted entire scenes and started over from there. Usually, the deciding factor for me is when I ask myself: 1. Will doing this take the story down a path I don’t want? and 2. If I go down this path, will I be able to come back?
For an example from my work, I wrote a scene near the beginning of the book that was waaay too dark and completely wrecked the fun, lighthearted, satirical mood of the story. I had a bad feeling while writing the scene but I pushed through, but at the end of it, I looked at it again and realized that if I continued, I wouldn’t be able to get the story back on its happy original track without causing major mood whiplash. So I stopped and rewrote the scene to fit the tone better. Looking back, that was absolutely the right thing to do.
These are great!
I use Raina’s method of timekeeping, not on a spreadsheet, just a document. I record start and stop times, even when the stops are short, like just to let Reggie (dog) in from the backyard. My goal is at least two and a quarter hours a day. Usually I make it, but when I don’t, I forgive myself–or it’s harder to get started the next day. Forgiveness is part of the bargain.
I don’t have a page or word count goal, because I’m so slow, and I include research in my writing time. Right now, as I work on my novel about the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, I often google questions that come up, like How old was Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia when she died? (No one seems to know.)
So that’s a strategy: Set a daily time goal and keep track of how we’re doing as we go along.
For me, too, writing the first draft is the hardest. As a mostly pantser, I don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time. But I love to revise when the worst is over!
One thing that helps me keep writing is to bar myself from thinking that my draft sucks, or to think anything globally negative about it. That kind of name-calling just makes writing harder. Better to imagine the first draft as a baby animal that has to be cuddled and coddled and soothed. Sure, it messes up, but it’s an infant!
(Even when I’m done–even when the manuscript has become an actual book, I refrain as much as I can from overall judgments, because they aren’t useful for the next project. There are enough critics who will, asked or unasked, offer opinions. I don’t want to pile on–on myself!)
Of course, I’m making specific judgments as I write, the sorts Raina mentions: Is a scene moving too slowly? Do I need it at all? Have I rushed it and left out the detail that will engage the reader? Even little things like, I have a string of sentences that start with I. I should break that up.
That’s a second strategy: We don’t judge our work in a global way.
I think it’s best to write the first draft straight through to the end, but sometimes, like Raina, I can’t. My story has turned to sludge, and words have stopped coming. Then I have to figure out what’s wrong and go back. Sadly, I’ve started this new project several times, though I think I have it now.
One of the main things that keeps me going is curiosity, and this, I think, is an advantage that pantsers have. It’s important to me to know, in at least a general way, the ending of my story, because that ending is what I’m writing toward, and lately I’ve been writing a very minimal outline. But I don’t know in any detail how I get to the end or what happens along the way, and I’m eager to find out, so I soldier on. Curiosity is, if not a strategy, a help. We won’t know how we solved the story problem if we don’t write it. And we won’t know what we’re capable of it we don’t write it.
Also, there are pleasures that I can give myself along the way. If I’m writing a funny book, I enjoy laying on the humor. Looking for places for humor, often humor that has a poignant side, helps me keep going. And you all know how much I love poetry. In the new book I’ve imagined a Greek chorus, spoken by crows (sacred to Apollo). The crows’ lines are short poems. Every five or so pages I have the crows caw about the action, and I look forward to those moments. To write their parts, I use some of what I learned in my class on The Iliad in poetry school.
So that’s a strategy: to build in bits we enjoy writing.
When we’re slogging through one part, we can always jump ahead to a scene we’re eager to write. Once that’s written, we can go back, and we may find that the dreaded one has become easier, informed by what’s ahead. Another strategy.
This one is probably ridiculous, but I’m including it because I do think it: If I weren’t going to write, what would I do, I mean, aside from distractions like the solitaire game I play on my cell phone? What other big thing would I do? (I don’t mean that spending time with friends and family, playing with pets, going for walks, etc. aren’t worthwhile, even essential–they are, and we should do them.) I can’t answer the question, so I get back to work.
Here’s another one: Not every one of my books has been pleasurable to write, and, surprisingly, the misery doesn’t matter in the outcome. The quality of the books I disliked writing the first drafts of (Fairest, Stolen Magic, The Two Princesses of Bamarre–you know I’m talking about you!) is the same as the ones I mostly enjoyed writing. If we don’t expect pleasure, we aren’t shocked when we’re not getting it.
I like trying new things. In the new project (I would call it something if it had a title), I’m writing two parts, a first part from one first-person POV, and a second part from another first-person POV. I’ve written alternating POVs, but never successive, but I’ve liked books that do that. So we can work in something new and challenging.
Since I keep worrying about my pacing, I’m exchanging pages with a writer friend who has also started a new project recently. Fresh eyes will help me see my own work. If she’s excited about the book, that will lift my excitement level, too. We can exchange work with a writing buddy or with critique group members, or we can involve beta readers or friends or family.
Here are three prompts:
∙ This one comes from Greek mythology. Annually, seven maidens and seven young men were sent from Athens to Crete as tribute–to their death, really, because they were forced into a labyrinth that was so complicated no one had ever managed to find a way out. What’s more, the Minotaur–half bull, half human–lived in there and eventually devoured the poor victims. Theseus later killed the monster and, with help, found his way out. But for your story, your MC and her friends are pushed in, and they have no help. If they are going to survive, they have to do it on their own. Write a scene or the whole story.
∙ Your MC is running an ultra marathon, a hundred-mile race. She is doing it just to see if she can–not a tension-charged reason. Your job is to bring in the tension. Pin your reader to his seat. Write the story.
∙ Hansel and Gretel are imprisoned in the witch’s cottage. As in the fairy tale, Gretel has figured out how to fool the near-blind witch into believing that Hansel isn’t plumping up. Days turn into weeks, and things are mighty dull. Liven them up with a scene and then keep going.
Have fun, and save what you write!