First, if you’re interested, here is a link to an interview with me. When you click on it, the first thing you’ll see is login information. Ignore this and just scroll down to hear the interview: http://newmoon.com/podcast/gail-carson-levine-interview/.
On February 4, 2016 Ella Hensen wrote, I really love writing fiction and whenever I start writing something I get really excited about what I’m going to do. I’ll write some the first day and then the next day I keep going but by then it’s turned into something I don’t like at all! Most of the time it’s way to similar to a book I have just finished reading that I loved. How do I stop this from happening? Has this happened to anyone else?
Christie Powell wrote back, It seems like Gail has answered similar questions about this. Here’s a good one: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2015/06/10/like-falling-in-love-and-out-and-in/.
NPennyworth commented, You’re not alone; this has happened to me too many times to count! Whenever it does I look at the story and ask “What don’t I like about this?” Sometimes I want to write a different part of the story, and then I switch to that. Sometimes a character doesn’t make sense and I take a break to do some character building. Sometimes it’s just a slow, but necessary, part of the plot, and I try to just plow through it so I can get to the more exciting parts. I usually find that if I dislike what I’m writing it’s because I’m bored, so I try to shake things up by putting in an action scene or a new character, or switching POV.
If all of the above fails, then I try to give my brain a break for a while. I can switch to writing another story, or do something else entirely. But I eventually sit down and try again. Being a writer isn’t all light bulbs and inspiration; a fair bit of writing is just forcing yourself to write.
I love NPennyworth’s suggestions. And I love her calm and practical tone. No desperation or self-condemnation. Writing is almost always a bumpy ride. We need approaches that help us keep jogging and slogging.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what loosens me up when I write, because, in my opinion, being loose is imperative. When we’re tight nothing new can squeeze out–or at the least our original ideas have a harder time getting past our rigid gate-keepers.
For me, I need a space in my work where nothing counts. In a poem, all I have to do is drop down a couple of lines. As soon as I’ve done that, I’ve disfigured the poem–really! The stanzas no longer descend in an orderly way, and all bets are off. I’ve made a mess, so I might as well play. I can feel my brain relax. I often copy over the lines that don’t satisfy me and try them different ways. Many different ways. The loosening allows me to consider the poem as a whole, too. Maybe the words are fine but the lines aren’t arriving in the right sequence. I try one way, close the poem up again, consider, and, often, start over.
In a novel-in-progress, I toggle over to my notes in order to relax. If what’s troubling me is the way I’ve expressed myself in a paragraph, for instance, I’ll copy the whole thing into my notes. Suppose I don’t think I’m being clear, well, I may rewrite the paragraph in the most basic way I can think of, even if the writing is less than charming. Then I may copy that and revise. If I’m not happy, I start again.
If the problem is bigger than the way I’ve expressed myself in a paragraph, if it’s a plot or character problem, I’ll write notes about that. And often I’ll list possibilities.
Ah, lists! The world’s greatest boon to originality. All great thinkers use them, actually down through history. When the wheel was invented, it was the product of a list scratched into dirt with a stick, like this:
As history proves, the right solution may not be the last to appear on our list, but it’s the one we most often circle (hah!) back to.
So how can we use a list to move our story from following the course of the last novel we read and loved?
A thread in comments on the last blog concerned Pride and Prejudice and Lydia’s elopement with Mr. Wickham, which ***SPOILER ALERT*** had the eventual effect of uniting Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Suppose we’re writing a romance, too, and we adore P&P, as I do, so we make our two star-crossed lovers misunderstand each other, even though the reader knows they’re meant to be together. It’s a contemporary tale, because we’re a tad doubtful that we can be pitch-perfect regarding early nineteenth century England. Our MC Melanie’s family is wacky and can be counted on to say and do precisely the wrong thing at precisely the right moment for maximum trouble. Melanie’s sister Winette has a crush on geeky James, who is a whiz at all things tech and oh-so helpful when anyone’s computer melts down. We’re tempted to make James kidnap Winette, and have Melanie’s opposite number Stefan find her while she’s still alive. But even we realize this is just too derivative. So, how can we use James and Winette to bring Melanie and Stefan together? We make a list:
∙ Stefan discovers that James has hacked into the family’s financial information and has account numbers, passwords, and social security numbers. Stefan brings his discovery to Melanie and never suggests by so much as a sneer that her parents are careless fools who deserve to be swindled. Since we don’t want her rescued (though Austen doesn’t mind), she handles James.
∙ Melanie herself realizes what James is up to. With more courage than caution, she confronts him. He shrugs and says that he did nothing without Winette’s knowledge. If he’s prosecuted, she will be, too. He leaves her at the coffee shop where they met. On the way home, she runs into Stefan, who sees how distraught she is. She tells him what’s happened, and between the two of them, they cook up a way to foil James. In the course of their planning, they come to appreciate each other.
∙ James steals the family service dog, who is the only being who can calm down Melanie’s father when he becomes agitated. Family and friends mobilize to find the dog, and Melanie and Stefan wind up collaborating on the rescue.
∙ This one moves away from James. Despite her flirting, Winette is friendless. After being aloof at a social event, Stefan is kind to her when her schoolmates torment her. Melanie begins to appreciate him.
We can keep going. If I were writing this story, I would, to give myself even more choices. I’d think about Melanie’s family members and come up with a possibility that involves each of them. I’d also consider other characters and other aspects of Melanie’s life, and I’d invent possibilities for Stefan, too. I might even go back to other Austen books and see how she brought matters to a head in them. Then I might adapt one to these circumstances and use it.
Lists can be any length, but it can help to set a minimum number. I may say I want at least seven options. When I get to seven, I can still keep going.
Just one more thing about my process and finding the freedom to develop ideas. When I wrote the possibilities above, I got tight about my list, because I was going to put it out where others could read it, while my lists and my notes are usually private. I had to drop down on my page, away from the bullets where the final ideas would go. Then I could loosen up again. That’s what I mean about how important a safe space is.
Here are three prompts:
∙ You knew this was coming. Add three more possibilities to my list.
∙ Write a scene based on an item on your list or mine.
∙ Write a list of four other ways Jane Austen might have taken P&P. Leave it in the eighteenth century or make it modern. Write a scene from your new plot development. Or do this same thing with a different book.
Have fun, and save what you write!