What are the hardest parts of writing for you? I ‘m not talking about the business side here — finding an agent, getting published, making a living with the written word. All that is really hard. But I’m talking about the craft side of writing. What are the things that slow you down every day, that get in the way of completing your book or story? And how do you overcome them to get the work done anyway? As with so much else in writing, the answers will probably be different for each of us. But they might also be illustrative; sharing them might offer solutions for other writers. So with that in mind, here are my toughest obstacles and the ways I deal with them.
Problem 1: I always have trouble starting a book a story. I find that I work best on any project when I’ve built some momentum with it and so, naturally, the beginning will be difficult because I’ll have yet to overcome that initial inertia. I’ve said before that it takes me about as long to write my first 100 pages as it does to write my last 250. As a corollary to this, I also find it hard to get going on a project when I’ve had to stop working on it for a while. If, say, I’m three hundred pages into a book and then we go on vacation for two weeks, the first week back, when I try to get going on the book again, will be very slow.
Solution: How do I overcome this? In part, this is a classic Butt-In-Chair issue. Sometimes the only way through a problem like this one is to sit in front of my computer and force myself to write. I’ll keep track of my word count and every 250 words I’ll allow myself some kind of little reward: I can check my email, or take ten minutes to play around on the web, or I get to play a hand of solitaire. The other thing I do, particularly early in a book, is give myself permission to write sucky prose. Sometimes the hardest part of starting is that feeling of having to Get It Right immediately. It can take a while to get the voice right for a book or a new character, and I often find that my books improve as I go along. In a way then, I already know that I’m going to have to come back and edit the early pages, so I might as well allow myself to write a bit looser early on. The initial draft might be sloppier, but at least I’ll be on my way, building up some of that much needed momentum.
Problem 2: Okay, I’m in to my book now. I’ve got some momentum, and I’m getting work done every day. But I’m starting to realize that the action is flagging, that my characters are kind of spinning their wheels. I know where my plot is supposed to go, but the narrative seems to have stagnated a bit.
Solution: This is where Faith will kill a character. Seriously, read back through her posts. When things get too quiet, she kills someone. That can be a great solution, but it doesn’t always work for me. By the same token, though, the general idea does work. When things get too quiet, I know that I have to shake them up. It’s not always a murder, and it’s not a matter of creating action for it’s own sake (what Faith calls an Apple Cart Moment). But it should be a trauma for the lead character. And I’ve been known to ask myself: “Gee Character X is trying to do this right now; what would be the worst thing from her perspective that could happen at this very moment?” And then I make that thing happen. It’s actually kind of fun.
Problem 3: I’ve started down a narrative path with one of my characters, but it suddenly doesn’t seem to be working. The character is being forced to do things that don’t seem to fit with who she is; the plot is moving further and further from where it ought to be going; or, the plot is suddenly falling apart. Things that I thought I’d figured out already suddenly don’t seem right.
Solution: I touched on this in a comment to one post or another last week. When these things start happening it tells me that it’s time to backpedal and cut. These problems are usually symptomatic of a bad narrative decision. I’ve allowed my characters or my story to take a turn when I should have exerted a bit more control and kept them moving forward. There are times when we have to let our characters and stories roam. Sometimes they know better than we where a story needs to go. But they’re not infallible. Occasionally they take us down narrative cul-de-sacs, and when they do they start behaving strangely or the story starts to falter. The trick is to back up to that wrong turn and take the story in a different direction. How will you know where that wrong turn was? Not to be too glib about it, but you’ll just know. Look for the place where the story diverged from what you originally had in mind, and ask yourself: Does this change work, or is this where things started to break down? Chances are, you’ll find that it’s the latter. I should add that there’s a flip side to this. There are times when I haven’t gone down a new path, but I find that my characters are fighting me, wanting to take the book somewhere I don’t think I want to go. Opposite problem in a way, but it demands the same thought process. In this case I ask myself whether my original plot idea might not need tweaking. The bottom line is this: If your characters or narrative don’t seem to be working, it may mean that you need to rethink prior decisions.
Problem 4: This is one that happens to me with almost every book I write and I know it happens to other writers, too, including Catie. I’m about two-thirds of the way through my book and suddenly nothing seems to be working. I knew what I wanted to do with the early part of the book and I had an ending in mind, but I can’t get there! There’s no story here! There never was! I’m an idiot for even trying to write a novel! I should have been a vet! I’ve always liked animals; why couldn’t I have been a vet…?
Solution: Well, step one would be to eat a piece of chocolate or drink a glass of shiraz or set up a valium IV. And once you’re calm, go back and read what you’ve written thus far. Don’t bother editing; that comes later. Just read it. Chances are you’ll find that it’s pretty good. Then think about the ending you’ve been envisioning all this time. What’s going to happen? How does your hero or heroine come through it? Chances are you’ll realize that your idea for that is pretty good, too. So now you need to build a bridge from where you are to where you want to be. How do you do that? Well, that can be the tricky part. One thing I like to do — and I’ve mentioned this before both here and in convention panels — is brainstorm at the keyboard. I open a blank document, ask myself questions, and type in answers as they come to me. It works not only at this two-thirds panic point, but also when I’m first conceiving a new project, and everywhere along the way. It’s a great exercise. I recommend it.
Problem5: I’ve heard this one from beginning writers quite a bit, and I’ve seen professionals have the problem and, in my opinion, handle it poorly. Here’s the set-up: I have a plot problem that needs to be resolved, but I can’t seem to resolve it without breaking the rules I’ve established in terms of one of the following: my magic system, my worldbuilding, my character development, OR, my narrative approach (ie. I started with just one point of view character, but suddenly I need to be able to tell this piece of the story from another POV, or I started with 3rd person limited but need to switch to 3rd person omniscient). If I could just bend one of these rules, I’d be fine.
Solution: Not to put too fine a point on it, but too bad. You have to find a way of solving the problem within the contextual and narrative framework you’ve created. If the only way to solve a problem is by breaking a rule, you’re going to tick off your readers. If you really are backed into this kind of corner, chances are you’ve let the story get away from you in some way as discussed in the solution to Problem 3. Or you’ve planned your story poorly. Either way, you need to fix it in a way that keeps your book and storyline internally consistent. Otherwise what you’re doing is introducing a Deus ex machina, a plot contrivance, in order to save your butt, and that’s not good storytelling.
Okay, enough of my problems and solutions. What are some of the toughest problems you encounter, and how do you solve them?David B. Coe http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://MagicalWords.net http://www.DavidBCoe.com