Today’s post, while continuing my “Back to Basics” series, takes a slightly different tack. I have a good friend to thank for this idea (Thanks, April). She asked me the other day how my current book was coming, and when I told her that the book was basically kicking my butt, she said something along the lines of “Oh, you should write about that. Lots of us would like to hear about what a professional does when a book is beating him up.” So, here you go.
There are so many ways for things to go wrong with a manuscript, so many reasons why a writer might find himself getting a figurative butt-kicking from his work-in-progress, that it’s really hard to pinpoint any single one as more prevalent than the others. So, allow me to run through a few sets of circumstances that create problems for me, and that might strike you as familiar. I’ll also talk about solutions to each issue.
1. I’m writing in a new genre or subgenre — I’m forcing myself to stretch, and as a result, I’m intimidated by what I’m doing. I actually think that this is a great problem to have, but it can be a problem nevertheless. The fact is, I feel comfortable writing alternate world epic fantasy. I’ve written a ton of it, and while I believe in the quality of my work, I also recognize that there is a certain sameness to the books I’ve published so far in my career. One of the reasons I’m so excited about Thieftaker is that it’s different, it’s a departure from the stuff I’ve done before. That made it challenging to write, and there were times when I was afraid I couldn’t do it. I’m facing that again now. This new book is unlike anything I’ve done before, and I don’t know if I can make it come out the way I want it to. So what do I do? I write it anyway. That’s all I can do. I’m a writer. I write. Yes, it’s different, it’s difficult, it may wind up being lousy. But the alternative is to give up, and I refuse to do that. So I wade into the slog and I write. If you’re struggling with this right now, good for you. It takes guts to tackle something new and different. And the only way to succeed is to put butt in chair and write.
2. I’m part way into the book and I’m beginning to realize that I’m underprepared. This can mean that I haven’t done enough of my worldbuilding, or enough research. It can mean that I haven’t outlined enough and I’m unsure of where any of this is going. It can simply mean that despite doing what seems like enough prep work, I’m not yet comfortable enough with my characters or their world or their story to write the thing. This is a problem that, for me at least, seems more prevalent when I’m also dealing with number 1. I’m more comfortable flying by the seat of my pants when I’m in a familiar genre; put me in a new genre and then let me do less than thorough prep work and I’m just flat screwed. The answer? Well, in most cases I’m a strong advocate of moving forward (see number three), but this is one instance where I might pause in my writing to do a little more foundation work. I might take a few days to write a short story about my main character that sheds some light on an important part of her past, or I might take a day or two for more research/worldbuilding. I usually don’t like to stall my forward momentum, but in this case I usually don’t have any momentum, and so I’m not losing anything.
3. I’ve realized that my first 50 or 100 pages are deeply flawed and need to be reworked completely. We all know the feeling, right? We finally get to a point with the book where we feel that we have a handle on what we’re doing, but with that (welcome) feeling comes the (unwelcome) realization that the opening chapters need to be rewritten. And that realization can be debilitating. In this situation I don’t like to go back. Instead I take detailed notes on what I want to do to clean up those early chapters and then I keep pushing forward. Why? It’s the momentum thing. You’ve just figured out something key about your book. Don’t go backwards now. Take advantage of the breakthrough and keep writing. I once had a writing teacher who warned me against the near-universal urge to, as she put it, “retreat into rewrites.” Best advice I ever got.
4. I’ve overprepared and let all the “fizz” out of my story. The exact opposite of number 2. I often liken a story idea to a bottle of coke. It begins with a certain amount of carbonation, and slowly loses it every time we open or shake the bottle. For me, every conversation I have about a book, every bit of outlining I do, every bit of prep work, lets out some fizz. (This is one reason why I almost never speak in detail with anyone about a new book idea.) Now, you can’t drink a Coke without opening the bottle, and you can’t write a story without thinking about it and planning it and preparing for it to some degree. The trick for me is to find the balance between preparing the story and keeping it fresh and “fizzy” on the one hand, and overpreparing so that it goes “flat” on the other. When a story does go flat, what can we do? Tough question, and the place where the analogy breaks down. Because as far as I can tell, the only solution is to write it anyway and hope that in the process of doing so, I rediscover that energy that I’ve lost. Again, the alternative is give up on it, and I won’t do that.
5. The story simply isn’t as interesting as it seemed at first blush; it seems to lack the sparkle I thought it had. This is similar in a way to number 4 and at times the two are hard to tell apart. In this case, though, it’s not that the fizz is gone; more likely, it wasn’t there in the first place, at least not to the degree that we thought. With number 5, and perhaps in the previous case as well, one solution might be to add to the concept. Introduce a new character — a love interest, a nemesis, someone who might draw your protagonist into a subplot that enhances your original story line. Or you can add a plot twist — bend the narrative slightly to make things more complicated for your main character. Sometimes, as I’ve said before, I like to ask myself “What is the worst thing that could possibly happen to my main character right now?” And then I make that thing happen. Evil, I know. But very effective.
6. The story seemed to be going along nicely, but it has suddenly stalled. My characters aren’t behaving the way they ought to, or my narrative has dried up on me. Chances are this is the result of something very specific that I have done in writing the book. More often than not, when I reach a narrative cul-de-sac it’s because I have taken a wrong turn. And if I can trace my steps back to that point, to that bad decision I’ve made, I can fix the problem and rediscover my rhythm with the story. Of all the problems on this list, this is probably the easiest to deal with, because it usually does not indicate a fundamental problem with the concept itself, or with the overall execution, but rather is a direct result of an isolated artistic decision. Find that decision and usually the problem will take care of itself.
7. Life has intruded on my writing, making it hard for me to concentrate and nearly impossible for me to be as productive as I want and need to be. Yeah, tell me about it. Health problems, family issues, tragedy, crisis, professional concerns, romantic preoccupations, even home renovations or car troubles — any one of these can wreak havoc with your writing. Pile two or three together and you’ve got a total nightmare on your hands. Problem is, there’s no easy fix for this one. Life creates its own exigencies. I’ve found over the years that the best thing I can do for myself and, in the long run for my work as well, is to accept that distractions happen and to deal with them. Yes, I care about losing momentum on my work. But in the end, if my kid gets sick, or my roof is leaking, or I’m having health issues of my own, it’s simply more important that I focus on those things. The writing will still be there when the other problems have been solved, or at least addressed. It’s a matter of priorities. Usually, if I find that something has come up and is keeping me from writing, it’s because on some level I realize that I shouldn’t be trying to write; I should be dealing with the other stuff.
So, why is my current WIP kicking my butt? Which of these problems am I facing? Nearly all of them actually. Honest to God. I’m writing something new and finding it intimidating. I feel that I don’t have enough background in some aspects of what I’m writing about, and that’s slowing me down. But I also feel that I over-planned and have lost too much of that vital “fizz” that had me so excited about the project when I first imagined it. I don’t think the story is less interesting than I thought originally, but maybe I’m deluding myself; we’ll see. I’m starting to see aspects of the story come together, but I’m now deeply conscious of all the things that suck about much of what I’ve written so far. Every time I think I have a handle on what I’m doing, the thing stalls, and I have to retrace my steps to something stupid I did in the previous section. And between family stuff and renovations we’re doing on the house and professional issues I’m facing, I’ve been distracted all year long.
I’m trying to put my own advice to good use in dealing with these issues, but I’m facing what many of you may face when those of us who write here at MW blithely offer “solutions” to your problems: all of this is easier said than done. It’s just hard sometimes; it has been for me.
Still, I’m putting my butt in the chair, and I’m trying to keep moving forward. I’ll keep you posted on how I’m doing.
In the meantime, what issues are you facing right now? And how are you dealing with them?David B. Coe