Back to Basics, part VII: Anatomy of a Butt-Kicking


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.

I’ve written posts in the past about troubleshooting a manuscript, or dealing with problems as they come up.  This post is sort of like those.  Only more so.

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

23 comments to Back to Basics, part VII: Anatomy of a Butt-Kicking

  • Ditto, the doppelganger says. Every single one.

  • Pretty much dealing with number 7 right now. Lot of bad stuff going on at the moment and I’m not able to focus on the writing, which is killing me. My head’s not in it. Too busy worrying about other junk. And the junk I’m dwelling on are things I can’t really help or change. Problem is, not writing makes me feel like a failure, which only makes matters worse. So I’m just sitting around trying to deal and waiting for news of various things I’ve sent out and trying not to worry about the future.

  • Wow, yeah. Uh huh. Yup.

    The balance between 2 and 4 is tricky. I’m still early enough in the research stages that I’m finding lots of ‘cool stuff’ that I can use, so it’s actually adding a little fizz each time I find something new. But I haven’t forgotten the (previously experienced) problem that comes on the other end of the spectrum, where it turns into humdrum, because I’ve overdone it. I’ve also made the mistake of talking a book to death. I’ll never repeat that, because it was such a fun idea, and now it’s dead. I’m hoping that by putting it aside for a few years it might come back to life again (which is a big part of the reason I’m working on this new book now instead), but that a question only time can answer.

  • I got some of 1 and 7 going on.

    For #1, I am trying my hand at writing a story in the Historical Romance genre and it has thoroughly kicked my butt. Right now, I am hiding under a bush and growling fiercely at it, but so far, it has resisted all my attempts to grab control. Hopefully this will clear soon.

    For #7, my daily schedule makes writing difficult. I work two full-time jobs (80-90 hours a week) and then add in personal time with the family…. leaves very little for actual writing. Then those times that I do get to write are not uninterrupted since I am at work and I have to make at least a show of doing my job. 🙂

  • Stuart, yeah. Not much more to say, except best of luck with it.

    Daniel, I’m sorry to hear that things are rough right now. I’ve been through several of these stretches, and have always emerged from them a better person and a better writer. Hope that’s your experience as well.

    Edmund, I’ve never had the #2 and #4 problems simultaneously until now, and wow, does it suck. I love that feeling of researching and having it actually energize me for the writing — like adding a CO2 cartridge to a bottle of water. That was what happened again and again with Thieftaker. This time around it’s jut . . well, different. And I hope you find a way to revive the overtalked story — been there, still waiting for it to come back.

    Mark, I hope that you tame that beast eventually. Historical romance is a good field to be writing in these days. And wow, 80-90 hours of work/week? It’s a wonder you’re getting anything done at all. I admire you for making the effort. I’m not sure I could do it.

  • Unicorn

    OOPS. I got a bad case of Number 3, and what did I do? I went back and started the whole story over again because I realised that I’d spent the whole of something like 30 000 words yakking on about absolutely nothing. It’s working so far, since now I have an idea of where it’s going. I did try to just write on and pull myself out of it but there were so many sub-plots that kind of started and then died and their carcasses were *everywhere* and frankly my characters and I were being driven up the walls by the stink. So we started again. Oops. Next time, I’ll write my way out of it. For now, I’ll just plough on since it seems to be going fine now.
    I’m receiving a butt-kicking now, too. From what? My treasured and previously faithful “Sparrowhawk”, now in its second draft. I’m about halfway through and the thing has died on me. And really I like this story, though it’s got a lot to fix, even to my eyes, but suddenly the fizz is all gone. But I don’t think I over-prepared. I know what do to; I’ve got a big fat chapter full of nothing sitting in front of me and the next step is to cut all that nothingness off. Somehow I just get stuck, get a blank mind, stare at the screen and can’t do it. Any ideas as to what’s wrong, and how I can fix it?
    Thanks for a great post.

  • Thanks for the comment, Unicorn. Let me say that there is no “Oops,” or at least there shouldn’t be. As we like to say here, there’s no right way to do any of this. These are the approaches that work for me. I don’t like to go back. But it sounds as though going back and starting over may have been just the right thing for you to do. And that’s great. I like to write my way through a problem. But there are times when I wish I could bring myself to do what you did. Ultimately, we have to follow our own creative process, without worrying about what others do. I’m sorry if my post came off sounding too dogmatic.

    As to “Sparrowhawk,” if this is your second time through, that may be the problem right there. Have you given yourself some time away from the book? Sometimes, a book of mine loses its fizz when I try to turnaround and dive into rewrites too quickly. Time, distance — these things can be a writer’s friend. I also think that when I have trouble like you’re having — getting stuck — it’s usually because I’m afraid of making those big changes. I know the book needs help, but I fear “ruining” it. This is going to sound so basic, so stupid, that you might laugh at me. But in those cases, I’ll make a copy of the efile, or I’ll even print the thing out so that I can make changes to a copy. That way, if I hate what I’ve done, the original is still there. Again, this sounds really stupid, but just knowing that I’m not going to hurt anything irreplaceable gives me the courage to make the changes and cuts that I know have to be made. Hope that helps in some way.

  • Sigh… Are we all siblings separated at birth or something? And with all the 1 – 7 going on at once, I’m wearing my frustrations on my shoulder, trying not to bite off someone’s head. Again. And while I feel so very much for all of you, I also admit it’s nice to know that I am not alone in the writing world of weirdness. Thanks, David, et al. Today’s post and comments helped me relax and think fresh about my project. (cracks knuckles, rolls head on neck) Back to work.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Ah yes. I have so many backup and rough-draft copies of my WIP saved I’ve got some of them organized into folders and sub-folders. But it makes it SO much easier to hit delete when I know that text is saved elsewhere.

  • I love this list, David. It’s exactly the kind of informative introspection that I often do myself. (Sorry, this is a bit long.)

    Point 3 really stands out for me. I think I’ve done this five or six times with now-abandoned pieces, thinking I had to go back and fix something, losing momentum, and eventually abandoning it.

    Not this time. I pushed forward with my current WIP, even though other reasons you’ve listed here frequently got in my way. And last night, I wrote the ending. I now have a three-page list of things to go back and fix, but getting to the end is a big help, because now I can look back with the perspective of the entire story, and make those changes in the right context.

    As for other problems I encountered along the way: there were two.

    First, the original version of this novel was way too long, so I have to split it up and make it into a trilogy. This meant determining an appropriate end point for Book 1 (and for now, vaguely for Book 2), when before they were merely plot points. It means creating new villains/minibosses and proper story arcs for those two books. And the part that *really* kicked my butt was that I was partly editing and partly re-writing, so I had to sift through what was still viable, what needed an overhaul, and what required elimination. Which meant writing myself into corners and having to backtrack more than once.

    Second, the original version of this novel was way too short. By this I mean that I didn’t get enough into decscription or character development, which meant that everywhere required enhancement, more action and description, more commentary from my protagonist, and acknowledging more senses than just sight.

  • Yeah, Faith, I think we are. And for all of us, the answer is some variation on “keep on writing.” At least, that’s what I’m doing…

    Hep, yes, for me, too. Just knowing that “this version doesn’t matter” makes all the difference for me.

    Laura, first of all . . . YAY!!! Congrats on finishing! That’s fantastic. Yes, I always write editorial notes to myself, so that once I’m done I can go back and make the necessary repairs. As for the other problems you mention, I’ve run into some of those, too, particularly the ones relating to length. I only had so much room with the post and wanted to focus on more generalized issues. But I have been down the rewrite/rework path, and it can really suck. On the other hand it can also feel great when you finish turning a book that hadn’t worked into one that does. Again, congrats, Laura. Well done!

  • Razziecat

    And I thought it was just me!:) I’ve got most of that going on. Especially losing the fizz! And being underprepared. My alternate world & its magic need work, one of my characters is being obtuse about her role in the story, my bad guy is not bad enough…etc. And I would add one more problem to the list: I keep getting distracted by shiny new ideas. It’s so hard not to go off the path of the “Big Idea” when one of those new ones is giving me those “come hither” signals!

  • David,
    Fantastic timely post. I’ve been writing sci-fi short stories lately, which have been suffering from number one, partly because I’m a few years new to short fiction and partly because I predominately write fantasy. Stretch, dig in, BIC. Breathe, more BIC.

    Number three sounds tough, and though I haven’t fallen into that trap, there’s a reason why. I’m worried that if I go back to rewrite the first hundred pages, I’ll later find even more stuff that needs to be worked in. Thus another re-write. To avoid this altogether, I make extensive notes of things I “wrote into” the muddle to ensure they’re all there in the beginning after the first revision.

    8. My story morphed into something else. I started writing “Locker Room Trouble”, a Starship Troopers meets Monday Night Football mash-up, which has since turned into a mystery/conspiracy to keep galactic war confined to a fixed environment with rules and no collateral damage. I’m going to roll with this. Perhaps it will work out better than the NY Jets locker room issues on another planet. *grin*


  • Razz, no it’s definitely not just you. I get distracted by the New Shiny, too. All the time. But of all the problems I could encounter, that would be the most pleasant. The rest of this stuff kinda sucks. That said, it may be that I should do a “Keeping the New Shiny At Bay” post at some point.

    Dave, thanks; glad the post came at a good time for you. You point out another great reason for not going back to rewrite when number 3 pops up: by the end of the writing, even if you do go back, you’re going to face yet another round of rewrites. Best to conserve your time and tackle all the issues at the end. As for your addition to the list, that is something I’ve never dealt with. I deal with lots of other problems, but for some reason my books seldom morph. But I know lots of people whose books do exactly that, so I look forward to hearing how other folks deal with it.

  • David! Get out of my head!!!

    I’m suffering all of these. The first, and biggest boogey-monster is life and work intruding. Between the insanity at work, new puppies, bookcase building, tornado aftermath, and all the rest, I’m just too doggone worn out to even think, much less create!

    Stalled? Oh yeah.
    Difizzed? Yup.
    Underprepared? Guilty.
    Terrified of new territory?

    I also have a bad case of Razzie’s magpie-itis…. The bright new shiny is SOOOO hard to resist!

  • Thanks, David! I’m trying to avoid the word “finished” because I still have to go back and fix things, but it was nice to write the ending. Between this and seeing my microfiction piece in “print”, it’s been a good week.

  • David> Right now there is some of #7 that’s keeping me away from my novel. I’m on vacation–which means visiting family at home. But also, it is maybe a #9, my OTHER project is in the middle of some serious stuff (thanks for help with it, btw), and so I’m sort of frozen on my own novel. I have some revisions in my head, and have started plotting them in notes on paper, but I haven’t quite had it in me to dive in to the manuscript and start mucking about. I need to get at it, because I need it to be finished and edited so that I can start querying it. I’m feeling a lot like “first I need to do this, but before this it is that, and before that it is this other thing, and before this other thing I need to do the thing I said I need to do first…” like a cat chasing her tail. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll get at it for a couple hours. On the co-authored project we are doing, I need to get to work on outlining the next two books so we can get down to writing them. I’m hoping there we don’t hit #3 then.

    But I’ve been through all of these problems on one project or another… mostly I’ve plowed through and gotten it done. In some ways it delays the problems–I’ll fix ’em in editing! Which a whole different monster.

  • Unicorn

    David – thanks for the advice. I put it away for a month after finishing the first draft, returned with gusto, flew through the first ten chapters, ground to a halt. But I think the problem is that I don’t have the guts to chop off all that stuff that needs to be chopped off, and to add in all that stuff that needs to be added in.
    NGD – #8! Definitely! That’s my first-draft WIP *exactly*, the one I started over. It morphed. Not just once. Six or seven times. No wonder I wrote myself into a tangle. When I got stuck and introduced an interesting new character with new plot points attached, the character completely took the book over and the plot points became the whole plot. Sigh.

  • Sorry to be late responding. But boy, do I feel you. Esp. number 5. The longer I live with a project, the more I doubt it’s appeal to anyone else. My latest solution is to try and write really quickly: get it done before I lose faith in it. But as harry’s aunt would say, “I’m not sure that will work, Vernon.”

  • But, Lyn, if I get out of your head, how will I make you hear the voices….? Yeah, these problems are fairly common, which in no way lessens their impact on our creativity. But it does make it easier knowing that others are dealing with them, too.

    Laura, I know what you mean about using the word “finished”. But you didn’t say that you finished the book (in a sense, a book is never really finished, even after it’s been published), just the manuscript. That’s legit. Glad you had a good week. I hope you have many more to come.

    Emily, those professional distractions that you’re talking about definitely fall under number 7. When I have stuff going on like you do, I find it incredibly hard to write. And I, too, get into those traps of waiting on one thing that will let me do another, and then another, so that I can finally get to this OTHER thing that’s driving me up the wall…. Best of luck with it all.

    Unicorn, I hope I helped a bit. And as I said, I know lots of people who deal with the morphing issue. Hope yours works out.

    A.J., I’ve got a serious case of the Number 5s right now. I’ve dealt with it in part by introducing another manifestation of the evil, which I hadn’t tried before and which is proving to be kind of fun. Hoping it will work. Looking forward to talking shop over an ale or three at ConCarolinas.

  • I have definitely faced number 7 – the last four+ years were filled with (1) the meeting of my wife and I and subsequent courtship then (2) the resulting marriage and move as well as (3) the decision to apply for and enter an evening grad school program (with class starting a week after getting back from the honeymoon) while (4) working full time and then (5) the arrival of a new wee one last year. Fitting writing into that these past few years has been a real challenge. And for some time I felt guilty, but I have now reached the place where I completely and 100% agree with your advice. It is a matter of priorities, and though writing is a very high priority on my list, it’s not always the number 1 priority, and sometimes living life means having to do something else first. When that happens, when you aren’t writing as a result, that doesn’t mean you’re any less of a writer. You’re just on a temporary hiatus to deal with more important issues.

    The butt-kicking problem that I had in my last great WIP was one you didn’t quite mention here: the realization upon nearing the 3/4 mark that the entire enterprise was built on the sandy foundation of standard genre cliches and tropes without introducing any new or innovative or interesting elements. Or in other words that it was a rehash of “The Best of Epic Fantasy Genre Volume 12″… Maybe it’s similar to number 5, but I really think of it more as a problem of originality.

    The solution, for me, was actually to stop writing it. But I still loved the characters (I’d been with them for years) and the story, and I still wanted to tell their story. So, I told them I would, when and if I could find a way to inject it with something more than just a standard fantasy cliche. That meant rethinking each character and rethinking each major plot element to see which were cliche and which were vital to the story. Non-vital elements are at serious risk of getting jettisoned, whereas vital ones, even if cliched, may be kept if they can justify themselves as truly vital to this story. This also means a lot more research and a little time to come up with some ideas and story elements that weren’t a part of the original concept that excite me enough to want to include them and which I am convinced will jazz it up a notch.

    Currently, this is still an ongoing process for me. And it’s called for a pull-back and a decision to try a different concept, a different story altogether, before I try and rewrite that cliched mess.

  • Stephen, sorry for taking so long to reply. It sounds as though your priorities are exactly where they should be. And believe me when I tell you that for every month you spend focused on the wee one instead of writing, you will have bushels of material to draw upon once you get back to your fiction. Parenting is a treasure trove! As for your issue with the book — you’re right, that is a someone separate issue; perhaps a corollary to number 5. As I’ve said, I prefer not to stop writing when I run into troubles, but it sounds as though in this case that was the best thing you could do. Best of luck in getting it worked out.

  • Thanks! It was hard to let my old darling go, but I finally realized it was for the best. Even so, I know someday I’ll figure out how to tell the story right, and I’ll return to it, and I look forward to that day. In the meantime, I’m truly excited about the story I’m starting on now. You may not recall, but it’s what I pitched at the 60-second pitch session at JordanCon. I may have flubbed the pitch a little, but I’m still jazzed about the story.