More Common Obstacles

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rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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More Common Obstacles that
Novelists Commonly Confront
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I’ve previously mentioned those few literary hurdles I often confront when working with novice writers. (See Obstacles.) Getting stuck is the most common dilemma that new writers encounter—and a conundrum that all writers face at one time or another. Although the act of getting stuck generally assumes that we’ll eventually get ourselves un-stuck as well. That occasionally annoying perceptive rut known as writer’s block isn’t supposed to be a chronic condition, after all, and most of us manage to work our way free, sooner or later.

However, if getting stuck increasingly feels like a permanent situation, or if you find yourself consistently accumulating little more than first scenes or first chapters—project after project, year after year—the issue(s) you face may run far deeper than simply a matter of ‘learning the ropes’ or ‘running out of fresh ideas.’ If you’ve been toiling away for a year or two on any single project, yet remain unsatisfied with the results or with your level of creative output, perhaps it’s time to dig a little more deeply into your writer’s psyche. Even if you consider yourself to be a gifted writer, your inability to produce adequate results (in terms of quantity or quality) may require some personal introspection. In other words, many of us must at some point confront those emotional or psychological issues that might be inhibiting our progress.

And while the prospect of ‘personal introspection’ may carry a certain negative weight, don’t worry—it’s not a euphemism for ‘you suck at writing.’ Rather, if you’re aching to write but can’t seem to gain any traction, self-reflection is simply my suggestion (unscientific as it is) that you look inward before contemplating all those extraneous external factors. Various assumptions for not writing—I can’t find a sharp pencil!; or It’s raining out!; or The rent’s overdue!—may feel like adequate excuses (and sometimes they can be) but more often than not, such superficial symptoms simply disguise a far more complex, subconscious quandary.

While legitimate factors such as fear of failure, or what if I’m not good enough? or even the very real fear of success do exist, those psychological roadblocks can often be overcome by simply acknowledging their presence. Thus, consider this: I’m certainly not good enough if I give up, but if I try, I may surprise myself. Because the only thing worse than failing to publish a novel is the unwillingness to finish a novel.

You won’t know if you don’t try—and not trying (or succeeding) is often the result of unrealistic self-doubt or lack of confidence. Every writer born has suffered through great gobs of self-doubt (Stephen King’s disposal of his first manuscript, Carrie, only to be resurrected from the trashcan by his wife, Tabatha, is legendary. Had he not have been married, the iconic Mr. King might never have sold a single book.)

For first-time writers (especially those without concerned spouses like Tabatha), those often ubiquitous subliminal roadblocks can feel pervasive and insurmountable… because sometimes our brains are funny that way. But, guess what? Every problem has a solution. Every story has an ending. There’s always a way to get from Point A to Point Z, no matter how seemingly hopeless the journey might appear. However, each of us needs to dig deep to find the patience and persistence to go the distance. So finish. That’s Rule #1 after all.

Refer again to Perfection should you remain uncertain. Because (spoiler alert!) perfection doesn’t exist. (You can always change a word, a sentence, a paragraph…) So stop trying to obtain the unobtainable. Allow your first draft to be little more than a messy, incomplete rough sketch of whatever greatness is meant to come. Allow yourself sufficient time to tweak and refine and polish through numerous, subsequent drafts. Even if you can’t achieve perfection, pretty damn good is worth striving for. (And also quite possible!)

Ask yourself What’s the worst that can happen by trying, by staying the course? If you can’t convince yourself to go the distance, maybe writing a novel isn’t your best creative outlet. Yet other creative endeavors may await you, and it’s probably important to discover your options before you spend a year writing an uninspired (no offense) 400-pages that will ultimately disappoint you.

However, before you give up completely and become a plumber, what unrealized roadblocks or self-doubts linger within your soul, waiting to be discovered?

You may be A Serial Story Starter. Starting a novel is a bit like a first date. The possibilities feel boundless, and our expectations are through the roof. Filled with excitement and confidence—even if our perceived ending (or second chapter, for that matter) remains a bit nebulous—some of us can easily write a fabulous ten or 20 pages with little effort.

And yet our creative expectations, like love itself, can be fickle. Here today, gone tomorrow. It’s not uncommon for new, assumptive writers to experience that roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows, once the initial rush of balloon-light giddiness dissipates beneath the eventual iron fist of reality. Before long we may begin to sense waves of self-doubt, fading hopes and unexpected stumbling blocks. Some of us will begin to approach our pages, our progress, with a tingling sense of dread. Might starting a novel have been a mistake?

Frequently, as we concoct and/or approach a specific story line, we may realize (correctly or not) that the story inside our head is more difficult to decipher than originally presumed. Maybe the plot sputters, or our premise begins feels weak or clunky. Our characters stop speaking to us or become lost in the fog. So many What if—? questions remain unanswered. So many Now what—? questions feel suddenly impenetrable. Or maybe, 30-50 pages into our story, an even better idea comes to mind. Those feelings are more common than you might think—and knowing when to stop can be as important as knowing when to hunker down and proceed.

It’s perfectly alright to revamp our daydream in another POV, or tell our story in a completely different way. It’s also perfect okay to start a completely new book from scratch. It’s all part of the learning curve, after all, and ’tis far better to disregard 50 or 100 pages and begin anew, rather than belabor to complete an unfulfilling brick of a book that you’ll ultimately stick in a drawer, disgruntled and disillusioned, and perhaps never write again.

Many (most) published writers do have unfinished starter novels and dog-eared notebooks filled with half-baked ideas that litter our drawers and PC desktops. Those false starts are also part of the process. We’re still in the process of learning to think like novelists. Sometimes, that development can take years or decades of effort.

Or, you may be A Panster. Thirty years ago, the term panster did not exist—or else did so clandestinely and had yet to evolve into the literary limelight. The term (should you have recently awoken from a coma) defines those freestyle writers among us who write without any perceived forethought or planning or, more often than not, without a clue as to how one’s story might end.

Personally, I love starting a novel with wild abandon, sometimes with only a vague or fuzzy notion of my characters’ personalities/motivations and with a single inciting incident in mind. But within 50-or-so pages I typically realize that I’m confronting too many options to wing it any further.

At that point I begin to outline my next few scenes and/or chapters. And while I shall refrain from mentioning the virtues of outlining yet again, if you’ve missed my last 30-odd posts, HERE‘s a quick reminder. Do realize that outlining doesn’t necessarily mean religiously, unerringly, bullet-pointing an entire novel from cover to cover before you begin writing. Outlining can be as brief and as vague as a few jotted lines that jog your creativity or lead you out of a jam or dead end. For me, outlining is also a sort of reality check (can I do this scene differently? Can I do it better?) before I proceed into uncharted waters.

If you are a panster and decide outlining doesn’t work for you, at least you’ve eliminated the process as a potentially valuable tool. So it’s worth a consideration.

Or you may be A Daydreamer. (All dressed up and nowhere to go.)

We’re all daydreamers, we fiction writers. Ain’t nothing wrong with daydreaming—what’s a novel after all, but a daydream we write down, embellish, and ultimately complete? I’ve known a good many writers who concoct rather brilliant ideas, even come up with a functional synopsis or summary…and then perhaps finish a scene or two, a chapter or two, before realizing that Writing is hard.

Perhaps not always hard, but certainly complicated. Complex. You are, in effect, attempting to complete a 60,000+ word puzzle, piece by piece (word by word) and every word in a specific, intelligent, cohesive order.. line after line and page after page. The simple truth is, it’s not easy. Practice, patience and perseverance (the 3Ps) are essential. Having the ability to change your mind (…so this isn’t working, maybe I’ll try that) and the ability to kill your darlings is paramount. So is the ability to self-motivate, self-start and self-edit. And also, eventually staring lovingly upon one’s final manuscript, one must have the personality, and gather the courage, to compromise and accept valid criticism. (See Accepting Criticism… It’s essential.)

For most creative people, coming up with boffo story ideas is by far the easy part. The difficulty comes over the next several months, or years, attempting to complete in exacting detail the story you’ve envisioned. It’s not for the feint of heart. Or for the incredibly busy. Or those of us who conceptualize at a frenetic pace, new ideas like pinballs ricocheting here-and-there, propelled by the flippers of our mind.

A successful writer needs both a creative persona and must also possess the ability to go the distance, to complete projects. (Refer, again, to the three P’s above.) One without the other simply won’t work.

You may be A Closeted Screenwriter. The novel isn’t the only game in town. If you love writing dialogue but hate elaborate scene-setting or nuanced character-building, consider writing a screenplay. A 90-120 page script (translating into a 90-120 minute cinematic runtime), can be completed in a fraction of the time as a full-length novel. Ninety percent of a screenplay (more or less) will be dedicated to dialogue. Deep thinking is non-existent (unless exposed through dialogue, or VO, or a few dramatically visualized, emotional cues). Scene-setting is reduced to a few lines of often vague information, and yet sufficient for a director to interpret. Thus:

EXTERIOR. DAY. A FARMHOUSE SITS ON A DISTANT HILLSIDE. BIRDS CHIRP. NEARBY, A SMALL LAKE GLISTENS.

JOHN and MARY walk hand-in-hand down a dirt road toward the lake.

MARY
(staring upward)

It’s going to be a scorcher today. But I promised gran’mama that we’d go grocery shopping this afternoon. Her party’s this Wednesday.

JOHN
(pointing toward the lake)

I have an idea. The market’s always so crowded on weekends. We’ll be sweating buckets in dad’s old Buick. Let’s stay here instead, splash around and keep cool. We’ll go to the store first thing in the morning. I promise.

You need not bother with your characters’ motivations, or describing the lake or the barn (A red barn? White? Old? New? In a screenplay, it’s not your call, or your problem). Nor do you eavesdrop on Mary’s thoughts, or John’s. If either of them are harboring secrets, that information will come at the appropriate time—most likely through dialogue or exposition. Your observations can be (should be) brief.

A great many decisions exclusively decided by a novelist are in the hands of a director, or a cinematographer or a set-designer. You’re merely providing those folks a viable roadmap. Do understand that a TV or film script is considered a tool, not a complete creative work. A director may dramatically alter your story, change your vision in numerous ways, even hire various script-doctors and/or other writers to fulfill various needs. It’s just part of the process. Film development is a team endeavor. Once the script is complete, a screenwriter simply moves on.

Certainly, pro’s and con’s exist, and should be examined in far more detail than I could ever explain here. (Nor have I ever completed a screenplay, so there’s that!) I highly recommend William Goldman’s Adventures of the Screen Trade. (Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men…so the guy knew what he was doing.) Also check out Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat.

Writing, selling and marketing a script is a whole ‘nother beast, and in a marketplace far different than traditional book publishing. I have a friend who’s optioned a single script three times. When a screenplay is optioned, typically by a production company or lone producer, your story is in limbo. Meaning that your script hasn’t—yet—been outright purchased, but is being held in escrow as that producer’s exclusive property. No other production company or studio can touch it for a fixed amount time (sometimes a year or more), until that producer either commits to film it or releases all rights back to you.

You are, however, paid a stipend (typically 4-figures, occasionally more) for the luxury of waiting—although there’s no guarantee that a producer will find sufficient money and actually begin production. (If so, you’ll sign a contract and be bumped into a 5- or 6-figure compensation.) And finding yourself with an optioned screenplay is certainly better than having no interest at all.) If your script is ultimately rejected, you’re free to put it back on the market. Some scripts will spend a decade or more, bouncing between various production companies, waiting to find the right fit.

Not ready to give up on your current manuscript? Not ready to give up the prospect of being a novelist? One final suggestion. Put the manuscript away for at least two weeks. Maybe a month or more. Allow yourself sufficient time to clear your head, or to formulate new ideas (write a short story or two, perhaps?) and then approach your your manuscript with a newfound thrill and a fresh perspective. Sometimes, that down time can work wonders.

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