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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Write the Daydream

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Write the Daydream
(Intro to Plotting)

What’s a novel, but a daydream we write down and embellish, expand and hone into something coherent, dramatic and hopefully entertaining?

Sounds simple enough, in theory. But how does one begin? How does one even attempt to begin?* How do so many rudimentary thoughts (Hey, I’ll call this girl Juliette. I’ll name that dude Romeo. They’ll live happily ever—no, wait, I have a better idea!) emerge to produce a provocative story? Maybe we gaze longingly at books like A Game of Thrones, or The Lord of The Rings, the Harry Potter series or The Time Ships, and think WTF!? How do people create such rich, complex, creative narratives? What were they thinking? What were they smoking? I could never begin to craft such an incredibly detailed epic adventure! Until I figure it out, I guess it’s back to watching reruns of The Gilmore Girls.

Well, you won’t know unless you try. Sometimes new or wannabe writers will procrastinate for years, waiting for the right moment (that may never come without that spark of concerted effort.) But it’s far easier, perhaps even more exciting, to fantasize about writing than actually writing. So, yeah, we procrastinate, rebuilding or babysitting our daydreams time and time again inside our heads. And it is procrastination, you know—those unwritten daydreams, those many incidental acts of minutia that feel like writing… (What should I name my characters? I’ve spent months looking through baby-books and still can’t find one I like!) But until you begin actively writing that first page, that first scene, that first chapter, let’s face it, you’re not really “writing.” You’re stuck in idle mode, still awaiting that creative spark, that literary ‘Big Bang.’ (You can rename your characters during or after you finish your first draft, for example. You can begin writing a story in the middle, and work back to the beginning later. You can begin to develop a character or two, or write snippets of dialogue and infuse them into the proper scene later.) But the only way to write a novel is to start a novel, and that is by putting words down on paper. (Or a PC.) Your non-writing hours are either spent actively prepping or researching that eventual book or avoiding that eventual book. And yes, most writers subliminally know the difference. (And if you’re procrastinating, I suspect you do, too.)

Conversely, some new or wannabe novelists—heads filled with so many swirling, exciting possibilities—believe they can plop down one day in front of a notepad or a PC and simply begin to scribble or type out a coherent, fully-developed story. Most of those writers don’t realize that stream of consciousness writing will only get you so far, but then what? Writing a novel requires an incredible amount of strategy, of organization and finesse. And most of us will likely require a working roadmap (see Outlining) so we don’t lose ourselves along the way. A few lucky writers may be able to simultaneously craft a comprehensive story inside their heads as they write, but that’s an ability most of us do not enjoy.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. One can begin a novel by either illuminating (or alluding to) your plot, or by introducing a character—usually, but not always, a protagonist or antagonist. Since no definitive rules exist on beginning, one can open a novel on virtually anything—although one’s first line/first page should probably have some bearing, directly or indirectly, on one’s story or primary character(s). (See Where To Start.) However, it’s totally up to you. My only suggestion is, make your first line count. Make it relevant, and provocative or subtly revealing. Basically, make it memorable!

As I’ve previously mentioned, it’s fair to say that most novels begin with a single What if? notion or premise. We’ve concocted a vague daydream that seems promising. Or at least interesting. Gee, I wish I could fly. What would I do if I could? What might I accomplish? Or, Linda doesn’t even know I’m alive. If I could only make her notice me! What if…? Or, I love to world build! Dragons and castles and wizards and dark magic! But where do I start my story? What possibly could happen that will interest readers? Hey, what if a young knight bumps his head, develops amnesia and then….? These fragmented notions, in the hands of a creative mind (or in the mind of creative hands), might easily become the core of a superhero thriller or romantic comedy or epic fantasy—or a thousand other fictional possibilities.

But of course, one will need far more potential material than an original, perhaps fuzzy premise (your inciting incident). You’ll need to transcribe your hazy daydream into a linear, logical story line—meaning you’ll need to squeeze those amorphous thoughts into coherent words, sentences and paragraphs.

Your original idea will likely sputter out in 5 or 10 pages. You’ll very quickly need to create entirely new scenes, chapters and ultimately create a compelling, complete story. How do you proceed? Well, you do what every novelist does. You concoct another fantasy—this time with an overt (or discreet) connective thread to your original daydream. Meaning if your first chapter was filled with knights and dragons and damsels in distress, your next chapter probably shouldn’t be about astronauts on their way to Mars. By connective, I mean either a chapter that’s sequential or oppositional, but relevant in theme, tone and rationality to your already developed story line.

For instance, let’s say we’re writing a classic old, shoot-em-up Western. Chapter 1 might be about a young protagonist named Sheriff Bob, who’s arrived in Deadwood to keep the peace. Chapter 2’s about new schoolmarm named Betty Sue, who’s just stepped off the train from Boston. Chapter 3 is about nefarious scoundrel Black Bart, eyeballing the town’s bank. Three distinct, separate (oppositional) stories at this point. Your characters, and their isolated stories, may very well begin independently of one another for several chapters, although sooner or later those three character will most likely meet up—at which point their lives (and your chapters) will become chronologically connected in a coherent, linear (that is, sequential) fashion. Writing linear chapters: A, B, C, D and E, holds infinitely more appeal to readers than disjointed chapters written A, E, C, B and D. (Although never say never, Pulp Fiction fans). Still, for most of us, continuity is imperative.

But back to the problem at hand. Let’s say you’re fresh out of daydreams after a chapter or two. Let’s return to our superhero notion. Since Superman is obviously taken, we’ll call the protagonist of our fictional wisp of an idea Fly-Man. Okay, that’s a little eerie. How about simply Flyboy. As in slang for pilot. Because, oh yeah, Flyboy can fly.

And let’s say your fantasy, the one you’ve been contemplating for a few months now, is simply about an unlikely, lonely teenager. The kid’s bitten by a radioactive housefly (with apologies to Spider-Man) and with his sudden new superpowers, saves Mary Jane Ellen, the cute girl next door (and his secret crush) from being kidnapped by, dunno—space pirates?

So now what? One nifty thing about creative writing is, whatever happens next, that’s totally up to you. Perhaps there’s no direction at all (yet!) screaming to be followed. What’s your gut feeling? What might make an exciting continuation to Flyboy’s infatuation with Mary Jane Ellen, after his daring, Chapter 1 rescue?

So maybe she falls in love with Flyboy, unaware that he’s really her shy, lovelorn next-door neighbor. That’s an option, although one that may be best served coming later in the book. Or maybe she’s knocked unconscious during Flyboy’s rescue and doesn’t have a clue what happened? Or perhaps, in Chapter 2, we decide to further develop our story’s antagonist, the sinister space pirate named Rodney.

So your next daydream fantasy might be, with his kidnap plan thwarted, how does Space Rodney best plan his revenge on the unsuspecting Flyboy?

You’re creating a reaction (Rodney’s revenge) to the original action of the failed kidnap attempt. And Chapter 3 then becomes Flyboy’s reaction to Space Rodney’s subsequent action… and this action/reaction sequence continues until you find a suitable place, 300-400 pages hence, to end the book. (See Action/Reaction.)

Can’t think of any new, suitable daydreams? Sure you can. If you’ve thought of one, you can do it again (and again, and again). Because that’s the only way to write a novel—layer upon layer of creative ideas, creating sufficient suspense and excitement to go the 300-400 page distance.** So stay curious. Stay creative. Use your imagination. Discover the joys of Outlining… because that’s the absolutely best way to get unstuck, whenever cerebral stickiness sticks.
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* Don’t know where to start? See the appropriately named Where To Start.

** While one’s daydreams should be linear, this doesn’t mean that you must write scenes or chapters sequentially. It’s okay to create various puzzle pieces out of sequence—and piece them together as your later daydreams catch up with your earlier efforts. One need not start on line one, page one. Begin wherever you feel the excitement flowing, and connect the dots later.
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Finding Your Voice (Part 2)

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.

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Finding Your Voice (Part 2): Do your characters speak to you?

This one gets a little deep, so buckle in. To briefly recap: finding your writer’s voice is a combination of discovering your personality as a writer (See: Finding Your Voice (Part 1) and finding your characters’ fictional personalities. And the best way to discover those fictive voices? Listen.

So, basically, Rule #13 is: Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories. (And in doing so, you’ll discover your voice.)

Crazy, right? It’s a little like channeling Elvis.

As a fiction editor, I can discern—usually within a page or two—whether I’m listening to the writer speak or if I’m listening to the characters tell their own story. And I don’t want the writer’s version of what’s going down, I want the characters revealing themselves. You? You’re just the conduit.

Not that your characters should completely dominate their own fates. The writer’s job is all about forward momentum. Herd these people inside your head—some who may be obstinate, others cranky, some loving, others lazy—incessantly forward. Push that plot dramatically onward. You’re creating a road map from here-to-there, filled with tension and pathos (or emotion or zany humor) and profundity (or frivolity). And each character has an obligation to remain in the confines of the parameters you set.

How do you know that your characters are speaking their minds? Here’s a test. Visualize this hypothetical novel: You’re writing a happy/sad tale about four friends, all very different people from a variety of backgrounds, and each trying to live a life to its fullest.

It’s what I call The Lobster Bisque Variant. Picture these four characters sitting in a restaurant, enjoying the moment. Juan’s a middle-aged Hispanic blue-collar pipe-fitter, Andrea’s a 35-year old airline pilot, Zane is a young black Broadway dancer and Rosanna’s an old Italian grandmother. A waiter comes by and—visualize, in turn, four variations of the following incident—accidentally spills a bowl of lobster bisque in each of their laps. Juan gets the lapful in Version #1, Andrea gets souped in Version #2… and so on. Now, as a writer, describe their reactions.

If your results are:

Version 1/Juan: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 2/Andrea: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 3/Zane: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 4/Rosanna: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”

…then, guess what? You’re not listening to your characters, to the nuance of their unique personalities. You’re listening to yourself, confined to your own theoretical reaction. Ultimately, your characters may become little more than mini-you’s, clones of your boxed-in subconscious, and cookie-cutters of each other. Most readers will quickly detect such similarity, such ambiguity, and most likely find them (and eventually your story) flat and unappealing.

However, by discovering their various reactions to a wet lap can help determine each character’s emotional core. If you like what you hear, then continue (metaphorically, of course) to pour bisque in their laps every so often, careful to interpret and maintain the integrity of their distinct voices. 

When they speak to you, through you (and, believe me, they will) be aware of their cadence and vocabulary and motivation. A great novel, after all, isn’t about plot—it’s about people. (Also see Dialogue.)

And so… voice? It’s partly your storytelling ability. And partly about each character’s unique emotional energy. Strip away voice and whatever’s left—however realistic, however meticulously constructed—feels dry, lifeless, vacant. He did this, she did that. I went here. I went there. A house on Main Street. It rained. John loved Mary.

Instead, allow your characters to reveal the passion that burns inside their souls. Give them sufficient room, sufficient stage time, to become real to both you and your readers.
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