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Monthly Archives: July 2012

When plot bunnies attack

All right, writers, put your hands up in the air if this has happened to you. You’re chugging along, happily working on a writing project, excited about where it’s going and enjoying the journey on which your characters are taking you.

And then you get hit with an idea for another project. And then another. And yet another after that.

You’re walking down the street or having a conversation with someone, and that little thought pops into your head. Man, that would make a GREAT story…  You scribble it down in your notebook, promising yourself you’ll get to it someday, when you’re done with your current WIP, and crossing your fingers and toes that you won’t lose the flood of inspiration that’s threatening to pull you in with its undertow. But you’re unable to keep the ideas from streaming in.

Streaming in? Hell, they’re gushing in. Seeping through the cracks in your brain, filling every empty space they can find. Pretty soon, you find yourself wanting to work on both story ideas, because you know how temperamental muses can be and how fleeting inspiration is. You want to ride that wave while it’s cresting, not when the water’s receded.

What’s a writer to do?

This is the spot I find myself in right now. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a good problem to have; I’d rather have too many ideas than none at all. But I find my loyalties torn and I’ve almost succeeded in convincing myself that I can work on both at the same time and manage to sustain my enthusiasm for both. Realistic? Probably not. More than likely, I’ll fizzle out with both — suffer burnout and/or suffer a drastic decline in quality of what I produce for either.

But boy, is it tempting to try.

This current WIP is one that has a great deal of meaning to me, since it explores the havoc that cancer wreaks on someone’s life and her relationships. It is a story that’s been inspired by many incredibly brave friends of mine who have had to live through this very real horror, and their story deserves to be told. There’s one friend in particular who is the driving force behind this, a friend whose passing at the mere age of 26 still haunts me. Brittanie shaped so much of my protagonist’s journey, which is only fitting, since Brittanie was — and still is, in so many ways — my biggest writing cheerleader. I need to write this story, if for no other reason than I want it to be my ultimate gift to her.

Working on this is a given. Now the dilemma is… my brain’s been invaded by a really compelling story idea for a speculative fiction trilogy. And when I say it’s been invaded, I mean it’s been totally and completely taken over. I see and hear these characters in my head, and the story will not let me go. I find myself daydreaming of their world and the epic story that is begging to unfold in my brain.

Later, I tell myself. I will work on it later, once I’ve finished the first draft of my WIP. The thing is, it’ll be a while before that first draft is completed. I’m still in the outlining/story building phase! And I don’t see myself finishing with that phase for a while, because I want to really take the time to think every aspect of this through and get to know my characters and the story from every angle. Realistically, it could be another year (or maybe even more) before I finish the first draft, and in the meantime, these other characters are itching to play.

So here I am, wrestling with an internal debate of whether to attempt the very ambitious task of working on both projects at the same time. I want to, I really want to. Logic and experience are telling me to be patient and hold off until I work through the first project, so I can give it the attention it deserves, but I’m just not sure I can keep holding off the flood of ideas (and enthusiasm) for the other that doesn’t show any signs of letting up soon.

Oh, and as if these two big projects weren’t enough, I also got hit with a sprawling idea for a novel length fan fiction. But I’ll have to save that for another time :).

plots

Plots, plots, plots… All kinds of plots!

Back to basics

I’m not a beginner when it comes to writing. I’ve been at this since I was a kid, and I’ve been seriously studying the craft (taking writing classes and workshops, reading every fiction writing book I could get my hands on, talking to fellow writers)  for a little over a decade now.

And yet, after all this time–even with a finished manuscript, another original work in progress, and hundreds of completed fan fiction pieces–I still consider myself a student in many ways. I have a feeling I’ll always be.

As a reader, I love, love, love good prose and characterization. These are the things that jump out at me first when I’m reading something, and what sticks with me long after I finish. It’s no coincidence that these two things are what I tend to focus on most when I’m working on my own projects, and if I have to be honest, it’s also where my writing muscles are most developed. While this is all good, the flip side is that I’m markedly weaker on other areas of the craft, none more so than plotting and story structure.

These last two especially have haunted me for many, many years. They’re probably the reasons why, out of hundreds of original story premises I’ve developed in my writing life, only one — one!! — has resulted in a finished manuscript (although in my defense, I’ve managed to complete many, many fan fiction pieces, so I do know that I have the stamina to sustain a project from beginning to end). The idea of getting to know and interact with cool characters always excites me, but because I’ve always struggled with building the framework for the story, time and time again, I’ve seen that excitement fizzle as disappointment sets in — because it’s one thing to have cool characters, but quite another to give them an equally cool story in which they can run around and do things and grow as a result of doing said things.

This first completed novel was a grueling grinder of a process for me. It took a decade to finish and many, many times, it felt as though I eked it out bit by bit, vs. writing it in a continuous, smooth flow. Maybe the latter is a pipe dream, but I’d like to think that writers can come close to it with the right approach/technique and the right tools. So when it came to start my current WIP, I decided I was going to find that right approach and the right tools–the ones that would work for me, anyway.

For the last few weeks, I’ve thrown myself into an exhaustive search of all the different techniques out there. The good news is that 99.9% of the time, they all boil down to the same essentials: you need strong characters who have a compelling goal, are faced with daunting obstacles which they eventually overcome, and learn something at the end of it. Great. Got that. Where the different approaches vary is how to do all of this. Sounds very simple when it’s boiled down to that single sentence, isn’t it? But fleshing all of that out into a 300+ page novel, with 50-60 scenes and a whole cast of characters is where the work is.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Here’s where it gets overwhelming: these different techniques from these different writing instructors can sometimes conflict with each other. One defines an inciting incident one way, while another defines it as something else. One advocates putting the inciting incident right on the first page, while another insists it belongs after establishing what’s “normal” first. One declares that every story must follow the three act structure or will not only fail to get published, it will fail to resonate with readers in the first place, while another says that the three act structure is antiquated, too restrictive, and doesn’t allow a story to develop organically.

Gah!! What’s a writing student supposed to do to reconcile all of these conflicting viewpoints?

Can't I just write the damn thing?

Can’t I just write the damn thing??

The answer for me: stop overthinking things. Read the different techniques. Try as many of them as possible. Note what works, what doesn’t, and then in the end, go with what feels most right– and, more importantly — what results in a complete first draft in a reasonable (read: less than the 6 years it took me to write the first novel) amount of time.

Yes, the more I read about the different (and often conflicting) theories, the more a fundamental truth gets reinforced for me: good stories touch the reader. Most readers (unless they’re also writers) will probably never be able to articulate why a story touched them so, but it either does or it doesn’t. As writers, our job is not to let all of the cogs and wheels and gears show. Readers don’t need to see the engine that powers a car, only the car itself.

Do readers care whether your story followed the three act structure? Unless they’re writers trying to deconstruct other pieces of fiction, no. Do they care whether your story connects with them or not? Yes.

So as I spend these next few weeks (perhaps even months) developing my story premise into a living, breathing story, I will try very hard not to get caught up in the details of theory and who is right and why a certain approach is the right one. When it all gets overwhelming, I will stop to ask myself only the most important question of all: will this touch my reader?

I won’t overanalyze why, I won’t over-engineer the process. I’ll just trust that if I’m writing with authenticity and I’m starting from a strong premise, I’ll be fine in the end.

Saved by the outline

If you’re a writer, I don’t have to tell you about one of the most hotly debated topics in all of writing: to outline or not to outline.

I’m not here to preach my gospel of outlining (although I do highly recommend :)), but I am here to get down on my knees and praise God that some genius invented this concept in the first place. Because honestly? I think it’s just saved my WIP.

I never used to outline when I was younger. Then again, I only worked on shorter pieces: short stories, poetry, song lyrics.  I could get away with being a “pantser” with those.  Eventually, though, I moved on to attempting novels — and the key word here is attempt, because I always failed to see these projects through to the end. I’d run into road blocks with the story, I’d run out of steam… all the classic signs of not knowing my story well enough, and I know for a fact that, for me, this could have been solved by outlining.

Fast forward fifteen or so years later, when I started writing multi-chapter works in fan fiction. By then, I’d started devouring writing books, especially ones on plotting and story structure, and I started to think that there might be something to this outlining thing. So I started doing it. Little by little, at first, because I honestly thought I was allergic to outlines. I started by jotting down key milestones in the story, then I moved on to sketching out dialogue or sketching out key scenes. These worked great for me in fan fiction, and I thought that I had finally found the system that worked for me–something that gave me some semblance of structure, but wasn’t so demanding that I would need to come up with every detail up front.

There was only one problem: it didn’t work with my original projects. I found I needed something far more substantial with those, because in contrast to fan fiction, where I was already intimately familiar with the details of that world, with original material, I was still getting to know my world and my character — and getting familiar with the playground I was playing in on top of trying to manage all of the different factors that go into writing (dialogue, characterization, pacing, structure) was becoming so overwhelming that my process slowed down to a snail’s pace. As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, it took me 6 years to finish the first draft for my first novel; looking back on it, much of why it took so long to complete that first draft was because I didn’t take the time to outline and really know my world and characters inside and out.

When it came time to start my current novel, I thought I had learned a few things from the process of writing the first one, and I could just dive right in and happily write away. Wrong. By chapter 2, I had already stalled. This time, I knew I had to do some more serious outlining, because I was not willing to spend another 6 years writing this novel.

Enter K.M. Weiland’s fantastic Outlining Your Novel. She described an approach to outlining that was so easy — and fun — that for the first time, I was able to crank out a detailed outline that had me visualizing the entire story down to each scene. And because of this, I was able to look at my story in its entirety before I ever started writing it out, which meant that I could spot any weak links before I’d already spent a ton of effort (not to mention poured in blood, sweat, tears) into writing those scenes.

And spot them, I did. In the process of having some writer friends look over my outline, I was already able to detect some fatal flaws towards the end, which led to me cutting out a character completely and re-imagining my storyline’s crisis moment. Had I already written everything out, this would have been a far more painful — and messy — process. But thankfully, I caught them at this stage, which means all I need to do is remove the scenes I’d planned that involved that new defunct character and rework the story progression so I have a much stronger crisis moment.

Will it be easy? No. Is it easier than cutting out thousands of words and trying to come up with a way to stitch together new scenes with existing ones and making it all flow naturally? Hell to the yes.

After this experience, I can honestly say that I’m a believer. Outlines, ftw!

danger

I owe it all to outlining…

P.S. In addition to Outlining Your Novel, I also have to give props to three other plotting books that I’ve found to be invaluable: Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen. If you’re interested at all in outlining and/or story structure, I can’t say enough good things about these!