When my progress stalls in writing a novel, I often find a bit of directed freewriting helps me get back on track.
This sort of freewriting differs slightly from the usual ‘anything goes’ variety. I still write whatever pops into my head but I try to gently focus those thoughts on identifying and solving my problem.
For me the process has three basic steps:
Step 1: START WHERE YOU ARE
When I hit a snag, I often experience fears about whether the story itself is any good. At the very least, I feel frustrated that the project isn’t moving ahead as quickly and smoothly as I’d envisioned.
These fears and frustrations can pull the knot tighter and get in the way of solving the problem. So when I sit down to do directed freewriting, I start by trying to clear away as many negative feelings as I can.
If that means complaining that I don’t know what’s wrong or venting fears that my story’s no good, my characters boring, then that’s what I do. I just write whatever’s ‘on top’ and then let it all go.
Step 2: DEFINE THE QUESTION
Once I’ve unloaded my negative feelings I’m in a better frame of mind to address the problem. As my freewrite continues I try to direct my thoughts toward pinpointing exactly what has gone wrong.
I do this by asking and answering a series of questions until I find the one at the heart of the issue. For me this is half the battle – I can’t solve the problem till I’ve asked the right question.
I start off with very general ones and gradually refine them down to more and more specific ones.
A typical question and answer progression might look like this:
Q: Why has my progress on this story slowed? A: I’m not excited about my main character.
Q: Why doesn’t this character excite me? A: He hasn’t shown any likeable traits in the last twenty pages.
Q: Where in the last twenty pages could my character exhibit some positive trait and what could it be?
Basically I carry on a conversation with myself. (Or perhaps it’s one part of my brain talking to another.) In any case I usually end up with a specific question that defines the essence of my problem.
Step 3: WRITE UNTIL THE ANSWERS COME
Once I have this specific question I can get to work on solutions. It usually takes me 20-30 minutes of freewriting about a problem before answers and ideas start to come to me. I just have to have faith and keep writing.
One thing I know from long experience is that the answers always come as I’m writing. For some reason thinking alone isn’t enough; I have to physically write out my thoughts before the ideas start to emerge.
The last thing that helps me get back on track when I’ve hit a snag is simply accepting that unraveling knots is all part of my writing process.
I'm playing around with my latest writing tool – the chapter sequence – and have found another way it helps me expand and revise my novels.
Currently I’m looking for ways to ‘flesh out’ a first draft – to increase my wordcount and deepen my characters at the same time.
In my last post I described how I created snippets of things to add to the story and the chapter sequence helped me find places to insert them.
Now I’m doing it the other way around – reading through the chapter sequence (the short hand version of all my scenes) and asking myself what sorts of things my characters might be wondering or thinking about in each one.
I’ve written these topics down on a list for further development, after which I may add them to the story. My list includes things like:
Scanlon reflects on his actions towards Raina – is he out for justice or revenge?
Raina wonders what kind of mother she’d be
Erin reflects on her life before she landed on the streets
These are all things readers might wonder about as they’re reading the story. And knowing the answers will give them (and me) a deeper understanding of my characters.
The strange thing is, with my process of writing in layers, I can’t always know what some of these topics are going to be until after the first draft is finished.
What’s that great quote? ‘Only when I see what I’ve written do I know what I think.’? In my case it’s, Only when I see what I’ve written do I know the best way to flesh it out.)
But once the first draft is done and laid out in my chapter sequence, suddenly all sorts of possibilities leap out at me. Like stringing lights on a Christmas tree – the structure’s there, I’m just filling in the gaps.
So so far I have two uses for my chapter sequence: reading it through helps me generate ideas for things to add, and when I get an idea out of the blue, the sequence shows me where best to put it.
Nifty gadget, this CS.
I’m a confirmed outliner. Before I start every new novel I outline as much of the plot as possible; the more the better. Because once I actually start writing the story my aim is to plow ahead and not lose momentum.
For that reason I write in layers, (see Writing In Layers, Feb 2014) starting with the elements of story I find easiest to write – dialogue and action – and adding later in subsequent layers the things that take me a little more time – description and internal monologue.
I’ve just returned from a writing retreat at which I discovered a new tool that helps me in the final stage of this process.
Normally once my first draft is written, I discard my outline. With my current novel however I kept it – just on a whim – inserting chapter numbers to give me a comprehensive index of the plot.
I wasn’t sure how, or even if, I would use this ‘chapter sequence’ but thought it might come in handy for writing my synopsis at least. Or I could refer to it when doing revision.
At the retreat, where I’d set myself the goal of adding more depth to my characters, I spent most of my time freewriting about their pasts and jotting down issues or questions I thought they might reflect about in the story.
I ended up with a number of passages worth including. The problem was, once I’d created these various snippets, I didn’t know exactly where to insert them.
That’s where my chapter sequence came in. By reading it through, I could easily spot appropriate places to sprinkle these bits of reflection and narrative. Far faster and easier than searching through the entire manuscript.
This is the first time I’ve done it this way but it seems a useful technique to remember. One I’ll certainly try with my next book.
For me nothing feels better than knowing I've put in a good day's work doing what I love. Just at the moment my writing is going well and I'm at peace with the world. (Not always the case!)
Naturally I have to ask why this is happening. So I'll know for the next time I'm not feeling as good about writing. Is it the weather? The changing season? What's giving me this sense of satisfaction? What makes me jump out of bed in the morning and rush to the computer?
Basically it comes down to two things.
First, I'm making a bit of visible progress every day - a new scene, a bit of new dialogue, a new idea to explore further, etc.
And secondly I like what I'm coming up with. I like my story, I like the characters, I like the moral questions I've raised. I'm excited because I can see that the finished product might just be worth all the effort it's taking me to create.
That's it really. That's all I need to gain a sense of satisfaction, to keep me coming back to the page. Not the knowledge the writing is perfect but that I have the skills to fix what's wrong.
So believing is what yields the largest measure of that satisfaction. Believing I can meet the challenges of creating a work. Believing in my imagination to furnish ideas and my abilities as a writer to express them.
So a note-to-self for those times when the writing isn't going so well: There's no downside to believing in yourself. If you can't, pretend you're a writer who does.
I keep notebooks and journals for everything. One of the ones I've found most valuable is a companion to the novels I write.
My novel writing journal is different to the notebooks in which I develop my plot and characters for the story. My novel writing journal is a separate notebook where I record things not about the novels themselves, but about my personal experience in writing them.
These notes are a subjective analysis of my creative process, including how I feel about the story in its various stages. Things like:
How easy or difficult some sections of the book were to write.
What techniques worked to solve problems and which didn't.
Observations of my own fears and state of mind regarding the work.
My feelings about my writing in general and how they influenced my approach to this project.
To date I've kept notes on the creation of four different novels and in doing so have made some interesting discoveries.
I've learned for example that I'm very thorough in outlining the first half of my story, the climax scene and the ending. Once I've got this much sorted, however, the urge to begin writing the story usually overwhelms me.
I've learned that giving in to this urge is a mistake. Every time I do I've come to regret it! Because once I reach the point where my detailed scene-by-scene outline ends I always come to a grinding halt.
Another thing I've learned is that once I start a story, it's vital that I keep up my momentum, to write fast and never miss a day. To do this I have to stop myself editing as I write. I simply think of each word, each sentence as a place-holder for what will ultimately be there after I've revised them.
I've learned I always fly through the beginning of my story and then hit a wall when I reach the middle, but that I always manage to push through it.
I've learned I'm rarely excited by my characters during the first draft. It's only once I start fleshing them out and adding details in the subsequent 'layers' that the characters start to come alive for me. Only then do I start to get really excited about the story.
These are valuable things for me to know. If I didn't know them, each time they happened I'd probably panic, decide the story itself was no good and chuck it all in.
But because I have a record of my former experiences, when the going gets tough with my current one I can look back and see that the same thing happened last time. And - more importantly - that I successfully worked through the problem each time.
Writing a novel is a long winding road and it's difficult to remember all the steps I took along the way. It's a bit like childbirth - you tend to forget all the pain you went through bringing your baby into the world.
Recording those experiences helps me discover and refine my process.
With the new year I have a fresh crop of quotes and reminders pinned to the board above my computer.
As I’m currently reworking the first draft of my latest novel, most of these relate to revising and self-editing.
Many come from the how-to books of James Scott Bell, one of my favorite writing gurus.
Write fearlessly, write with joy. Leave your heart on every page.
Just because we can all write doesn’t mean we all have the same thing to say.
Three big scenes and no weak ones. John Huston’s secret to a successful film[book]
True character is only revealed in crisis. J.S. Bell
Dramatic characters, inventive plotline, exciting and intense situations… Leonard Bishop
Give them SUES. Something Unexpected in Every Scene. J.S. Bell
Write at your peak. Take breaks when it’s drudgery. J.S. Bell
Success is the sum of small efforts repeated daily. Robert Collier
Be excited about your story. The secret to excitement is to go deeper into your characters. J.S. Bell
When you write books readers love, platform takes care of itself. J.S. Bell
Have an inspired year of writing!
When I first started writing novels I’d get a few months into a new project and find myself wondering, why can’t this job be like other jobs? Why can’t a writer go to work each day, sit in an office surrounded by other writers, all typing merrily away? Why can’t we hold board meetings to discuss various ‘department projects’ or gather around the water cooler and nut out individual problems?
This daydream came to me so often, after a while I began to wonder if at least some of those things weren’t possible. I began to experiment with different ways of writing with others and over time arrived at a pleasant and surprising conclusion: for nearly every stage of the writing process there is a group activity I can take part in that makes the process far less lonely, a lot more fun, yet every bit as, if not more, productive.
So if you’re looking for ways to help keep yourself and friends writing in 2015, here are some fun ways I’ve found:
Pack Writing. Two or more friends get together for a day, or even just an afternoon, sit around someone’s kitchen table and work on their individual projects. Provided you don’t lapse into talking, writing with others creates a wonderful group energy, the experience much like riding a wave. For more variety, every time your ‘pack’ gets together it can be at a different member’s home.
Café Writing. Meet your writing friends at a café and freewrite together over coffee. Describe the setting, the people going by, record snippets of overheard conversation or come armed with topics to write about.
Have Pen/Will Travel. Same as the above but you meet in a different place every time: a park, a garden, a gallery, at the beach, an old ruin, an interesting building, etc. Form a group and let a different member select the venue each time you meet.
Freewriting/Flash Fiction Marathons. These work best with 3 to 6 people (any more and the readings take too long). Everyone brings a topic or two (and their lunch) and you spend the day writing and reading to each other: someone gives a topic, you set a timer for ten minutes and people either freewrite (ala Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones) or try to create a short short story (ala Roberta Allen’s approach in Fast Fiction)
Brainstorming Sessions. Hit a snag in your current story? Got an idea but don’t know how to develop into a plot? Get together with three of four writing buddies (who bring any problems they might be having) and kick around solutions over coffee or lunch.
Writing Retreats. If you’ve got the time and a suitable venue, nothing beats a writing retreat for getting masses of work done in a short time. No exercises provided, participants simply bring their current work in progress and work independently in an environment free of the distractions they’d have at home. (For more on retreats see my post dated March 2014)
None of the above activities needs a co-coordinator. They can be organized by any group of friends and accommodate writers of all different levels. Most require little planning and work best with fewer numbers so they cater well to individual needs and schedules.
For a creative shot in the arm, write with others in all sorts of ways and for all different purposes – groups large and small, narrow-interest or broad-focus, meeting regularly or on the spur of the moment.
Getting together with other writers reinforces the sense that what we do is important and meaningful. It’s a way to keep each other writing and remind us to have fun in the process.
Happy New Year and may the muses be with you in 2015!
There comes a point in every suspense novel I write where I wonder if I truly have dementia. I’d be convinced of it actually, if not for the fact it occurs in the same place every time.
I start out fine. With a detailed outline and a clear vision of my opening scenes, I power through the first hundred pages. Then things slow down. Understandable. Lots going on, lots of character threads to keep track of.
But then comes that moment, deep in the third quarter, in the lead up to the climax scene, where those threads just get in such a tangle my progress falters or stops completely. As it is right now with my current story.
As it has been for the last five days!
I know what happens in the climax scene and I know the ending. With 280 pages written and the rest in detailed outline form I know where I’ve been and I know where I’m going. On this journey that has taken close to nine months I can see the finish line. So why can’t I get there?
The only thing that gives me hope is that I’ve been here before. This exact thing happened with the last book I wrote, and the one before that, and I always managed to work my way out of it. It takes time and it’s frustrating but I eventually get there.
So today, instead of trying to ram my way through, I’m going to do something that’s helped in the past. My goal for the day is to simply write out each character’s version of the story. I’m going to take each of my three main characters and each of my three secondary ones and summarize the story according to them. Six separate individual journeys.
The reason this works (and the reason my problem exists in the first place) is because I write from multiple points of view. If I wrote in only one character’s pov this wouldn’t happen. But because I’m in the head of several different characters I need to know what each one is thinking – what they know, what they don’t know and what their experience has been so far.
By the time you get near the end of a story that’s a lot of information to keep track of. (So I’ll cut myself some slack in the dementia department.) Because no single character knows everything that’s happened. Each one has had a different experience. Only by knowing and clearly identifying my threads can I hope to weave them all together.
I’ll let you know how things turn out. In the meantime I’d love to hear if others have this same problem and if you’ve found any other tricks that work for you.
My second defining moment wasn't nearly as pleasant as the first but in its way has inspired me every bit as much.
I never did well in elementary school. From kindergarten through 6th grade the only reason I passed was because of the threat of summer school.
My reports cards were filled with C's and D's (barely passing) with the exception of art and violin lessons. (I even failed general music classes.)
Every year my new teacher would provide my parents a fresh diagnosis of my problem. These labels included hyperactive, dyslexic, autistic, retarded and brain damaged.
Once I hit high school I began to improve. I could concentrate more and my grades went up. But the stigma of my early school years stayed with me and, unknown to me at the time, I was pigeon-holed accordingly.
Years later in my first year at college I took an educational psychology course. One day we were talking about streaming in schools - the practice of grouping students of like intelligence and ability into the same class.
One of the students in the course had come from the same school district I had and talked about how much it had helped him being grouped with the brightest kids in the 'A' stream in high school. My high school. The one in which I'd been in all the 'C' level classes - the slowest dumbest kids in the school. A fact I never knew till that moment.
The feelings I experienced in learning this became my second defining moment. I was so angered by the discovery, I actually had to leave the class. I went out into the hall and paced up and down, silently ranting to myself.
I remembered asking my mother when I entered junior high, what the C in 7C meant. She told me it was just a way they divided the students. She knew what the real reason was I'm sure, she just never told me. (Good on ya, Mom!)
Every time I think of that day in that psych class I'm filled with the same sense of anger and outrage. How dare they shove me into that box and declare that was all I could ever be!
Strangely, my two defining moments have ended up creating a balanced push and pull in my life. On the one hand I'm pulled toward creative endeavors and derive great satisfaction from moving people through music and writing.
But at the same time, a voice deep inside is constantly pushing me to do better. To succeed where they never thought I could. To prove every one of the bastards wrong!
I don't know if this is the best or healthiest motivation but it's definitely an effective one.
People talk about defining moments as those experiences that set us on a certain path and forever change the course of our lives. I’ve had two such experiences that still affect me on a daily basis and which have combined to become the driving force behind nearly everything I do in life. Here is the first.
When I was eleven and had been learning violin for a year, my grandmother bought me my first decent instrument. She paid $100, which in those days was big bucks to pay for a student violin. (Many people told her her money was wasted as I wasn’t very good at school and had never stuck with anything in my life.)
The next time Oma came to visit us, she asked to hear me play the new violin. My mother opened my book to a song I had learned a few weeks earlier – Going Home – and said Oma would like that one.
I played the song without a hitch (or so I thought) but when I finished and looked over at Oma I saw she was crying.
My first thought was that I’d played so badly, she was crying because she’d wasted her money. But my mother explained that the song had special meaning for Oma (it’s a hymn about going home to heaven) and she was crying not because my playing was bad but because it had moved her.
This was my first experience with the power of music and I can honestly say it changed my life. To discover I could move people to tears or joy just with the sounds I produced was a total revelation, one that thrills me to this day.
In the last twenty years I’ve changed my primary means of expression from music to writing. But the prospect of moving others with words, and the stories I write, thrills me no less than it did with sound.
Next time: Defining moment 2