Tag Archives: common problems in writing

Success! (ish…)

All the notebooks! All the wiggly lines! All the markers!  This, kids, is what plotting looks like.

All the notebooks! All the wiggly lines! All the markers!
This, kids, is what plotting looks like.

Today, November 11th, always fills me full of feelings. My mind is on battlefields and gently waving rows of blood-red poppies and ranks of simple white gravestones, and on the harrowing losses of war. I’ve already shed a few tears this morning, and I’m sure I’ll shed a few more before the day is out – but that’s not what I want to write about, today.

(It’s not because I don’t care. It’s because if I started writing about the War, things would get messy very quickly, and nobody wants that).

So instead, I’m going to write about plotting (still), and how well (or badly) my ‘method‘ has been working out for me.

The first thing I did yesterday was print a copy of my own post, Conducting a Story, and lay it out flat on my desk to get an overall reminder of the ups and downs which every plot should have. Then, I  made a list of the core things about this book – significant themes, important events (by which I mean they’re interesting while they happen, but they also cause other things to happen, thereby advancing the story), the primary characters and their relationships to one another, some of the imagery which I’d consider to be essential and – something which took me by surprise, a bit – a box in which I mapped out all the places in the book where the characters have a choice about what way they’re going to act, and where they don’t, and whether there’s a balance or any sort of symmetry between them.

I was almost finished doing this last bit, mapping out the choices, before I understood what I was doing it for, actually. Strange, sometimes, how your brain just takes over and gets the job done if you give it the space it needs. It’s important when you’re putting a story together that you show your characters being active, making choices (even or especially if they’re ‘wrong’, or don’t lead them to the desired outcome straight away); that’s something I have a particular problem with, so this is why I focused on it. When you’re plotting and structuring your story it can happen, without you even realising, that you’re constructing your story around your characters’ needs and thereby giving them no space for their own agency and decision-making. Things happen to them, not because of them, and that makes for a boring story where your character is simply awash on a flood of events out of their control, going with the flow and doing whatever they’re told – and who wants to read about that?

Nope. You want to put them into complicated situations and twisty dilemmas, where the choices aren’t always clear-cut. They need to be shown wondering if they make this choice over that choice, what difference it will make; who will be affected (besides themselves) by their choices; what the long-term ramifications of their choices will be, and what the endgame is, as far as they can predict it.

So, basically, just like making a decision in real life.

The important thing is that they have to make decisions and act on them, and – importantly – that this is made perfectly clear to the reader. These decisions can’t all be internal to the character, and left to the reader to decipher. While writing ‘Emmeline’, for example, there were several instances where things appear to simply ‘happen’ to Emmeline, and contrived coincidences, none of which were intended, abounded. One of the reasons for this was that I hadn’t made the motivations of other characters around Emmeline clear – they had their own reasons for doing things, which had nothing to do with her – and because she seemed to be carried along with their actions, making no decisions for herself at critical junctures, it turned into a major mistake. To fix it, I had to bring her thought processes to the fore, showing how she was using things to her own advantage, and also change one scene subtly to show her directing the action, instead of simply acting once the decision had been made. Because the writer is clued into the characters’ thought processes it can be hard to spot where you’ve simply not explained why a character is making a particular choice – or seeming not to – and so I found it useful to make a list of the pinch-points in ‘Eldritch’ where choices need to be made, and who makes them, and why.

Then, I moved on to mapping out the ‘corners’ – the turning points, I guess, which are vital to the story’s structure – and I divided the book up into four rough quarters. I hoped that each of them would be equal, or nearly equal, in terms of length and that each corner would have a moment of crisis which led to a change, and that they’d fit together, one leading to another. Then, I took my ‘story beats’ – Change, Crisis, Choice (1), Change, Challenge, Chase, Crucible, Chance, Choice (2) and Calm – and mapped them onto my corners, in the hope that the major plot events as they stand now would fit roughly into this schema – and they did. Not as evenly or in as finely balanced a way as I would have liked, but it was a pleasant surprise to see the book’s structure come together. The story isn’t exactly where I want it, yet; there are things I know need to happen, and I’m not sure how best to arrange those scenes, but it’s a major positive to feel that the overall shape of the book will hold. I had been feeling rather despairing about salvaging ‘Eldritch’, but now I feel there may be hope.

And isn’t hope the best feeling in the world? I think so. Have a hopeful and positive Armistice Day, everyone.

 

 

 

Imagining Places, Imagining Spaces

I’ve been doing a lot of hacking away at ‘Emmeline’ this week – in other news, I think I may have come up with a better title for the story, but more on that anon – and I’m right up there within, I’d guess, 5,000 words of the Grand Dénouement. However, nothing ever runs easily in my world.

I feel a bit like this guy. Image: lookandlearn.com

I feel a bit like this guy.
Image: lookandlearn.com

I’m finding it tough going these past few days – maybe 500 words here, one thousand there – and I reckon there are a few reasons for that. One of the main reasons (besides a few plot issues, which I’m pretty sure a rewrite will take care of) is the fact that the ending of the book takes place in a part of the world I’ve never been to, in a space I find hard to imagine, and in a setting so unfamiliar and different from my everyday life as to be completely alien.

I’m learning that one of the most important things you can do for yourself when you’re writing is this: Believe in your settings.

If your book is set in our world, and you have the means to travel there, then I suppose nothing can beat the experience of seeing it for yourself. But, however, if you’re like most people and your means are feeling pretty mean, travelling to far-flung parts of the globe isn’t really an option. The internet can help, of course, with images and inspiration and handy phrases in the local language and first-hand testimony of how it feels to scale Everest or survive an earthquake or visit Pompeii, or whatever it is you’re writing about, and it’s a good tool to use if you can’t see your setting with your own two eyes. But something as important as all that – and something I am currently finding difficult – is the necessity to believe, wholeheartedly, in the setting you’re writing about. Write about it with as much confidence as if it was the view you can see out your bedroom window. Write about it with as much pizzazz as if your fictional setting was somewhere you know intimately. Open your imagination up, and make sure your settings – your landscape, your climate, your vegetation, your animal life, your transport networks, your geographical anomalies, your people, your language(s), whatever – are all as clear to you as the reality around you, whether or not your imagined landscape is strictly true.

Now, obviously, you don’t need to describe all this detail to the reader. All the story needs is what’s necessary to make it happen. But it helps you to know your setting in all this detail. In a lot of ways, depending on the book, the setting is as important as another character. You know your characters inside-out – their backstory, their dreams and hopes and loves, their motivation – so why not your landscape, too?

Image: minigardenshoppe.com

Image: minigardenshoppe.com

My story, right now, is suffering because of my own fear of the setting I’ve put it in. It’s a vast canvas, an empty and howling landscape, a frozen and barren expanse. I don’t know what it’s like to live and work there – and I don’t know what it’s like to breathe its air or walk on its surface or exist in its embrace. I’m trying to imagine it, and it’s hard. I lack the confidence in myself and my own ability to just trust myself to write it well, even if it’s not entirely geographically and/or climatically accurate. This particular landscape is important to the plot insofar as it’s a challenge, and an obstacle, and it’s home to certain creatures who do not have anything good to say about the heroine and her brave band of comrades – but I’m not writing a natural history of the country, and so I feel I’m getting hung up unnecessarily, in some ways. I’m allowing myself to be derailed by doubts – ‘could that actually happen?’ ‘There’s no way the landscape would look like that,’ ‘This is stupid! None of this could actually take place!’ – and I have to keep reminding myself that this is my book, my world, my story, and anything I dream can happen within it.

If verisimilitude of setting is important to you, or to your story, then by all means get your work checked over by someone who’s familiar with that part of the world, or do some more intensive research, or whatever you need to do once the words have been written. If, however, you’re not writing a book whose plot hinges on whether a particular type of flower grows at a particular altitude or whether a certain wave pattern brings specific weather effects to a defined part of the world, then perhaps it’s not as important to be absolutely accurate, in a geographical or scientific sense. What matters is that your landscapes and settings are real to you, and that they make sense in the world of your book – without, of course, taking liberties like placing a sandy desert in the heart of Antarctica (without having a very good, and logical, reason, at least!)

It’s hard to write without a backdrop against which to place your characters – at least, it is for me. But, equally important as having a clear, skilfully described landscape (not too much detail, and not too little) to place them in is having the confidence to say ‘this is my story, and this is my world. These are my rules.’

Image: covermyfb.blogspot.com

Image: covermyfb.blogspot.com

I’m going to tackle ‘Emmeline’ with a different mindset today. I’m not going to let my fears that I’m writing something ‘wrong’ derail my desire to finish this story, and I’m going to stop letting the backdrop run the whole show.

And I’m going to start trying to believe in myself a little more.

It’s the End of the Week as We Know It…

…and I feel (largely) fine!

This is despite the fact that – of course – my hubris has caught up with me again.

Ah, yes... she's coming! I, Hubris, will throw this pie in her big silly face and show her who's in charge around here! Image: wordswewomenwrite.wordpress.com

Ah, yes… she’s coming! I, Hubris, will throw this pie in her big silly face and show her who’s in charge around here!
Image: wordswewomenwrite.wordpress.com

I was supposed to start the querying process by the end of this week. You might remember I said so, in black and white, right here on this very blog. Putting things in writing here is sort of like creating a contract with myself, a means of shaming myself into doing stuff in a timely fashion. If I write it here, I have to follow through with it.

It works well, a lot of the time.

Not, however, when the book I want to query is undercooked, as ‘Eldritch’ definitely was – and, perhaps, still is. Although, I really hope not.

I’ve spent this week working through the book again, reading carefully, editing (6, 500 words fell beneath my ruthless blade!), fixing problems, keeping an eye out for things like ‘jumpy’ scenes – in other words, when reading something makes you feel like you’re listening to a CD skipping* – and something I tend to do a lot, I’ve noticed: writing unrealistic reactions.

What I mean by ‘writing unrealistic reactions’, of course, is having a character go completely nuts with rage when it’s, actually, a vast overreaction to the situation at that time, or say something which is logically unconnected to what’s gone before, or seem too calm when another character drops a bombshell of bad news on their head, or whatever it might be. I can’t really explain why I did this so often during the course of the book, particularly near the end, without even realising it; on this, most recent read-through, all these ‘clanging’ moments jumped out at me like samba dancers wearing neon headdresses, but up to this point I’d entirely missed them.

I think, somehow, it might go back to an age-old conflict in the world of fiction-writing: plot vs. character.

Take that, you bounder! Image: nancylauzon.com

Take that, you bounder!
Image: nancylauzon.com

I’ve a feeling what happened was this, or something like it. On the first few drafts, I was too busy getting the plot of ‘Eldritch’ out onto the page, unravelled, exposed, explained, resolved and told to focus sufficiently on keeping my characters consistent. This, of course, is a silly, silly thing to do. A book should rest on the shoulders of its characters. They should drive it, they should shape and mould it, their reactions should be true to their personalities (because, yes, even fictional people have personalities!); in short, a collection of things happening is a story; characters living through that story makes a plot. But, at all times, a writer must be mindful that their characters are the focus. People don’t (generally) act wildly ‘out of character’, unless they have an excellent reason – so, why would it be different for a fictional person?

If this is forgotten, what we have are wooden-seeming characters, who move about jerkily like Thunderbird puppets, waiting for a string to be pulled before they can take any action. If we have prioritised story over character, then it’s natural that reactions will be unbelievable and ‘unreal’, unnatural, and clunky. And, of course, this is not something which will go unnoticed by a reader. It will scream out from the page, and make a reader very unhappy indeed, and may even lead to them (gasp) not finishing the book. That, of course, is a nightmare scenario. I know, as a reader myself, that what I look for in a story more than anything else is characters so real I feel I can reach into my book and touch them, characters with whom I can imagine having a conversation (or a beer, depending on the book), characters who are fully rounded, fully realised and true to themselves, and who act at all times in accordance with their personalities and the circumstances in which they find themselves. So, it upsets me that as a writer, I should fall into the trap of prioritising plot over people.

The only good thing in this situation is, of course, that I’ve spotted my mistakes now, and not three weeks after I’d started querying the manuscript. I also know that the draft of ‘Eldritch’ currently saved on my various computer files and disks is a better version of the book than that which existed two weeks, even one week, ago; after it’s settled for a few days in my mind, I’ll go back to it again and make sure it still holds water. It’s by no means a perfect book, but I dare to hope it’s reasonably good. In its own small way.

And then. And then it’ll be time to send it away into the big bad world. I hope it doesn’t come back until it’s encased within covers.

*I’ve just realised how many people reading this will now be thinking ‘What an old-fashioned fuddy duddy stick in the mud! CDs? I don’t even know what they are anymore.’ Well, sorry about that. I’m a troglodyte.