Tag Archives: what to do when you’re having plotting difficulties

When You Know, You Know

I’ve been working on a new WiP for a while now – since, perhaps, last November. Things have been going slowly; I’m at just under 13,000 words, which isn’t the worst, but it’s far from where I’d like to be this far into a project. It’s a story I’m enthusiastic about, it has great characters, it has an awesome baddie (hopefully, at least), and I’m fairly sure I know where I want it to go. Every so often I get ‘flashes’ of scenes I haven’t written yet, and they’re deliciously creepy and dark, and different from anything I’ve written before.

But, nevertheless. Something’s not working.

Yesterday, as I struggled to the end of a new chapter, I decided it was time to think about some tough issues and make some hard decisions. I think it’s time to let this proto-draft go, and to start afresh, and that’s upsetting.

I’ve been caught in a dreaded ‘never-ending editing’ loop with this book, too, which doesn’t normally happen to me. I end up reading the whole thing from the beginning every time I try to add to it, instead of just picking up where I left off. This isn’t a bad thing, as such, but it makes for painfully slow progress, and it means that the book’s opening starts to seem unbearably stale and unnervingly boring. However, because it’s not something I normally do I think it’s my brain trying to tell me ‘there’s a problem here.’

Photo Credit: privatenobby via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: privatenobby via Compfight cc

I think the problem is that things in this story escalate too quickly. Basically, it’s a MG tale with a contemporary setting, into which a malevolent and magical force appears, and instead of building up to things gradually – hinting at the creepiness, giving small indications that all is not as it should be, and working on the characters – the full force of the supernatural just bursts onto the scene all in one go, and it comes across as rather melodramatic and over-the-top. Instead of being scary, it seems a bit Hammer Horror-esque.

This, needless to say, is A Bad Thing.

I think there’s only one thing for it, and that’s to start again from scratch, pick a different starting point, and firmly establish the ‘real’ world before I start to bring in hints of the ‘other’. Perhaps it was enthusiasm, perhaps it was stress (I’m leaning more towards stress, to be honest), perhaps it was self-pressure caused by my intrinsic need to be doing something, to be constantly moving forward, but I’ve made an error of judgement with this story so far, and with writing as with so much else in life: when you know, you know. Sometimes, writing is a struggle, and that’s to be expected: it doesn’t always flow like you’re taking dictation from a higher power. It’s work, at the end of the day. But when writing feels like hacking through solid rock, it can indicate a problem, whether it’s with your writing or your life in general, or both. It doesn’t always mean you need to stop and move away from what you’re doing (sometimes taking a rest is enough), but sometimes it does. This is one of those times.

So, today will be spent picking through my original plan for this story (for some reason, the draft I was working on diverged rather a lot from the initial ‘shape’ I’d envisaged; some of these changes were good, and will be kept, and others not so much), and making some tentative steps towards beginning again and finding a new ‘voice’ for the story. Hopefully it will be clear pretty quickly whether I’ve managed to make things worse or better, and I can take it from there.

Of course, the fact that it’s January probably isn’t doing a lot to help. It doesn’t do to overlook the depressive power of the first month of the year! But there’s more to it than just that, I know. There’s only one thing for it, and that’s to keep putting words on the page – but I’ve got to make sure they’re the right words, in the right story, and that writing them doesn’t leave me feeling vaguely empty and unsatisfied inside. I’m hopeful I’ll find the proper path again, and I know this experience has been a valuable one. You can only find the right path when you’ve been down a few ‘wrong’ ones… So, I’m strapping on my hiking boots and getting on with it.

Happy Wednesday, everyone. I hope the world is well with you today, wherever you may be.

Blocked at Every Turn

You know when you see a mouse in a maze, and it’s running up a passageway only to find it’s blocked off, and so then it changes direction and runs down another passageway only to find – horrors! – that it’s blocked off, too, and so on?

Yes. Well. I always had huge sympathy for mice in those sorts of situations. From now on, though, I will have even more, because, right now, that mouse is me, people.

Photo Credit: Rain Rabbit via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Rain Rabbit via Compfight cc

You see? I’m so stressed I’m using too many commas.

I’m about three-quarters of the way into my rewrite of Eldritch. My hero is in a bind. He’s trapped in the presence of a powerful, but unhinged, relative who has A Nefarious Plan. Of course, my hero has a secret weapon, but it’s not one he knows about yet – and even if he knew he had it, he wouldn’t know how to use it, anyway. So, as you can see, plenty of scope for dramatic tension.

You’d think.

The first version of this story had the hero trotting off, at this point, on a whole rambling sub-plot about magical creatures which (for reasons best known to the automaton who appears to run my brain) appeared in the story, just because. I got myself all tangled up in their world, their King, their city, their rules and laws – and after about ten pages of this I came to a screeching halt and went…

What is the point of any of this?

So I stopped, forthwith, and went back to the last good point in the story. We have the hero and his relative facing one another down. Cue lots of mwahaha-ing and threatening language and displays of awesome magical power, and in this version the hero accidentally discovers how to use the secret weapon we talked about.

It should’ve been brilliant. But instead it was – flat. Ridiculous, actually. Images which looked so cool in my imagination came out of my fingers like so much fluff.

I junked all that, too, and went back to the first storyline which – if I’m being honest – seemed to flow better in terms of my ability to put one word after another, but I still had the nagging question in the back of my mind all the time. What is the point of any of this? Having been through a substantial edit on another book, I could anticipate my agent reading the work I was doing. I could see her comments. ‘Sorry, but what in the world is going on here? What does this have to do with anything?’ The only answer I’d be able to give her would be ‘Nothing. None of this has anything to do with anything, because it’s just silly. And unless I can find a way to tie it to the larger plot, it’s a piece of pretty decoration but not a lot else.’

Which meant, of course, it has to go.

So then it was back to rethinking the other plot, the secret weapon one. I had to consider what I wanted my character to do at this point; what does he need to learn? He has to overcome a difficulty, sure – but it doesn’t have to be a difficulty on the magnitude of being taken hostage by a bunch of magical creatures and having to fight his way out of their clutches at the same time as trying to fight his deranged relative. He has to learn that he has power within him which he hasn’t tried to tap, yet; he has to learn that when he needs to make a last stand and deliver, that he has the goods. So, there has to be another way – a neater and more pleasing way – of doing that.

There has to be.

So I decided to consider the scene in relation to the story overall, keeping in mind the larger movement of the book. One of the reasons I felt the scene with the magical creatures wasn’t working was that it was too slow, and took the story away from the primary field of action for too long. It wasn’t necessarily a bad scene, badly written or uninteresting – it just didn’t fit where I was trying to put it.

The first question I asked myself was: what is this scene trying to illustrate? I realised that the answer lies in several parts. Firstly, the power of the antagonist, and the lengths to which he’ll go to get what he wants. Secondly, the power – as yet untapped – of the protagonist, who knows not only his life, but also the lives of people he loves, are being put in danger by his relative’s megalomania. Thirdly, it has to hint at (but not give away entirely) the method by which the hero will eventually fight the antagonist, and I don’t want there to be too much repetition going on. As my agent said, repeatedly, on my last MS: ‘Ring the changes.’ As in, don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of using the same structure, plot device or conceit too often. It’s really easy to do, and it can be really hard to fix. I’m still not sure how to distinguish this preliminary battle scene from the one which I’m sure will come later – the showdown – but I think I have a calmer handle on the story at this point. I think. Though I’ve yet to look at it today, so that might all change in the next thirty minutes.

Anyway. I think I can safely say I found this technique (wherein I stop running around bashing myself into walls for long enough to think about the actual book and what I want it to do) very helpful. I keep forgetting who’s in charge when it comes to writing; I think of the book as being the one who calls the shots, neglecting to remember that I’m the writer and therefore the shots all lie with me. I also tend to put myself under so much pressure, as though there’s a looming deadline, that it destroys any sense of creativity or fun I might have in my work. There really is no need to panic: the calmer you are when looking for your story, the easier it is to find it.

That’s the theory, anyway. I’ll let you know how it all works out.

Breakthrough

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how often a breakthrough (in life, in work, in whatever) is preceded by a breakdown – or, at least, what feels like one.

Last week was not a good week for me in terms of writing. I worked through a panic, during which I felt the story falling apart.  I had taken a misstep somewhere, and I wasn’t sure where, or how to fix it. That bad decision (both the misstep, and the idea that if I just kept on ploughing through it was bound to all come together in the end) meant that everything started to unravel, which deepened the panic, which lessened my ability to focus on what I was doing, which meant – of course – that it all got worse, and fast. Last week, I went through various stages of telling myself ‘You can’t do this writing thing’, followed by ‘How could you possibly think you had any hope of making a career of this?’, which segued neatly into my assertion that  I was nothing but a silly twit who’d never had a good idea in her life.

So. Not a lot of fun. Lots of befrazzlement and staring into space and interior darkness, but I think that’s sort of expected, when you write.

Then, the weekend came, and my very clever husband decided to distract me by bringing me places where I couldn’t think about the book. We went to hear a concert band playing, and we visited a craft fair, and we relaxed. We both needed it.

And on Saturday night – very very late – just as we were about to drift off to sleep, I suddenly started getting ideas. Breakthrough ideas. ‘Bring-it-back-to-its-last-known-good-setting-and-work-from-there’ ideas. I lay, listening to my husband’s quiet breathing, knowing he wasn’t quite asleep but almost, and thought. I made a plan for a new plot and went through it a few times, over and back, examining it from all angles like it was a diamond. It seemed to work; certainly, I was excited at the thought of putting it down on paper. It was dynamic, and fresh, and it connected the characters’ arcs in just the way I’d been looking for, and it was nicely sleight-of-hand in terms of diverting the reader’s attention. It was, in short, a possible solution to the knot that I’d managed to tangle myself up in.

Eventually, however, I dragged myself out of my head and realised I was lying in a quiet, darkened bedroom, where the slightest move would disturb my (by now) almost certainly sleeping husband. But I also realised that I couldn’t trust myself to remember the details of this new plot. I couldn’t face the idea of waking the following morning grasping at the threads of it, watching as it dissipated before my eyes like smoke from an extinguished candle. That has happened to me too often in the past. It’s not too bad when it’s an idea for a short story or just a general ‘idea’, to be used somewhere at some stage, but something like this? I had to hold onto it at all costs, and I knew it.

So. I think we can all guess what course of action I took. Here’s an apologetic dog, just to soften you up for what’s coming next.

Image: unsplash.com

Image: unsplash.com

I grabbed my phone and started to tap a note into it, whispering ‘sorry!’ to my blinking, confused husband. The light from the screen was bright in the gloom, and it dragged him up out of whatever dream he’d just been relaxing into. Luckily for me, he took it well, and settled back down again quite quickly.

My note, of course, was riddled with errors; between the fact that I was gazing at the screen out of one eye (due to the contrast between its glow and the darkness all around), the fact that I was tired and – most importantly – the fact that I was in a hurry to get this out of my head before I forgot it, I think about five percent of the words were spelled correctly. It’s a testament to my desperation that I didn’t linger over my work to make any corrections, and when I read it over the following morning I laughed at how some of my sentences had turned out. Luckily they all made sense, and I’ve even kept the spelling mistakes to remind myself how important it is to listen to the little voice in your head that suggests a way out of whatever issue you feel you’re irretrievably lost in, no matter what time of day or night it starts to speak to you.

Naturally enough, the following morning my beleaguered husband was glad I’d had this breakthrough and even gladder that I’d managed to write it down, but he did make a humble suggestion: why don’t you get a pen and paper and leave them by the bed, instead of using your phone? Perhaps I’d better listen to him. He did have the great idea to go away from all work at the weekend, after all; without that, I’d still be bunched, spiralling further into my panic-maelstrom.

It is a shame that we need to reach our lowest point before we can start coming up again, but it’s important to always have hope that this upward progression is possible, and that it will happen. No plot problem is ever insurmountable, whether we’re talking a plot you’re writing, or one you’re living. Take some time out. Breathe a bit. Go and see a concert band and watch some kids dancing, totally carefree. Hold the hand of someone you love.

The words will be there when you’re ready.