When Nothing Goes Right

You plotted correctly and it the story is wonderful. You drew from deep within and created the perfect characters to carry your story to conclusion. You kicked everyone out of the house or went to your special hiding place to write. And you put the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and get started.

And nothing comes out as it should. What’s worse, you can’t figure out why not so you don’t know how to do things differently in order to get it right. What to do?

Don’t sweat it. Write a few words or sentences to remind yourself later where you are in the story and what’s happening and then go on to the next part. Or to the end. Or to whatever scene in the story you can wrap your mind around at the moment. And write.

Don’t worry about the part you couldn’t do. Come back to it later when you’re in a better mood. It’ll most likely go right then because you’ll have filled in what happened before and after that particular scene.

Hint:  when this happens to me, I highlight the scene that didn’t work so I can find it easily later. For some reason I can’t figure out, just passing over those highlighted words when I’m on my way to the scene I’m working on at the moment does something. It gets the creative part of my subconscious mind working so when I do return, I find that I know exactly what to do.

Style

Funny, irreverent, somber, scary, sassy, reverent, childlike. I could do on forever with adjectives describing different writing styles. Style is wonderful. It gives stories something extra and distinguishes them from the works of other writers

That is, it’s wonderful as long as the author remembers the huge ‘don’t  that goes with using styl and that is… don’t overdo it because nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than an identifiable, individual, absolutely wonderful style that’s taken to the max and then beyond.

Think of music, especially hip-hop with it’s driving rhythm and stylized use of language. The words and rhythm that are inherent to the  hip-hop style draw listeners in and focus attention on the story.  But if you had to listen to that rhythm and those words for hour after hour without letup, would you still like it as much? Would you even remember the message in the song? Most people wouldn’t.

So when you find your style… and every writer has one… use it to identify your work but remember that a light touch is enough.

What Wouldn’t Happen?

You have an outline of some sort. Whatever works for you. And you’re following it as faithfully as your characters will let you. You know where you came from and where you’re going.

But no journey is without side trips, problems, unexpected stops and whatever else must be dealt with because things happen. The oops moment. Or the eureka moment that’s so wonderful you can’t leave it out and can’t imagine why you didn’t include it in your story to begin with.

Problem is, when you’ve dealt with whatever needed dealing with and you’re ready to get back to your story as it was plotted, you find you’re lost. Completely, totally lost. You still know where you want to go but you’re no longer are sure how to get there because whatever happened that was so wonderful, changed your original itinerary. What to do?

Novels don’t have maps or Garmins but there is a neat trick to use in such situations. Stop writing and think of what wouldn’t happen next to your characters. What absolutely would not happen.

You might not use any of the ideas that pop into your head but you’ll get the creative side of your brain working once again and the exercise itself will uncover enough new story lines and ideas that you’ll figure out a way to get back on track.

There’s a potential added benefit to this working writer tip. Your new path might improve your story in ways that would never have happened if you’d not spent time in places your characters would never, ever go on their own doing things they’d never do in a million years.

 

Not In The Mood To Write?

Common advice for writers is to put the seat of their pants on the seat of a chair and turn on their computer and start writing. This advice always gets a good laugh because everyone knows writing good fiction is a lot more complex than that.

But it’s good advice nevertheless. Some day when the muses are avoiding you like the plague, try it. Doesn’t matter if you have an idea or not. Just sit there and start writing. The alphabet. Drivel. Anything.

Because the physical act of writing causes something to happen. It’s like those laugh therapy groups. Even if you aren’t in a laughing mood, the physical act of laughing changes your body’s chemistry for the better and, before you know it, good things are happening to your body.

Same principle applies because the physical act of putting words on paper changes your mind’s chemistry and slants it towards writing something viable. What mind wants to scribble dribble forever? Even on the worst days, my mind … and yours … wants to do something worthwhile. So the rest is just a matter of figuring out where  your mind wants to go and going there.

Okay, the first few lines … or paragraphs … or pages … might end up in the waste basket as you and your mind come to agreement as to where you are heading. But the rest could be pure gold.

Minor Characters

Minor characters are sneaky.  They are necessary to the story but they aren’t supposed to take over.  The problem comes when one or more of them do exactly that.  So what to do?

Depends.  There are two kinds of minor characters.  You need to know which category your minor character belongs to before you can decide what to do about it.

The first category is that in which the minor characters flesh out the story, make it deeper, stronger and better. But if that character could be written out of the story without changing the story itself, then that particular character isn’t essential.  Rein them in, keep them under control.  Do it!

The second category is that in which the minor character is essential but isn’t the character that the story is about.  Same question applies.  Could you write that character out without changing the story?  If the answer is ‘no’ then you should think long and hard before you rein in that character.

Because your story just might be better for enlarging that character’s place and letting him or her take over a larger chunk of the action.

I’m thinking about this because, in my book Spirit Legend that’s going to be featured in a Book Blast starting the 8th of April (drum roll, please) a minor character took over and became a major player.  I didn’t know it was happening until after the book was finished.  It was the reviews that made it very clear that the character of the spirit in the lake was pivotal and important.  Reviewers used words like  ‘charming.’  ‘interesting.’  and ‘endearing.’  And the spirit only came into existence as a device to hang a story on.  Until it took over and I let it run riot because I couldn’t figure out how to rein it in.

Now that I’m deep into Wolf Legend, the same thing is happening to the character of the psychic wolf pup Snowball.  She was supposed to be an afterthought.  She now has a starring role and I’m glad to say that this time around I’m smart enough to recognize what’s happening and run with it.

So expect to see a lot of Snowball in Wolf Legend.  And I’m looking forward to seeing whichever of your minor characters take over and run with your story when you publish your next piece.

WORKING WRITER TIP… STORYBOARDING WITHOUT THE BOARD

Ever watch ‘House‘ on TV with Hugh Laurie playing the part of a brilliant diagnostician?  We do.  My husband watches the clock during the show.  Approximately 48 minutes into the show, he’ll announce that it’s epiphany time so House will shortly diagnose this week’s mysterious disease.  It happens just as he predicts.  Every time.  Because House is plotted on a storyboard.

What’s a storyboard?  Picture a calendar without numbers. That’s a storyboard.  (What follows is what you’d do if you were using an actual, physical storyboard.  We’re not using the board here so don’t actually do anything, just read so you’ll know how a storyboard works.  It’s kind of neat.  Then I’ll show you how to storyboard without the board and you might want to try that.)

Change the calander… the storyboard…  to fit the length of the story you are writing.  A short story should have only one line on it so block out the rest.  A really long novel, over 50,000 words, requires that you add extra lines to the bottom so it’ll look like a month with six or eight weeks in it.  And a calendar of six-day weeks works best.  When finished, you’ll have a storyboard that’s perfect for the story you will tell.

In the first box, write ‘beginning’ and in the last box write ‘conclusion.’  In the boxes at the ends of each line, (the ones that would be Saturday on a calendar) write ‘significant event’.  Then scribble in what happens in those scenes, the significant events being whatever changes the direction of the story.  A couple of boxes before the ‘conclusion’ box, write ‘climax.’ and scribble  in what happens in those scenes.  Then fill in the rest of the empty boxes, the ones leading up to the boxes that would be Saturday on a calendar.   And that’s how storyboards work.  They schedule the actions of a story and that schedule avoids long, boring stretches and puts the climax where it belongs,near the end. 

This works wonderfully for TV programs with allotted times and for books with required word counts.  But not every story is best told in precisely measured increments.  With e-publishing, word counts are irrelevant.  A story can have however many words are needed to tell the story. But you don’t want it to become boring, so the concept of storyboarding is still valid. So the question is, how do you use the good parts of storyboarding without having to also deal with those parts that aren’t useful to your story?

  The answer is to use a computer, that neat writing instrument that allows you to insert stuff wherever you choose.  So… open your computer, start a new file and write ‘beginning’ on the first line (beneath the title of the story).  On the line beneath that, write ‘climax’ and below that another line labeled ‘conclusion.’ 

Between the beginning and the climax, insert as many significant events as needed and label each one ‘significant event’, making  sure they build towards the conclusion.  It’s a good idea to use a different color ink when you do this, or italics or some type that’s easily noticeable.  Because the next thing you’re going to do is insert more scenes and you don’t want your significant events to get lost.

So now it’s time to insert whatever scenes lead up to each significant event, keeping in mind that the last significant event must lead immediately to the climax and that will lead immediately to the conclusion so don’t put any scenes between the last significant event and the conclusion.

Done?  Good.  Now look over your outline.  Are there more than five scenes leading up to any significant event?  If so, eliminate some or shift them to another part of the story because that’ll be too many scenes and will bore your reader and is what storyboarding, with their limited number of boxes, is designed to avoid.

If you do these things, you will have storyboarded a story that will not bore your readers and that will build to a satisfying climax and conclusion, and you’ll have done it without using a board and without the restrictions of time or word count requirements

Working Writer Tip: Endings

Once, because I was getting a student straight from the jungles of Laos, I was given a crash course in southeast Asian culture.  I learned that in that part of the world the worst insult a person can bestow on another is to touch the top of their head. Similar to giving someone the finger in the USA. 

The father of my future student told me that he was learning our culture by reading anything and everything he could get his hands on.   When he said that, an alarm went off in my head because a few days earlier I’d attended a writers’ workshop in which a student had read a story he’d written.

It was about a boy who was staying with his grandparents.  He and his gruff grandfather didn’t get along except when they went fishing and joined forces to catch the huge trout that had eluded the grandfather for years.  On the last day of the visit the boy hooked the trout and there followed a classic battle that ended with the trout getting away.  In the face of this disappointment, the boy and his grandfather silently gathered their equipment and headed for the house.  Halfway there, the grandfather, without speaking, removed the boy’s cap and ruffled his hair.  And that was the end of the story.

Most Americans reading that ending would know that the grandfather ruffling the boy’s hair was a sign of love and would see familial love as the theme of the story.  But I wonder what that Laotian father with his different cultural background would have got from that particular ending.

Endings matter.  If you want your reader to take something away from your story, don’t hide it too deeply or they might miss it completely.   So how do you create an ending that’ll let the reader take away from your story what you want them to take?  You think about the reader and what you want him or her to take away from your story.

If you want your reader to come away with a specific, very detailed life lesson, then give them an ending with that specific, very detailed lesson embedded in it.  If you want your story to become a springboard for the imagination,  then make sure there are blanks that your readers can fill in themselves.

About the story of the boy and his grandfather?  I’ve often wondered if that writer would  have written a different ending if he’d known his story would be read by someone from southeast Asia.  If I ever run into him again, I’m going to ask.

Working Writer Tip: About Beginnings

I made baskets yesterday, demonstrating the coiled basket technique as my part of advertising a farmers’ market we belong to.  When I do this I’m always surprised at the interest people show in simple grass baskets.  And they all want to know what it will look like when it’s finished. 

 I tell them they can imagine what the finished basket will look like by examining the beginning, that tiny circle of tightly-wrapped grass in the center of the bottom of the basket that is the beginning of the coils that circle around and around that small middle before gently curving upwards to form sides until enough height is achieved and a basket is made.  Whenever I tell them this, they carefully examine the center of the basket bottom and nod their heads.  Yes, they say, they can see the finished product in that small beginning.

 Same with fiction. 

 When you write a story, you make a contract with your reader.  The beginning of the story contains the terms of the contract.. The first sentence.  The first paragraph.  At least the first page.  The end of the story should be an emotional sense of the fulfillment of that contract.

 When you write a story, make a promise to your reader.  An  honest contract.  Whatever method you use to lay out your story, make sure you connect the end to the beginning.  It doesn’t have to be obvious to the reader (and shouldn’t be for some stories) but it should be as easy for you, the writer, to see the connection as it is for any casual visitor to the farmers’ market to follow the end of the coil back to that first tightly wound knot that was the beginning of a basket.

 If it isn’t, then try harder.  Redo your beginning.  Change it completely.  Do something.  Your story will be better for it, and your readers will hopefully read your next story because they will know they can trust you to make a contract with them in the beginning that will be  fulfilled in the end.

Guess What, I’m A Confession Writer

 No working writer tip today.  Instead, I’m answering a question  related to last week’s tip on how to easily get into a main character’s head and write that deep, deep POV story.

How, I was asked, did I learn that writing in first person is the easy way to a character’s heart, especially since first person POV is frowned upon in many kinds of stories and by many print publishers?  What conference did I attend that gave me this helpful tip?  Or was it an article I read?  Or, perhaps, did another writer whisper for me to try it as we passed in the hallway at a writers’ retreat?   Well…. um…. actually….none of those ways.

I learned by doing because I wanted to make a living as a writer and I believed the best place to start was with short fiction.  So, when I was given a dog-eared, out-of-date copy of the writers’ bible, the Writer’s Guide, I studied it more thoroughly than I’d ever studied for any final and any class I can remember. 

I learned that, while the payment for confession fiction didn’t equal that of major magazines, confession magazines don’t print the author’s name.  That little fact means that they don’t care how famous or infamous the author is.  And they don’t care how many times an author’s work is printed in their magazines.  So any writer, even a newbie like me, could sell and sell and sell stories to confession magazines.  As many other confession writers, I’ve had as many as three stories published in the same magazine. 

As an aside, you’d be surprised how many major romance novelist names you’d recognize if writer’s names were printed beneath the story title in any confession magazine.  It’s a great way to pick up a couple hundred bucks between novels while experiencing a slightly different kind of writing.

This pertains to first person, deep POV how, you ask?  Simple.  The one requirement of confession writing is that it be in first person.  Period.  Can be male or female, old or young, main or minor character.  Anything goes as long as it’s in first person.  So I learned to write in first person. 

In doing so, I gradually came to realize that by going deep into my character’s mind and emotions, I was naturally writing in that deep, deep POV that is a goal for many kinds of fiction.  Naturally.  Easily.  Without charts or diagrams with lines going from one character to another and back in order to correctly guage one character’s reaction to whatever or writing pages of background describing each character so I’d know how to portray them.  Nothing of the kind.  I just put myself into the mindset of my main character and let him/her tell the story in any way he/she chose.

 I still do it.  It works every time.

Working Writer Tip: Going For The Jugular

In an online writers’ group, I joined a recent thread about writing in first person.  The majority of responses were reasons not to write in the first person or reasons why some people don’t read novels written in the first person.  Then there was me.  I replied that over time I’ve segued into almost always using first person.  And there’s a reason.

If you want to get really deep into the main character’s head, emotions, fears and life in general… and I do…  there’s no better way to do so than to tell the story exactly as the main character experiences it.  I don’t ever tell the reader what the future holds or what other characters are doing or thinking unless the main character already knows.    

 Any horror movie can illustrate.  Consider the shower scene that seems to be a requirement in such movies.  You know the one, where the heroine is lathering her hair with not a care in the world while the villain creeps up on her with a hatchet and nasty intentions.  There are two ways this scene can be played. 

 In one method, which is similar to third person POV, the audience is jumping up and down in their seats and yelling at the heroine to leave quickly because they already know there’s a villain with a hatchet coming after her.  In the second method, similar to first person POV, the audience doesn’t learn of the villain’s existence until he strikes. The shock that hits the audience as they realize what’s happening at the same instant the heroine learns it, is stunning in a very, very visceral way.

 I like visceral. 

Not all writers do and not all stories should be told this way.  Family sagas, multi-faceted stories, novels set in known historical times to name a few.  But if, like me, you want tell the full and deeply emotional story of one character’s journey towards whatever goal you’ve set for her/him, you can’t go wrong using first person POV.   It’s an easy way to go for the jugular, which is a good way to make your readers feel what the main character is feeling, to sit up and take notice…  and it works every time.