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Friday, July 9, 2010

Writing Workshop, Part III: How to Stick With It

I would say that the number one thing I hear all the time as a writer is this: "Oh! I've always wanted to write a novel. In fact, I have a great idea for a mystery/thriller/tearjerker/YA paranormal"... Etc.

I have no doubt that all of the people who say this to me (in recent weeks: my dentist, a B and B owner in Martha's Vineyard, a woman at a cocktail party) do, in fact, have a great idea for a novel. I also have no doubt that they could write a great book. But the fact remains that most of them don't. And the question is why?

Let's be honest, people. The fun part of writing a book IS the idea, and possibly a few great scenes you imagine in your head, maybe a few lines of whip-smart dialogue you can already envision on the printed page. What's not so fun?

Well, um, just about everything else...i.e., the actual writing. The vast majority of the choices you make when writing are mechanical, not artistic--you need to make sure the damn thing holds together. In that way writing has more in common with automechanics than it does with inspiration or The Muse. People need to stand up, sit down, walk into rooms, have flashbacks that don't interfere with the current action, want what they don't need and need what they don't want and not be able to see what the reader can plainly perceive. It's a 350+ page puzzle, without the accompanying image that illustrates whether you are on the right track.

I think that's why people don't end up finishing books: it's too easy to get lost amidst a pile of bolts and pipes and valves and rubble. It's easier at that point to walk away than it is to slog through the mess and try to build something drive-able (er, readable).

So HOW can you avoid this? How can you stay motivated through the mid-section slog, when you have no idea what is supposed to come next and your characters are misbehaving and the gorgeous scene you'd imagined in your head has morphed into a nonsensical mess on the page?

There are several different factors when it comes to staying motivated, because there are several dimensions of snag/difficulty/resistance you will encounter as a writer. In this post I will focus on the kind of resistance that comes from confusion, and not knowing what comes next for your characters or your book. It is hard to sit down and write; but it is infinitely easier once you know what you are supposed to be writing about.

When I start a book, I always take a 2-3 week period of what I like to think of as "play-time"; I explore the world and the characters, write down some great lines, get a sense of the world of the book. And then I sit down and I outline. Outlining isn't fun--it's the novelistic equivalent of writing a car service manual--but trust and believe, you will be SERIOUSLY grateful for the big-picture info it will provide when you're at page 132 and your character has just wedged herself behind a refrigerator and you have NO idea how to get her out.

Outlines, like manuals, are only useful in so far as they are detailed and specific, so I highly recommend you don't scrimp on this part of the process, especially if you are relatively new to writing. Go ahead and dive in chapter by chapter; really think about everything that can and must occur in Acts One, Two, and Three (for more on the three-act structure, see my blog post here.) It might help to flesh out seminal, or "turning point" scenes first, and then think about what should precede and immediately follow those. Get down and dirty in there; some of my outlines are twenty pages, single spaced. Remember, you are building a lifeline; later, when you're lost and discouraged, you can pull yourself ahead on this rope.

And yes, people, I know that outlining is difficult and soul-crushing work. But nobody ever said writing was all daisies and chocolate malts! (And if they did, they were lying...or they have never actually finished a book!)

More on staying motivated in future posts...


DJ D. said...

Sticking with something is definitely a problem with me, especially that sexy new idea walks into my mind. Haha. But I've never been one to outline, so I'm going to try it next time around. Thank you so much for these writing posts!

Lenore Appelhans said...

This post is a godsend to me right now. Thanks Lauren!

Lynsey Newton said...

Great post, I'm book marking and printing out now!! YAY for outlines :)

Daisy Whitney said...

Totally agree. The first time I wrote an outline was for the book I am line editing now and about to hand in to my Little Brown editor next month and it was by far the least angsty, make me crazy, I don't know what to do book, because...I HAD OUTLINED IT! And it was 10 pages single spaced detailing all the twists and turns. And this is also the most complex novel I have written plot wise. Yet having the outline was the most wonderful friendly guide to escort me through the tough parts. I KNEW what I had to do and how to get there and, yes, many times I diverged from the outline, but that's the beauty of it too. I knew the big picture and it made everything seem achievable.

Heather said...

Great post! I hear people talking about wanting to write books all.the.time. but it's quickly followed up with an excuse/reason about how it's too hard/time-consuming. Both of those things are true, but if you can stay motivated and love writing, the end product is worth it.

Jenny said...

Great tips! I'm loving this whole series you're doing. I'm one of those... I want to write a book people but never get around to doing much. I definitely think I need to write an outline and it's encouraging to me that you do that!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Lauren. I have 60 or 70 bright, glittery ideas I could write about, and more coming into my head all the time, so I have a lot of experience with gorgeous head scenes.

I have relatively less experience with messy page scenes, because I just don't get around to writing them--I've only ever managed finished drafts on four or five of those ideas, none of which remotely approached something I would submit for publication.

I'm not generally an outliner, myself. When I do outlines, it tends to be an extension of the head scene phase, in that I get an outline on the page, but the scenes are still jogging ahead of me a few feet every time I try to put actual prose down.

I'd say that there are two phases in writing where it's hard to actually write: Before you get started for the first time, and after you've written some things and learned just enough to know how bad you are. 95% of people who might think about writing get stuck at the first phase, and 90% of the people who get past that get caught in the second phase.

Outlining is certainly one possible way to get past phase one.

Heidi Ayarbe said...

LOVE this!! I never really could put my finger on WHY more people who have great ideas don't follow through. They get buried in the rubble of what writing really is -- lots of rubble -- like tinkering away at an archeological site without busting the fossil.
Loved your thoughts, especially since I'm giving a talk in a couple of weeks, you've given me a great tool to describe WHAT I DO!!
Loved it.

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