Last time we discussed how to handle blocks when the writer is the problem–all of the little mental issues that can keep a story from progressing. This time around, let’s look at problems that originate with the story itself–frequently, these are much easier to tackle, but can be harder to identify!
My first draft of The Spider’s Web bore very little resemblance to the final, published work, and I won’t lie–it was a nightmare to write. Every scene was written out of order. I literally sat on the floor with tape, scissors, and sticky notes, cutting up pages, taping them back together, and rearranging everything chronologically. I used sticky notes and a red pen to mark anything that needed changing, and then created a flowchart to map everything I’d written and the parts that were still missing, the bridges between scenes.
That book was re-written so many times. It had a lot of issues. But I learned so much writing it–both about writing in general, and myself as an author. I learned what works for me, and what doesn’t.
So, you have your draft. Your first draft, to be specific. And it has stalled out around 40,000 words, and you’ve got no idea what needs to happen next.
First, take a look at what you’ve got so far. What needs to happen in the story? Create an outline. Summarize every scene that needs to happen in a single sentence. Break things down by chapter. How are you going to get your main character to their happily ever after?
But Sophie, I already have an outline!
Good. That’s a great place to start. If you know what the next step is, and just aren’t sure how to take it, then it means we need to look a little deeper.
A sense of place
There are two big lessons I learned from The Spider’s Web. The first is that I need to work with an existing location, be it historical or contemporary. I took a writing class my freshman year of college that I absolutely hated–the teacher and I butted heads on everything. I’m a dedicated genre fiction girl, and he was all about literary fiction. Genre fiction, in his view, was so far inferior as to be completely unworthy of study or consideration.
There was one lesson, however, that really stuck with me. I don’t remember what the reading was, or the specific assignment, but it was all about a sense of place in writing; knowing exactly where your story is set and how it will affect the outcome.
I realized then that most of my favorite books, television shows, and movies all had settings that almost became supporting characters in the action. In the movie Practical Magic, the small town where the story takes place adds such atmosphere to the story, it couldn’t possibly take place anywhere else.
I’d grown up on media meant to take place in Anywhere, USA, but was continually drawn to stories that broke away from that trope.
Once I started using specific locations–Montreal, Quebec. Dublin, Ohio. Buffalo, New York–then my stories started to fall into place much more readily. The added benefit is instead of keeping track of what street a character lives on and how far they have to travel to work, and what direction I said it was in in chapter 2, and does that make sense in chapter 7, I can concentrate on plot threads and character development.
I don’t write high fantasy, or sci-fi set in other worlds. But, if that is what your working on, I still have a few tips:
You can base a fantastical setting on a real place. How many fantasy novels have you picked up and been able to identify the non-existent city as an alternate version of London, or New York, or a mashup or Tokyo and Cairo, or the wild west, but with zombies and clockwork automatons? For a good example, try reading the Lunar Chronicles, by Marissa Meyer.
If you’re building a world from scratch, then the best advice I can give is to do as much research as possible–weather patterns, ecosystems. What kind of pack animals do they use? What is the political structure? How has the landscape affected building techniques and materials? For this type of world building, I highly recommend A Curse on the Mountain by Missouri Dalton.
Sharp Left Turns
Despite best laid plans, it is not uncommon for my characters, or my stories, to make sudden turns I didn’t plan for. Sometimes a story stalls because of one of these events.
Other times, you have to add in a sharp left in order to get a stalled plot moving again. For example, in writing the third Evie book, I struggled to keep my characters moving forward. The setting was a haunted house, and all of my characters, intelligent creatures that they are, took one look around and said…”Nope. Bad idea. We should get out of here.”
It didn’t matter that leaving effectively ended the book, or the number of reasons I gave them to stay. They basically sat around looking at me with raised eyebrows going, “You expect us to go in there? You’re crazy, right?” (Considering I regularly have conversations with them like this in my head, they may have a point.)
I had to find a way of changing the status quo. They needed some kind of curve ball. Even after trapping them in the house, they were more bent on escape than solving the mystery at hand.
I talked it over with Missouri. Her suggestion was to have them find a body. “Just drop one in there,” she said. Since I didn’t have any other ideas, I decided to take it literally. After the dead body crashed through the ceiling, taking about fifty years off their lives collectively, the story started to move forward again.
On the other hand, sometimes, as writers, we like too add in extra bits that don’t do anything to progress the plot. They seem important at the time, but really aren’t in the long run. If you catch yourself writing a scene like this, think twice (and then maybe three or four times) before finishing it. More often than not, though, these are the scenes which get cut in revisions.
So, to sum up: Know where you are, know where you’re going, and take the scenic route whenever possible–just to too scenic.
Next week, we’ll wrap up by talking characters.