A friend says this has happened to her more than once. Yep, I’ve been there, too. I have two “practice novels” in a box under the bed. Here’s what happened to me, in part: Sometimes when I’m writing, a character will say or do something that takes the story in a different direction than I’d planned. That might be good, but not always. It might really, subconsciously, reflect a theme from movie I saw last night, or a book I’m reading. (I can be hopelessly derivative). You might let this go and see where it takes you, but sometimes you find yourself writing and not caring. A million other things seem more interesting. You want to give up.
Related: Have you ever told somebody about your story and had them say, “Hey, you know what you could do? Once your main character gets to Denver, she could…” and then they’re off to the races writing your story for you. I really hate when that happens. It just deflates my balloon, and I think I know why:
Writing is entrepreneurial. We are, whether we know it or not, solo businesspeople. When somebody comes along and tells us what we should write, it changes our relationship to our business. Now instead of being the boss, we feel like an employee. We’ve received an assignment. It might be exciting at first to follow that new leader, but then we run out of gas and find ourselves sitting in front of a stinking pile of paper, and it isn’t our own anymore.
If either of the above happen to you, try asking yourself, “What was I originally trying to say? What was it about my original idea that fired me up?” If you can find that ember again and fan it, you might be able to get back on track. (and save the digression piece for a later short story or twist).
Even though she doesn’t know me, I have a fantastic writing mentor in Jane Friedman, one of the top editors at the Writer’s Digest empire. She’s always posting a lot of great, free advice for writers all over the Web. I found this fantastic article on why netting and platforming is so important to do BEFORE you finish your first book.
I was so glad to find it because even though Dakota Blues isn’t quite polished enough to start querying, I’m netting like mad. I even took an officer position at the Palm Springs branch of American Pen Women to upgrade my netting skills and expand my reach. In that job, as in so much else that I’m doing, I’m working my ass off on a lot of things that don’t directly involve writing (e.g. raising money for scholarships for local women.)
I long to sit at my keyboard and hang out with my main two characters, Kristen and Frieda. They’re somewhere in the Black Hills, camping and bickering as usual, with newly-fired workaholic exec Kristen chompin’ at the bit to get back to the corporate world, but 90-year-old Frieda trying to put on the brakes because she knows that as soon as she arrives at her daughter’s house in Denver, she might as well curl up and die.
But I digress. I was thinking, “All this advertising and still no product!” However, Jane says if you wait until your book is done to start netting, you’re stoopid. Well, I’m paraphrasing. Miss F would never be so uncool. But that’s seriously her point, so adios! I gotta go platform…
I figured out how to keep up with my social networking without it taking over my life.
Every morning when I fire up my laptop to read the “paper” I go to email, Twitter and Facebook first, in that order. I subscribe to my friends and colleagues’ blogs so I get updates via email, and I comment to let them know their voice is being heard. I’m using Twitter more, and while everybody has their own preferences, I’m finding it to be more intimate than FB. I guess if you were following a thousand peeps that wouldn’t be the case, but I’ve winnowed my list to the folks who have something to say in relation to my interests (writing, mindfulness, and tech, to name three). I am finding that I learn the most from Twitter (example: Roger Parker wrote today in PersonalBrandingBlog about ten common myths about publishing your novel. Thanks to writemyservice.com for great services they provide.
I’ve been able to do my “netting” in about a half hour morning and evening. Let me know what works for you?
Yikes. I’ve been lollygagging. I haven’t worked on my ms for a week, and it’s turning feral on me. (Tell me if you know which writer said if she doesn’t visit her manuscript daily, it lurks in her office and morphs into such a fearsome beast she is afraid to open the door.) I don’t have little kids or a fulltime job, so I have no excuse. And have you found that the longer you stay away from your writing, the less you want to go back to it? But Kristen is languishing out in the Black Hills of South Dakota with Frieda, a 90-year-old crank. If I don’t get in there and move the story alone, K will never figure out whether she’s going to go back to her high-pressure job in Newport Beach CA, or give it all up for WHAT MATTERS and make a 180 back into Curt’s arms.
After I brush my teeth and shower I’ll go into THE ROOM and set the timer for 30 minutes. I know from past experience that I won’t even notice the bell ringing a half hour later. It’s a simple, maybe even stupid, strategy but it motivates me. Something about having a deadline.
But here’s another motivation: my friend Sepi Richardson (Her Honor, the Mayor of Brisbane, California) has promised she’ll have a book signing for me when the sucker is published. Holy crap, I need to get to work!!! Let me know how YOU motivate yourself, and I’ll post it as a guest post on this blog. Thanks!
Amy Bloom crafts such great characters that you love them even when they’re kind of nasty. How does she do it? I just finished her latest collection of short stories, “Where the God of Love Hangs Out,” and I still find myself thinking about the characters as if they were real people who have gone on with their lives after I closed the book.
In his blog, storyfixer Larry Brooks tells us how to develop three-dimensional characters. In short, here are the three dimensions:
First dimension: what you see as the character first appears. Second dimension: what’s going on in the character’s mind. Third dimension: what action the character takes. You can get more details here: http://storyfix.com/the-three-dimensions-of-character-development.
In my critique group we have a cynical expression: good luck. This comment is delivered at the end of an especially complex critique. As in, now that I’ve finished telling you why I think your character isn’t true to her nature anymore (with examples) or why it appears you’re drifting away from the story question and/or leaving hanging threads…Good luck! Meaning I’m glad it’s your problem to fix, not mine. There’s also an implication of this: writing is a bitch. Why are we subjecting ourselves to this? We have lives. We’re not being paid. We’re obviously stupid with a dash of mentally ill. Perhaps. And then we laugh and get back to work.
“You’re writing a book?” A young woman at the coffee shop nearly swoons. “Oh, I would love to write a book!”
“Love has nothing to do with it.” I scowl into my mocha.
Back home at my computer, I fight the invisible ropes that are winching me toward the vacuum cleaner, the garden, the refrigerator. I just finished breakfast, for God’s sake. I’m not hungry. Am I?
Eating would be better than writing. Anything would be better than writing.
Because I am inarticulate. Because my thoughts and words are hopelessly derivative. In fact, for the duration of my novel I should, for the sake of unintentional plagiarism, avoid reading anything that is beautifully crafted.
The phone rings. My hand shoots toward it, ignoring my earlier resolve not to take any calls until lunch break. It’s my father, wondering when my book will be finished. Finally I am able to hang up.
“Bill,” I yell to my sweet, uncomplaining husband, “I said I didn’t want to talk to anybody!”
“Honey, I was going to answer it but you beat me to it.”
I would throw my manuscript in the trash but I am in so deep I cannot withdraw. I have spent four years on this farce. I have written a thousand pages; shaved it down and blown it up and shaved it down again. The remaining three hundred pages are crap.
And I have told too many people that I am writing this book. With my love of drama and showmanship I have convinced them it will be a winner. They all ask about it, far too frequently for my comfort.
I must write this book, but I am a fraud. A couple of well-crafted paragraphs and thirty years of journaling, and I fell into the trap: I believed them when they told me I should write, that I have talent.
I set the timer. I will work for one hour on the chapter about my character’s struggle with existential grief. My protagonist must work through this cerebral logjam to solve the puzzle of her story. I close the door to my office.
Two hours later I am somewhat aware that the door is opening, but I am unable to answer my husband’s question. If I were to tear my eyes away from the computer screen I would barely recognize him, so deep am I in this story. My eyes are dry from unshed tears, and I have lost the ability to speak.
How the hell do I know what I want for lunch?
The real question is, where is the world in which I have lived for the past two hours? What does it mean that I have been so deeply immersed in it that it jars my sense of reality to find myself back in this room when in fact my body never left?
Where was I when the timer went off?
Am I mentally unwell? And how long has it been since I brushed my teeth?
“Whatever, I don’t care,” I tell him. “And shut the door. Please.”
I turn back to the screen. What’s love got to do with it?
This woman (“Annie”) in my critique group is struggling with a big story. It’s her first book and she may have bitten off more than she can chew, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there, if she can get it organized. The rest of us have encouraged her to read a popular multigenerational saga, maybe just thumb through one at the library (free, not far from the house). In this way she could see how a skillful writer handled the challenges that Annie is facing. Annie is resisting, which seems mindless to me but that’s not my topic.
At the writing blog Parking Lot Confidential, Amy McLane describes the many useful ways writers can learn from active reading. As a new writer I sometimes struggle with, say, getting my main character, Kristen, out of her car and into the house without belaboring the journey. (“She turned off the ignition, pushed open the door, and stood up. Closing the car door…”) You see what I mean? Bleah. Whereas an experienced writer will have Kristen inside that house with the speed and beauty of astral travel. Once I see how that’s done, I can steal the technique. How to get a bunch of Czechoslovakians to America and follow them for three generations? Might be harder.