A while ago, I wrote an entry about how I almost gave up a book, and why that’s okay. In short, the argument behind it was this: If you’re not feeling inspired by your book, or if your book isn’t going anywhere, it’s okay to step away from it. In fact, it could just be exactly what you need – some healthy time and distance away from it, and inspiration could come from unexpected places.
And maybe, just maybe, it’s not the book you were meant to write. In which case, set it aside. In the future, you might come back to it, you might not. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.
And that’s okay.
That’s a quick and easy way for a person (myself included) to get caught in a spiral of new projects, new ideas, new concepts…and no finished books.
Look, let’s face it, creative types can be a little flighty. We’re easily distracted by new things, and our project of the day can easily become tomorrow’s garbage in favor of a newer, shinier toy.
But do that long enough, and you’ll soon realize you’ve gone years without finishing a book, and will get discouraged about the idea of ever getting published.
The only way you’re ever going to get a book published is by finishing the damn thing.
The solution, theoretically, is simple – just keep writing.
I’ve gone through, and am still going through, this process, so I know how freaking hard it is to get across the finish line. And here are my tricks that I’ve used to get myself over that hump. I’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions, too.
Trick 1: Planning (for architects) – “I’m not inspired by the story anymore”
The writing world is filled with, as George R.R. Martin put it, architects and gardeners. Here’s his full quote:
I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.
One major advantage architects have is they know where the story is going, and gardeners don’t. I’m an architect. I plan out my story from start to finish. I have my inciting incident, my twists and turns, my big fat middle, and the exciting climax. In theory, it means I just need to stick to the plan. But that’s how I, as an architect, get into trouble. At some point, I lose interest in the story. And if I’m losing interest as a writer, then I know the reader will be losing interest as well.
So I become a gardener. I throw out my blueprints, and I start asking myself questions. Not small questions, either. Plot-shattering questions. Evil questions. Questions like:
- What if I killed off a main character?
- What if the bad guy wins in this particular scenario?
- What is the thing my main character is hanging on to the most, and how can I take that away from him/her?
- What is the worst possible thing that could happen at this moment?
And then I do it. Now, granted, I think through the repercussions of my answers first, and weigh them against what I’m trying to accomplish in the story, because there’s nothing worse than writing 10,000 or 15,000 words only to realize that I have to delete it all. So there is a bit of planning that still needs to be done, but being outrageous makes the story interesting again. It makes it compelling. Nobody likes reading a story about characters who are happy. We want our characters to be happy, but as soon as they are, they cease to be interesting.
So make them miserable, you evil puppetmaster, you. And then the story will be fun again, and you’ll want to keep writing it. Problem solved!
Trick 2: Planning (for gardeners): “I have no idea what happens next”
Yeah, this is a pickle. Sometimes coming up with a plot is hard, y’all. On the one hand, you can expand the advice I’ve given in a previous entry, (“Help, my scene sucks, and I don’t know why“), which is basically summed up to:
- Your character wants something. Bad.
- Your character has to move mountains to get it. The more effort s/he puts in trying to accomplish his/her goals, the harder it is to attain them.
So that ties a bit into the advice I gave in the previous section (just figure out what your character wants most and take it away from him/her), but that’s not the whole story.
I’m sorry to say, but gardeners, you’re gonna have to start planning.
Yes, yes, cue the gasps of shock and outrage and pearl-clutching.
But here’s the thing – gardeners actually do plan. Growing up, my parents had a vegetable patch in their back yard, and wild growth in their front yard. Wild growth sounds like it should be just letting whatever randomly grows grow, but that’s not really true.
They still had to pick the types of flowers they hoped to see grow. They had to pick certain types of vegetables. They still had to arrange the soil, lay out the vegetable seeds, put up chicken wire, water the plants, weed the garden, and so on. Sure, they had no idea what the final result looked like, but they planned.
And that’s what you need to do. If you’re stuck in your novel, you’ve probably progressed far enough to start planning for an ending. Think about what that’s going to look like. What’s your big, badass climax? What’s the ultimate resolution? Who lives, who dies? You don’t have to get into architect-level detail (though honestly, it helps), but you need to have some idea of where you’re going in order to get there.
Once you have that, then write towards it.
Trick 3: Preparation
We all hit this point in most of our books, where we have a major hump to get over. Plan for it. Know it’s coming. Know what your weak spots are, and anticipate tricks and tools to get yourself over that hump. Is the middle part of your book giving you shivers of dread? This usually happens if you have a banging idea for a beginning and a great climax, and not much in between.
So come up with something epic for the middle. Something as awesome as the climax. Obviously, it can’t be triumphant – it has to be a gut punch for our hero and the reader. But relish in that. Devise newer and crueler ways of making your hero suffer. Make it grand, theatrical, whatever, as long as it gets you excited.
Presto. Problem solved. You have your kickass beginning, your kickass middle, and kickass ending, all things to look forward to. Apply that logic to whichever problem it is that makes you not want to write anymore.
Trick 4: Passion – “I just don’t care about this book anymore”
Yeah. This a toughie. This requires introspection. If you’re at this point, you’ve already asked yourself why you don’t care anymore, and you may not know. If you don’t, then think about what excited you about this story in the first place.
Why did you even want to write this book? Was it a certain scene? Character? Premise? Concept? Theme?
Get back to your roots, and once you’ve figured out why you came up with the idea in the first place, retrace your steps. Where did the book start to deflate for you? If you can identify that, then you will probably identify where things started to go wrong. For example, if all you had was a single scene, then you probably needed to flesh out things more. If you had a theme, you probably didn’t think about coming up with a compelling enough character. And so on. Either way, knowing why you stopped caring will inevitably lead you into the solution for caring again, whatever that will look like.
Trick 5: Passion – “I have another idea I really love and want to focus on that!”
Write down whatever ideas you have for that other project. Don’t start writing the new book, mind you. Just whatever ideas you have. Characters, concepts, scene outlines. Let yourself stray for a few days or a week. Once the fever passes, put those ideas away in a safe space, and forget about them. Finish your current book first, and then you can go back to those feverish ideas.
If you don’t finish your current book, you’ll descend into a guilt spiral of not finishing it, and you will almost inevitably have learned nothing about finishing books. At some point in your new passion project, you’ll lose interest in it and come up with yet another idea, and here we go again.
There’s a lot to be learned by finishing a book, and at some point, you’re going to have to learn how. Think of it as preparation for that passion project – by finishing this book, you’ll be able to make your passion project that much stronger with the knowledge you’ve gleaned by writing a complete book. Then you’ll truly be doing justice to the book you supposedly really care about.
And besides, you’d be surprised at how much you’ll want to change once you revisit those ideas you’ve set aside. What seemed awesome during that fever dream might turn out to be pretty pathetic. So, finish the current book first, and your passion project will be much better as a result.
Trick 6: Self-doubt – “My writing sucks”
Another reason why people give up is because they think their writing sucks. There’s only one remedy for that: keep writing.
Seriously. Just keep writing. You can’t get better if you don’t do it. Roger Federer didn’t spring from the womb a perfect tennis player. He practiced a hell of a lot to get to where he is.
Besides, a dirty secret in the writing world is first drafts are supposed to be atrocious. If you saw a pro writer’s first draft, you’d probably be shocked at how bad some of them turn out to be. You’re not alone. Editing is your friend.
Trick 7: Motivation – “Do I really have to?”
I get it. Sometimes writing feels like a chore. And the answer is, of course not, you don’t have to finish it.
But then you won’t have a book.
What would you rather have, the peace of mind that comes from not needing to write every day (and you should write, or try to write, every day)… or a finished book? A published book?
Whichever you care about more, go pursue it. If it’s the former, then way to go, you got your life back. Don’t feel bad about it – being happy is hard enough as is, and if not writing makes you happier, then congratulations. Seriously.
If you really do want to have a book, then you need to regain your mojo. The single best way of doing that is by clearing your head before sitting down to write. Take some time to do that before you start writing. Don’t watch any TV, don’t play video games, don’t read another book. Put away your damn phone.
Do something mind-numbing. Go for a walk. Clean your kitchen floor. Work on a jigsaw puzzle. Exercise. Yoga. Something that allows your mind to wander, something that doesn’t require too much concentration. The more boring, the better. Give your body something to do.
My way of clearing my head is going for bike rides.
Do it for at least 30 minutes or so, or however long you need. Once you’re done, you’ll feel refreshed mentally, and hopefully, your mind wandered on to the story you’re supposed to be writing, and you’ll be ready to get some stuff done.
Now, go finish your damn book.
One of the greatest assets a writer has is his or her instinct. A writer knows when something isn’t working. This is different from self-doubt (“This sucks, who’s going to read this?”) – for me, self-doubt usually comes when I’m writing, and re-reading what I’ve written. Every writer has this – and if a writer doesn’t feel this way, well, either that person is the most confident writer who’s ever lived, or is extremely delusional. I’m betting on the latter.
No, instinct is something deeper. Instinct tells you when your story as a whole isn’t working.
For me, instinct came a few months ago when I was working on one of my stories. I planned it, plotted it meticulously. I know the direction of the story. I knew where things had to go. And it worked – for a while.
Then I hit a wall. I just…stopped writing. Stopped caring. No matter how hard I forced myself to continue, I just couldn’t. This wasn’t writer’s block – I knew what had to happen and where I was taking the story. Instead, I was distracted. Mostly, I kept thinking about other story ideas, other books. Instead of writing my book, I was making notes for this other story. Jotting down ideas. Drawing maps. I wasn’t obsessed with my book anymore.
Finally, after a couple of weeks of this, I gave up the pretense of bothering with my original story. I decided I was going to quit that story. Was it temporary, or was it permanent? I wasn’t sure yet, but I knew, on a fundamental level, that something about it wasn’t working, and so I had to set it aside, and forget about it.
I focused for a while on my new ideas, plotting and planning. My old idea had been unceremoniously shoved aside and I hardly gave it a second thought. I moved on. I kept working at my new idea, kept reading books, kept living my life.
Then something amazing happened. I read a book that is totally unrelated to that old story idea (“Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie), and somehow, that unlocked the ideas I needed to make my old story work. When I went back to it, I went back to it with fresh eyes and a fuller understanding of why it wasn’t working. With a few nifty tweaks and some new plot mechanisms, I was back in the saddle. I’ve been writing this book consistently now, and so far, it seems to be working better.
I still need to finish the damned thing, but the moral of the story is: trust your instinct. Sometimes a book won’t work for you, and your instincts will tell you long before your brain realizes it. Every person will have a different way of overcoming their problems – in this particular case, it was my giving up on the story (temporarily) that helped me get it back on track.
You are your own guide to your book, for better or for worse. Let your guide show you the way.
Let’s talk about that Wall Street Journal article, shall we?
It went mildly viral a few weeks ago, and not for a good reason.
In a nutshell, the article is about a few teachers who are trying to get students to stop using “dead” words like “good,” “bad,” “fun,” and “said.”
From the article:
Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”
There’s a reason why we use “said” in writing. It’s an invisible word. Loading it with too many modifiers or replacing it with something else can often be distracting, and you run into the risk of Tom Swifties.
“We just struck oil!” Tom gushed
is probably my favorite example from that page.
The Harry Potter books, as much as I love them, are guilty of this. Harry doesn’t just simply “say” something. He shouts, mutters, screams. Ron even ejaculated once (oh my). Harry, Hermione, and Ron say things peevishly, loudly. Dumbledore speaks wisely. Snape slowly. And so on.
Look, most writers do modify their “saids” once in a while, but they do it for a specific reason. They want to leave no ambiguity about how their character is speaking.
But wait, you might be saying, why not do that all the time?
The truth is, if you’re writing dialogue well, you don’t need to.
“Stop right there!” (do you need to clarify that the speaker is shouting?)
“You’re really fucking pissing me off.” (do you need to clarify that the speaker is mad?)
When you’re going through your manuscript, watch out for these modifiers, and get rid of them. As many as you can. Keep only the ones that are absolutely, positively, necessary. Otherwise, you can just use “said” for 99% of the time and your work will be that much better for it.
Some authors think that using “said” almost exclusively will get repetitive, but that’s the beautiful thing – “said” is damn-near invisible. Look at this exchange from Doomsday Book by Connie Willis:
“Badri collided with her on the way back to the net,” Dunworthy said.
“Are you absolutely certain?” Mary said.
He pointed at the woman’s friend, who had sat down now and was filling out forms. “I recognize the umbrella.”
“What time was that?” she said.
“I’m not positive. Half past one?”
“What type of contact was it? Did he touch her?”
“He ran straight into her,” he said, trying to recall the scene. “He collided with the umbrella, and then he told her he was sorry, and she yelled at him for a bit. He picked up the umbrella and handed it to her.”
“Did he cough or sneeze?”
“I can’t remember.”
The woman was being wheeled into Casualties. Mary stood up. “I want her put in Isolation,” she said, and started after them.
See? It was used 5 times in that short a span, and if you weren’t looking for it, you probably wouldn’t have noticed.
“But Bart, that scene had no passion. Nobody was expressing emotions. Where’s the shouting?” How about this:
“What’s the meaning of this?” Gilchrist said. “What are you doing here?”
“I”m going to bring Kivrin through,” Dunworthy said.
“On whose authority?” Gilchrist said. “This is Brasenose’s net, and you are guilty of unlawful entry.”
“You have no right to speak to me that way,” Gilchrist said. “And no right to be in this laboratory. I demand that you leave immediately.”
Dunworthy didn’t answer. He took a step toward the console.
“Call the proctor,” Gilchrist said to the porter. “I want them thrown out.”
See? If it’s good enough for a Hugo, Nebula-award winning author, it’s good enough for you. Because I said so.
We’ve all been there. We have an idea of a scene we want to write, and we get to the business of putting thought to words. We slave away at it. Maybe it goes smoothly, and suddenly, your story is 2,000 words richer and it was one of those writing sprees that felt effortless.
Or maybe it was one of those days where every single letter that came out was absolute torture, and a measly 350 words later, you finally ground something out before raising your hands with frustration and walking away.
But the writing’s done. The scene’s done. We’re good to go, right?
And then we re-read it. And it’s crap. Utter, pure crap. How the hell did it get that way? What happened to the thing I had in my head? Why is it so miserable on page? The words are fine, there are some lovely sentences in there, but the scene, ugh. Blah. Other indistinct noises.
The worst thing? I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with it. WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS SCENE?! There’s nothing obviously bad about it. It just doesn’t do anything for me.
Who here among us hasn’t had that experience?
The good news is that the way to diagnose what’s wrong with a scene is actually pretty simple. The hard part is doing something with it.
For any scene to work, you need 3 things:
- A want
- An obstacle
- A resolution
Want, obstacle, resolution. If your scene sucks and you don’t know why, look for those things. This isn’t new or particularly original, I lifted this straight from Jerry Cleaver’s IMMEDIATE FICTION. I highly recommend this book (seriously, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore and get it).
Essentially, your character has got to want something. If the scene doesn’t strongly convey what he/she wants, then you have to figure that out.
Secondly, whatever s/he wants, she can’t get it. At least, not easily. There has to be an obstacle in his/her way. The obstacle has to be as great as the desire for it.
Did Captain Ahab find Moby-Dick just off the shore of Massachusetts?
Did Romeo seduce Juliet and live happily ever after?
Did Dorothy call an Uber within minutes of landing in Oz and make her way back to Kansas right away?
No. Of course not.
The other thing you can do with the obstacle is allow your character to get what s/he wants, but use dramatic irony to twist it in a way that makes your character suffer. Remember, when you are a writer, you are a soulless, evil god who exists only to torment your characters until that final moment of satisfaction and resolution at the very end.
Simba from the Lion King just couldn’t wait to be king! So the evil geniuses at Disney made it so – they killed off dear old dad (spoilers, I guess) and suddenly the path to the throne was clear. Immediately, Simba realized he didn’t quite want to be king so quickly, did he? He got what he wanted…just not how he imagined it.
And then there has to be a resolution. Cliffhangers count as a resolution, but remember, a scene has to move the story forward. A resolution brings clarity to the want/obstacle dynamic, and propels the plot forward (unless, of course, we’re talking about the ultimate Resolution, or the end of the book, but that’s another topic for another day).
So there you have it. If your scene sucks and you don’t know why, check out the want, obstacle, and resolution. Chances are, the problem with your scene lies with one or more of these things. Make each element as clearly stated as possible, and then the scene will come together much better. You won’t be out of the woods yet, most likely, but you’ll at least be able to diagnose what’s wrong with your scene and work on fixing it.
Note: The Mistakes column is going to look at the mistakes I’ve made, how they can be fixed. My advice won’t be for everyone, but maybe there will be something you can take to heart.
Think of all the great characters in storytelling. Doesn’t have to be literature – you can even think of titans of TV like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, or movie heroes like Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara, Michael Corleone.* What if I threw names at you like Romeo, Gatsby, Frodo, Dorothy, Ahab, Buffy? Do you get clear, vivid senses of who they are and what they embody?
* Yes, I’m aware that Scarlett and Michael are also book characters. Just go with me here.
Now think of all the other forgettable characters you’ve come across. Take a peek at your bookshelf, or the books on your desk, and scan the titles. How many books have standout characters? Not many, right?
Why is that?
They don’t jingle your bells. They don’t leap out from the page or the screen and grab you by the throat and demand, Look at me! Pay attention!
So what are some of the elements out there that you can use to make your characters stand out? Here are a few traits that a lot of standout characters share.
Standout characters aren’t always likable. In my case, my first efforts at character sucked. They were limp and unmemorable. They were perfect in every way – the best fighters, the best lovers, the funniest, the smartest, the most beautiful. Hell, if they had any flaws, it was just that they cared too much.
As a result, they didn’t stand out. And that was largely because they were essentially Mary Sues/Gary Stus. My characters were usually decent, likable, morally sure of themselves, loyal and always made smart decisions. In short, the people you want to get to know in real life.
Now look at the names I’ve mentioned above. How many of these people do you really want to meet in real life? Sure, Gatsby sounds like a lot of fun – all those parties! Until you realize he’s a needy narcissist who holds a torch for a married woman and hasn’t gotten over her, and is willing to use you or dispose of you based on your relationship with said woman. Buffy is a great human, except she’s constantly getting her friends and family in serious danger. An apocalypse will do that to you. Stand too close to Dorothy, and you risk getting squished by a house or kidnapped by flying monkeys. And so on.
And do you really want to get close to someone like Tony Soprano or Walter White? I didn’t think so.
They face a ton of obstacles. Back to my Mary Sue/Gary Stu. The other thing I didn’t do right was throw enough obstacles in their way. They had problems and difficulties, sure, but they handled them just fine. Problem? Problem solved! They were too clever and smart for such piddling little quibbles. All bad guys were conquered! Sure, they got a few bruises and got knocked down a couple of times, but come on, the outcome was inevitable. Bring on the next bad guy!
Standout characters don’t act like that. Ahab didn’t find Moby Dick easily. Ellen Ripley was cornered at almost every scene by a problem. Frodo didn’t exactly hop, skip, and sing into Mordor. No, the creators of such characters were cruel, vicious gods, throwing every single possible torment they could to their character.
And not only that, they exploited their character’s specific weaknesses. Walter White is a proud individual, and there were numerous instances throughout Breaking Bad where he would have gotten away, scot-free, but for his pride. It was like a scab, and the creators of Breaking Bad picked at it every chance they got. For example, all Walt had to do, in the beginning of the show, was accept the offer of charity from his rich friends to get his cancer treatment, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to do that.
They’re obsessed. Finally, my characters weren’t obsessed. Not nearly enough. How could they be, if they were decent folk who got along just fine? They had nothing to lose, really. The characters I mentioned up top all do.
Can anyone doubt that Captain Ahab wanted to kill Moby Dick? That Romeo loved Juliet? That Humbert Humbert lusted after Lolita? That is what separates the mundane characters from the transcendent. They have passion, and they wear it on their sleeves. That doesn’t mean the characters themselves have to be outwardly passionate – Michael Corleone is a stone-cold villain. But his desires are never in doubt.
What it means for your character. If your character feels uninspiring, then consider these questions:
– What does s/he have to lose? If nothing, then give him/her something to lose. And make sure they lose it, or come very close to it.
– If the character walked away from the problem in your story, what would the effect be? If the answer is, not much, then you’re doing it wrong. Make it so that the character absolutely, positively, cannot walk away.
– What is your character’s greatest flaw? Is it pride? Lust? Wrath? Does s/he love a certain someone so much that s/he can’t see the big picture? Whatever it is, exploit it. Make every obstacle touch on your character’s most vulnerable points.
There’s lots more to character than this, obviously, but if your character lacks passion, if your character isn’t obsessed, then that character won’t stand out.
Welcome to my page. You might be wondering why I called this post “From Writer to Author” – it’s meant to convey the two different definitions of the terms.
Like many others, I’m an aspiring author. Who isn’t? While I can say that I’ve been published in a few places – the Philadelphia Inquirer, Weird New Jersey, the Asbury Park Press, and a few others – I haven’t published a book. A real, live book that I can hold in my hands. That I can smell. That I can put on my shelf.
But I am a writer. I’m currently writing two books that I hope to publish. I’m obviously writing in this blog. But because I haven’t published a book yet, I don’t consider myself an author.
That difference is key in my mind. Writers are those who write (obviously), but authors are those who have published books – and from what I’ve learned, there’s a surprisingly small emphasis on the actual writing itself for those published authors. I had always assumed that writing was the main thing for authors, and it’s not. Rewriting is. But we’ll get to that another time.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and I’ve been learning from them. Trying to, at least. A friend of mine and I wrote a book together – we conceived it, co-wrote it, had beta readers, researched agents, and sent it out.
And promptly got rejected.
And that process was a turning point. Before then, I read a number of how-to-write books, but the lessons went over my head. I’ve re-read them, and a few others besides, and now I finally feel like I’m making progress as a writer. As I said, I’m working on two books, and the difference from before getting rejected and after is significant.
So I’ve decided that while this project is going on, I’m going to call myself a writer, and not an author. I’ll only allow myself to be called an author when, and only when, I get published.
I realize that in the world of eBooks and self-publishing, the barriers to becoming an author is easier than ever. But for the purpose of this project, publishing eBooks or self-publishing will not qualify me as an author.
That’s not to say that those who take that route are bad writers, or that it’s not a legitimate approach to take. There are many wonderful, highly successful authors who have self-published (Andy Weir, author of “The Martian,” comes to mind, as does Alan Sepinwall and his “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised“). If you’re a member of their camp, then I give you all the credit in the world. Wear your author badge, and wear it proudly.
Personally, however, that’s not for me. That’s not my goal. I want to see if I have what it takes to overcome the obstacles in getting published, and will only consider myself successful if I accomplish that.
I don’t claim to be an expert, or even a particularly good writer. But I have learned a few things along the way, things I think can help other aspiring writers. And it’s my hope that I’ll be able to use this space to share those things, as well as post reviews of other books I’m reading and other news and tidbits here.
That’s my ultimate goal. To no longer describe myself as an aspiring writer, but to be an author. And hopefully, help some of you achieve that same goal.