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February 2017

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across the icy world with polar bears it's mostly uphill

So I haven't been doing a lot of posts on writing skills lately, and I think in some ways that's because my learning curve is flattening out. Perhaps I am nearing the end of my journeyman studies--in any case, I feel very much as if I've been making some sort of transition from considered knowledge to intrinsic--to just knowing how to do many things I used to have to stop and figure out.

I'm trying not to breathe on it too hard, lest I break it.

Of course, the last couple of pieces of short fiction I wrote (The White City, "The Forty Times Forty," and "The Romance") have been complete messes, structurally and thematically speaking, and I'm going to have to go in and sort them. But the difference is that I'm not panicky about it: I'm confident that when the time comes, I'll be able to go make them tick.

I'm hoping this is a sign that my brain is working out some kink of narrative breakthrough down there in the bushes, and it'll tell the linear and linguistic centers about it sooner or later. (I'm one of those people who has to derive theory from practice: my learning pattern is bottom up. This is endless loads of fun when I'm trying to teach something to or learn something from netcurmudgeon, who is a totally bigendian learner.)

But it does mean that as a blogger of writing ideas, I'm kind of falling down on the job lately. So I thought I would talk about common pitfalls encountered by the first-time novelist, because I can.

1) Page 1:

The first sentence. Seriously, by the time you have a finished draft, you need a killer first sentence, but you do not need to figure it out right now. You can come back to it. No, really. You can be like me, get 150 pages into a book, and realize you started it three chapters too late and you need to go back and tack 60 pp onto the beginning. (Undertow, if you are keeping track.)

It doesn't have to be perfect. It's a draft. Dare to suck.


2) Page 50:

You've introduced the characters and have no idea what happens next. Well, you probably either didn't give them enough problems, or enough agency. Give a character enough problems, and the plot tends to take care of itself.


3) Page 150

The dreaded 30K wall. Oh, this one is legend. What's happened here is that you have finished the setup for the story, and now you have to develop it. This is known as "writing the middle," and it's one of the hardest parts of the job. Many of us consider this a good time to get a character laid, send in a man with a gun, or sit everybody down for a nice meal and to convene a Royal Commission On The Plot.


4) Page 200

...I'm never going to fill up 400 pages...

Breathe. Keep writing.


5) Page 300

...there's no goddamned way I can wrap this up in another 100 pages!

Breathe. Keep writing.


6) Page 350

...These people have too many problems! I'll never figure this out!

Sure you will. You're just not being ruthless enough. Chances are, if you've caused them enough problems, somebody's not going to get everything they want, is all. Or maybe any of it. Like staying alive, or keeping all of his limbs and loved ones intact.

What I do is I go through the manuscript and write every unresolved plot thread on a 3x5 card. Then I shuffle the 3x5 cards into some sort of semi-logical chronological order, and I write until I have solved the first one. Then I move on to the next.

But that's just a tactic.

There are no rules; only techniques that do or do not work in any given circumstance. Page count may vary dependent on length of work in question.

Comments

::nears 30k wall::

::readies man with gun::

::readies second man with shoulder cannon::
This first time novelist - yes *still* working on it - thanks you. I'm at that horrible page 200 place....

MKK
So I thought I would talk about common pitfalls encountered by the first-time novelist, because I can.
And because you definitely know what you're talking about. I found it very helpful, particularly the parts about unresolved plot threads and "...no rules; only techniques that do or do not work in any given circumstance." - staying flexible about what you need to do to get the job done. Sounds simple but I know, speaking for myself, I tend to over-complicate everything.

I'm taking a deep breath and making the plunge. Never know if I can do it unless I try.

This is great. I'm not a fiction writer, but I am writing my dissertation for a degree in English right now and it's awesome how every single one of these either directly applies or can be translated to apply to that kind of writing.

I especially like this: "Dare to suck." I need to remind myself of that more often.
OMG SAME. What's your topic? If you don't mind a kindly internet stranger asking.

(Mine, btw, is female friendship in ya lit. DISSERTATION. WHY? WHY DID I SAY I WANT A PHD AGAIN? <-- that is how my diss makes me feel. The end.)
I'm writing about intersections between feminist science fiction and feminist science studies.

Love the icon, btw!
Ooh fun. Yay feminism!

Thanks!
DISSERTATION. WHY? WHY DID I SAY I WANT A PHD AGAIN? <-- that is how my diss makes me feel.

Sounds like you are doing it right then, based on all the PhD.s I know, and how there were when righting the damn things. =)

It does eventually end, you know. And much like repeatedly banging your head on a wall, it feels *so good* when you stop.
And unlike a novel, you never have to do it again.
Unless, of course, you are in special subset of people that are smart enough to qualify for multiple doctorates, but not smart enough to dodge that pain even knowing what they are volunteering for again. =)

*looks at Chaz and Reid*
I think Chaz did his concurrently. Reid was killing time until he was old enough for the job market.....
Y'know, I can fully believe that of both of them, and I can't say which one worries me more. ;)
That is the bonus.

Except then you have to pay back the loans. Heh.
Dare to suck.

This should be on a t-shirt. Seriously.

Oh, except then it'd probably be considered dirty. Maybe with context on the shirt, then.

Edited at 2009-10-29 02:25 am (UTC)
I'm totally making myself a sign that says this to hang up near where I write.
I went to church and the minister started the sermon by saying "Perfection is the enemy of good enough," and I wrote it down so I would never forget. It has gotten me through the past couple of weeks, seriously.

I'm going to write this one down too.
I made two signs for myself: one and two.
Nice! Do you mind if I use one as a desktop?
That's cool.
"Dare to be crappy" would circumvent the dirty connotations. Although it's two letters off from a Volkswagen slogan.
I have to say I love you so muchthank you so much for this! Especially the bit about the index cards. That is a great idea.
I like "Dare to Suck". I'm doing Nanowrimo, partially as procrastination, partially as sanity relief from dissertating. I've been so tempted to start the novel with the sentence "It was a dark and stormy night." It's starting at night, and stormy, so it fits. And I can revise it later. Unless the story turns out to be pretty silly, in which case that line might just suit it. But I figure I might as well go with it rather than fretting over the first line.

And that advice totally applies to academic writing, too. With adjustments for length. But the course I TA for has a paper due tomorrow and I spent part of today explaining to multiple students that they can start with a sucky intro, write the body, and then go back and revise the intro. Really. And they can even write the thesis statement last. Really.

Heck, I've even started papers with "Introduction blah blah blah" as a placemarker.
I am fond of [transition here] and [climactic space battle].
I use [EXAMPLES] a lot as a stand-in for the meat of the argument I intend to make. (The caps and bold are totally necessary because without them I am far too likely to submit something with [examples] hidden somewhere in it.]
Feeling the need to share 42 Essential 3rd Act Twists...
Much of my conscious thinking is in kinesthetic-tactile-visual diagrams. In thinking about stories, often in four or five dimensions -- though I can only see/feel three dimensions at a time.

This makes it a bit difficult to get plot outlines down on paper.
I'm one of those people who has to derive theory from practice: my learning pattern is bottom up.

Thank you so much -- that more-or-less exactly describes my learning process! This has made MIT, which is taught fairly uniformly from a top-down perspective, so much more... exciting than I would like it to be.
I love this post. So very true. I hope you don't mind if I link to it.
hmm that should probably read - would you mind if I link to it?

My brain is not 100% switched on today.....
go for it. *g*
I can't say I noticed any of these pitfalls, but that's probably because I just couldn't zoom out of my plot. I got stuck on specific parts of the story, on characters who were not what I wanted them to be, things like that. And I devised my own remedy:
Anti-writersblock roleplay.

I'm an avid tabletop and live roleplayer and I noticed that throwing players at my story, allowing them to play with the themes, to yank at the plot and interact with the characters, it just gave me a whole new perspective.

First time I did it, the players broke my heart, they questioned everything that I thought was soooo cool, and it improved my story greatly. The second and third time, I allowed players to take on the roles of my characters and help me through the parts where I didn't know what they were going to do.

The thing about this kind of roleplay is: the players go places you might not want them to go, they might get some things completely wrong, but it will teach you something about your story, the holes in the plot and the flaws of your characters, even if you end up writing something completely different from what the players did. I found it very refreshing. Sometimes like smack on the head. But later on like a Mary Poppins who snapped her fingers and put everything back in place. I recommend it for people who like roleplaying.
*Chuckles*

I remember numbers 4 and 5 only too well from writing the last novel. My very sketchy outline of the middle really said little more than, "Lots of amusing things happen!"

Fortunately, by the time I started on the middle, the characters knew what they were doing and somehow the middle gradually appeared.
Mine usully says [and then a miracle occurs], as long as I am writing the synop for an editor who knows me. Otherwise I have to make something up that sounds logical. *g*
I have a friend who puts the gaping hole bits in caps, so he can go back and work on them, like this:

"And here, they escape from the vault. HOW? I HAVE NO IDEA."

It's become sort of a metaphor in conversation now. :)
For someone who's not posting about writing lately, this is a nice post deconstructing your process.

Oz
And not just by the first-time novelist!

The WIP is my sixth or seventh, and I had to restart it twice because of not giving my main character enough agency. Plenty of problems, very little she could do about them beyond keeping her head down and trying to do what she was told.
I am putting in another vote for a "Dare to Suck" t-shirt. Or sign. Or bumper sticker or whatever.

It's as if we're afraid, if we've never had a novel published, that we're not allowed to suck yet, that we can only suck after we're an accomplished writer. That if we suck ALREADY, then we shouldn't be writing in the first place.
Thanks! :D I'm stuck on page 50, this was a big help.

*wanders off thinking of evil things to do to characters*
Great post! Thanks for sharing :)
Great post! It will be helpful to have when the wall looms :)