Stuck in the Middle

“Start as close to the end as possible.” – #5 on Kurt Vonnegut’s “8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story

I re-read the final Harry Potter book recently (NERD ALERT), and while overall the book is well-done and satisfying and a good end to a great series, it does suffer from “middle syndrome.” There’s too much Middle in that book. Too much wandering and musing and inaction. It pays off in the end… but while you’re in it you can’t help but think, “Ugh MOVE IT ALONG!” At the end of the day, most readers want a BANG of a start that just keeps rolling to the end.

I’m FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY moving on from the Middle of my work-in-progress (all while trying to outline the sonofabitch), and I have a sinking suspicious that it’s bloated. That the middle is stagnant, boring, blah. The middle is always, ALWAYS the hardest part for me to write — and damn, you can tell. The characters, the action gets bogged down. I typically knowing my Beginnings. I typically know my Endings. I may know a few major plot points in between. It’s connecting the dots that’s hard for me.

(You know what would help with this? Oh, that’s right, AN OUTLINE. Why didn’t I think of that sooner…)

I know that I can fix this in the rewrite — what I’m sure will be a brutal rewrite — but it’s always frustrating to realize while you’re actively working on a section that it’s not all that great, and will need some serious editing down the line.

My only saving grace is that I feel like I’m emerging from the Middle and moving on towards the final third of the book. Which DOES make me feel pretty good — if I keep plugging along, I should be in good shape to reach my 2013 goal: finish the first draft and get the editing started. The only thing to do is keep writing.

Outlining vs. Writing

This outlining thing, you guys. It’s interesting. You’ll remember (or maybe you won’t, whatever, NOT LIKE I CARE) that I’ve been meeting with two other writers in an effort to get “unstuck” in my current book. They strongly encouraged me to take a step back and focus on the outline. Now, I’ve never done a full outline before. Ever, for any piece I’ve written. I knew it would be hard work — I didn’t know what different work it would be.

Outlining with Scrivener - Laura Dedon Oxford at Buffalo Writes

I’ve been using a couple different tools. The first is Scrivener, which has a cool notecard feature that lets you move the cards around however you like. Perfect for outlining! The only problem I’ve found with notecard outlining is that, for me, it’s very linear — I feel like I have to have X card in place before I can jot down the scene for Y card. I’ve tried to get around this by putting in placeholder cards — ah yes, the infamous “Something” scene — but then my brain just keeps jumping back to that blank card, wondering, “What happens there?”

So, while Scrivener is great, what’s been working best for me is my old standby — writing by hand. And this is where the real differences between outlining and writing have become apparent. I write by hand all the time — I know what that feels like, the responses and outcomes — so it’s been easy to contrast to the process of outlining. 

Writing is instant gratification. You type, words appear. It can be slow going, yes, but you still can quickly and easily see the progress being made. Hell, there is even a way to quantify it — hello, word count!

Outlining is delayed gratification. You’re not really going to see the fruits of your labor until much, much later, until after the first draft is written and all the pieces have easily fallen into place. Which, while you’re doing it, makes it seem like a more frustrating process — “WHERE ARE MY RESULTS??” you want to scream.

Writing is action. It’s turning off the editor and just getting those words down on the page. At least, for me it is — when I’m really in the writing zone, I try not to think too much, because it can quickly turn into overthinking. I don’t want my internal editor saying, “Oooh, you know? That really isn’t all that good.” Not on the first draft. I just want to get those words down, keep the story moving.

Outlining is thinking. When I’m outlining by hand, it seems to activate different parts of the brain — I feel free to be much less linear, to just wander and circle and finally zone in on a solution. And sadly — there often aren’t a ton of physical results for this effort. I sat in the backyard the other night for almost two hours, outlining. And I felt really good about it — I had a couple great breakthroughs and felt that, all in all, it was a solid night’s work.

Then I looked back over my notes, and I had three scant pages of chicken scratch.

But! That doesn’t mean I failed (I mean, I don’t think it does, at any rate). It just means… well, outlining is turning out to be a much more internal process than writing. Which is odd, right, because writing is such an internal, solitary activity. But outlining is forcing me to go deeper, think harder, get totally and completely lost in my head. And there’s no real way to quantify that on a page. You just have to trust that in the end, it’ll be worth it.

(One aside? That belief that outlining takes the magic and surprise out of writing? I’m finding that not to be the case at all. I’m delighted by what I’ve discovered about my story while outlining — new plot points, new factoids about the characters. It still holds the same magic.)

I’m making progress. Soon I’ll be able to fill out those “Something” notecards. But until then, you can find me in the backyard, a vacant expression on my face as I mull over the endless possibilities. 

Opening the Door

Today I was going to write about outlining, and how that process hurts my brain in ways I didn’t think possible — but then I started typing and went in a different direction. So, switching gears! Outlining process TBD. Right now, let’s talk about the creative process — specifically, whether you let “outsiders” in or not.

I mentioned last week that I was stuck, writing-wise. And to help move me along, I met with  two writer-friends who sort of forced me to get UN-stuck. We sat down in a coffee shop and they asked me questions. A lot of questions. Both these writers are part of my regular writing group, so they’ve read most of my current work-in-progress. They asked questions about the characters. About the plot. About the overall theme. About character arcs. About protagonists and antagonists. And as they kept asking and I did my best to answer, it dawned on me — I didn’t know the answer to a lot of these questions.

Which… you know, not a FANTASTIC thing. Some things are ok not to know when you’re writing a book (I think theme is one of them). But character growth, motivations, plot developments? Yeah, you kind of NEED to know these things. No wonder I felt stuck — I’d been plodding along, writing as best as I could, without any real idea of the overall structure of my book.

In the end, it ended up being a great meeting — we stumbled upon what I think is going to be “the key” to the book, the one (now obvious) element that brings all the other pieces together. And while I’d like to say that this stroke of brilliance was mine — nope, no it was not. It was a suggestion from one of the other writers, after we’d all been talking for probably an hour and a half.

Now, I know a lot of creative types are probably going to gasp in horror at this. I let someone else into my process! Worse than that, I let them dictate my story — come up with a vital plot element. But I don’t think of it that way. Honestly, I don’t think I would have stumbled upon this revelation on my own. I needed the collaboration to get things moving. I don’t think this makes the story any less “mine” — I am, after all, still the one writing it. Still the one developing the characters and the plot. But the story will now be much, MUCH better as a result of this collaboration.

During all this, we had an interesting discussion about “the myth of the writer” — this idea that writers (and other creative folk) should only work in solitude, and that it’s EASY work, that the muses grant us these pieces of genius and we just type them out like obedient puppets. Can we all just laugh at that for a moment? In what other profession is this expected to be the case? Yet I think we in the creative fields are often seen this way — and more so, we often help build this stereotype ourselves.

never used to show works-in-progress. I would never discuss a story’s plot. And yet, that’s exactly what I needed to move forward with this book. It’s that whole Open Door, Closed Door thing — do you “open the door” and let people in on the creative process? Or do you keep it closed until the big reveal? TADA!

Austin Kleon posted this quote on his Tumblr the other day:

We must strike down the insidious lie that a book is the creation of an individual soul labouring in isolation. –John Green

Now, granted — Green is talking about self-publishing here. But I think this quote applies to the whole process. We CAN’T work in a vacuum. There are others who influence our work, who make it better than it would otherwise have been. Whether we acknowledge and welcome these influences or not — that’s the sticking point.

More and more I’m becoming an advocate of an Open Door policy. Not with everything, mind you — and certainly not with everyone. You need to choose your confidants wisely. But writing can be an incredibly isolating act. Why do we make it more than it needs to be?

Back on the Wagon

This past month has been rough, writing-wise. I’ve felt stuck in the current book, like I’m writing in circles. Or, as the case may be, not writing in circles. It’s incredibly frustrating, knowing that I’m about 2/3 of the way through and not being able to push forward. Frustrated with myself, frustrated with the process, frustrated with the characters for not figuring their own lives out already.

There’s never a good reason for writer’s block, is there? I often go so far as to say I don’t really believe in writer’s block — at the end of the day, you can always sit down and write something, even if it’s crap. For me, being stuck feels more like… moping. Like I’m a kid who should know better but keeps doing it anyway.

The uniform thing about writer’s block — it’s hard to get out of. Hard to break that cycle. But earlier this week I met with two fellow writers who pushed me, prodded me, forced me to think bigger and dig deeper (more on that next week). And you know? I think I’m ready to stop feeling sorry for myself (“WAAAH WHY WON’T MY BOOK WRITE ITSELF?”) and just write the damn thing.

I re-stumbled upon this quote from Chuck Wendig, which I’ve posted here before, but pretty much sums it up:

Whatever happens, stop blaming other people for your failures. Stop complaining. Stop dicking around. Start doing that thing you want to do and do it with all the love you can fling into it. – Chuck Wendig

Indeed. Indeed. This weekend I miraculously have zero plans on the calendar, so you know what that means? I’m going to sit my ass down and get through this roadblock.

Work Out the Writing Voice

Like many things — design, baking, napping — writing is a craft, and you gotta work at it to keep it sharp. Keeping a regular schedule is a good start, but it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. There’s little way to avoid it, writing is a very solitary activity — and sometimes your brain can’t see its own forest through the word trees. Or…something like that? Let’s roll with it.

Writing Workshop - My Notebook
A snippet of various writing exercises.

Fortunately, there are ways to break free from that mind forest. This past weekend I attended a one-day writing workshop, run by a friend and coworker. This guy — he’s involved in so much, I seriously don’t know how he does it. He writes, he plays music, he hosts entrepreneur workshops at his job. My only theory is that he’s actually some sort of zombie hybrid that requires little to no sleep. IF ONLY I COULD GET THAT BUG.

Ahem. Anyway. One of my favorite sessions was about disruptive thinking. We were challenged to take a story we’d written previously and reframe it — put it in a different light, cast it in a different genre. And MAN. I was shocked at how difficult this was for me. I mean, really, I shouldn’t be shocked — I don’t deal well with change, and apparently that extends all the way to my writing style. I hadn’t realized it, but I’ve become so set in a very particular voice that it was extremely difficult for me to break away from that.

Writing Workshop - Story Pitches
A great exercise – writing and bidding on story pitches. Which, OH MAN. I need to work on. Pitches are HARD, guys.

Now, I know what you’re going to say — but Laura, having a voice is good! Writers spend years trying to develop “their voice”. And yeah, I know. It’s good to have a writing style that’s distinctly you, that works. But it’s also good to a) know why that style works for you, and b) freshen it up every once in a while. Neither of which can be done if you’re continually writing in the same tone, the same voice, never stretching those writing muscles and going out of the comfort zone.

I doubt that my “main” writing voice will change too much (I mean, never say never, I got a whooole lotta writing years ahead of me). But I am going to be more conscious of testing out new styles, voices and genres in short stories. They seem the perfect playground for experimentation — what fails, what works, what sticks. Who knows, maybe I’ll create the perfect Hemingway-Atwood-Faulkner lovechild. Only time (and practice) will tell.

The Writer’s Door

Fun fact! I attend a writing group that meets once a month. Monthly deadlines are a useful weapon in combating sloth-like tendencies. It’s a rather ragamuffin group of experienced writers and amateurs, men and women, poets and prose writers. An odd mix, perhaps, but I find that mix provides interesting feedback.

I’m currently working on a story (book? novel?) that is proving to be MUCH longer than originally anticipated. Or perhaps more accurately — it’s taking me much longer to write than anticipated. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is somewhat maddening when you’re in the middle of it, slouching towards Bethlehem.

Overall, I’m pretty shy about my writing — which translates to never letting people read it. Which, you know, doesn’t work if you’re a writer. Being in a writing group helps me get over that hangup since, you know, the whole point is to have other people read your work.

This means that my group has read my current work-in-progress, section by section, over the past…ugh, almost two years. I’m embarrassed to admit it’s been that long. They’ve been along on the journey, seen the plot develop, the characters come into their own. They’re seeing the guts of the beast, as it were.

Some writers are FIRM believers in the “closed door” policy. I’m calling it this based on Stephen King’s advice in On Writing:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.

The idea being that you need to get through the entire first draft — the initial creative process — without any input or adulteration from the outside world.

There’s merit there. I’m normally a fan of the “closed door” policy. You can let out the crazy and let that freak flag fly. In fact, this is the first book that I’ve allowed people to read as it’s being written.

And the result of my “open door” policy? Too early to tell. I can see how it would be distracting for some — if your story doesn’t have firm footing, having other writers chime in could probably sway your original intent. But it is useful to have someone point out a sticky plot point early on, the various inconsistencies that come with any first draft. I feel like I’m able to correct some things earlier on in the game. I guess the only way I’ll know for sure if this “open door” policy has worked out is after the whole damn thing is written.

Fellow writers — and, hey, other creative types, too, as I’m sure this applies — what’s your policy? Do you like that door open or shut? Do you think outsiders can derail the creative process, or is it guided by some internal source that can’t be swayed?