The Next Big Idea

When inspiration strikes, you gotta get it down — even if the closest thing available is an old J. Crew catalog.

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I’ve been mulling over this new story idea for a while, and suddenly a little nugget popped into my brain that makes the whole thing go click. Puzzle pieces fell into place, motives became established. I was incredibly excited (as you could probably tell from my scrawling handwriting) and am still pretty jazzed about the development.

Problem is — I’m not finished with my current book. And I have a firm “no working on the new story until the current one is done” policy. It’s too easy to get sidetracked, too easy to turn away from the work at hand and never return. So as excited as I am about this new idea — I need to focus on the old one.

And really, I need to get moving on the old one. Over dinner the other night, Byron pointed out that I only have a few months left if I want to meet my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of the year.

“How close do you think you are to finishing?” he asked.

I thought about it a moment. “Probably two-thirds of the way through.”

“That’s all? I thought you were further along.”

Which, truth be told — I might be? I’m definitely in the latter half of the book, but am having a hard time judging exactly how much there is left. (The outline helps, of course, but some parts will move along at a faster clip than others, and I’m not sure yet which parts those will be).

And I think I can meet my goal — I know I can — but I really need to buckle down and start churning out that word count. Which may turn me into more of a shut-in than I already am. How do writers have social lives, that’s what I want to know. If you don’t see me for a few months, you know where I’ll be — here, at this desk, at this computer, slumped over the keyboard as I race towards the finish line.

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The Inner Monologue

Sweet. No plans for the evening. You know what that means? WRITING NIGHT. Hot damn I’m gonna get so much done. I’m gonna write 500 words in the book, edit that short story, get a blog post drafted. I’ll get home, eat a quick dinner, and get writing. No distractions. I won’t even turn the TV on. I’ll unplug the internet. I will just write. It’ll be great. I’m awesome and this is gonna be awesome.

Ok, work day over. Time to catch the bus. I’m gonna get home, feed the cats, make myself some — oh my god why is it so hot on this bus I am LITERALLY dying. Literally. And why am I suddenly starving? I ate an apple right before leaving work. I do that specifically so I won’t die of starvation and heat stroke on the bus. Forget it, this is it. I’m nauseous. I will never make it. I WILL DIE ON THIS —

Oh thank god it’s my stop. Ok, we made it. To the writing!

Argh. There’s no food in this house. What am I supposed to eat?? I mean, I have to work, I have to be creative, I can’t be expected to feed myself. Maybe I should order pizza. Maybe I should eat out. Sweet baby Jesus tacos sound good. I should go to the Mexican place and get tacos and maybe a margarita and —

Pull it together, woman. You can make a quesadilla. You have the technology. That’ll work. Great thinking, boss.

… I probably need a beer with this quesadilla. I mean, that’s the right thing to do. It’s the patriotic thing to do. And I need to do something while I eat… You know, I’ll just watch one episode of Game of Thrones. No, not even one full episode. Just a half hour. Plenty of time for my brain to chillax, and still plenty of time to write afterwards. I mean, I did go to work today. I worked a full 8 hours. My brain needs to relax and unwind. I deserve it.

Wow. Cersei is such a badass. I mean, she’s also kind of evil? Is it wrong that I like her character so much? I mean, undeniably a badass. And she was kind of dealt a rough card, what with her father and Robert and that shit of a son —

Oh my god. I just sat in front of the TV for an hour. And am pressing play for a second episode. NO! Turn OFF, evil Xbox! You have no power over me! TO THE WRITING. To the computer! There’s still plenty of time to…

Oh shit. I forgot about this bill sitting on the desk. Ok, I’ll just pay this bill and then… ok, that’s done. Now really! To the writing!

… I should probably check my email first. I haven’t checked it in several hours. Something important could have come through. Something urgent.

… Nope. Nothing urgent. Well, that’s good! That means I can start writing! ONWARD!

Shoot. I forgot to Google “burnt leaf edges on maples” earlier today. I need to do that. I mean, if I don’t check now, the maple in the front yard could die. I’d be really sad if it died, especially since we planted the damn thing and nursed it and YOU WILL NOT DIE ON ME! TO THE GOOGLES!

… Huh, ok. Apparently we’re doing exactly what we should be doing with the maple. That’s good. Great.

Ok, to the writing! Word doc — open. Check. Now to just re-read what I last wrote, get re-acquainted… oh my God, I wrote that? That’s… that’s not good. That just doesn’t seem in line at all with that character. I should probably rework that…

NO! NO EDITING! WRITE NOW! ONWARDS!

Here we go. Typing words… oh hey! Byron just got home! I should go say hi to Byron… NO I’M SORRY I CANNOT TALK TO YOU, I AM WRITING!

Back to it. Here we… shit. It’s 9 o’clock. How did it get to be 9 o’clock? I have to get ready for bed soon. I have to wake up at 5 to go running. If I don’t go to bed soon I won’t get 8 hours of sleep and then I’ll be a miserable wreck at work tomorrow and no, it won’t be the end of the world but it’ll be awful and…

Ok. Calm down. There’s still time. Just write…

Sweet! I got a paragraph written! You know, that looks like a pretty damn good paragraph. I am pleased with this paragraph. And it’s 9:30 now, so you know, I should probably shut it down for the night. But I’m pleased with this. We did alright. A good night’s work, self. A good night’s work.

Outlined: The First Draft

First draft of the outline is DONE! Done done done done done.

Buffalo Writes - Book outlined printed up and on a table.

(I’d like to say “done” just one more time before the revisions start. Le sigh…)

Six pages in all its full glory. I’ve actually written up until about page 3 (over 45,000 words, at last count), so that was just outlining work I’d already done, with some tweaks along the way. Page 3 and onward is all new material: the roadblock that had been holding up the writing. Now the entire book is outlined, from start to finish. Actually, with TWO finishes — I currently have two possible endings for this sucker. Need to figure out which is the “right” one.

Some darlings have already had to be killed. For a long time , I envisioned this reclusive monk community making an appearance about 3/4 of the way through the story. They were crystal-clear in my head — what they wore, what they looked like, where they lived and why. I thought they added a good element to the story, a chance for the main characters to pause and reflect — an element that was otherwise lacking.

But then… as I was outlining, the monks started to feel out of place. There didn’t seem to be a great spot for them; they provided a pause, yes, but in doing so they slowed down the action at a crucial point. But damn it, I’d dreamed up these monks and they were going in there. So I jammed them in and they fit… sort of. A nagging itch at the back of my brain told me it just didn’t work. And when I got feedback from my outline group — yeah, they agreed. The monks had to go. It wasn’t even that hard of a decision. Seeing the entire story all laid out, it was pretty clear what belonged and what didn’t.

(And I have to say — I’m SO SO GLAD I figured that out now, rather than writing a bunch of monk scenes and only THEN figuring out they didn’t work. This outlining can be a drag, but it definitely is a timesaver in the long run.)

There are a few kinks that still need to be worked out — but that’s what revisions are for. The jigsaw puzzle is SO CLOSE to being put together. And after that, of course, I have to write the remaining 30,000 or so words… but I feel like progress is being made. And it feels damn good.

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.