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The Writing Life: When the Story Stalls [Apr. 21st, 2015|01:17 am]
[Current Mood |awake]

Sometimes a book stalls because the writer's done something that derailed it, or didn't do something to keep it going.  I experience stall-effect in the middle of almost every book, so now I expect it (hope it won't appear, but am not panicky when it does.)  Doesn't mean I've lost my talent, can't write again, have utterly failed, etc, etc.  It's a part of the way my brain interacts with Story-space, and it means some serious work (not wishful thinking) to figure out what I did or did not do *this* time.

Well, this time what I did was go blasting ahead where I knew things were going, trailing a cloud of necessary secondary characters for whom I'd produced some minimal background.  They were holding me back, when I started the book, so I wrote ahead of my understanding of them.  I start books in a rush--need to get into them quickly, well in, before coming up for air and thought.   And then came to the point where all these secondary characters  basically sat there, a row of plastic dolls, for me to move around in Story-space.  Only that's not acceptable.  Secondaries are not puppets; they need to be seen and felt to be acting out of their own reasonable motivations.  "Why won't you DO things?" I asked.  Little glass eyes stared back.

When I first started writing, a character turning from live to plastic scared me a lot.   I hadn't developed any tools to do anything but toss out that one and make up another.  Experience is a big help, if and only if I don't let the fear take hold ("I'm getting old now...maybe it's all going away, the ability to make up characters that come alive..." )   One useful tactic starts by picking two or three at a time and getting them to argue with each other.  These are not conversations for the book; I'd be surprised if more than a few of them ended up there.  They're group psychotherapy for plastic doll-itis.  From their brief bios, I pick a situation in which they'd disagree, and then shove in a battery (authorial fingers on the keyboard) and see if they start moving on their own.  And they began to.  Better backstories on them gradually softened their plastic and made it more like flesh. Faces had expression--changing expression.  I already knew some of their triggers and hot buttons--now to push hard on those.  The printout of the Character Bios file acquired scribbled notations in the margins and running around the back, as more and more characters woke up.

The whole book began to inch forward, a bit stickily.  Still not moving smoothly, though moving.  Hmmm.  When my friend Karen was visiting, we talked about the book, of course, and I mentioned a branch point I was still not certain of.  She asked exactly the right question to make me look harder at someone who--I thought--had already been very well defined in the first pages, and was OK to roll on...but wasn't.   What, she asked, was J's value to protagonist and to someone else who cannot be specified yet?   The question stabbed the inside of my brain like a searchlight, pointing out what wasn't there.  This secondary has a crucial part at the point where the book is now (and it's hard to write *about* this without letting spoilers out of the bag...so if it seems a big vague, that's why) and without more internal reality, that would not work.

So I focused on J.   Not just J's planet of origin, culture of origin, personal history, personal relationship with a major character...that was already down on the Characters reference file.   But took more time to think about--to test hypotheses about--the implications of the culture of origin and  J's innate personality and J's specific personal history as mediated by both the innate stuff and the culture stuff.   Running J (both writing out conversations and--as J came more alive, mentally) through various simulations, some of which had nothing to do with the actual book. And then it happened.  J popped the plastic shell completely, emerging as a much better character, very stubbornlly  J-self.  Whee, yay, and some bouncing in the chair occurred.

But fixing one cause-of-stall doesn't mean everything's now fine, because every change propagates by effect through everything else.  I realized the entire first section of the book had to be rewritten NOW--from page one--to make J's behavior up to and beyond where the book is presently organic.   That's...a lot of pages.  Hundreds, in fact: every appearance of J,  every reaction to J by other characters, every thought about J by Main Character #1 (MC1)  needed correction to account for the increased complexity and "aliveness" of J.   Inevitably, the aliveness of one character will show up the any plastic on the others, and fixing the next will show up another and...thus the need for a complete front to back (or middle, since that's where it was stalled) revision.   Usually I don't attempt a big rewrite like that until the rough draft's done, but this time--because of what the book is, and the larger-than-usual cast of close-secondaries (that may not make sense but I know what I mean), what I had done had constricted a section where more degrees of freedom were needed.  I could not go on and write the rest without fixing what came before.

Could I have figured all that out earlier?  No, not this time.  One of the constraints of a book that's a proposal for a contract is the proposal requirement itself.  Fine if you're one kind of writer, not helpful if you're hte other.  You're supposed to know and show more about the whole structure than may be possible (it's not possible for me, at the depth I want to work.)  The other constraint was the content of the book (very loosely, the 'idea' of the book) which required the main character to meet a group of strangers very soon after the book starts, and then in another very short time they're all in a crisis.situation together.  Usually I manage to introduce secondaries--who have to have depth--in a more sequential way, individually or in small groups.   I knew when I started this might be tricky, but there was that urge to dive in and go as far as possible before slowing down to think.  (It's an approach that's worked for me in multiple endeavors and caused quite striking fails in others.)  If you're wired for that kind of approach, then anticipate the need to pause and regroup and redirect partway through--be flexible--and above all do not give in to the fear that you're out in the ocean without paddle or sail.  Writers create their own paddles and sails and there are many tricks available (and more you can make up) to get your story-ship moving again.

So, anyway, the rewrite of J's stuff is going well, but of course that requires a complete reconsideration of every other scene.  MC-1 is still MC-1--no worries that J will usurp the book--but some scenes are going to be way, way different.  Better.  I can feel it in my bones.  Now we're cookin', says the Plot Daemon (the engineer responsible for keeping up steam.)

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa...a reference some of you will get instantly with all it implies.

[User Picture]From: seekerval
2015-04-21 11:02 am (UTC)
Writers create their own paddles and sails...

That is a great reminder for any time in the future when I get stuck in the "now what?" syndrome. Thanks.

And Thank You for sharing this peek into the process of an accomplished and talented writer.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2015-04-21 03:49 pm (UTC)
Glad you found it useful. It was years before I realized that it was even possible to make up my own tools (some excellent, but fierce, English teachers had me convinced that school handed out the tools, like boxes of crayons, and those were the only tools/colors available. Tree trunks brown, leaves green.) You begin to develop advanced tools by reading a lot of books--books of different kinds, by many different writers. Their use of the tools seep into your brain--the seeds that can grow if you feed them--and feeding them means using them. This is why young writers are derivative--and need to be--in their early work. It's OK to write like the writer you fell in love with last...but then read another writer, and another.
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[User Picture]From: blueeowyn
2015-04-21 02:42 pm (UTC)
I too second the thanks for the process piece. I love how you can tie so many different arenas of thought into a single imagery. May the Plot Daemon proceed at a pace that your fingers can keep up with.
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From: geekmerc
2015-04-21 02:44 pm (UTC)
And so you successfully remind me that I should quit obsessing over which tool to choose for my project and just plunge ahead and use one. If I must rework it part way through because the tool is limited, then so be it.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2015-04-21 03:44 pm (UTC)
Sometimes the tool you think is the right one isn't--although that eases up with experience (and a bigger toolkit.) But defining the problem in what I might call operational terms--is it that transport is bogged down in mud, or there aren't enough drivers, or not enough loaders, or it's bringing the wrong stuff--can help clarify the fix needed. I read a fair bit of "failure analysis" across a range of activities (comes from my mother, that itch to know how things fail and why failure wasn't anticipated) and that often helps me pinpoint what the problem is in the book at hand. In writing, there are multiple paths to use in the analysis. I suspect every writer uses a slightly different approach (and may not even be aware of what they're using) but in my experience and observation of others' process, it always involves some tinkering...hanging things on the mobile, wiggly shape of the not-yet-jelled story and seeing what works. Sometimes you can do that mentally ("Oh--if A just didn't find out about R until AFTER the conversation with C--and that delay is easy, just don't have M call A right away, but stop to call the police first--then all this will work.") More often it takes writing stuff out. And sometimes (more often than I like to admit to myself) it takes starting a new file to unhook the attachment to the part that went wrong. Not a whole new book file (well, not often) but a new separate file for that part, so you can see it clean as you work.

It's a tricky balance, writer and story--a live story wants to go its own way, but the writer had a goal in mind when starting it, so the story only gets to be "free" within the flood plain, as it were, of the river--it can't be allowed to start flowing _up_ a mountain, though it can have some free meanders.
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From: geekmerc
2015-04-21 04:43 pm (UTC)
It's the same in Network Engineering and Server Administration. The author of the tools you use had their own ideas. You have to attempt to find a tool that fits closely with the image you have in your head for the eventual outcome. Sometimes you have to build your own tools or modify those of others (thanks to the Open Source Software movement). Overall, spending a full day of research isn't that bad. Now it's time to just grab one and try it out.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I've always considered all forms of creation (not to be confused with copying) to be art. There is the image in your head that forms the premise. You might build a loose outline of how things will work. Then you start at the beginning. As you slowly work on it, you find that things just want to work a certain way. It takes on a life of its own. I don't really think it matters if you are building a house, writing a program, building a network, composing a song, painting a picture, or writing a book.

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[User Picture]From: Gareth Griffiths
2015-04-21 06:45 pm (UTC)
In software we have teams - some folk are great at getting the bare bones of a solution together quickly, others are good at detail and user interfaces - authors have to do all the parts - always amazed at that!
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[User Picture]From: pameladean
2015-04-21 07:04 pm (UTC)

Thanks so much for this; it's very timely and may stifle the queeping of my own project.

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[User Picture]From: dacuteturtle
2015-04-22 01:00 pm (UTC)
I hate to say "me too" (because those are boring responses), but "me too." I know those issues well. My mid-draft stalls are now entirely predictable.

After my first draft, I do a revision draft just to straighten out all the innovations that get me out of my story stalls. That's also where I cut my steadfastly plastic characters and I catch up with the characters who keep innovating. I do sometimes go backwards while drafting, but that's only if I really need to remember to put something in. (I forget plot points like a sieve.)
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2015-04-25 06:03 am (UTC)
I forget names. I forget names in real life, too. One reason the Vatta universe includes cranial implants that pop up identities when you need them is my own moderate face blindness and associated difficulty with names. Hence, the "name file" for every group of books. It's embarrassing how many times I have to look up the same name, even when the person appeared in the chapter before last. Ship names, planet names, names of continents, cities, etc, etc. If I forget to put one in the name file when I first come up with it, woe is me if I need it again later.

I don't usually forget plot points on the book I'm on, but sometimes forget them several books back in a group that's big enough. And I don't forget the characters as characters...they have distinct personalities, backstories, etc. It's the names that disappear on me. In the current book, I have a separate file (printed out, on my desk, where I can grab it) with, at present, 38 names and 24 character bios/backstory (which includes personality type, etc.) One of these, J, has just changed significantly (because, as the book moved forward, she wasn't living into her original description and needed to be more attached to her background.)

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[User Picture]From: gifted
2015-04-26 06:43 am (UTC)
These writing posts are invaluable to me. I will also show my man, who is a writer -- as he appreciates (and often identifies with) them too. Thanks for sharing.
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