Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hiking the Canyon: The First Slip

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

On Monday, I talked about how I used to think writing a novel was like climbing a mountain, but that more and more I think it's like hiking a canyon. That you start out on top, and that you go down before you come back up.

All writers are different, so your struggles along the hike might be different than mine. Hopefully, even if our struggles are different, some of my suggestions might help you too when you're in places of low momentum.

As I write the first couple chapters of my book, I'm usually flying high. I'm in love with the character, the idea feels fresh, the theme important, and I'm really proud of the foreshadowing I've written.

And then out of nowhere (not always, but often) around the close of the third or fourth chapter, I write in a plot twist that I hadn't planned. Initially I'm excited. But then I glance at those notes I made back in the brainstorming phase, and I have a, "Huh. What now?" moment. How does this new twist fit in? Is it better with it? What does it mean for the rest of the story?

What follows these questions is my first slip in momentum, my first few steps down.

Heading into the canyon
For awhile, I'll sit there at my desk and ponder what to do next. Previously in this place, I've done one of three things:

1. Give up the idea altogether
In my days as a teen writer, this is often when I abandoned a manuscript.

2. Go back and edit what I've already written.
There are wonderful writers out there who edit as they write (Roseanna M. White is one of them) but I always used it as an excuse to not move forward with the story. I would focus on perfecting the beginning and I often would never make it to the middle.

3. Press forward, one stilted word at a time.
This is something I did in the name of "writing bad first drafts." It was okay that I was meandering around with this next scene, because it was a first draft and they're supposed to be bad, right?

I've found that there's a better way for me to work through my first lull. Here are some things that have worked for me, or that I've seen work for other writers:
  • I write my synopsis. It used to be that I wrote my synopses after my novel was done and when I needed it to pitch to a publisher. I hated them. But when I write my synopsis after just a few chapters, I really enjoy the process.
  • I pull out one of my writing exercise books. The ones I use most often are Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass and Deep and Wide by Susan May Warren. They have lots of exercises in them for brainstorming your plot and characters, but they often don't work for me in the brainstorming stage. For whatever reason, I need to write a few chapters in the story world to figure out my major players and plot lines before these exercises do me much good.
  • I don't do this, but if you're a visual person, now might be a good time to work on finding pictures of your characters or settings. 
  • I plan out the next couple chapters. Having too much of an outline can stifle me, but if I think through a few different paths for the next chapters, that can make a big difference in the rewrites phase.
  • If I have two options that I can't decide between, I might ask the opinion of a writing friend. What I don't do, however, is send my rough chapters to critique partners. For some of you, having others read your book along the way may not just work well for you, it may be part of your creative process. For me, I can't let too many voices in or I get paralyzed. The first draft is mine, and if I started sharing it with others, I find myself full of doubts. (Or too much confidence - neither is good!)
Is there anything that helps you get back into your story when you've had a momentary setback? If so, please share!

35 comments:

  1. Is there anything...? I'm not sure, I haven't had this problem YET, but being a writer, it probably will happen. Especially since I'm about to start writing a fantasy. I would love to hear any tips or tricks all ya'll have, so i'll be ready when the time comes! :) Awesome post, Stephanie! *Both thumbs up!*

    Tw

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  2. Not really. I usually just try and stick to the book and just keep writing. Eventually inspiration will come to me.

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  3. My troubles usually happen within the first couple chapters: characters start reminding me of past characters from other books. It happens so much, in their dialogue, etc. I struggle to make them different and then give up if it doesn't work. How do we keep our characters fresh and steer clear of "repeat characters"?

    Becca

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    1. Wow, Becca. Great question. I'll do a post on that, okay?

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  4. I had one of those 'This story is never going to work out' moments yesterday. Thankfully, I worked past it a bit. :) Maybe I'll try a few of these examples!

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    1. Oh! Stephanie, I just got Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and I can't wait to read it!

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    2. I got a copy for Christmas and I loved it! I found it really helpful :)

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    3. It's one of the first writing books I bought myself, and I still love it!

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  5. My main trick is to just keep going. Rewriting exists for a reason, right? If I'm really stuck, I brainstorm ideas for an extra something to go wrong. Or I try to find ways to either add a short term time bomb or ratchet up the tension on the overall time bomb. That's a technique I'm still working on.

    Great post! Looking forward to hearing other people's tips.

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    1. That's a good idea, Leah. I need work on that. :/ Like Mr. S. says though, dropping a body from the ceiling helps a lot. :P
      ~Molihua/Kristin

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    2. Someday I'll have to literally do that, Kristin. Just for fun. Just like there's usually a character in each of my novels whose birthday is August 15th. :P Kudos to anyone who knows why that date is significant.

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    3. A body drop! I love it. Excellent strategy.

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  6. I used the story brainstorming question sheet for the first time and that's really a good tool to look back at!

    Oh, and Stephanie, a question about 100/4/100: I started my story in English, but I discovered writing goes better when I do it in Dutch ;-) So I translated the part I already wrote in English in Dutch and continued in Dutch. But the translated part has a bit more words than the 'original' English version. Which one counts for the spreadsheet?

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    1. Well, I'm obviously not Stephanie, but hey, that's cool! I'm multi-lingual too, and I've tried to write before in Spanish and am beginning a children's story for my brother in Chinese, there's usually one language that just works best for writing, and mine is English. It just flows better, and I have to do a lot less grammar checking to do. So yeah, kudos! :)

      I would guess that your Dutch version could count for the spreadsheet because you're continuing your story in Dutch, but that's just my opinion and you should probably wait for Stephanie's reply. I'll be interested to see what she says though. Even though my story's in English.

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    2. Yeah, go ahead and use your Dutch word count. How cool that there are a couple of you who are multi-lingual! I love that :)

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  7. Great post, and helpful, too! :)

    The main thing that helps me is just to keep writing, even if it's in the name of bad first drafts. Often I look back and see it wasn't as bad as I thought, though sometimes it's worse. It's almost always helps get me unstuck, though.

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    1. Sometimes just one foot in front of the other is the way to go!

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  8. Oh hm...synopses. I should probably try that one. :P Thanks Mrs. Morrill! :) I went and read the linked post but I'm wondering a bit more about specifics. What all do you talk about? Is it just a really long summary of the story, told in third person (limited?) and including a good bit of backstory?

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    1. That's exactly what it is, Amanda. And it describes the story in its entirety, including the end.

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  9. THis was SO timely & helpful. I'm completely with you on point #2! I envy those who can edit as they go {*cough* Rachelle Rea!} but I'm sloooowwwly but surely learning to let go of my perfectionist leanings & embrace #3.

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    1. Oh, good, Meghan! I had to let go of mine too. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I let go of it :)

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  10. Loved this post! When I hit a setback, I just try to keep on writing. I know that I'll have to come back and edit eventually, so I don't really care if the writing is bad.

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  11. This is a terribly helpful post, considering that this one story of mine just won't behave. I am plodding through, however, and I've found the best thing for it was to plunk. My goal is 1k words a day and often I go beyond that. Even 500 is helpful. The other thing that helped for me was creating something I call "The Rummaging" where I basically went through and formed a sheet for each main/main-side character and asked (and answered) the questions I had about them. This brought out huge potentiality for the plot that I wouldn't have found otherwise. Since I tend to be "pantser", I totally can relate to the Chapter 4 flop. :D

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    1. Love it, Rachel! Yes, I think the chapter four flop is the curse of us pantsers...

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  12. I'm liking this series of posts!!

    Writing a synopses...that intimidates me. Don't really know why...

    Recently I ran into a "stuck" place with my novel. I had no idea what to write next and a word war was coming up in the next few minutes. Trying not to panic, I decided I needed to write down what had already happened in the story. I didn't write down every scene, just a brief one-sentence/phrase description of the highlight scenes. Since I had an idea of what I want to happen further on in the book, this technique helped me keep it all together, and keep moving.

    Also, I remember why I wanted to write the book in the first place. And I keep writing. :)

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    1. Good, Whitney! They're fun to write.

      And synopses used to really intimidate me too, so I know what you mean. Eventually I had to do the same thing with them that I do books - tell myself that it's okay to write a bad first draft, and then do my best with it.

      Great technique! Thanks for sharing that.

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  13. Oooh, yes!! I find/draw pictures of my characters and locations all the time! (sometimes I build models in Minecraft. Extremely helpful with layouts). Usually when I'm stuck I give it a few weeks' break and think about it. Just daydream about the story, until I come across a good idea or a re-inspiration. Then I'll be right back to it!

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  14. Sometimes listening to music gives me inspiration or puts me in the "write" mood. I don't know if that's really a strategy.

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  15. I frequently discuss characters, scenes, ect. with a writing friend so that I can get a better grasp on what exactly I am imagining. It forces me to describe things in greater detail than I see it in my mind and helps refine or hone on things.

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  16. Oh man, I have reached this point in my WIP.
    And I haven't abandoned the project completely, but I confess that I've been incredibly lazy and haven't seriously worked on it for months.
    *hides face in shame*
    I think I just need to do some planning, and some plot-hole-filling, and get my lazy butt back on track.

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  17. I usually stop give it some thought or make a note of the spot by highlighting it or putting in asterisks or take note of it at the bottom of the page. Usually below what I'm writing, I have an area of parentheses where I make notes of things I need to go back and do or make sure I do as I go. :)

    Stori Tori's Blog

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