What to do When You Can’t Write Fiction

Sleepy novel writing man at computerUnable to Write

Times there will be, my fellow part-time novelist, when you’ll sit down at the keyboard, notepad, stone tablet or whatever and find yourself unable to write fiction. Maybe your muse is out drinking, or you’ve got writer’s block, or you didn’t get a wink of sleep the night before and your mind is about as nimble as a bowling ball.

A Ten-pointer

Your time is limited, so you don’t want to waste it. In hope of helping out, here’s my list of things to do when you’re unable to write.

1. Free write

Just sit there and let those stupid words come out. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, any of that stuff, unless it just happens on its own. At least you’ll keep the gears oiled and, who knows, you might turn out some free-form poetry.

2. Write badly

This is one of my favorites, as I do it so well. Move on to the item you have planned to write and let the suck-fest begin. Give yourself permission to stink and to make only half the progress you wanted to. The world will not come to an end and you’ll have something to go back and fix later.

3. Edit

Your mind may be a gelatinous sludge, but that doesn’t mean you can’t read. Take that manuscript and read it sentence by sentence, hunting down those misplaced commas and run-on sentences. Try reading sentences backwards – you’ll be surprised what you catch.

4. Plan

If your beat sheet is all done, take it out and look over it. Does it make as much sense as the last time you looked at it? You’re in poor shape, so don’t make any big changes. Just make notes and come back to them later.

5. Research

I like research because it makes me feel like I’m working on my novel without actually writing anything. That, and I get to surf the web looking for God knows what. The hard part here is getting distracted by social media and whatnot. Just don’t.

6. Dream up the next one

You might just need to step away from the novel you’re writing now. Fooling around with plans for your next book is a productive way to do that. Scribble ideas, play with an outline, sketch a character or two – you know the drill. It’s productive, it’s fun and it gives your aching brain a break.

7. Stare at the ceiling

It’s okay to stare at the wall, if you want, too. I don’t recommend the floor because that much looking down is bad for your posture. Just relax and let your mind amble through your story, all or part of it. Yes, you’ll find yourself thinking about how nice the walls would look if you painted them puce, but when that happens just bring yourself back to the story. You might be surprised at the things your subconscious shows you about the work.

8. Character and world definition

I have a hard time with these types of exercises, myself, but you might be a writer who thrives on filling out the questionnaires out there that help define characters and settings. If you are, this can be an excellent way to use your time. Even if your characters and setting are already defined, you can sharpen aspects of them or at least just get them recorded somewhere in an organized way.

9. Read about craft

There are plenty of good books on fiction-writing craft out there and a slew of good blogs, too. Give yourself the gift of some reading time and there’s a good chance you’ll improve your writing. Stephen Covey readers may recognize this as “sharpening the saw.”

10. Journal or blog

This is another great way to keep the writing machinery lubed up. I like to write about writing in this space, so occasionally I do that when I’m incapable of fiction. You can use a journal to record observations of real life to be used in your later work or whatever you like.

So, there you go, ten ways to get through those times when your dreamship turns into a scow. Good luck, and if you have any good ideas to share, let the other two readers know in a blog. Thanks!

The Charlie Horse Solution – Overcoming Fear While Rewriting Your Novel

Fear of Frying Your Novel represented by Bacon Bruzeln Slices Of Ham Sear Frying Pan Fat by Coding 4 Web on pixabayFear of Frying Your Novel

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been posting about rewriting a lot lately. And not just posting. I’ve been reading about it, talking about it, thinking about it… okay, obsessing about it.

I want very badly to do an excellent job on draft the second, so I’ve been planning a lot. I’ve re-swizzled my beat sheet and used my electronic note cards to clarify the details of individual story elements I want to bring out. And then I’ve done it again. And again. This has been going on for weeks.

The other day I woke up to the fact that I wasn’t doing anything except spinning my wheels. Why? I could give you lots of explanations, but there’s just one basic reason behind all of them:

Fear.

Here’s the deal: I have before me the first first draft of a novel I have ever written. It’s precious to me. It’s true I’ve written a lot in this space about writing fiction with a non-attached attitude, but I kind of forgot about that and latched onto my draft like a leech on an artery. My first draft isn’t that great, but it is finished, and I don’t want to break it. Never mind that, thanks to the wonders of personal computing, I can make a copy to revise so I don’t touch the original. If the situation had anything to do with logic, it wouldn’t be a situation.

Charlie Horse solution to novel rewriting problem represented by Boy on Rocking Horse property of the authorThe Charlie Horse Solution

Then, as I said, I woke up and saw that I was stuck. So, great, Now I was afraid of being stuck and afraid of editing my draft. Not a happy place, but, thanks be to St. Luke and the Muse (feel free to insert your own spirit guide here), I remembered the Charlie Horse Solution.

Which you’ve all heard of. No? Here’s the story for your edification.

When I was a teenager, after a long day of dodging saber-toothed tigers I would sometimes wake up with a Charlie horse—a cramp in my calf muscles that would bend my leg to that my calf was involuntarily lodged against the underside of my thigh. Most painful and unpleasant.

One should probably massage or soak or breathe deeply in such a pickle, but upon being awakened by intense pain at 3 a.m. I was not one for slow solutions. I would grab my calf in both hands, grit my teeth and straighten my leg. It hurt like flaming Hell’s bells, but just for a second, and afterward my leg would be all better.

I decided to take the same approach with my revision. I went right to the beat sheet, made a copy and moved a row (I use Excel) from point A to point B. It hurt! My nice little plan had a gouge in it. But the world did not come to an end. My novel did not disintegrate. I did not break out in boils. Encouraged by this absence of disaster, I moved another row, and another – still no signs of doom. Quite the opposite, in fact. I began to see how the rewrite could fit together. Before I knew it, I had discovered an approach to the novel’s beginning that I was finally happy with.

After some days of work, I had the B.S. (we should all call it that more often, don’t you think?) in good enough shape to start writing. That’s where I am now. The first time I tore out a paragraph that wasn’t working, my stomach was in a knot Alexander the Great and his sword would have had a hard time sorting out. But I yanked it and again, the sun stayed in the sky. I added new material and still the other stars stayed in their accustomed courses. Rain still fell down, not up. Ducks still went quack.

Recovering momentum in novel rewriting represented by Rubicon,-to-ford-the-river- by Simon Kozhin on commons.wikimedia.orgCrossing Over

At this point, I crossed a sort of literary Rubicon and do you know what was on the other side?

Fun!

And, yes, some of that non-attachment I’ve been telling you guys is so important. I was really glad to see it again. Most importantly, I found momentum on the other side, the forward energy of the story and the joy of creating it for its own sake.

So that’s the Charlie Horse solution:

  1. Recognize you’re afraid.
  2. Make a fresh copy of your beat sheet, manuscript, whatever you’re using.
  3. Don’t hesitate: change something, anything in the copy, to get going.
  4. Change stuff until you’ve got your momentum back.
  5. Start having fun again.

Good luck!

Comment fairy nili_fairy_2a_by_jagged_eye-d47hv70l on deviantart.comTell Me Something Good

Make the Comment Fairy happy. Leave me a comment if you have some good ideas about getting past the frightened stage when you’re revising, or if you just want to commiserate.

Tools for Novel Writers: Character Interviews for, well… Character

Woman interviewing a guy in a ponchoThe Character Interview

Today’s topic… character interviews! They’re very useful! True! I hate character interviews! Also true!

 

 

Nutrition label with factsCharacter Factoids

I wrote a post a while back called “I Completed a Character Interview and didn’t Scream Once.” It’s about a method of defining characters that involves completing a long list of descriptive items.

While this was a useful process, for a writer like me (no smart cracks starting “Yeah, like a…” and ending in something rude, please), the process has its limitations. When I tried this for a new character, I had a shell of factoids, but not a living, breathing person. Working through the method for an existing character was helpful for record-keeping, but it didn’t give me a better idea of who she was.

After working on my not-so-great American novel for a while, I’ve found that a performing a nuts-and-bolts character interview is not a bad way to start out. It at least gives you something to work with and keeps you from making the oft-told error of giving Jane blue eyes on page 10 and brown eyes on page 75.

Character SouloidsSouls

On the other hand, if I want to know anything about the depths of a character – goals, heart’s desires, shaken or stirred – they have to live on the page for a while and interact with the story world around them. The facets of a character’s personality are born of my own subconscious and they take a while to come out. I am well aware of the excellent craft tomes that suggests methods for eliminating, or at least, abbreviating this process; I am reading them and ever hoping to improve. In fact…

I just finished reading one of those crafty books, Writing Fiction for Dummies and there’s a bit in there about character interviews I am finding very helpful. It’s the idea of determining a character’s values, ambitions and goal. These three points are infinitely more important than weight or mother’s paint color preferences. They get to what makes a character tick, which is a large part of what drives a story. And if you know one or two aspects, you can back up or go forward into the others. For example, if you know a character’s value is financial security, that might lead to his ambition to make lots of money and that ambition to his goal of being a corporate CEO.

After I’ve lived with a character on the page for a while, I still don’t necessarily have a conscious notion of what his values, ambitions, or goal might be, but what I do have is somebody I can have a conversation with. (All that time talking to imaginary friends is finally paying off.) Once that conversation gets under way, the characters speak for themselves. I do give a prod or some direction here and there, but mostly I just let them jabber.

Demon maskExample

Now I’ll bore you with an example. It’s part of the interview with my main bad guy, Gilles de Retz, a damned soul so bad he volunteered to be converted into a demon.

N: I need to know what you want, Retzy.

D: What I want? Is this not the thing obvious? De Retz must rise! De Retz must rule! It is the natural way.

N: The natural way? What are you talking about?

D: There is the natural order and of this are the people who are better and who must rule. De Retz is such a one, perhaps above them all.

N: How do you know you’re better than everybody else?

D: It is a thing one knows. How do you know that you are a narrow-eyed, pinch-faced idiot? You just know, oui?

N: Let’s do a quick check.

Interview: values (axioms; 2 or 3, conflicting): The naturally existing upper class, of which de Retz is one, should rule everybody else.

Interview: ambition (flow from values; abstract): Rule everybody else.

Interview: goal (flows from ambition; concrete; objective, simple, achievable, important, difficult): Become the ruler of everything.

D: Mais oui!

N: Is there a conflicting value, I wonder?

D: I am very loyal to my great Lord Satan. Of all creation, he is the only one better than de Retz.

N: Really?

D: There is the good chance of this, at least.

N: That’s good That would give you a conflict between wanting to rule everything and being the loyal second banana.

D: What? De Retz is not a banana, nor any fruit!

N: Okay, simmer down. It’s just an expression. Let’s do this again.

Interview: values (axioms; 2 or 3, conflicting): The naturally existing upper class, of which de Retz is one, should rule everybody else. Loyalty to Satan is paramount because he is the only being greater than de Retz.

Interview: ambition (flow from values; abstract): Rule everybody else. Make Satan the primary ruler.

Interview: goal (flows from ambition; concrete; objective, simple, achievable, important, difficult): Become the ruler of everything.

D: Here you have l’essence de de Retz, monsieur. I would not have thought you capable.

N: Okay, thanks, Retzy. I think.

I use the example of de Retz because he was relatively easy and so his interview was short. I’ve found so far that the good guys are more complex, which I think (hope) is good.

Put a Comment in the Weird Robot Head BoxComment box with mannekin head

I’m sure I’ll be learning and sharing more about all this as time goes on. Please leave your own genius thoughts on character interviews in a comment.

On-the-job Training with the Rewrite of the Rewrite

On-the-job Training

Two boys doing paperwork on the job

As regular readers of this space (a.k.a. people with too much spare time) already know, I’m working on the second draft of my first novel. Novel making is one of those jobs for which on-the-job training is a must, I’ve discovered, no matter how many craft books you read or workshops you go to before you start.

One thing my O.J.T. has taught me is that as you rewrite, you’ll discover yet more things that need attention, from miniscule nits of prose to Godzilla-like swaths of illogic. For me, correcting all these things at once would be maddening. To bring some sanity to the process, I’m rewriting in layers—more layers than I expected when I started out.

Layers

Layers of soil

When I began the rewrite, I thought I’d be correcting the faults in the storyline and fixing the prose at the same time. Well, kids, that ain’t happening. I find it’s all I can do to get something down that corrects the story problem at hand and vaguely resembles the English language. Later, in another layer of the rewrite, I’ll go back and fix the prose.

Now I have to decide if I’ll fix the prose before I fix the second bunch of story problems I have uncovered as I’ve been tinkering with the first batch. Among these are:

  • Proofreading matters, such as being consistent with the use of “leaped” or “leapt.” In a book with as much leaping about as this one, I need to pick one term and stick with it.
  • Story-world items, like the thin spots. Right now, they are sort of ragged holes in reality, but of late I’m thinking they should have a thin fabric over them that you have to tear through. I’ve got to figure out if that’s a good idea and, if it is, implement it.
  • Plot gaps. For example, I’ve got a character that I was going to eliminate, but now I want to keep him. The problem is, he disappears halfway through the book. How do I get him back in there?

So, now I’m looking at a rewrite of the rewrite, and then a rewrite of the rewrite of the rewrite. And that’s just the second draft! What an adventure this writing project has turned out to be.

The Plan

A bulletin board with post it notes for a software plan

What does this have to do with you, if you’re a writer reading this and waiting patiently for something helpful? Well, what I’ve found is that it’s helpful to have a plan and keep working it. Mine is roughly this:

  1. Analyze and rework the beat sheet for improvements.
  2. Arrange a fix-it matrix.
  3. Work simultaneously through the fix-it matrix and changes from my critique group.
  4. Record changes needed for the rewrite of the rewrite (story fixes, etc., not prose) as I go along.
  5. Complete the rewrite of the rewrite.
  6. Complete the rewrite of the rewrite of the rewrite (prose).
  7. Then, depending on how ready I think the thing is, either start draft three or send it out to beta readers. I’m not sure which—that’s another part of O.J.T.

Comment!

The riddler

Got any challenges with rewriting and clever solutions? Tell the world in a comment.

Rewriting Your Novel: Outlining and the Unexpected

dead end road sign

Sometimes, when I’m rewriting my novel, I run across a scene that won’t budge. I’ve got all my beat sheet notes laid out, I’ve got my fix-it matrix handy, my imagination and mood might even be in high gear, but everything I do turns into a dead end. At this point, I look at the clock. If my time is up, I breathe a sigh of relief, back everything up and cross my fingers for the next day. If I’ve still got time to work, I often suck it up and start outlining.

Yes, outlining, as in “1. 2. 3.” or, sometimes, even “1.A.i, 2.A.i.a…” The more stymied I am by a scene, the more detailed I tend to get.

Tinkertoy car

Outlining is great because it turns the scene from a mass of interweaving fibers you’ve got to pick through and arrange to a pile of tinkertoys, easy to pick up, simple to rearrange and assemble. When I outline, I can see the big chunks of action without worrying about dialogue, setting, description, character development, or any of that. That clarity allows me to arrange things much more rapidly than would working my way through the scene with just the beat sheet and fix-it sheet would.

So, once I have the thing all outlined to the nth degree, I start writing, stick to the plan and everything turns out perfectly, right?

Well, no. At least, not always.

Antique locomotive off the rails in the dirt

Somewhere along the way, events in the scene go astray of the outline. A character goes into a tunnel when you thought she was just going to cross the street. The bad guy appears earlier than you thought he would, riding a giant seagull instead of arriving in a cab. In the scene I was rewriting this morning, the lead and the love interest were supposed to fight their way out of a situation in a pretty straightforward fashion, but then they see a guy suspended from the ceiling by a hook and decide to get him down. (The novel’s set in Hell, so hook-guy isn’t dead.) Hook guy took things in a new direction, generating dialogue and action I never would have thought of while outlining.

I think this kind of writing miracle happens because the human brain can only do one thing at once. When I’m outlining, my mind is on doing just that, but once I start writing, if it’s going well, my imagination crowds out my carefully laid plans. The outline gets forgotten and stuff happens of its own accord.

woman in flexible yoga pose

So, if I’m going to deviate from it, is the outline pointless? I think not. With a difficult rewrite, the outline is a tremendous help in just getting started, because it’s much easier to start a journey if you have a map –it gives you confidence you can get where you’re going. Once I’m started, if the rewrite deviates from the outline in a good way, I simply revise it as necessary. If the writing goes haywire, I use the outline to ground myself and start on a revision.

The outline is a simple, flexible tool for your rewriting effort. It can un-stick you when you’re stuck, guide you when you’re lost, and record your success when you find the right path for a stubborn scene.

Cute wombat

Do you have any particularly effective outlining techniques? Do you think outlining is a waste of time? Let the world know in a comment. Thanks, and I’ll see you next time!

*”It” is a wombat treat. What kind of person do you think I am?

Rewriting Your Novel: The Deadly Game of “Compare Yourself”

The Rewriting Jungle

jungle to represent the rewriting jungle

So, there you are, the part-time novelist, maybe the nascent part-time novelist, and you’re working hard on your rewrite. It’s tough going, because, no matter how many craft books you’ve read, this is unknown territory, jungle territory no less, and you’re hacking your way through with a metaphorical machete. Despite your careful beat sheet revisions, you come to a point where the 83rd unexpected plot hole jumps out and surprises you. “Ohmigawd,” you think, “this is never going to work. I am wasting my time on what is possibly the worst travesty of literature ever committed in the English language.” So, realizing that you are getting a bit strung out, you take a break to relax and read a bit.

Which only makes things worse.

The Comparison Game

A sign that says stop the comparison game

Things get worse because you start comparing your work with whatever it is you’re reading. This happened to me the other day. Thinking novel #2 might be a lighthearted thriller, I thought I’d pick up One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich. Well, not only is that sucker light, it’s tightly plotted, it has sparkling, well-defined characters, plenty of excitement and a ton of humor. My book stinks, I thought. It is nowhere near good as this.

Well, that was depressing, so I turned to my current audiobook, Shades of Gray, by Jasper Fforde. Oh, man, the world-building that guy has put into this book! It’s about a society in which people can only see one shade of color and the whole social pecking order is built around a colortocracy, with purple vision at the top and mere gray at the bottom. And that’s not all. There are roads made of living material, giant swans, libraries empty of everything but librarians… it’s amazing. The world in my book seems shabby by comparison.

Feh, I thought, feeling doomed.

Avoid Idiot Syndrome

An idiot with a paper bag mask on his head the mask is on fire

But then I thought some more, and realized I was being an idiot. (This often happens.) Here’s why:

  • The books I was reading are finished. They’ve already been through the whole rewriting process. If they aren’t better than my second draft, something’s wrong.
  • The authors of these books have had a lot more practice than I. Both have several published books, and I’m willing to bet they both wrote a lot before they got the first one in bookstores. I didn’t write much in my youth (or early middle age), so here I am. I will never make up the experience gap, unless I live to be 200. (I’ll get back to you on that.) Might as well accept the fact and do the best I can.
  • One for the Money and Shade of Gray are great, but they aren’t my novel. Even after it’s all polished up, my book is going to be utterly different. I’m a different author with a different vision, voice and skill set.
  • For a writer, reading is sitting at the feet of the masters. There’s much to be learned from Evanovich and Fforde if I can set my ego aside and see it. Can I plot as tightly as Evanovich? I can try. Can I make my world as thoroughly as Fforde? I can try. The more I try to emulate the virtues of good writers, the better my writing will become.

Armed with Spackle

Man spackling a wall

Having thought all this, I feel better. I can finish my novel and make it the best book I can write at this stage of my development. I can learn from other writers instead of falling into the deadly game of Compare Yourself. Now I can tackle my rewrite fresh, with some positive ideas instead of a head full of put-downs.

Have spackle; will fill plot holes.

a monkey with a gun demanding a comment

What do you do to lift yourself up when you feel your writing stinks? Leave your thoughts in a comment for the other three people reading this blog. Thanks!

Tools for Novel Writers: From Fix-it Sheet to Fix-it Matrix

Taming The Imps of Rewriting

If you want to pry the lid off a barrel of imps and dump it out on your shoes, start rewriting your novel. That’s how I feel today, at any rate. There’s not just one thing to do. You’ve got to revise words, fill in plot holes, make characters look, act and speak consistently and, oh, sweet Saint Syrup of the Waffle House, do a hundred other things. And when I say imps, I mean imps, not tasks, because they slide out from under you, escape your attention, pile up in a writhing disorganized mass and do their best to make you crazy as a June bug in, well, like, June. It’s enough to make you run away screaming.

But I want to promote myself from nascent novelist to stuck-with-it-and-totally-finished novelist. And I presume, since you’re reading this, so do you. Or maybe you’ve done it before and you want to do it again. Let’s not split hairs. Or hares, which would be messy.

What I mean is, here we are. So let us gird up our loins and tame the imps.

The New Rewriting Steps

First, obtain a beverage. This should be free of alcohol or any other potentially mind-bending substances. I prefer coffee and, no, caffeine is not a mind-bending substance, it is a vitamin. Look it up.

Second, sit down (or stand up, if you prefer) at your chosen tool of literary construction.

Third, assemble the following: manuscript, beat sheet and fix-it sheet. (I described the fix-it sheet in “Tools for Writers: Fix-it Notes and the Fix-it Sheet.”)

Fourth, get something to make a matrix with. (A matrix is a grid; I am obligated to call it a matrix because of my brief sojourn in Hell… oh, wait, that was MBA school.)

Fifth – here’s the fun part – make a new, improved, fix-it sheet. This one enables you to track your rewriting tasks against your chapters with much more ease than the fix-it sheet.

I made my NIFIS (New, Improved Fix-It Sheet) with Microsoft Excel. Here it is:

 New Improved Fix It Sheet for Rewriting

Imps are listed across the top, sections down the left side.

Creating Your NIFIS

Take all the things you need to fix as noted in the three documents gathered in the third step and go to town making columns. Then fill in your sections in the leftmost column, or list them a section at a time as you work on them. As I go through the list, I check stuff off or mark it n/a (not applicable). I like this because it gives me one cage for all the imps, is simple to track and allows me to make the tasks as general or specific as I like. “Beat Sheet Changes” and “In-Line Fixes,” for example, are high level tasks; I track the details in the beat sheet for the former (duh) and in the manuscript for the latter (by just erasing the in-line fixes). On the other hand, “Fix-it: More Factories” is a reminder to include more of Satan’s weapons factories in the setting throughout the book, a pretty specific item.

Goofs of the Past

To give you an idea why I went this route, check out what happened with the fix-it sheet when I started revisions:

 Old Fix it Sheet for Rewriting

I still love the fix-it sheet for keeping track of issues as you go along, but it doesn’t really provide a good way of tracking where the tasks have been done or if they’re not applicable to a chapter. I also found myself resorting to symbols to indicate if changes were noted at specific places in the manuscript, were issues permeating the whole thing, etc. That was pretty clumsy. Sure, you could do it this way, but it would be a mess and I’m kind of an organization freak when it comes to the writing (in case you hadn’t figured that out already, based on this post).

I may revise my rewriting tools again sometime. I’m learning as I go and the novel, the tools and novelist-me are all still works in progress.

Bonus for the Curious

If you noticed the tabs “Arcs” and “Hair References” at the bottom of the NIFIS, check back here soon for a post explaining what those are all about.

Leave a Comment

If anybody has a better way of keeping their rewrite life in order, please let me know in a comment. Thanks!