Filling the Gaps in Your Story

A canyon between two steep cliffsNote: If you’re interested in seeing how the draft of Thin Spots is coming along, you can check it out on Wattpad. Thanks!

A simplification of Newton’s first law of motion, from our friends at Wikipedia, states: “An object continues to do whatever it happens to be doing unless a force is exerted upon it.” The same can be said of your novel. If your novel is moving nicely forward (which I hope it is), it will continue to do so unless something comes along to stop it or shove it off in another direction.

While there are plenty of things that can stop or re-direct your novel, the one I’m thinking of today is what I call gaps. These are gaps in your knowledge, plot or other novel elements that crop up as you’re writing, regardless of the amount of planning you’ve done. For example, you might be writing a scene that occurs in the vicinity of the Hoover dam and discover that, though you’ve read about the dam itself, you know nothing about the countryside or the roads. Gap! Or, let’s say you’re composing away and suddenly realize that if Uncle Slappy has the knife in the chapter your currently crafting, it had to show up in Aunt Kizzie’s handbag several chapters prior. Gap!

Whatever you do when you encounter a gap, you don’t want to let it stop your progress and you don’t want to let it re-direct you to the extent that you go off to work on something else. You can avoid that sad fate if you have a way to handle gaps already in hand when you start your project. I have a couple of ways I’m fond of; no doubt there are more.

One gap-handler I like is the in-line notation. This allows you to go with the flow when you hit a gap and still provides you an opportunity for patch-up later. As you hit a gap, you simply note the problem in brackets and keep right on going. For example: “Uncle Slappy pulled the magic knife from between the sofa cushions and [for Unc Slap to have knife now, knife must be in Ant Kiz purse way before now] brandished it like a sidekick in a B-grade swashbuckler.” This is not my idea; I picked it up from some writing book a long time ago and have used it with some success.

Another method, and my current favorite, is to keep a document called “Fixes.” I use a word processing file for this, but you could use a card file, or a legal pad, or the wall—whatever makes your cork float. I keep the document open while I’m writing and when I hit a gap make an entry there. For example: “For the scene ‘Uncle Slappy Cuts Up’ be sure the knife shows up in Aunt Kizzie’s handbag some scenes prior.” I like this method because I don’t have to go combing through the manuscript later to find the fixes.

That’s all there is to it. Happy gap-crossing!

Advertisements

Ten Points of Gratitude for a Writer

Billboard printed with "be grateful"

Note: If you’re interested in seeing how the draft of Thin Spots is coming along, you can check it out on Wattpad. Thanks!

This being the week of the Thanksgiving holiday, I am mindful of the particular things that have blessed me as a writer over my life. To God and human, my humble thanks.

  1. I’m thankful for the first person, who, while sitting around the campfire, telling stories of the day’s hunting and gathering, decided to make something up to amuse and amaze his listeners, thus kicking off the long tradition of what Lawrence Block has called “telling lies for fun and profit.”
  2. I’m thankful for the people who developed the written word. Without them, writers would just be sitting there with pens in their hands, not knowing what to do with them besides make telephone doodles.
  3. I’m thankful for my sixth-grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Allison, who was the first person ever to say I had a “flair” for writing, engendering a lifelong passion and incidentally giving me something to feel good about in one of the worst years of my life.
  4. I’m also grateful for Mrs. Casper, the 6th-grade teaching assistant who encouraged me to write poetry. Working in that form sharpened my appreciation for words and helped me see their endless possibilities.
  5. I’m thankful for the inventor of the typewriter. My handwriting stinks. Thanks to this wonderful device, other people besides myself have been able to read my writing.
  6. I’m even more thankful for the inventor of word processing. What a gift to the craft of writing! No more correction fluid or correction tape! No more carbon copies! No more retyping the whole thing because you rewrote a few paragraphs!
  7. I’m thankful to Professor R. C. “Doc” Wood, the English professor who gave me so much encouragement to keep writing fiction and poetry while I was in college. I hope, now that I’ve gotten my act together at last, that I’ll fulfill some small portion of the promise he saw in my work, to thank him in some small way.
  8. I’m thankful for my mother, who never abandoned the idea that I would write “when I matured.” Well, I guess I finally have, more or less, not enough to write the literary fiction she had in mind, but—even better—enough to write something that pleases me.
  9. I’m grateful for anybody who has or will read my work and not hate it, or, if they do hate it, at least have some constructive criticisms. That includes you, dear blog-reader—I appreciate you.
  10. Finally, I’m very grateful for my wife and son, who give me life- and soul-sustaining love and a firm foundation to stand on while my brain is whirling around in fantasy-land.

As it turns out, all these items are about people. People make the world go round, in real life and in fiction. They come in all shapes, sizes and dispositions, every one fascinating in some way or other, every one akin to the stars. For this, thanks be to God.

Anniversary! And: Don’t Let Jerks Rob You of Writing

This post’s publishing date, November 14th, 2012, marks the one-year anniversary of Carson Craig, Nascent Novelist.

Many thanks to everybody who has stopped by to read a bit.

Special thanks to those of you who visit on a regular basis.

May your souls be in Heaven a half-hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

One more piece of business: I won’t be publishing the draft of the novel here anymore. You can still follow the developing story on wattpad.

And now, to the post!

Time and time again in this space, I return to the things that can keep you from writing, things like writing to please other people or not taking your time. The other day a bad memory popped into my head, as they are unfortunately wont to do, and I remembered something else you might have to overcome in your writing journey:

Jerks.

Which brings me to a story.

When I was a young man, I wanted to be a poet, or a fiction writer, or both. I had a good career as a college poet in that my poetry prof loved my work and I got a lot of my pieces published in the school’s annual literary review. After college, I spent about three years partying as much as humanly possible. Writing anything went out the window.

I discovered writing again when I stumbled into graduate school at an institution offering an MFA in Creative Writing. I started writing short fiction. The first thing I turned in, a “literary” piece, was well-received by the professor. Subsequent efforts, which were more in the lines of humor and fantasy (my favorites), not so much. Still, that first story stood out and provided the catalyst for subsequent events.

A term or two later, news arrived that a Great Literary Person (GLP) was to visit our campus and conduct a workshop. The GLP was the fiction editor of a famous magazine and was even bringing its spouse, a writer, we were told, of some note, although none of us had ever heard the name. Excitement reigned.

My excitement reigned particularly high, because my writing prof offered to submit that first literary story to the workshop. It would be read and then personally reviewed in a public forum by the GLP and spouse. Having always come out well in such situations before, I assumed this would be one more ego-fest.

Wrong!

As it turned out, my wonderful story wasn’t. The lead character’s traits mixed those of a young adult with a little kid, and so didn’t make sense. The church portrayed in the story didn’t conduct itself in a normal Episcopalian manner, so it wasn’t believable. The thing was too much like a Flannery O’Connor tale. The criticisms went on.

Nobody had ever reacted so negatively to my writing before, so I was crushed. But, looking back, it wasn’t so much the criticism itself, but the way it was delivered that squashed me.

The GLP was downright nasty, and the spouse wasn’t much better. The tone of voice they used was haughty. The words they used were loaded. They said nothing about how the work might be improved, or what merits it had, but focused exclusively on the faults. It was so bad that one of my teachers—not my writing professor, I’ll note—stood up to interrupt and defend me. I walked out of that room with my tail between my legs. Had the criticisms been leavened with some constructive advice, I think the results would have been different.

I had already slowed down my fiction writing, for reasons I won’t bore you with here, but that experience brought it to a complete halt. I allowed myself to be blown off the rails by…

Jerks.

The result was I didn’t write fiction again for many years. I made a couple of good starts that fizzled on the way to my current adventures in word-world, but really, the time between my being victimized by jerks and the happy writing practice I enjoy today is about thirty years.

Think about that.

Thirty years, never to be recovered.

Please, please, please, don’t let this happen to you! It is all too likely that you will run into jerks in your writing life who will try to run you down personally and as a writer. They’ll take great glee in ripping your work to shreds. If you can, find a way to shrug off this garbage and keep writing.

If you can’t shrug off the jerkiness, keep writing anyway. The pain will stay with you a while and you’ll feel like you’re no good, but keep writing anyway. Sooner or later, the pain will fade and what will remain is all those pages you’ve filled up—many of them pretty darn good, I’ll bet.

So, write for yourself. Write to see how the story turns out. Write for the joy of it.

Don’t lose more than half your lifetime to jerks.

Fear: The Writing Killer

Faucet handle with fear written on itAh, Halloween night—that smorgasbord of creepy creatures, cute kids and sugar, sugar, sugar. And then there’s All Saint’s Day, following immediately on Halloween’s heels, belching out its loads of kids who’ve been up too late, walked too far and eaten way too many Butterfinger Minis. It’s this post-ween, All Saint’s Day hangover that puts me in mind of this week’s topic:

Fear!

Many of us writer-types and other creative folks know it.

Fear is self-doubt. Sylvia Plath said “The worst enemy to creativity is selfdoubt.” Nothing is more demoralizing than believing at the outset that your work isn’t going to be any good. After all, if it’s going to be lousy, why bother? If you’re a writer or any other sort of artist, you’re always wading into unknown waters with nobody to help you. Confidence, or at least recklessness, is something you need, or you’ll just dither at the edge of that water, never getting anywhere.

Fear is writing for something outside yourself—approval, for example. You can’t be afraid that writing just to write isn’t worthwhile. To sustain the effort required to complete a novel, or even a short story, you need to enjoy the process for its own sake. If you’re writing to make Mama proud, to make money, to attain fame, you’re likely to peter out.  I’m not saying that Mama’s pride, money and fame are intrinsically bad, I’m just saying they don’t come first. The writing comes first and all these other things follow in its wake – you hope

Fear is the blank page, paper or electronic. I often think of the Robert Benchley essay in which he writes “The” on a blank page one morning, screws around for the rest of the day, then at quitting time writes “hell with it” there and goes home. That blank space, waiting for your words to bring it to life, is an intimidating creature, but you’ve got to at least put “The” on it to get started. Better yet, free write (or write a guest post for me… I could use the help).

Fear is the inability to say “no” enough to enable your writing. We’re all so important, aren’t we? The world will surely come to an end if we refuse a party or a volunteer assignment. Maybe it won’t, though. There are plenty of kind ways to say no—just Google “how to say no.” I tried it and got about 400,000,000 results. If you don’t say “no” enough to make time for your writing, guess what won’t get done? The world will keep spinning without you; your friends and family will live. Try it.

Fear is the inability to say “yes” to your writing, to give yourself permission to do it. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m putting my priorities in the wrong place. Shouldn’t I be working harder at my job? Shouldn’t I volunteer more at my church or my son’s school? Aren’t these things worthier of my time than writing fiction? All I can say is, while I could certainly contribute in other areas, I don’t feel called to them. I feel called to write and to make art. Your calling comes from God, or the universe, or from your innermost being—whatever you name it, the call has to be answered or you’ll simply wither, and that’s no good for anybody. Take it from someone who withered for years before answering—take that call.

I’d be interested to know what fears try to douse your creative spark and how you deal with them. Please feel free to leave a comment here or send me a Twitter message at @coolcarsoncraig. Thanks, and happy fictioneering.