Round 3

Taking Inspiration from the Beginning: How to Move Past a Stalled Draft by Beth Camp

Thank you, Beth, for pinch hitting this round!

StartWhereYouAre

Photo of Bay View, Lake Pond Oreille, Idaho (Camp 2015).

 

Back when I taught a class or two of literature, I read somewhere that a truly great writer sets the theme of the whole story in the very first paragraph. My students didn’t believe me. So we tried analyzing a few opening paragraphs. There to our surprise, the writers had laid out the theme, subtly, of course, but in a few phrases, the basic conflict, mood, and genre of the story was implied.

Since then, I’ve discovered setting this not-quite-hook applies to even my own ugliest of drafts.

So why am I thinking about theme, conflict, character arc, and that opening hook today? Because my current novel — 90,000 words on paper — languishes. The appropriate ending escapes me. So I’m deep in revision, as Adrienne Rich said so poignantly, “Re-vision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction . . . .”

Where did I go wrong? I used those 3×5 cards to front-end engineer the overall structure, wrote character studies for all main characters, had a blast writing the chapters, letting the words flow more or less in line with those plotting cards, and revised to my heart’s content so that each scene would sing true to the story.

But, somehow caught up in chronicling what happened next, I lost sight of my characters’ motivations, their hopes and dreams, their flaws.

The last chapters found my two main characters facing each other across an abyss of irreconcilable differences at a time (mid-19th Century), when friendly divorce was unheard of. I hoped for a happy resolution. Alas, not even a great heart would forgive a man for taking another wife and fathering children, all of whom yet lived. And I didn’t want to maim the male character as a cosmic excuse for seeking comfort, or kill him off to create a wound my female character would necessarily need to heal.

So setting aside the drama, I’ve begun re-vision. Surprisingly, my process has led right back to the beginning, that opening chapter, that opening scene, those first few words that paint the essential conflict between my two main characters. I offer my process here in the hopes you may find it useful.

Draft a theme and blurb – without looking at your stalled draft. Name the key characters and the key conflict that underpins the whole story.

Rewrite the synopsis of each chapter as it is – so the whole story as it unfolds is absolutely clear and on ‘paper’.

Read through the chapter synopsis once to get a sense of the ‘big picture.’ Underline main characters and key conflicts so you can see where they appear, what they’re doing (and maybe why). Think again about their relationships, inner motivations, and flaws. Note: I was surprised to “see” that the main conflicts between my main characters didn’t emerge right away at all. Yet all through the drafting stage, I had thought these conflicts were obvious.

Make notes (pencil, pen, or virtual CAPS on that word-processed page) for anything that’s missing or seems a bit off. Add a brief description of what needs to be in this section, this chapter, this scene.

Write a synopsis of each section. Analyze how all fits together to support that theme you drafted at the beginning. OK, revise the theme if it no longer fits the story (or plan to revise the story so it supports the theme).

Ruthlessly chop away any chapter or scene that doesn’t belong. Note: I’m a chicken at this stage. I have a separate file named “scenes not used” that’s organized by chapter. In reality, I’ve never used any scene once moved to this file, but it serves as a kind of safety net, reassuring me that my work is not lost.

Write those new scenes. Refine the opening once again. Edit, edit, edit!

 

Once you are satisfied the opening, the story overall, and the ending are all cohesive, and the writing at this stage is the best you can create, send the whole draft out to your beta readers and look forward to another revision or two or three. Then, celebrate the ending of this story with another beginning – your next book.

Following this process (steps 1-5) has taken me about three weeks. I’m feeling better about my characters, the story I want to tell, and how it all fits together. Would it have been easier to have planned the story ahead of time? I still wonder. Since I’m currently writing historical fiction, the facts of a particular time shape the story. Maybe next time, though, I’ll write more productively. Or, maybe this is just how I work, slowly, very slowly.

Maybe you’ve never experienced a draft that simply stalled – rather like the sun not rising in the east or the snow geese not returning at winter. But just maybe my comments will help you to move past plot holes with aplomb.  That’s my hope.

A final note: I do subscribe to a few of those inspiring writerly newsletters (see links below for a few of my favorites). This week, Roz Morris suggested that our characters – at the very beginning of the story – need to appear “off balance.” Her post “How to add jeopardy to your story BEFORE the main conflict starts” says that by beginning with a sense of unease or instability, readers connect more intensely with our characters and identify with their conflicts. Her article gave me another layer to add to writing about my characters and helped me understand that elusive deep point of view.

Meanwhile, we each tell our stories from the heart, revising and learning the craft of writing as we persevere. May your writing go well!

A few blogs to check out:

 ~*~

Beth Camp

 

Final Round 3 Check-In

Technically you have until tomorrow, but since I’ve conditioned you to look for the check in today…here it is.

Let’s talk about goals.  Did you change them?  Did you meet them?  Tell us your successes and your failures.  And don’t forget to be back here October 6th for Round 4!

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We Need To Talk By Eden Mabee

Our fabulous sponsor Eden Mabee is giving us a twofer this round.  Given a lot of what I’ve seen flying around the interwebz, I think it’s well timed.  Particularly as we’re approaching the end of Round 3 and some folks won’t have made their goals and will take that really hard.

~*~

 I want to bring up one of those “we’d rather not think about it” topics: depression. Given that the word “depress” as in to “press down” is right in the name, it should be no surprise that it can stop us dead in our tracks, keeping us from achieving not only our writing dreams but also almost anything. Depression is a serious concern, and it’s important to know how what to do about it when it happens.

Writing is a generally solitary craft. Except for the rare conference or critique group, much of our community contact comes though screen and electronic interactions. The human element that has proved so vital for heath and happiness just isn’t there. Most cubical farms offer more direct human connection.

Is it any wonder that cafes have become a haven for wordmongers? A moment’s chat with the barista, a conspiratorial wave to another oft-seen regular as you each take seats near the only two outlets in the place… asking someone if you can move their coat enough to share the outlet they are using.

There are always ways to connect with other people, ways to be more involved, of course. But often we have so much to work on: writing, editing, rewriting, social media build up of our authorial platforms (yay, screen time!), plotting covers and dealing with publishers and… and, oh yes, the daily affairs of him and family , jobs, car repairs, schools. You name it, there’s work involved that seems to never end, leaving us tired and mentally drained…

That slippery slope

The thing about depression that makes it so dangerous is how insidious it can be; one can be close to the edge and not know it. Each day at a time doesn’t seem like much, but over time, things add up. For example, a number of us try to squeeze writing in during the “wee hours”, which too often translates to after everyone else is asleep and all their needs have been attended. And morning after morning we find it harder and harder to do even the little things… till one morning we wake up and pushing the blankets off has become a Sisyphean task.

Oh really?

I can hear you all thinking “Come on, it’s not that bad. Yeah, I’m a bit tired–who wouldn’t be with the hours I put in. So a few things slid, they weren’t that vital; I can get to them later when I catch up. All it will take is a little extra effort… not a big deal.”

However, how often do we actually catch up and have nothing waiting in the wings for us to get it finished? There is always something, and we know it.

And if there were ever a recipe for hopelessness, it’s the feeling that you’ll never be done. When the words “The End” seem beyond reach, when we see everyone else hitting that “Publish” button and we’ve been fighting writer’s block for weeks at a time…. Some of us give up, some of us fight on, and all of us struggle with the questions of worth.

Something to consider

Writers, as a rule, tend to be the hardest on themselves. We are our own worst critics pressing ourselves to wear more and more hats, tweak those words just a bit more to make the sentence stronger… The challenge of breaking into our chosen field and living comfortably while doing so pushes us to take on jobs that we’re not trained for, and while adding new skills is a good thing, in the short term, it’s yet one more thing taking our energy… when we’re already running at full steam, finding that energy can feel impossible. And we’re usually running at full steam.

Even on the best days, words, ideas, even smiles, won’t always come easy. And if we’re close to that edge… let’s not have a few small setbacks push us over.

So what can I do about it then?

First off, I am not a doctor, so if you think you are at danger for depression, please get a clinical opinion and counseling/medication as needed. There is a genetic tendency towards depression, but it can strike anyone. So, if you think you might be at risk, here are a few things you can do to stave off some of the effects of depression”

  • Cultivate some strong supporting relationships: Yes, the ROW80 offers a great support structure but add some face-time to your days too. And do so before depression becomes a problem. Make a “date night” with your family, plan outings with friends, get in touch with some of the “old crew”
  • Exercise! One of the best things you can do for yourself is to get out and move regularly. This can’t be a one time shot in the hip; regular exercise releases endorphins that boost mood, and studies show that this effect can last longer than medication.
  • Practice relaxation techniques and stress management: These two go hand-in hand, but so do the two above. Exercise can help you reduce stress, and maintaining healthy emotional relationships can be relaxing and reduce stress as well (healthy relationships are key… there are a lot of unhealthy relationships out there to be had too, unfortunately). Meditation can be extremely helpful here.
  • Eat healthy: We are what we eat after all. So let’s eat the good stuff. And yes, that means we can (and should) enjoy the occasional cookie too. Willpower is healthy, but denial is not.
  • Sleep: Preferably you’ll be getting enough of that sleep when the sun is down (because sunlight is good for your mood too, releasing serotonin when it hits your optics nerve, and helping your body produce Vitamin D), and hopefully you’ll be getting close to the recommended seven hrs (give or take a small bit) a night. Sleep helps your brain process all the things in your headspace.

You can try variations on these basic five things, and if you find they don’t work, consider professional intervention–immediately if you’re feeling self-destructive. Whatever you do, don’t let this one thing slide. Depression is a very real danger for writers, but there are ways to protect ourselves.

~*~

Eden Mabee

Sunday #ROW80 Check-In

Have you checked out the #ROW80 Hashtag on Twitter or the group on Facebook?  Bet you can find some folks to word sprint with for the last few days of this round!

Wanna be a more formal cheerleader next round? Be a sponsor!  We start October 6th.  Check out the FAQs and let me know.

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Midweek #ROW80 Check-In

Just a week to go in this Round!  Push push push!  Make these last days count!

And I’m still looking for sponsors for Round 4.  We start October 6th, so you’ve got a little time to get your ducks in a ROW!  :snicker:  You see what I did there…  Shut up, I’m posting this undercaffeinated…

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Changing Your Path by Mhairi Simpson

I’m sitting here in front of my computer and my brain won’t stop spinning for long enough for me to stick some flesh to any of the ideas whose skeletons are currently whirling in my mind, all fairly insouciant about whether they form the basis for this post or not. I think it’s because I really like where I am right now in my life and I want to show other people how they might get there too. The problem is, a lot of different things came together for me to be in this place. Together, they are more than the sum of their parts.

Friends is definitely one. The overwhelming love and support I have experienced from my friends, even though most of them have only known me for a year, three or four at most, has changed my view of myself and what I can achieve. It was particularly eye-opening to be told, after telling one friend I was now a full time creative, “Good. The vast majority of people, I wouldn’t support it, but you are one of the very few I can wholeheartedly get behind. You can make it happen.” Or when another friend said, “You’re an insanely talented writer,” and I replied, “I know.” Then I realised what I’d said and before I could retract it, he said, “GOOD.” Your friends see the truth of you, whether you do or not. Whether your family does or not. That’s what makes them your friends.

Recognising who you really are is another aspect of how I got here, too. I’ve tried to be responsible about my journey to full time creativity. I’ve tried for sixteen years, through a number of jobs (on two continents). I never made it work. I never found a job which made me 100% happy and I firmly believe that 100% happiness is my birthright.

I didn’t used to believe that. For a long time I swallowed the idea that work was something draggy and horrible you did in exchange for money. Now I’ve realised that life doesn’t start at sixty-five. It starts when you’re born. If you’re going to be alive, damn well live!

You might be thinking, well, what about money, Mhairi? Isn’t money kind of important too?

Yes. It is important. But other things are more important. My mental health is more important than my income, for sure. Not just my happiness but the stability of my mind. And this is what I have never been able to maintain, through all those jobs in all those places with all those different companies. I’ve never felt in control of myself or the world around me. My mind would tip and sway and it never occurred to anyone, least of all me, that this might not be normal.

So now, yes, I have medicine. And I have realised I need to care for my health, mental, physical, emotional and creative, in any way I can.

So I no longer have a job. I’m not looking for another one either. Right now I have so many editing and writing and art projects lined up I don’t have time for a job anyway.

The fact is, I am not an employee. Never have been. I’ve been trying to be one for the last decade and a half and it never worked. So now I’m working for myself. I believe in myself. More to the point, a number of people around me believe in me too. And for the first time, even without money, the path shines ahead of me by the light of a billion stars. My life has never looked brighter. I can only be that which I am. I have accepted that, thrown myself into the void with only that to cling to. On the one hand, it’s terrifying. But I am not alone. I’m surrounded by people who only want to help me. I feel loved. I feel free. I feel… me.

I’m not suggesting that everyone who’s in a crappy job should quit it right now (although if you want to and can, do it!). What I’m suggesting is that maybe the first step on the path to happiness is to stop lying to yourself about what you really want out of your life. Do you want money? Do you want a big house? Do you want a book tour? Do you want a speedboat? Do you want a wife and three children?

Once you are honest with yourself about what you really want, you then have to get honest with yourself about whether what you’re currently doing is taking you closer to what you want. And if it isn’t, well, that’s where the change is.

Change is always exhilarating. This isn’t always a good thing. It depends on how much exhilaration you think you can handle. You can probably actually handle a fair bit more than you think, but when it comes to making plans, what you think you can do is more relevant, at least initially.

And even then, sometimes, the Universe just does it for you. In my case, two traffic accidents in six months. The latest one saw me dumped off my scooter into the middle of an empty roundabout in the middle of the night. I couldn’t think straight. Had no idea even how to stand up.

Two separate families of complete strangers stopped their cars and came running over to help me. They stayed with me until my friends arrived to pick me up.

How’s that for a metaphor? When you take a sudden turn in a totally different direction, people will help you.

Just… try to change your path yourself, if you can. The Universe’s methods tend to HURT.

~*~

Mhairi Simpson

Sunday #ROW80 Check-In

The clock’s ticking, folks!  Let’s sprint on til the end! GO GO GO GO GO!

 

And if you wanna cheer people on next round, consider being a sponsor!  Check out the FAQs and send me an email if you’re interested.

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