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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

 

#ROW80: Advice From My Years of Teaching by Bev Baird

Stepping away from writing and blogging for several weeks was necessary, but for weeks before that I was out of sync with my goals. I was letting the gremlins in my mind dictate what and when I wrote.

As my situation improve and I contemplated a return to more regular routines of writing and blogging, I thought back to my years as an elementary teacher. I loved teaching and even today, I still miss being in the classroom, working with young children.

I realized as well that there were many lessons I could learn from my teaching of writing in the classroom. Children who wrote daily had little fear of words or spelling or technique. They just wrote and seemed to be inspired by the world around them. I need to follow their lead.

Here are some of the lessons I need to embrace:

  1. Writer’s Notebook

At the beginning of the school year, I gave each child a composition book to use to record thoughts, feelings and learnings. Each of us decorated the covers to make the books unique and then we used these daily.

I need to have my own notebook and get back to recording my ideas, thoughts, feelings and learnings about writing in one central spot and use it daily.

 

  1. Mentor Texts

I always began a writing lesson with a mentor text which lead into discussions of theme, techniques, and special words.

I need to continue reading books and discover my own mentor texts.

 

  1. Practice

We had daily practice of techniques and forms, both together as a group, in pairs and individually. We always had great fun writing poems together which we did often.

I need to continue to practice my craft regularly, with reading and courses, and of course writing.

  1. Just write

Every day we wrote for 15 – 30 minutes, usually free writing although sometimes there were set prompts. There were always prompts available if needed, whether word prompts or phots to inspire.

I need to get back to morning papers – to just write 3 – 5 pages each morning to silence the gremlins.

 

  1. Sharing

The children were able to talk with their peers and with me about their writing, seeking inspiration or help as needed.

I need to turn to my critique partners and writing group when I am stuck or just for inspiration.

 

  1. Celebrations

At the end of each week, we always celebrated published works – those pieces that had been edited, revised and published. The authors sat in a special chair and read their work, to much applause.

I too need to celebrate when I have finished a piece. And then I need to submit it.

 

Writing can be a lonely task, but it is rewarding. I need to remember the lessons learned and get back to writing full tilt again.

 ~*~

Bev Baird

Climbing Back In The Saddle by Eden Mabee

I’m not sure how it happened.  I fell off and…  damn, but it’s hard to climb back in the saddle and get those words written.  The horse keeps moving, you know.  The publishing world, the writing world, the social world…  it all kept moving, and here I was, stuck on the ground, stunned a bit, afraid to jump back in because I’d made a mistake and fell off.  I had stopped writing.

There were many reasons—we all have reasons for not writing.  For me, Life got busier than busy.  I had run out of ideas, and my characters weren’t talking to me.  All I could think of were lesson plans and schedules, and assignments and homework and getting my information into the State database so I could continue to work with kids and…  Well, you name it; I saw it as an excuse to take a break from writing regularly.  And once I stopped writing regularly…  I stopped writing.

I didn’t think it would hurt to take some time off.  Yeah, I felt estranged from fictional people that I once knew better than my own blood kin.  Yeah, I began to sleep badly as the once familiar catharsis and escape I had once relied on seemed to be gone.  But I was B.U.S.Y.  I had “important” things to do, children to care for, homework to finish for teachers, paperwork to do for the government, etc.  Writing was just a hobby for me, not my career…  it should have been set aside.

Or should it?

I don’t exaggerate when I say I was out of touch and more than a bit emotionally disconnected without having that regular contact with my characters.  After investing so much time on their lives and on the world I’d created, it was as if I had been torn from my family and home and forced to function in an alien environment.  Instead of moving day in and day out with the comfort and reassurance of knowing I had all these “people” there alongside me as I moved into what was a very new world  of becoming a teacher, I felt alone and uncertain.

And I’m not exaggerating the difficulty I have had sleeping since I stopped writing regularly.  The odd day I managed to write (I squeaked through NaNoWriMo by doing scattered days of crazy huge wordcounts followed by days of not being able to settle long  enough to write  ten words) , I woke up the next day feeling more creative and inspired.  Losing writing time was akin to not exercising day after day; I felt weak and unfit for most mental activities.

“That’s okay,” you might say.  “We’ve all stopped writing once or twice when Life took over.”  But I can’t be the only one who has noticed how much harder it is to start back up again than to keep going.  The one-day break… that’s not too bad; we call it a day of rest, a Sabbath as it were.  The week off… that’s a vacation.  But the months off… those are something else.  Usually when someone leaves a thing for so long, it is because they’ve chosen a different path in life, or that Life has chosen for them.

Enough is enough.  I am a writer, not a victim.  I can climb back up in that saddle and write, and I am inviting you to join me.  Let’s see where our writing takes us.

~*~

Eden Mabee

Being Accountable by Elizabeth Mitchell

Kait’s opening post https://aroundofwordsin80days.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/are-you-author-or-victim/

this Round hit a nerve, I admit.  She points out that making excuses, feeling like a victim, is a choice.  The crux of the problem is the safety of being the victim, because you have someone or something else to blame. I admit, I play it safe far too often.  The day job, the family, the dogs, or just being too tired or empty-brained, all get in the way of getting my writing done.

 

However, no one has all the time in the world to do what they want, so choices must be made. If writing matters to me, I will get up early, stay up late, or not watch that TV show (curses to on-demand television).  “If something blows up your plans to write, you need to revise them.  MAKE some time to make up for the lost work time,” Kait says, and she is spot on.  RoW is a supportive place to be accountable, and to keep one from being too hard on oneself as well.

 

Another arena I often act like a victim is how I compare myself with others. I sometimes suffer from jealousy when I look at other RoWers’ goals and word counts. I am a slow writer, seldom able to lock my infernal editor in the laundry room.  I always forget that comparing myself to others is apples to oranges.  Kait posted a link to Chuck Wendig’s post http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/04/08/counting-words/

about word count and comparisons.  If you don’t follow his blog, think about doing so. I will give the caveat that, as my late mother-in-law would have said, he swears like a sailor. Even if you find strong language offensive, his posts are always interesting, and often grounding.

 

In the word count post, Mr. Wendig celebrates a day of writing 10,000 words.  He then immediately addresses the twinge of jealousy that hits some readers, including me, calling it bs.  Compare with yourself, not others.  Much as it hits me as the 90’s “personal best” my kids heard in school all the time, he’s right. “Sometimes, writing is a game of inches. Sometimes it’s a act of great, clumsy leaps. You gotta take pride in the small steps as much as in the big jumps.”

 

Mr. Wendig links to a plan  http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/02/20/how-to-push-past-the-bullshit-and-write-that-goddamn-novel-a-very-simple-no-fuckery-writing-plan-to-get-shit-done/ to get the writing done. If I write 350 words a day five days a week, with weekends off, I would have the first draft of a novel at the end of a year.  With a little bit of found time, and found effort, I would be closer to my goals.  His last advice resonates: “Shut up and write.”

Who will jump into the accountability pool with me?

~*~

Elizabeth Mitchell

How to Juggle It All (Or What Happens When All The Balls Fall) by Fallon Brown

I often get asked how I get it all done, or at least how I can get so much done. And sometimes I feel like a bit of a fraud. I don’t “do it all”. Not anymore than anyone else. The truth is, I only do what I can. And often that doesn’t feel like enough.

 

We all have a bit of a juggling act we have to do in life. For some, it’s a day job and family. For someone else, it could be finding time for their hobby among their other responsibilities. I dropped the day job ball almost eight years ago. Not because of writing, at that time. Along with it being just before my daughter was born, we moved out of town(and by that, I don’t just mean to another town. We now live outside of town). Added to that, any money I would have made at a job in our town would have gone to childcare, so we figured it was better for me to stay home.

 

Now both kids are in school, and I still haven’t picked that ball back up. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t have other balls to juggle. There is still family, making sure the kids get ready for school in the morning and get them off buses in the afternoon. And of course, they seem to think they need to eat every night. Then, there are other chores that need to be taken care of each day or at least week. They think they need clean clothes after all, and clean dishes to eat off of.

 

And there are other things that take up time. For me, it’s knitting, crochet, and reading. For you, it might be something else. As important as writing is to me, I need something else to relax me. Especially since writing tends to energize me. In fact, I rarely get that drained feeling from writing too much in a day(I get that feeling when I struggle to get the words out, though). So, I need something to wind back down.

 

So, how do you juggle all the things you need to do, the things you should do, and the things you really want to do? I guess it depends on where all those balls fall in the list of priorities. Most of the time, for me, writing falls between ‘should’ and ‘really want to’, with it leaning heavy to the ‘really want to’, and I make it a priority. The ‘Need to Do’ are sometimes the first ones that get dropped. Didn’t get the dishes done? Well, we still have a couple clean plates and forks. It can wait until tomorrow. I have found a pretty good routine that helps me balance, or at least juggle, everything. For the most part.

 

But, then there are the times when it feels like all the balls are dropping. Early in April, I was struggling with the words. Because I was trying to get all my words in first thing, I let the chores fall away too. Since I got behind on those, I fell behind on my knitting and reading, too. And I found out that like with writing, when I don’t get to read I feel a little crazed.

 

Sometimes you just have to pick the balls up again. For me, this usually involves moving whatever didn’t happen to the next day. Sometimes these lists can get long. But, I always start the next week over fresh, even if I ended up not accomplishing everything I wanted to. I use the weekends to catch up, particularly on my crafting or reading.

 

And sometimes you have to leave the balls where you drop them. Or at least adjust your juggling routine. I realized what one of the problems with my words was. Well, there were two different problems really. The first was an issue with the scene I was writing, and something I just had to push through. The other was the fact that another character was busy demanding my attention even though I hadn’t planned on writing that story yet. So, instead of fighting it, I rearranged my routine and split my daily word count between the two stories. Since I did that, words started flowing so much better.

 

No one is perfect. I’m sure we’ve all heard that before, and it’s true. We’re not always going to make our word count. We may miss a deadline or two. We’ll forget that one other thing we were supposed to do. But, we do what we can. And the “what we can” is different for everyone. I know mine might seem like a lot to some people, and yet most days I’m telling myself I could probably get more done. But, I know it could be that one extra ball that upsets everything.

~*~

Fallon Brown

Time To Refocus by Steph Beth Nickel

What should someone like me write?

 

I love movies, from CG to sci-fi—and many genres in between.

 

I love television, from old sitcoms to crime dramas—and really, what else is there? (Just kidding . . . sort of.)

 

And given endless hours to read, I would almost always gravitate to novels—primarily, but not exclusively, Christian fiction. Both my physical and my virtual shelves are bending under the weight of unread volumes.

 

I even have an idea for a series of contemporary Christian novels bee-bopping  around in my head, the first of which is fairly well planned out.

 

But what have I written over the last number of years? I’ve co-authored a Paralympian’s memoir. I’ve written dozens of poems, hundreds of blog posts (beyond ROW80 check-ins), and recently, I’ve written and recorded over 50 devotionals for HopeStreamRadio.

 

Yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, I somehow have always thought that when I publish a novel, I’ll be “a real writer.”

 

Strange . . . because I don’t see other nonfiction writers as anything less than they are. There’s probably a whole psychological thing going on there, but that’s not what this post is about.

 

And there’s the whole gamut of skills required to write captivating fiction.

 

Just because I love to get emotionally involved with the characters I read about doesn’t mean I could create a protagonist who isn’t “too stupid to live.”

 

And just because I love a story that can make me laugh—or sob—aloud doesn’t mean I could weave together a plot with that much intensity.

 

And my favourite novels of all? They grab me by the throat and won’t let me go. I can only begin to imagine the amount of time and energy it takes to create a book like that.

 

So really, is novel writing for me?

 

And is it any less fulfilling to continue writing nonfiction and poetry? Will I still be a writer if I never see my name on the cover of a novel?

 

Remember what I said about the television shows I enjoy? Because I’m all about relationships, I’m all about the back-and-forth between characters—their relationships—and this is something I just don’t get from documentaries and cooking shows.

 

By the way, I teared up at the end of Night at the Museum 3. “Real” relationships were ending. Sigh!

 

I love to grab a new novel and get to know the cast of characters and how they interact with one another. And recently, I’ve discovered the joys of re-reading. It’s like visiting old friends. I’m enjoying several of these stories more the second time through. Oh, my! My To Be Read pile just got a lot higher.

 

So, will my novel ever be on someone’s TBR pile? I’m not really sure. But I do know a thing or two. I am a writer. I will seek to further develop my skills and write the best poems, blog posts, and nonfiction I can.

 

Sometimes it isn’t about something else. Sometimes it’s about the project right in front of you. If you’re like me, you may just have to refocus in order to recognize it.

 

 ~*~

Stephanie Nickel