Wednesday, September 9, 2015

If There's Something Wrong With Your Book, Don't Just Keep Writing

One of the most common pieces of writing advice I've come across is to just sit down, and do it. It doesn't matter if you're tired, frustrated, you don't like what you're writing, you're internally bleeding; whatever it is, just write until you can't write anymore. While it sounds good in theory, it's a lot like suggesting that if you want to get to your destination, you just have to drive. Directions, storms, snow, blinding fog, none of it's really a problem. Just put your foot down, and you'll eventually come out on the other side.

Just remember to stop when you get to the end.
Pushing yourself through obstacles and solving problems to keep your book going forward is great. Sometimes all you need to do is build up some momentum on your project. Other times, though, it's a good idea to put on the parking brake, get out of the driver's seat, and have a look around to see what it is that's stopping your progress.

Learn To Trust Your Instincts

A story is a lot like a house; anyone can build one, but only those with experience, skill, and a bit of talent can turn them into truly functional works of art. If you were in the midst of building a house, and you felt there was something wrong, you wouldn't just keep building, telling yourself you could go back and fix it later before you put on the finishing touches. You'd put down your hammer, and examine what you'd put together thus far to figure out what's giving you a bad feeling before the roof collapses in on you and wrecks all the hard work you've already put in.

Right... NOW I remember what that was holding up.
Let's take the metaphor a step further here. Your outline, whether it's in your head or written down on a yellow legal pad, is similar to the beams holding your structure up. If you're getting into the meat of the book, and you feel like you're on shaky ground, it might be because one of your central pillars (character motivation, for example) isn't as sturdy as you thought. Maybe you were so excited to get to the big villain reveal in the master bedroom that you just sort of nailed some wood together, called it stairs, and ran forward before they could fall apart on you, but now you're realizing how shaky that progression will be for your readers. It's possible that at first glance everything in your book is rock solid, but when you crouch down and look, you notice that you forgot to tack down your chapter three exposition, and it's shifting out of place in a way that's going to make the audience ask awkward questions when plot holes start showing up.

Okay, I've finished torturing the construction metaphor. The point is that you, as an author, need to know yourself, your process, and your story well enough to have an instinctual understanding of what's wrong when the manuscript isn't doing what you want it to. If you're stalling out in chapter five, ask why. Do you need to change the setting for the scene, perhaps having a confrontation with a rival in a park or at the beach instead of in the cafeteria? Is it because you need to alter the tone of the scene, or do you need to put in more lead-up so the bare-knuckle brawl that's coming doesn't feel so rushed? Did you notice that your hero's cocksure attitude has actually made him come across as a jerk, and you constantly find yourself wondering why anyone would put up with his shit even if he is supposed to be your lead?

Whatever the problem is, don't flagellate yourself every time your fingers stop punching keys. Get out, and look around. Make sure you're not stuck in a rut, that your fluids are good, and that you have fuel in the tank. If, after checking everything that could be wrong, you're still not moving forward, that's when it's time to drink some coffee, and give it some gas.

Once you're sure the road is clear, and the only thing getting in your way is that you're standing still.

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