Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Know When to Fold 'Em

I'm back from WorldCon, but the report will have to wait a while because I need to organize my thoughts. At the moment, I'm afraid I'd mostly talk about the drive home, in which I seemed to come across the world's slowest McDonalds, where it took something like twenty minutes to get a drink. Meanwhile, Texas is big. Really big. Someone needs to invent teleportation. While I'm processing to the point I can talk about more than how long the drive seemed to be, it's time for a Wednesday writing post.

I'm going to get a bit radical today and go against one of those pieces of writing advice that I hear all the time, that you have to finish what you're working on. To some extent, that's true. You won't get the first two chapters of a book published (unless it's a short story in its own right). But at the same time, not all ideas are viable, and bogging yourself down in a story that really can't be finished and shouldn't be finished isn't going to help you much. My career might have started sooner if I'd finished something instead of flitting from idea to idea, but I think I did more harm to my career and delayed myself more because of stubbornly insisting on completing something that wasn't viable. I'd have done myself a favor if I'd allowed myself to move on when I realized that a story just wasn't working instead of spending years trying to make it work and hating every minute of it.

The trick is in knowing when something isn't working as opposed to hitting the "slog through the middle" hard part or being distracted by Shiny New Idea syndrome. The middle of a book is hard even when the story idea is good and perfectly viable, and I find that when I'm slogging through the middle, that's when my best ideas for other stories hit me. If you're struggling with the middle and get hit by a new idea that sounds fun, It's even more difficult to keep on. How do you know the difference between a book that's hit the hard part and a book that isn't working?

If you've been hit by a distracting Shiny New Idea, give yourself a day to play with the new idea. Do a brain dump and write down absolutely everything you know about this idea. If scenes come to you, write them. List facts, character details, etc. Most Shiny New Ideas aren't really ready to be written yet, so you're likely to run out of information, and you'll see then that this isn't a book you can drop everything and write. Getting the info out of your head may make it easier to go back to your current project and focus. But if you keep coming up with more and more stuff with the new idea and scenes turn into chapters, and you still have more in your head after a day, then you may be on to something that's worth developing.

If you're just stuck and slogging on a story without the distraction of a new idea, it may help to give yourself a break, especially if you've been working diligently. Some writers call this "refilling the well." Take a time you'd normally devote to writing and do something else, like reading a book, watching a movie, listening to music, visiting a museum or even just taking a walk. You may find yourself returning to the project with more enthusiasm.

You can try going back to the beginning and rereading what you've written so far -- without doing heavy editing unless you discover a major plot flaw that needs to be fixed in order to get the story back on track. You can read in a few hours what takes weeks to write, and sometimes reading it like a reader would gives you a sense of forward momentum. Something that seemed like a slog to write may zip by when you read.

Another way to deal with feeling stuck is to take a step back and do some outlining or brainstorming. Make a list of ten or twenty things that can happen next. Make a list of things that need to happen before the end of the story. If there's a future scene that's already clear in your head, write it. Look at your characters and see if there's something about them you haven't fully used or developed. If you have a good idea what the ending will be, reverse engineer: think of what needs to happen immediately before the ending to make it happen, then think of what needs to happen to make that happen, and so forth.

If you try these things and are still stuck, you may not have a viable idea. If you're not seeing future scenes in your head, if you don't find yourself thinking about the characters, then at the very least your heart isn't in it, and the result probably won't be very good even if you force yourself to finish it. If the book isn't contracted, then there's no harm in putting it aside and working on something else. You'll be better off than if you spend all that time working on it and the result is something that can't be published, anyway.

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