Bridging the Gap (Working Backwards)

Sometimes while writing, we know where we eventually want to end up in the story, but get stuck on exactly how to get there. I know my plucky heroine escapes the cyborg ninja, but how? I vaguely know the kind of triumph I want my characters to experience toward the end of the story, but what exactly is this and how does it come about?

As I’ve said in some of my previous blogs, Creativity is Problem-Solving; asking questions, coming up with answers. In keeping with this knowledge, I’m going to impart wisdom I’ve learned from playing the violin; working backwards.

Often violinists will learn and practice a new song from beginning to end. We learn the first few measures and lines, become comfortable with those, and move on until we’ve learned the entire song. The problem with this method is that the beginning, which has been practiced hundreds of times more than the ending, is the best part.

But as we know in both songs and stories, the ending is the most important part. How do we fix this? Practice backwards. Play the last few measures, repeat. Add in the previous line, repeat. Do this until you get back to the beginning of the song – because if any part shines better than the rest of the song, we want that to be the end.

I do both backwards flow-charts and lists. Basically, start with an ending you want; “Victorious, the plucky young hero is invited to join a secret organization.” In a flow chart, you circle this and draw a small line leading to your next point.

Remember, creativity is coming up with questions and answers. Your next question is this; “What has to happen in order for this to be possible?” In my example, the answer requires her to be victorious at something. So my next step could say, “The heroine defeats the cyborg ninja and thwarts his evil plan.” Repeat. What has to happen in order for this to be possible? The ninja has to be on the verge of success. That, and, we need a better of an idea of exactly what his evil plan is.

Continuing on with the list, or flow chart, will help us discover an evil plot for him!

Keep in mind that while outlining and drafting, anything is subject to revision in further drafts. This is a good thing. It’s like those practice sessions on the violin; the ending will become better and more polished as you continue through your drafts.

Generating Story Ideas: List and Twist

picture of twizzlers
These guys really know the List-and-Twist

Side Note: It’s March 3rd, the birthday of the notorious Ian Mayes and Myself! Huzzah!

John Brown, author of “Servant of a Dark God”, gave a presentation at LTUE with Larry Correia. It was entitled “How to Develop Killer Story Ideas”. In fact, if you go to his blog, there is a video recording of the presentation there. I’m the one with the big head and lots of hair, sitting in front of shiny bald guy, and next to guy with black cap. I also hold my arm up for a long time and never get called on (you can see my watch!). =P Not that getting called on mattered. I was just happy to be there.

John Brown talked about how creativity is a human thing. It isn’t single to a particular type of “creative” person. Creativity is what our brains do when we problem-solve. We get our brain to do this by asking questions.

“It’s not all smoking jackets and collie dogs.” (Tracy Hickman)

The next phase in this collaborative Blog-brainstorming session (Blogstorming session?) is what John Brown calls the “List and Twist”.

Prompt: Pick a Villain or Setting idea from the previous Brainstorming sessions and “Twist” it.

You do this by:

  1. Keeping your ‘Zing’ meter on
  2. Asking yourself questions about your choice

Here is the Villains Blogstorm

Here is the Settings Blogstorm

Note: You don’t have to stick with the ideas mentioned in the Blogstorms! This is a prompt, and the Brainstorming sessions are meant to get your brain working in a creative or “problem-solving” direction. If you begin to get new ideas while forming your response, see where it takes you! The prompt is just step one, not the destination.

Example Questions:

Villain: (If you choose this one, you will probably focus on making the villain more well-rounded and discovering him as a character) What is the villain’s motive? (Vague, like “To find true love”) Goal? (Specific: “To steal all the cookies in LA”) How do they use their job to their advantage? What makes this villain different from the typical librarian-psychopath?

Setting: (If you choose this one, you’ll probably focus on narrowing in the setting and discovering a plot, or a main character, within that setting) What would you not expect to see in this setting? Who is hurting most in this kind of a setting?

Looking forward to your responses!

Generating Story Ideas: Brainstorming Poll #2

picture of yosemite stone-setting
This Yosemite stone-setting also could qualify as a "Setting".

What is a good modern setting for our story?

This could be a broad setting or a more narrow, specific setting. We could say “Dairy farms in California”, or “The Office building on the corner of Jones and 4th, Las Vegas, NV.” So long as it answers the question!

Once again, please don’t worry about whether or not your settings are “good” or “great” or even “acceptable”. We’re not grading responses (although comments discussing the favorite ideas are fine!), we’re just brainstorming. Looking forward to your responses!

Generating Story Ideas: Brainstorming Poll

picture of bowler hat guy
"Bowler Hat Guy" from Meet the Robinsons

What is a good profession for a modern-day villain?

Answer via comments on this blog, mentions on Twitter, or Facebook and I’ll keep the comments here updated with your responses. Please no repeats, post something that hasn’t been said!

Just post something – It doesn’t matter how “good” the idea is, the purpose of the brainstorm is to get ideas of all kinds.

We’ll be taking these ideas and applying them in a later blog. Looking forward to the list!

Pandemic; Writer’s Block

Participating in NaNoWriMo, so far, has been a day-by-day learning experience, with a huge curve. One of the largest learning curves was learning to deal with this horrible disease we aspiring writers call “Writer’s Block”. I’ve discovered four strains of the disease, which each effected me in turn in my attempt to write my first novel.

At a book signing last year, Brandon Sanderson did me a great service by assuring me that I could make a living at this, if I had a passion for it. He also wrote in my book “BICHOK – Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard”. It’s the only way books get written – quoting Dave Farland, “No one’s going to knock on your door and ask you to write a book”. These anecdotes helped me get started, but when I got down and dirty and actually was writing, I began to become intimately familiar with Writer’s Block. After all, no one knows the strength of the river like the salmon who travelled uphill through the torrent. And no one knows writer’s block like a writer that finished something.

In order to stay up-to-date on my word count, I had to find a cure to each strain. Though I hope my own experiences may be useful to others, I give them with a caveat; I don’t believe in “following the muse”. I used to, until I realized that if I only wrote when the muse was with me I’d write exactly one book in my entire life. If that. After reading the experiences of other authors I began to realize that almost none of them only wrote when they felt inspired. The rest of the time, they put the work in, knowing that it would have to be revised later. And after ten revisions, most claim they can’t tell the difference between the parts they fabricated painfully, with blood and sweat, and the parts that came flowing instinctively.

Type 1 – “I don’t want to write right now.”

This type is the most familiar to us writers. It’s naturally inherent to beginnings, to tackling a project you’ve been meaning to get to forever. It’s approaching a mountain you mean to climb, and staring at it dumbfoundedly. Or, it comes on a day where you feel particularly tired, worn from life’s troubles, or distracted.

Cure; There are really only two options. Make the decision that you’re not going to write right now, because other things need to get done. Yes, this is a valid choice – and making that choice proactively is always better than just “putting it off”. The other decision is; realize that if you ever want to get paid for this, you have to get in the habit of treating this like a job. You need a rough draft to revise. You need a revised draft so you can trim and perfect it. You need a polished draft to send to editors. And you need all of this as experience so you can grow and become a better writer!

 

Type 2 – “I don’t know what to write next.”

This type comes when you’ve already dedicated yourself to the task. You’ve put on your music, shut down your internet browser and other distracting programs, and your hands are poised at the keyboard; but something hangs you up. If you’re really determined, you squeeze out a couple sentences, then commence a staring contest with your screen. The screen wins (seeing as it can’t blink for lack of eyelids) and you go get a snack.

Cure; Stuck on a name, technical detail, or history reference? *Putsomethingtherefornow* and come back to it later. You kind of have to tell your internal editor to jump off a cliff there. Asterix (*) are perfect for a Ctrl-F search for later. If you are stuck because you genuinely don’t know what to do in the next scene, jump forward and write the next scene – the one you’re looking forward to. After that’s done, it is much easier to see what must happen in order to bridge the gap.

 

Type 3 – “Something’s wrong with the story!”

This strain is almost a split from Type 2, and in the early stages, rears it’s head the same way. However, on closer inspection (and with grim determination to finish a rough draft) you realize… you’re trying to make a character do something against their nature, or you’ve deviated from the plot, or something else is wrong with the story.

Cure; Do a quick seven-point outline. Identify the important story points and themes. Are you dwelling on a point that is less significant? Are you taking the story on pointless “Tom Bombadil” journeys? Does the outline itself need to be tweaked or adapted to changes you’ve made while writing? How WOULD your character react to this or that? Stand back and take a look at the big picture, and you may realize something needs tweaking. Then get back on track.

 

Type 4 – “This sucks and I’m a horrible writer.”

This strain is rare, because it means you’ve been writing. In order to bring this point home, I’m going to post a pep talk written by Neil Gaiman; He explains it better than I can.

By now you’re probably ready to give up. You’re past that first fine furious rapture when every character and idea is new and entertaining. You’re not yet at the momentous downhill slide to the end, when words and images tumble out of your head sometimes faster than you can get them down on paper. You’re in the middle, a little past the half-way point. The glamour has faded, the magic has gone, your back hurts from all the typing, your family, friends and random email acquaintances have gone from being encouraging or at least accepting to now complaining that they never see you any more—and that even when they do you’re preoccupied and no fun. You don’t know why you started your novel, you no longer remember why you imagined that anyone would want to read it, and you’re pretty sure that even if you finish it it won’t have been worth the time or energy and every time you stop long enough to compare it to the thing that you had in your head when you began—a glittering, brilliant, wonderful novel, in which every word spits fire and burns, a book as good or better than the best book you ever read—it falls so painfully short that you’re pretty sure that it would be a mercy simply to delete the whole thing.

Welcome to the club.

That’s how novels get written.

You write. That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

A dry-stone wall is a lovely thing when you see it bordering a field in the middle of nowhere but becomes more impressive when you realize that it was built without mortar, that the builder needed to choose each interlocking stone and fit it in. Writing is like building a wall. It’s a continual search for the word that will fit in the text, in your mind, on the page. Plot and character and metaphor and style, all these become secondary to the words. The wall-builder erects her wall one rock at a time until she reaches the far end of the field. If she doesn’t build it it won’t be there. So she looks down at her pile of rocks, picks the one that looks like it will best suit her purpose, and puts it in.

The search for the word gets no easier but nobody else is going to write your novel for you.

The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathizing or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm—or even arguing with me—she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, “Oh, you’re at that part of the book, are you?”

I was shocked. “You mean I’ve done this before?”

“You don’t remember?”

“Not really.”

“Oh yes,” she said. “You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients.”

I didn’t even get to feel unique in my despair.

So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.

One word after another.

That’s the only way that novels get written and, short of elves coming in the night and turning your jumbled notes into Chapter Nine, it’s the only way to do it.

So keep on keeping on. Write another word and then another.

Pretty soon you’ll be on the downward slide, and it’s not impossible that soon you’ll be at the end. Good luck… Neil Gaiman