Wrong Way, Go Back


Photo credit: wallyir from morguefile.com

I’m what they call a “discovery writer.” Or, more colloquially, a “pantser.” As in, I write by the seat of my pants. No outline. No clear end in sight, sometimes. Just a cool idea that popped into my head and a vague notion of “thattaway” when it comes to where the story is going. That’s how a lot of my stories start.

That’s also — uncoincidentally — why so many of my stories either don’t end or don’t end satisfactorily. Because I get to some point in the writing when I realize that either I have no earthly clue where the ending is or that I missed the exit some while back, and I’m going to need to turn around, backtrack, and take a different route.

While driving, that’s easy enough. You get off at exit 250 and go back to exit 248. You lost a couple of miles, a few tablespoons of gasoline, and maybe a few minutes. The air turns a little blue from the curses. Possibly, your GPS announces “Recalculating” in that mechanical ‘I’m judging you even though I have no inflection in my robot voice’ tone that adds, “idiot” or “loser” to the end of every statement. Recalculating, loser.

In writing, though, you lose words. Maybe good words. But they’re just not the right words for this story at this time. A writer and podcaster I follow religiously (Mur Lafferty) has said that she has lost thousands of words — as in twenty or thirty thousand words — because of one of these “wrong exit” mistakes.

They can be costly. But I think maybe the work is the better for it.

Mike Stackpole in his wonderful “21 Days to a Novel” workshop has said that if you reach a point in your writing when you’re blocked and you don’t know what comes next, go back about 300 words (a page or so) and look. There’s probably a decision your character made that’s out of character. Because it needed to happen for the plot. Easy enough to rewrite 300 words. And since the new words will begin with the character actually in character, they’ll be better words, and you can continue writing. And I have had this happen, and it’s usually true.

But what if you realize 50,000 or 60,000 words in that your entire design of the setting or the way magic works or something else fundamental to the work as a whole . . . is just wrong? Is anything salvageable? Is there any reason to continue writing, or should you just jettison everything and either move on to another project or start over from scratch?

I’ve done both of those, as well. And as much as losing 300 or 10,000 words might hurt, realizing that most of a novel is just spew . . . is rather frustrating.1

This is where I’ve been at recently. I’ve explained this before, but briefly: I had an idea for what I thought was a short story, then became a novella, then a novel, and finally a series of urban fantasy novels. I called book one Perdition’s Flames. I wrote roughly 40,000 words of it. In the midst of that, NaNoWriMo came around and since I by then had an idea for book two, I wrote 50,000 words of Death Scene. I had vague notions that book three would be called Eye of the Beholder, but . . . something was off. The story wouldn’t coalesce. The arc wasn’t right. The biggest climax and revelation was in book one, not book three.

Then, it occurred to me that the reason I couldn’t come up with anything for book three was that book one had the end of the arc. So Perdition’s Flames had to be book three. That moved Death Scene to book one, and Eye of the Beholder to book two. That fixed a lot. I mean a lot. I now had a very cool scene for the introduction into my series and a satisfying arc that crossed all three books, with new ideas for books four and five based on the end of book three. Even better, I knew what book two was about, now, because it could revolve around something I set up in book one, and introduce a character that will be important in book three! I was very excited.

For NaNoWriMo 2012, I wrote a 50,000-word+ book called Magic for Normals, a ‘for-dummies’ style book that was basically just a place for me to write down all my ideas about how magic works in my world, and do it in a fun format where I could just expound at length and be as pedantic as I wanted.

And then, on the heels of this, I set out to restart the series, this time beginning with Death Scene. A book I had already written more than 50,000 words of. But now, as the first book, all the characters had to be introduced and their relationships established. Again. And the world had to be introduced. Again. And certain plot points for books two and three had to be set up in advance. And secondary conflicts had to be added. Each character needed a motivation. A background. An arc. My villain character actually had to have a reason he was doing what he was doing, other than just being evil.

And every time I’d write a few thousand words, I’d think of something else I needed to add. “Oh, it’s not Bob that’s the villain. It’s really Fred! And this is why: . . .” Or, “Wait. Nick isn’t Jacob’s younger brother, he’s the older brother, because it makes [plot point 1] and [plot point 2] actually make sense. And gives Bob Fred a motivation!”

So, I’m blocked for several reasons:

  • Idea paralysis – Since I’ve moved the books around, so many new ideas are occurring to me that I can barely write a couple of hundred words before a new idea sparks. It’s a good thing, I think, but it means never being sure whether what I’m writing is on exit 248 or 250.
  • Already written syndrome – A huge part of my brain is saying, “You already wrote this. You told this story. Stop trying to retell it. Move on.” Silly brain. (This is also why I have a hard time with outlining and writing synopses.)
  • Wrong Way, Turn Back – Another part of my brain insists that all those ideas I’m getting are wrong because I get new ideas that invalidate the old ones . . . Does anyone other than me get the impression that I’m my own worst enemy? :) Either that or I need a week in a very large room with whiteboards on all four walls and no Internet.2

So, that’s where I’m at right now, if anyone’s wondering. I’m working on other writing in order to keep the writing gears lubricated. I have a “short” story (Haha! It’s at 12,000 words and shows no sign of ending soon.) to submit for my writing group by midnight tonight. I’m a blogging fool, lately. And every time my mind isn’t otherwise occupied, I’m planning plot for books one, two, three, or four. Yes, four. <shakes head in disgust> In the shower, driving, eating lunch at work, just as I’m about to drop off into sleep. I have five days of boring training classes at work next week. I have a feeling my notes are going to look . . . a bit schizophrenic. :)

GBE2

Group Blogging Exchange 2

Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 113 prompt: Photo Prompt (see associated photo at top of post)


  1. An example of litotes.
  2. No, not padded walls. I see what you did, there. Very funny. Ha ha. No, really.

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Comments
10 Responses to “Wrong Way, Go Back”
  1. What you have there is the fundamental problem with growing stories instead of planning them. I’ve always grown them in the past. Nothing is more fun than watching a story come out of nowhere, characters do things you didn’t expect that completely change the outcome, and so on, but there’s a cost. The most recent novel I’ve finished has 48 chapters or so in the finished manuscript. and at least that many, adding up to 103,000 words, /cut/. It was a hard lesson, but I think I finally learned. My storylines have gotten so complicated that I can’t keep them in my head anymore.

    I’m storyboarding the next one in the series. One page in a legal notepad (more or less) is all every scene/chapter (for me they’re the same thing) gets, so I know generally what happens and generally where I’m going. Sometimes there’s sample dialog. Often there are notes on the world and characters. I can arrange them on the floor and, when the cat obliges me by not planting his butt on chapter 8, I can take the novel in as a whole, up to where it is. (currently planned out through chapter 20, about halfway.) Once i have storyboards I’m happy with, I’ve been shoveling them into Scrivener, with the plan that when the time comes to write this second novel, I can /write/ the novel, know where I’m going.

    I’ve tried this with a few short stories, always my space for beta testing new ideas. It’s a little frustrating not to be able to /write/ any of it yet… (no writing! Bad! *rolled up newspaper waving here) but I find I’m doing the same kind of work resolving plot problems as I used to do halfway through, and when that happens, I’m out one page of handwritten text, not thousands of words and storyline. So far so good. I’ll let you know if it works out.

    -JRS

    • Please do. My mind balks at the idea of outlining (I suspect it’s my inner brat, Bradford, screaming “No! No! NO!”), but the raw fact of the matter is that at some point, I’m just going to have to do it, like it or not.

      • Storyboarding isn’t quite the same as outlining. It’s much more fluid. It’s one of the things I picked up at Taos. Walter Jon Williams, a box of post-its and a willing volunteer to have her novel plotted out. In about 5 hours it was done with 5-6 of us plus her and Walter working on it. I’m giving myself a month with the novel I’m working on.

        • That’s what I think of as ‘brainstorming,’ which is something else I need to do more of. :) “Storyboarding” to me involves drawings. I guess because of the movie industry.

  2. Kathy says:

    WOW, sounds like a lot of work and a lot of wrong turns but as long as you finally reach the end of the road eventually you should have a really well thought out book. Good luck with the project!

    Kathy
    http://gigglingtruckerswife.blogspot.com

  3. Jo Heroux says:

    The mind of a writer is a scary place to visit. Stories just happen in bits and pieces in my head and then weeks later, boom! There comes another completely different thought. Once the writing begins for me, it’s all as the characters tell me the story. I have no control, really, I’m just the tool they use to share their tales.

    • Which to anyone but another writer would sound hopelessly schizophrenic. :)

      I tend to have a similar “process” (if a total lack of process is, in itself, a process). I was driving tonight and the fix to a story I didn’t know how to fix popped into my head. I grabbed my digital voice recorder and dictated the whole idea before it left my head.

      And then, because the juices were flowing, a new character that will foreshadow something (and be fun!) presented himself to me. And demanded that I write him down, at least in sketchy outline. I’m putting him off right now because he’s being kind of a jerk.

  4. I admire your prolific writing.

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