“A friend of mine once told me ‘Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth’ and so it is with writing.” – Nancy Holder
Rule #1 – You can not judge how well you’re doing. Let that sink in a second…
Scratching your head yet? Is your chest getting all puffy and you feel that indignant push at your little ego. Who are you to tell me that I can’t judge myself and how well I’m doing! Me? I’m nobody, but I did go to a Romantic Times Booklovers Conference once. What the speaker meant by that is we have all this self-talk that often gets in the way of our progress – especially when it comes to the saggy middle of our stories. What we commonly refer to as writer’s block is most often confusion, lack of interest, and fear. Fear that we’re going to finish and it’ll be crap and we’ll have to start all over. Lack of interest because this story isn’t what we thought it was going to be. And confusion because something is missing or isn’t making sense. Let’s address these things: What is the alternative? What should we do?
Here’s the secret…there is no secret. You will have heard all of this before I’m certain, but I have a responsibility to detail all the things I gleaned from RT. And maybe, just maybe, the packaging of the same ol’ same ol’ will help just one of you.
Let’s talk about what the middle is. Everyone knows (I’m willing to admit everyone might not truly encompass the entire living human race – maybe just writers – and even that could be questionable) the three act structure of a story. Beginning, Middle, End. Your middle should be twice as long, or close to, as the beginning and the end. That is your goal – you need to write 2x as much as you’ve written already for your beginning. You’ve hooked the reader, you’ve set out clearly the problem. The middle is dealing with that problem. The problem is simple. Your character either has something s/he doesn’t want or wants something s/he doesn’t have.
Now that we’ve clearly identified what the middle is and what it should contain and how much – Go forth and write it!
Wait…what? Not that easy you say? Surely that’s not all you wonder? BUT WAIT! There’s MORE! Even having a clearly defined path often doesn’t get us tap tap tapping away at our keyboard or swish swish swishing with our pencils. So let me blow your mind! Err, well I’ll just…*sigh*…I’ll just tell you what the speaker said and hope it helps. I wish I could break this down into a group of three key points. I feel like groups of three would serve you better, however you’re a big person with a big brain and I don’t think five key points is asking too much of you.
Writing is like being on a teeter-totter. No matter what you do it has to tip. So imagine every word as a feather. And every feather that falls is adding weight to the other side. Sure it’s just feathers! But some days your feathers are silver, some days they’re dust, and others a meteor. Consistent action every day makes it tip. And the more successful you feel, the more you’re going to want to do it. Force yourself to take the indulgence out of stopping and quantify everything. “Today I will write X amount of words.” If your goal is 500 then write 500. If you do that consistently for three days in a row, raise the bar a bit. I said a BIT A BIT! Gosh you’re an anxious bunch. Don’t go from 500 to 5000! Do 600 for a few days in a row. If you fail consistently, lower your goal and start rebuilding success, instead of beating yourself up for not reaching your “cemented in concrete, can see from space” word count goal. One hundred words is better than zero. 1>0. And I don’t do math for just anybody, I must really love you to start pulling that out of my hat.
Identify your trigger. Say to yourself,”Dear Miss Self – I’m going in.” What is your trigger? IDENTIFY IT! “Put yourself in the moment.” Surround yourself with things that trigger the moments of writing. Coffee, music…make preparations. As an example, let’s take a Catholic mass. Everything they do to prepare for mass, the incense, the reading, the kneeling, puts you in a moment. It is a preparation to set you in the frame of mind that you’re in church and you are now expected to behave a certain way. Same with writing, find your trigger, be in the moment. And your triggers may evolve as you become more writerly. We make up stories for living, we can make up words and moments and whatever we want. Maybe turning the music off and listening to the ocean breath through a conk shell is your trigger. DO IT!
If you’re a pantser – make an outline. It doesn’t have to be A) 1a. B) C). Make it up, find an outline that works for you. Try the Hero’s Journey, make a chart and follow it. Just because you’re a panster doesn’t mean you can’t utilize an outline when you’re stuck – and GOD FORBID you use one again. But just this once, just for me, if you’re stuck in the middle – try doing an outline. On the flipside, if you’re an outliner and you’re stuck – you’re really screwed. LOL! But there is a small glimmer of hope. Set down the manuscript and walk backwards ten paces. Stare that sucker down until you figure out what the problem is. Taking a few steps back to look at the bigger picture should help. But if not…
Be dispassionate! If you’re super duper stuck – like you just can’t get through to the ending – you need to stop, go back to an earlier time in the story and read it DISPASSIONATELY. Because as writers we get very passionate about our characters and our stories and sometimes that gets in the way. So what isn’t working? Dispassionately examine what isn’t working in the story and what isn’t working with you. This is the moment to get on your high horse and look down your nose at your work, as if it is the most uninteresting bug you’ve ever laid your eyes on.
Revising is NOT editing. Revising is a Re-visioning. Take an issue (plot point)and ask yourself,”How can I show this character doing something with this issue?” Then you need an escalator – a tension rising – “how can I make it worse?”
Alright, you’ve been sufficiently informed of all that I learned from Nancy Holder, there’s just a few more things to go over. She made two book recommendations: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Then she posed this question, “As a writer we’re acquiring tools for our toolbox, what are some ways you get unstuck?” So let’s have it…what unsticks you?