Thursday, February 27, 2014

Can A Writer Have Too Many Ideas?

Five years ago, one of the reasons I thought I might be able to write fiction was that I was good at generating story ideas. Not necessarily the big stuff like plot points and midpoint reversals, but all the little stuff necessary for fleshing out a story and keeping the reader entertained. My ability to transfer these ideas to paper might be excruciatingly slow, but coming up with ideas has never been a problem. Unfortunately, focusing too much on the idea generation part of storytelling can get you into trouble.

When I first started writing fiction, I had no clue how many ideas were required to fill a three hundred page book. Back then, “three hundred pages” seemed staggeringly large, so I spent every spare moment dreaming up new stuff to put into my story. Turns out I overestimated the number of ideas I needed. So when my first manuscript blew past seven hundred and fifty pages, I had to dive in and rip out a ton of plot threads, subplots, and all sorts of miscellaneous events.

My problem stemmed from the way I approached writing. Instead of thinking of scenes as highly focused sequences of events that propelled a story forward, I thought of them as containers into which I could dump all my ideas, whether they fit together or not. After all, I had all these ideas just lying around and it seemed a shame not to use them. Besides, I also felt that by stuffing as many ideas into each chapter as possible, no one would notice my less than stellar prose.

Of course my chapters were sagging messes.

Eventually, after reading a great many blog posts and books on writing, I learned that a scene’s purpose should be narrow enough that it can be described in a single sentence. Maybe a couple of sentences for an entire chapter. My early chapter descriptions were little more than bullet lists. Once I learned to narrow a scene’s focus, my writing tightened up considerably, although this came at a cost. I had to remove lots of those “great little ideas” I spent so much time dreaming up and toss them into the maybe-I’ll-be-able-to-use-this-in-the-future pile.

Sometimes it’s tough to kill your darlings without shedding a tear or two. But my writing is better for it.

So tell me.  How hard it is for you to give up those little darlings you stuff into your manuscript?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I Love It When A (Writing) Plan Comes Together

I love it when a plan comes together.
 John “Hannibal” Smith – leader of the A-Team. 

Okay, so maybe I watched a few episodes of the A-Team back in the day. Don’t judge me. I know you watched them too.

When I’m working on a story, there’s no better feeling than when a scene comes together. Miscellaneous plot threads suddenly coalesce into something beautiful. The solution to the plot hole that’s been bothering me for months unexpectedly presents itself. A simple shift in the way I view a scene transforms it from a dull, has-to-be-there-for-the-plot-to-work event into an exciting sequence that carries its own weight and adds to the story.

We writers spend much of our time waiting for these moments. At least I do. It’s those occasional bursts of exhilaration that keep me going during those dark days when I suspect my manuscript should be tossed into the fire. Unfortunately, I never know when these sudden insights are going to strike, so I force myself to sit down in front of the computer and bang away at the keyboard, hour after hour, day after day, waiting for that one aha! moment that improves the story and fires me up for the next round of writing.

So what can we do to help cultivate these sudden insights? Find a CP who isn’t shy about suggesting alternate ways of doing things. And then, even if you’re sure their suggestion couldn’t possibly work, let the idea simmer in your head for awhile. You might be surprised at what develops once your brain is looking at things from another direction.

A couple of years ago, my very first CP, Sheryl (who now does copyediting, BTW), read a chapter of mine where the MC briefly recalled a past event in his life. It was probably only one or two sentences in length, but Sheryl wrote “I want to see this” in the margins and told me I needed to add that event as a separate scene. I was against adding another scene to an already long story, but the comment got me thinking in a new direction and eventually I rewrote the entire chapter to focus around that event. The resulting chapter was vastly superior to the original, but I never would have thought of it if my CP hadn’t made the original suggestion.

For this reason, when I crit someone else’s work, I’m always throwing in suggestions for how the author might do things differently. Not that there was necessarily anything wrong with the way they did it, but the possibility that my suggestion will point the author into new directions always makes it worth doing.

So where do you get most of your aha! moments?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Friday Links -- Volume 17

I'm happy to say I had another good week of writing.  Hey, if this trend keeps going, I may actually get around to finishing a story!

Here are this week's links.  Be sure to check out the one with the T-shirts.
Have a Great Valentine's Day weekend!

The Value of a Good Proofreader

A Compelling Novel Centers On the Protagonist’s Goal

Funny T-Shirts for Indie Writers

8 Tips for Creating Great Descriptions

Is Your Book Good Enough for Publication? A Cold-Blooded Assessment

Negative Reader Reviews: The Antidote

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why Can’t My Writing Be More Subtle?

I dream about the day when I can go back and read one of my previously edited chapters and be reasonably happy with what I see. In reality, nothing depresses me more than returning to a chapter I thought was in good shape and finding a mess. And it happens all too often.

What are the biggest problems? The usual suspects—too much telling, not enough internal thoughts, clumsy sentences… You know the drill. These are issues I can fix for the most part.  All I need is some time and practice. But there’s still one problem I have yet to crack. I over-explain waaaay too much. Unfortunately, I think that trait is permanently hardwired into my brain.

 My problem, I suspect, has a lot to do with having developed most of my writing skills while writing scientific research reports, where over-explaining is to be admired and where keeping the reader entertained is a secondary consideration. Writing fiction is a completely different animal. When I write fiction, my process is to envision the scene in my mind as if I’m watching a movie, and then try to reproduce it on the page. I suspect many other writers work the same way, but in my case, I end up choreographing every move, every thought, every nuance, everything. Instead of a flowing narrative, my scenes are often bullet lists of events. If a character would turn his head in the movie, I make sure the readers know about it. If I want a scene to be humorous or scary or surprising, I beat the readers over the head with it, as if the only way they will get it is if I spell the emotion out for them. Not because I think the reader is an idiot, but because I don’t trust myself to be subtle.

I know subtlety works. I’ve gone back and re-read scenes from my favorite authors, scenes I remember as vivid and complicated, only to be shocked by how few sentences the authors needed to convey the scene. They didn’t explain every nuance. They left a few subtle hints and my imagination had filled in all the rest.

 Man, do I have a long way to go. I pity the lucky copy editor who gets to edit my stories.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Friday Links -- Volume 16

Before I give you the links,  I'd like to mention that Alex Cavanaugh, the guy who started the Insecure Writers Support Group, is having a sale on one of his books.  For a limited time, CassaFire is going for just 0.99.  So if you like science fiction and space battles, be sure to check it out.

On to the links. And have a great weekend!

Most Books Don’t Sell

Kicking High Concept into High Gear

How Is First Person POV Different?

The Business Rusch: More Passive Marketing (Discoverability Part 8)

Semicolons: Commonly Misused Bits of Punctuation

A Newbie’s Guide to Self-Publishing

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Insecure Writer and Putting It All Together

Today is February's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

Why am I an Insecure Writer this month?

Because of my fear that I’ll never be able to put it all together as a writer.

I’ve learned so much about writing in the past five years, it makes my head hurt. To be honest, had I known how much there was to learn, I might never have started writing in the first place. But that's another story.

These days my learning curve seems to be leveling out. I still discover new tricks here and there, but it's happening less and less often. And it's never been easier for me to spot problems in my writing. But being able to recognize a problem and and being able to fix it are two entirely different things.  I may understand the rules, but creating the words that do what I want them to doesn't come easy for me.  Perhaps it will always be that way. Am I doomed to be forever surrounded by flawed manuscripts that I don't know how to fix, no matter how many years I write?

Perhaps it's still to early in the game to worry about never "getting it," but that's what being an insecure writer is all about.