Welcome to The Learning Curve. This is where I chronicle my adventures as a new writer. The goal is to inspire you to put that bag of chips down, step away from the television, and tell the world a good story.
Technically, I wanted to name this article ‘What to do when the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a firefly and you end up banging your head against the wall, lost in the dark.’ The Evil Mastermind told me it was too long, so I tried again. ‘Do not go into the light or you can expect to be blinded and burned.’ He told me this was too long as well, and then hinted I might want to keep it light for the readers. Yes, friends, the light went on inside my head and I came up with the title you see at the top. It really is a lot of hard work being a writer. Thankfully, the minions here at Indies Unlimited have TEM to help us focus our thoughts.
Sadly, he’s not around in the middle of the night while I sit in front of the computer looking at the last twenty-thousand or so words I’ve spent a few weeks writing. If he were then he might be able to tell me where I went wrong. The story just doesn’t flow the way I want it to. There are too many characters, and each of them has a story worth telling.
Last month I wrote about the magic in writing, when everything comes together to form that perfect rush of words – it flows, and it’s magic. You can imagine my surprise when I found that once again I set myself up for a challenge. I refuse to call them mistakes. TEM explained to us that there are no mistakes, just opportunities, and challenges to overcome. With this in mind, I read through the story thus far and realized he was right. They were all great characters, but the story should be about one in particular.
If I could use an example…The Lord of the Rings had a cast of characters that could keep the Actors Guild rolling in membership fees for a decade, but the story itself centered on Frodo.
This is what I failed to see, and my story reflected it. I spent three weeks telling the stories of more than half a dozen characters. Though all the stories would eventually merge, it gave the reader no sense of whom to root for. Now I knew what the problem was and I set about fixing it. The original goal was to use as much material from the first draft as I could, but then another opportunity presented itself.
Focusing on a central character made the stories of all the other characters change as well. They were the supporting cast now, and though I could include their stories, I had to write them in and around my main story-line and character.
Three weeks later and I have 26k words, and with the exception of a few lines, I copied nothing verbatim from the original draft. At roughly 8.5k words a week, that’s magic for me.
Now, I told you all of that to tell you this:
There are a couple of ways to start a new project. You can outline it to death and create detailed character sheets, or you can write. The last time I spent three weeks on an outline I ended up setting the story aside later in the year because it lost whatever magic it had. On this project I spent three weeks actually writing the story I thought I wanted to tell, only to find that it made me question some key things. The main character I have now is not the character I would have picked at the beginning of this project to lead the story. In fact, the main character I have now did not even exist in the first version.
Do you get what I’m talking about, dear author in training? If you write your stories out, using whatever outline you quickly put together, then you should get a feel for each character. They will talk to you if you let them, and they will show you the light. Keep in mind that whatever you write may end up differently than the way you planned; that’s part of the magic. It will need to be edited, and things may change. Just don’t get discouraged. If you are banging your head and can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, then pick up a pen and some paper and dig your way out.
24 thoughts on “The Light”
Great post. I had just the opposite problem with 2 screenplays- I had overly abundant main characters, and my script Dr. told me that I needed to break it up some- that Dar can’t be in EVERY scene. That in itself was a challenge, as the books the scripts are adapted from are also very main-character oriented. Alas, after a few days of thinking, I finally arrived on a solution. It wasn’t what I wanted, but rarely do screenplays exactly follow books, and since I’m writing both, I took artistic liberty. Much head banging on keyboard was not fun.
Depending upon the POV, I might have a hard time with a single character hogging the spotlight. The important thing is you worked through the problem you were having. It can be done if we remember that as the creator of the story we have a great deal of freedom to twist a scene to make it fit the plot.
Well done. Give me a shout when the book is ready.
Hey, have you been snooping around in my head? Or looking into my files? 😉
Been there, done that, still doing it. Good post.
Is that an invitation to read Back from Chaos? It is on my Kindle. 🙂
I find that letting stories stew in my imagination for a few weeks really helps me get a handle on the characters. I’m able to discover who they are without writing a word.. or just jotting down bullet points. It’s a great idea to hang out with the characters – you quickly find out who the story is really about, who the key characters are and their real motivations.
Thanks for sharing your journey, K. D.
Thanks Melissa, and I couldn’t agree more. The better you know your characters then the more you will trust where they want to take you. Many times I’ve set down to write a scene with only the key points I need to include and no idea how I’m going to do it. That’s when a good character will help fill in the blanks for you.
Thanks for the comment!
KD, this post got me thinking. Not only about why I have no desire to write fiction, but also how different the process of writing is from author to author. In my various blogs I’ve done interviews with a lot of different authors and their process varies from completely seat of the pants on the first draft to outlines the are so detailed that it seems like the book is almost done when they start writing. Some fall into what works best (or at least what works well enough) for them, while with others the process has had to evolve until they find that out. It sounds like you’re in this second group.
Yes, BigAl. I too am struck by “how different the process of writing is from author to author.”
As a nonfiction writer, it has not been (for me) about an absence of desire to write novels, it’s more about how and why I became a nonfiction writer.
Is this a fixed state? Will I ever write fiction? I cannot imagine what it might be like to wake up in the morning and have coffee with characters who live and breathe in my head. How I would love to experience that!
I did go through the same kinds of changes/alterations over the course of time, from my first to fifth precise chapter outlines, through editing out more and more chapters that might not only be unnecessary, but perhaps would lead the reader into tributaries that would only become confusing.
Different process, yet similar, yes?
I’m not sure of my opinion yet, Marcia. We’ll see what I think if (when?) I write a book which if it happens will be nonfiction. 🙂
But my guess is you’re almost surely right, that the process is much the same for nonfiction, although I think it *might* depend as much on the kind of nonfiction as on the author.
Some kinds of nonfiction, say a “how to” book of some kind, “XXX for Dummies” or something like that, my initial thought was that starting with an outline would be the only way to go. I expect, at a minimum, for that kind of book that a high level outline of chapter subjects as a starting point would probably work best for most people. Yet, I can imagine someone writing a chapter as they think of the subject, rearranging chapters for better flow, and in essence writing the book much closer to the seat of the pants method than I would have thought could work.
Narrative nonfiction, like memoir or travel narrative, where you’re essentially telling a story and the only difference between what you’re doing and fiction is that the story is true, it seems like there would be no difference in the range of processes that might work.
I’m certainly in the second group Al. I’ve tried a full outline, one that took weeks to create, then found it was too confining. A chapter or two into the story and it would make sense to change a plot element, but that would entail reworking the outline to make everything fit. After a few of those I found I spent more time working on the outline than I did the story.
On the other side of that coin, I’ve tried writing with no outline at all, just going wherever the characters wanted to go. The problem with this approach caused a lot of grief. I had no idea where the story was going, and I had my doubts the characters would get to the end of the story in under a million words.
What I’ve found that has worked for me is a combination of both. My outline is actually a wiki that I started. It details the maps of my world, the political and social climate, and a detailed timeline chart of historical battles.
I did not have a story when I started writing all the information, but several stories developed in the process. When I finally sat down to write I had a plethora of ideas to choose from.
The wiki is my outline. It provides the foundation and the borders, while giving me the freedom to run with the story in any direction I see fit. As long as I know where I’m going to end the story I don’t mind letting the characters have their fun.
K.D. this is a very timely post for me to read as I go back to the ms I started before the vamps.
Because it is a murder mystery I need to follow a timeline very carefully, while simultaneously setting pertinent and misleading clues. I started to write a more structured outline and found that it was too suffocating. What I am currently doing is keeping track of events and clues as I go along. That is working so far.
I am impressed that you can write 8.5 k of words in a week. That is good output compared to my 5k. 🙂
Thanks Lois. I actually managed over 10k this past week. Somehow I get the feeling I could be a prolific author if it weren’t for the full time job. Well, that and the lazy streak I have. 🙂
Scrivener was a big help to me, and if you haven’t used it then I would suggest trying the demo. You can create a folder (Chapters) and then create the scenes inside the folder for each chapter. In the synopsis (the index cards for each scene) you can briefly describe what clue you want to reveal in that particular scene. It’s like an outline without the rigid format of an outline. When you sit down to write the scene all you need to be concerned with is getting the information (clues) you want to get across in that particular scene, and let the characters do the rest. It’s a process that works well for me. I hope it helps you or someone else out there too.
Thank you for going into more detail about Scrivener. My issue with it is I thought I understood that it is not written in Word, but is a totally different platform. That means it would have to be converted, eventually, to send to my editor and to load onto an e-book platform, right? I find gremlins pop up when I try to convert in and out of Word. And, I’ve just started to become comfortable with Word so I am scared to tackle another program. 🙂
Scrivener will let you compile your work in a variety of formats.
It takes some tweaking to get it just the way you want in either Word, epub or mobi, but once you have the settings the way you like then you can save the format as a new template and use it thereafter.
The benefits of trying it for a week can not be overstated. 🙂 Let me know how you get along with it. I’ll be happy to answer any questions I can.
Enjoyed reading this post! I think Big Al articulated my thoughts perfectly. The process is different for everyone, yet contains most of the same basics. It’s a matter of order! To each his own, and this seems to be particularly true with fiction writers. I found it impossible to work form an outline. But I write a biography for all of my characters before I put them on the page. It’s a guideline for me only, though. Because I have this strange feeling that I have to be them when I am writing them, it helps me to get into their head when I change a POV. No I do NOT write from a room in the asylum 🙂
lol – I believe you. My wife interrupted me for a few minutes while I was writing this past weekend and she said I was ‘snapping’ at her. I had to explain that the scene I was working on was a character torturing someone. I’m sure I gave her an evil smile.
Thanks for the comment!
What a great look into your process. This is invaluable for writers to see. I bet most end up with a similar situation and have know idea where to go with it. Or worse, they try to make the casts of a thousand main characters work.
Thanks for sharing how you make it work!
Thanks Jim. It was a process. It helped me to think of all the characters as spokes in a wheel. All of them point to the center of the wheel. In the end, I had to create a new character that fit well with all the spokes.
And Thank You for the comment!
Really enjoyed your post, KD. It’s been interesting reading your approach to writing a novel. As a new writer, I began thinking I would write a novel but I was sidetracked with writing short fiction: flash and short stories. Now the idea of writing a novel (for which I still have a story yearning to be told) is a bit scary to me. The development of characters being the key piece striking terror into my heart! Because of this, I’ve really enjoyed reading about your challenges back and forth. It’s good to know that we can approach the process in various ways and choose the one that works best for us.
Hope that all makes sense. Ultimately my comment is: thanks, KD!!
Your flash fiction and short stories are remarkable Jo. I’m not sure how much you edit and revise them before you post, but it looks like you spend some quality time on them. Novel writing is different for everyone, and there is no single best approach. However, I think we can all agree on one thing: It will never get written unless you write it.
Work on a chapter, then throw it out and rewrite it. If you can do that, then you can write a novel.
Thanks for stopping by Jo. I appreciate all the support from The Guild Ink crew. 🙂
My published non-fiction book took years to produce, mainly because of the research involved, and also a bit of opposition from family members. I never outlined, but I initially made copious notes, always adding to them whenever I remembered something from the distant past. At times I wrote pages or chapters, not knowing where they would end up being placed. I completely rewrote the first and last chapters and In the end it all worked, and the book is doing exceptionally well. I don’t like outlining and prefer just writing and letting it flow until I’m ready to read through my work and decide what’s working or not. I’ve found I’m not daunted by the empty page when I sit down to write because I haven’t laid out any strict rules and am free to just write anything that comes to mind.
Ester, your comment, “I’ve found I’m not daunted by the empty page when I sit down to write because I haven’t laid out any strict rules and am free to just write anything that comes to mind,” is a great exercise for new writers.
Writing free-flow, whatever comes to mind, can help generate story ideas. I do this whenever I need to some flash fiction, but have no clue what to write about. Here’s an example that came out of a free-flow session. http://kdrush.net/the-boy-next-door-flash-fiction/
Thank you for the comment!
This post and your last one about the magic together show what writing is all about. Sometimes it’s pretty like falling snow and comes exactly how it was predicted, and sometimes it’s a surprise so you get stuck for hours and run out of gas on the highway; but in any case, you eventually have to shovel. Thanks for the insights!
Some days I wish that writing was a full-time job. There are other days I procrastinate, wondering if the magic will be there.
It’s not unlike a child asking for an original bedtime story. You know as you’re tucking them in they’re going to ask for one; they do so every night. You dread it, right up to the point you start telling the story. Then things start to fall into place and you realize you are filled with the magic. It’s tough to remember it’s there whether you are using it or not.
Thanks for the comment Krista!
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