4 Tricks When You Don’t Know What to Write

Keyboard with "confused" key.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser (or a plontser – somewhere in between on the spectrum of story planning), there are going to be times when you stare at the page or plot outline and think…

I have no idea what comes next.

Sometimes you’ll write a placeholder:  [exciting thing happens here.]

Or [secret is revealed – note: figure out secret.]

Or [the hero gets away somehow.] 

So that’s something. You have a sense of what’s supposed to happen, you just don’t have the specifics.

It’s even worse when you can’t even see your way clear to what type of scene needs to happen.

You know there’s going to be a love story, or intrigue, or mystery… but you’re not entirely sure what said romance/intrigue/mystery is going to actually do.

This is especially prevalent in the middle of the book, which is how so many manuscripts wind up with the Dreaded Sagging Middle™.

If you’re a plotter, you’ll bump up against this as you’re creating the plot outline. Hopefully, you know your major plot points – and that’s a huge step in the right direction. 

If you’re a plontser, those major plot points may be all you have. Or you may just know the beginning, have some hints of the middle, and then have the end.

If you’re a pantser, you’re probably stopped dead in the middle of your writing process. Either that, or (if you don’t write in a linear/chronological fashion) you’re plinking away at scenes that you know probably should happen, even if you don’t know quite how they fit in with the whole.

Here are some tricks to get you to the next scene.

  1. Study your characters.

    The first thing is always, always, always check in with character. Which means checking with your protagonist’s GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict.)  The more you know about your character’s goal and motivation, the easier it is to figure out the meat of your story. 

    Even if you’re a full-blown anti-planning pantser, knowing your character is what makes it possible to see where you’re supposed to go… so if you’re really stuck, there is a good chance that you simply don’t know your characters well enough.

    Doing some deep dive character work might be helpful here.  Brainstorm, do some journal journeying or mind-mapping or fill out character sheets from writing reference books. Then figure out what your character wants, and why.

  2. Get to plot points.

    Plot points are a godsend. If you know your character’s GMC, these should be fairly straightforward. (Maybe not easy, but straightforward!)

    Even if you’re the most die-hard pantser, if you’re stuck and running out of time, just figuring out the major landmarks of your story will help you figure out what to write.

    Why? Because you’re not looking at a huge expanse and trying to chart a path from beginning to end. You’re just looking at the distance between two plot points, which is infinitely more workable.

  3. Reverse engineer. 

    Again, if you’re a die-hard pantser and refuse to get to plot points, at least figure out the ending.  If you have too many choices because you haven’t figured out your ending, it’s easy to slip into decision fatigue and analysis paralysis, or write snippets of wrong turns and fruitless paths.

    This isn’t to say it’s a bad thing, necessarily. Some writers need exploratory writing to piece together their story. But if you’re stuck and want some relief, looking to the ending will at least encapsulate your story and give you more focus.

    If you’re not sure of your ending, the best way I’ve found is to ask theme-related questions. What do you want the reader to feel after they finish reading? Is there a message? What do you want the story to do? 

    Once you have the ending, or the theme, you can then ask yourself: what kind of character would I need to construct to create this kind of character arc?  (Again: character work is the foundation for any story, whether it’s genre or literary, “plot driven” or “character driven.”)

  4. Add conflict.

    If you know your characters, know approximately what they’re supposed to do (i.e. “solve the murder” or “win the business contract” or “take kid to Disneyland”) but you still don’t know what the next step is, look at where you are in the story, and see how you can add escalating conflict to the story

    That doesn’t mean throw in some extraneous terrorists or an unexpected tsunami. Given who they are and what they’re trying to do, what would be in their way? And is there anything you could add to make things (plausibly) worse, in an escalating fashion?

And if you’re still stuck… you can always contact me for a Plot Brainstorming session. But in the meantime, start with these tricks, and see if you can’t get your story back on track!

How to Make Your Writing Memorable

Being successful in the writing world is about standing out in a ridiculously crowded field (like, in-the-millions ridiculous.)  It’s about getting people to find you, but also getting them hooked on your style of writing, on your novels, enough that they decide they trust you and want to get more books from you. They’ve been burned before, you see, so “keeper” authors mean more than ever.

The way to do this is to make sure your stories are memorable.

Easy enough to say. But how do you make your stories memorable?

Memorable characters

Please note: this does not mean “throw a bunch of quirks at the character.”  We don’t need a bunch of protagonists with peg legs and telepathy who were abused by Joan Crawford as children.

To create a memorable character, you need to do your homework and fully flesh out who they were, build out chronologies, in order to create believable people that the reader will be able to empathize with (or at least understand.)  This needs to happen for all protagonists and the antagonist, as well.  It is the antidote to cardboard character syndrome.

The other essential exercise for memorable characters: their goals and motivation.  A memorable character wants something very, very badly.  Their motivation is what makes them unique and what propels them forward in the story.  There should be a tangible consequence if their goal is not met.

You can layer quirks on top of that, especially if it matches with your voice (which we’ll discuss in a moment.) But quirks without a solid foundation of backstory and goal are just clothes on a hanger, not on a living, breathing body.

Memorable plot

I go through this in more depth in my book, Rock Your Plot, but the bottom line is, without a gradually escalating plot line that draws the reader inexorably forward through the story, you’ll have a hard time presenting a memorable novel.

If you have fully fleshed out and intriguing characters, but they’re spinning their wheels as the plot mires in conflict plateaus and pointless scenarios (i.e., scenes that don’t forward the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal or provide conflict to achieving that goal), then you’re spiking your own wheels.  Make sure the storyline is gripping.

You may think “but I’m writing a sweet romance” or “it’s just a coming of age story” or “I don’t need a gripping storyline, this is not that kind of story.”

Don’t mistake “gripping” for a Liam Neeson movie where there are plenty of action scenes and guns blazing and whatnot.  (For more detail, check this blog post — Plot Help:  How to Blow Shit Up.)

You can have “quietly gripping” where we as readers are still riveted by what happens and whether or not your protagonist is going to achieve his or her goal, whether that’s saving the world or standing up for herself against a pushy sister or finding love.

The trick?  Do your character work.  Without a memorable, fully fleshed character, you won’t have the fuel to drive a story engine that sticks with readers.

Memorable world building.

World building: it’s not just for sci-fi anymore! 🙂

If you’re going to make your protagonists chefs, for example, you should study the restaurant world and get a feel for how they work.  Underwater divers?  Race car drivers?  Emergency room doctors?

You see where I’m going with this.  Do the research.

A caveat to this:  know your audience.  For things like historical, it’s easy to get lost in the research and dump it all in big gobs. Just because you found something fascinating doesn’t necessarily mean the reader will, and even if they do, don’t dump it at the expense of story.

There are few stories out there that are able to weave in a mass amount of finicky details without sacrificing readers.  Novels like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern create a character out of the world, and walk the fine line of losing their storylines. That presents a wealth of details about the Circus itself, which are fascinating. It does run the risk of losing the story itself with its mass number of POV characters and some story plateaus. (Note: it’s one of my favorite novels anyway.)

A novel like Memoirs of a Geisha presents the details that only pertain to the protagonist and her situation – he could have focused more on politics, for example, but mainly focused on tight-focus personal politics and what affected Sayuri in her quest to survive as a geisha.  That doesn’t mean that World War II was ignored. In fact, knowledge of it was crucial to the third act of the book, because it does affect Sayuri. But you don’t read the novel because of its deep dive into World War II Japan.

The details, pertinent, distinctive, and fascinating, are what you want to focus on to make your story memorable.

Memorable voice.

Think of your favorite writers. Think of the one that’s the funniest.  Now perhaps the scariest, or the most suspenseful, or the one that brings you the most joy.

Not the stories.  The writers themselves.  Your keeper authors – the ones you’ll buy, no questions asked, when they come out with another book, because you like how they write.

They may nail the first three elements, and that’s what got them on your auto-buy list. But odds are good, they have distinctive voices, as well.  Voice is how an author tells a story.

I love comedic voices, for example. But there’s a big difference between the urban fantasy humor of Seanan Mcguire’s Incryptid series or Jim Butcher’s Dresden file series, and Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers romantic comedies, or the absurdist sci-fi humor of Douglas Adams.  It’s a matter of internal observations in their exposition, I’ve noticed.  Or in the witty banter of the protagonists.

When I’m reading scary, I’ve noticed a lot of it is in what they don’t say.  Less is often more.  Details without a lot of exposition put me on edge.  Want me to keep the light on after I go to bed?  Don’t tell me I’m scared.  Show me why I should be.

That’s voice.

Nailing all four of these elements is a master’s task. 

That said, it’s not impossible.

You’re going to be developing your voice your entire writing career – your whole life, really. It’s not a matter of creating your voice as discovering it and polishing it.  Your voice is an integral part of you. Personally, I wouldn’t worry about it as much as the other elements.

The other elements can be strengthened through study and work.

Focus on character first, since plot without character is useless.  Then strengthen your plot skills.  You’ll probably wind up diving into research after your initial plot, and then adjusting your plot line as your research provides the details.

Finally, you pull them together and create your memorable story.  It’s like Jim Butcher says:  it’s like lifting an engine block – it’s not easy, but it’s not exactly complicated, either.

Now go forth, and be memorable!

Need some additional help?  I do plot coaching.  Contact me, and schedule a one-hour plot consult session today.

Full Metal Edit: How I learned to stop copyediting and love the critique

[Editor’s note:  Another great post from our editor, Lewis Pollak!]5871413651_5cb7d14c5a_o

 

Some years back, long before I started working as an editor, my wife became a writer. Though there was certainly a part of me that thought this was a flight of fancy at the time and that she wasn’t serious about it (spoiler: I was wrong), I was very much curious to see her work.

Her response was something akin to, “Hell no,” but possibly less polite than that. My wife knows me well, and she knew exactly what would happen.

You see, my background is in academics. I spent years doing research and working on advanced degrees. While I grew up reading a great deal of science fiction and fantasy, the writing I knew as an adult (stop snickering, I hear you) was the sort you’d find in scientific journals.

But I was persistent, and eventually, she relented. What happened next was precisely what she’d feared. I started marking things like sentence fragments and other grammar that didn’t meet some standard I had in my head. I was copyediting when what she wanted was a critique. This is not what she, her story, or our marriage needed at the time.

It took a while (and a few smacks with a two-by-four studded with rusty nails), but she eventually helped me learn to look past the grammar and see the story. Without having gone through that process, I never would have gotten into editing. Even after I started, I still had to fight that impulse when doing developmental edits, and the ones I did early on took far longer than they should have and certainly caused undue stress for the authors I worked with as a result.

Editing Stages

I wanted to take a few moments today to talk about the different stages of editing, hopefully helping you understand the editing process better and perhaps putting you on the path to giving better critiques to other authors. Bear in mind that these are generalizations, not absolutes, and that different people may refer to them by different names.

A developmental edit looks at big picture issues: things like GMC, characterization, conflict and adhesion between characters, plot structure, and overall pacing. In the wake of a developmental edit, entire story threads could be changed or removed. Character motivations or flaws might be rewritten. Entire scenes could be moved, removed, changed dramatically, or added. In a perfect world, all the heavy changes happen here. But it is often the case that changes beget other changes down the line. Also, at least for me, there comes a point where it becomes a challenge to clearly envision what the story will look like after those changes are made. Sometimes things that should be obvious can be missed until after the dust settles a bit. It may also be the case that an issue can’t be addressed until the author makes some changes. This is often the case with ending sequences, because I don’t know how an author might choose to resolve various things.

A line edit is all about the details and more focused on the language, drilling down into individual scenes. Is POV clearly established? Should POV be deeper? Do characters react to stimuli appropriately? Do scenes flow well one into the next? Do conversations drift back and forth between multiple topics or simply drag on too long? Is it clear who is speaking? Could the end of each scene or chapter be stronger so we keep the reader from putting the book down? Are there words/phrases that are repeated too frequently or are used in multiple POVs inappropriately? Is appropriate character movement present?

Keep in mind that if an issue that would normally be discussed in line edits is pervasive throughout the manuscript, an editor may bring it up during developmental edits and give the author a chance to address the issue, which can save a ton of time later on. For instance, if characters never have internal reactions to stimuli/events (and I see that frequently) that should be brought up in a developmental edit. If it is only a problem occasionally, it can wait, so the author can focus on bigger issues.

A copyedit focuses almost entirely on language: clarity, readability, grammar, spelling, etc. That doesn’t mean a good copyeditor (and they are worth their weight in gold) won’t identify some of the issues above, but their focus should be on the language and continuity, sentence by sentence. Copyeditors are like a safety net. They get paid to see the things others have read five times and never spotted. A good copyeditor understands and respects voice and will refrain from sacrificing voice on the altar of grammar provided clarity is not an issue.

Being a Better Critique Partner

In my eyes, a critique is very similar to a developmental edit, the primary difference being the nature of the relationship between the writer and the person providing the critique. The reason I wanted to go through this was so that you could keep it in mind the next time you are asked to give a critique. Try not to focus on the language. Nitpicking over things like word choice is premature if the entire scene needs to be cut or moved.

Instead, do your best to look at the big picture. Do you like the characters? Do they behave in ways that make sense? Is there enough conflict? Is the plot interesting and does it have some element (or combined elements in some way) that makes it original? Does the story bog down in places? Those are the things that your critique partner probably needs to know in order to make the story the best it can be, not whether they have sentence fragments or they used a semi-colon incorrectly.

Applying Feedback

Give careful consideration to the feedback you receive, even if you disagree. Have you not conveyed something clearly enough? Are there ideas in your head that haven’t made it onto the page? Pay special attention to anything you hear from multiple people.

One last thing to note: not all feedback is necessarily right for your story. Know what your vision of the story is. Understand what you want the story to be. Don’t be afraid to filter out feedback that doesn’t fit that vision. If the feedback identifies a problem but the proposed solution doesn’t work for you, consider alternate ways to attack the problem instead.

Then you will be happy, your critique partner will be happy, and there will be no need for rusty nails.

When Harry Met Newton: Newton’s Laws of Storytelling

[Another great post from our editor, Lewis Pollak.]6417813593_fcb7f4855a_o

Most people know that Sir Isaac Newton was a mathematician and natural philosopher and that he is credited with defining gravity in mathematical terms, but did you know he was also a fine editor? Ok, well, maybe not, but if you take a look at Newton’s Laws of Motion you might be surprised just how relevant they are to great storytelling.

Newton’s First Law of Motion

Newton’s first law describes the concept of inertia. It tells us that objects at rest (or in motion) will stay that way unless some outside force interferes.

Many novels begin with a picture of what the main character’s life is like before the story proper begins. We get a sense of who they are and what they want out of life. Then, something happens to shake up their world, often referred to as an inciting incident. From the perspective of character growth, the character is stagnant and going nowhere, or stuck on a path, meandering inevitably toward some fate. This is inertia! The inciting incident is an external force that upsets the equilibrium of the character. Cool, right?

There are a number of turning points that most stories share, like a midpoint and a black moment. What is happening to your characters in your stories at those points? Are the forces acting upon them sufficient to change the course they are on at that point in the story?

Keep in mind that for storytelling purposes, the force acting on the character doesn’t have to be external. Maybe it’s a change in their thinking, as is often the case with black moments. Maybe it is them overcoming whatever their flaw happens to be and realizing they need to take a different course of action. One of my favorite lines ever comes from When Harry Met Sally, when Harry says, “…when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” That realization was an extremely powerful force in the life of Harry Burns.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion

The second law is probably the most difficult to relate to storytelling, but it’s worth doing because the idea, like the law itself, is quite powerful. Basically, you have to consider all forces acting on an object. From above, we know an object in motion tends to stay that way, but common sense dictates that if we shove a box across the floor it won’t keep going indefinitely. The reason it stops is because in addition to the shove we gave it, other forces are acting on the box, like gravity and friction. The same is true of your story.

Why do so many books and movies have some form of time pressure, a proverbial ticking clock that defines a point at which something bad will happen?  Why do books on storytelling say that the stakes should increase as the story progresses or the hazards a character faces should become more and more dire? Why do editors tell you to end a scene or chapter with a question of some kind? The answer is friction.

Friction, in this context, is a tendency for your reader to stop turning to the next page and put the book down. Of course this tendency varies from reader to reader but I urge you to think of friction as a universal force that you can not be rid of. What you can do is continually propel your story forward with enough force, enough momentum, to overcome that friction so your story, and your reader, don’t come to a grinding halt.

Use ticking clocks if appropriate. Increase stakes. Cut back things that don’t seem important and are bogging down the momentum. And once something becomes inevitable in your story, like a character makes an important decision, drive toward it and don’t become sidetracked. Harry wants the rest of his life to start as soon as possible, not five chapters from now (unless five chapters from now is as soon as possible and he’s fighting desperately for that outcome the whole way).

Newton’s Third Law of Motion

Everyone has heard this one in some form, such as, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This relates back to the blog post I inflicted upon you last month where I wrote about doing harm to characters.

For our purposes, this law refers to balance between good and evil in a story, between dire perils and daring escapes, between the relative strength of protagonist and antagonist, obstacle and happy ending. As I said in the comments section of last month’s post, if you have a weak antagonist, there isn’t enough for the protagonist to push back against, which can create big problems with suspension of disbelief and leave your story feeling flat.

If you have a fantasy story where the protagonist transforms into the avatar of a god at the end to smite the bad guys, the character had better have suffered tremendously at the hands of the antagonist along the way and that antagonist had better do a better job of embodying evil than Snidely Whiplash or Ultron (seriously, what a waste of James Spader’s talents, “No strings” commercial aside).

Not every story has to be galaxy-spanning, either. This applies to “small” stories too. I think it’s fair to say that the ending of When Harry Met Sally, that two people who are so different should fall in love, is improbable. But look at how much they have to go through to make it to that point, all the challenges they have to navigate. They face incredible obstacles before finding happiness together, and that’s what makes it work when they finally do.

“I Never Studied Law”

Maybe Newton wasn’t an editor, but I do find it fascinating that the ways in which we define the physical world can have such interesting parallels to the worlds we create inside our own minds. Even if you, like a certain wise-cracking rabbit, “never studied law,” I hope Newton’s Laws give you something to ponder as you write or revise your next project and you don’t leave your reader hanging.

Take the Hypocritic Oath

DO HARMCathy’s note: here’s another winner from our newest editor, Lewis! 🙂

If you’ve watched medical or police procedurals, you’ve probably encountered the Hippocratic Oath, associated with the Greek physician Hippocrates—that’s four syllables, Bill & Ted fans, four—at some point. The oath is often summarized as “do no harm” though those words are not part of the oath itself.

Today, I’d like to introduce a different oath, one for authors and storytellers.

I shall call it the Hypocritic Oath, which states:  “Do Harm.”

Think about it. A book where nothing bad ever happened to characters wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? Do you want to read a book with no barriers to success of the main character(s)? A book with no conflict?

Ok, so why “hypocritic”?

Because as an author, you do all these terrible things to your characters, introduce obstacle after obstacle into their path, so they can overcome them. You know they are going to overcome them (unless you’re the kind of crazy-popular author who can get away with writing themselves into a corner before killing everyone).

It’s all about balance.

The more spectacular you want your ending to be, the more triumphant your hero(ine), and the larger the scale of the story, the greater the obstacles there should be, and the more pain and suffering and sacrifice your characters should endure before they achieve victory.

So I am here today to give you permission, as I often have with authors, to Do Harm.

Let’s get started.

Repeat after me:

I promise…to do horrible things…to my characters. To fill their lives…with pain…and misery…to torture them…at every turn…and to never…ever…make anything easy.

So, what now? Should you drop meteors on your main character’s head in the first scene? Well, I suppose you could, if you want your story (or your character) to be very short.

In many stories, the stakes increase as the story progresses.

This is an easy way to build tension. There might also be an added element of time pressure that comes increasingly into play, like the bus your character is on that can’t slow down without exploding might be running out of fuel. Ok, seriously subconscious, why do Keanu movies keep popping up in this blog post?

There should also be a natural order to the challenges you present.

I’m going to pick on the wisest of sages for a moment, “Weird Al” Yankovic. Mr. Yankovic’s ability to devise dastardly doings is unparalleled. But sometimes, for comic effect, he likes to screw up the order of escalation. There are a couple of great examples in the song “Virus Alert” from the album Straight Outta Lynwood. If the titular virus has melted your face off of your skull, is limiting your iPod to only being able to play songs by Jethro Tull really much of a concern? Probably not. Similarly, if a rift in spacetime had been torn open, would we really be concerned about litter caused by Twinkie wrappers?

When you are crafting a story, the circumstances should become progressively more challenging as the stakes and pressure increase. Aligning these factors can really help keep the story moving along at a brisk pace.

But if the order is off, the pacing probably will be too.

Now that you’ve been officially indoctrinated into the Order of Hypocrites (OOH), we should talk about two of the greatest enemies of the Order, “almost” and “nearly”. Ever have a character nearly get hit by a car or almost get shot? If you have, ask yourself why that happened.

Why did that car/shot/meteor miss the intended target? Were you subconsciously avoiding inflicting harm (breaking the oath you just took and condemning you to an eternity eating shards of broken glass)? Were you perhaps afraid that if your character were injured you wouldn’t know how to deal with that? If the answer to either of those was “yes” then you are injecting yourself into the story, which should be avoided.

Most importantly, if the character had been injured at that point, would it make the story better? Would it add tension and help with pacing? Does the character need something else to overcome at that moment?

Story structure can vary, but in most stories, a series of Bad Things will befall our intrepid heroes after the midpoint, escalating in intensity toward the point where all their hopes and dreams seem to have been flushed down the toilet with all those Twinkie wrappers. One of the many things that Donald Maass talks about in his various books and workshops is taking a situation and making it more difficult.

Here’s an exercise.

Take a look at one of your own scenes. What’s the situation? How can you make the circumstances worse? Once you have an idea, how can you make it even worse than that?

Have fun with it. Get creative. But do make sure the complication you introduce is organic to the story and doesn’t feel forced, you know, like Keanu starring in The Watcher.