Lots of times, when I sit down to write, I discover I have no ideas in my head. I’m dry. In fact, I just ran into this after completing my last novel in July. I sat, staring at the blinking cursor, but nothing would come.
And it wasn’t exactly that I had no ideas. I have stuff I can write, for sure. There are outlines and ideas all over my hard drive waiting for me to write them. But that didn’t help.
So, what will?
Well, when I tried the Writing into the Dark method for the first time, it shifted my focus and allowed me to get through a wall. I couldn’t repeat that, no matter what I tried, when I completed that last book and began looking for the beginning – literally, the opening scene – of book one in that series.
But writing into the dark requires not allowing the critical voice in. And the critical voice is the one telling me I had to write book one or else book two will never be published, and that it was important for me to write book one so I can get this series off the ground, and it was critical that the new version be superior to the old one, with a better plot, better relationship and character arc(s), etc.
See all those little italicized words? Yeah, those are the critical voice’s words. Those are the little writing-killers. And I didn’t notice them.
Dean Wesley Smith, who is so very generous with his guidance and advice, told me two things in two separate comments on his blog over the last, say, month or so. First, he told me to be careful not to make the writing “important,” because that’s an invitation to the critical voice for entry, and he told me how to overcome not having an idea to write.
He also advises everyone, whenever they ask about the writing process, to have fun. Writing should be fun.
So, I understood – and perhaps incorrectly – that he meant “important” in the manner of “literature,” wherein the writing must “matter,” or have lasting “value” and meet certain “quality” levels. But I think he might have actually meant it in the manner I was actually doing it – that it was important to my career and to my process of publication to get the first book in this series written and published. Then, and only then, can I publish the now-completed (well, except for a cover and sales blurb/description) second book.
Well, I think that’s the problem I faced. My creative voice keeps reminding me we’ve already written this story, the “important” one, the one my critical voice keeps hounding. And it’s not real interested in writing it yet again. So it didn’t.
Then I tried a few other things to get other books started. But nothing really clicked until I dug through my older outlines and found one that sparked things. Now it’s on its way, and I’m almost three thousand words in. Not a long way by anyone’s measure, and I don’t know how long the story will run (I don’t write to word count anymore), but I do know it’s underway.
And that made me wonder whether some books are written with different methods than others.
Dean Wesley Smith indicated he’d had a slower time of writing his last novel than usual, and made the statement that different books write different ways. I wondered, on his blog, whether he meant using writing into the dark or an outline as the method. He told me roundly, no, that’s not what he meant.
DWS writes everything into the dark, because he wants to be surprised, and he finds any other method boring. Outlining bores him and kills his creativity. Well, mine too, it turns out. At least, detailed outlines do. So, when you don’t have any ideas, and no guides, what to do?
The answer turned out to be incredibly simple, though not having tried it I can’t say it’s easy.
What you do is, follow a character around and see what comes of it. That is, let your creative mind latch onto a character – new, existing, whatever – and just mentally “watch” the character act in its “environment” or setting. See what happens.
Now, that goes hand-in-hand with the strategy Algis Budrys lays out in Writing to the Point for crafting a story that sells. He says the opening of any story requires three things – a character, in a context, with a problem.
See if you can come up with those things. Don’t worry whether this is a short story or a novel. Just allow your character to discover its problem in a setting, or context, and see what shakes out.
No idea? No problem!
See, the rest of the story will write itself, because you then know what else needs to happen. Since you got your beginning, the middle follows naturally.
Like, the character will make a logical, natural, and organic attempt to solve the problem. But, the solution unexpectedly fails because the character doesn’t truly understand the problem yet.
So, they learn about themselves – as part of your awesome character arc, which started with that problem, which was a flaw the character has or some internal issue they have to deal with – and the true nature of the problem. The failure creates stress that reveals things about the character previously unknown. Maybe hinted at in the beginning, but they might not be part of this story at all.
Then, they try again to solve the problem. In fact, they try a total of three times. Each time, they have to put forward more effort, but still fail for similar reasons. However, they gain deeper understanding of themselves and the problem.
Finally, they throw the new version of themselves, having completed the character arc, at the problem, sacrificing themselves in the process, at the last possible moment. Victory! The character’s newly revealed character triumphs, and the story conflict resolves.
And, while this is going on, you have the character arc or story arc for the antagonist, too! Yes, they are getting ever closer to their nefarious – or at least, opposed to the protagonist’s – goal(s)! Step by step, inch by inch, until…defeat! The hero snatches victory away from the jaws of defeat and the antagonist suffers a crushing and final loss at the hands of the protagonist.
In the end, we tie up the loose ends of the story or play them out for the sequel(s), and someone comes along to say something like “He’s dead, Jim,” or perhaps “Who was that masked man? I wanted to thank him…”
(Those last bits are the examples Budrys used. No credit for their genius.)
That means the story’s over. Someone authoritatively says it’s over and the characters who survived the epic climax go on.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? And look how easy that was. All you have to do is follow a character around in your head, and then look what can come of it.
Think I won’t try that next time I want to start a book? Oh, you know I will.
So, that’s my lesson this week. How about you?