Tag Archives: writing problems

Professional Wednesday: One Hot-Mess of a Writing Post

Dispensing writing advice when one is struggling a bit with one’s own work can be somewhat strange. Just ask . . . well, me.

I am more than 50,000 words into my current work-in-progress, the third book in my Celtic urban fantasy. (No, you haven’t missed any releases. Book I is in production and should be out later this year or early in 2023.) Some days, the writing comes smoothly and other days it’s a struggle. And, of course, I am closing in on the dreaded 60% mark, so at that point all bets will be off.

Over the past few years, I’ve offered advice on dealing with a whole host of problems. Stuck at 60%? Distracted? Unable to get started? Unsure of how to finish? Check the archives of this blog. Chances are, I’ve got some post somewhere that tells you how I have addressed the issue. All the posts are well-meaning. Some of them might even have helped someone somewhere at some point.

Sometimes, though, there is no cure. Sometimes the only way past the struggle is through the struggle.

I am not at my best right now, for any number of reasons. And I am doing all I can to write despite distractions small and large, personal and national, serious and foolish. Writing, though, is messy. Writing is not one smooth, free-flowing creative process that starts when we type “Chapter One” and completes itself when we type “The end.” (And just an aside here: Writers shouldn’t have to type “The end.” If we need to tell our readers when the story has ended, we haven’t done a very good job ending it. Just saying.)

Writing, as I have said too many times before, is really hard. Writing is fits and starts. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. It’s write, revise, delete, write some more, delete some more, write some more, revise some more, etc., etc., etc.

And here’s the thing. Or here are the two things. First, anyone who has ever devoted any meaningful portion of their life to writing knows this already. And second, everyone who has ever known this, has promptly forgotten it the moment they start their next book.

Because we want it to be free-flowing, smooth, easy, linear. We want it to be painless. And why wouldn’t we? Who in their right mind says, “I’m going to write a book and I hope it comes within a hair’s breadth of killing me?” Then again, who in their right mind says, “I’m going to write a book…?”

But I digress.

In all seriousness, we want the process to be simple, and so we forget what it’s like to be in the throes of creating. Every book I have written has been a struggle at one point or another. Some are worse than others, but every one has its moments. I’ll struggle with plot points, argue with my characters, second-guess my world building. I’ll doubt that the book is any good, I’ll question whether I can even finish it, I’ll go through periods, sometimes weeks long, when I have to force myself just to sit down in front of my computer. Because I. Don’t. Want. To. Write.

Until I do again. And then all is well with the world, and the book seems pretty good. Better than that. It’s very good. Hell it’s one of my best — maybe even THE best thing I’ve ever done. And it will only ever be eclipsed by the next one.

Put another way, writers are head-cases. I know I am. And there’s a reason my writer friends are my writer friends, if you know what I mean.

You may be surprised to learn that there really is advice embedded in this hot-mess of a post. It’s simply this: Keep working. Writing is a battle, like any creative endeavor, like any endeavor at all that is worth pursuing. It frustrates us and exhausts us. It challenges us by striking at those places where we’re most vulnerable — our confidence, our sense of self-worth, our ability to stare failure in the eye and say, “Not today, motherfucker.” But that’s also the beauty of it. If it was easy, finishing a book wouldn’t feel so damn good. And it will feel good. Because you will finish your book.

Wishing you smooth-flowing prose, fast-moving plots, and characters who surprise and delight you.

Professional Wednesday: Dealing With the Slog, part II — The 60% Stall

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Many years back, while I was working on one of the middle books in my Winds of the Forelands quintet, my second series, I came downstairs after a particularly frustrating day of writing and started whining to Nancy about my manuscript. It was terrible, I told her. There was no story there, no way to complete the narrative I’d begun. The book was a disaster, and I might well have to scrap the whole thing.

To which she said, mildly, “Ah. You’re at the 60% point?”

The question brought me up short, because that’s exactly where I was. And prompted by her remark, I realized something obvious to her that I’d missed up until then: To that point in my career, every book I’d written had stalled at the 60% mark.

Last week, I began a new “Most Important Lessons” feature that focused on “Dealing With the Slog.” The first post focused on meeting our self-imposed deadlines. Today’s installment will discuss how to address the 60% Stall.

I would love to tell you that as my career has progressed, I have moved past this problem, but I’d be lying. I don’t stall at 60% with every book, but I do run into problems at that point in most manuscripts. It seems to be endemic to my process. And I’m certainly not the only writer who does. The more I talk about the problem, the more I realize it’s fairly common.

The problem as it presents itself to me can be boiled down this way: When I begin a novel, I know what the main conflicts are, and I have a clear understanding of the obstacles I intend to throw in the path of my protagonist(s). And I also have a good sense of how I want my story to end. Quite often, though, as I write my story, certain elements change. I often alter plot points as I write them. My characters assert themselves in subtle ways, developing their own personalities and wills, and forcing me to rethink their arcs.

So those obstacles as I have written them are not quite the same as what I envisioned originally. On the other hand, the ending, as I imagined it, remains largely unchanged. And thus the path between the crisis point for my protagonists and the end point I want them to reach has to change as well. And the pivot point, the moment when we shift from doing all sorts of nasty stuff to our heroes to beginning to have them fight back and turn the tide, usually starts at about the 60% mark. Yes, shit still goes wrong after that. I’m not saying the last third of the novel has to be a golden time for the protagonist. Far from it. But, for me at least, 60% is when things begin to turn.

How do we address the 60% stall?

First, let me tell you what I don’t do. I don’t panic. I don’t rant and rave. I don’t freak out. Not anymore. Not since Nancy pointed out to me that this is something I go through with most of my books. Plot holes happen. The book as we planned it — whether we outline in detail or write by the seat of our pants — doesn’t always look exactly like the book as we write it. And that’s okay. There is still a story here worth telling. There is still a path between where we are at 59% and where we wish to be on the last page. Breathe. Calm down. It’s going to be all right.

The second thing I try to do is assess the deviations between what I’ve written and what I had in mind originally. Quite often, the answer to overcoming the Stall lies in those differences. Maybe (for instance) we have introduced a new character we hadn’t planned on including, and that person’s presence has set up this narrative disconnect. Most likely, that means the character in question needs to figure into the new narrative path leading us from where we are to where we need to be. Or maybe we have added a key plot twist we hadn’t anticipated originally. Again, if that’s the case, chances are our new solution needs to address the consequences of this twist.

The third thing I consider is whether I need to A) change the ending I’d had in mind, B) add an element in the final 40% to deal with the new conditions I’ve created, or C) go back and edit out some of the changes I have allowed to creep into the first 60%. Choice C) is almost always my least favorite option. Why? Because I have written the book as I have thus far for a reason. If I have strayed from my original, pre-writing vision, it’s because new stuff came to me organically, as I wrote. And generally — not always, but most of the time — I find that my organic decisions are my best decisions.

Finally, and most important, I keep writing. I keep moving forward. Even if my (temporary) solution to navigating past the Stall is flawed, I always, ALWAYS believe it is better to keep pushing through. The alternatives are to give up entirely (unthinkable!!) or to retreat into rewrites and try to fix the problem that way, which in my opinion makes the Stall harder to overcome. Every completed manuscript will require editing, and it may well be that after completing the first draft, setting it aside for a while, and then starting the revision process, we will discover solutions to our narrative issues that weren’t obvious when we were in the middle of writing.

The important thing to remember is this: The 60% Stall is not a death knell for our story. It is a temporary setback. It is not cause for panic, but rather for reflection, for brainstorming, for creative thinking about our narrative.

Keep writing!!

Monday Musings: On Being Distracted, As Opposed To Dealing With Distractions

A bit less than two months ago, when our lives still resembled something akin to normal, I wrote a Monday Musings post about getting started at work and overcoming distractions.

Then the coronavirus took over our world and changed the equation, and so today I return to the topic.

First off, I want to draw a distinction between managing distractions and being distracted. [And this is my thinking for the purposes of this post. I am not claiming that this is something inherent in the language.] By “managing distractions,” I mean dealing with the day-to-day chores and intrusions that, not so long ago, were excuses to procrastinate and avoid creative production.

This may seem like semantics, a distinction without meaning, but to my mind, right now, “being distracted” is something else entirely. We are distracted when the world intrudes on our thoughts and routines in ways that deserve and demand our attention, that can’t be put off or ignored. Put another way [and again, this is my distinction for this post] distractions tend toward the trivial, while being distracted is an emotional state.

I am very good at managing distractions. But these days I am distracted. My thoughts are on the virus, the effect it’s having on our society, our economy, our politics. I find it incredibly difficult to concentrate on my work. The second half of last week, I started a new project, and though I am always slow at the beginning of something new, I got a total of 2,600 words written in three days. My usual pace is 2,500 per day.

I am constantly checking my email and social media links for updates, news, word from friends and colleagues. And even when I force myself to stick to the task at hand, my thoughts wander, my creativity flags.

When I wrote about distractions several weeks ago, I had lots of suggestions for how you might hold them at bay. This, though… This is different. I have no answers for myself, much less for others. I can only offer what I am trying to tell myself, day in and day out.

First, this isn’t forever. True, we don’t know how long this crisis will last, but I refuse to accept that somehow this is “the new normal” or some such. (Hate that phrase, by the way: “The new normal.” Yuck. At some point I’m going to do an entire post about all the crappy turns of phrase that make my skin scrawl. Right now, though, that’s just another distraction.) (See what I did there…?) It may take a month, or six, or twelve, but we will get our lives back. I’m convinced of that.

Of course, that doesn’t make me any less distracted right now. So the second thing I’ve tried to do is be accepting of my own limitations. This is an extraordinary time. It’s natural to be distracted, to be fearful or unsettled or even angry at the world. And it follows that we will be less productive, less than our professional best. Which is not to say that all of us are. Some might be reading this thinking, “What the hell is Coe going on about? I’m churning out 5,000 words a day. This is a Godsend. An excuse to stay home and do nothing but write? Love it!” If that’s you, great. I’m happy for you. I’m envious. Because that’s not me right now at all. And, frankly, it’s not really anyone else I know either. But good on you! You go, person!

For the rest of us, it’s all right to be a little less productive, to want to know what the latest is on the current insanity. Give yourself a break and accept that just as the world will adapt and return to even keel, so will you. As with regular, run-of-the-mill distractions, I have tried these past couple of weeks to ration my news-hunting. “500 words, and then I can see what’s trending on Twitter now.” Or something of the sort. I haven’t been all that successful with this so far, but I’m hoping…

But really, my point as I began this post wasn’t to offer advice. Mostly, I’m writing this to say that if you’re struggling right now, you’re not alone. I know many who are. The world has ground to a halt, people are freaked out, and somewhere men and women of, shall we say, odd disposition are doing something bizarre with all those rolls of toilet paper… Be good to yourself and to the people around you. Very few of us are at our best right now. Distractions are easy. Being distracted like this is a struggle.

Wishing you a safe, calm, and, if you want it, productive week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Handling a Plot-Hole Crisis

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

We writers all know the feeling: We’re well into the writing of a novel or story, when we abruptly realize that we have a plot hole wide enough to accommodate an eighteen-wheeler. Sometimes the realization is our own – we happen to glimpse our narrative in a way we haven’t before, and the issue, which had been invisible to us, is suddenly so clear we wonder how we could have missed it. At other times we need an outside reader to show it to us. I hate when it happens that way; I feel like a moron. “How did I not see this?” I ask myself.

I recently faced this problem, although in a slightly different way. I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece for months now, and I had someone read it for me, someone I trust completely. He told me that I had one of my facts wrong – a point of family history that I thought I knew and didn’t. This was something central to the story I’m telling, the very lynchpin of my essay. I felt like a bomb had gone off, blowing a giant hole in my narrative.

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

Here’s a dirty little secret: This happens to me a lot. I’m pretty sure it happens to all of us a lot. Plotting isn’t easy and it’s rare for any of us to get it right the first time. Plus, storylines tend to evolve in the writing, even for those of us who outline ahead of time. (A subject for another post.) And so, yes, plot holes appear with some regularity. The question is, how do we tackle them and move beyond them?

Let’s start with this: Panicking and freaking out is NOT the answer. Relax. Breathe. It’s going to be all right. Your book/story is not irrevocably doomed. Really.

Read that last paragraph again. I’ll wait.

There. Feeling a little better?

Okay, Step 1: Take a moment to remind yourself of what your story is about. In my case, I went back and revisited the basic themes of my essay. And I realized that while this point I had wrong undermined a small section of my story, it didn’t invalidate all of it. Not even close. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that the stories we tell tend to be bigger and more complex than we think. It’s rare that one element of a story is so crucial that its failure renders the rest of the tale useless.

Step 2: With the fundamentals of your story firmly in mind, ask yourself what you have lost with this recent realization. Chances are, it’s not the narrative apocalypse you think it is. If necessary, chart your narrative on paper or on a white board, and pinpoint the place where your plot thread falters. Visualizing your work in this way can do two things: 1) It can offer some perspective on the relative sizes of your overall story and this specific problem. That’s usually reassuring. And 2) It can help you discover paths around the plot hole.

Step 3: Brainstorm. I don’t mean for that to sound simplistic, and I’m not trying to say that these problems are easy to overcome or that somehow they’ll fix themselves. If you’ve spotted an issue big enough to cause you to panic, it’s likely that repairing it will take some work and some time. Don’t expect to find the answer in a matter of minutes or even a couple of hours. It might take several days; it might take a week, or more. That’s all right. No one knows your story as well as you do. The solution to your problem resides in your mind. It might be deep in your hind brain, but it will emerge in time. Be patient, don’t lose hope. You’ll figure this out.

Finally, keep these things in mind: First, writing is hard. The creative process is filled with moments of progress and inspiration, and also with setbacks and even crises. In other words, this is not a breakdown of the process, but rather part of the process. It’s normal. Second, if you have gotten this far with your project it’s because there is a story there. Your creation deserves your faith, your conviction that it is worth saving. Hold on to that. Your belief in your own work will see you through. And finally, remember that it’s okay to walk away from a stubborn narrative for a little while. Don’t give up on it. Never give up on it. But if it’s just not happening at the moment, turn to something else for a time. This piece will still be waiting when you’re ready to face it again.

Best of luck and keep writing!