Banging my head against a brick wall

I’m sure many of us know the frustration of trying to write a book, only to run headlong into an impasse. The plot we’ve so carefully scripted comes apart at the seams; characters insist on developing themselves in ways we never envisaged; events take unexpected turns; and generally the book does things its own way instead of following our directions. Infuriating . . . but I think an experience shared by many writers.

I’m in the process of winding up just such a book, the fourth volume in the Maxwell Saga, ‘Stand Against The Storm’. It’s scheduled for publication within the next ten days to two weeks.

Stand Against The Storm - ebook cover - blog size - 350x518 pixels

I began outlining the plot and doing preliminary sketches in January last year, even before the third in the series, ‘Adapt And Overcome’, was published the following month. I’d initially envisaged my protagonist getting caught up in a natural disaster, and having to rescue a bunch of people. However, it just didn’t work. The more I tried to write it, the more it seemed to get bogged down. It didn’t flow, it wasn’t fluid, and it was immensely aggravating.

In utter frustration, I put aside the manuscript for a while and decided to tackle a completely different project in ‘pantser’ style: no pre-plotting at all, nothing whatsoever in mind, just start writing and see where it took me. To my surprise it flowed really well, and within 30 days (start to finish) I’d produced what became the first volume in the Laredo Trilogy, ‘War To The Knife’, published in June last year. I learned a lot from writing it, lessons I’m applying to current and future projects.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00006]

After LibertyCon in June, my wife and I had to prepare to move, as our housemate was getting married and we didn’t want to get in the way of the newlyweds. (Call it a modern application of Deuteronomy 24:5.) That was a very disruptive process, of course. I tried to revise the plot of Maxwell 4, but found it a frustrating and fruitless process. Twice I thought I’d broken through my ‘plotting drought’ and began to work on a manuscript, only to find that I was suffering a ‘writing drought’ instead. Nothing seemed to fit, nothing seemed to work.

I seriously considered abandoning this book and jumping three or four years ahead in the career arc I’d laid out for my protagonist, then returning to the ‘lost years’ in short stories or novellas in future. However, this seemed too much like a cop-out. I felt that I had to somehow beat this book into submission. I’ve never yet let anything beat me in other career fields; I’ve worked hard until I mastered whatever the obstacle might be, then moved on. I didn’t want writing to be any different.

My wife and I went on vacation to the Gulf Coast for two weeks in October. That was very refreshing.

Dawn on the Gulf Coast, October 2014, 500px

Sea, sand, sun and seafood (lots and lots of seafood, with the odd steak thrown in here and there) helped us both shrug off the fatigue of a very hard-working year. We came back refreshed and ready for the next challenge. I took my computer with me on holiday, and spent a few hours each day noodling at the plot of ‘Stand Against The Storm’, trying new approaches, seeing whether I could slot new elements into old features to make it work.

By November I was again getting frustrated. Every time I tried a variation on a theme, it ran into another brick wall, creatively speaking. In the end I threw up my hands and tossed out the old plot entirely. Now, instead of a natural disaster, my hero would face a military problem, and the planet on which he did so would be radically different. (As it happens, it would also slot much more conveniently into further books in the series; the Maxwell Saga should stretch to at least a dozen volumes, if I’m spared to write them.)

I also decided to try more of the ‘pantser’ approach that had worked so well for me in ‘War To The Knife’. I sketched out the plot in broad outline, but no more than that; then I started writing, trusting to events to unfold themselves within that context. I found myself backing and filling more than once, needing to discard a paragraph or even a chapter here and there; but by and large the approach worked. The result is a completed manuscript of almost 100,000 words, which is currently in final beta review and polishing mode. I hope to bring it out within ten days to two weeks from today.

I’ve learned several valuable lessons for future reference.

  1. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Don’t give up. Keep bashing away at that brick wall. You may develop mental calluses and writer’s cramp, but don’t let that deter you. Persistence is critical.
  2. Don’t paint yourself into a corner with your plotting. Leave plenty of room for elements to grow and shrink according to their own agenda (which they will express as you write them). Don’t think you’re the boss of your story and/or your characters. They have (and will express) minds of their own.
  3. Don’t be afraid to try new approaches to solve problems. If one or two don’t work, try one or two more. Sooner or later you’ll hit on an approach that works; but if you don’t go looking for it, you’ll never find it.

I think I must have written over 300,000 words for this book, of which only about a third will see the published light of day. Were the other 200,000 wasted? Not at all. I’ll apply what I learned through writing them to the next book. I have three more planned for this year (the Laredo Trilogy volumes 2 and 3, and the Maxwell Saga Volume 5), so I’ll have plenty of opportunities to do that.

31 Comments

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31 responses to “Banging my head against a brick wall

  1. Draven

    I dunno, when i ‘pants’ i end up with continuity problems, even in screenplays

    • @Draven: Sure, there are continuity problems. That’s what editing’s for. I find that when I complete a MS this way, I need to budget a week of solid hard work to iron out snags like that, smooth out inconsistencies, and get the manuscript as a whole “flowing”. Then, while it’s in final beta status, I read it through start to finish once per day for at least a week to ten days, making minor changes. By the time I get to the last couple of read-throughs, I find I’m “fiddling” rather than accomplishing anything of real importance. Two to three days of that, and I know it’s time to put it out there.

  2. Pat Patterson

    And while you were beating your head against a brick wall, there was another Wall waiting for me.
    That is: Walls, Wire, Bars, and Souls. I have a number of family members who are now or have been incarcerated, and have received the initial training necessary for becoming involved in prison ministry, along with my gift-from-God, happily-ever-after, trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant foxy praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA. A vast majority of those incarcerated are there because of drug offenses or crimes committed while under the influence, and my personal contribution to the ministry is that I have been sober since January 1, 1988. When I match up the prisoners’ rules for survival, in your chapter on Criminal Minds and Convict Culture, against the rigorous honesty demanded by the 12 step program that brought me to sobriety, I see that the survival strategies inside the joint are almost exactly the opposite of the program of recovery. It’s dismaying.
    Then I read about the miracle of change in Felix’s life, and I take hope. If it worked for one, then why not two?
    By the way, I found ‘Walls, Wire, Bars and Souls’ by accident, when my fat-fingers typing into Amazon’s search engine dumped me into a ‘trade’ section. And once I discovered it, I downloaded it immediately, so that I could read it immediately; and that means I stopped reading ‘Adapt and Overcome’ about a third of the way through. I’ll finish reading Walls today, and then return to ‘Adapt and Overcome’ , so I’ll post both 5 star reviews either tonight or tomorrow.

    • Thanks, Pat. “Walls, Wire, Bars & Souls” was very much a labor of love for me. I put a lot of my life into it. It’s never sold very well (not surprising, given its genre – there aren’t many high-selling books about prison life), but I didn’t expect that in the first place. I wrote it to help people understand what life is like behind high-security prison walls. From your comments, and from some by other readers, I think I achieved my goal.

      (On the other hand, look at some of the one-star reviews on Amazon.com. There are always those who refuse to look reality in the face, and think life should be what they want it to be rather than what it really is . . . )

      • I find myself with a certain dilemma. One of my cousins spent several years in prison, and I’m not sure whether he would appreciate that book or not. Do you have a general opinion on the subject? I know you can’t address the taste of an individual you don’t know, but I was wondering about the general case. The subject matter is not something I’m likely to be that interested in, but I may get the book for him.

        • @Wayne: I’m not sure how a former inmate will take it, because I’m clearly ‘telling it like it is’ I.C.W. inmates and their attitudes. He might find it unacceptably blunt – or deny what I have to say (I’ve had that a lot from inmates with whom I’ve worked, who refuse to confront the reality of their lives, attitudes, etc.). Under the circumstances, the only advice I can give is to read it for yourself, then decide, in the light of your knowledge of this individual, whether you think he’d respond well to it.

      • Pat Patterson

        Oh, yeah…I read the two one-star reviews, and BOTH of them admit first thing that they hadn’t even read the book! There outta be a law…
        But I over-estimated my capacity and didn’t take life into account, so I’ve only finished the ONE of your books today, and posted the review.
        But part of the reason that I didn’t get the rest of the novel read, is that I got distracted by your blog, and spent a couple of hours there. I was intrigued by the use of #4 wall anchors as .22LR snap caps. Vanessa got a Ruger SR22 for Christmas, and they say it’s fine to dry fire, but I dare not do so with my Buckmark Camper. I’ve had to replace a broken firing pin in a Buckmark before, due to dry-firing. I’ve used an expended cartridge to practice in the past, but the wall anchor looks like it’s a winner.

  3. Pingback: Nocturnal Lives » And the barriers come tumbling down

  4. I’m in the process of this with the WWI novel. I ended up writing the gaslamp fantasy/steampunk novel in the middle just to get an idea out and to let things rest. Now the WWI story has shifted, changed duration, but is coming together better. And I have a decent antagonist, perhaps. I suspect this will turn into a novel, several short stories and novellas, and a second novel. Once everything gets unstuck, that is. As you say, Peter, I had to shift back into pantsing from plotting to get things to move.

  5. I am a pantser from the start. I get an idea and see where it takes me. Even when I think I know the story, the characters throw me for a loop. I figure they know a better story than I do, and I let them tell it. I can’t wait to be a s proficient as you, but I’m still working on my first book (which has morphed under my editor’s eye into four books), though it’s a lot different from what I intended. So I feel for you, and can’t wait to get so organized as to write three books a year.

  6. Peter, you had me at “Banging my head. . . .”

    You write it, we’ll buy it.

    Amusing story: Sarah Hoyt was asking for authors we’d discovered. I suggested you. And then Sarah told me she had a hand in getting you published in the first place. . .

    • Sarah is awesome! She’s also a good influence… or a bad one… wait, no, she provides sympathy and reassurance that the low-carb diet can be a lifestyle. So a good influence.

  7. I don’t know if better communication between the conscious and subconscious mind would help writers or hinder them. We need both the intuitive rush and the analytical story organization to make a story really work. I think most writers, once they’ve internalized the necessary structure of a story move strongly to pantsing, and get the conscious mind out of the way.

    In the course of a story, I tend to bounce back and forth. Rip out a few chapters. Stop and realize I need a problem for this cool character to tackle, work out what it is and several ways to attack it and what I want the end of the story to look like. Then switch control of the fingers to the subconscious (who usually bears the name of the main character of the moment) and let him her or it go for it. Until a bit more organization is needed.

  8. I did that bang-my-head bit, took a break and wrote a novella. But Home, the third book in the Darwin’s World Series, was published a week ago.
    Now I’m trying two very different novels, both roughed in. Veil of Time will continue the trilogy I finished and turn it into a series, featuring a teenage girl hopping here and there through time while rescue efforts are being mounted; the other is a new take on spacecraft, a what-if in present time, but with an exploration of economic as well as science and technology themes. Ambitious…both books will require huge amounts of research to get them right.
    Not all bad…I like doing research.

  9. I’m in the middle of this process. I know what has to happen in this book, but I am frustrated in the details. I keep trying to introduce sub-plots and side quests, and I think I just need to go back, look at my original notes, and write the bare bones first and see what happens. If I can get the skeleton in place, I have a better chance of clothing it in appropriate flesh.

  10. I ‘pants’ to different levels. I almost always have a good idea of where I want to finish, and usually a general idea of how I want to get there. I do sometimes write out a plot, with what I want to happen in each chapter, as I progress through the book, but more than once I’ve ended up straying from that as I write and have to update it to match the story (or I just toss it).
    Book 4 of my current series I had written a few thousand words and then hit a wall, not because I didn’t know where I was going, but because I didn’t like how I got there.
    So I looked at the previous three books and realized where I had gone wrong, and started the story two weeks earlier, and in a whole different place. Then when I caught up to what I had already written, a minor re-write of that, and suddenly it all flowed much better. At this point I need to get another 25K words done if I want to meet my deadline of a March release date. Hoping to be in Beta by the end of the month.
    But yes, the point really is to keep writing. Save the stuff you don’t use, you never know when it may come in handy.

  11. I hit a wall in the revisions for The Steel Breeds True — I had a scene where several characters are coming and going, and could not get it to make sense. It looked way too much like the heavy hand of the author moving them into position because they needed to be there, rather than their individual motives bringing about their actions.

    After wrestling with it for a while, writing down everything I knew about the scene and querying everything I needed to know, sleeping on it, every trick I knew to shake an answer loose from the subconscious, I finally decided that I needed a break from it and pulled out another old novel to dust off. It’s in a lot better shape because the last time I worked on it was right at the end of the period where your choices were traditional or vanity, so I just need to do a rigorous hunt for typos and infelicities of prose, and then make sure the first chapter introduces the world at the right rate of speed: fast enough to maintain excitement, but not so fast to overwhelm.

    I’m hoping that getting a book done and up will help my subconscious unknot the problems with The Steel Breads True, because I’m starting to think that at least part of it is long experience with sharp disappointment, such that I anticipate yet another failure and something in the back of my mind is trying to avoid it by refusing to get to finished product.

  12. Peter I hope you will be at Lbertycon to sell me this one? 🙂

  13. Luke

    Commenting for comments.
    You have to comment before you can subscribe to a thread and get notifications of updates. If you’re doing this without anything to say, C4C fills the gap.

  14. Synova

    I’ve got to back up before I can go forward with what I’m working on. At least this time I know where I took the left turn. I had thought… it’s probably better if I can just keep this in a single POV so I followed the single POV where it went and now I’m… nope. It’s not better. I wonder how often I’ve gone the wrong way and not realized that I did, much less realized where I left the road.

  15. Laura M

    Every now and then, after I’ve deleted all my other email, the According to Hoyt and the MGC email titles stack and tickle. Today’s was So I’m Sitting Here (from ATH) followed by Banging My Head. This has happened more than once. 🙂

  16. Laura M

    I wrote three different starts to the sequel to my first book. I’m finally happy that I did that, because I think it’s much more exciting, but it hurt to keep trashing all that work.

    On a short story, I’m a little upset because my heroic billionaire sending art to Mars is turning out rather manipulative, and I don’t like him anymore. I’m pouting, but he’s indifferent.

  17. Pat Patterson

    Okay, Peter, I finished ‘Adapt and Overcome’ and posted the review on Amazon. That’s 5 of your works I’ve reviewed, which puts you in second place to Cedar, who has 6. Everybody else is at 4, I think. I’m having a hard time keeping up with you guys.
    Also, you book inspired me as to what to ask for for my 62 birthday in a couple of months. One of my favorite knives, a Condor kukri, was stolen by the guy who did my yard work. I’ve got a rough finish jungle version I got from Mad Mike Williamson, but I want a genuine service model, from Nepal.
    It’s clear you have a lot of respect for the Gurkha; did you ever work with them? My lone contact came from when I worked security at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The Nepal border guards provided a contingent, and gave one of the supervisors a hat with their motto: “Death Before Dishonor.”

    • Pat, take a look at the kukris from Himalayan Imports:

      http://himalayan-imports.com/

      They’re actually made in Nepal by local blacksmiths. I have one. Workmanlike blades, indeed.

      Yes, I had some contact with Gurkhas during a couple of overseas trips. Impressive people.

      Thanks for leaving the reviews, and I hope you enjoy ‘Stand Against The Storm’ even more than its predecessors.

  18. I’m somewhere in between a planner and pantser. I have a general notion of where I want to go, and some very vivid scenes in mind on the path there, but I’m very fuzzy about the connective tissues to get from the beginning to the end. So I sketch out some very general points of a dotted line, then start writing pieces in no particular order, then (it’s easy because I use Scrivener) kind of drag them around into the right order, and add or cut things as needed. I start relatives small, but sub-plots and extra threads of things kind of appear and wrap around it like kudzu trying to side-track the main plot-line. But, eventually, it all comes together more or less. but I’m a slow writer, and a slower reader, so it takes a long time to back and fill and what-not.

    Good article, Peter.