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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.