Saturday, 19 September 2015

When Your Best Laid Shemes Gang Aft Agley...

It was Scottish poet Robert 'Rabbie' Burns who first penned the phrase "the best-laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley." These days it sounds more like something a Scotsman might say after ten pints, but back then it meant "even the most carefully-planned plans can end up whooshing down the toilet when life gets a hold of them." Or as close as. And that's certainly what's happened to me over these past two weeks.

Remember how I had my outline for Draft Three of Redemption all ready to go, and I was eager to make a start and do this thing? Well, on that first Monday that's exactly what I did - out of those traps like a greyhound, so I was. When I went to bed that night I was happy I'd made a good start, and that, if I could keep that momentum up, I should finish draft three in a fraction of the time it took me to do drafts one and two...

...Except that, when I woke up the next morning, I was feeling... not so good. My right leg was so painful - from hip to toes - I could barely stand on it, never mind walk, and I was pretty sure I had a temperature. As the morning wore on the pain got worse, and by eleven a.m. I was lying on the sofa wearing a cardigan and shivering under two coats trying to keep warm (this is when it's a relatively mild 20 degrees c outside.) Obviously something was wrong, so I decided to ring the NHS Direct Line.

(For those of you not in the UK, that's a number you can ring to get medical advice from trained professionals before you head off to a hospital or ask for an emergency appointment from your doctor, to determine whether or not you really need to to do so. It was set up because the already overstretched and under-resourced hospitals were getting a bit fed up with people rocking up to their local emergency rooms with period pains and the flu. Yes, that was really happening.)

When I got through I answered all their questions about my symptoms, fully expecting to be told, at most, that I probably had some sort of virus and to take some paracetamol until I could get an emergency appointment with my doctor for some antibiotics. So I was more than a bit surprised when they said they were sending a couple of paramedics round to my house straight away. I was even more surprised when, after prodding me a bit and taking my temperature and blood pressure, those paramedics then radioed for an ambulance to take me to Pembury hospital. Blimey, must actually be something serious then. This was a diversion from my plans for the day, to say the least.

Less than twenty-four-hours later I was diagnosed with a severe form of cellulitis - and, with blood oxygen levels below 90% and a temperature hovering close to 40 degrees it was clear I wasn't going anywhere for a while. After a further seven days of being stuck with more needles than a shaman from one of those rainforest tribes Sting liked to hang out with back in the day, and intravenously pumped with so many different antibiotics I actually wondered if I'll have to spend the rest of my life living in a bubble-tent, I finally went home with strict instructions to continue the two antibiotic courses I still have left, and to spend as much time as possible with my leg elevated for at least the next couple of weeks, preferably 'above heart level.'

Having no desire to take up a career in a can-can line, this is why I'm now typing this with the offending leg propped up on a cooler box, at a not-particularly-comfortable 45-degree-sideways angle. 'Above heart level' is, unsurprisingly, not an option for this activity, but since the payoff is being able to write again, I'll settle for 'bum level' and to heck with it. Besides, I've had to deal with the knowledge that I Missed A Whole Week of Writing.

Before I began Redemption this wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest. A whole week of no progress on a writing project? Meh, so what, I got a busy life. But that was before I got serious about my writing; before discovering Chuck Wendig's website and reading his tough-love blog posts about finishing what you start, before drawing up a proper timetable for myself and treating my writing like an actual job that I showed up and clocked in the hours for. Now there was a gaping hole over a week wide in my time spreadsheet and it was bothering the heck out of me.

Of course I didn't spend the whole week doing no writing at all. Even in hospital I managed to scribble in a notebook after a few days (turns out a cocktail of intravenous antibiotics and morphine makes for some crazy-ass dreams, and there's no way I was going to let them disappear into the ether.) Besides, when you've read all the books you have with you and the only other alternative is watching The Jeremy Kyle Show... hell, I'd copy out the bloody phone book rather than put myself through that. But I never wrote anything to do with Redemption in my notebook - in fact, it's fair to say I wrote about anything and everything other than that. And yet, the feeling that I should be never left me.

What kind of rubbish, non-motivational guilt is that? To berate yourself for being a slacker on your w-i-p, but then blatantly not do anything to fix the situation? Maybe I felt there wasn't anything 'useful' I could handwrite in a notebook about Redemption. Maybe I needed a break from it for that week - particularly since I spent most of it feeling like utter crap, so most of anything I wrote would probably have been equally crap. Or maybe... some subconscious part of me decided I needed to step away from the actual writing of the thing, and spend some time just thinking about the writing of it instead. Because I certainly did a lot of that.

In every project - whether it's an architectural design for a building, the computer code for a software program or the order of events in a surgical procedure - there comes a moment when the person in charge has to step back and take a broad look at it from above, seeing the whole thing all at once from a godly overview. My moment for that just happened to coincide nicely with being very ill in hospital (or, more likely, forced me to take that moment at that time.)

Or maybe... it really doesn't matter and I should chill the heck out.

Do I need a boatload of excuses (even good ones) to justify taking a week off? Of course not. And that's what I've learned from this experience. Life just gets in the way sometimes - for all of us. And when that happens, beating ourselves up over the things we haven't achieved just saps our confidence when it comes to getting back on track. Everyone deserves a holiday at some point - yep, even writers. And while mine wasn't the kind to get me writing 'wish you were here' postcards to friends and family, it took me away from my normal routine for a bit (I certainly didn't miss the housework!) Once you have schedules and goals for your writing it's easy to pin all your expectations on them, so that falling behind even a little bit can feel like a downhill free-wheel to failure. It isn't. Just put the wheels back on and carry on trucking. Forget the past - tomorrow is another chance to start anew.

Even if you have to do it with one leg propped up on a cooler box.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

A 5-Step Process to Unsticking a Stuck Bit in Your Novel

As I've mentioned previously, I'm about to embark on a third draft of Redemption.

My outline is done, the Emergency Chocolate Supplies are stockpiled and - most crucially - my kid is back at school again, hurrah! I mean, god I'll miss him and the house will seem sooo quiet when he's gone. (And it genuinely will. Faced with the prospect of not hearing him bellowing to his best friend over Skype through his mike-and-headphone-combo, at a volume that suggests he thinks it's just for decoration and he actually has to shout loud enough for said best friend to hear him from several streets away.. yeah, I can feel that hurrah coming on again...)

I'm going to have a guess at what you're thinking now. "Third draft? It's taken her three goes to even get the basic story sorted out?" Um, yeah. This is largely because I pretty much pantsed it through the first draft and only constructed a proper outline for the whole thing after re-pantsing it to at least the three-quarter mark of the second draft. Not the best way to do it, so it turns out. Lessons have been learned - albeit the hard way, which seems to be how I usually do it. And part of creating the outline I now have for Draft Three was finding the problems in the story I had, and then figuring out a way to fix them.

Some were easy, because the problem was obvious. Others, not so much. I knew something wasn't working, but I couldn't figure out why or what I should change to put things back on track again. When you spend long periods of time looking at something from a close-up view you can get too familiar with what you're seeing, so you stop seeing it as weird or broken because it's become your 'normal.'  I had plot-holes I couldn't see how to fill in (or find an alternative way around), sub-plots I wasn't sure I should include and characters suddenly demanding bigger roles in the story than I'd planned for them at the start. And for those problems, sitting down at my computer in front of my w-i-p and pulling the text apart just wasn't enough.

Talking story problems out with another human can be a good option - particularly if that human is a fellow writer. But sometimes that's not possible. If the only other fellow writers you 'know' are online, there's a delay to the whole 'talking' process - and it might be that the people in real-world, close proximity are either not interested in discussing your latest w-i-p or... let's just say they're less than ideal for the purpose. That's a position I've been in at least a few times since I started Redemption, so it was clear I needed to have some way of figuring out problems for myself - at least until getting to the beta-reading stage. Luckily, through a process of trial and error, I found one. And I'm sharing it here today because I thought, if it helped me, it might help others too.

Step One - Walk away from the work.

Yes, you read that right. Like a partner who's pissed you off, to get right down into the gory guts of the problem you need some time apart. That means walking away from the computer or whatever word-crunching machine your w-i-p is stored on, or the notebook and kitchen table if you still handwrite everything (you cute little quirkster.) Don't just leave the room, leave the house. Go somewhere outside - a public place where there are lots of other humans, all going about their business and none of them particularly interested in what you're doing ('cause they're not, you know - even when you do your very best to look all writer-ly.) What you need is a new environment, somewhere completely different from your usual writing space, and filled with the kind of 'white noise' of busy people all doing their own thing. Cafes are good, since the seating is comfy and  - well, coffee and cakes, yeah? Other options include libraries (handy for any impromptu research) and local parks if the weather allows. But before you go, make sure you take these things with you:

- a blank notebook. Because you will be doing some writing.
- at least one nice pen, for the same reason. Just the one is fine, or you might like to make notes in different colours for different categories of notes. Your call.
- something to spark your mind for your warm-up exercise, which I'll get to next. One of the best things I've found is a series of books called 642 Things To Draw, where an object or one-word concept is given and a blank space left below for you to draw that thing - except, as a writer, instead of drawing it, you write about it. (They also do a series called 642 Things To Write About, but they're more like a collection of traditional writers' prompts that encourage ideas for stories. They're great for when you're looking for that, but too much of a distraction for our purposes now.) If you don't want to splash out on one of these though, you could take a newspaper or magazine - or don't bother if you're going somewhere that's likely to have signs or promotional reading material (cafes have menus, for example.)

Once you've arrived find yourself a comfy place to sit, where you're not likely to be disturbed or told to move on (another good reason for coffee and cake in a cafe.) And then...

Step 2 - The warm-up exercise.

This is important for two reasons. First, it eases you into the right frame of mind to pick the problems in your novel apart in a public place with noise and general hubbub around you. I don't know about you, but I always have this slight worry about looking.... we-ell, a wee bit pretentious, poring over a notebook and looking all studious in full view of people having a laugh and a gossip over their paninis. (I know, it's ridiculous; in reality nobody gives a monkey's what I'm doing.) So doing this first is a way of getting comfortable with doing something that nobody else around you is doing, before getting down to the part where, if you're anything like me, you're going to be pulling a lot of faces and laughing/tutting/sighing to yourself.

And secondly, it gets your brain into the right creative frame of mind; an abstract, random-thoughts mindset that doesn't necessarily grab for the logical by default (this is why the Draw books I mentioned above work better than the Write books for this exercise.)

Take your one-word prompt from the Draw book, or a single word from the newspaper of magazine you brought, or a single word from a sign or menu around you, and write on that subject for either: ten minutes, a whole page of your notebook or the size of the designated space in your Draw book.

(This is why it makes sense to pick a noun or verb as your single word, unless you really think you can wax lyrical on the subject of 'and'...)

Don't stop to think about what you're writing, don't go back to read anything you've written and don't reject any of the things that come into your head to write about - just let it all pour out without censoring or mentally editing it. You might only need to do this exercise once to get 'in the zone,' or you might want to have a few goes at it. Whatever it takes to get you feeling comfortable and ready to tackle the next step, which is...

Step 3 - Identify the problem.

Well duh, yeah, I hear you cry. No, I mean you need to drill down, be specific. For example, 'I can't get from this bit of the plot to the next bit' isn't specific enough, you need to look at what's causing you to have that problem. Why can't you get past it? Do other things need to happen before the two plot points will connect? It doesn't matter at this stage if you don't know what those things are, just knowing they're missing is enough. Alternatively, perhaps you now can't use the ideas you had for this part of the plot because they're not plausible any more; perhaps something else happened earlier in the plot that now makes what you were planning to do at this point seem far-fetched or out-of-character for the people involved. Write it down in your notebook, and then read it back. If what you've written generates a new question - why, how, where, when, who - write that question below it, and then write down whatever answer comes to you. Keep going with that; reading what you've written, writing down any questions that arise from it and the writing down answers to those questions, until you feel you've reached a point where can't drill the problem down any further. Here's an (albeit generalised, because - spoilers) example from my w-i-p:

PROBLEM: I need a reason for the bad guys to have suddenly 'picked up' on the heroes location right now, just as the heroes believe they've contacted someone else to help them.

QUESTION: Is there anything already existing in the plot that would enable them to do that?

PROBLEM: Yes, but that only works within a twenty-yard radius. The heroes are well out of that range at this point.

QUESTION: So what's needed is something that works from a further distance - about a mile radius or something?  How would the bad guys suddenly get this ability?

ANSWER: They've always had it - but it should only kick in at this very specific point in the plot.

QUESTION: Why wouldn't it have kicked in before? What would've stopped it kicking in?

THAT'S THE PROBLEM! I need something to happen that suddenly 'triggers' the bad guy's ability to be able to track the heroes down from a much greater distance, that they weren't able - and had no motive - to use before this point.

The trick is in writing it all down like this in your notebook, because just thinking or talking about it is like mist in the air; there's nothing to grab on to. Writing it down forces you to make it real, something you can see right in front of you (like an IKEA flat pack, but with more available floor space.) And once you've done that, you're ready for the next stage...

Step 4 - Reconnaissance

Now it's time to make some lists.

First list: what else is going on in the scene where our problem first raises its gnarly head? Where are we, who's here, doing what, to and/or with whom? Put down everything, even the seemingly insignificant details - "Fred takes off the band-aid on his hand from his earlier accident with the tin-opener and replaces it with a clean one."

Second list: what's happened in earlier scenes that are - directly or indirectly - causing these things to happen in this scene now? So for Fred's band-aid adventure, for example, you would certainly include the tin-opener accident - but you might add that it happened because Fred is left-handed and therefore somewhat clumsy with a tin-opener (I'm a southpaw too, so I know that pain.)

Third list: what is likely to happen in the future as a result of what's happening now? These might be things you already have scheduled in your secret diary of plot happenings (because they're all part of your master plan bwah ha haaaa...) but equally they can be things that only occur to you now, as you write the previous two lists. To pick on poor Fred again, perhaps his leftied ineptitude extends to applying Band-aids as well, and as a result his wound turns sceptic and his hand falls off. Write it all down, no matter how crazy or plot-ruining it sounds (in fact, if it is a potential plot-ruiner I'd argue you have even more reason to write it down, as you may have just inadvertently discovered a new problem you didn't even know you had. You're welcome.)

And the final list: what needs to happen in your plot - both to get past your problem and to keep the story as a whole working? This will probably include some of the things you've already listed, but don't stop there; go deeper and look between the lines of what you've already got for new angles that maybe you haven't considered yet. This is to identify things that are non-negotiable; changing them, cutting them down or removing them completely is not an option because the whole plot would fall apart. You can then take this into consideration when you move on to the next part...

Take those lists and go through each item on it. Do any of them have any effect - direct or indirect - on your current story problem? Does anything actually prevent your problem being solved - or could anything actually be used to help solve it? It's surprising how many seemingly insurmountable problems get fixed this way; the one I used as an example in Step One was fixed by getting to this stage of the process, as I realised ramping up a reaction already occurring between two characters in a scene would change the game in a crucial way.

Has this helped you solve your problem? Great! Or maybe it hasn't. In which case, there's one more step you can try...

Step 5 - Switch it up, flip it around

If you get to this step, it's a good indication you can upgrade your problem from minor to major - which means you're gonna need to do a lot of work to fix it rather than just a few sneaky plot tweaks here and there. Yep, we're talking major rewrites I'm afraid. Don't do that face. You've come this far and you're a writer - you can do this.

Still got your lists from Step 4? Good, because you'll need them again. This time, take each item on each list and use it to make another list - only this time, we're going to change it up. First write the opposite of each event, and then write as many different alternatives to it as you can think of. Let's grab Fred and his tin-opener accident again for an example. Here's what we originally had:

Fred cuts his hand trying to open a tin, because he's a lefty-paw and tin-openers were designed for right-handed people.

The opposite of that might be... well, Fred doesn't cut his hand, because even though he's a lefty-paw he is world bloody class at opening tins. Or... Fred does cut his hand, because he's actually right-handed after all and some heinous monster swapped his normal tin-opener for one of those so-called 'left-handed' tin openers!

Both of which, I think you'll agree, are pretty crap as alternative scenarios go. So let's change it instead. What if... Fred got the cut on his hand when his girlfriend threw a tin-opener at him in a jealous rage? Or maybe it wasn't a tin-opener - maybe it was a glass... or a knife? Maybe it wasn't his girlfriend - maybe it was a contract killer, hired to wipe him out? Maybe his hand wasn't cut after all, but injected with nanobots that his evil nemesis can remotely control, causing him to do things with that hand completely against his will? Hmm... erring more towards bonkers now, but it's interesting so this is good...

Go nuts - anything and everything goes. And yes, that includes all those sacred items on your list that you previously marked as non-negotiable. Could be that it's one of those very things that's causing your problem - and if you've got this far I bet you'll have a sinking feeling that's true already. Keep doing it with all the items on all of your lists, and something should eventually click. In fact, quite a few things might click all at once. You may even end up with a radically different plot from the one you originally had. But that's not a bad thing. It's a lot of work ahead of you, for sure - but you're a writer so it's not a chore. It's just a brand new story, sitting in a pot ready for you to cook.

I really hope this 5-step process helps anyone who's wrestling with the roadblocks and wrong turns that every novel can occasionally hit. It's not perfect by any means, and I'm always up for any other suggestions you guys might have. Writing a novel is hard - and the only way to truly know that is to actually try and write one. And to keep on doing it anyway, because we love it. We're kinda crazy like that.