1. How do you narrow down ideas and figure out which is workable? What elements while building a plot should I be on the look out for so I know if its feasible?
You don’t know if the plot will work until you write it. You’ve seen me show trunked material. It was trunked because we wrote about a quarter or so of it and the idea didn’t work, but nobody knew it wouldn’t work until it was actually words on screen.
In general terms, you are looking for escalation. The ideal commercial fiction plot is constructed with escalation units.
Character is presented with an obstacle -> character overcomes obstacle -> the triumph creates a new, even harder obstacle.
Indiana Jones makes his way through a Nazi camp and finds the site of the buried Arc of the Covenant only to be buried alive in it.
Character is presented with an obstacle -> character fails obstacle -> character scores a small victory.
The resistance obtains the Death Star plans, Princess Leia attempts to escape, fails, but manages to send a message to Obi-Wan Kenobi.
If you really want to do it, you can take just about any commercial narrative and break it down into escalation units stacked on top of each other. Now, nobody I know consciously thinks about their story in terms of escalation units. This is usually instinctively understood by the writer, but if you are having issues, try breaking your plot into these chunks. It can help you identify the slow moving parts of your narrative.
How do you deal with plots that begin from ‘issues’ while not letting political correctness take over the whole narrative?
Steven King said that if you want to preach, get a pulpit. So don’t preach or lecture the reader. Instead just show how the issues in the narrative affect your characters.
Your question doesn’t quite make sense without specifics. “Issues” to me would mean dealing with discrimination. That’s really the root of most social problems: someone is treated unfairly. It’s good to keep in mind that most of the time “political correctness” means going an extra step to not offend someone. There are people who get hysterical about it, because human beings do take things too far, but most of the time, it’s simple: don’t call people mean things they don’t like. Otherwise known as being polite.
If your character is a raging racist, he is going to use racial slurs. If your character is terrified because the world is changing and her instincts warn her that her survival is in doubt, she will lash out. Remember, we are driven by the need to survive. If we are surviving well, we will fight change. If our survival is in danger, we will fight for change. Make sure the character motivations make sense.
My writing question (if it hasn’t been done already) is how to avoid middle of the story slumps? I have a story I’ve been writing, and I have the basic plot planned out. I’ve got the beginning of the story done, and I know where/how I’m going to end it, but the middle of my story just….flops. I can’t get it to flow into the ending I see. I’ve rewritten the beginning, and changed the ending, but no matter what I do, I can never get past the middle for some reason. This isn’t just limited to one story I have either, it happened with another too! Is there anything to prevent this?
A story is a logical chain of events. Your logic faltered somewhere. I can’t really tell you specifically where, but if you want, write a brief – one to two pages – outline, keeping it very simple and we will look at it. Be warned, if it’s a mess, we will tell you it’s a mess, so make sure you can handle the risk.
Do you love the grind every single day? Or, do you get writer’s block sometimes? If yes, how do you deal with it? If no, does having the occasional writer’s block mean that one shouldn’t be a writer and look for some other purpose in life?
Yes and no. Writer block usually happens for three reasons.
First, the story isn’t working and you are trying to force it to work. Deep inside you know it’s not working and you are resisting. Writing, like most creative endeavors come from a place of play.
Second, your emotional state is in sharp conflict with the story. If your relative is in ICU, you are not likely to be in the mood to write a hot sex scene. We are human beings.
Third, you are just too damn tired.
Having occasional writer’s block doesn’t mean you should stop writing. It may mean you might want to take the second look at a story you are writing.
Here, read this article. It will make you feel better. When I read about him spending years on a 3 page prologue, I called Jeaniene Frost, read it out loud to her, and then we both laughed hysterically for several minutes. This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read.
As someone who loves reading fantasy, I always wonder how do authors keep from self-censorship? I have tried writing, but I always think that what I’m writing is too silly and give up.
Give yourself permission to write crap. Just tell yourself, “Today I am going to write utter crap and I will enjoy myself.” And go for it.
Your editor is getting in the way. You can’t edit and write at the same time. Focus on enjoying the writing itself. Doesn’t mater if it’s silly, unpublishable, been done before, etc. Just write cool stuff to amuse yourself. And don’t look back until you are done.
Wow, so I always want to be respectful of artist’s choices, because…. But I have to admit, after reading that article, I am more than a tad confounded about spending years on a three page prologue. Huh.
As a lifetime, fully emotionally invested member of the BDH with a serious IA bibliocrack addiction, I definitely prefer our AL’s writing style. I can’t imaging getting one installment of Innkeeper once every 2.5 years …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Sorry, I needed a moment. The thought made me nearly have a stroke.
Theoretically you could still have an installment every weekend. … it would just be comprised of a single letter each Friday. Or, ocassionally, a splurge of a whole word! XD
Mary Beth says
Glad to know I’m not the only person who’s brain locked up reading the article. Yikes.
I am not a writer, but your advice is useful for any type of conversation. In an interview you are asked to describe a problem you had and how you solved it .
Using your advice, it helps you to break down the steps to state the problem, what was your thinking process to solve the problem, and did you successful solve the problem.
It’s always enlightening to hear your thoughts on writing. I think it makes me a more thoughtful and hopefully smarter reader.
And I cannot forget to mention how important the extra touches are to make your characters come to life .Nevada uses essential oils to relax. Martha makes honey muffins. Kate makes apple pie, with special apples .
Recently you wrote a scene with Nevada and Rogan, and Nevada freaks out because they are wearing the same outfit . It’s a problem because Nevada is going to meet her future mother in law .
That’s the detail that I love and now expect .
Thank you and looking forward to that meeting.
Jean Morgan says
barbie doll says
After reading about some of the issues in writing a coherent story I am glad that I have no desire to write anything. I am also very glad that others write so that I may read their writing. As a member of the BDH I am glad that you know your craft.
Beautifully stated! Thanks for expressing what I also thought, better than I could have.
William B says
It’s nice you two take the time to give back by providing some mentoring advice.
Ilona and Gordon’s answers are always spot on.
In addition, one of *the best* columns on this subject (which matches Ilona’s point completely) is written by Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean fame) over on his site for writers… the site is called Wordplayer (www.wordplayer.com) and the specific article which also uses Indiana Jones as an example is titled “Impressive Failure” — link here: http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp08.Impressive.Failure.html
Terry started off writing free columns over on AOL (yes, I’m old) and then migrated them to this site years ago to help writers. I don’t know if the forums are still alive over there–they were always more screenwriting focused, but this specific column (and a few others) translate really well to novels as well.
I met Terry once at a part at his house, and he’s one of the nicest, genuinely-wants-to-help kind of people, just FYI. 😉
Oh my gosh, the SES bit in the article is so spot on! I laughed.
The impressive failure has given me something to really think about for the NaNo outline I’m working on. I expect there to be a fair bit of failing for my heroes early on.
Patricia Schlorke says
Years on a 3 page prologue?! Ookay. If I did that when I did my dissertation, I would not have graduated. 😀 I agree with Ilona with writing crap. There was a section of one of my introductions (I did two papers with two different statistical analyses in them) I got stuck. I mean in the mud up to the knees stuck. I couldn’t get the words out that made any sense. So, I wrote crap stuff and read it to my mom (she was my sounding board). She told me “read what you wrote again”. I did, and she said “if you change out the wording in the middle, it’s fine.”
So…when in doubt, write crap. 🙂
“Just write cool stuff to amuse yourself. And don’t look back until you are done.”
Best advice ever. I needed to see that. I enjoy writing scenes and little stories, but I am hyper-critical of myself. Who cares if it’s unpublishable silliness? Write what I like and enjoy the creative process.
Worry about whether it can become something publishable after I’ve had fun getting my thoughts on the page. And if not? Then at least I had fun!
For the record, if you guys were to offer a one-week writing course, I would totally be in, no matter where the class was held and quite possibly no matter how much you charged.
And that wasn’t in any way a hint. Nope, not at all. Wouldn’t want to add more work for you. (However, now that the thought is in your head… )
Love this idea! The answers to questions are so down to earth and easy to understand. I wish the instructers in a couple writing classes i’ve taken in the past broke things down so concisely.
I read the article and thought, that man has an obsessive personality. Or maybe masochistic. I can’t imagine being bogged down for years on any project – toss it if it’s not working out and do something else!! What a waste of precious time.
Allison T. says
Maybe set it aside, but please don’t toss it! If you delete it, you’ll probably never be able to come up with that exact scene again. Text files take up almost no space on your computer, so why not chuck it in a “maybe someday” bin?
I have a folder that’s traveled across four laptops so far (and now lives in cloud storage), just for bits of things I got stuck on and put away.
Stuff that could maybe work, but doesn’t right now. And little standalone scenes/characters that didn’t fit in anywhere. I even have a file for names too good to forget.
You never know when you’ll be going through your normal day and get a “lightbulb” moment, thinking of what one of those bits might be good for. Maybe its own story, or worked into something you already have going.
It can also be helpful to read through them when I sit down to write and my brain goes DURRRR… HOW DO WORDS?
Helps get the creative juices flowing. Sure, most of that folder will probably never be seen by another human being. But the handful of things that will, I’ll be glad I’ve kept. And until I’m done writing forever, that folder’s not going away.
I once was inspired with a scene, dialogue and everything, but it was not in sequence so I did not write it down… so far, I’ve been a pen and paper writer, then type the finished result, though not with the online things. Instead I struggled with writing the beginning which really fell flat and forgot that scene… there is such a difference with writing as inspired versus trying to remember what you thought. End result was I did not have a story at all!
If there is a next time, whether it be kept in a folder on or off the computer, even if it may be a scene in the middle or end of a story, I plan on writing it down, capturing and keeping it so it could be used in a story, hopefully one the actually gets completed!
That does raise the question… does Ilona Andrews, or others, sometimes, or often, get things out of sequence where it is included in the story at the right place at a later time?
Ms. Kim DeBois says
Would that fall under the category of only one good book in them? Kill a Mockingbird
“You can’t edit and write at the same time.”
Thank you! I really needed to hear that, it’s definitely what is bogging me down.
Yep! So true, and such an easy trap to fall into…
I’m…I have no idea where my post disappeared to…but I’d like to clarify this strange post….it should have said “thank you so much for this post. It helps, and this series of posts speaks to my soul so much. Thank you both! I also may have said I love you two in the last post…but I meant it in a non creepy way…thank you so much for helping us out.
Laura Alford says
Thank you for permission to write crap. It seems like this is something I have to get renewed annually— like a brake tag/inspection sticker.
d LM a says
Leanne Ridley says
Some wonderful writing tips and advice – thank you! (and I’m sure the person(s) who asked the questions thank you too)
Thanks for this! Your answers have given a lot of great food for thought! I honestly think the hardest thing is to shut up my inner editor long enough to write anything. The few friends I have pitched my story ideas to have been after me for years to write them down but I always fell short. Usually I would got stuck on plot structure or just not be able to focus enough to write. I have ADHD.. and so focus/perfectionism have been life long issues for me. I struggle with self confidence as well. That’s something I have finally come to accept about myself. So the advice to just play is so incredible to me. Thank you so much!
I’m going to just play, dammit!!!
I’d love to see all of the writing questions you’ve answered in the blog (and elsewhere) compiled into a Q&A book. I’m willing to bet that your foray into non-fiction would result in a strong seller with longevity because the fundamentals of writing are timeless and a book that can demystify the writing process and help authors move past roadblocks is a rare and sacred thing. I’m also willing to bet that the BDH would embrace it too because you make the process make sense and that heightens the readers appreciation of the written material they hold in their hands giving them a second way to savor their favorite books.
Also helps me understand why I don’t like certain authors (apparently I hate forced characters whose motivations make no sense. Who knew). It’s just really cool to have a window into the process. Thanks!
Thanks for breaking it down for us. This process could be applied to a lot of creative endeavors.
I immediately reading your first reply also applied that to character development. Very few people like mr perfect superman characters(especially heroes/heroines), the best ones are always highly flawed ones overcoming flaws or making their flaws work for them. The humanizing factor, all humans are flawed.
Thank you for these posts! I share them with my writer friend and they have helped her tremendously
Escalation units? Never thought of it that way, but it sure does fit the type of book I like to read! And the cartoon Ilona’s thought bubbles are, like, every frustrating work moment, ever! Though w a writers twist, hee hee
Adding my thanks for the writing blogs! I wrote some fanfiction many years ago and really enjoyed it, also got feedback and made some friends I still keep in touch with after all these years… one from Denmark, another from South Africa. I wrote under the movie Hannibal with the penname FantaC on fanfiction.net
It is a good way to get your feet wet with writing and also reading some stories that are worthy of being published, among others that are not that good, but any age or person is able to post on that site so results may vary. It may also help to write into something that already exists versus coming up with everything on your own, though I did add my own characters into the mix.
I’m sure many of the BDH have seen a movie, show, or read a book that inspired a story or scene in that world, an I wish that would have happened moment… well that is the premise of fanfiction, people writing those scenes and stories, then posting it. Comments and feedback vary and it is not by professionals, but anyone who goes on to write and/or read. There have even been authors who are published who started there. The biggest thing is it is a platform that some may find helpful and fun.
Thanks again for the advice!
Don’t worry about us and Innkeeper. We’ll survive. After your house is prepped to your satisfaction, have a glass of wine and maybe stuff some cotton in your ears to make it difficult to understand the lecture.?
Enjoy your family, even when they’re difficult, they’re all we’ve got!
With any luck, dad will be too tired to do more than kiss you and roll into bed. My folks never did much more than that after long trips anyway. Best wishes!
BTW thx for previous useful info. Doing call center work from home right now becuz of health issues. Bought my first headset. Made sure it was dragon compatible. Werking.
Just wanted to say no worries on the Innkeeper installment. Family trumps anytime, especially family that you don’t get to see often. I hope you have a wonderful visit and things aren’t stressful.