In the Zone
Good ideas carry current, they spark my interest, they tug my heart strings, they turn me on. I categorize ideas by setting, character, problem, and plot–what I consider the basic ingredients of story. I can’t get out of my pre-draft stage until all four are humming with current. Some might add text as a basic ingredient, and while, yes, it does have an effect on the reader’s experience, it’s not the heart of the matter. Story is.
So I’m looking for current. What I’ve learned about a spark is that it’s like an electric jolt. Sometimes it’s very small, a little zzszt and it’s gone, sometimes it’s overpowering. Whatever it’s size, it’s the feeling of “cool,” “whoa,” or “oh, boy, this has possibilities.”
When the sparks combine in the right way I get into the writer’s trance. And I’m trying to do all I can to get into the writer’s trance. When I’m in the trance, the electricity is flowing, the ideas are coming, and I’m constantly thinking to myself: “Ah, yes, that’s what he’d do,” or, “Oh, man, yeah, this is what’s got to happen now,” or “Oh, baby, that’s perfect.” I can see the story roll out in front of me like a red carpet. And I write at high speed. Well, high for me.
Expect the Trance to Come and Go
But the fact is that while I may come up with a cool idea or six, start my story with a bang, move to the next scene or chapter (or even to the end), at some point something always suddenly pulls the plug, and everything grinds to a sickening halt.
I used to panic and tell myself I sucked. I didn’t have writer genes. Didn’t have the right personality type (I’m an ENFJ). God didn’t want me to write.
All that angst was just rubbish. That fact is that THE TRANCE COMES AND GOES. End of story. Don’t expect your process to work any differently. It’s just how it works. In fact, I don’t know any author who doesn’t experience this when writing a large project like a novel.
So when the trance goes, it just means I’m out of juice or am off-track.
It’s not a sign from the heavens.
No big deal.
It’s to be expected. I SHOULD run out of juice. I SHOULD get off track once in a while. Well, unless I’m not dedicating time. But then that’s something different.
The Four Trance Breakers, How to Identify Them, and How to Fix Them
So what I need to do is determine the cause of the block. If I’m out of juice, I do the things that get the juice back. If I’m off track, I try to determine where and how and how to get back on track. There are many trance breakers, including bonk-your-head-on-the-keyboard sleepiness, but the four below are the biggest breakers for me.
I’ve listed below how I tell which breaker I’m dealing with and what I do for each.
ISSUE 1: I’ve run to the end of my imagination–I’m out of juice.
SYMPTOM: I don’t know what supposed to happen next or what the characters are supposed to say or do. I literally don’t know what to write.
FIX: I’m out of zing. So I need to feed my imagination by going out and gathering sparks (research, doing takes on the question at hand which include lists, outlines, sketches, drafts or try of the many idea generators I’ve collected) and perform Creative Q&A (see the lesson in creative Q&A for more details). And I need to do it frequently and consistently. This most often happens when I don’t have the story, just a bunch of ideas.
Note: if I haven’t worked on a project for a while, then it WILL go cold. I WILL be out of juice. I can’t overstate the importance of spending lots of consistent time focused on the project.
ISSUE 2: I have a 3 grunt issue in the story
SYMPTOM: “3 grunts” refer to the three types of negative reactions (grunts) readers might have as they react to a specific part of your story. Orson Card describes them in his book Characters & Viewpoints. They occur when your story is unclear, unbelievable, or boring. So the symptoms of a 3 grunt issue is that I don’t care about or believe in what I’m writing. It’s dull to me. Instead of feeling excited or drawn to the story, I have to push myself to write. This is not the same as not knowing what to write next. I know what comes next, but it’s BOR-ing or just stupid and “made up.”
FIX: So I’ve developed something lacking zing. Big hairy deal. Something is better than nothing. What I need to do now is find the zing trail again. To do that I ask what my problem is–clarity, belief, or interest? Then I start a Q&A session to think up options to fix it (see the lesson in creative Q&A for more details). I’ll do sketches, lists, etc. Remember, my definition of creativity is asking questions and coming up with answers in many formats. So once I know, for example, it’s a belief issue, I ask what would make it more believable to me? And then I come up with solutions myself or borrow/steal them from others.
ISSUE 3: I am expecting perfection
SYMPTOM: It’s not good enough, not original enough. It’s not going to blow the competition away. I can’t compete.
FIX: Remind myself of this truth: no story is perfect. Every story has some blah spots. No story is loved by everyone. And if it IS crap, the best way to something tasty is through manure. So I produce piles of manure. Even if it isn’t good enough yet, the crap fertilizes the garden of my mind. Sometimes I’ll write a big section of manure–a few chapters. For example, on my first novel I knew the ending was cool but wrong for the book. I wrote it anyway. I had to cast that whole novel aside. But good grief–the beautiful things that grew out of that novel!
Please read what Thomas McCormack (28 years as the CEO and Editorial Director of St. Martin’s Press) said in his brilliant THE FICTION EDITOR:
An author needs a lot more than one person to succumb to his literarily seductive charms, but, like Saul, he must realize that he doesn’t have to—and indeed cannot—capture the hearts of every possible reader out there. No matter who the writer, his ideal intended audience is only a small fraction of all the living readers. Name the most widely read authors you can think of—Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens to Robert Waller, Stephen King, and JK Rowling—and the immense majority of book-buyers out there actively decline to read them.
For more on this, read up on farmer’s faith in the lesson on the principles of creativity.
ISSUE 4: I’m overwhelmed with the amount of work
SYMPTOM: I can never do this. It’s too big. Too difficult. It’s going to take six months and it just exhausts me thinking about it.
FIX: I’m going to detail a bit more about this one than the others because I have a whole lesson dedicated to creative Q&A. Here’s what I do.
1. Remind myself of these two things: a little each day adds up AND something is always better than nothing, even one minute of manure. Mary Higgins Clark wrote a little each day and became a bestseller. So have many others. And even if what I produce today is crap, that’s fine. It’s progress and I now know it leads to better things.
2. I break down what I have to do into small tasks that I can complete in a session or three with some larger deadlines. A task list is incredibly helpful. I use a traditional project work breakdown approach. So the main tasks of my writing novel process are:
a. Do pre-draft work, getting key ideas and sketches
b. Write drafts
I’m not going to worry about b and c until I’m done with a. So I give myself a deadline and list the tasks and subtasks for (a.) This grows more and more specific as I go along. I DON’T write EVERY POSSIBLE task out in the beginning. I just write those I see clearly and the list continues to live because I add tasks as I finish others.
For example, in the beginning I have these tasks:
–Sketch of possible plot problems
–List of cool things for magic
–List of cool things in setting
–List of cool things for characters
Now, I might finish all of them or add a bunch of other tasks. They will then get more and more specific as I go along, for example, I’ll have a series of tasks like sketching the main characters. Here was my list of character tasks at one point while working on LORD OF BONES.
2 younger brothers (very young still, toddler and 4 etc.)
And I had some things I needed to research:
o That linguistics name thing
o Thief catchers
o Policing and law in Middle ages
o Roman warfare
And I had a whole bunch of other tasks. The key to my pre-draft stage is to get to the point, not where I know everything and have crossed out every task, but I know enough that it’s time to write.
For me that’s having the characters sketched and with a voice that excites me, having the setting bascially down and bursting with coolness, and have a plot problem that’s totally interesting to me with the plot generally outlined and the first 100 pages in good detail. I have all four parts of story humming with zing.
3. At the end of every writing session I write the simple tasks for tomorrow. Here’s an example at one point while working on LORD OF BONES.
2. Names—girl etc. Especially for places. Just steal some of them.
3. Cultural effects of magic quick list
4. I have map shape, need to define major cities and areas. Give it big feel, Tolkien-like feel with places of mystery
5. History of area, just a quick list
That’s it. Standard project management stuff with a twist for flexibility because while some of the tasks are the same, many are particular to this project.
The key is having a bite-sized chunk to do right in front of me.
Have Faith, You’re Not A Moron
Please note: for me, the creative Q&A is a big part of many of the fixes. I do the QA session at the computer, while walking, hiking, driving, showering, doing the dishes. One particular issue took me about 12 miles over three days walking up a canyon by our house to finally get the solution that carried the zing. Sometimes I get stuck in the QA, I’ve run out of solutions (good and bad) to toss out. So I will try other QA methods–look at stories I might steal from, do idea generators, or let it sit and work on another problem and then come back.
The point is that these methods never fail me.
Of course, you might run into other issues that you must address. But if it’s one of these, have faith in the fixes specified above. You’re not a story moron. The fix will come and suddenly the lights will go back on, the music will begin playing, and the words will roll off your fingers.