A Conversation between Critique Partners: Maintaining Passion for a Story
So last week, Sarah J. Maas wrote a post about world-building (that I chimed in on). As she mentioned, we talk A LOT during drafting, and our methods of creation are—at least in some ways—very similar. One thing we both agree on is this idea of a magical source of inspiration (i.e. daemon, genius, muse, collective unconscious, God, etc.). Is it really magical? That’s up to you to decide, but there’s undeniably something incredible at work. When you’ve got the Right Story, the words will pour out of you as if from somewhere (or someone) else. And when you’re not telling the Right Story or you hit a road block, the words...just...won’t...come. Well, the more Sarah and I write, the more we get in touch with our own creative processes—and the better we get at calling up our muses on command. Why should we have to wait for some fickle spirit to give us the right story? It should obey US, by golly! [box type="note"]Note From Sarah: Sooz and I have constant debates about what our daemons/muses look like. Sooz imagines some pleasant little pixie helping her along, while I usually see mine as one of the spirits that creeps out of the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones. ...Have we mentioned that we’re kinda/definitely crazy?[/box]
We all know this scenario: you’re steaming along with a new idea, it’s flowing and you’re feeling great, and then...you’re just not. Maybe you hit a scene in your outline that you have no desire to write. Maybe you just don’t have any idea what needs to happen next. Either way, you’ve lost the flow and you no longer feel good at all. Perhaps you want to toss this MS aside and work on a different Shiny New Idea. Perhaps you want to lie in bed and eat ice cream all day. Or perhaps you just want to stop all together, and this MS will get thrown on top of all your other half-finished ideas. So, in the style of last week’s post, we’ve come up with the 4 steps to get your inspiration back and maintain enthusiasm for your story.
1. First, recognize you (or your Muse) have a problem.
For outliners: Sometimes what you’ve got planned—or what you’ve already written—just isn’t right. You need to get your characters from point A to point B, but the plan you had for doing that just doesn’t feel right. You have ZERO interest in writing the scene and you circle around the computer, avoiding the keys. Some might just say, “Suck it up and write it.” But there’s a flaw to that logic: if YOU’RE not enjoying what you write, it translates on the page. Your words will be boring; they will be flat; and they will be as unenthusiastic as you are. And they will probably be all wrong. Remember this lesson, guys, because it is literally the most important lesson I have ever learned during my writing life: If you don’t enjoy what you are writing, you are not writing the right story. Okay, so you’ve accepted that where you were headed isn’t right. Move on to step 2. For pantsers: Sometimes you get stuck and you have NO IDEA what needs to happen next. No clue. You have just written your characters into a corner or into a room so vast and empty you can’t see a way out. You’re no doubt feeling lost and frustrated. As above, if you don’t enjoy what you are writing, you are not writing the right story. Stop writing—at least for a moment. You’ll probably just end up wasting words (and time) as you write yourself in circles trying to find that elusive solution. Now move on to step 3.
AN EXAMPLE FROM SOOZ: This is a small scale example, but I’m in the midst of drafting a new book. I reached a scene last week that I just didn’t feel like writing. Basically my two heroines wind up on a ship, and then one of them uncovers a monster. I tried planning out the same scene point-by-point and approaching it from different angles…but soon enough, I had to accept this just wasn’t the right scene to come next in the story. So I stopped writing.
2. Decide if the issue is on a scene-scale or story-scale.
Sometimes it isn’t just the current scene that isn’t working. If you’re trying to get characters from Point A to Point B, the problem might actually be that the Point B you planned isn’t even the right place. Or it might be that the Point A you had already written wasn’t quite right either. To decide HOW BIG your issue might be, listen to your gut. Even if you could skip all the in-between scenes, are you actually excited to write the Point B scene when you eventually get there? If not, then you need to let go of what you had planned—and not just this scene, but the next bunch of scenes. Possibly your entire outline. It’s okay; nothing you might have planned/written has been wasted; you will be glad you just let it all go. Now proceed to step 3.
AN EXAMPLE FROM SARAH: This pretty much happened to me with my current manuscript. I had about 65k written, but very little of it felt exciting, fresh, or fun for me. The whole story WORKED on an outline level—I could technically get my characters from Point A to Point B. But the story didn’t make me come ALIVE in any sense—I was writing it on autopilot, and it wasn’t FUN. The whole story was Broken.
So, I stopped writing it. For months. And daydreamed—a lot. And then, one afternoon, I talked with Sooz for HOURS about what was wrong with my manuscript—I explained all the things that had been making me feel dead and bored and miserable. And during those hours, we decided I had to do two things: 1) Start from scratch, and 2) Completely re-envision the way I saw the book, from the characters to the settings to the plot. And once we hammered out the basic details of it, I was EXCITED. Giving myself permission to let go of that functional-yet-dead manuscript was SO liberating that my creativity just EXPLODED again. And since then I haven’t been able to stop writing.
3. Identify WHY your scene isn’t working.
What is it about the scene that you don’t like? Can you pinpoint why you don’t want to write it? And what information MUST still be kept—what can't you cut out? This step might take time and it will require a lot of thinking. A lot of looking at the scene in the context of what you’ve written, what you plan to write, and what you want to achieve with your story. Once you know, though, move on to step 4.
SOOZ: With that scene idea I mentioned in step #1, I immediately let go of my outline and started to feel out WHY that outline felt bad. Ultimately, I decided it was because this current scene was too slow—I wanted/needed my characters to be moving along through the story and world more quickly. If I interrupted their forward journey with a glimpse of their sea-travels, I wasn’t reaching their destination fast enough. Plus, there was no movement of the main, external plot.
BUT, I had to show this monster for later scenes...So my issues were clearly a matter of forward momentum in the main plot. Now all I had to do was figure out how to FIX that without cutting the monster idea.
4. Get your creative juices flowing...
Look at images/books/movies/music that you know get you excited to tell stories. Sarah and I both are HUGE fans of Pinterest for inspiring art. We also love movie scores and classical music—not to mention movies, TV shows, and (of course) books. You can find ideas everywhere! As they say, “steal like an artist.” What is it about an image or song or story that really resonates with you? And how can you infuse that into your own work?
SOOZ: For my scene that I knew wasn’t working (see #1), I pulled out my go-to music for this WIP, curled up in bed, and daydreamed. As I sat there, I imagined the story and what I wanted to write—and what I wanted to write was more action and running and grand, sweeping adventure. I needed the pace to stay quick and the characters to move forward through this main plot...but I was also getting tired of my MC’s POVs. (Insert lightning bold idea here!)
Try talking out your story with someone (or writing it out in a journal). It’s EASIER if person you speak with is a fellow writer or artist—simply because he/she will understand how writing works—but anyone who is willing to listen will do. Or, if you’re not a talker, just writing out what’s holding you up can really help you move forward.
SARAH: I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that the current draft of my WIP is going so well because I have daily conversations/texts/emails with Sooz about it.
SOOZ: SAME FOR ME. I would not have nearly so much written in this WIP if it weren't for Sarah's enthusiasm over my story or her brain for idea-bouncing. I am seriously in awe at my own productivity these days.
SARAH: We are NOT like C. S. Lewis/Tolkien/The Inklings when we talk about this stuff. It’s more like...Shawn & Gus from Psych, plus lots of truly offensive/creative cursing.
ANYWAY, this week I was stuck on a “What Happens Next?” kind of scene—I needed some action to liven things up, but also needed to find a way to make it Meaningful. So, while gushing to Sooz about a news segment I saw about these Nile Crocodiles that live in underwater caves and how it’d be so cool to use that imagery/terror in my WIP, Sooz told me that crocodiles in underwater caves definitely did NOT fit into my fantasy world, but she’d actually seen this Really Cool Pin that might trigger some similar ideas.
I looked at the image, and totally lost my shit. ONE, because it actually reminded me of another creature/scene that I’d imagined for later in the book but thought I’d ultimately have to cut; TWO, because it totally fit with what I needed for that next scene & the overall plot; and THREE, because Sooz’s muse and mine clearly text/chat/email as much as we do, and it just felt...magical.
So we brainstormed about how I could make that scene work—the action, the character growth in it, how that creature fit into the world at large, how that creature impacted the larger plot...It all WORKED. And I was so amped to write it that I could hardly sit still. Without our chatting & creative exchange, that never would have happened.
Take a break. Sometimes, all you need is a few minutes/hours/days away from the keyboard to really let your brain/Muse do its behind-the-scenes work.
SOOZ: I usually walk my dogs. If that doesn’t work, I call up Sarah to blather about inane non-writing things. And if that doesn’t work, I read/watch TV. Eventually (usually at the most inopportune times) the lightning bolt ideas will strike.
SARAH: I make myself some coffee, walk my dog, maybe watch an episode of TV. If things are really going poorly, I’ll step away for a few days—read a lot, watch tv/movies, go do Normal Things in the Real World...Inspiration usually strikes when I least expect it.
Write by hand. I (Sooz), personally, live by this method, and I almost ALWAYS write part of a book by hand. My brain just works in a different way when I pick up a pen, and it sometimes allows me to free up whatever clog had been standing in my way.
5. Try short-handing the new scene or thinking it through.
Hopefully, something you did has given you some new ideas on where to go with the story. If you HAVE an idea, write it down before you forget (Sarah writes on ten bazillion post-its that scatter across her desk; I write in a spiral notebook)—and then try writing the actual scene. Or give the idea a gut check. Do you feel excited to write it? If not, move on to the next idea. Eventually, you’ll find the solution you need—and it might be as small a scale as simply tweaking a setting or it might be as big a scale as tossing out an entire story and starting over. But we promise: the right story is THERE. You just have to uncover it. And the more you manage to call your Muse out to play, the easier it will get for you to summon her (or him? It?) on demand.
SOOZ: My lightning bolt idea to solve the scene mentioned in #1 was to introduce a character earlier. He’s a POV character, and the forward plot momentum in his scene is strong. Plus, I wanted to write his POV now. It felt right. As I considered this and daydreamed his scenes, I began to realize I could introduce that important monster at the end of his scene—and have him step in to battle it WITH my heroines. That way, I skipped over the sea journey, showed that the external plot was still going strong, and introduced my important monster character. Plus, best of all, I couldn’t wait to write this new approach. And when I sat down at my keyboard? The idea POURED out of me, and the story resumed its muse-inspired flow. :)
So there you have it. It’s a basic approach to writer’s clog or a loss of inspiration. If you ever find yourself flagging in the middle of a draft, try out these steps! They certainly work for Sarah and me, so they might just work for you too! You tell us: Do YOU have a go-to method for summoning your fickle inspiration back? Or for staying enthused about a story as you write?