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Crossroads and Cul-de-sacs

January 15th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments
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So, I may have mentioned before about the values of A) Doing research, and B) Making things up as you go along.  A lot of my writing has been very improvisational in the past, and this obviously leads to having reams and reams of material where different routes emerge, almost as though I were writing some kind of long winded chose your own adventure book. 

Well, I’ve hit a bit of a snag with this.

reaching a writing crossroads

Unfortunately, not all crossroads in life are clearly marked. That's deep that. Image courtesy of Mark Smallwood

There are dangers to this kind of writing.  Both Matt and I have discussed this before, but I’d like to take a direct look at the dangers myself here (since I have recommended freeform writing in the past) 

The Dangers

Danger One of course is ending up with a hulking great brick of a manuscript – a tangled mess of various ideas which don’t really gel together and require massive amounts of redrafting.  This is obviously where having a plan comes in really handy.  Even if you have just a most basic outline, then it can help.  I discovered this while thinking about my first book.  Now this I have completed, and have redrafted many times.  But I have fiercely kept some material which I liked almost from draft one, and since the project has evolved, it doesn’t really fit together.  Now, do I work some magic and smooth it over, or do I amputate the (admittedly less mature) material in another huge overhaul?  I can’t even bear thinking about that.  But I’ll go into that more in danger three.

Danger Two is that you may get to a certain point and not know how to progress.  This is the danger that has hampered me with my newest project.  It’s the new book I was writing, which inspired me to write about improvisational writing in the first place.  Yes, I had a vague idea of where the whole story was going to end up, but having completed part one, I’ve stalled.  I have to get the story from point A to point D, but I have no idea where points B and C are, or what happens there.

So how to remedy this?  Brainstorm?  Come up with a plan?  Some writers would suggest that you do the latter option even before you start the project.  But what if, like me, you have all this material already?  You have the start, and you have the destination, so take some time out and plot out the journey.  Yes, that is the sensible option. 

But how about something more radical?  More out there?  More… foolish?  This struck me while thinking about it.  How about scrapping the destination altogether?  Yes, I knew where this was going, but that was when the journey first started.  Since I started writing, and new plots and characters developed, this ultimate destination seemed to get further and further away (which results in Danger One of course).  So screw the original plan and pick a new destination. 

As I said, very very foolish. 

Danger Three is multi-booking.  How do you see this project working out?  Now, I’ve never been a fan of trilogies for trilogies’ sake.  That was of course until I dove into my first book and yes, I get it.  Spending so much time, effort, energy, blood, sweat, tears and other less mentionable bodily fluids mapping out characters and situations, you can get attached.  And obviously, once you’ve gotten attached it can be hard to let go.  ‘Hey, I don’t need to!’ You might say, ‘I’ll just write another book with these characters.’ 

Which of course can be a blessing and a curse.  Obviously, if your aim is to get published, then it’s good to have ideas for more books down the line.  And let’s face it, its easier to write a second or third book in a world you’ve already mapped out, with characters you already know.  Publishers like this too, because if the first book is a success, then there is a pre-built fan-base for the second and so one.  But the curse of it?  How much do you plan out for the series?  Now this depends on genre.  With crime fiction, I’m guessing it’s a little simpler.  Establish your detective/detectives, then throw new cases at them every book.  I don’t think like that though.  Unfortunately, I’m all about the bigger picture.  It’s the one area where I will plan out in advance. 

So you have an idea for a multi-book storyline.  How much of it do you throw in to that first book?  If I can briefly divert into film territory here, film trilogies can do this a lot.  The first film in a trilogy can essentially act as stand alone (Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Back to the Future), while films two and three will often be one story split across two films, which you can’t really watch without having seen the others.  Can you do the same with books?  Well it’s a different medium isn’t it?  A film you digest in a few hours, a book can take anything from a few days to a few weeks.  So there is less room for (seemingly) extraneous material, especially in that all important first book. 

So how do you deal with this?  Personally, I have tended to map out the story for book two in a series (and even begun writing it) before the first book is even finished.  Yes, this is stupid, and pointless, and can definitely hinder you if you want to go mad and ditch the destination as I suggested in Danger Two.  But really, if you do have a multi-book idea, then you do definitely need to chart it out.  In detail.  Have an overarching plot that runs through all the books, and then introduce smaller plots that emerge in a book by book basis.  You cant just freeform a multi-book plot.  Trust me, I’ve tried in the past and it blows up in your face. 



Sometimes you just have to throw things out. Image courtesy of Sharon Drummond.

So this is where I am.  I am hitting dead ends everywhere, and am failing to see a way to progress.  Part of me deep down (a sick twisted part of me that I really shouldn’t listen to) is telling me that to take a time out and do some actual planning is dumb, because it’s time being wasted on planning, when I could be using that time writing.  But then, if I’m not doing the writing in the first place… 

Another part of me is telling me to just bin everything and start from scratch.  It’s all well and good moving chunks of text around to try and get them to all fit so you can open up a way forward, but it doesn’t help in really pushing me to progress.  Whereas if I got rid of all of those blocks, I might be able to see a path. 

A third part is telling me to take a step back, breathe, and next time I start a new project, make it something small and simple, two girls sitting on a beach or something.  No aliens, no government plots, and no multidimensional creatures intent on destroying the universe.