Six impossible things

What I’m Up to

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a conference call with my editor and agent. One thing led to another, and I now find myself mostly-committed (i.e., I don’t actually have a contract, but the backbrain is moving ahead full steam anyway) to a totally new project on the basis of a what-a-cool-idea conversation.

This sounds great, and is in fact what a lot of folks think writing is all about: you have this terrific idea, everybody goes bananas for it, you write it and sell it (or sell it and write it, depending on how far along you are in your writing career) and presto, published novel.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually work that way. Oh, it is possible to have a terrific idea that everyone goes nuts for, and even to get a book contract on the basis of such an idea, if one has a sufficient track record. The problem comes with actually writing it. Ideas, however terrific, aren’t stories; in fact, they are almost always about situations or characters, or characters in a situation, and they need considerably more work before they turn into something that one can actually write.

At least half of the how-to-write books I read these days tell you to start with a log line or an elevator pitch, which in essence is what I had. That sounds like it ought to be enough to go on with, but for most writers, it isn’t.

In my case, this particular idea came with a main character, a situation, a setting, and a whole lot of problems for my main character to solve. This sounds as if it includes all the absolutely necessary parts of a story – plot, setting, characters, situation – and it was enough for me to come up with a log-line description and a two-paragraph plot summary that made it look as if I knew what I was doing and where I was going.

This is the fundamental problem with trusting to the elevator-pitch summary: it seldom gives a writer enough of a foundation to start writing, but if it is a well-crafted elevator pitch, it sounds as if it should. In my case, the elevator-pitch summary gave me just barely enough to write a two-paragraph “plot summary” of the sort that goes in a cover letter (and trust me, it wasn’t much of a plot summary, because I still didn’t know what the main plot was). It worked as well as it did (which isn’t very) because in a two-paragraph summary, there isn’t room for a lot of character names or plot twists.

When I sat down to write an actual plot outline, it became obvious that this idea was not ready to be written just yet. True, I had characters implied by the setting and situation, but apart from my heroine, none of them had names or personalities. The story description/summary (I can’t really call it a plot outline) that I wrote for myself referred to them as Mom, Little Brother, Dead Biological Father, Dead Adoptive Father, Head Minion, Second Minion, and Evil Aunt. The setting was Generic Epic Fantasy, which was deliberate, but there were still a whole lot of specific details to make up. For instance, do the Evil Minion uniforms come in black and blood-red, or the slightly classier black-and-silver?

I wasn’t really sure whether my heroine had one Aunt or two. I didn’t have an actual magic system or history. More critical than that, though, was the absence of a central plot problem. Oh, I had plenty of problems for my heroine to solve, but they were all at about the same level of difficulty and urgency. There wasn’t anything that stood out as “once she’s done that, the story is over.” Most of the problems, in fact, could be solved in any order; they didn’t depend on each other or build in a particular direction.

Having a central plot problem is a necessity for nearly all stories. It doesn’t always have to be an action problem; sometimes it’s a puzzle solved, or an emotional change, or a lesson learned. In this case, the central plot I’m leaning toward has a lot to do with avoiding the standard action-adventure solution to a typical action-adventure plot. Though there will probable be some coming-of-age stuff in there, too – that’s pretty much unavoidable when your protagonist is a teenager.

Fortunately for me, this idea has a lot of juice. I spent the next week answering a lot of those questions, naming some characters, and generally making up stuff. The plot outline actually started to look like a plot outline and less like a vague notion that “some stuff happens and then a miracle occurs and the good guys succeed at doing something important, The End.” It’s still not as clear as I’d like, but it’s getting there. My biggest problem at the moment is beating back various emergencies long enough to actually get some work done. (Did I mention the three hours I spent trying to stay ahead of the water pouring into my basement during the flooding a couple of weeks ago? I was lucky; all I lost was a rug, but I still have to have the waterproofing people out to inspect the place and make sure there aren’t any serious after-effects.)

At this point in the writing, there are two basic approaches: 1) Do a bunch more development work, and 2) Start writing and see what happens. I’m usually a #1 sort of writer, but this go-around I seem to be using a combination approach. I’m bouncing back and forth between developing bits and writing the first couple of scenes. Every time I hit a spot where I don’t know something important about the background, the characters’ reactions, or the plot, I quit writing the scene and go back to examining different options for whatever I’m unsure of.

I have been working at this game for long enough that I’m reasonably comfortable with the idea that nothing ever seems to work the same way twice. (Being comfortable with whatever new way things seem to be working this time is another matter, but oh, well, that’s writing for you.) I shouldn’t be surprised that this book isn’t going to get written via the same methods as the last few did; in fact, now that I think of it, it was about time for my backbrain to spring a major change on me.

It’s still annoying when it happens, though.

8 Comments
  1. I’m having a similar issue with the start of my new fantasy series. I know the plot tentpoles for book 1 and parts of the next 2 books well-enough and I’m content with the team, so far, but after a few chapters I’ve had to stop and analyze just why I was uneasy with the WIP.

    I’ve finally figured it out… I don’t know these characters well enough yet (no surprise), but the real issue for my backbrain turns out to be not knowing the world well enough. The book doesn’t just have a magic system, it’s partly ABOUT the magic system and the guilds that form up around it.

    I had started by throwing up a bunch of “powers” and “guilds” with the intention to sort it out later as I needed the detail. That was enough to get me started. Since I couldn’t make any forward progress on the narrative, I just now went back over the placeholder magic system and rationalized all the little bits (exactly what powers were plausible (and why), exactly how each guild embodied which mixes of power), as though I were writing a handbook on the magic system. Within a day, I could feel the fizz rising from my backbrain as suddenly the guilds had personalities and natural obvious behavioral prejudices, the characters had natural relationships to the guilds and each other, etc.

    Boom! Logjam broken. My brain had been so preoccupied with “this is the start of a long series – you hafta get it right” vs “Move the characters around towards their goals” that I didn’t grant the magic-system world-building serious-enough attention to give them a background to move around in.

    Here on my fifth book, I’ve learned some confidence — if my brain shuts down on forward progress, it’s right. Something isn’t working and has to be fixed. It’s a different something every time, it seems, but I love the feeling of fixing it and being able to rush forward again. Time to go write a blog post about it.

  2. One of the things I love about your writing is that you always have an explanation for how magic works in that particular world. (It’s one of the main things I feel was missing from the Harry Potter series). Even within a world, you often take the time to explain how different characters have different magical techniques. (Character A would use a potion for this, while Character B would harness energy from nature, for example.)

    I’ve always wondered what your process is for coming up with those systems– have you researched different metaphysical theories, or is it more something you make up on your own? Have you ever re-used a system of magic? Do you think of the various techniques in categories? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

  3. I’m almost finished revising my WIP, after which I plan to start on the sequel. The trouble is that while I know the general structure (dual-viewpoint, going back and forth between the heroine trying to integrate two foreign comrades from the first book into her fighting troop and the hero finding his feet in his new position as court mage) and I have some ideas for things that happen, I don’t really have a plot as such. I don’t know what the big overarching problem is that needs to be dealt with. Hopefully something will come to me sooner or later…

    Looking forward to hearing more about your new project!

    • The trouble is that while I know the general structure…I don’t really have a plot as such.

      Ha! Totally relate!

      For my next WIP, I’ve got everything I need to start: world, society, culture, characters, skeletal plot outline, etc. This is good! Can’t wait to start!

      But…WIP actually jumped the queue. I was going to write the next novel in a series I have going. For that work: protag? yes. Character arc? Yes. Essence of basic plot? Yes. Central character growth problem? Yes. World setting? Yes.

      Plot? No. Resounding no. Gah!

      Of course, given that I’m writing the queue-jumper first, I don’t truly need to know anything about WIP #2 right now. Better that I don’t, in fact, since I generally do better when I wait to “know enough to start” until I’m closer to starting.

      Plus, I’m pretty sure that I need to know a lot more about the culture of this particular corner of my fantasy world (I know a lot more of other corners from the 10 stories that I’ve written in it thus far) before I will be able to generate my plot.

      But still, it’s bugging me that I am still so utterly blank on the plot. 😀

  4. It sounds mysterious and intriguing 🙂 (the story idea, not the flooding. That sounds awful).

  5. I heart this whole post. (Well, except the flooding part; sympathies.) This sounds very much like the way I usually get ideas, though I’m much more of #2 sort of writer. Except when I’m not. 😉

    Do you ever find that it’s hard, when you’ve been working in a different method for a while, to switch back to your usual process for the next book? For the thing I just finished, I had to do a lot more planning and deliberate figuring-out-of-things than I usually do, and now I’m finding myself doing it with the new thing. I don’t think the new thing wants to be planned out that way; it’s just become a habit. (One I need to break, since it seems to be obstructive rather than helpful in this case.)

  6. what do you mean by backbrain?

    • I mean the not-quite-conscious part that sits in the background constantly stewing over things and occasionally throwing a cool idea out for the front brain, the part that organizes and plans and puts words on paper, to work on.

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