Part 4: Getting out of trouble
1. The critic
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“It’s easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm comes to them.”
-- Julian Barnes
Everybody's a critic. The problem for writers (for artists of any kind, really) is that everybody is a self-critic. We've all got that yammering, nattering inner voice that deprecates our talent, sneers at our work, snickers at our attempts to make it better, and generally tells us we're a waste of the planet's water and oxygen.
The critic's one and only goal, when we're writing, is to get us to quit. You quit, it wins. You finish, it loses. Then it slinks away into its dank cave, littered with the bones of our abandoned ideas, and waits for next time.
I personally believe that this little bugger is the most disagreeable of our inner children, the one whose head we held under water when we decided to grow up to become acceptable human beings, and it's come back from the dead for revenge.
And we listen to it.
I listen to it. I listen to it even though I know it has my worst interests at heart, even though I know it has nothing constructive to suggest, even though I know it has the easiest job of any of the various versions of me that pop their heads up and chime in when I'm writing.
Think about it. There you are, with all your faculties fully engaged: Your imagination is at work, you've summoned up courage, you're exercising discipline, you're ransacking your heart to find something that matters, you're using every available atom of your talent and skill to get that something onto the page. This is an enormously complex activity.
And what does the critic have to do? It has to stick its thumbs in its ears, wiggle its fingers, and go, nyaaa nyaaaa nyaaaa. This is about as complex as learning not to drool. The lizard-brain could handle it, with energy to spare for picking its teeth.
But we take the critic seriously. In fact, it can terrify us. It can make us quit writing.
It would dishonest of me to tell you I always know how to handle my inner critic. There's no ritual that sends him muttering away in defeat. I haven't got an uncomfortable stool in a corner I can make him sit on. There are days (especially in the middle of my book) when he gives me a real run for my money. There are days he actually makes me take my fingers off the keys, get up, and go do something – anything – else.
But I can't allow him to keep me away for too long, because my book will die. Sooner or later, and it really has to be sooner, I have to slap him into shape.
Here are a few of the ways I deal with my inner critic. I hope fervently that you find some of them helpful.
I tell him to go f**k himself. Seriously. It's not like he can hit me. I summon up all the scorn at my command, command him to buzz off, and write like hell. After all, that's the point. If you don't stop writing, he's lost the battle.
I write something else. He often attacks by ridiculing the scene I'm writing or telling me that my characters are thinner than the page they're printed on. Rather than wasting energy on arguing any of those points, I hang up that scene temporarily and go do something else – tidy up something I wrote a few days ago, start a scene that's a little bit down the line, or find a new way to describe something. Or I use him to force myself to do some real good. By the time I'm halfway through a book, I know there are lots of places that, for want of a better word, are zits. Little pieces of writing that didn't work the first or even the second time. Maybe it's someplace I wrote “rhubarb” (see “The dread middle”). One way to tie my critic into knots is to use his or her interference as an excuse to go back and make one of these little snarls better. Then I do another one. (Look – I'm writing!) If he won't go away, I just do this kind of tidying up for the rest of the session, and then go back to the original scene next time.
I take a shower. When I'm having a hard time writing, I'm the cleanest human being in whatever hemisphere I happen to be in. There's something about the flow of warm water that just opens all the channels to the dreamworld in which my story already exists. It frees my mind to consider connections, consequences, alternatives. Dialog pours down with the water. By the time I'm clean, I usually have so much to get down that I wish there were some way I could actually write in the shower. (Anybody who invents something that would let me do that should advertise it in Writer's Digest.) And once in a while, I actually visualize myself washing that critic off my back, which is where he usually seems to sit. Taking a walk also works, and for all I know, pumping iron or baking a cake would, too.
I give myself some credit. I remind myself that I actually have written good scenes before. I ask myself why I should even imagine that I can't do it again. And I remind myself to be as kind to myself as I would to another writer. If someone reads her work to me, I'm not going to roll my eyes or make raspberry noises behind my hand, or say, “Hey, is there going to be a quiz?” I'm going to listen sympathetically, looking for the strongest bits, and then offer (if I'm asked) my thoughts on how to make the whole thing work a little better. I have to treat myself that nicely, too.
I talk to somebody. My critic is really only effective when it's just him and me. Ninety percent of the time, if I take the scene he's sneering at and the doubts he's raised, and discuss them with someone else, the solution appears before I'm halfway through.
I give him a name he doesn't like, and I use it. Sound childish? It is. But so is going, nyaaaa nyaaaa nyaaaa. My inner critic doesn't like to be called “Herbie.” If I just say (often out loud), “Oh, Herbie's arrived,” or “Shut up, Herbie,” or, “Hey, Herbie, your pants are falling down,” or any of a number of other really sophisticated things, Herbie will sometimes subside. On a really good day, I can make him burst into tears.
You'll undoubtedly develop your own techniques for banishing your inner critic to the outhouse (although, of course, he or she will be back). But here's what you don't want to do. You don't want to confuse your inner critic with the part of you that asks, “Would this be better?” Or, “Instead of doing this, what would happen if I did that?”
If the little voice in your ear is offering something even vaguely constructive, listen. If your characters do or say something unexpected, listen. That's one way your book will grow, and you need to remain open to it.
But when your inner critic pipes up, you need to shut that little sonofabitch down. And the way to do that is to keep writing.
2. Losing Interest
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“The best thing is to write anything, anything at all that comes into your head until gradually there is a calm and creative day.”
-- Stephen Spender
Sometimes a book goes stale. This is not something you notice during one or two writing sessions. This is something that comes up again and again. Over the course of several days, maybe a week or more, it becomes progressively more difficult to summon up the enthusiasm you need to work on your book. Writing becomes drudgery.
This can be serious.
There are lots of reasons we can lose interest in what we're writing. Sometimes it's just the weariness that comes over so many of us somewhere in the Dread Middle. For a new writer, it can be nothing more than coming up against the recognition that some writing actually is gruntwork. Someone who hasn't written much may have a romanticized vision of what writing should be like – the solitary author, eyes alight with inspiration, conjuring new worlds out of the smoke of a single candle. A wide-open channel to the undiscovered, letting the words and images and characters pour directly through you and onto the page.
If you're a new writer and you've never come up against the soul-sickening experience of losing interest in your book, let me suggest something to you.
Writing is a combination of inspiration and gruntwork. The challenge is to get the inspiration on the page through the gruntwork, and to use the gruntwork to find your way to the inspiration. They're both necessary.
So my first advice is just to keep writing. Read the Stephen Spender quotation at the top of this page and follow his advice. Apply the seat of the pants to the chair, the fingertips to the keyboard, and power through it. You may suddenly find yourself emerging into the sunlight, and you'll have a great day's work. When it's over, you'll look back on the period of difficulty and ask, “What was that about?”.
On the other hand, you may have a real problem.
If you do, this is a great time for writing about your book.
Grab some paper and a pen, or open a new file on your computer. Describe the feelings you're having about the book. Speculate about the possible reasons. Think back on the story and ask yourself at what point this feeling began to creep over you. Is one character giving you more problems than others? Write about that character. Are you having trouble with a relationship that's central to the book? Write about the relationship. Write anything and everything that comes to you. Don't censor, don't go back and fix anything. When something you write grabs your attention, stick with it. Follow it until you get to the end, and then go back to the general questions you're asking yourself and write some more.
Do a retroactive outline. Go back to the beginning and synopsize the book, one scene at a time. Keep it brief, but include the important things: what happens in each scene, where it is, whom we meet. How it advances the story Focus on the stakes.
Chances are that at some point you'll notice that some scenes are harder to synopsize than others. They may seem overcomplicated. You might find that you don't remember them with the same clarity as you do other scenes. Put a little mark next to these scenes and keep going. Do this for everything you've written.
Now back and look at the scenes that gave you trouble, that seemed too complicated, that were less interesting to synopsize, that may even have vaguely embarrassed you. Ask yourself why you're not happy with each of these scenes. Focus on them one at a time. Where does the scene go wrong? Are your characters true to themselves in this scene, or have you forced them to do something that wouldn't be natural for them? Does the scene contribute to the flow of the story?
If you've made a wrong turn, it's probably in one or more of these scenes. Print them out and look at them on the page. Read them to someone you trust. How do they sound in your own ears? Read a scene you really like and pay attention to the way that scene sounds to you. As you go through these exercised, ask yourself whether there's a point at which you stopped caring. Was there a point where the writing became more mechanical, where it disconnected from your heart? If there is, you've probably found your problem.
If any of this helps you identify the problem, you're going to have some rewriting to do, beginning with the scene where things went off the rails. You may have to tear up, or substantially alter, many pages.
Sometimes the scenes that bring the least to the book contain the best writing. There may be passages in these scenes that you love. They may be the very passages that give you the confidence that you can actually write.
If they don't contribute to the overall power and effectiveness of the book, cut them. Believe,me, there's more where that came from.
I once had the privilege of spending some very interesting time with one of the best-selling writers of the 1970s and 1980s. This guy hit the top of the best-seller lists every time he released a title. He wrote big books, real door-stops, 500 pages or longer. He was aware that he had a problem with length, and he knew he'd have trouble cutting his work if he had to lose what he called “his babies,” the pieces of writing that he loved best, or that he'd worked hardest to get on the page. So this is what he did.
When he finished a book, he took the manuscript and turned it face-down. Then he took the first three pages off the stack, put them on the other side of the keyboard, and threw the fourth into the wastebasket without looking at it. Three more pages, one discard; three more pages, one discard. He kept it up until twenty-five percent of his book was in the wastebasket. He had just cut his book by one-quarter with no regard at all for the actual content of the cuts. Then he picked up the manuscript, turned it face-up, and gave himself one paragraph to replace each of the missing pages.
This is one of the bravest things I ever heard. Sure, some of the “babies” he'd tossed found their way back into the book, in the bridging paragraphs. But he had the courage to believe (a) that his characters and story were strong enough to survive the deletion of some of his best writing, and (b) that he had more where that came from.
This is a long story, but the point is that all that matters is the flow of your book. If you've written a scene that interferes with that flow, that takes the book off-point, that gets away from the aspects of the story you care most about, that scene's proper environment is the wastebasket. No matter how much you love the way you described the green trees against the gray sky or the curl of a woman's fingers around a wineglass, or an exchange of dialog that you're sure will eventually find its way into Bartlett's Quotations.
And finally, if none of the suggestions I've made helps you discover what's wrong with your book, I suggest you write down, in no more than one paragraph, the central core of what your book is about and why you care about it. With that in front of you, run through those scene synopses again. You'll probably spot the problem.
If you don't, then you have just about the only good reason I know to stop writing. Put the whole thing in a drawer and go back to your life for a week or two. If things occur to you about your book during this hiatus,write them down and put them in the bucket. Leave the manuscript alone.
One of the phenomena of writing is that fat rises to the surface. We may love every word of something while it's still hot off the presses of our imagination, but after a couple of weeks, when we look at it again, we realize there are things we love less than others, and things that make us wince. When you finally take out that stack of paper and work your way through it, it's those patches of fat where the problem probably lies.
Ultimately, you may need to abandon the project, at least for a while. If it comes to this, I strongly suggest that you begin immediately to work on a new project. If nothing else, you'll be amazed at how much you've learned by writing the book you are (at least temporarily) abandoning.
And who knows? At some point in the future, you may solve the problem. The manuscript will still be there. Waiting for you.
3. The dead scene
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“When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
-- Raymond Chandler
Dolores and Jack (remember them?) are finally having it out. Dolores wants Jack to give up his maniacal pursuit of the random fingerprint generator, move to a cabin in the woods, and live the simple life. She's concerned about the damage he is doing to himself. Jack has seen the way Dolores's eyes light up when she hears the words, “Prada” and “Gucci,” and he's certain she'll be out of that cabin and on her way back to New York in the time it takes to tie the knot in an apron. He's terrified at the prospect of losing her.
Also in the room is Jack's sometime partner, Ladislaw, whose middle-European accent originally seemed like a great idea, but now gives you brain-cramps every time you have to write it. Ladislaw abandoned his wife, his child, and his rewarding life as a Transylvanian peasant to help Jack pursue the machine, so he's pretty heavily invested in the outcome of the conversation.
This is a Big Scene. You've been laying the scaffolding for it over the course of a hundred pages or so. You've listened diligently to Jack and Dolores (and Ladislaw, when you can understand what he's saying), and you're convinced that you've been true to them. They've gotten to this point without any of them being forced to do anything that was out of character. The next fifty pages of the book depend on this scene.
And it won't move.
It doesn't happen. It's got no life. Your characters are so inert they might as well be preserved in aspic. You can't even see the room they're in, much less hear their voices. The whole thing seems to be happening in a bell jar.
You've got a dead scene on your hands.
I've written hundreds of these. Some of them, I'm ashamed to say, even found their way into a completed book, where they linger like food stains on a tie that I convinced myself no one will notice. But everyone notices. The food stain might as well be an entire lamb chop. Years later, I take one of my books off the shelf and it magically falls open, like the clue in a bad mystery, directly to the offending scene, and the scene opens its greasy maw and leers at me.
The immediate problem with a scene like this is that it can stop you writing. It can block you. Whatever you do, you can't allow that to happen.
So deal with it. Here are some of the ways I suggest you do that.
Focus on another character. If you've been writing the book mainly from the point of view of Dolores, look at Jack. If you've been mainly inside Jack's mind, look at Dolores. If you can bear to do so, take a harder look at Ladislaw. Consider the scene purely from the perspective of that character. What does he/she want? What is he afraid of? What will she do to get her way? Where did the character come from before he arrived wherever the scene is taking place? Depending on the outcome of the scene, where will he go next? What does he have in his pockets? What does she have in her purse? (I'm not kidding.) How has the character planned for this encounter? What's the character's fundamental frame of mind – angry, determined, frightened, weary, uncertain?
Much of the time, doing this will bring the scene to life by taking the ball away from your primary character and giving it, at least momentarily, to the character you've been considering. You'll suddenly get an idea about what he or she might do or say. It will surprise the other characters (why not? it surprised you), and they'll react. They'll come alive. You can use this infusion of vitality to move the scene forward. If necessary, do this for every character in the scene, including the minor ones – the waitress who's serving the sheep's testicles du jour in Ladislaw's favorite Transylvanian restaurant. Who the hell knows? A lapful of steaming sheep's testicles may be the galvanic shock one of your characters needs.
Bring in one of the characters later. Ladislaw and Jack are alone in the restaurant. Ladislaw is urgently communicating an idea that could get them the machine once and for all. Jack is leaning forward, concentrating with all his being to figure out what Ladislaw is saying. In comes Dolores, with the bombshell: Jack, quit, or I'm leaving you. This kind of energy interrupt can pick up a scene by its suspenders and get it moving.
Start the scene late. Remember, we don't need to see everyone arrive. We don't need to know what the seating chart is. We don't need to know that it's raining or that it was hard to get a cab. We don't need to hear the waitress recite the day's specials, especially not in that restaurant. Cut to the point at which the action begins to rise in pitch, let it flow, and fill in later whatever you need to fill in. (You may find you don't actually need any of it.) Remember: scenes that open wrong often continue wrong. Find the right opening, and you'll often find the scene.
On the same principle:
Grab a detail.Find something that's interesting to look at, and use it to open the scene. The day's specials filled a blackboard on the wall, written in a language that looked to Jack like loops of yarn. So there you are – you're in the restaurant, Jack's there, there's already a mild mystery – what in the world are the day's specials? -- and we've introduced the idea of a foreign language, which is more or less what Ladislaw is speaking. That's a lot for one sentence, and it sets up some of what's to follow. And who knows, maybe the idea of a foreign language will play out through the entire scene; the characters are so far apart they really are speaking different languages. They need to understand one another before the story can move forward.
Get really, really specific. Your problem may be that you're so caught up in what the scene needs to do that you're not paying enough attention to how it does it. Here's Raymond Chandler, in all his glory: What readers are looking for is not, for example, that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick up a paper clip from the polished surface of a desk and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn paper clip just kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.Find the paper clip on the table. Maybe, in this case, the utensils next to the plates include a tiny pitchfork. (I don't know what Transylvanians eat with.) Maybe the pitchfork is your paper clip. Maybe it's Dolores's compact. Maybe it's Ladislaw's accent. But remember that this isn't just three people in a room. There are thousands of specifics you can use to bring the scene to life.
Go clean house. Put the whole thing on the back burner and do something mindless, something that gives you a feeling of accomplishment without putting a drain on your mental resources. Rake the yard, if you have a rake and a yard. Vacuum. Organize all that crap under the kitchen sink. Do not catalog books or try to get a grasp on Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity. You want to let your mind alone. It has work to do, and sometimes it does it better when you're not looking. Or, as I suggested earlier, take a shower.
You can also try all the things I offered in the piece called “Losing interest”: Writing about the scene, outlining the scenes that led up to it, examining what's at stake, asking yourself what you most care about in the scene and making sure it's on the page.
If absolutely none of this works, then:
Write the damn thing wrong. Get it on the page anyway, in all its awkward, lifeless glory. You can always rewrite it. At least you've got something. You've learned one way not to write it. The enemy is not the bad page, it's the empty page.
Just remember: Before you decide that the book is finished, you need to take that tie to the cleaners.
4. Architectural problems
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Books can be seen as architecture. They have a foundation – the basic situation and the stakes. They have bearing beams – characters, plots and subplots, setting. Then there are room dividers – scenes and chapters and, if you use them, sections. (My books usually seem to divide themselves into four sections.) And finally, there's decoration: description, dialog, the cute plot twist.
Ideally, all these things cohere to make a whole. The house, or whatever it is, is sturdy; it's not built on quicksand, the walls are plumb-straight, there's some sort of sense of proportion – the living room, for example, isn't bigger than the whole rest of the house put together. The entrance is attractive, the floor plan is easy to follow. There are no missing stairs, no unexpected holes in the floor.
I can go on with this longer than you'd like me to, so I'll cut to the point.
A problem can arise in any of these areas. The ones that are easiest to deal with are decorative problems. They're relatively easy to redo, and they don't (usually) require changes a hundred pages on either side of them. Scenes and chapters can be rewritten and reorganized; that's a little harder, but it doesn't need to threaten your entire existence.
The big problems arise when something's wrong with the foundation and/or the bearing beams.
These are the problems you try to anticipate by walking around your basic idea a few times, by writing about it, by making sure that the stakes are something you care deeply about. By doing lots of warmup on the characters.
During the writing of the book, you try to avoid these problems by making certain the stakes are always in mind, that your characters drive the story rather than the other way around. By asking yourself repeatedly: Is this true to my characters? Do I care about this? Am I being honest with my reader?
You can do all these things, but there still may come a time when you become aware that something is basically, dreadfully wrong. You're hopelessly lost. No matter what direction you move in, it's the wrong one. Your ten-mile sentence, which was supposed to head due east from the beach at Malibu, has led you somewhere several miles offshore in the Pacific Ocean. You're adrift. If you're lucky, you're floating. Your boat (for purposes of the metaphor, let's say it's a houseboat) lacks a compass, there are no sails, and water is rising in the bilge, but you're floating. Just barely.
This is big problem time.
About the only thing you can do (or, at least, the only thing I know of) is to review the entire manuscript, find the things that most closely reflect what you were trying to do in the first place, and salvage them. Then scuttle that boat. Let it sink, and start over.
And I mean from the beginning.
Go back to your most basic idea. Look at it all over again. Make sure it's an idea that means something to you. Re-evaluate the stakes. Do you really care about them? Passionately? If you don't, that's your problem. As Raymond Chandler says, Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered pot holder. If you haven't got passion about the issues in your book, it's no wonder the story you were weaving turned out to be a potholder.
This is a bleak situation to be in. I know, because I've been there. But I'm going to say again something I've said before, and something I've had to say to myself.
Get over it.
This is a book, not a lung x-ray. The sun will rise in the morning, and you'll still be here to see it. And you're not really starting from scratch. You have some important tools. First, you've got some good material from the discarded manuscript. (It may not actually end up fitting in the new book, but by the time you discover that, you'll already be writing and it won't matter so much.) Second, you've learned one way not to write your book. You won't make that particular mistake again. God willing.
So steel yourself. Start the warmup all over again. Write about the idea, the characters, the stakes, the setting. When you're ready, when you really know where the center is, start your new first scene. Stick with your routine. Keep your fingers on the keyboard. Open yourself to the things your characters say and do. Keep them true. And don't be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. Keep your eyes on the next word, the next sentence, the next scene. This is how books are written.
Be brave. Keep writing. If there's a book in that idea, you'll eventually find it. And you'll have learned something invaluable. You'll have learned that you can recover from a complete and utter shipwreck. You'll have survived the worst thing that can happen to a writer.
It'll take a lot to frighten you in the future.