Wading Through the Muddle: Writing Tips from Guest Author Mary Pearson
I have written a dozen novels now (three which are and will remain unpublished) and with every one my process has changed slightly. When my first book was published, I thought, This is it. It will be all smooth sailing from here. The next book will be easy!
That’s because every book, every character, every setting, premise, and plot is different. They require different “things.” And those things are what I’ve been learning ever since. The upside is, it’s always a challenge. I will never get bored by what I do.
I tend to be a seat-of-the-pantser, who has a secret wish to be an outliner. It seems like it would make the process all so much easier if I knew exactly what I was going to do next, but some of the joys in writing for me, too, are the unexpected situations, dialogue, discoveries, and turns I hadn’t envisioned when I set out.
Of course it’s a delicate line to navigate between fresh discovery and meandering birdwalks. I always have to ask myself when some unexpected turn or scene presents itself, does this advance or deepen the character’s need or quest? Or will it take me down a rabbit hole that I can’t escape from? It has to advance the story. Every page, every scene, every word. If it doesn’t, no matter how much it intrigues me, out it goes. Sometimes I write, in a few simple words on a post it, a brief reminder of what my character wants or needs (two different things) and place it somewhere I will see it often. Those few words remind me of the point of the story. It seems like this would be obvious to a writer, but somewhere in the middle of a novel as you are being strangled by threads and subplots, you feel like you’ve fallen into a dark hole and have no clue where you’re going. My little post-it note is a small light shining on one point in the midst of the many that have developed. Oh yeah, that’s where I’m going.
Even though I consider myself more of a pantser, it doesn’t mean I don’t jot down scenes as they occur to me and have a good idea of the beginning middle and end. I used to just randomly write down possible scenes on a sheet of paper divided into nine sections. Sometimes they fit the story and were used, sometimes they were not. But then I read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and while not every bit of advice in the book worked with the way my brain operates, one piece of advice seemed obvious solution for the way I was already working. Instead of jotting down scenes on a sectioned piece of paper, I jot them down on a post-it and put those on a large white board approximately where I thought they would occur in the story—beginning, middle, climax, resolution, and all the places in between.
The board starts out bare and clean, and eventually gets a tad messy.
The great thing about this is I can move them around, or sometimes toss them, and again, when I get into that muddled state, look at the board with all my imagined scenes in clear view and think, oh yeah, that was the direction I was going. The “scenes” that I jot down are little more than a few words, like “Lia confronts Rafe about . . . “ or “Kaden discovers that . . .” or “Lia and Pauline argue when . . .”
This system is working out pretty well for me, for now. It gives me a place to shelve my spinning thoughts and glance back at them when I want to.
I am often asked for writing advice, and I always give it with the caveat that what works for me will not work for every writer. I truly believe the way we organize thoughts in our creative brains is different for every writer. We all need to find the way that works with their own brain and our own story. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to study craft. We all have our strengths and weaknesses as writers and studying craft helps us to understand why we are stumbling in certain areas. We don’t know what we don’t know until we learn about it.
I have a huge library of craft books. I’ve gleaned great advice and encouragement from them all, even if it’s only a few paragraphs from one, or a few sentences from another. Here are a few books that I’ve found very helpful:
On Writing by Stephen King
Story by Robert McKee
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger
Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
Writing From the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler
I have also gone to countless writing conferences and gathered wisdom from writers sharing their own unique writing approaches. I’ve found articles online too, that offer more writing advice. Here’s one that shares famous authors Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. There’s some funny and helpful advice to be found there. Glean what you will.
The most basic and important pieces of advice I can offer are:
- BIC. Butt-in-chair. Develop discipline and set goals. Write every day if you can. One thing I’ve learned is writing begets writing and the longer you are away from it, the harder it is to return. I use a word count chart. Every day I write down my word count so I can “see” my progress. Some days there may be only ten words of progress, but I know I at least showed up. This is my chart for The Kiss of Deception.
- Finish it. It is SO easy to abandon a manuscript at the midpoint. That’s probably the point where the most doubt sets in. I call the middle the muddle. Keep going. A finished manuscript can be revised. If you are feeling doubt, welcome to the club. It hits every writer no matter how many books she or he has written.
- Move on. Not all manuscripts are meant to be published. If you’ve revised and sought out critiques and advice and revisions still haven’t brought it to the publishable level, set it aside. It is not wasted if you learn from it. If I had just endlessly fiddled and fiddled with my first manuscript and not moved on, I wouldn’t have eight published novels now. I learned volumes from that unpublished work. It may have been heartbreaking for me to walk away from it, but it was a necessary step for me to understand my craft.
So what are you waiting for?
Get down ten words today. And tomorrow. I bet you can do more.