Saturday, October 6, 2012

Five Reasons You Might Not Be Finishing Your Novel

Writing should be easy. It won’t be, but it should. Unlike hard labor, concrete problem solving, or most work, there are a thousand ways to tackle a story at one time, and the best way isn’t always the obvious or always the same.

The trick to writing is finding out why it has gotten hard and change tactics. From planning too much to not planning at all, from making the wrong decision to making no decision, from sitting in bed to sitting at a desk, a writer can destroy his inspiration and ideas by simple, little changes—and revitalize it in the same way.

Most people, writers or not, will have many started novels, plays, and movies on their desktop, and far less finished ones, if any at all. Though most stop with reason, and not every story is worth the effort it would be to finish, it is much harder to see it to the end than it is to start over. Sometimes it’s more important to understand why we quit and solve the problem, especially when it is often due to the same five reasons.

1. It is a premise without a plot.

The plot of a story is the main conflict that is resolved in the end. The premise is an idea or concept with no obvious conclusion because it is often a situation, a setting, or even the life of a character.

How an author is inspired is none of anyone else’s business, and starting with a concept is a common and fine way to do it. The problem is not that he started with a premise, but when he stops because it’s all he has.

Examine the story and ask what the obvious ending would be. A plot will have some clear solution (even if it is not a good one) where a premise won’t.

When writer’s block rears its ugly head, sometimes all the author needs to do is figure out the character’s goal and something preventing him from getting it and he will have steam to move forward.

2. It is an antagonist’s plot.

Now, if we define the plot as the conflict and solution to a character’s super objective, then it is assumed that it would be the protagonist’s. Today, however, many stories, films especially, will have the main character the victim of circumstance.

Modern stories tend to be driven by the antagonist’s objective, such as The Lion King. Not only do Simba’s goals change throughout the film, but most of them are passive ones: waiting to be king, wanting to do nothing, wanting to be left alone. And, for that matter, he does not seek out anything he wants, but is led to it like a horse to water. Simba does not make things happen. Scar does. The plot is the king’s brother wants to be ruler and the prince stands in his way.

Again, there is nothing wrong with the villain leading the plot forward; it’s just harder. When the main character is standing around, waiting for some mentor to show up to tell him how talented he is and what he should do, it is just as hard for the author to move the story forward as it is for the protagonist to move his life forward.

Many movies compensate for this by having subplots, such as Aladdin’s love interest with Jasmine while Jafar (who is clearly propelling the events) tries to take over the world. Jafar is Aladdin’s obstacle in getting the princess, while Aladdin is Jafar’s obstacle in getting the lamp. This allows for Aladdin to have something to do while he’s waiting around for Jafar to make his move.

There are two easy ways to give the hero something to do while the villain compiles his evil plans. One, give him a separate objective that happens to land him in the line of fire (such as Jasmine bringing Aladdin to the palace.) Or two, make his objective to explicitly be to mess up the antagonist’s plan. He knows what the villain wants, and he wants him not to have it.

3. It is unconvincing, boring, or doesn’t meet the author’s standards.

Simply, the writer is discouraged because he doesn’t like what he’s made. This is, unfortunately the common reason why we stop writing. There important thing to remember is that a writer won’t get better unless he a) Makes a lot of crap, or b) Fixes the same crap until it is no longer crap. The best way is a mixture of the two, but if we have to chose, either would work.

There is a time to start over, but that should not be the default. Often it’s best to see it through to the end for the sake of experience, the feeling of achievement, and because it’s probably not as bad or hard to fix as we think.

This is, of course, up to the judgment of the author if he is quitting because he’s being a quitter or if he’s quitting because it is abnormally “bad,” and he knows he can do better. The writer knows best.

4. There is missing information.

Many like to write how we read, not knowing the secrets of the world and the story until they reveal themselves. Yet there is such a thing as foreshadowing, leading up to the events, and acting like the world is a concrete, real place, not being made up on the spot.

If the inspiration never dries up, the story seems to answer itself, and writer’s block never arrives, then the author does not need to preplan anything. Why would he? But for those moments that he sits there staring at the screen with a horrified expression, the simple answer to “What do I not know?” can stop it.

Sometimes not knowing where the scene is going, how it’s going to get where he wants it to be, or any other important plot point will be a huge obstacle that the author might not even be aware of. Sit back and answer all those important questions that you’re avoiding and see if the inspiration returns.

5. Not enough sense of accomplishment.

Writing a novel takes a long time. It is lonely, it is frustrating, it is scary, and even when finished, there’s not necessarily going to be any reward for it.

Creating hurtles, rewards, motivations, and little games can get us through the long haul. Have a goal, such as a daily page count, word count, or time spent. Reward yourself when you meet those goals, such as putting a dollar in a “superfluous spending” account, or eat a cookie. Sometimes I will make the font huge, write five pages, then move down a size to 48px, write back up to five pages, then move down again until I’m at the right page count and font size. Sometimes I will time myself writing a page and try to beat the speed for the next one.

The quality of writing while doing this will vary immensely, but it is anywhere from better to worse. Meaning that, yeah, it will have its effects, but not necessarily for the worse. Changing up the pace and goals can help with the tedium, and meeting arbitrary goals makes us feel like we’re doing something when working on an overwhelming project.