How to write a book when you can’t write a book

Here’s a quite amazing post about writing a book when you are stuck. Obviously the exact, detailed methods described here won’t work for everybody. But this is still a fascinating post to read.

I couldn’t write the book. I had to write the book. Readers had bought the first two of the series on the promise that Kim and Will would get their HEA in book 3, and in the romance world, that promise is the kind you sign in your own blood at a crossroads at midnight. I had to write the book. I couldn’t write the book.

OK, so on to the part you’ve been waiting for: What did I do about it?

I will be very brief. Much more at the linked post:

a) Switch to using a visual mapping strategy for essential plot elements.

Here is the realization that generated:

This was the point I realised I’d been incredibly, catastrophically wrong about having the romance plot under control. … Laid out in this format, it was glaringly obvious that something huge was missing. There was not nearly enough blue because nothing was really changing or developing in my heroes’ relationship, and what the hell good is that in a romance? No wonder I hadn’t felt like my early efforts were working: they weren’t. I hadn’t dug into the romance at all because I’d got so obsessed with fixing the suspense plot. What a pillock. (It’s fine, this is only my literal job.)

This was interesting because, with different plot elements laid out in color, it IS truly glaringly obvious that half the romance plot must be missing.

b) Make plotting decisions and stick to them.

c) No fixing, no checking

I wrote scenes that were completely incompatible with earlier scenes. I wrote lines that required foreshadowing to be laid down, and left it undone. I wrote jarring transitions and clunky dialogue and lacklustre scenes and truncated bits to fill in later. It was a mess, and every word felt forced and dead and awful, but I wrote the forced, dead, awful bastards down.

Ouch! I have only ever done this when I was VERY close to the end and REALLY wanted to get there. And even then I don’t think I felt everything was this bad!

But, she got it done, and:

 And by the time I reached The End, I knew three things:

  1. I had a terrible book.
  2. I had a book.
  3. I can edit books.

d) Editing

Editing stage, oh my God. Shall we just not talk about this, okay.

All right, fine. I went through it slooooowly and fixed all the dangling horrors and inconsistencies. That took, approximately, forever. I went through it again to pick up everything I’d missed the first time and build up the things I’d skimped and work the scene transitions and all that. Then again, taking thinning scissors to the parts where I was explaining the plot to myself, and again, and again, till it began to read like it was written by a competent professional

This so reminds me of the time when I was calling the Tenai novel — now the Death’s Lady trilogy — The Neverending Revision From Hell. I never actually made that the working title, but I don’t know why not. That’s certainly what I called it for months.

e) Series of beta reads

And then the final conclusion:

f) So after ten months, multiple false starts, and and maybe thirty editing passes, my trilogy is complete. Kim and Will get their stroll into the sunset together, and I haven’t torpedoed my romance reputation quite yet. Talk about a happy ending.

I realise that my answer to “How do I write the book?” boils down to, basically, “Write the book”. Unfortunately, I have so far not identified any way of achieving a finished book that doesn’t involve writing it. If you have one, let me know. But I hope this post might at least promise a glimmer of light in what can feel like an endless tunnel.

So, very good post, a useful and entertaining look at the immense struggle particular novels may become. With a happy ending, which is certainly desirable in finishing a novel, as in a romance. By all means click through and read the whole thing, particularly if you’ve got a novel where you’re stuck.

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7 thoughts on “How to write a book when you can’t write a book”

  1. I generally get stuck in the outline.

    I have gotten good usage out of saying that what I THOUGHT would happen next — gets completely reversed.

  2. See, this is why I have very deliberately made it my strategy to try to finish writing series I’m serious about (at least to a rough draft) before I start trying to publish them. Because if I get stuck, I can always move to another project without leaving readers hanging for years and years, which is probable given my slow output. And I can add foreshadowing, etc. to The Latest Draft instead of regretting forever that I can’t put that one line back in book one that would perfectly foreshadow book three’s whatever.

    Not that these methods aren’t totally useful. I just physically can’t handle that much stress.

  3. The “plot color map” shows up in Wen Spencer’s “8 million gods” story. The heroine is an author, but it turns out the scenes she imagines are actually visions of a probable future. The first vision is a murder by “fox demon in the kitchen with a blender.” She later uses her colored plot stickies to figure out how the future hangs together, or rather, falls apart.

  4. I find this encouraging.
    It’s not schadenfreude, but there needs to be another word like it for this situation. I’m not happy about other people’s misfortune, but encouraged that It’s Not Just Me.

    Pete — I am disturbed and puzzled about the fox demon who commits murder in the kitchen with a blender. It’s better than with a lead pipe in the conservatory, but still… I keep picturing the fox stuffing someone in the blender, except the blender would have to be very large and the person very small… if they were whacked upside the head with a blender, wouldn’t the blender break? Unless it’s a very sturdy blender… too many questions!

  5. Evelyn, that’s how I felt too. We do need a word for that.

    EC, that is indeed a concern. I better not get stuck with Tarashana, that’s all I can say.

  6. That is a great post. I was particularly struck by the line, “Every novel you read is a Choose Your Own Adventure book that someone else has played. Every book is a series of authorial choices, and any of those choices could have been made differently and resulted in a different book. There’s no destiny; there’s just me, playing World’s Worst God.” I am often paralyzed by terror of making the wrong plot choice. (I am also a looper, so picking a plot direction that doesn’t work means a lot of unnecessary work!) I think there’s a bit of mythos about the One True Plot that the writer is discovering/uncovering/channeling, which puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on the poor writer who hasn’t magically tapped into the Well of Plots.

  7. Kim, I’ve certainly gotten terribly stuck, and had to do a lot of work over, by trying to go in the wrong direction. I think you’re right that the One True Plot is a myth, but I also think there are a lot of NO WAY, WON’T WORK plots that look tempting, or at least plausible, but will lead you terribly astray.

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