One thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that it’s okay to take a step back. Perspective is such a useful tool, especially when it comes to writing. I find it so refreshing to take a minute or an hour or a day or a week to just reassess where my story is going.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in such an inspired state of mind. I’ve written near to 20,000 words and it was easy, something that surprised me. However, I got to chapter seven of my novel and I knew that my work was becoming sloppy – not something I would want to put my name to. I know that it’s only a first draft, and I know that it’s not going to be perfect, but as a writer, I also know when my work is good, with potential to be better, and when it isn’t.
I can plan as much as I like but my characters will often do or say or feel things that I can’t predict. Sometimes this works in my favour. For example, in chapter five, my protagonist, Ellen, and her new friend are getting to know each other. As I wrote, I had such a clear understanding of where I wanted their relationship to go and I found that their conversations were already so natural, despite it being the first draft. This is probably because I’ve already written a short story about Ellen’s new friend – Penny, from It’s A Gift. As I already know so much about Penny, it was easy to write her in a realistic way. She and Ellen bounced off of each other and that made it fun to play around with their gestures and ticks.
However, other times it isn’t so simple. My seventh chapter takes place as Ellen is meeting a new character, Henry. Like in chapter five, I know where I want their relationship to go but I hadn’t thought enough about how they get there. I have scenes that I’ve written or outlined for future chapters, but I’ve never focused enough on how their relationship would start.
It was when I got halfway through Ellen and Henry’s first conversation that I realised I needed to stop. It was annoying me that this scene was harder for me to write than the ones before, and I didn’t understand what was so different. Rather than continuing to write and hoping for the best, hoping that I would be able to get my characters from point A to point B, I stopped. Sometimes, that can be the hardest thing to do. I needed to think, to figure out how to make the scene unfold realistically. I had to look at what I wanted to happen and realise what I needed to change in order for that to occur.
In the end, it wasn’t so much about change as it was about planning. I probably talk about the importance of planning your work out in every other post but it really is, in my opinion, the key to good writing.
I made a list of all the things that were annoying me about the scene between Ellen and Henry, and I’ll copy it below so that you can see where my mind was.
- Ellen and Henry are acting like robots – how to make them more natural and realistic???
- List their feelings/motives for the scene
- Henry is annoyed at being assigned to watch Ellen but he knows he doesn’t have a choice – he’s also curious about Ellen’s power
- Ellen is tired, and cautious because of what Maggie said, but she’s still not going to roll over and let Henry walk all over her
- Other thoughts in the backs of their minds? Brothers etc.
- Give them small habits/ticks – can bring up in other conversations – what does Henry do when he’s nervous/angry/suspicious – what does Ellen do when she’s scared/annoyed
- I hate the setting. I can’t picture it in my mind. Possibly plan a small map to track their route and use the setting to impact their discussion:
- Can they see the sky? What time of day is it?
- Plan the map with the Embassy across the road from the hospital but the hospital entrance round the other side – I know what I mean
As you can see, the scenario wasn’t the problem. It was a lack of understanding. I didn’t properly know what my characters thoughts and feelings were in this scene – aside from the 2D and obvious – so of course they were stale and robotic. I didn’t really know the setting – just that they were walking through hospital grounds and out onto the street.
Once I had figured out all of the above, I sat back down, my laptop in front of me and my notepad open with all the important details. I had sketched a map of the hospital grounds and street outside, listed Ellen and Henry’s thoughts and motives and feelings about the situation, and got to writing.
It was easy again. It was easy because I knew exactly what I needed to write to portray Ellen’s nerves or Henry’s irritation. The setting helped break up the whole, ‘he said, she said, they turned a corner, he said, she said, they crossed a road,’ monotony. I could mention the way the yellow streetlights cast shadows across their faces, and that the sky was clear and dark, but any stars were drowned out by the obnoxious lights from the hospital.
I was worried when I lost that momentum halfway through chapter seven, that I would pack up all my notes and put them away and give up for another six months. But I think stepping back and figuring out what I needed to do in order to move forward was so much better than forcing myself to continue writing – writing something I knew was rubbish – and then get fed up with it.
So if you find yourself stuck – whether it be at chapter two or chapter twenty – all I can say is this: don’t force it. It will show in your writing. All it takes is ten minutes to figure out the setting and list your characters most pressing and relevant thoughts and feelings, and you have everything you need to make the scene come to life. That’s all writing is. Dialogue and setting.