Some years ago, I found this interesting and these helpful fixes to writing problems that I come in handy. Good fiction takes time. You cannot sit down at the keyboard and pound out the Great American Novel in one or two sessions. (Take it from me; I’ve tried.) Says the author of this piece of writing. I don’t remember who the author is and if anyone knows, please let me know. I would like to give him or her credit!
No, we must be patient with our art and our craft, we must read, we must study, we must write. And write, and write. Then we must think, cut, rewrite, polish and look again.
But there’s such a thing as agonizing too much over your writing. Just as excessive reworking with charcoal and gum will ruin a drawing, too much scrutinizing and amending will sap the vitality of your original words. Most aspiring authors fall victim to this from time to time, causing needless pain, delay and, frankly, stunted results. It’s the hard parts that get you. When you come up against a knotty structural problem, take a breath and do what professionals do:
• Calmly evaluate the problem.
• Decide whether it really is a problem.
• Work out a solution.
• Implement it.
• Move on.
• Revisit the situation later.
1. I’M MISSING A CRUCIAL PIECE OF INFORMATION.
You’re writing a key scene, and you realize that you really need to know something, but it’s either impossible to find out or too costly in time or money to do so.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: If you can’t find the exact data you need, get as close as you can and wing the rest.
Recently I was on a conference panel with other authors discussing intensive research, and after everybody shared exciting (or humiliating) stories about our quests for authenticity, we all agreed on one thing: When the chips are down, make it up.
You might be surprised at how much you can make up in a convincing way. Maybe you need a recipe for the perfect poison and have no idea where to begin. Invent a character who’s a chemist, and have that character develop a poison that’s as lethal as cyanide, as innocent-smelling as strawberries and as traceable as water.
2. MY ACTION IN THIS SCENE DRAGS.
We’ve all been there: You’ve got an action scene that’s starting to bore even you. Granted, your story is moving forward, but it feels cumbersome.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Resist the urge to pile it on; rather, tighten what you’ve got.
You could spend hours—days!—trying to inject more life into a scene, but the best solution is often just the opposite. Usually a quicker pace will do the trick.
One of the easiest, most effective ways to tighten prose is to turn full sentences into fragments and opt for one-line paragraphs.
3. ONE OF MY CHARACTERS IS STARTING TO SEEM LACKLUSTER.
Sometimes you get too careful with a character, especially if you’ve based her on yourself or a close friend or relative. If this seems to be the case, consider adding weirdness.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Give her an obsession.
Obsessions are great because they’re simple to drop into a character’s personality, and you can use them repeatedly to spice up your plot.
Think what you can do! Give a ghetto hooker a fixation on growing the perfect eggplant in her window box, turn the commander of a space station into an incurable pack rat, bestow upon your straight-A prom queen a fascination with arson, twist a fat, old cop into a joyful, compulsive transvestite.
4. I HAVE TO COMMUNICATE A LOT OF INFORMATION, AND IT’S OVERKILL.
You’re at a turning point in your novel, and you’ve got one character revealing information to another, or making connections in his head as the puzzle pieces fall into place. Or your omniscient narrator is explaining a lot of stuff to the reader. And it doesn’t feel natural.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Turn narrative into dialogue.
Don’t underestimate the modern reader’s ability to infer, generalize and make connections. A professional’s first instinct is to cut exposition, but when you’ve sliced away all but the essential and you’re still looking at an awkward block of text, turn it into dialogue. Scope around for a handy character for the first one to talk to. Then, give the two some back-and-forth, something to disagree about. Create a little conflict while delivering your basic facts.
5. I DON’T KNOW WHAT SHOULD COME NEXT.
You’re writing something new; perhaps you even have a rough outline. You’re galloping along, happy and breathless, and you finally bring a scene or chapter to a satisfying conclusion. Then you get that uh-oh feeling.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Have a 10-minute brainstorm.
I actually feel great in this situation: I love to brainstorm, and I know I’m about to have ideas I’ve never had before.
Flip to a fresh page in your notebook or computer notepad, check the time and give yourself 10 minutes to write down anything and everything that might come next. Record every idea that comes to you, even if it seems ridiculous or awful. Keep going. If you do this with a feeling of open exploration, you will come up with a good idea of what should come next.
The answer is a paradox: The more honestly and thoroughly you brainstorm, the sooner your material will sort itself out. The chaff will be obvious—and there will be wheat.
6. I’VE GOT A COMPLEX PLOT, AND ALL MY FINAL UNRAVELING FEELS FORCED.
You’re proud of your plot, and you want to show the reader that you’ve thought of everything. This one’s as tight as a drum! But now it feels as if you’re ticking off boxes on a checklist, and the effect is artificial.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Choose some loose ends to leave loose.
Readers will know they’re in good hands if you pay off your suspense. This is key, and it bears repeating: Suspense is the most important aspect of a book to build and bring to a satisfying climax and conclusion. This holds true in any genre; even the most sedate literary novels are built on a foundation of suspense. In this way, Mrs. Dalloway and her flowers have everything in common with Hannibal Lecter and his fava beans.
Challenge your impulse to wrap up everything with a bow, and you might achieve a more natural result.
7. I NEED A BRIDGE BETWEEN TWO SCENES, BUT I’M AT A LOSS.
Transitions can be the bane of fiction writers. I think this goes back to composition teachers in high school, who insist that there “be a link” between every idea. Oh, the contortions we used to go through to satisfy that requirement! Forget it.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Insert a chapter break, or use the magic word.
An excellent way to bridge two scenes is to actually separate them. A chapter break can eliminate the need for a bridge altogether. Pick a novel you like and study the last and subsequent first pages of chapters. You’ll find that most modern novels freely jump forward (even backward) in time, or sideways in space (from one character’s viewpoint to another’s, for example), and the overall effect is smooth. Give it a try.
The magic word is meanwhile. Rather than a big-deal transition, meanwhile might be all you need.
8. MY ENDING MADE MY CRITIQUE GROUP GO, “SO WHAT?”
You’ve written your novel, you’re at the point of bravely hearing any and all criticism, and you’ve just found out that your ending leaves your writing buddies cold. You feel (understandably) frustrated, and maybe a little angry. Now what?
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Add passion, violence or both.
A weak ending, of course, may signify major problems with the rest of the book. But not necessarily. If you’ve built convincing characters and worked out a believable, suspenseful story, but things still fall flat at the end, this could be because you haven’t gone far enough. Some authors simply take their foot off the accelerator toward the end, either from fatigue or from an unnecessary sense of restraint. Whatever the case, if you discover you’re one of them, you’ve got to ramp up the emotion.
Now, you don’t want to be cheap, but be advised that exploitation works. Readers expect to be knocked out of their socks, and it’s really OK to give them that.
So try heightening the ending you’ve already got. A good way to do it is to add passion or violence—or both.
9. MY AGENT/EDITOR WANTS ME TO CUT 10,000 WORDS!
Many authors on the brink of getting published are told by a prospective agent or editor, “I love this novel, but it’s too long. If you can cut it by about 10,000 words (or whatever terrifyingly high number), I think I can sell (or publish) this.” They don’t want any specific cuts at this point; they just want the manuscript to better fit a common format.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Micro-edit your way to success.
You can spend lots of time rereading your manuscript and painfully strategizing what hunks to cut, but an excellent way to quickly trim it to size is to cut one word per sentence. This technique is pure magic. Or, you can divide the number of words you need to cut by the number of pages you have, and come up with an average words-to-cut per page. Of course you won’t be able to whittle down your whole manuscript in 10 minutes, but take it as a challenge: Time yourself, and I bet that once you get the hang of it, you can blow through 10 pages of a draft in 10 minutes. This is a job you can do in the interstices of your day; you don’t have to find large spans of time for it.
10. THE WHOLE THING STINKS.
Every author is stricken, at least once per book, by Creeping Rot Disease. CRD begins as a dark feeling that takes over your mind and heart when you least expect it. You look at your manuscript and the feeling creeps over you that all you’ve done is foul a perfectly good stack of paper. It’s lousy. It’s not original. It’s nothing any agent, let alone editor, would look at twice. I’m wasting my life, you think. I’m a fool.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Take a break!
Believe me, when CRD strikes, you are in plentiful, excellent company. Terrific authors have drunk themselves to death trying to self-medicate against CRD.
The better solution is to take a break. Turn off your computer, close your notebook, cap your pen (because the problem is not with your manuscript, it’s with you) and do something completely different, like:
• Walk outside. Pay attention to the first great-looking tree you see. Hang out with it for a while. Get some good coffee. Phone a friend and spill your guts.
• Prepare a mini picnic lunch and open the window. Make a sketch of a simple object, like a bowl or a bottle. Or do anything else you can to break the stream of negative thoughts.