I’ve been working on a novel lately. Well, by lately, I mean something going on 3 years now. I started the thing when I was taking the novel writing course with Long Ridge Writers Group,* plowed through writing the required first 3 chapters along with summary and letter of inquiry, and received positive feedback and encouragement from the instructor of the course. I kept chugging along and hit chapter 10 or 11 or so and came to a dead stop.
That was about a year ago.
I hit the “muddle” as I call it, that point in writing where you have no idea where you’re going and you look at your summary, but it doesn’t really give you any clues, either. The muddle, I am familiar with. I’ve encountered it on, oh, I’ve lost track of the number of novels since I started writing waaaay back in junior high.
I wrote a novelette at the time, actually a trilogy, centered on a group of characters fighting an evil empire in a galaxy far, far away. The original Star Wars had come out a year and half or so earlier and it influenced much of what I did (as it did others of my generation), and I discovered I really enjoyed writing. I wrote short stories through high school and college, won a few awards, received praise from instructors and friends, but floundered my way into the muddle of every single novel I started at that time.
I’d get bored with loss of traction, find some other idea that seemed more likable, and jump ship to work on it until eventually, always, I’d hit the muddle again. Rinse and repeat.**
I took numerous courses in writing and have a bookcase loaded with books on the subject. If there’s a book out there on the topic of writing fiction, I’ve probably read it. If not, I’ve likely skimmed it at the bookstore and decided it contains enough similarity to books I already own that there’s no need of purchasing it.
Yet I continue finding myself in the muddle.
In one of the writing courses I took with him, Mike McQuay always said, “If you find yourself at a slow point in the story, have your protagonist open the door to face a man with a gun.” It was a paraphrase of a Raymond Chandler line***, but the point is, if things are slow, introduce conflict. Numerous books on writing repeat the same information; in fact, it’s the focus of Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham, which I was so recently reminded of while perusing the posts on Kristen Lamb’s Blog, specifically her post on The Anatomy of Conflict.
Scene = Goal (of character) + Conflict (as character runs into someone/something that doesn’t want the protagonist to reach his goal) + Disaster (failure of said character reaching his goal).
This continual development of disaster after disaster (followed by the sequel, as Hickham calls it, wherein the character reacts emotionally to the previous scene, thinks it over, makes a decision, then sets a course of action) drives the story forward and hopefully pulls your reader along with it.
Thing is, whenever I run a role-playing game session, I always do this**** and when I write I think I always do this, but the other day when I looked back through the first few chapters of the current novel I asked (as my son would put it), “Where the beep is the conflict?” (And, yes, he does say “beep” on those occasions he doesn’t say “tartar sauce” or some other Spongebob epithet.)
So back to the basics for me.
Start with the first scene (which I think does work for the current draft) and take it scene-by-scene establishing the point-of-view characters’ goal, find the conflict, and ramp things up. We’ll see how things go from here.
How do you work your way through the “muddle”?
* I’d taken the original Long Ridge Writers course just to force myself to write everyday to hit a deadline and to reinforce what I knew about writing. I enjoyed it enough to take the novel writing course a year or two later.
** I did finish another novel in college, but somehow the move between parents’ house and apartment ate and digested the manuscript. I’ve tried numerous times to rewrite it and given up each time as a lost cause.
***“In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns” is the actual quote, according to Goodreads.
****Well, I say that, but the last campaign I ran–even though my players loved it–seems now as though I’d done little more than railroad them through the whole thing.