Tuesday, December 8, 2009

If I had a hammer... :: 8 Tips For Recognizing When You've Gone Astray

The biggest jam-ups I encounter in the course of my writing come from trying to force an idea into a hole in a story that isn't the same size and shape. My subconscious mind amuses itself by running through my current projects, poking at the thin bits and offering up suggestions, usually when I should be sleeping.

These suggestions are the bane and boon of my existance because if I'm afflicted with an idea that's just-too-cool-to-let-rest lest-I-forget-it, jotting it in the notebook on the nightstand won't do. I have to get up immediately and shoehorn it into my current story regardless of the hour.

Yes, my wife is a saint.

All too often, this requires at least some rewriting, some juggling of storylines and sometimes scrapping or changing significant parts of the narrative altogether. It's the nature of the beast, I'm afraid. The really cool idea waits for no man (or woman). But sometimes, despite all the coffee, dictionaries, source material, writing books and sage advice in the world, it doesn't always work. Cool idea or no, the dawn still finds me with a sheaf of scribbled notes and a blank screen, blood sweat and tears staining my handkerchief.

Because there are times when an idea - no matter how good it seems - just doesn't fit. You can round the peg or square the hole, but if you do either, you have to irrevocably change one of them to bring them both into harmony.

This is the moment all writers dread -- when you realize you need to either get a bigger hammer or a different peg. Usually I find myself going through a series of progressively larger hammers until I've beaten it to death and have to backtrack to a point where both are still recognizable.

Everything's easier to deal with if it has a name, and I call this the Hammer Point

It's not always day-dreams and cool ideas that get me into trouble. Sometimes getting out of trouble gets me into trouble. Recently, I got into a snag by following my own advice. Those seven ideas I posted awhile back can be blessing and curse. They usually work for me, but they're no panacea. Mental tricks (like envisioning the Microsoft cursor flipping you off ) are harmless enough, but if you kill off a character or send your people on a road trip, it can end up changing the story to a degree that isn't always for the best.

Sometimes the sunrise finds me with notes but no narrative because I've been pounding the idea with a succession of larger hammers until it's not a peg anymore. The Hammer Point has been passed. These are the most common flavors I've encountered on the road to the Hammer Point...
  1. The Dialogue Drug -- Clever conversation is a drug and should only be used under doctor's supervision. The difference between dialogue and chitchat is that dialogue moves the plot forward and chitchat just takes up space.
  2. Schizophrenic Much? -- When your main characters don't act like themselves in order to sell the idea, it's inherently a bad idea.
  3. Don't Complain -- It sometimes seems funny in the dead of the night to have a character complain if the story is dragging. It's not. If the story is dragging enough that even the characters notice, you should fix it, not make fun of it.
  4. Don't Explain -- How much expository dialogue does it take to set the scene for your oh-so-clever idea? There's an old adage that if you have to explain a joke, it's not funny. Adages generally only grow to a ripe old age because they're true.
  5. Creator's Remorse -- If you introduce a new character for one scene, you might find you are stuck with them. Is this gag really worth the trouble of fleshing-out and then disposing of another character?
  6. Save Gas -- I know I said "Take it on the road" but try not to change settings just because you thought up a good gag that won't work in the setting you're already inhabiting.
  7. Alcoholism -- There's a tendency on film and in books to have the characters drink for comedic effect or as the lubricant for a social scene. I think it's a bit trite and I even made one of my characters a recovering alcoholic just to cut myself off from this particular trope.
  8. Will It End? -- If your new Really Cool Idea forces you to change the ending you were working toward, it's probably worth reconsidering. If it moves the end beyond the standard word count for your genre, it's definitely a bad idea.
Bu-b-b-but it was really cool idea! Now what to I do with it?

These are indicators that you should bench these ideas, not delete them altogether. Well, the character complaint should be deleted, but the rest might be recycled in the right circumstances. In fact, I have a file for each project that's called "Snippets" which get moved into a common folder on my computer once I've either finished the story or feel assured I won't find a use for it later in the story. (Incidentally, another trick for getting out of a jam is to trawl the snippets folders for ideas that might fit this story even if they didn't fit the last one.)

Sometimes a good idea that changes the characters or the story entirely can be a good thing. If a story just isn't working, something's gotta give. Maybe that hole should be square. Maybe you really did just need a bigger hammer. Maybe that off-the-wall idea was just the shot of espresso your story needed in order to wake it up and get it moving. It's entirely up to you how big a hammer you're willing to try before you decide to quit swinging and save it for the sequel.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).