Friday, May 01, 2009

How to fall back in love with your story

From 14-year-old Dani, a question I think many of us can relate to:

I'm a fourteen year old girl who loves to write. I have a question and it would really help if you could answer it: what do I do when I get really bored of my writing? When I start a story I've wanted to start ever since I was a child, and I get deep in the middle of it, and I suddenly feel like starting a new story? In one of my stories, I'm very close to the end, but I haven't written in it for months and I feel like I grew out of it, mostly because I'm bored of it, and because my writing wasn't so good from a couple months ago (really, it improves when I write a lot). So, what do I do to get back into the story again?

It's such a good question, I think I'll [attempt to] answer it here. Thanks, Dani!

So what do you do when you're bored of your story? Pick one answer:

a) start a new story; you can always come back to this one later

b) watch TV

c) slam your laptop closed on your head -- that would be more fun than continuing with your current story

d) re-inspire yourself

I think the answer is obvious. It's (a). Start something new! Wake up your brain! Fall in love with writing again! It shouldn't be hard, right? It's supposed to be fun. Ha ha. Of course, you know what the real answer is, though I have been known to fall prey to (a) more than once (also known as "the slutty new idea" or the "newt" which stands for New Weird Thing), and I would argue that sometimes it is indeed what one needs to do! But, the real right answer is (d) re-inspire yourself on your current work. It is in your power to do so. I promise. I have done it, even when it seemed impossible and I'd rather have been digging holes in my rocky back yard, or . . . or . . . heck, waiting tables again. Really. It can be done. So, how?

I'll tell you what I do, but first I want to address the two main things that I think happen partway into a story or novel. The first is that you just don't know what happens next. You didn't know when you began, you just started with a glimmering idea or premise or a chatty character, and suddenly it's like you're driving through a tunnel and it dead-ends in the darkness. There's just nowhere to go. OR, perhaps you thought you knew what was going to happen all the way through, you've even got an outline to follow, but now you find you just don't care anymore. It's all flat and stupid, the characters wouldn't really do what you thought they'd do, and you're just sick of the whole mess. Yes? Well, for me it tends to be the second choice there, and it's a sad sucky place to be when your story feels flat and stupid.

In any case, the thing to do in both cases is the same: brainstorm. I mean, really brainstorm. Don't just sit around bored pretending to think about your story. First of all: in cases such as these, always think in writing. In a notebook or a working document. Seriously. The act of writing down your thoughts helps keep you focused, and I find that when I write down my brainstorming, my random, disconnected thoughts have a way of coalescing into something less random, less disconnected, gradually fighting their way toward order and sense and meaning.

So: get out a notebook or open a new working document, and sum up in as few words as possible what the problem is. It might be:

I don't know what happens next.

If it's that, your task is: Come up with at least a dozen things that might happen next. And I do not mean start out to come up with a dozen and stop at two. Really come up with a dozen, or better yet 25 or a hundred, even if you feel like you're really reaching. You want to really reach. You want to think past the boundaries that your brain has so far set for you. They're stupid, false boundaries. There's plenty of fresh grazing on the other side of those fences. So. Come up with ideas. Ridiculous amounts of ideas. More than you could ever use. And this is important: be willing to change anything and everything about the idea you thought you had. Nothing is set in stone. There's a natural impulse to grip onto whatever your initial idea for the story was, but don't. It may be that the reason you're stuck is that there wasn't enough there to begin with, or that it wasn't quite right. If it was, you wouldn't be stuck, right? So, set all your fixed ideas about your story free, let them fly away. [Cliche alert] If they come back to you . . . yeah, you know the rest. The idea here is to explore the vast world of possibility that, in the early gleeful days with a new idea, you did not explore. Worlds can open up. Pathways can unfurl. It can be like being lost in a labyrinth and suddenly finding the path you know will lead to the center. I don't think enough would-be writers do this when they stall. You have be rigorous. You don't sit around waiting for the perfect idea to land on you like a butterfly. You go after it with a net. You climb out to the end of slender tree branches reaching for it.

Yeah? Or, what you write at the beginning of your new working doc might be:

"It's all gone flat and stupid. I don't care anymore."

This seems a little trickier than the above, but it's really the same thing, and you attack it the same way. You come up with a zillion ideas of ways to make yourself care again. For me, writing Blackbringer I had a major stuck-in-the-swamp-of-apathy period fairly early in the writing, and I stayed stuck there for quite a while, until -- during enforced brainstorming -- I hit upon an idea that marked a major change to the story as I knew it, but suddenly lit my mind on fire with possibilities. See, in the initial phases of Blackbringer, the character of Talon did not exist. There was a different boy character, and for so many reasons, he just wasn't helping carry the story forward. Still, I liked him. It was hard to uncreate him. But once I did, and dreamed up this new character Talon, a warrior prince with tattoos on his face, a gentle nature, and a secret penchant for knitting (but not just any old knitting, mind you), he brought new life and direction to the story and I found my path forward. I found a hundred new things to be excited about.

Basically: think think think. Think in writing. Think far past anything you've come up with so far. Be willing to discard any of your fixed "sacred" ideas. Be willing even to tear down the very foundation of your story and replace it with something new, if that's what you have to do.

Don't be a bored zoo lion who knows its supper will be tossed to it at the same time every day:
Nothing will be tossed to you. Nothing. Ever. You have to be fierce.
You have to make it happen or it just won't. I like to think of it as "writing with a knife strapped to your thigh." Not for the lazy! Not for the cowardly!

You can do it!

Now, in a dash and without proof-reading the above, I am off to the midwife for some belly-checking. Happy writing!

19 comments:

Commander Kip said...

Ha! I love this. It makes so much sense. Several of my early stories have crashed like that - I think of some awesome new idea, and the old story gets shoved in a drawer somewhere, and I forget about it. I'm awful with plots, so a bunch of my stories have died after, like, the first chapter, because nothing happens or ever will happen. Thank you for reminding me to get in there and get inspired!

(By the way, my friend Lady Arin totally freaked out when she saw that you had commented on my blog. You made our day. Thanks!)

Natalie said...

"Be willing to change anything and everything about the idea you thought you had."

This is something I have just grasped in the last few months, and I can't explain how much my writing has improved since. Excellent advice.

Being open to that change, being willing to slash characters or ideas or scenes is such a hard step to take on the writing road. But it is worth it.

I used to look at my writing as if it was set in stone—now I see it as clay. I can remold and reshape until it gets thrown into the kiln.

storyqueen said...

I have the answer!! (Well, kind of...works for me, anyway)

I let myself work on at least three manuscripts at a time. That way, when I get tired of one, I move to the next (no excuses for not writing!)

However, the pieces must be very different. Maybe an easy reader, a poetic picture book and a children's novel. I don't think I could handle three novels at the same time!

Again, let me say how much I love reading your blog. I am a total junkie for reading about the writing process and you write about the "trenches" of writing all the time. Love it!

Shelley

Heather said...

Happy belly-checking! Do we get to know what the mysterious other boy character was called?

Thanks for this. I'm not so much bored with my story as completely lost with what to do. I'm not really sure I know what it is about. But the concepts all work the same don't they? Off to brainstorm.....

Laini Taylor said...

Heather, his name was Acorn. He had the same *handicap* as Talon, but was a Never Nigh boy, and Poppy's cousin. There was a lot more stuff taking place in Never Nigh in the early drafts, including Magpie's old house having been there waiting for her all these years, kept in order by Snoshti, with all her stuff in it. I was sorry to have to cut that stuff, but it really needed to go, and it worked with the story, and the idea that Magpie really didn't have a *home* and didn't really belong in fussy Never Nigh at all. There was so much I'd planned for that place, so many scenes I had to trash, but so it goes.

tanita davis said...

A lot of times for me having someone else's eyes/ears on my story helps me become unbored. I had an awesome conversation with my agent who started with, "I don't want to hijack your story, but..." and proceeded to discuss some things he thought should happen, and I got all excited and interrupted him and ran over him -- and yanked my story right back, told him I had to go, and went to write, inspired.

Man, I love those conversations.

Some truly excellent information.

Amber said...

Thanks again for your wisdom.

;)

Kate said...

Laini,

This is exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you for such great advice.

Kate

carolyn said...

Wow, I love this. Great post.

myrna said...

Thanks! I'm re-writing, and your advice applies just as well to that. It really is RE-WRITING, not editing. My first draft is even uglier than I thought it was.

Arrin said...

Hi! thanks for all your tips on writing!! I saw you had commented on my friend Commander Kip's blog... I decided I'd finally comment on your blog too!! I also have read Blackbringer like a zillion times! I'm sooo excited for Silksinger to come out! I'm trying to write a novel -- but my problem is I have the long term plot... just not the emediate actions!

I think its wonderful that you have blogs and give tips to begining writers -- I always have questions for the authors of my favorite books!

Lady Arin

Karina's Pen said...

This was such great advice. In the past, I've abandoned so many writing projects for this reason too--I just simply lost interest. This time around, I've been keeping notes in a notebook and I haven't tied myself to anything, so when new turns come up, I follow them willingly and that is helping to keep me both interested and focused.

I hope your belly checking went well!

Lisa Schroeder said...

Laini, this is a fabulous post, thank you! I get questions from teen writers quite frequently, and I will be sending them here to read this! :)

Patry Francis said...

This is wonderful, Laini. The fierce lion says it all!

Kunegond said...

Thanks for the advices and sharing your experience. Very helpful. I am also stuck in my short story and I stopped writing for a while. I know I shouldn't do. But your post made me awake. I also appreciate 14 year old Dani had this idea to ask you on the subject. And you bother yourself to respond him publicly. Thanks again and with all my best.

Stephanie Perkins said...

That's funny. I don't REMEMBER writing you as a fourteen-year-old named Dani, but apparently I did. Maybe I sleep-type?

Personally, I've been doing a lot of (B) lately.

Wonderful advice, as always :) And so timely.

persnickety_jen said...

I fall firmly in the first camp - also fondly known as Grass is Always Greener Camp. (And yes, we've brought a flag.)

Sometimes procrastinating on a writing project has helped me come up with a lot of ideas for other stories I have in the mix. But, whenever I can't bring myself to brainstorm on paper or feel I've hit the wall, I try to get together with another writing buddy. Sometimes, just talking through a story and answering someone else's questions helps get me through a rough patch. I'm a firm believer in the idea that there's no problem that a couple cups of coffee can't solve.

CaitieCatherwood1314 said...

Great advice! I'm going to try it right now! Thanks!

~ Caitie

Katja said...

Oh wow. This is a great post. Thank you!