Saturday, November 3, 2012

So, what happens next?

Just topped 40k on Tiamat's Nest. That's 10k in a month (don't mock, all you NaNo-ers who've probably done close to that in the few days of November already) which is on target. And for me it's a psychological threshold - half a novel!

Things have slowed down in the last week, though, and I'm hoping I can pick up the pace again. I'm at that point where I've written all the early scenes that I'd mapped out in my mind, and I'm asking myself "So, what happens next?"

OK, I know what happens next, but only in broad terms. It's on a par with saying, "Well, Frodo and Sam sneak into Mordor and destroy the ring. Taa-Daa!"

That's great, but doesn't give me much clue as to how to write the next scene.

In fact, different writers could take such a sparse outline and come up with stories that bore no resemblance to each other, apart from the overall end result. The devil is in the detail - what happens from step to step along the way.

I look at my writing in three layers. There's the high level outline, something that could be a one or two paragraph synopsis. The middle layer is the scene level, things that happen, things that people do - this is where the action is. Then there is the writing itself, which puts the flesh on each scene.

In the above example, Tolkien chose some gripping "what next"s: The battle with Shelob, imprisonment and rescue in Cirith Ungol, disguise as orcs to cross Mordor...

With ideas like this in mind, I find I'm ready to sit down at a laptop and write. The fine detail tends to sort itself out along the way. When I know what is supposed to happen in a scene, I can usually visualize and describe the setting, animate the characters, let the dialogue flow. All this is spontaneous and organic.

But it's that middle layer of plotting that I'm struggling with right now. There's a gap to be bridged between the high level outline and the words on the page. What happens next? I need action!

When I was drafting Ghosts, I spent an hour or two each evening writing, but I also have a sheaf of handwritten notes from where I sat out in the sun at lunchtime and poked relentlessly at the "What happens next?" question. These sessions in between "real writing" helped me to keep the writing fed with ideas.

This incremental outlining, this time with my thoughts away from the keyboard, I've realized is an essential part of my writing process, and one that I find I'm missing this time around. Hence the hiccup.

Does any of this resonate with you? Does all your writing take place at a keyboard, or do you need time in between to let ideas develop?


  1. Hi Ian - it's certainly something I've missed 'that space to think and mull' .. and ok I'm not writing a novel, but do constantly think about blog posts - so can quite understand your need for time away.

    So many say a walk is a good way of clearing the air, or sleeping on a project or thought - I've been enjoying getting in the car and driving (on the few occasions I've been able to be away recently) .. my mind mulls then. I can't do it on the train - way too many interruptions!

    Good luck though - sounds as your writing life is on the right track ... and life is quick, quick, slow --- isn't it?! Great you're still enjoying the process and the achievement will be palpable very soon.

    Have fun - cheers Hilary

  2. Sounds like writing is a lot harder work than any of us readers ever imagined. We readers appreciate your efforts.

  3. Hilary, I do some thinking while cycling to & from work - it's a one hour journey each way so plenty of time, but not something I do every day! I did a lot more cycling those years ago when I was starting on Ghosts. However, I need time with pen and paper too, to brainstorm and mind-map. Can't do that on the move.

    Delores, writing might be effortless for some, but I think it is a hard (and sometimes frustrating) slog for most of us.

  4. It always helps me to remember the overall goal and then look for any potential plot reversals and plot complications big and small. It helps me stay on track and hopefully gives the reader a sense that I'm not making it up as I go. Having said that, I totally understand what you mean. Sometimes I'll sit down to write a scene knowing what is supposed to happen and yet not exactly how it is supposed to happen. Its not like a whole novel say 90k words or whatever can just sit there comfortably in a writers head in vivid precise detail. One would go crazy. Even a Tolkien fan who has seen LOTR a million times would be hard pressed to write scene by scene, line by line without blundering it. Yet again I know a few who could maybe prove me wrong on that point:)
    Great post.

  5. I usually write scenes when I get home from a long day at work, but I spend the hour or so commute to and from work earlier in the day to map out in my head the nuts and bolts of what I'm going to write that night.

    I never write any of this stuff down, it just stays in my head and is constantly changing/evolving based on my feelings at the moment. It's akin to relying on instinct as to where my plot should go next on any given night. I have a bare outline, sure, but I need that time in my head before I reach home to really nail it all down. Only then can I get in front of the keyboard and start writing.

    Good luck, Ian!

  6. Actually I've read about famous authors who took very long writing pauses in order to the big picture. I think it's the best idea...take a short break and reanalyze everything.

  7. Martin, those plot complications and reversals are the "middle ground" I'm talking about, along with the bread and butter plot advancements. No, I wouldn't like to try keeping it all in my head either :)

    David, you are lucky to be able to keep those tings in your head. Sometimes that works for me, sometimes by the time I get around to it half of that brilliant knockout scene has fled my mind, and then sometimes I just need a writing implement in hand to help with the thinking. I'm a fiend for hogging the whiteboard in work meetings :D

    Unikorna, sometimes that time away is needed. This novel, in fact, has enjoyed a two-year holiday since I first started on it.

  8. Yes!! This definitely resonates with me. I have to have an outline because when I don't, I ALWAYS get stuck.

    Congrats for reaching your mid-point!!!

  9. Reading about how you write is very educational for me. I dont think I have every really stopped to think about the process of writing a real novel.

    I can dash of a half decent short story at times but I truly think a real book might be beyond me

    (I stopped and had a really good look at your banner tonight too. You are a very talented man)

  10. Lynda, it's amazing how some people can get away without, isn't it?

    Mynx, it's a bit like the difference between painting on a small canvas versus painting a mural. You get a lot more room for expression, but you have to start thinking and planning on all sorts of new scales.

  11. Hello Botanist. I call the slumpy middle Middle Earth, which sounds like one of your stories. A hint for working out what happens next is to stop and think: what five (or more) things could happen next? then follow them in a broad outline til you're happy with one of them. I'm a bit at that point now in my new NaNo novel. Fun, isn't it?

  12. Writers aren't rude when they don't immediately respond to an external conversation. They're simply deep in the throes of an internal one. When I hit a glitch in my writing, my mind picks at it like a kid with a scab until I come up with a satisfactory solution. Could happen when I'm sitting in front of the TV, when I'm cooking a meal, or most often, at 2AM when I'm lying in bed. If I get excited enough about the wee hours solution, I jump out of bed and immediately write it down so I don't forget it in the light of day.

    Congrats on making it to the half-way mark!

  13. Denise, you sound way more organized and disciplined than me :)

    Susan, maybe my children are closet writers then. "Put away the dishes," "lay the table," "time for bed," ... zero response :D

  14. Hi Ian,

    A virtual pat on the back for reaching the half way mark. I'm intrigued by your writing process and yes, much of your approach, resonates with me.

    I do believe I may of mentioned that some of Tolkien's inspiration for "Middle-earth" was evidently made from his observations of the people of the town I live in. This does not surprise me.

    I usually have something formulating in my head before I even get to the keyboard. I even have pen and paper on my bedside stand in case I get some inspiration. Yes, the pen is full and the paper is blank. Having said that, there has been several times that I go straight to my keyboard and write a story right there and then.

    Take good care and happy, fulfilling writing to you.


  15. Thank you, Gary my friend :)

    Question is, are you living amongst hobbits, or orcs?

  16. Congrats on the word count Ian! Your word count is awesome- you've achieved quite a feat even if you are but halfway. And I too am in awe of those who attempt to conquer the NaNo heights-

    As for me, I write like I hike- one hundred steps at a time and then I take a breather. And I always let fast hikers, or bikers, pass me by knowing that I do what I can the only way I can. Cheers!

  17. Danette, that sounds like me, too. Climb that mountain one step at a time.


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