As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big believer in writer’s block. However, I am a big believer in the fact that sometimes we just don’t know enough about our stories to write the next part yet. And sometimes, we don’t even have a clue of what should happen next. For me, stewing and fermenting in my subconscious is a big part of my process, and when writing on contract I don’t always have the luxury of time enough for that. For me, not know what comes next happens most frequently in the third quarter of the book. This is the section that always takes the most left-brain work for me to make it right.
I think the reason is that in the first half of the book, I’ve spun out all the story threads, laid down the first steps of the arcs, and raised all sorts of dramatic questions. I’m now standing at the midpoint, staring up that long steep slope to the climax. By virtue of what I have written in the first half, I am somewhat committed to certain paths and choices. But I also want for the events to happen in the most cause-and-effect, increase-the-tension sort of way. AND, as if that’s not enough, I need to continue getting the character’s internal arc, incremental baby steps on the page. That’s where the left brain stuff comes in. When I’m not writing on contract, I usually do a discovery draft first, but when I’m short of time, I have to jumpstart things.
Now let me just say, if you don’t have to do this stuff, my hat’s totally off to you. I envy all you instinctive writers out there! But I also think it can be seductively easy to kid ourselves as to how gripping or well constructed our own writing is, so in addition to helping me actually get words on the page in the first place, this process also comes the closest to letting me look at my own work objectively.
So for the last couple of days, I’ve been brainstorming and playing what happens next. I don’t really even try to make a daily word count at this point because it’s the underlying stuff that I’m working on; the bones and sinew rather than the muscle and skin. (Sorry about that analogy—I’ve been immersed in dragons lately, and that’s pretty much how they see people…)
The other thing is, while I might not know what happens next, I do have this vision in my head of what I want the story to be like when it’s finished; this great glorious vision; one that the story will never ever look like, but even so, I use that blueprint, that mental impression, as a touch stone. Which of all these options before me will most closely recreate on the page that ethereal impression I have in my head?
So in my wip, Phil and Nate Fludd have entered the wyverns cave in search of an intruder. I know they face dangers in the cave as they search for this intruder, but I have only the vaguest impression of what those dangers are. So I make a list of what’s in the cave; infant wyverns, yearlings, and two year old wyverns, and the dangers and risks each present. I also need to design the cavern system so I can see in my minds eye the actual terrain they are traversing and what physical complications and difficulties they might run into.
Then I look at this list and sort of poke at it, wondering which is scarier, a wyvern yearling or a two year old, because during this section of the book (from the midpoint to the climax) I think it is critical to keep winding that tension up, to create a true build to the climax. For myself as a reader, this is most often where some books fall short and it is too easy to put them down.
As I poke at each kernel of a scene, I look for ways to up the tension. For example, let’s have the feeding pit scattered with old bones and carcasses to incorporate some of the conflict in the actual setting and description. When they enter the cave, there is lots of atmosphere, and the apprehension of coming face to face with wyverns for the first time, but is there something else I can do to up the stakes? Hm, yes. Let’s have Nate break the ladder by accident so that they now have no way back out should things get too rough.
That’s the sort of thing I take a couple of days to do. So I’ve basically spent my time designing wyvern caverns and recording the wyvern maturing process from infancy, as recorded in the Fludd family Book of Beasts. As someone who was consistently dinged for daydreaming and making stuff up as a kid, can I just say, I LOVE MY JOB!