Oh Hell, We’re Where?

or how to tackle plot impasses.

Dead End - close upSometimes We Take a Wrong Turn…

How often as writers have we emerged from the wilderness of our words to find we’re not exactly where we’re meant to be? It happens to plotters and pantsers alike. The story takes a tiny deviation and suddenly we’re in a whole (hole?) new place.

A Story About an Accidental Turn

Year Nine school camp took us to Apollo Bay/Ottway Ranges along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria for four nights. The same camp had been running at the school for years: two nights by the beach in Apollo Bay, two nights roughing it in the bush, sleeping under bivvies in preparation for Outward Bound in Year Ten.

Our group started with the roughing it bit and were dropped off, with our backpacks, to hike down into the camping area by the river.

Miss Dorman, our PE teacher, told us we were taking a slightly different route to other years, but it wouldn’t be much longer: two hours tops! One hour went by, followed by another, then another. The afternoon air cooled our shoulders, our backs ached from carrying heavy backpacks for the first time, and it became apparent we were “just a little bit lost.” It was okay, we were told–the gorge ahead was where we had to be.

On sunset we came out of the bush, on the edge of the gorge, several kilometres too close to the coast and without a trail down.

Gorge vs Dead End

It is a common writing topic: dead ends and writing yourself out again.

That night back in 1988 we weren’t at a dead-end. We’d simply arrived at a place which was much harder than anticipated to traverse. We hung tight and waited for morning and a new way out.

What if as writers we considered our plot impasses as arriving on the edge of a gorge facing a more difficult trip down, rather than being in dark, nasty alley facing a brick wall?

Are we really at the end? Or have we simply arrived at a place where there is a huge divide between where we are and where we want/need to be.

The metaphor of a dead-end provide two alternatives: give up or go back. Neither of these adds momentum to writing, in fact it draws energy from the writing process and pummels our confidence.

Do we really want to go all the way back… and how far do we go back? Is it possible to spot where we lost our way? Is it worth throwing the towel in? Not exactly an inspiring mindset.

The metaphor of a gorge gives hope, a way forward, albeit a more difficult one than we’d originally considered. But a way forward nonetheless.

A Light to Illuminate the Way

(Back to Year Nine Camp!) When night fell, the sky above the gorge erupted into a sea of stars, freed from the light pollution of the city, and below on the beach, emergency beacons sprung to life. We had no way of communicating our location or the fact we were all fine (it was 1988 and years before any of us would see a mobile phone). Seeing those beacons, gave me the fortitude to make the best of our less than salubrious circumstances. Someone and something was out there. And tomorrow night, we would be too.

The following exercise is the light to give you fortitude to keep on going. As an extra bonus, it has the potential to provides a rough map  off the edge and down into the gorge.

The PoV of Three

Several years ago I took a short story workshop with award-winning Brisbane author Trent Jamieson, (author of the Death Works series, Roil, Nights Engines and a bunch of amazing short stories). To date it is the best writing workshop I’ve attended. Trent made us write, and write, and write. And then made us read out what we had written!

The PoV of Three exercise I’m about to share, is based on one of the Trent’s exercises.

First

Think of a short scene, any scene you can dream up (not something you are currently working on) where: 1) something happens, and 2) it involves at least two people.

Second

Choose one of the characters present and write the scene from through their eyes in the first person PoV. Write about 250 words.

Third

Choose another character and write the scene through their eyes using limited third person PoV.

Lastly

Write the scene through the eyes of someone not participating in the scene–but who is witness to the scene. This may be written from the limited 3rd person or 1st person POV.

The 360 Degree View

The scene I wrote in the workshop focused on a midwife attending a birth (an idea inspired by the [Fiction] Friday prompt of hearing two heartbeats). When I moved into the second part and the limited third person PoV, the character I chose looked around the room and in the corner, in the shadows, was a man! The last thing I expected to see in a birthing room.

Intrigued by who he was, and why he was there, I selected him as the character in the third part. In 250 words I realised who he was, why he was there, and an entire novella* was born (no pun intended!).

The PoV of Three exercise gets us down off that damn edge and toward the cool, free-flowing waters of the narrative, by:

  • providing a panorama of a single scene–something we wouldn’t have in the normal course of writing. It allows us to see things we may not have seen, through the eyes of whoever is telling the story.
  • opening the narrative to alternate thoughts and experiences of what is going on.
  • keeping us writing–momentum begets momentum.

It is perfect for moving forward when the only options appear to be going back, or worse still, giving up. I dare any one to say they don’t find SOMETHING employing this exercise at a plotting impasse. Not the solution perhaps, or a clear-cut, gently graded path down, but a compass setting with the kernel of an idea to explore further. And for those attempting NaNo and finding themselves here, it’s a better option than the Shovel of Death.

So, next time you stumble out of the narrative and find yourself in unknown literary environs, don’t freak out and see it as the end of the world. It won’t necessarily be easy, but there’s always an evil plan ‘Z’ (for those Spongebob fans reading) to propel you across the wastelands of your plot impasse.

Happy Endings

That night in the Ottways we had run out of water, eaten everything that didn’t require cooking, and were a little freaked out about being ‘momentarily lost’, but… we had warm sleeping bags and George Michael. Yes! My friend Rachael jammed her battery-powered, pink twin-deck tape player in her backpack. Out into the virgin bush, the heterosexual version of George rocked out (amongst other songs) Faith to a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls who couldn’t sleep.

And several days later we appeared on the front page of the Colac Times–the only real claim to fame I have from my high school years! The photo showed us dirty and bedraggled, but with big smiles because word quickly spread that even though we were to continue our walk to base-camp, the SES had water with them and were offering to drive our backpacks to camp.

A version of this article was first published at Write Anything website on the 13th July, 2011.

* From that original novella idea came a novel that splintered into a cycle of five and then six novellas and a brand new sub-genre of fiction called #birthpunk (just in case you weren’t quite sold on the power of that one small exercise!)

Destruct the Distraction

…or how discipline and austerity became my new best friend!

It’s a no brainer: I’m happiest when I am writing and when I have written. My close friend Amanda says she always knows when I’ve been writing—apparently my eyes twinkle!

Yet I allow things to keep me from writing.

CHOKING

I’ve struggled to find the writing mojo this year. Behind the scene I’ve been consumed with family issues—the sort that wring you out and then come back for seconds and thirds. It’s no surprise I haven’t been writing on one level. But once upon a time, writing was the most successful form of escapism I had.

Last year I wanted the whole body, alternate consciousness experience of writing. And I got it—especially with POST MARKED: PIPER’S REACH, but with everything I worked on from ELYORA to  short script adaptations.

I haven’t been able to recreate the same experience or even feel a flutter of the same energy for my current WIP.

THE FIRST PROBLEM

Since the start of February I’ve been trying to work on the first novella in the BYRTHED series (the poorly named, Sylvie’s Story). I started writing it in 2009. I promised I would return to it in 2010, 2011 and again in 2012 (though I at least did some plotting, character development and wrote a short story set in the world last year). I’d liken it to the pointless act of breathing into a long-dead corpse if it weren’t for the success I had last year picking up ‘cold-case’ stories and not just finishing them, but pushing them through to publication.

SYLVIE’S STORY is tough going for a number of reasons. I’ve never had to build a “big world” for a long work. While I continue to believe (as a pantser) the hard yards of world building occur in the second draft, I have to have some idea of the world my characters are traversing. I have some idea of the worlds above and below Rosslin but it has been slow going watching the world unfold through Sylvie, Joseph and Sophie’s eyes.

The process has been amply supported by Rob Cook who has sent through articles on futuristic worlds and he really groks the world I’m trying to write. If not for Rob I may have thrown my hands up in the air and decided it was all too hard. Especially when I realised I had the wrong voice, perspective, tense. Talk about getting it wrong—really wrong!

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH…

I promised I would keep turning up to the page until something happened. I read this inspiring Order to the Chaos of Life by Isabel Allende several weeks ago at Brain Pickings. I’ve steeled myself to the fact it’s hard in the beginning and turning up to the page will eventually provide a breakthrough. A little Dory voice in my head sings: just keeping swimming, swimming, swimming.

Last week I changed the POV and sparked a little momentum but there were so many other more (temporarily) fulfilling things to do…like mop the floor!

THE SECOND PROBLEM

Last week Dr Kim Wilkins publicised a Writing Resilience survey. I opened it, started answering the questions and the full destructive nature of my social media interaction (ie. distraction-cum-interruption) hit me. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter; an incessant (and unnecessary) compulsion to check email is a close second. I’m the consummate creator of interruption and disruption, especially when I’m floundering.

I jokingly said to a friend last week I needed another Rabbit Hole—to be sequestered away with nothing but writing (believe me, the Rabbit Hole gets mighty boring after an hour of not writing).

So I emulated the Rabbit Hole to the best of my ability this morning, coupling the leaving of the house with the leaving behind of my phone: no Twitter, Facebook, email, text messaging—just me, the computer, my manuscript and the old iPod cranking out  time-tested writing tunes.

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AN INTERESTING OBSERVATION

In 2003 I was in my second year of uni and I was the kind of student who made over-achievers look like slackers! Dave and I were shacked up in a two-bedroom townhouse and there was a little bit more money hanging around than there had been the year previous. This meant I could keep a packet of Tim Tams in the fridge downstairs during assessment hot spots. When I hit a tough bit in an essay or prac report, I’d go down, grab one biscuit and usually, that was all it took to unknot my brain and for the words to follow.

This morning I slowly sunk into the opening section of the novella. It took almost half an hour to thump the opening paragraph into submission. As soon as the words refused to comply, when the concepts broadsided me, I reached into the front of my satchel for my phone.

My phone has become my Tim Tams.

The thing is; the Tim Tams were only ever intended as a micro break for headspace. Diving into social media is not that, it is the most insidious type of distraction.

It takes 20-25 minutes to regain pre-interruption focus. Ouch! When I add up the number of times I’m ‘distracted’ or ‘interrupted’ in a single morning, ‘squirrel’ becomes the sound of nails being hammered into the coffin of progress.

HABIT FORMING

21 is the number of days experts say is optimal for habit forming. So for the next 21 days I am committing to one hour of distraction free writing in the morning. This means turning the internet off if I’m home, leaving my phone at home if I am going out, and slowly weaning myself off the ‘phone as safety blanket’. (Just in case you are wondering, I’m not taking up Tim Tams!)

When I finished writing this morning my blood was warm again. True, it had taken longer than the hour I had budgeted for, but at the end I had 948 almost brand new words. Better than that, I just wanted to keep writing (dang that midday appointment!)

The thrill of a story unfolding infused me. And still does.

The novella feels do-able now.

What are your major distractions to writing? How do you deal with them? Especially when writing is tough going?

Interior Monologues in Writing

The internal/interior monologue is possibly one of the least used points of view these days. An internal monologue is something associated more with the soliloquy of the theatre than a stand alone piece of literature.

“Points of View: an Anthology of Short Stories” is published in sections based on point of view.  The editors James Moffet and Kenneth McElheny say an internal monologue is like ‘overhearing someone’s thoughts’. They suggest three different scenarios which facilitate an internal monologue:

  • the narrator is reacting to his immediate surroundings – the monologue tells the story of what is going on.
  • the narrator presents their thoughts as memories – the monologue review past events and connects them with present ones.
  • the narrator’s train of thoughts are neither a record of the present nor a recollection of the past – the monologue is purely a reflection, and in itself, the story.

While few short stories are compromised entirely of a monologue, many writers use this point of view in a limited capacity. Stephen King’s “The Shining” utilises the internal monologue–in tiny snippets, rather than in large slabs–delineated from the rest of the narrative, through the use of brackets.

He closed his eyes and all the old phrases began to parade through his mnd, it seemed there must be hundreds of them.

(creaking up not playing with a full deck lostya marbles guy just went looney tunes he went up and over the hig side went bananas lost his football went crackers nuts half a seabag)

All meaning the same thing: losing your mind.

“No,” he whimpered, hardly aware that he had been reduced to this, whimpering with his eyes shut like a child. “Oh no, God. Please, God no.”

Monologues also appear in the guise of diary entries and letters, which perhaps are more palatable to a reader for large slabs of introspection.

Two stories in Chinese Whisperings: The Red Book are excellent examples of the use of diary entries as monologue pieces. Paul Servini’s uses the diary entry to good effect in his story “Discovery”, juxtaposing the assured, business-like Elizabeth, with her less secure inner self.

What now?

The last ten years of my life have been spent trying to forge a career in business. Yet, it was more than a career at stake. I was looking for an identity after Robin. I found it. The cost was high but I paid it willingly because it made me into someone. I needed that. So I closed my eyes and went for it. Today, someone opened my eyes and I recoiled.

Is this really what I’ve become? And is there any way out?

Jasmine Gallant’s “Not My Name” is told entirely through diary entries. Her narrator’s deteriorating mental condition is expressed in the confusion of the tenses – his memories are told in the present tense and his every day observations in the past tense. He alternates between observing the mundane now and the terrifying past.

I am so cold—huddled at my little desk, pounding on this keyboard— I feel the breath rush out of my lungs, freezing the air in front of me. A coffee sits beside me, its warmth leaks away. A cigarette smokes lazily in the ashtray. Rings drift to the ceiling like a young girl’s hair. Stray books and clothes have a life of their own and come to rest wherever they find space in our small, cramped living room.

Why do I write these things?

These things of no importance?

While internal monologues give us an unparalleled intimate view into a character’s life, thoughts and feelings, it is a fairly limited approach not to mention a biased one.

Interior monologues can also be tough to articulate authentically. Blair Hurley of The Creative Writing Corner, says the challenge with writing interior monologues is two fold:

  • thinking often does not occur in grammatically correct sentences. We don’t think in big words. Our thoughts are often broken and disjointed. Authentic-sounding interior dialogue needs to capture the essence of this, however…
  • if we are too authentic and accurately capture what thought is really like, we end up with an  incomprehensible quagmire of text.

Hurley says for a monologue to be touching and effective it needs balance.

While I wasn’t a great fan of Dorothy Parker’s “But the One on the Right” she does strike a working balance between cohesive expression and the sporadic, randomness of thought. It was just a shame I didn’t really care too much about the situation in which her protagonist finds herself (I’m not one for whinging which forms a fair chunk of the monologue.) Having said that, it comes with an excellent ending and a good example of how one might include direct speech into an interior monologue.

We all like a challenge don’t we?

March’s writing challenge is to spend 10 minutes writing a simple interior monologue. How easy is it to replicate your thoughts or the thoughts of a character in an authentic manner, but also allowing the reader ‘in’? A bit like trying to transpose Shakespeare into text speak?

This blog post first published on the Write Anything website March 1st 2010