Writing about writing so I can get back to writing because today I’m having a hard time writing

I'm having a great time writing this thing that I can't get too specific about, but I'm severely blocked on today's work, so I thought I'd talk about writing instead of writing, in the hopes that it shakes up my brain and lets me get back to writing.

When I write fiction, the first thing I do is break the story into acts, then into important things within those acts, and then into a few key scenes. Think of it like a map, with some pins pushed into it showing a route from beginning to end. It's a zoomable map, so some of the pins are closer together on a well-defined path, while others are more general.

Once I have that done, all I have to do is connect those pins into a narrative, allowing myself the freedom to wander off the main road from time to time if something catches my interest*. I need to be able to visualize scenes as I write them, and I need to hear the characters speak in their own voices, so they don't all sound like me. On the first draft, though, I don't worry about all that too much, because I know I'm going to get another shot at it before I turn it in, and it is always easier to rewrite something than it is to fill up an empty page.

I usually find some really interesting side trips during the first draft, either because a character told me to go left when I had planned to go right, or because a scene felt false, for some reason. I love that, because when it happens, I get to watch a little story unfold in my head, like I'm watching a movie, because I didn't plan for it to happen. The evil twin that comes with that, though, is that there are occasionally things that I thought were awesome, that I couldn't wait to show readers, but discovered that the story didn't need them.

So, hear me now: Sometimes, you're going to have an awesome idea that just doesn't fit into the story, and you have to let it go. It's still awesome, and you should keep it in a file for something else, but you could make yourself crazy trying to force it into a scene that clearly doesn't need it.

As evidence, I offer the last six hours of my life, and now I desperately hope my goddamn brain will let me get on with the story, because I haven't accomplished anything close to what I needed to accomplish today.

*I figure that if it's interesting enough to catch my interest, when I already know what the whole thing is about, it's probably interesting enough to catch a reader's interest, so it's worth exploring.

43 thoughts on “Writing about writing so I can get back to writing because today I’m having a hard time writing”

  1. Oh lord there is so much truth here. Especially this bit:

    “So, hear me now: Sometimes, you’re going to have an awesome idea that just doesn’t fit into the story, and you have to let it go. It’s still awesome, and you should keep it in a file for something else, but you could make yourself crazy trying to force it into a scene that clearly doesn’t need it.”

    Nothing more keyboard-throwingly painful than realizing you need to throw out an idea you’ve spent the last week shoehorning in. I find that it happens a LOT with characters…
    Example: “But this character! He’s so fun to write! He does all these cool things! Who cares that he doesn’t have any resolution?”
    And into the Graveyard of Characters™ he goes… Hopefully I can still resurrect him (as a zombie?) and give him his own tale someday…
    A great post here, Wil – thanks for sharing. :)

  2. So beautifully true. Also, if there’s something about the character that is really cool and interesting but remains completely irrelevant to the story through the entire first 50,000 words, probably it doesn’t matter. I’m trying to convince myself of that right this very minute. (Well, not this very minute, I was actually reading your blog for a nice distraction instead while I struggled with the issue…)

  3. Goals, schmoals… sometimes a day of writing is just a day of writing, even if it is narrative meta-garbage. Not that your post is meta-garbage… meh, you know what I mean.
    Besides, aren’t you supposed to be relaxing a bit?
    I tell you though, it’s a damn shame that taking the proverbial knife to our favorite scenes never gets easier…

  4. I’m with you on this. I’ll have to admit that I’m cheating by going back to the novel I tried to start last year during NaNo, but only because it hasn’t left me and nothing new has come to mind.
    And, I am totally with Wil on his post. In the past few weeks, the ideas and concepts for my novel have changed quite a bit. What started out as something based in the near future is now looking like having a more dystopian setting. Also, I’m sure I’ll see some other characters come to life over the next approx. 50 days.

  5. I feel your pain, dude. I’m going over the final draft of my second book in a frenzy right now, because it’s due for proofing tomorrow. (Note that I’m reading your blog instead of pushing through, because I’m a weak, weak man…)
    I’ve gone over it about a million times, and I *just now* ripped out a big chunk of a chapter because it didn’t work.
    BRAIN, Y U NO SEE THAT SOONER?
    On the plus side, my cover art arrived, and I’m pretty stoked about how it came out. W00t! http://wp.me/pifqR-6y
    In any case, the last six hours are still a win in my opinion, no matter what came out of it. You maintained AIC discipline, the only thing that really matters in writing.
    AIC, of course, stands for Ass In Chair.

  6. Me, too! I spent the first week of this month planning out a novel that–surprise!–I am never going to write. Now I’m forging ahead with something new, that feels a lot better. A lot more interesting.
    And still freaking out.

  7. Thanks, but all credit goes to Vincent Chong, Cleverest Cover Artist in the World(tm)!
    Oh, I dunno if you ever got it, but I secretly sent you an e-copy of my other book a few weeks ago, with a sappy message and lots of tearful hugging. (Message did not include hugging.)
    No response necessary, of course, just a tip of the hat.

  8. Very interesting to hear about your writing process for fiction, especially since it is very different from my own. I wanted to ask – do you think your background as an actor affected how you formulate your ideas into acts?
    I’ve done a lot of short stories and even a work of fiction once…and for me it would always start with a character just popping into my head, or oddly enough, seeing them in a dream. Then I’d just sit and think about who they were and then they would pretty much tell their story themselves. However…I do recall some parts of the story coming to me in bits…I’d see one character with a clearly defined path from beginning to end…and another who I knew would fit in there somewhere and then I’d eventually find the proper place for them. Mostly everything I saw in my head like a movie, but sometimes it took a little mental oil to get the gears moving so to speak.
    After I finished the first book…two more sequels popped into my head and being that my initial novel was, to be very candid, a big pile of crap…it took me some time to turn off the idea valve because I will probably never write the books…but it is fun sometimes to just let the scenes play in my head and see the progression of the characters and story arcs that I still feel an emotional connection to.
    Especially fun on rainy days like today when I am contemplating a move to another state and wondering how different my life may be a few months from now. :)

  9. I will comb the e-mail archives now!
    TO THE ENCOMBINATOR! ARCHIVE SEARCH ACTIVATE!!
    [Searching…]
    woot! Found it and downloaded to my Kindle.
    Thank you, sir, and good luck with the new book. Don't forget to have fun, and thank you for your kind words.

  10. Will Hindmarch is one of my very good friends, a frequent inspiration, and a not-often-enough collaborator, so it doesn't surprise me that he's infected my subconscious.

  11. I used to break down my writing like that before starting but as it never ends where I thought it would, I stopped. I’m also prepping for NaNoWriMo, my second year participating, and I started writing all the basics, before remembering what a failure that ends up being for me, so I have character names and the idea for the opening and that’s it. I shall wait until Nov 1st to do anymore.
    As for awesome ideas that don’t fit, I have a file full of various stories and ideas stored on multiple electronic resources (yeah I’m big on backing up my back ups). Sometimes I’ll be working on a piece and it just dies, only to have part of it resurrected in a different piece.
    Hope you were able to get something accomplished on your story. I think sometimes a brain dump is necessary to clear the way.

  12. Excellent way to visualize the story! I may actually put up butcher paper and get some round-head pins, and ‘map’ my next storyline out.

  13. Interesting…I am always fascinated by the creative process people use to write stories. I read the autobiography of a well known Western writer who said that after writing down just a few notes, he would create his novels in one sitting (and this was on a typewriter!). :)
    I once had the opportunity to ask one of my favorite comic book artists how she formulated her ideas for her incredible stories and artwork (Wendy Pini of Elfquest) and she wrote a very detailed response on how she did this…I made sure to save it and I even printed out copies just to be safe (lol). It was a bit over my head, but it was still a trip to read.

  14. I once learned a very important thing about writing on this very blog. When you have writer’s block you have to give yourself permission to write something bad and go back to fix it later. It’s made all the difference in my own writing. I can finish long pieces now without getting completely frustrated half way through because it’s OK if I write little gems of awfulness. It actually keeps me entertained when i’m editing. I once had to write about 15 pages of complete drivel to get back to good stuff.
    I’m talking stuff like: “The man was hot. Temperature hot. The woman was hot too, but not the same kind of hot. She was hot hot”. For pages. It was actually fun to write like that for a while.
    So go write something bad and give that writer’s block hell!

  15. I’m amazed you’re so detailed with your book prep, Wil…but then again, I suppose anyone who outlines would be, compared to me. :D
    The only reason I get anywhere near outlining is that, at some point, the ideas start crowding in like soldiers to the chow line and I have to do something about it or the ideas will (old fashion horror movie voice) escape my brain! MWAHAHAHA! (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.)
    Conversely, I completely understand characters escaping from you. My favorite example of this from my current manuscript (a Roman á clef) is when my male lead is telling his fiancee how pissed he was that he had to stop shooting a movie and go back to America to get clean–and completely insulted the actor who replaced him in the process. I read over that section when I was finished and thought, “Oh my Goddess! [X] just insulted [Y]!” Of course, the trouble with a Roman á clef is that when one character insults another, it’s inevitably the author insulting a real person and…O, what a mess! (But I’m keeping that part, because it’s very good. :D )

  16. One of my favorite pieces of writing is one of those little digressions — “The Mapmaker,” now published in the introduction of Fragile Things, though I first heard it at Last Angel in Los Angeles the first time I visited. It made me cry and I never understood why. I still don’t understand why it affects me so much, but it does, and I was so very thrilled when I saw it in Fragile Things that I can’t really explain.

  17. The fact that you are writing again is awesome and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next!
    We just got back from our Epic Road Trip ™ which totaled 23 days, 10 states (and technically one province) and 8800 kms. Many adventures were had. We were able to see your latest Big Bang Theory episode when I attended the Sept 27 taping and I thought it was your best work on the show yet! I did have a question about the production. I found the audience comedian/wrangler kind of annoying. I understand that is the usual thing for sitcoms with studio audiences but as an actor do you find it distracting?
    Tomorrow is back to reality, back to work but like you I feel like my brain has been reset and is ready to do science again. Stand back.

  18. It’s always interesting to read about other writers’ processes because everyone has a different way of composing a story. Me, I go for the start-with-a-cool-idea-and-just-keep-writing approach. It’s occasionally frustrating when I write myself into a dead end or get 20000 words into a story and realise it’s going nowhere. However, when it works, it’s awesome. I get a people going, “Wow! I never would have seen that coming.” Of course not, because I didn’t see it coming.
    It seems that your approach is likely to lead to less false starts than mine.
    When it comes to inspiring writing, I find nothing stirs up my desire to write something than the knowledge that there’s a first draft of something else sitting on my computer needing editing.

  19. As a writer it’s nice to see that I’m not the only person who goes back a deletes whole sections of a story! I find it terribly hard to be ruthless sometimes. I also wanted to say thank you, because for me, your posts on tumblr are a superb distraction from writing :D

  20. Do you find yourself (or any other writers here) holding onto ideas in a notebook or somewhere else for another project, or do you just keep them in the back of your mind for something else…or just let it go altogether?
    I know as I write (and similarly to what you said), if something doesn’t fit right there, you toss it…but I try to keep something somewhere (for me, it’s in a moleskin) of neat ideas that may not fit in this particular context, but may fit somewhere else.
    I ask because I see both sides, and have gotten advice from both sides: some say “never throw away an idea, always save it” and others say “chuck it, if it’s good, it will make it’s way back”

  21. My best short plays have all been dream downloads: dreams in which I’m not a character, but watching the drama play out with other people. I think we’re all so busy during the day that night’s the only time when your brain can say, “FINALLY. She shut up and I can do some sharing. Here. Take this thing I’ve been working on.”

  22. Very good advice. I spent hours trying to force a story in my head into my comfortable 3rd person narrative. I started and stopped at least half a dozen times and none of it worked. I switched to 1st person and it wrote itself in, literally, in an hour and a half. (If you’re curious it’s here: http://d-paulangel.blogspot.com/2011/04/fridayflash-eighth-of-copper.html and is a flash piece so not even 900 words)
    I really do think that the stories in our heads have more depth and complexity than even we know. There really something magical when they show us the way.

  23. I think my comment on your last post got eaten for some reason, but I just wanted to let you know that thanks to awesome advice and encouragement like this that you have given over the years, our Brax book is now available on Lulu and we got our first copy today. Keep up the great work, Wil.

  24. Everyone starts with a plan, Mr. Wheaton, I am not sure if you remember our meeting at Penny Arcade Convention. Bu tI was press and asked you about Bananas. At the time I am sorry to say I did not even know who you were and get comments all the time because of our meeting. It is post on NERD TREK under Wil Wheaton Likes bananas, because you so kindly answered my question. I was wondering do yo like Mangos?

  25. Most of my stories come from dreams that I’ve had. When I’m writing, I’m also listening to music and this story that I’ve been TRYING to write for around 12 years now, has been a terrible thorn in my side. I put it down for a good five years in there and didn’t touch it because I couldn’t seem to find a plot-line that I liked. I would trash anywhere from 5 to 10 pages out of frustration and then a week later, want them back. Then about three months ago, I started thinking about it (this was in the five years i didn’t touch, read or even glance at the file). I was watching a movie late one night (he’s just not that in to you, because it automatically started on our computer after Harry Potter) and the ending scene, where Justin Long kisses the girl, instead of falling in love with Justin Long like you’re supposed to, I was looking at the camera angle. I zoned in to the way his hair was cut and the sideburn and his hand, which was on the girls face and I thought, “Hey, that kinda looks like ***********. That could work…yeah…that would be kinda…well but Justin Long is kinda short if he were her twin…but he could be *******’s brother…no, I like the twin idea better…(fast forward to a phone call with my mom the next day, telling her excitedly about it, and then afterwards)…but Alex is tall enough (friend of mine). He could do it…and he’s got dark features…YES!) But still, no scene. Then a song came on a show were were watchign and EUREKA!! It seemed like every song i listened to after that wrote the story for me. I’m a bit stuck right now, but I’m just waiting for the right song. Long way to say, it sucks when there is a road block, but so almost Earth-shattering when it gets cleared. *a side not is that I also have to invision the scene, which means i have to put actual people into those characters to see them better, which is why Justin Long wasn’t working because he’s too short to play the particular character I was forming and looks too much like another character to pass as the first characters twin brother.

  26. “…because a character told me to go left when I had planned to go right…”
    Yes! I love this so much. It opens up whole new worlds I didn’t know existed, and as frustrating as it can be to argue with characters sometimes, they are always right. I am merely the writer. They are in charge, and when they talk I rejoice and listen well. I don’t outline much, but I usually have scenes that jump out at me when an idea first strikes, much like your pins. Then I join them up with the story in between. Sometimes, just one scene in my head results in 50,000 words. It has been known to happen.
    Of course, as you say, the opposite happens, too, and we must murder our darlings. I keep them in the attic, though, so that maybe one day I can reanimate their corpses.

  27. Thanks for your thoughts and insight into your working process, Wil. It has given me a lot to think about and helped me return to my own story development for my novel. I hope you were able to continue working on your story, too. :-)

  28. Aha! That’s what I’m talking about (There’s a Monster in my Closet short story, Hermina’s PS comment)… I have been reading (and told) that dividing the story to acts and ultimately going to cell level (aka keys) is a great way to work. Still exploring it though, feeling that I should know more about the writing process before I cointinue writing stories.
    Are you familiar with Marisa D’Vari’s More-Personality system? I recently thought of getting it from the university’s lending library but I’m not sure if it’s any good. Got any ideas?
    Thank you for sharing :)

  29. Elizabeth Moon’s got some pretty good riffs on this same subject sprinkled through her “Paksworld” blog–you should check it out, if you don’t already. :)

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