Writer Problem No. 153: Not Knowing How the Story Will End

My snowmobile story has turned into a bit of a mystery! I certainly didn’t see that coming. One of these days, I would like to write an honest-to-God, structured mystery novel. I’ve had that element in some of my short stories, and it crops up in the Talbot Trilogy, but not on purpose. Just — things that have to be discovered, or uncovered, in the course of the main conflict being pursued and resolved.

As a fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries (read my brother’s copy of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when I was 12), and the Harry Potter books, Nancy Drew when I was a kid, and Castle today, I keep feeling like that’s a genre I could really sink my teeth into. But I keep stumbling into the element by accident. I think, to properly write a mystery, you have to have that intention from the beginning, don’t you?

So that means doing research. Teaching myself with trial and error. Interviewing those in the know, like my dad, for instance, who also loves mysteries, and whose father was an insurance investigator. Taking copious amounts of notes and keeping them organized.

When I was working on the trilogy, I often wished that I had a bulletin board on which I could post bits and pieces of detail, a visual timeline that I could see all at once rather than having to flip through pages on my screen or in my notebook, and printed out plot details that I’d already written. I thought I was a little bit nuts, but then I saw the fictional character Castle doing it on his eponymous show, and I know that the writers of that program based his activities off of those of an actual mystery writer, SOOO . . . I’m not that crazy after all! There really could be a method to my madness! If only my house was a little bit bigger, and had slightly more wall space. Like a nice downtown loft apartment in New York City . . .

Anyway, now that I’ve got this great bit of inspiration going, suddenly the skeleton under the floor, the silver lighter that my protagonist has, and some of the troubles in his family are starting to make sense. I am tempted to go back into the exposition and rising action to clarify some of these things in the backstory, using flashbacks and reminisces as devices. But first I have to find an answer to the biggest burning question of all: just who is the skeleton under the floor, and who is the old man with the gun?!?

Oh, my brain . . . Why can’t you just give me answers? It’s so funny when I mention that I don’t know what’s going to happen next, or that I can’t explain whether a location is really haunted in one of my stories, or how a mystery is going to be solved — the students I talk to about these things kind of tilt their eyes and look at me like I’ve completely lost it. “How can you not know?” they ask me. “You’re the writer!”

Yeah. This is part of the reason why I honestly believe that some stories are simply out there, floating in the ether, waiting for a conduit in the form of the teller. They reveal themselves when the time is right. So, Ether, I’m waiting. I’m listening. Fingers are typing. WHO IS THE SKELETON? WHAT’S WITH THE OLD MAN?!?

I bet Jack London never had problems like this.

My Top 10 NaNoWriMo Survival Tactics

Over the hump now . . . April 30 is growing closer, and my snowmobile story WIP is steadily approaching its (as yet, undetermined) climax. Some nights are harder to keep it going than others. So I thought I’d review for you (and me) the things I do when the going gets tough!

1) Build a word count buffer. Whenever you can, write over / beyond your minimum number for the day, so that if there’s ever a time where you’re not able to get to the project, your overall movement won’t be affected as much.

2) Take a break! Sometimes, you have to have a night off. See 1) above. The tricky part, though, is not letting that break go longer than 24 hours. At that point, it’s like going back to the gym after you’ve just started a membership and promised yourself you’d go every day and then stopped after a week. The effort of starting again feels incredibly daunting. Keep the breaks short so you don’t lose momentum on the work.

3) Accept inspiration from the strangest of places. Seriously — I get ideas from the weirdest things. Sometimes it’s from taking a walk and seeing someone outside of my regular routine. Sometimes it’s from listening to music, or talking out plot problems with a fellow writer. Just go with it!

4) Scenic Route over Efficiency. There’s nothing wrong with going off-roading with the plot. I start with a plan, but when I see a detour and a possibly better / more interesting plot point, I totally go for it, enjoying the element of mystery and surprise. Of course, that means I don’t really know what the climax will be, but I still have the end goal in mind. Buy the ticket for the long way ’round, because as the song says, it’s got the prettiest of views!

5) Fill your family and friends in. I honestly wouldn’t be able to do this without my kids’ understanding, my hubby’s back rubs (even though they’re not nearly as long as I’d like them to be), and the acceptance that my attention for this month is very much on the story. Once your near and dear ones know what you’re up to, they can also offer suggestions and act as beta-readers. BTW, it’s a heck of a lot easier doing NaNoWriMo now that my kids are old enough to feed themselves!

6) Treat yourself. Those back rubs, and cups of tea, and bits of leftover Easter chocolate — soul food. Nourishment for the creative soul. Whatever it takes to keep your spirits up in the depths of plot problems and character disagreements, do it.

7) You can sleep when you’re dead. Sleep. Especially if you have a full-time paid job. I mean, if I was working from home, or doing the unpaid work of parenthood, it would be easier to slip in those naps than it currently is — I’m limited at the moment to catching a few z’s after school, and occasionally when I’m desperate and the coffee’s either worn off or hasn’t kicked in yet, I’ll lie on the couch that’s conveniently found a home in my classroom for twenty minutes of shut-eye. But you have to sleep. It’s right when you’re trying to fall asleep that your stupid brain will come up with the greatest plot twist or snappy dialogue.

8) Write in a group of writers. For me, that means involving my students! We have had increasingly productive writing days this week, comfortably sitting together in a computer lab. It’s been my privilege to hear them to comparing their word counts, discussing their characters and plot problems, sharing mind-blowing moments and reading out bits they particularly enjoyed putting together, and to share my own writerly discoveries and problems as well. Writers helping writers. Fantastic!

9) Find your space / time relativity. For me, it has to be after the kids have gone to bed, so I’m not distracted by commentary or questions. I do frequently start shortly before bedtime, in an effort to avoid being awake until midnight (hah!), and that’s when I get the loving kisses and hugs and tea and things. I do miss having my laptop to work from so I can be comfy on the couch, but sitting at the desk is helpful, too — I can’t look directly at the TV, for example, so I’m less tempted to have it on. Now, if only I could get the right proportion of desk height to chair . . .

10) Eyes on the prize! It can and does become daunting at times, and exhausting, to keep going on a writing project when you don’t know what is going to happen next, and especially when it’s on a topic that is out of your normal range of experience. But I think that doing 50,000 words in 30 days is getting a little easier, now and then. The main thing is to remember that what is being written doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be completed. A little bit at a time accomplishes so much!

Feel free to add your own writing survival tactics in the comments below!

Musings on what influences the setting / environment of a story

When you have to go to the bathroom particularly badly, the sound of running water is the last thing you need or want to hear. (Well, unless you’re in the woods and will be needing to wash your hands afterward. Or if you are in a public restroom and require a little sensory input — a little encouragement — before starting the flow.)

Went for a walk yesterday, and the sound of running water was the sweetest thing I’d heard in a long time. Months, actually.

Today, raindrops pattering and splashing added themselves to the symphony that is nature waking up. Cold and damp, sure, but a welcome change of pace. Rain helps the melt to hurry itself along. It’s not perfect timing — a highway just a few hours to the south was washed out — but I’ll take the rain over more snow.

Fellow writers, do you find that it’s easier to write scenes that take place in certain weather conditions or climates if you actually live in or visit those conditions? Or is it easier to research and rely on imagination?

For example, a few summers ago while I was working on Blood and Fire, I was doing a lot of the writing in the summer, basking in the heat of the sun and enjoying the scents and colours of my backyard. It was fun, at that time, to think back on the winter. Nostalgic, even. Romantic, too. But the snowmobiling story I’m currently working on also takes place in winter, and as we’re just coming out of it, I feel as though I’m rather venting my weariness of being cold and snowbound. In fact, I find myself wondering why I didn’t decide to write about being some place hot and tropical, if only for the temporary mind-escape.

I do think that writers should travel as much as possible, especially when researching a locale, in order to get a real sense of a place and be authentic in sensory details and description, but how many of us can afford to do that? More often than not, imagination and research in the old-fashioned way has to stand-in for hopping a plane or driving the distance to the setting of the book. That can be frustrating in some ways. I read about writers who get to travel, and I feel more than a little pen-envy, but such is life, right?

Here’s another thought: if you can’t afford to travel, and you don’t want to research a place, is it cheating a little bit to set a story in your own regional backyard?

Of course, that leads me to wonder whether we really choose the stories we’re telling. On some metaphysical level, sometimes I feel like the stories are already out there, waiting for the right teller or writer to latch onto them or provide a conduit. And therefore, deciding to write about a place you’ve never experienced previously becomes less of a choice and more of a commitment. A journey, even if it’s in words alone.

I don’t know if I’m making any sense. I’m very tired and going to bed shortly. But as I’ve been working on this snowmobile story for Camp NaNoWriMo, changing the original timing from February to March and as I said, using my current combination of animosity toward and enjoyment of winter to fuel the setting and plot, I find myself wondering how differently this might compose itself had I started it in June or July, sitting in my backyard, rather than buried behind four walls and waiting out the siege of ice and snow.

A Spa Day Approacheth — positive reinforcement for dealing with life

My dog ate a package of blackberries that I’d left out on the counter. A few days ago, she got into a pack of blueberry muffins, and then another of carrot. Honestly, we’re going to have to clear out the cupboards just to lock all the food stuffs up and out of her way from now on.

I really ought to be in bed, but it’s so nice and quiet in the house . . . I gained another two thousand words or so on my WIP today, hitting another plot snag but at least rescuing my protagonist Adam from certain death and a watery grave. I’m modelling this a bit on Hatchet and a bit on Crabbe. I offered my reluctant readers a look at what I have so far, and they flipped through a few pages before setting it aside. It will definitely have to be a read-aloud, I think, or scanned for automatic reading for some of them. Still, not giving up hope.

I think I’ve got a vested interest in this character, now. Always an interesting process, getting to know a new fictional individual! One of my youthful beta readers doesn’t like how he sounds like a stoner, since not all snowmobilers are like that (#notallsnowmobilers), but another thinks it’s suitable, since it’s just one character and the demographic I’m aiming for understands the references I’m trying to make. I’ve also been making notes in my classroom while listening to their conversations, trying to incorporate slang and generic life events or nicknames they give each other.

The snowpack has melted a bit further today, helped by intermittent rainfall, but we’re getting another batch of flurries tonight and tomorrow. Helpful for inspiring the novel, but not good for much of anything else. Our car desperately needs a cleaning, and my daughter is going to want to ride her new bike when I pick it up tomorrow, but a nice sunny day is still far off in the forecast. I miss sandals. Maybe next week, I’ll treat myself to a nice mani-pedi as a bit of a lift. If I can keep from picking my nails until that point, that is. I also really need to make myself complete my edits on Crystal and Wand, so maybe that will be my reward. I have a pile of facial packets I’ve been wanting to use, too. Let my daughter have at me with the polish, while I soak my face in slathered cream and cucumber slices or tea bags . . . yesssss.

Updates on Cover Reveal, Field Trip, WIP, and SNOW

Okay, so it’s time for some quick updates, I think.

Cover Reveal: I will raise the curtain on the cover of my latest novel, the soon-to-be-released third and final instalment of the Talbot Trilogy, on Saturday! I’ll put together some celebratory giveaways to mark the occasion. Prepare to be pampered!

Ottawa ComicCon: Permission has been sought and obtained from the school board to enable me to bring a group of avid students to this event. I was going to make up posters yesterday, and tonight, to spread the word a little more — we have the minimum number we need but it would be nice to be able to fill the bus. I figure, another week and then I’ll cut it off so I can order the tickets and finalize the rooms. We’re going to stay at a university residence, so the kids will get the experience of dorm rooms and be able to see downtown Ottawa. Very exciting. I also have to try to get Wil Wheaton’s autograph for my administrator, because she’s so supportive and awesome, AND she’s a big fan of his. Challenge accepted!

I’m thinking, too, that I’ll have to make up a list of pointers for the kids who are first-time Con attendees, so they’re not overwhelmed or underprepared. Lots to do, still. In 30 days, I’ll be in Ottawa on our trip! EEEK!

Camp NaNoWriMo: I caught up and went past my word count tonight, giving myself a nice 1,000 word buffer. Feels good. And actually, since Crystal and Wand is over 100,000 words, it’s kind of refreshing to know that this novel is going to be cut and dried by the end of this month. Not as daunting as the others, and I feel like I’ve picked up the rhythm now on the snowmobile story (although it would be nice to have a better working title). Also, I had two students read the first fourteen pages, and their feedback was really positive, particularly after I’d applied the feedback from my dear friend Tara Hall. All three beta readers feel like I’ve captured the voice of a sixteen-year-old boy, which is extremely gratifying. Onwards and upwards on that! Although — next week I will have to spend an evening focusing on report cards. I’d better make sure to keep adding to that buffer . . .

Snow: There was visible meltage today! Just a hint of difference in the level of the snowpack, where it had been cut away by the snowblowers or ploughs. Earlier this week — even yesterday — it had looked to be a depth of 2 – 2.5 feet, and today I could swear it’d lost 5 inches. We’re supposed to get rain mixed with snow tonight and tomorrow — bleh — but I’ll take that over getting another dumping. We’re not out of the weather-woods yet!

So that’s it, for now. I can’t seem to get enough rest, ever, but at least I’m getting to bed before midnight for once. See you tomorrow!

The value of research and feedback while writing: don’t be afraid to ask!

I’m at 8,158 words in my Camp NaNoWriMo project, the Snowmobiling Story for young adults / reluctant readers. A bit shy of the count I want to have for today, so I’ll try to keep this post short in order to attempt to squeeze a few more paragraphs in before midnight. (I had to take an Outlander break, Sassenach!)

I found myself stymied a few times this weekend, in this project, because I’m so out of my depth. I’m not into mechanics or engines or anything technical, so I’m dependent on research and interviews to give me the details I need. The problem is that half the time what I’m reading is still completely over my head, thanks to the jargon and colloquialisms in use by the people in the know.

So last night I started bugging individuals in my circle (and in their circles) for answers. I proposed situations and sought their opinions on what would happen next, with fantastic results. And then, when I sent my work (so far) to one of my usual beta readers to get her take on a scene that didn’t have anything to do with mechanical stuff, I ended up getting more feedback on the technicalities — really helpful stuff that I’m going to fix right away.

See, the thing is, when you’re working on a first draft, it’s important to just keep ploughing ahead and never mind the edits, or else the damned thing will never get done. Go back and fix the little things later. But with this — I don’t mind jumping back here and there to make sure my descriptions and plot points are accurate, because that means I’ll be more likely to get them right when I refer to that stuff again later on.

Some writers also don’t like showing their unfinished drafts to others because — well, hey, we’re a sensitive lot, sometimes, and we don’t want to be told that what we’re writing sucks. It’s a leap of faith in all respects to get the words on the page and then to ask someone what he/she thinks. I find it depends on what I’m doing, and how secure I’m feeling with it, and my own emotional connection to the piece. With this one, I know I’m bound to make errors because I’m writing about something pretty foreign to my experience. The more feedback I can get on it, the better I’ll be.

One problem that I can foresee, though, is the subjectivity of the experience. Some snowmobilers up here call the handlebars “risers”, while others call them simply “handlebars”. If I write something that is closely related to this region, I risk others not enjoying it as much because they’re not in the vernacular loop that people up here are. Then again, it’s edifying to read about experiences in other places, so maybe it won’t really matter.

I think, too, that for this one I’ll be seeking a Canadian publisher, just to really drive it home to my students that they’re awesome. Maybe that’s counting my chickens before they’re hatched, though.

Keep writing!

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Writing Problem #492 — Is the Challenge Too Challenging?

Okay, fellow writers, here’s a problem for you to contemplate: How do you get into a creative project that you’re not really doing for yourself?

I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this snowmobiling story, you see. I’m going to work on it throughout Camp NaNoWriMo this month, and complete the draft, but I’m having some real difficulties in building enthusiasm. I’m out of my usual genre and theme, learning a new colloquial language and trying to figure out how to mesh the ins and outs of the sport with an actual plot. Watching YouTube videos of snowmobilers isn’t terribly helpful, because those are simply footage shot by enthusiasts without a storyline.

I know I previously posted about my plot ideas, but those feel so weak right now . . .

And how do I spread out a day’s riding through a 50,000 word novel?

I’m contemplating starting off with the protagonist’s typical morning, dealing with family and home life and so on, and then building to the part I already have with my MC splitting away from his buddies. But I like how it starts with action, establishing the setting and the first problem — his friend’s attraction to his girlfriend — so I’m considering flashbacks instead. Maybe splitting the snowmobiling with bits about how his day started off.

He could have a GoPro on his helmet and he sees a crime take place, gets it on camera, before his machine crashes through the ice.

But what crime? Could be a cabin being broken into, or poachers . . . A chase would ensue.

It doesn’t help that I’m feeling exhausted again. It’s hard to think of ideas and put them into action when you’re wiped out. I really ought to go through the writing exercises I gave my students to do from the NaNo YWP handbook, but I also have work priorities of overdue marking, planning, and my other edits to complete for my coming release. If I had a power bar on my forehead, it would be red and in its last 1/8 segment. My gas needle is hovering over “E”. If I attempted to juice up with fresh coffee, I’d get the shakes.

The forecast for tonight and tomorrow is for freezing rain, followed by rain mixed with snow. I’m not sure how I’m feeling about the potential for bus cancellations. On the one hand, it would be good to have the day to be productive and catch up on things. On the other, it’s already a short week and I still have things to do with my students that really need to get done — some are redoing tests that they’d failed a few weeks ago, some need help to catch up on their blogs, and some need encouragement with their independent reading.

It would make me so happy to sleep for two or three days in a row. Just sleep. Wake up feeling refreshed and energized and focused, instead of sensing the hamster wheel under my feet.

Spring is coming. Think positive. Going to bed before midnight tonight is a plus. Everyone is healthy. Elizabeth is well-fed and shedding nicely. Skittles is fat and affectionate. House is warm. Okay, since I seem to be sinking into random sentence fragments, I should probably just post this and crawl into bed . . .

Good night, everybody. Wednesday is done.