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.

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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!

The struggle in naming your great work of words…

Fellow writers, how do you choose the titles of your work?

I can’t keep calling my WIP the Snowmobile Story, you see. I’ve gotten to know Adam and made him suffer through so much, throwing him into this predicament and that — I feel like, at this juncture, I need a real working title.

A few years ago, when I was developing the Talbot Trilogy, a friend who was a former student suggested a formula she’d determined for finding a title. It involved looking for frequently used nouns, selecting the first or third or fifth word on page x, and seeing what sounded good from some combination of these things. At the time, it worked for me, but I didn’t write the concept down. If my description sounds vague, that’s because I cannot recall exactly what she said or what I did. So I’m back at square one for this novel.

I thought, for a while, that I’d just leave the title until the end. At that point, perhaps a quote would stand out for me, or a brilliant idea would burst forth from my weary brain, announcing itself with fireworks and fanfare. Maybe that will still happen, but until that time, I would like to come up with something a little more interesting and motivating — something that the growing draft deserves.

After all, it’s not a short story at this point, it’s midway to becoming a short novel. And it’s being prepared for an audience.

Sometimes, I find that having a beta reader go through a finished draft helps me out, because she or he (sorry, gentlemen, it’s usually a “she”) might suggest something better to call it than the title I’m using. I’m very open to suggestions.

So when it comes to titles, what do you do about them? Do you use a formula of some kind, or wait for inspiration? Start with a great title and write the story that belongs to it?

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.

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!

Unknown

Snowmobile Story continued: trying to stay in a 16 year old boy’s head

The last echoes of the skidoos racing eastward faded. Adam had turned off his ignition, so the quiet was absolute. Even the wind had died down, and it was too cold even for the ravens to squawk. He opened the engine compartment and fiddled with some plugs, checking over his shoulder as he listened for any signs of his friends coming back. Not that he really expected them to do that . . . well, maybe Danny would, if only to ride Adam’s butt about his old machine and his girlfriend.

The silence didn’t stop a bunch of thoughts from cycling through his head. In fact, it was hard to ignore them. He checked the oil, shoving the wire harder than necessary back into its slot, willing his brain to stop thinking.

He could already predict what that party was going to be like. It would be the same as always: loud music that would get louder as people got drunker, a bonfire in a home-made fire pit that some fool would try jumping over and end up wiping out next to on the ice that formed from the melting snow (next to the fire, if he was lucky — more likely to wipe out on the fire pit), Danny hitting on every girl until he got one who was drunk or stupid enough to think he was actually funny. And if Danny scored with a girl who actually had a boyfriend, there would be a fight.

Come to think of it, Danny would probably focus on a girl with a boyfriend just so that he could get into a fight.

Adam and Danny had never been in a real fight. They’d goofed around, just being idiots and re-enacting MMA bouts, tossing each other off of docks in the summer and into snowbanks in the winter. Hell, they’d thrown each other off of any surface they could climb onto: the roof of the bottom story addition of his house (winter), the railing of Danny’s back deck (winter), the flat top of AJ’s boat house (summer), the flat top of AJ’s grandparents’ garage (winter) . . .

Of course, they didn’t need a bit of high ground to throw each other down. Back in grade five, Danny’d taught Adam how to sweep a leg out from under his opponent, passing on whatever he’d learned in the karate classes that Adam couldn’t afford. And then Adam had shown Danny how to pile-drive, what it took to do a decent sleeper hold that could really knock somebody out, and the pressure points that Adam’s dad had showed him. Danny loved finding out about those, just little sensitive spots between thumbs and forefingers that could keep a kid on the ground for as long as you wanted, if enough you pressed hard enough.

Good times.

But they’d never yet taken a swing at each other. Hadn’t had a reason to.

And Adam honestly didn’t want to do that. Not that he’d ever tell anyone, out loud.

It wasn’t that he was scared. He could take Danny.

It was just . . .

Adam slammed the cover back down on his snowmobile.

Guys fought, didn’t they? They fought and then they got over it. Fighting cleared the air. Girls, they snuck around and snarked at each other and sent nasty texts until they were ripping at each other’s hair and rolling around school hallways. Girl fights lasted for weeks, or even months.

When Danny went after some other guy’s chick, the guy would call him out either at the party where the thing happened, or at school the next day. Adam privately thought it was stupid to do it at school, but there had to be an audience. His mom once said, after she’d heard about one of these fights, that it had to do with something called ‘saving face’. Whether Danny and whoever went at it right away depended on the other guy’s temper — or fear.

Adam sat on the snowmobile and stared at the remains of Danny’s cigarette in the snow. The grey ashes looked like dead snowflakes. Zombie snowflakes.

Sometimes, after Danny had a fight with a guy, and there was snow on the ground, there would be blood spattered on it. He only ever needed to fight a kid once and then the problem would be over. Nobody ever challenged him twice.

——————————-

Okay, faithful readers — yes or no? Is this sounding like a 16 year old’s thought processes? 

Once again, night is defeating me, and it’s a bad one because we’re losing an hour of sleep with the stupid time change. I wish I could write through until I can’t form words anymore. I wish I could pound this story out in a whirlwind of writing, because tonight, at this moment, I’m convinced I could get it done in a week. Sadly, that’s not reality. 

But guess what? Tomorrow I’m testing my limits in a downhill ski race! So I’d better get some sleep. 

But do tell me what you think of this part of the story, please? I’d love the feedback.