Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How to Save a WIP: Getting Stuck in a Corner

Last week, Kristi Cook told us how she tends to write herself into a corner. Today, Kathleen Foucart tells how she writes herself out of the corner!

I have tried being a plotter. I buy books on structure, I fill out beat sheets and read copious blog posts on plotting. In my head, these are the tools I will use to write faster first drafts. There’s just one problem: my writing-brain won’t cooperate.

I think part of this is based on the fact that I don’t consciously “pick” my next WIP. My last two projects started from me typing the wrong sentence in another WIP, realizing it didn’t fit there, opening a new document, and having a completely different character & story come pouring out. I’ll know nothing of the plot. All I know of the MC is what happening in that particular sentence that I’m writing. The stories I have a plan for prior to writing tend not to get written.

Now, what I do isn’t entirely “pantsing.” Once I’m in the thick of the book (usually after about 10,000 words) I have a better idea of what’s going on, where I need to take the MC and what their “ever after” will be like. This is also where things start to go wrong-- because I want a pretty draft. Who doesn’t? Who wants to write things they’ll just cut? So I start to plot. And that’s where I stall out.

Let me be clear here: I’m talking about a first draft. I don’t edit recursively (much) because for me that’s a sticky trap of perfectionism that added at least a year to writing my MFA thesis. I might fix a few typos, a name I changed, etc., but generally, IMO, a first draft is for going forward.

So what do I do when attempting to plot stalls out my brain? I write myself into corners. I write total crap. My characters sit around drinking coffee and eating cereal. I once sent characters towel shopping (FWIW I didn’t finish that particular book). I’ll let the characters lie around and talk, or send them into the forest with no idea how they’ll get back out. I realize that to a lot of writers, this sounds insane. Why would I do that to myself?

I’ve finally come to admit that I’m both a pantser and an over-writer. I write huge first drafts because my brain needs connecting scenes, random dialogue, learning how my characters take their coffee or when they get up in the morning. I need to write myself into random corners-- be they boring corners or “oh, crap, how the hell am I going to get them back out of that???” corners. I can edit out those scenes in the next draft (something I’m working on now, actually), but to make the connections my brain needs to create a cohesive story, I have to have them there to start with.

Basically, this quote sums up how I’ve come to view my first-draft process:

“...I discovered that if I trusted my subconscious, or imagination, whatever you want to call it, and if I made the characters as real and honest as I could, then no matter how complex the pattern being woven, my subconscious would find ways to tie it together -- often doing things far more complicated and sophisticated than I could with brute conscious effort. I would have ideas for 'nodes', as I think of them -- story or character details that have lots of potential connections to other such nodes -- and even though I didn't quite understand, I would plunk them in. Two hundred pages later, everything would back-fit, and I'd say, "Ah, that's why I wrote that.” ~ Tad Williams
So if you’re a fellow pantser, take heart. Writing yourself into a corner will not necessarily kill your WIP. In fact, it just might save it. Who knows where your imagination will take you if you let it off the leash? It could be to the perfect answer your subconscious has been working on the whole time. (And if not, you can still edit brilliantly!)

Kathleen Foucart is a YA writer on the path to publication. According to last count, she owns 2,460 books in an 1100 square-foot house that she also sharse with her husband and Great Dane. She lives in Southwest Virginia, has an MFA in Children's Literature from Hollins University and went to undergrad at Virginia Tech. You can find her on her blog and on twitter.