Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Persuading Yourself: Arguments to keep you writing

Almost every fiction writer working on a big project will hit a wall along the way. Usually, it comes at about one half to two thirds through the drafting, though it can also come during the revisions.

Often, unhappiness builds as incomplete and broken scenes accumulate. Sometimes, the muse goes on vacation and the words and ideas stop flowing. Plot problems seem intractable. Characters who were happily chatting away go silent. The whole idea of writing the book or script seems ill-conceived, or you conclude you are not the right person to be writing it.

I advise my students to create a list of arguments early on that will convince this frustrated self to keep writing. Ten to twenty single sentences can usually do the job, and they should be written as soon as is practicable. (Before drafting is good. No later than before you finish Act One, or 15-20% of the manuscript.)

Some of the questions I listed last time in A Story Premise You Can Love and Cherish can help you write these arguments. I always have a bit I'm passionate about and my hook to the market (or at least a key audience) on the list. But that still leaves a lot of list to go. So here are some prompts that might help:
  1. Passion - "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know." You may just be head over heels in love with the story that's in your head. That's fine. How do you articulate it to the future you who has fallen out of love? I usually try to write a poetic line that expresses the core of the work. For one work of mine, it was "Three bullet holes in a wall plaster can't hide."
  2. Market - Can you get specific about what will create the buy decision? Usually, this is a fresh angle on something with a known audience. (Ironically, I'm working on a fresh angle with zombies.) If you can express this element in a logline that convinces other people now and will convince you in the future, you've got it.
  3. Career or brand - How will this work advance your career or establish/deepen your brand? If you are writing a book that is the second in a series, that's a good reason to finish the book.
  4. Challenge - What about this work stretches you as a person and/or as an artist? Can you articulate that? For instance, writing from an unfamiliar point of view (different gender, religion, culture) might be reason enough to write and finish a book or script.
  5. Explore a concept - Years ago, I wondered, after reading Philip K. Dick novels, about the impact of memory erasure and implantation on romance. This resulted in a long short story (which I sold) that led me to a deeper understanding of how we grow through failed relationships. (Yes, it sound like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I got there years before the movie. Maybe Charlie Kaufman is a Dick fan, too.)
  6. Explore a character - This is almost always on my list. I'll hear a distinctive sentence from a character and write down that quote. For me, it works like the poetry in the first prompt above, evoking a world that fascinates me.
  7. Do some good - Does your work expose and evil? Inspire philanthropy? Encourage and guide? Great. That's an excellent reason to finish. I have a story where a character throws his friend's life into chaos (loss of job, pursuit by police, being mugged). But the consequences to the friend are less than the danger of self-indulgent complaining -- which can be devastating spiritually.
  8. Honor a person - When I lose people in real life -- either because they die or because they move on -- I often use them as inspiration for a character so a part of them can still be cherished.
  9. Create art - The sentences written in answer to this one would vary widely. For me, it has to do with what might live on in the work, what delight it might bring aesthetically, and what I have to share.
  10. Pay off investment - The investment could be time, money, energy, reputation, or whatever you put at risk to take on this project. But don't just mention that in your argument. Mention the possible payoff (money, fame, reputation, etc.), too. Otherwise, this argument is just a bludgeon.
  11. Keep a promise - The most obvious one here? The work is under contract. But, even if it's speculative, chapters and scenes could be owed to a writing buddy or a reader.
Note: These are only useful if they can convince a future you, so use your best talents of persuasion. Also, the statements need to be specific. In teaching, I've found a lot of people default immediately to generic statements. Ideally, each sentence should be phrased in a way that is particular to the work in progress and can't be applied to any other works. If the statement can be applied to another work, be suspicious.

Recently I've taken a new view on my own lists. In addition to doing the basic work of keeping me going, I try to make some of the statements part of an Argument for Excellence. My aim is to take the work, especially in the revision phase, to a higher level of competence, making it more engaging, meaningful, and authentic. This is not easy, but keep it in mind once you've completed some works to your own satisfaction.

Your main goal is to get around, over, or through the wall you hit with a big project. A good set of statements should persuade that future you and lead to success.

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