Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What AM I writing? Getting started... again, sigh

HALLIE EPHRON: There are so many daunting moments in writing. Usually at around page 50 I hit a wall and wonder what made me think I knew how to do this. At the end of Act II (aka dark night of the soul in the story as well as in my head) it hits me that though I have some idea of the grand finale, I have only a vague idea how to get there.

And so I try to keep writing. As anyone who knows me knows my mantra: Just hold your nose and write. 

So what AM I writing now? As I wait for NIGHT NIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT to come back with copyedits, I'm starting something new. Writing "page 1" has its own challenges. Right now I'm in the throes of throwing (throe/throw... ACK) a new main character on the page. Sometimes it feels like I'm slapping a mound of clay on a potter's wheel and seeing how the thing shapes up. Building order from chaos...


What I know so far is that Vanessa (I don't know her last name) is a single woman in her mid-thirties. She's a scientist with her feet planted in terra firma. She studies sleep and dreaming, often using herself as the research subject. The scientific skeptic in her will be challenged by what she learns in her dreams.

Loving the premise.

Word count zero. Start writing.
First draft, opening scene:

Vanessa awoke in terror....
"NO NO NO!." The writing teacher in me howls. Thou canst not open with a character waking up from a dream. Cliche cliche cliche. Not to mention that it's a huge tell. To paraphrase, don't just say she "awoke in terror," put her on the page and let her quake. 

Plus why start AFTER something has happened and have to immediately pull the reader into back story?

Slap own wrist. Start an OUT file. Dump what I've written into it. Save.


Word count still zero. Start over:

It was nearly midnight when Vanessa pulled into the nearly empty parking lot behind the Milborne Inn. She parked under the one streetlight in the vast and nearly empty parking lot and looked across at minimalist 50's brick that had a whole lot more in common with your average motel off I-95 than it did with a country inn. 
She got out of her car and locked the door. Mist had settled over piles of melting snow plowed into the far corners of the lot, optimistically cleared for crowds that had dwindled since a new conference center was built a few miles away, downtown .
So this is better, but still I'm thinking, Is this weather? Because rule says you can't open with weather. And something had better happen soon or this reader is baling. Or is it bailing?

Time out to check with my friend Merriam Webster... which it turns out these days is Merriam-Webster (hyphenated) while my ancient 6-inch thick dictionary on my office floor gathering dust is "Webster's Third International Dictionary." Must have been a merger.

You get the idea. The world of this writer is a messy place fraught with detours that do not add to the word count. No wonder it took me two years to write my last book.

Can you just sit down at the computer, put on blinders and WRITE? Or are you like me, your own worst enemy when it comes to wracking up word count? I try to hold my nose and just keep writing. Really I do.

67 comments:

Reine said...

I can throw all kinds of words at the page all night long, but after I finish shoveling through the pile of crappadoopoopoo I'm lucky if there's one road apple worth drying out for the garden.

Edith Maxwell said...

Hallie, not sure you can appreciate how oddly comforting it is when someone like you (by that I mean one of my teachers, one who publishes and teaches, one whom I respect) says she goes through that kind of struggle. Most of the Jungle Reds have reported the same kind of thing, and we, the readers and more junior authors, appreciate your honesty!

I've been batting out a new first draft and don't let myself do anything else until I've written at least 1000 words. I find hour-long sprints with NO DETOURS, NO INTERNET really works (and at 7 AM every day I sprint from hundreds of miles away with Ramona DeFelice Long and others in her Sprint Club). But I'm at about 26,000 words now and I know the pace is about to slow way down as I start asking, "Where is this story going? Who will ever want to read this crap? How do I figure out who did it and how?" And so on.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Oh yeah, it's hard. Sheesh.

We've talked about this some Hallie, but your essay reminds me of how much harder it must be to start with brand new characters for every book!

At least with a series, the writer is going deeper and deeper into the character and her cohorts. So with Hayley Snow, for example, I'm always wondering where she's headed next. So even if I have no idea about the story, the character is blooming.

Hallie Ephron said...

Reine, crappadoopoopoo! Yup, been there, done that.

Hallie Ephron said...


Edith, I get to that point, too, Where is this story going? And my least favorite/most important question: what on earth is this story ABOUT. And the answer shouldn't be "figuring out who killed..."

Hallie Ephron said...

Dear Lucy! I'm not sure which is harder (I've done both) because your challenge is to put your repeating characters on the page again, but in a fresh way. And you do! Every time, you do.

Irene McKenna said...

Excellent post! It is always so reassuring to know that others are struggling with this too. :-) Thank you for "Just hold your nose and write" ... I should write that on my hand with a Sharpie. ;-)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...
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Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I am so thrilled to hear this...I love that you're not as confident as you ALWAYS seem!

Funnily, this wouldn't happen to me. Because I would never start until I knew the first line. So all those try-outs that you do on paper, I do in my head.

When I have it, I have it, And that line has never changed in any of my books.

(Unasked for advice: the first line has to have *something* to do about sleep or dreaming or science or whatever the book is about, right?)

you go! It always works...and beautifully.

(Yesterdays winners of TRUTH BE TOLD arc are: Kathy Reel and Mathreader! (COntact me via my website! or at h ryan at whdh dot com) (HURRAY!)

Julie Hennrikus said...

Hallie, this does give comfort to many of us, which is a little sick. You are a wonderful writer, which probably makes this all tougher. I hope that Vanessa tells you more of her story soon.

Tammy said...

Hallie, I'm about a step and a half behind you, still struggling to fill out my blueprint (from your book!) and do some character profiles (a la Elizabeth George's method) to know my characters enough to write. But my butt-in-chair-block is in full effect.

On the other hand, I've had the first line of the new book for weeks, sitting there, like a single M&M, taunting me!

I say you've got half the battle won if you're sitting down and plugging away. Keep it up!

Denise Ann said...

I am excited to know that, since you are starting a new project, it must mean "Night Night" will soon be in my hands!!

Sleep research and dream study seem to be two different things -- the first more "scientific." How far into dream analysis are you going?

Thank you for sharing this raw experience. It is a little scary that it is so universal!

Kaye Barley said...

Hallie, you have no idea what a major motivation you tossed my way this morning.

After walking away from my WIP for much too long, I tried (*really* really tried) to get back into it recently. But the truth of the matter is, it's just WHIMSEY all over again. I want it to be another WHIMSEY novel, but not the first one all over again. Is this making any sense? So. I'm back to step 1/page 1 wondering what do I do with all these characters this time? Characters I love, but they need to get busy telling me where we're going this time or we're not going to get to page 2, I'm afraid.

But, all these thoughts are tempered now by the fact that you go through the same feelings. I find that amazing and startling. And - it gives me a glimmer of hope.

Triss said...

Yes, comforting for sure to know more experience writers still struggle.Halley, you know you can do it again!!! I once heard a writer whose work I admire a whole lot say the first draft is like quarrying stone with your bare hands! Myself, I usually start with a first line or even first scene. And I know the solution to the crime. But all those thousands of words in between? That I believe we technically call the plot? Or the structure? The things that happen? Yeah, that.Sometimes I'm only a single scene ahead of what's on the page.

Libby Dodd said...

I paint. There are two (or more) times in a painting that sound like your dilemma.
1-That blank canvas staring at me. Eep. What do I do now?
2-An inevitable point where I look at what I've done and think it's garbage, not working.
But I keep painting.
Then when they are done, I look back and wonder where it all came from.

Hallie Ephron said...

Hank, food for thought, because I LOVE that kind of opening when you write it. But when I try to start a book like that, it feels ... searching for the right word ... forced. It feels like I need to step into omniscience in order to be smart and/or pithy and/or intriguing like that, and I want to start and end in my character's head.

Having said that, I love all of the books by Dick Francis, and wasn't he great at that amazing opening line. And he did it IN character. Shall have to think more about this.

Hallie Ephron said...

Thanks, Julie.

Tammy - you're going great guns!! (or great engines, should I say?)

Wouldn't it be nice if I could follow my own advice?

Hallie Ephron said...

Oh gosh, NOT dream analysis, Denise Ann. More methods for controlling dream content. There's research using functional magnetic resonance imaging that suggests researchers can predict the CONTENT of the dream by the area of the brain that's active. Whoa. But I'm not sure I can use it in the book.

Hallie Ephron said...

Oh, Kaye! Yup, I go through it, too.

Triss - First draft: "quarrying stone with your bare hands" - YES!

My analog to that is that first draft feels like pushing wood through a meat grinder.

Cyndi Pauwels said...

I'm with Edith ^^ - sadly comforting to know a writer I admire struggles as much as I do with the blank page, settings that fall flat, characters who won't cooperate with the wonderfully convoluted plot my brain displays in Technicolor but that won't transfer to the page...

Nice to know we are not alone!

Hallie Ephron said...

Libby Dodd: EXACTLY!

But here's the question: How do you know when you're "done"?

Diane Vallere said...

I've been thinking a lot lately about how hard it is to write a book. Seriously! We all have different challenges, and when you do it more than once, you start to think it should get easier, but it is a hard thing to do. Every single time. And yes, it's weirdly motivational to hear you talk about your struggles from page one!

Mary Sutton said...

Once again, I love hearing that it's not only newbies that have those "what the heck was I thinking" moments. Success stories, like all of you on JR, have them too.

I have a different problem - er, challenge.

I can never start in the beginning.

Most of the time, ideas start to come to me and they are the middle of the book. Then somehow I fumble my way out to the end and back to the beginning.

I rarely have a problem throwing words on a page. I get in a zone and write. Now, whether those words are good enough to keep, well...

"Hold your nose and write" indeed. Forget Sharpie - I'm gonna cross stitch those on a sampler and put it on my wall!

Marian Stanley said...

I guess that must be the really satisfying part - to struggle through these messy unformed early efforts and later to look the piece over and say, "Well, that's not half bad, after all". Tada!
Sleep science - so interesting. I'm really looking forward to reading the story. And, like others, I find it consoling that, after all this time, you have the same start-up frustrations that those of us with far less experience do.
Re: rules about weather descriptions. I really liked your atmosphere of weather. Sometimes I just hate all those rules and no-no's. When I read some of them, they just feel pulled out the sky. (The pewter grey sky, heavy with the promise of rain . . ., of course.)

jenniferkales said...

Thank you for sharing your writing struggles! You are so right: you just have to write through it. P.S. I am finding your book about mystery writing to be very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Is it like the "it was a dark and stormy night" introduction to a mystery novel?

Interesting to read about different rules.

Look forward to reading your book.

Edith Maxwell said...

Thank you, Hallie, for commenting about "What is this book about?" -which doesn't mean who murdered whom. I needed that. Just got back from my solitary (steamy) walk where I pondered just that question for my WIP, and I believe I arrived at the answer.

Edith Maxwell said...
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Hallie Ephron said...

Diane Vallere, absolutely! "it is a hard thing to do. Every single time." And it gets harder because you'll keep raising the bar on yourself.

Mary Sutton: You're not alone! And I often have the opposite problem -- I'm 60 pages in before I realize I'm (finally) writing should have been Page One.

Hallie Ephron said...

Marian Stanley - I agree. weather can be a great place to begin. Tony Hillerman often started there.

And don't forget, "It was a dark and stormy night" is the opening line of A WRINKLE IN TIME.

Hallie Ephron said...

Edith, it's ALWAYS about something else in your books! Sometimes I think we just can't help it.

Deborah Crombie said...

Hallie, rules were made to break. If the book is about dreaming and dream science (which sounds fascinating!) I think you might be able to get away with a bit of a dream opening.

By the way, I didn't know that was a "rule." To Dwell in Darkness opens with an unnamed character waking. Does that count as rule-breaking? (Or is it "rule breaking"?)

And I'm fine with weather, too!

Ellen Kozak said...

"Nearly nearly nearly"?

That having been said, I find that if you get the opening sentence, the rest flows. For a while. When I finish a chapter, I often know where the next chapter is going to go, so I don't leave the computer until I've typed in the first sentence/paragraph of the
next chapter, so I know where I meant to go.

Every other chapter, I come
to the conclusion that what I'm writing is awful. Even the good stuff. Then, because you have to eat, don't you, I engage in what one of my Aussie friends today called "cookprastination." Wonderful term. (Full credit due Isabelle Cox for that one.)

Hallie Ephron said...

Debs, my first novel opens with a dream. A million works open with a dream. Having said that, I opened three ARCs this month that started with variations on " eyes popped open..." and I did not continue reading.

Hallie Ephron said...

Ellen Kozak, I put the repeated nearly in deliberately to show that even experienced authors write lousy first drafts. NOT.

Hallie Ephron said...
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Rhys said...

I had to smile through all this, Hallie. I go through the same agonies. I fact I write and rewrite the first paragraph in my head many times before I put it onto a computer.
But I have started with weather. I have started with a dream.
And my just completed Molly Murphy book is all about dreams!

Ellen Kozak said...

Hallie, that wasn't clear. But I do find that writing on a computer that doesn't show you page breaks has a way of letting you repeat words and phrases because you don't realize you're still on the same page.

I rewrite as I go (not that I don't also rewrite later-- nothing is ever really finished!) so repetition doesn't show up a lot, even in my first drafts. But what I find I need to do in the second and subsequent drafts is EXPAND. I tend to write a story as a journalist, rather than a novelist. Then I have to go back and fill in "color"-- what do they look like, what are they wearing, etc.

And in between I cookprastinate or clean the fridge (or the desk drawers).

Hallie Ephron said...

Ellen! I was joking!!! You caught me with one of those first (and second and third) draft slips.

I'm like you, I write lean and then expand. I never give my characters enough internal life the first go-round.

Cookprastinate! For me it's Laundryprastinate or gardeningprastinate.

Cyndi Pauwels said...

Ellen Kozak - you've explained what I've never been able to put into words!

"I tend to write a story as a journalist, rather than a novelist."

That's my problem - remembering to stop/go back and fill in those telling details. It's getting easier, I think, but I still struggle.

Hallie Ephron said...

Rhys?!?!?!?! Really? But I'm guessing once you get the start, you just keep on going. You are so incredibly productive.

Dreams in the next Molly Murphy book? Really?? Fabulous. Makes sense, the aftermath of World War I was prime time for spiritualists and the like, so much grief.

Hallie Ephron said...

Cyndi Pauwels - you are so lucky to have that journalism background. It's a mindset that helps overcome writers' block.

It's even worse if you come to fiction from technical writing... where the rule was TELL DON'T SHOW.

Julia said...

Hallie, I'm going to adopt your mantra as my own. "Hold your nose and write." Right now I'm at the squishy part where the whole book looks hopeless and I'm sure I'll never be able to beat it into shape and I'll have to go back to being a lawyer. I need to remind myself to hold my nose and write.

As for em, getting started is horribly difficult, and I often write and rewrite the beginning chapters of a book three or four times. Not to polish them, but completely rewrite them, trying to grab hold of the proper beginning of the story. Ugh.

Julia said...

"As for me." Not Em. Is it possible to develop dyslexia in midlife?

Kim said...

Wow - what a fascinating conversation in the comments section. Hallie, thank you for sharing your struggles with starting a new book. In the comments you wrote something that struck me:

"I write lean and then expand"

This, too, is how I write, and as I mentioned in yesterday's comments to Hank, I don't call it "lean" and "expanding" but "a sketch" "layering." Because of this method/technique (whatever it's called), I have learned to have confidence - which means that I keep reminding myself that anything I write can be dumped, revised, refined, moved around, etc. I used to feel that every word I put on a page was chiseled in stone. But now I'm comfortable knowing that each book is an evolution - and one of the most enjoyable parts of that evolution is discovering how it is going to change and grow as you are writing it.

So so excited to read the new novel!!

Hallie Ephron said...

So interesting, Julia. I use the opening of In the Deep Midwinter to teach about great openings. "It was a helluva night to throw away a baby..." From memory. Did you start with that or did you revise TO it?

Krista said...

ROFL! Hallie, is this blog post about me? I do all the same things. I'm so easily distracted by the most unimportant trivia. Always looking up words, even though I know what they mean. I always have a huge OUT file, except I call it a CUT file. Seriously, you were writing about me, weren't you?

Deborah Crombie said...

Hallie, I hope that doesn't mean you won't read mine!!!!!!!!!!!! But at least his eyes don't pop open:-)

Julia, don't we all have the squishy-middle-of-the-book thing? Mine usually goes something like, "Why did I EVER think this was a good idea for a novel??? Why did I ever think I could write about so-and-so?? It seemed like such a cool idea when I was writing the proposal...."

Kathy Reel said...

I think it's incredibly brave and generous of the Jungle Reds to share the doubts and mental grappling you experience in beginning new books. It is, of course, indicative of who you all are and why people love you so. Hallie, your description of beginning was entertaining as well as informative. "Just hold your nose and write" is a hoot. Of course, the end result for you and the other Reds is always an amazing book. Now, we fans can appreciate them even more.

Hallie Ephron said...

Krista, you are a kindred spirit! But notice we're all women saying this... do male writers experience the same self doubt and laundry-crastinating? WHERE ARE THE MEN OF JUNGLE RED? Come, show yourselves and 'fess up!

Hallie Ephron said...

Debs, I know your character's eyes won't snap, crackle, or pop open in the first line.

Pat D said...

Whatever works, ladies. Whatever works is the way to do it. When I had to write papers back in college I always had trouble with the opening paragraph. So I wrote everything else and then wrote the opening paragraph. Worked for me.

Ms. Allison said...

I'm just at the end of editing, which I think is torture. I love writing the first draft because I can make all the mistakes. I usually write during Nanowrimo b/c it motivates me to get through every night. Editing I find that I can usually cut the first chapter, and the first two paragraphs of each chapter to get to the meat. I take a running start at each scene. I envy Hank's ability to do the writing in her head (Lee Child also does this). My mind is too full of stuff and I have to write everything out and look at it. So this is helpful. Then I use my chapter map to navigate once I have it all down.

Mary Sutton said...

I never wrote the lede first when I was a college journalist. I wrote the story first and went back to the lede. It always worked because the meat of the story usually inspired a good opening line.

Hallie Ephron said...

Ms. Allison, wish I could write in my head, too. If I can, what I can't do is remember what I "wrote."

Maybe one year I'll try Nanowrimo... because the part I love is editing - also known as beating the mess into shape.

Tammy said...

Back to the squishymiddle discussion. That's simply THE WORST part of the book for me. I'm great for the first 50-60K words, and then ... I stutter to a stop.

My squishymiddle refrain: "at least I've still got the day job" (typically the only time I'm ever saying that!).

It's reassuring to hear you all feeling the same way.

Maybe you should do a post for all of us to contribute our self doubting words, and then we can blow them up in virtual space.

Hallie Ephron said...

I agree, Tammy -
My tool for dealing with the SQUISHY MIDDLE is to reveal secrets. (This probably sounds weird if you don't write these things.) Sometimes I shovel a few of secrets out of Act I and Act III (where so much is already happening) and stick them in Act II and you know what, it helps move things along. Sometimes.

Ellen Kozak said...

I write essays in my head while I'm doing the dishes (or similar tasks). They, too, flow from the first sentence.

When I was writing papers in college and grad school and got stuck, I learned to write my conclusion first, use it as a first paragraph, and then rewrite both the first and last paragraphs. But that doesn't work for novels. Or does it?

Mary Sutton, you are obviously younger. I've seen that spelling, "lede," before, but it used to be "lead" back in the late fifties and early sixties. Wonder when it changed?

Mary Sutton said...

Ellen, I will say it was "lead" in the early 90s when I was in college. I have a friend who is still in sports journalism (same age) and noticed she switched to "lede" several years ago, which makes me think it's really recent.

Ellen Kozak said...

Mary, the editor I wrote for at the WSJ used "lede," but as they say in depositions, "Asked and answered." When in doubt, Google:

Definition of LEDE

: the introductory section of a news story that is intended to entice the reader to read the full story

Origin of LEDE

alteration of 2lead
First Known Use: 1976

Hallie Ephron said...

Dontcha love Google?! My favorite timesink.

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid, I had to make up sentences consisting new vocabulary words.

I start with ideas and then try to write a back story for each character. I try to think of three adjectives to describe each character.

One of the things I try is what
Agatha Christie wrote for each character as "Cast of Characters" before the beginning of the book.

Hallie Ephron said...

Oh, Anonymous, what a good idea. The only glitch is that sometimes... make that OFTEN characters reveal their back story by doing something that surprises me. I know, I'm typing, but still I get surprised and then I have to rework the character's past to make the thing they did make sense. (Oh, she HATES her sister who stole all or boyfriends... or Oh, he lost his wife in a climbing accident so he's agoraphobic... Or or or

Tammy said...

Hallie, I'm stealing your "reveal secrets" tip for the middle....

Michelle F. said...

I see you have the Annotated Sherlock Holmes! I don't have that but I've checked it out of the library. I'll have to buy it someday. I have all the Sherlock Holmes stories/novels in one book (no illustrations).

Joan Emerson said...

Hallie, I think that probably there are many daunting moments in whatever each of us does, be it writing or something else. Nevertheless, it surprises me a bit to know that you struggle so much when the finished product is so . . . well, wonderful.
Does knowing there are so many people anxiously awaiting your next book help or does it make it even more difficult for you?
In any event, I’m glad you persevere through all the frustrating detours; I’m really looking forward to reading Vanessa’s story . . . .

Hallie Ephron said...

Tammy - Take, take!

Michelle - I'm a huge Les Klinger fan and those books are terrific. I also have his annotated Dracula.

Joan: Knowing that I HAVE written well and have fans (YAY!) gives me courage to push through those days when everything feels like dross.