Rules for the Second Draft (3)

“Write drunk. Edit sober” said Hemingway.

We all write drunk. We write drunk on the awesomeness of the stuff we write. We are all crazy enthusiasts when we are on a roll. We stop and edit when we lose that drunkenness.

NaNoWriMo is an attempt to finish the first draft while you are still drunk. A draft thus written has to be edited with a sober eye.

Or does it?

“Write drunk. Edit sober” is the general rule. But how sober? You want to retain some of that enthusiasm that made you think you were a genius while putting down that first draft. Sober is not the same thing as self loathing.

If you are trying to write a debut novel of the 80,000-120,000 word range, and you have a first draft is a NaNo project of 50,000 plus change, your second draft of 120,000-15,000 words should be written more drunk than sober. I do not recommend burning-rubber-on-a-scotch-and-meth-cocktail drunk, but creatively enthusiastic. Don’t go cold turkey just yet. That comes a little later.

The second draft is 30% longer than the third draft because you are still piling on background elements that will later be fused with action scenes or deleted. All those elements are there to make the story more gripping. If they don’t, you delete them.

Now wait just a minute, you say. I just nearly killed myself trying to finish a 50,000 word draft in November, and now I’m supposed to write 100,000 more knowing that I am going to delete 30,000 words? Well, yes. That’s exactly what I expect you to do. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

You need to keep the first draft on a shelf for about a month to three months before trying to turn it into a second draft. But NOT more than a year. When you are writing the first draft, your story seems awesome because you know the atmosphere. You know the back story even though you have not written it yet. You can feel the characters. After leaving the draft on the shelf for a month, you can no longer feel the background elements that were there but you still know that they are supposed to be there. You realize now that you need to add those background elements so that readers, people whom you do not know, will understand why your story flows in the way it does. If you leave it on the shelf for more than a year, you might not be able to remember what it was that you neglected to describe.
Ten minutes after you finish your first draft, you cannot see the need for these background elements because they are already in your mind as a matter of course and you see no reason they need to be explained. More than a year after you finish your first draft, you have forgotten what was supposed to be there. You need moderate distance to know what it is that you need to add.

The final product, if all goes well, is a book the reader cannot put down. That is your goal. (Unless you are trying to write Infinite Jest.) The second draft is a step toward that goal. Readers do not flip pages because the words are perfect, the sentences are extraordinary, or the wise cracks are clever. They flip pages because the story is gripping. You still have time to get the words just right later. (Or not. E. L. James never bothered to write perfect words. Look where that got her.)

You need to write your second draft with this goal in mind. In the first draft you wrote the story. In the second draft you fill in the stuff you thought the reader would automatically see, but won’t. And in the process you cut the fat, streamline the story arc, line up the little climaxes and knead the ground-up back-story into the dough. But you have to keep feeling that your story is awesome.

If that is granted, you are free to make the words perfect, sentences extraordinary and wise cracks clever in the third draft.

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Writing Good Dialogue

Writing good dialogue is a second draft problem. If every dialogue in your first draft sounds like the same person talking to himself, that is to be expected. You can refine it when you re-write it.

Good advice on writing is hard to find. Good advice on writing dialogue is even harder to find. That is because, up until quite recently, most successful writers wrote “naturally” without analyzing what they were doing. Analyzing dialogue is still a relatively new development.

If you Google “How to write dialogue” you will find a dozen or so lists that will help you, such as “How To Write Good Dialogue: Ten Tips” and “The 7 Tools of Dialogue” and “10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Dialogue“. Generally, they will tell you things like “Watch your tags”, “Say your dialogue out loud”, “Beware of accents”, “Realistic doesn’t mean real”. I could post my list of “10 ways to improve your dialogue” but I think I’ll pass. Most of these things are way too obvious and utterly unhelpful. You either know them already or you can learn more by reading actual novels with good dialogue.

What is good dialogue? Or more specifically, why does my dialogue suck? The short answer is: “Your dialogues suck when your characters are not saying anything.” The long answer is, what I will try to explain below.

Writers tend to get caught up in the use of clever words when it comes to dialogue.
“What are you looking at, nerd?”
“I thought I was looking at my mother’s old douche-bag, but that’s in Ohio.”
That’s a clever line. (And it added the word “douche bag” to the American lexicon.) But it’s not exactly a great dialogue.

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind is known for a lot of eyebrow raising straight talk like, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” In fact, the book is so full of abrasive truisms that there are websites dedicated to posting them. You will find gems like “Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is” or “Death, taxes, and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”
But the key element in the dialogue between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara is what they are NOT admitting to each other. Their talk is all about concealing their own feelings while taking the meat cleaver to the other person’s psyche.

Good talk is all about what is NOT being said. The reader knows what should be said, or what is being meant, but the characters are only verbalizing the tip of the iceberg, or perversely saying the opposite of what they should be saying.
Writing good dialogue is like writing good arguments. Each character has things on their mind that is not directly related to the words they are saying. This back story is usually retro-fitted in the second draft.

Sometimes, it is not what is NOT BEING SAID, but about what is NOT BEING DONE. The classic example of this is the conversation between Major Strasser and Rick in the bar scene in the movie Casablanca. It is the scene in which Rick is introduced to Strasser for the first time. (Watch the movie if you don’t know it already.) Major Strasser, the suave, refined, gentlemanly Nazi officer, is doing what good Nazi villains always do; he is trying to threaten Rick and scare him shitless without actually pulling out his gun. Rick is trying to evade the questions and insult the Nazi as much as possible without getting himself killed. The suspense comes from the fact that one guy is a Nazi officer pretending to be nice because he has bigger fish to catch and the other guy is a former member of the Resistance who is pretending to be a selfish businessman who doesn’t give a shit. The whole conversation is like a well choreographed fight scene. Every line is a lunge and parry. These guys are doing with words, what they should be doing with knives.

When dialogue is good, more is being said than is verbally spoken. When Rhett Butler is running diagnostics on Scarlett’s self-centered character, what he really should be saying is that he loves her and cannot get her out of his mind. When Major Strasser is commenting on Rick’s “interesting cafe”, what he really wants to say is that he has the goods on Rick and will tear him apart if he gets in the way of capturing Victor Laszlo.

Lists of 10 easy ways to improve your dialogue is useful to a certain extent, but your dialogue will still suck if your characters are not saying anything beyond the words that are coming out of their mouths.

When Breaking Bad begins, Walter White had already made a train wreck out of what might have been a brilliant career through pride, denial, and stubbornness even before he gets lung cancer. Making and selling drugs is not just his way of providing for his family before his impending death, but his last and only shot at regaining the self respect he lost along the way. That is why the writer could come up with a great line like, “I am not in danger. I am the danger.”

Great lines are the tip of the back story iceberg. And they will flow out of you naturally if you have your story right. Or, conversely, if you have a great line that came to you out of nowhere, that is a great chance to dig deeper. What is the back story that made your character say that line? Back story generally does not make it into the final draft except in brief hints, but you should dig it up and know about it, because your next dialogue will depend on it.

 

Back Story Blues

Cinema is an unique story telling device. Sometimes, its advantages are utilized by a talented script writer. Sometimes they are not. Some stories are better told in the form of a book and a movie adaptation barely manages to project a shadow of the original work. But in rare instances, the script is so well tailored to the specific advantages of the medium that there is no way the story could have been told better in a book. And those are the times when a movie teaches you how to write a novel.

One such example is Good Will Hunting. The script was written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who won an Oscar for best original screenplay. Whatever your opinions on this duo’s acting skills, their writing is epic.

The story of Good Will Hunting is composed almost entirely of back story. Matt Damon plays a character with a tragic past. Robin Williams plays a character with a tragic past. These two pasts are what the whole story is all about. However, there is not a single flashback scene in the whole movie. We never see an actor playing Will Hunting’s father even though this violent drunk is central to the plot. We never see an actress playing Dr. Maguire’s wife even though she is the center of an important plot line. We never see the muddy battle fields of Vietnam, nor do we see veterans suffering from intractable PTSD on Dr. Maguire’s couch. We never see the violence Will Hunting experienced or the pain he suffered. We do not even see a scene from the 1975 Red Sox game, even though many viewers of the movie will swear there was a snippet from the actual game footage inserted into the movie. There are no flashback scenes in the entire movie. Zero. Nada. None.

This will be exceedingly difficult to pull off in a book because the reader will see the flashback scene in his mind’s eye no matter how you write it. Only a movie can completely control what is projected onto the screen before our eyes. Even then, our minds can play tricks on us. We think we saw that scene from the 1975 Red Sox game.

Because this script is written so specifically to fit the advantages of the motion picture, it teaches us a great deal about how to write back story into our novels. We do not see Will Hunting’s father beating him, we see Will Hunting beating the guy who bullied him as a child with vengeance that is aimed at his entire childhood rather than anyone specific. We see his current rage, and imagine the violence he went through. We do not see Dr. Maguire’s wife. We only see his sad smile as he talks about her. We see his past through his current emotions.

A book is written in print, and the pictures are projected into the reader’s mind. So the reader might see Scarlett Johansson  when the writer imagined Marilyn Monroe. In a movie, the picture is projected on a physical screen, and Marilyn Monroe is Marilyn Monroe. The advantage of a book is that it can project a much bigger, clearer and more detailed picture. But it cannot control what the reader sees.

Writers often get so caught up in this medium called print, a way to project movies into minds, that we forget even movies do not project exact images. Your memory of the movie Good Will Hunting will make you believe that there actually was a footage from the 1975 Red Sox game on the screen. There was none. You will swear there was a scene of Will’s father with a wrench in his hairy hand. You will swear you saw Robin Williams hugging a dying soldier in the mud of Vietnam. But these things were not projected on the physical screen. They were projected in your mind, as if you were reading a book.

What does this tell us? It tells us that there are layers to the pictures in our minds. Even if you project an exact picture on a physical screen, it will be projected again on the screen of the viewer’s mind. The print medium, therefore, is a triple layered movie screen. There are words on the page which are transformed into a movie in the reader’s mind, which is reconfigured into another movie in the reader’s memory.

There is no such thing as a novel without a back story. But back story generally does not advance the plot. Therefore, it is the first thing to get crossed off in the editing process. We end up showing only the results of the back story and make short references. Then we worry if the reader will get it. We fret if we have explained enough. But we have. In fact, chances are, we have explained too much.

Rules for the Second Draft (2)

You may have different ideas from me on what a second draft ought to be. For Stephen King, if we are to believe his words, his second draft is the final draft. It is about ten percent shorter than his first draft. This is a pretty incredible claim to make, because for most authors, that is the description of the third and fourth drafts. Apparently, Stephen King is so talented that when he puts down his ideas on paper for the first time, he already has the third draft ready to be reduced into the fourth and final draft. Mozart, they say, could write music straight out of his head and have the perfect and immortal composition without any revisions at all.

Not everybody is that talented. If you could write the third draft in the first try, you would not be participating in NaNoWriMo. You definitely would not struggle to write 50K words.

I’ve already stated that  a typical debut novel ranges between 80,000 to 100,000 words. Novels get longer for experienced and proven authors. A typical Stephen King novel is around 180, 000 words. The final installment of the Harry Potter series spans two volumes. Your 50K NaNo project is not long enough to be a novel. Your second draft should be 2.5 to 3 times longer than that. Your third draft should be 20-30% shorter than the second draft. Your fourth draft should be (if you haven’t screwed up) 5-10% shorter than the third draft. Your second draft is the longest of the bunch. If you do not have to follow this approach, you must be much more talented than I am. Professional writers and editors tend to think even this is an abbreviated game plan.

Your third draft should be good enough to be read by multiple beta-readers. Beta-readers should not be your admirers. People who respect you for whatever reason make lousy beta-readers. So do not choose people who do. Do not avoid people who do not. These are test subjects, mock audiences for the open market. Preferably, they are people who have written, edited or taught writing, but also represent the kind of readers in your target audience. If you are writing a YA novel aimed at teenagers, it will be difficult to find people with experience in writing and editing. In this case, READERSHIP TAKES PRECEDENT. Choose the beta-reader who has read a whole lot of YA novels. The third draft should be good enough to be liked by people who read a lot in your genre. If you have done your job well, the fourth draft will be a matter of minor tweaking.

Which brings us back to the second draft. The first draft is shoveling sand into the bucket so you can build sand castles. In the third draft, you are placing the little cannons and putting the toy soldiers in place, and in the fourth draft, you are adjusting the placement of the toy soldiers. It is the second draft that turns the sand into the castle.

What happens when you turn a first draft into the second? Typically, the third chapter becomes the first, the first chapter becomes the second and the second chapter practically disappears save for a few key paragraphs. You will also lose much of what you have written after the final climax. This is called “enter late, leave early”. When the book starts, the story is already moving. When it ends, a lot is left to the imagination. When Harry Potter begins, his parents are already dead. Once Lord Voldemort is killed, we skip a few years until Harry Potter is an adult seeing off his own child at King’s Cross Station. The reader enters in the middle of the party, and leaves before the boring stuff sets in. So the beginning and ending tend to get massively butchered.

Back story also bites the dust. If one of the characters has had a traumatic childhood under violent parents, and it is an integral and heart wrenching part of the story, that back story will be wiped out completely and replaced with a scene of the said character witnessing child abuse and reacting with inappropriately vigorous intervention. He will spit out a curt comment about how he hates child abusers while he wipes the blood off his sword. No back story. Part of this is because you should opt to show instead of tell. Part of it is because back story is boring. It is much more entertaining to demonstrate what kind of a killer cure resulted from the traumatic childhood than to take the reader step by step through the history of the process. Back story goes out. Action goes in.

Sub-plots must serve a purpose. If a male character strays from his main romantic interest and starts an affair with someone else, it is going to turn bad and he will have to react to the ensuing situation. The reaction will tell the reader what kind of person he is. Every sub-plot must have a climax. Every climax must resolve a conflict. Every resolution must provide insight on someone or something. If the sub-plot does not do these things, it must be beefed up or deleted.

If you have a three page description of a beautiful woman, pare it down to one line: She was a beauty men would kill for. Now, take that one line description and turn it into an event. Leave the floor strewn with corpses. Descriptions should be turned into events where ever possible.

Once you have turned all the descriptions into events, back story into action, sub-plots into insight and the novel starts after the story is already in motion and ends before things get boring, you can take your time to see if the story flows well. You can try retro-fitting it on to one of the classic plot structures, see if all the smaller and larger climaxes are lined up rhythmically, and weigh if the central character has grown and developed sufficiently. The second draft is finished when all of this is done and you are sure there is nothing more to add, only things to subtract.

The first draft drove all over town, taking you around sudden twists and turns you never expected. But it was YOUR car. You want to give the reader the joys of the same experience, but they are not in the driver’s seat. They cannot see what you do not show them. They cannot make sense of the emotions unless you make them feel them. The trick is to lay out the experiences without sounding like you are explaining to a two-year-old. In the end product, the novel, you have to show enough of the story so that the reader can see it and feel it. But you must leave enough to the imagination so that the reader does not feel like they are given a lecture. The second draft will inevitably be over-written. You will explain too much. You will describe too much. You will prod the reader too much. That is inevitable. And that is why, once you finish the second draft, you need to put it on the shelf again for a while until you can look at it with a fresh, critical eye and start working on the third draft. The objective is to omit the over explanations.

An editor once told a famous writer, I think it was Hemingway, to “Omit chapters ten and eleven”. If that was all he needed to cut, it must have been a damn good draft. A normal writer would need to cut 20 to 30 percent just to keep the draft from looking ridiculous. But that is the function of the second draft. When the first draft is done, the writer doesn’t know why the characters act the way they did. The story just kept taking turns on its own and somehow took you there. Writing the second draft is the act of explaining to yourself why all of this happened.

In the moment before Severus Snape died, he commanded Harry Potter to “Look into my eyes”. Why he said this is not explained. Throughout the entire series, Snape is described as a talented master of dark magic who respected Voldemort greatly, and who climbed his way to be one of the Dark Lord’s closest confidants. The one thing that made him give his allegiance to Dumbledore was his love for Lily Potter, Harry’s mother. It had been explained since the very first volumes of the series that Harry had Lily’s eyes. Snape wanted see Lily’s eyes in the moment of his death. I did not get this the first time I read the passage. J. K. Rowling omitted the explanation.

When you write the first draft, you would not have the foreshadowing early on where nearly every character says “You have your mother’s eyes” when they meet Harry Potter. You do not know yet, while writing the first draft, why Snape wants to see Harry’s eyes when he dies. In the second draft, you would have inserted the foreshadowing, but you probably would have also left in the explanation of why Snape commanded Harry to look into his eyes. In the third draft, you would know to omit that explanation in order to enhance the effect. And that is when you are ready to show your draft to your beta-readers.

 

Rules for the Second Draft (1)

Many of you have already crossed the finish line of 50,000 words. Congratulations. You should have your well deserved break and celebrate your success.

Now that you have won NaNoWriMo, we need to remind ourselves two things. One is that this is only the first draft. The other is that the objective of NaNoWriMo was to finish that pesky first draft disregarding its quality. Your NaNo draft needs to go through several more drafts before it can be called a completed novel.

Some busy bodies are already trying to turn your first drafts into your second draft. Don’t. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FIRST DRAFT. Leave it on the shelf for at least a month. Try to think as little about it as possible until at least New Year’s Day. Stay away from your first draft until you can look at it with a fresh eye. You can work on all the plot bunnies that distracted you during November, but it will be better if you spent the time reading some books. If you must, read books about self-editing and novel writing, but if you cannot keep your mind off your first draft and how it can be improved, this may not be the best time to study editing techniques. If you must, you might want to read Writing the Block Buster Novel by Albert Zuckerman and The Man From St.Petersburg by Ken Follet. Zuckerman was Follet’s editor and tells how The Man From St. Petersburg evolved from the first draft to to final draft.

Here are some of the basic rules of writing the second draft:

  1. DO NOT start the second draft before you finish the first.
  2. DO NOT start the second draft immediately after you finish the first.
  3. DO NOT try to write the final draft when you are on the second draft.
  4. DO NOT send your manuscript to beta readers, editors, or God forbid, publishers at this point.

What IS a second draft?

When you first come up with a story idea, you think it will start at point A, go through a series of steps through point B, and climb straight up a series of steps right to the conclusion. Then when you actually write down the first draft, you get stuck, you sputter, you languish, then the story takes a left turn, carries you through places you never imagined, and throws you off the car at the conclusion. The second draft is when you take that mess of a first draft and turn it into a smooth arc that leads from the beginning to end and carries the reader without any uncomfortable bumps. The second draft must make these things clear: What the main character wants, why he wants it, and how he attains it. How the main character starts out and how he evolves. Why these events happen. How each character, place and event are different.

What ISN’T a second draft?

The second draft is obviously not a final draft. It is not even a draft you can show your beta-readers. It does not have the perfect dialog. It does not have the perfect world descriptions. It does not have the best possible choice of words. At the end of the second draft, you still might have redundant characters that need to be deleted, redundant scenes, subplots and chapters that need to be erased, so you should not spend a lot of time polishing the sentences at this point. What you DO NOT HAVE in the second draft are MISSING characters, scenes, subplots and chapters. When you go from second to third draft, the book should become shorter, not longer.

A NaNo novel is typically about 50,000 words plus change. Some people keep writing until they feel the story is finished, but they still usually finish around 100,000 words or less. A typical traditionally published debut novel is about 80,000-100,000 words long. Water for Elephants, a best seller which started out as a NaNoWriMo project has 100483 words in the final draft. Night Circus, another book to start out as a NaNoWriMo project has 120937 words. If you have a 50,000 word NaNo novel (and you might have employed some cheats to inflate the word count) you will still have to add substantially to it before the second draft is done.

Some of the things you really need to check for in the second draft are:

  1. POV problems. Make sure the POV is always clear.
  2. Plot holes. The story should be plausible.
  3. Offensive language. A writer should never offend the reader by accident. You want a racist cop in the story, fine. You want a bad guy who jokes about child rape, fine. But you must delete all unintentional offences. Any character can be as evil as you want them to be, but the book itself must not be racist or bigoted.
  4. Story arc. The main character must evolve. The villain never does. It is probably not obvious in your first draft. Make it clear. What is the main character like in the beginning, how does he change by the end, and what is the event(s) that changed him?
  5. Mix of mannerisms. Each character must be different. Often in your first draft, every character partly mirrors the author. Thus some characters share mannerisms, figures of speech and/or habits in the first draft. They all seem to look out the window a lot while they are talking or reach for the coffee a lot between sentences. They all wipe their hair out of their face when their hands are idle. This should not happen. Each character should have clear and distinct mannerisms or the reader will get them mixed up.
  6. Differentiate the settings. In the first draft, every room feels the same. Just as every character seems to have the same mannerisms in the first draft, places tend to share the same atmosphere. Ask yourself why the scenes are different places and make the descriptions fit the reasons the characters are there in the first place. Don’t make every scene daytime or night time. Places should be as different as people.
  7. Story movement. Ideally the story should hit the ground running and slide in sideways to the conclusion. You start with a corpse on the first page and a shootout in the last chapter. If you have long expositions in the middle, you must find a way to weave it into the action. The story must constantly move. If the story lags anywhere, sort it out.
  8. Story structure. You need a beginning, middle, and end. Each of the three must also have a beginning, middle and end. Each of those have a beginning, middle and end. So the simplest story structure has 27 parts, but there are variations. One of the best known is the Star Wars structure. There are others. (Seven basic structures, give or take a few, depending on who you listen to.) If you are a plotter, your story should fit a structure already. If you are not, retro-fitting your story to a given plot structure will help you make the story flow more naturally.
  9. Setting the climax. In the first draft, you might not be clear which part of the story is the central climax. There should also be smaller climaxes rhythmically placed throughout the story. Big-Small-Big-Small. Or any variation. Every climax must resolve a conflict.
  10. Foreshadowing. In the first draft, you have not foreshadowed sufficiently because you did not know where the story was going. Now that you know how the story goes, you have to go back to the beginning and plant the tripwires. Try not to leave any loose ends. We have to know who killed the chauffeur.

Remember, when you go from first draft to second draft to third draft, the second draft is the longest. Once the second draft is complete, you only delete, delete, delete. And polish the details.

 

Untitled Novel (1)

PROLOGUE

Dear Son,

If all goes as designed, this package should reach you around the time of your fiftieth birthday in the year 2015. It may even be your child, my grandchild, who will find these documents at the appointed time. That may as well be, for I was but twelve years of age when the events recorded herein took place. It was 1928 and Japan had not yet been taken over by the militarist dictatorship. My father, the Oxford orientalist scholar, was struggling to assimilate into his adopted country, and Japan, a newly industrializing samurai nation, was struggling to join the civilized world. It was a very different and exciting time.

I arrived late to the game of fatherhood, and am now already fifty, and you not yet one-year-old. I do not expect to live until you read this letter, nor do I expect to remember properly all the details when you are old enough to understand the significance of what I have experienced. When I was a boy, I never envisioned that there would one day be such things as television broadcasts, or jet airplanes, or The Beatles. I suppose by the time this package is opened, you would be reading correspondences on electronic instruments in an air-conditioned home, while a robot hoovers the floor. I hope by then enough time would have elapsed to take some of the venom out of the ancient secrets I am about to record on paper, an archaic recording device in your time no doubt.

What inspired me to write this document is not the passage of time, but an article I found in a magazine. You will find the cut-out pasted on the adjoining page. It is a story of an archaeological discovery in Kyushu of Yata no Kagami a year ago in 1965. It is one of the bronze mirrors believed to have once reflected the face of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess of Japanese mythology. The mirrors are holy relics that legitimize the Emperor and other people of divine authority. Only two were known to the world, both badly damaged. The academics are still in disagreement as to the authenticity of the newly found fragments of the shattered fourth disk. I say fourth, although the article calls it third, because I know the fate of the third relic. I can attest to its authenticity, though I dare not say so in public, for I recognize the design. And I can prove there were four because there are documents, long believed to be destroyed, describing the lineage of the bronze disks, which I have included in this package. The first of these documents was the letter discovered by my father in the winter of 1928.

Since I will not be available to answer questions, I have included all the records, confessions and personal memoirs in the package in your hands, including academic publications, historic transcripts, blueprints, photographs, maps, notebooks, journals and diaries of all the relevant participants. The narrative, however, will have to be your own. It is up to you to assemble the full story from this collection of raw records. I know the penchant for research runs in the family, and I am confident that you will accomplish a commendable job in constructing the story for the readers of your time. Happy studies.

Your Loving Father,

Sir Tobias Francis Mason, OBE

(I’ve written this story up to Chapter 10, but it has been on hold since.)

Tricks to Overcome Stuckness Part 5

Rule of Thumb:

ANYTHING that does not immediately advance the plot can be relegated to the second draft. DON’T GET STUCK ON IT!

How To Write When Your Mind Is a Blur:

Sometimes, you could be so sleep deprived and tired (or drunk), you don’t even know what you are writing. This could really be a drag when you are writing a financial report or doing your homework. But if you are writing a creative novel, writing in a blur can sometimes help. I once recorded my drunken ramblings to see what awesome wisdom I was available to me under the influence of alcohol. It was actually a more ridiculous version of my usual ridiculous trope. Still, just jotting down your stream of consciousness can give you some surprising results at times.
One thing can be interesting and that is word mixes. When your mind is in a blur, you mix the strangest words. So try typing the word butterfly, then write the word that the word “butterfly” reminds you of in your blurry state of mind. Then write the word or phrase that the second word reminds you of. Don’t try to write a coherent sentence. You will come up with something like “Butterfly Magnum whore with a feather boom bum boo Walmart voodoo”. 99% will be utter nonsense. But sometimes you can produce a truly ominous and scary string or words, or a hilarious combination you could use someplace in your story, like in an uncontrolled angry rant of one of your characters.
You can also leave that in your word count. It’s raw material to be edited later.
When your mind is fuzzy and you cannot write coherently, don’t even try. Just let the mind flow. Veer off the story and leave in text whatever hallucination that comes to your mind. And edit it later.

The 12 Hour Novel:

With 10 days left until the end of NaNoWriMo, some of you have already reached your goal of 50K words. Congratulations. A great many more of you are still in the running, the majority probably seeing almost no chance in reaching 50K words. If you belong to the latter group, I am here to help. I present you The 12 Hour Novel Trick.
First off, some of you can finish a novel by Nov 30 without my help. God bless you. Read no further and get writing. But some of you may have 30K or more left to go. You really need a trick to speed up your writing. There are sprints, crawls and word wars to help you, but if you have employed them all and still have 30K or more words left to go, You might want to use this trick.
If you were to write 30K words in 12 hours, you will need to write 2500 words per hour. I hope you will agree that it is pretty much impossible to do that for 12 consecutive hours. If it is not impossible for you, bless you. You don’t need my help. Assuming that you do need my help, what if we could reduce that to 250 words per hour? You will be able to finish just the bare skeleton of the book in 12 hours and you will have the rest of November to fill in the blanks, using sprints, crawls and word wars. Here is how:
I once wrote a first draft for a story and took the first few pages, and extracted one sentence from each paragraph. I left the dialog as they were. The original passage was 1432 words. The extracted version was only 367 words. It was not better writing, but you could still follow the story pretty well. Which meant that about 1065 words were redundant. Almost 75%. More strikingly, the first four paragraphs, that included no dialog, with 997 words had been reduced to just 74 words and you could still follow the story. 923 words, roughly 92.6% of the words were redundant.
When I first discovered this, I thought this would be useful in doing some quick-and-dirty editing. You extract only one sentence per paragraph to create a bare bones outline, then fill in the spaces, putting the words back in, until you have just enough words for the manuscript.
But the principle can also be used in writing the first draft. Divide the page into four or five paragraphs and write one sentence per paragraph. Assuming you can see the scene in your head, you should know what you want to write, but the words are not coming. So just write one representative sentence for each paragraph. If you cannot see the scene in your head, talk about the scene. Talk to walls if you have to, but talk like a stage performer practicing his delivery. Use the Icon Trick as well.
As for dialog, write one or two lines per character. That’s just two or four lines, if you have two characters in the scene. Just write the lines you want them most to say. Then move on. Skip all the tags. (“she said, as she looked around the room.”)
Do this and you would have eliminated 90% of the words in your story and you still would get a coherent story that reaches the end of your book. If you have 30K words left to go, your bare bones outline would be 3000 words long. Which is quite doable in 12 hours. Now you can use the remainder of your 10 days to fill in the blanks.

The Dimension Crosser Trick:

Are you stuck? Really stuck? Is nothing coming out?
Have you read my previous posts and tried all my writer’s block busting tricks? Still stuck?
If you are absolutely sure that you are stuck and none of the previous tricks I posted is doing anything to help, try this.
List at least ten of your favorite books and movies, preferably on a note pad at five line intervals. Now, for each title, list five scenes you remember.
For example, if it is “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”, you might list, 1. booby traps in a cave, 2. bar fight in the Himalayas, 3. big man with a sword, 4. fist fight near a plane, 5. the enormous storage hangar. (You might choose other scenes.)
With ten titles you have fifty scenes.
Try to imagine your main character, your secondary character and your villain in each scene. That is 150 scenes. See what will happen in each instance. Scribble whatever comes to mind on the note pad.
You don’t have to worry about plagiarizing. You are just mixing possibilities and this is just the first draft.
If these scenes are not enough, list some more scenes, more titles. If the scenes that come to your mind are disjointed and do not compose a coherent story line, don’t worry, write it anyway. You can shift them around later. Just put them down.
Just throw your characters into situations from books and movies you like. Imagine how they would react to those situations. Jot down those ideas and string them together.

With Nine Days Left:

If you still have 15000 words to go, you are not a single day behind.
If you still have 20000 words to go, you need only two good days to catch up.
If you still have 30000 words to go, I already posted how to catch up.
If you still have 40000 words to go, take some extra coffee. You can do it.
If you still have 50000 words to go, my kinda guy. Let’s pull some magic!

Tricks to Overcome Stuckness Part 4

This is what happens after NaNoWriMo when you turn your first draft into a second draft.
Your third chapter becomes the first chapter. Your second chapter is mostly deleted and a few remnant paragraphs are incorporated into the new third chapter. The POV character of your fourth chapter vanishes from the book entirely and and the seventh chapter becomes the fifth.
In short, your book will be butchered, mutilated and pieced back together.
So don’t get too attached to the stuff you are writing now. Your first draft does not need to be polished to a mirror finish.
Which brings us to…

The Compartmentalization Trick:

Stuck? Then recite with me the NaNoWriMo Prayer:
Lord grant me:
The morale to type out the first draft,
The strength to postpone the tweaking for the second,
And wisdom always to know the difference.

Sometimes, when you are stuck, you are stuck on the tweaking that should be left to the second and third drafts, and not the rough word pounding you should be doing in the first.
It is futile to get the writing just right in the first draft. You might be deleting chapters, subplots and characters wholesale in the second draft. The more you invest in tweaking your first draft, the more difficult it will be to kill your darlings in the editing process. No sense sandpapering and varnishing before the wood goes through the band saw. Leave the finishing process for the finish.
Here are some signs that you might be stuck on the tweaking and not the first drafting.
1. You are trying to get the dialog just right.
2. You are trying to fill in the motives of your characters. (We do not need too many motives per character in the first draft. Just one over riding one.)
3. You are stuck on a subplot.
4. You are stuck on “show, don’t tell.” (You can tell in the first draft. Tweak it to show in the second draft.)
5. You are stuck on backstory. (At least half the backstory should be deleted in the editing process anyway.)
6. You are stuck because you don’t know why she loves him. (Skip it.)
7. You are stuck because the emotions don’t feel real.
8. You are stuck because you fear your story might not be politically correct. (Fix it later, only if you have to.)
9. You cannot find the right words.
10. You are stuck because you are not sure what your characters are doing is physically possible. (That never stopped readers from trying it at home.)
11. Is it possible at all to skip the problem you are stuck on right now and get on with writing the next page of the story? If it is, your problem is a second draft problem.
A lot of writers, who say they are stuck, are stuck on items they would edit out in the second draft anyway. Don’t get so invested in your first draft. You will only find it more difficult to kill your darlings when you try to gold plate the first draft. Compartmentalize your writing process.
When you are stuck, ask yourself: “Is this a first draft problem?”
If it isn’t, leave the problem as it is and write the next part of the story.

 

The Lego Movie Factor:

Up to now, most of my anti-stuck tips have been focused on seat-of-the-pants writers, not plotters.
But one Nanoer, apparently a plotter, now has a problem. She has written her story according to the outline from beginning to end, but only the bare bones. In her own words, she needs to “fill in the places that say stuff like ‘I’ll think of this later’ and generally add more details to make it something that people might actually want to read”.

The first rule of Nano is, you don’t get stuck on second draft issues. The objective is to finish the first draft as quickly as possible regardless of the quality. So you must not obsess over “polishing” your work, because your work will be torn apart and pieced back together in the editing process anyway.

But what about the stuff you DO need to flesh out in the first draft? How do you turn a bare bones outline into a first draft?
This is where you take a peek at the old cheat sheet.

1. What does your protagonist want?
2. Why does he want it?
3. What happens if he fails?
4. What is his inner obstacle?
5. What/who is his outer obstacle?
6. What does the villain want?
7. Why does he want it?
8. What happens if he fails? (What’s going to happen to the villain if he *doesn’t* destroy the world?)
9. Where is the location of the climax?
10. What obstacles do you face to get there?
11. What is the deadline for the protagonist to accomplish his objective. (The clock needs to be ticking.)
Your protagonist must have; a weakness, a handicap, an inner pain, and/or a secret.
Your villain must have; a human side, a weakness, a special strength, and/or a secret.

There are similar lists available in various writing books and on the internet, so you can choose your own. Elements you absolutely need in a first draft are limited. The first thing you do is check to see if you have covered all the bases.

Next, you superimpose your bare bones story with your plot points. Your outline may have any number of plot points. (Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet has fourteen, but James Patterson typically seems to be using a twenty-two point list if you reverse engineer his novels.) Assuming that all the plot points are already represented in the bare bones draft, the spaces you need to fill in should be in between the plot points. These fill-ins should all have a structure, typically a three part structure, but you can also use the four part structure I explained in my blog. Each fill-in should lead to each following plot point.

Given that, you should get a fair first draft, with only a handful of “think about it later” spaces that are best left for the second draft anyway.

The problem, however, is the steam. Some people experience a loss of steam after finishing a bare bones story line and cannot marshal the enthusiasm to fill in the blank spaces. This is because they are trying to “make it something that people might actually want to read”.

The first draft is all about what you want to read (or write). What other people might want to read is a second draft consideration. Once you’ve covered the bare essentials, focus on what amuses you. Not what the story needs.

Remember the Lego Movie. It was dismissed by the critics as a lengthy product advertisement, which it was. But it was also a pretty good movie. They should have expected nothing less. People who made that movie love Legos. That love just couldn’t help but seep through. If the story gets a little clunky because you are just piling on stuff you like to see, don’t sweat it. This is only the first draft.

Getting Stuck at Arguments

I asked people participating in NaNoWriMo, when and how they got stuck with their writing, and a lot of people seemed to be having trouble writing arguments and emotional misunderstandings.

Since NaNoWriMo is about finishing the first draft regardless of quality, writing a convincing dialogue is a second draft consideration. How to get a pouting couple to talk past each other convincingly is something you should think about when you are refining your manuscript. In the first draft, you should be focused on getting the story moving again and finishing the draft. Arguments and misunderstandings are difficult to write, not only because it requires a lot of emotional investment, but because you have to play two roles at once, method acting the emotions of two actors at the same time.

There was an internet meme which was a simple photograph of a whiteboard in a workplace. On the whiteboard it said “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about, so be nice.” Subtract the last three words and that is literary arguments in a nutshell. Every character is inwardly fighting a battle that no other character knows anything about or fully understands. And they fail to be nice.

Why do siblings fight? The big sister has homework to do. She also has chores that her little brother is not given partly because he is selfish and mom doesn’t have time to argue with him, partly because he is too young and unreliable, and she thinks it’s unfair. Her friends don’t have the same chores because their parents can afford a maid. She wants to go out with her friends but her clothes are not up to par, she wants to earn money for things she wants but her mom thinks she is too young to get jobs. She can’t earn money babysitting because she has to babysit her brother for free. The whole world is conspiring against her and the only escape is to concentrate on her homework. The little brother is bored because his next door friend is away. He does not have the kind of toys his friend has, so when they play they play at the friend’s house, but the neighbor has gone to Florida for the summer. They went last year too. He had never been out of town. Florida to him is an abstraction on a map. His friend said they saw an alligator there. An alligator in the wild! He want’s to go on an adventure but his only adventure is in an imaginary world with a bruised and soiled hand-me-down GI Joe doll.
“Do you have to play with that here? I’m doing my homework.”
“Timmy’s in Florida. I have to play at home.”
“I don’t care about Florida. Go play somewhere else!”
“You’re my babysitter. You are supposed to be watching me.”
“I don’t care if you go away and die!”

An argument is the tip of an unspoken backstory iceberg. The topic of their argument is often only loosely associated with what is really bothering them.

The hard part of being a writer is that you have to spend a great deal of time and energy creating a series of extended backstories and not talk about them. You only drop hints and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. This is especially true when you are describing an argument that is all emotion and no substance (most arguments are).

Each character needs to be carrying a world of problems that they are struggling to internalize. When these people by chance get in each other’s way, and they cannot handle it like civilized adults, an argument ensues. A tiny pebble you trip over can bring down a world of frustrations.

Take Breaking Bad, for instance. Walter White is a brilliant, but stubborn, chemist. He built a startup company with a friend, but when his friend “stole” his girlfriend he sold his share and stormed out. He wound up a school teacher with meager pay, poor health insurance, his students pay no attention in his classes, and disrespect him because he washes cars to cover his bills. Meanwhile, the company he threw away made his friends millionaires. He is over qualified, under paid, under appreciated, and now he has lung cancer. His wife has a handicapped son, an unplanned pregnancy, a boss who is cooking his books and a husband who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Walter’s brother-in-law is a law enforcement officer for the DEA who acts gung-ho and over-the-top brave all the time, but is secretly scared. He is surrounded by death all the time and he is inwardly falling apart. He cannot tell anyone about his fears because it might ruin his career. His wife sees what kind of pressure her husband is in, but she has to keep her mouth shut about it, attend events like barbecues and parties to hear war stories of the danger her husband is constantly in, not to mention funerals of dead officers they knew. Her only outlet is shoplifting. This was set up to become a brilliant show even if Walter White didn’t turn to a life of crime.
When the sister-in-law’s shoplifting habit is exposed, and her husband asks for “support”, an argument ensues. If you can’t remember the argument, you can write it yourself. It will not be very difficult because we know what the underlying problems are. What if the argument was not about shoplifting but something else? A choice of wine for dinner, for example. “You served this on purpose!” Do you think you could make this work? Of course you can. Because they are not really arguing about wine.

A good argument can only be written when there is a lot of unspoken frustrations that the characters are NOT arguing about. These unspoken frustrations are most often retro-fitted into the second draft. So, like I said, the believability of an emotional argument is a second draft problem.

Tricks to Overcome Stuckness Part 3

The Cheat Sheet:

Stuck?
Maybe it’s time to review that cheat sheet.

1. What does your protagonist want?
2. Why does he want it? (Not clear? Clear it up.)
3. What happens if he fails? (Better make it big.)
4. What is his inner obstacle? (He should have big reasons to hesitate.)
5. What/who is his outer obstacle? (You better have a big villain.)
6. What does the villain want?
7. Why does he want it?
8. What happens if he fails? (Not just the good stuff. What’s going to happen to the villain if he *doesn’t* destroy the world?)
9. Where is the location of the climax? (Can you visualize the place?)
10. What obstacles do you face to get there?
11. What is the deadline for the protagonist to accomplish his objective. (The clock needs to be ticking.)

Your protagonist must have; a weakness, a handicap, an inner pain, and/or a secret.

Your villain must have; a human side, a weakness, a special strength, and/or a secret.

Fill in the cheat sheet. If anything is missing, that just might be the reason that you are stuck.

The Play Acting Trick:

Writers do weird shit. Deal with it.
Play acting is a vital weapon in your arsenal against writer’s block.
When you are stuck, you can act out the scene in the movie in your mind. It is usually awkward doing it with your pal. It rarely goes right when you are doing it with people your own age. But it often works great if you can find a volunteer to work with you who is less than ten years old. (Guys beware. You don’t want to be mistaken for a pedophile.)
It’s amazing how children can understand complex plots. And they are more likely to carry on an imaginary conversation with you with a straight face than an adult. Try telling a child to play a mother while you play a police officer delivering the news that her son died in a robbery. You might see an Academy Award worthy performance. More importantly, they will come up with the most inspiring quotes you can imagine.
Children cannot always help you. One thing they cannot understand is love affairs. You shouldn’t talk to them about dark sex scenes either. Horror is a little iffy. Religion should be off limits unless it’s your own kid. So when you don’t have a child acting partner, what do you do?
You have to act alone, or play two parts. Sometimes you act with a doll or a stuffed animal. Laugh if you will, but how many of you have never acted out a sex scene with a pillow? Honestly.
Little dolls and toy soldiers can help you enact a scene too. Some writers keep a teddy bear handy while writing for this purpose.
Oddly enough, an adult partner who cannot maintain a straight face pretending to be a cop will often times do a great job with imaginary dialog when playing with toy dolls.
Enacting a scene with someone else will help you grasp the scene better and can help you just as much when you are working on your second draft. But it is very useful in breaking through a block in your first draft. If you can’t find a partner at three o’clock in the morning, you will have to do it with the teddy bear. But do it. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s all a part of the process.

The Wall Trick:

Before going on to the Wall Trick, let’s just review the old standby: Talking to friends.
When you are stuck, one way to get a better grasp of the story is to tell it to someone. Whether he likes it or not, the feedback he gives you can provide you with the new perspective that might help you break that block.
The drawback is that it is not easy to find a friend that will give productive feedback. Some people can even discourage you and make the block worse. Thanks to modern technology, however, disparately located writers can connect via online instruments such as Skype. So talking about your story is one way to break the block.
But if you don’t have the ideal person to talk to, or your ideal partner is temporarily unavailable (Murphy’s Law dictates that they will always be unavailable when you need them most) you have the option of talking to the wall.
This is not as pathetic as it sounds. A live talking partner is not always the best listener. If you agree with the principle that the best listener is a silent listener, what better listener than a wall. Writers have been talking to walls for hundreds of years. It should be respectable by now.
There is a trick to talking to walls, however.
It should be obvious.
You are talking to an inanimate object.
It’s not how it responds to you, it’s what you project to it.
To be more specific, you should see one of two things when you talk to a wall: An audience in a theater or the scene of your story. If it is an audience, you are standing on a stage, like a comedian testing out his routine at a small comedy club. The more clearly you see the audience, the more detached you will be from the words on the screen. You are not dictating your book. You are telling a story. Speak like you are talking to an audience. That means you will be saying things like “It went whoosh! And it was like bam!” Not words you would normally type. The objective is to get the picture focused in your mind as you practice your delivery.
The other thing you might see in the wall is the scene of your story. You are literally talking through the forth wall into your story world. Picture Tim Roth in the movie “Reservoir Dogs” in the washroom scene. He was telling the story while standing in it. (If you haven’t seen the movie, see it.)
Start telling your story from a place a little bit before the place where you got stuck. Keep on telling it and telling it until you break through the block. Always speak out loud.
If anybody walks in on you, just tell them honestly that you are composing your book. There is nothing wrong with talking to walls.

The Emoji Trick:

There are many ways to get stuck while you are writing, but one of the most common is that you just cannot find the right word or phrase to describe your thoughts. Sometimes it can take days or longer to get the words right. That effort is admirable, unless you are still on your first draft and you are trying to finish it in a hurry.
One trick to get around the word freeze is to substitute an emoji for the word you cannot find. It will be a place holder until you find the right word or phrase.
Emoji is easy to find, especially if they are in color. Also, they express several emotions so you can record the general feeling you wanted to covey. Software such as Scrivener lets you use emoji. The drawback is that, depending on the software you use, the search function may not recognize it and you will have to scroll through your manuscript manually.
The old tried and true method is to use code words as place holders. For example, if you don’t know what word to use, just type in “pepperoni”. Later on, you can use the search function to look for all the pepperonis. (My personal code word is “fuckit”.) If you need to make your code words stand out, capitalize them. (PEPPERONI or FUCKIT)
The drawback of this method is that it is laugh inducing. Take any segment from the work of Virginia Woolf, replace the words and phrases you could not have thought of yourself with “pepperoni” or “fuckit”, and the result will be hilarious. This is inconvenient because it is usually the most emotionally charged scenes that induce word freeze. It is difficult to get back into the mood when you are rolling on the floor laughing.
Some writers just type “***”.
Emoji or code word, whatever you use the objective is to keep writing. The search for the right word is endless. Some authors spend years to find the right words to a given scene. I wish I knew the emoji trick ages ago.
If you want to get your first draft out quick, don’t get stuck on the search for the right word. Just insert a place holder and move on.

The Cliffhanger Trick:

We owe the words “cliffhanger” and “out on a limb” to Hollywood. Back in the days when movies were serialized like TV programs, movies literally ended with the protagonist hanging from an limb of a tree over a cliff.
Writers are supposed to conjure a cliffhanger at the end of as many chapters as possible. But the reverse is also true. If you cannot finish a chapter, you can just slap on a random cliffhanger.
Say your word count target for the day is two thousand words. You managed to hammer out a thousand but you’ve burned yourself out. It’s late in the day and you are thirsting for a beer. Just put the protagonist in a jam and say: There! Cliffhanger! End of chapter.
Now you can go have your beer with a clear conscience, having finished your day’s work. Tomorrow you can start again refreshed. You didn’t meet your two thousand word quota by about eight hundred words, but you will catch up another day.
A cliffhanger can be anything: A sudden phone call from a boyfriend who wants to break up, a shot out of nowhere that leaves the protagonist wounded with a dead phone and no backup bleeding out and sure to die, a sudden unexpected explosion that throws the protagonist unconscious, a slip of the fingers that makes the protagonist drop his magic wand or energy pod or oxygen tank or love letter into the abyss. You get the idea.
The great thing about cliffhangers is that they tend to come suddenly with no buildup, so it is easy to add them on.
If the chapter ends up being too short, remember this is only the first draft. You can flesh it out later.
A cliffhanger is your get-out-of-jail-free card. If you’ve been writing all day and you feel you have to take a break until tomorrow, just slap on a random cliffhanger. It might end up better than you expect.

The Split Chapter Trick:

This is not really a trick. It’s more like common sense.
When you are stuck in the middle of a chapter because you cannot connect the first half of the chapter to the second half, don’t.
The reason you cannot make the transition from one part of the story to another is because those two sections do not belong together. Put them in different chapters. If the two chapters look a little truncated and short, remember that this is only the first draft. You can agonize about it later.
Say a company executive is plotting a hostile takeover in the first half of the chapter, then talks to his ailing wife in the second half, but you just can’t seem to make the shift from the first half to the second, that is because the two segments of the story do not belong in the same chapter.
Cut the chapter short and start again in a new chapter.

The Casting Trick:

In the late 1980’s, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Menno Meyjes and Philip Kaufman sat down to write the story for the third installment of the Indiana Jones franchise. They had already decided that they were going to introduce Indy’s father into the movie, but then they got stuck. The story got nowhere. Then Kaufman asked, “Who do you want to cast for this father?” This is actually a stupid question to ask in Hollywood, since casting is always vulnerable to the whims and currents of show biz. You approach one actor and he has scheduling conflicts. You approach another actor and he has contract conflicts. After going through a dozen actors you go with what you can get. That is why you never write a movie script tailored for a specific actor. But in this instance, it worked. They agreed that Indy’s father would ideally be played by Sean Connery, who at the time was very much still considered a former James Bond. The moment they got that picture in their heads, the story started flowing. The result was the script of a blockbuster film. And they really got Sean Connery to boot.
If you are writing a book and not a movie script, you are free to cast anyone in the leading role. Just never tell anyone who you had in mind, in case you actually get a movie deal. We don’t want to know that Ian Flemings’s choice for James Bond was David Niven.
Casting your book with a specific actor could help you get the sounds and sights right. (Who is that sub-character played by?) It could help you when you are stuck.

The Fat Guy Trick:

Back more than thirty years ago, I once knew a breathtakingly beautiful and off-the-scale sexy young lady who had preposterously bad luck with a string of handsome boyfriends who all turned out to be jerks of one persuasion or another.
Her girlfriend gave her a piece of advice that stuck in my mind to this day.
“Get yourself a *fat* boyfriend next time.”
If you are badly stuck in your story, let me take a guess: Your protagonist looks like Ryan Gosling, his sidekick looks like Colin Farrell, the mentor looks like Keifer Sutherland, the villain is Christoph Waltz and his henchman is Ron Perlman. Close? Do you realize they are all white and thin? For Christ’s sake throw a fat guy into the mix!
I say this not only because fat people are under-represented in literature, but the damn truth is that fat guys rule.
If you generalize Jews and say “Jews are like this – ” your opinion probably ranges somewhere between mild to vehemently antisemitic. Same deal if you generalize Black, Hispanic, or Asian people. Fat people are typecast too, but in a very different way. Fat people in fiction can be evil like Ernst Stavro Blofeld, or jolly like Friar Tuck, or a representation of benevolent authority like Sir Topham Hatt, or brainy like Nero Wolfe, or greedy like Casper Gutman (a.k.a. the Fat Man). These are all fat guy stereotypes but they cover the whole spectrum of humanity. You might have your idea of what a fat boyfriend is like. But chances are he is probably different from everyone else’s.
But the important thing is, you have a stereotype in your mind. You know what a fat boyfriend is like. He doesn’t look like Ryan Gosling, and he must play a different role.
Is this unfair to fat people? Probably. Writers are unfair to all fictional characters. The bottom line is, throwing a fat guy (or a fat gal) into the mix can solve your stuckness because your preconceptions about fat people, whatever they are, will tell you exactly what to write.

The Blind Date Trick:

You started writing your book with a good idea, say a dystopian future novel. You struggled to stay on course. Now you are sick of your book because it looks just like every other dystopian future novel you ever hated. You are now stuck.
If that is the case, I say throw in Herbie the Lovebug, the Cookie Monster, and Daffy Duck. Seriously.
Here is the thing. You are writing a novel. Nobody but you will ever know what your characters look like or sound like. You can mislead your readers into believing that Daffy Duck is a Caucasian male. It is basically the same thing you do to your profile on an on-line dating site. Nobody will know the truth while you are typing away. The James Bond series was originally written with David Niven in mind. The movie producers (in this case Albert Broccoli and company) didn’t know that, so they cast Sean Connery instead. If the character in your head is Daffy Duck, who is to know? Tom Cruise will play that character in the movie. Maybe not Tom Cruise, but definitely Sam Rockwell.
Daffy Duck does not belong on the set of The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. But that is just the point. You are sick of the stereotypes of the genre. You want to do something fresh and creative. But you want to type two thousand words a day. What to do?
Here is what to do. Bring in a character you know very well; someone you can put in a situation and predict what he will do and say, like Shaggy from Scoobie Do, or Detective Lennie Briscoe from Law & Order, or Jessie Pinkman from Breaking Bad, or Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Daffy Duck. Put them in your dystopian universe and let them run amok. Don’t tell anybody what they really look like. The story will be original, unexpected, entertaining, and most of all, easy to write.
When push comes to shove and you just cannot come up with something really original at the pace of two thousand words a day, do the Blind Date trick on your first draft. The result will surprise you.

The Hail Mary:

Are you stuck? Really stuck? Have you read all my tips and tried them all? Are you still stuck? Maybe you are ready for the Hail Mary.

This is it.
Type “The End”.
Turn off the computer. Walk away.
Tomorrow morning you have a choice. You can either start writing a new novel, if you can live with it, or you can write an addition to the novel you just finished.
Now go to bed.