Sunday, March 30, 2014

How to Not Plot a Novel

I’m basically writing a novel where I don’t know what happens next as I write each scene. For anyone writing seriously, this is terrifying. I touched on this before in this rambling post about finding the story.

Why don’t I just plot beforehand, you ask? Plotting just doesn’t work for me. I attempted it painstakingly before (on a very different version of the current novel) and the storyline in question became so contrived and ARTIFICIAL that I just lost interest in it and chucked it. I don't regret the wasted words though, because they taught me how not to write this story.

As hard as I try to plot my current novel from start to finish or even the next few chapters, it just WON’T HAPPEN. But wait. Stop. Do I need to plot at all?

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E.L. Doctorow

Here’s the thing. I find that plot germinates from scene to scene. This means that with each decision I make on the page concerning my characters and important story elements, this impacts how the story will unfold later on.

Though I don’t outline my chapters before writing them, I do outline them afterwards so I can keep track of what has happened so far in the story. An outline is just life-saving when you temporarily stop working on a story to focus on something else and then decide to come back to it months later.

Also, when I’m in the middle of writing a scene, I tend to get ideas of things that may happen in future scenes and I make a point to jot them down so I can explore them later. And Mr. Picasso makes a very important point here:

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” – Pablo Picasso

When I’m working on a story, I’m always thinking about it even during the time when I’m not actually writing the story. And this is when I tend to get revelations about so-and-so character and discover plot holes.

Sometimes, I find that there are several possible pathways down which my story could develop. In that case, I try out a couple of experimental versions (even if there is a chance that I might not keep it) until I find one that works for the story. And I never know where each version could lead me, but all I know is that it could lead me to someplace I never expected to find (Sparta! Or you know. Someplace cool).

Even discarded scenes are not a complete waste of words (and time) because maybe there are elements, bits of descriptions or even entire characters that might be worth keeping. In fact, an important character from my current novel emerged that way (from an experimental storyline that I’m not keeping).

At some point, it occurred to me that the only way to finish writing this book is to keep writing it until it's done.

Recently, I came across invaluable writing advice by the brilliant Timothy Hallinan and apparently, he doesn't outline.

Also, here's a hilarious post about writing a novel: The Nine Stages of Dating a Novel by Tahereh Mafi (a guest post on Nathan Bransford's blog).

P.S. I'm in the grovelling stage right now. Hundred more Word pages to go, before I finish some semblance of a first draft (or should I say "experimental" draft? O_o).

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Touch of Southern India

So, I recently went to India for the first time. Finally! Because I'd been wanting to visit for a while now. This time round, I toured just the southern part of the country because India is just so huge that you can't explore it all in one go, especially in just 10 days!

When you are a writer, traveling is a good way to resource yourself and recharge your batteries. And of course, it's really just an excuse to wander around cluelessly and run into countless surprises. But I survived!

Surprises are part of the deal and sometimes, you just have to take it in stride (as long as you don't die, it's all good, right?). The food and the cultural experience were amazing for one. Some of the people I met were kind beyond my wildest expectations. And all in all, I had a good time.

Unexpectedly, I even learned how to ride a canoe!! Since my friend and I had zero navigation skills, I'll attribute the feat of getting the thing to move without overturning to our irrational fear of taking a dip in the filthy waterway and drowning in muck. See, fear is the ultimate motivator in situations like this. Anyway.

If there is one thing you can't accuse the south of India of, it's blandness. It is filled to the brim with strange and wondrous things...and colors! Here are a few glimpses...




Friday, January 3, 2014

The Right Word

We, as writers, sometimes lose so much time looking for the right word. Most of the time, it is right under our unsuspecting noses. Sometimes, we look down on it because it looks too simple and we are ashamed to use it because we think "we can do better". But that's because we forget that there is beauty in the humblest of words. I just wanted to share a couple of quotes to begin this new year.

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." – Mark Twain

"Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word – of course you will, there’s always another word – but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean." – Stephen King (On Writing)

So, on this day, let us make the solemn promise to leave our shame behind and dare to use the right word. And speaking of lightning bugs, here's a short story by Sara Seay.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

An Ordinary Black Cat (Short Story)

As promised, I'm posting a short story to battle my fear.

I saw a black cat one day and this short story sprouted from my overactive mind.
The first time I saw the cat, I was walking back home from work. I wouldn't have paid any particular attention to it, if not for its black velvet fur and bright yellow eyes. It was not often I saw a cat like that. The kind of cat featured in folktales about witches or the devil. The kind of cat that people believed brought bad luck if it crossed the street in front of them. That kind of cat.

But truth to tell, I thought it was probably just an ordinary black cat.

It sat still on the lawn of someone’s front yard with its head turned the other way, ignoring the people who walked by, just a few feet away. After that one time, I never expected to see it again.

However, when I stepped out of the house to get the mail on the very next day, there it was. Almost as if waiting for me to notice it. It crossed the front yard and paused to look at me for the briefest second, before it was on its way.

And then I started seeing it at the most unexpected times. I would gaze out of the kitchen window in the middle of doing the dishes and it would return my gaze from the backyard, before jumping the wooden fence to the other side. I would randomly look out of my bedroom window and see it perched on the charcoal-tiled roof of my neighbor’s house and it would turn its head to look at me at that exact moment.

The days stumbled after each other. It became a little game of sorts. I would spot it and it would pause to acknowledge me, before running along. Not a day passed without our unspoken exchange.

Until one day, a full fortnight after I’d first seen it, it came treading along as I stepped out on the front porch on my way out. This time it stopped and sat a couple of yards away from me, waiting like it wanted to tell me something. Unfortunately, I didn’t speak cat.

It turned out, I wouldn’t need to. I’d barely locked the front door when I accidentally dropped my keys. I cursed, bending to retrieve them. But the cat swooped over them and scooted away in a flash.

“What the–?” I turned around to find the cat standing several yards away, with my keys firmly held in its maw. I cursed again.

My Fear of Failure

I'm an idiot. I just had this sudden realization around an hour and a half back. Today I've had this big uneasy feeling. Last night (or rather very early this morning) I went to sleep uneasy. I woke up uneasy. I spent the day uneasy.

I went for a run after I woke up today morning (something I NEVER do), because I felt I needed it. I thought maybe it would clear my mind. I woke up one hour before my alarm clock, despite clocking in less than six hours of sleep.

I couldn't put my finger on what was up with me the whole day until that light bulb moment. I know I've been avoiding writing for the past few days. Always making excuses. My resolution to write everyday if only for ten minutes hasn't lasted more than a few days. I've been ignoring it. Pretending it doesn't exist because I told myself I have more pressing matters at hand. Then I stopped and asked myself: what the hell am I doing?

Then, more questions. What is my passion? The written word - writing and reading! But why am I doing everything I can to avoid those two things? Am I lying to myself? Maybe my true passion is something else. Then, I thought: no. These two things have always brought me joy. What changed then?

My perspective, I think. Before last year, I never thought of these two things as anything less than an active hobby and they were nothing but pure pleasure. Writing was something that I was doing for myself. From the minute I started to consider writing as a possible career, it increasingly became a chore. Why?

Because there was this new pressure to succeed (pressure that wasn't there before - pressure I put on myself I have to add). However, the pressure kept rising and rising. It rose so much in fact that writing became so stressful at one point last year that I had to stop for more than two months before I gathered myself again.

I think this whole situation originates from this: my fear of failure. As difficult as it is to admit to myself, I'm afraid to fail at writing, so I constantly delay writing and even when I do write, I feel that it's not good enough. But by losing so much time being scared, I'm losing the opportunity to follow my dreams and my heart. The thing is, I realize I'm the only person holding myself back. And by doing so, I'm whittling my life away little by little. I'm sabotaging myself, like someone I know likes to say.

I watched a great movie today. It basically had this one line that I find so liberating: "Don't run after success. Run after excellence. Then, success will come running after you on its own."

So, I've decided I'm going to be afraid no more. Even if I fail at writing, at least I will still have the satisfaction of knowing that I gave it my everything. And I'm determined to make writing stories fun again. Even if no one wants to read them.

And as Robin Sharma says in this blog post, the antidote to fear is action. I'm going to post my next short story. It's not perfect. It's not even pretty (and I'm pretty sure it's badly written). But it is what it is. And by posting this short story, I will be battling my fear actively.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Story Magic

When you’ve been writing a particular story for a very long time, sometimes it’s hard to continue. So hard in fact, that even before you sit down to type, you want to drop it and do anything else. ANYTHING ELSE. In short, it becomes an absolute chore to continue.

I think writing is so hard because we pour so much of ourselves into it and sometimes, a story will only take you so far before the only thing left to do is to set it aside and carry on to the next story. But eventually there comes a story that won’t leave you alone no matter what. It keeps nagging at you to write it, to finish it. But you’re terrified to write it because you’re afraid you’ll botch it up (and when I say "you", I mean me). And it lies lingering there like that ghost you pretend you don't see.

So, how do you find your way back to the magic that drew you to this story again? Is it even possible, you ask?

You daydream. You let your mind wander about the story ideas and its characters. You imagine the scenes that you were once beyond excited to write. And you keep feeding your imagination with stories of all kinds by reading as much as you can.

But most importantly, I think spending regular time with the story becomes crucial. Stories, like relationships, are high-maintenance because when you neglect them, you start to lose them, their threads and what made them special to you in the first place.

Schedule regular alone time with the story if only to stare off into blank space and daydream about it like it’s some long-lost crush. Hopefully, you will be flooded with a rain of ideas (to self: that's a horrible metaphor) or you know just think of a couple of things that can help move it forward.

Friday, September 27, 2013

My Imagination is a Hungry Beast

Signs of summer have been popping up where I live.

Peach Blossoms

Lately, I've been in a bit of a reading and writing slump. I'm having trouble focusing on the things I most love to do. And it’s not even because of lack of time. I just don’t seem to get much done because of…laziness, I guess? More accurately, I feel like a puddle of inertia and don’t know how to get myself out of this state.

But with the beginning of summer here, I feel like I really need to get a certain story (the one I've been writing since forever) done because I've got just about three months before the end of the year (which is kind of my self-imposed deadline).

I don’t know why this is so hard, because I've done it before when I really needed to get something done. I think I'm overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that needs to be done before it becomes the story it’s meant to be.

I really need to start looking at it in smaller pieces rather than one big daunting piece of work. I need to take it one page at a time, one day at a time and not stress myself with whether I’ll be able to finish or not.

Above all, I think that at the crux of my problem lies one specific thing: I’m not reading enough. Anyway, not like I used to in the past. I find that when I don’t make time to read regularly, my creative inspiration starts to dwindle super fast and I can’t get any decent writing done.

Stories are fodder for a writer’s imagination really (at least, that’s my take on it). And my imagination is a hungry beast (and right now, it's about to pass out of hunger - I'm trying to revive it). If I don’t feed it regularly with stories, I find that it refuses to carry me anywhere. Is your imagination a hungry beast?

So, the plan for this summer is to set aside reading and writing time every day. I’m going to try this and see how it works out.
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