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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How to Fix 90% of Writing Problems

Okay, so maybe not quite 90%, but that’s about how much it is for me when I struggle with a WIP and can’t figure out why I’m having problems.

Yesterday, I read Amy Raby’s latest blogging masterpiece, and while it covered some basic concepts about character motivation, it was a timely and well stated reminder of a simple but oft forgotten fact about writing and many other aspects of life: when in doubt or struggling without a path to fix your troubles, go back to the basics.

Amy is no newbie writer, yet she faced, like me, a problem of characterization, which she solved by returning to the basics of what a character needs: motivation. Amy explains the process and concept well enough without me going over it again. What I want to emphasize here is that just because we gain experience and skill, as writers or whatever occupation we pursue, doesn’t mean that returning to the basics isn’t extremely important. I’ve pursued writing for a number of years and sometimes get arrogant about it. Oh, I don’t need to review characterization or plot. I know that stuff. Well, yes, I do, but I don’t always remember everything, especially amidst the storm of creativity or mired in the swamps of detail.

Whether it’s plotting, characterization, or even grammar, refreshing the basics offers benefits in the following ways:

1)      Starting at the beginning makes it easier to retrace our steps and discover what went wrong or what isn’t clicking. Take characterization as an example. In my current WIP, the story has bogged down. Every scene feels forced, and I fight for momentum. None of these are good signs. So after reading Amy’s post, I examined my main characters. Do they have goals? Yes. Do they have conflict? A plethora of it. Do they have motivation? Yes … sort of? Well, sort of doesn’t cut it. My hero’s motivation lacked depth. I went back and wrote 3,500 words exploring his motivations, and now, I feel much better about him and the story. I feel the gears starting to turn smoothly again without all the grinding, groaning, and creaking they sounded before.

2)      Returning to the basics can help bring order to those stories that sometimes become monstrously huge or out of control. Those times when we look around our manuscript like we’re frantically searching for shelter as the hurricane rages ashore, look back to the basics. Take things one step at a time. Do our characters have clear goals, motivations, and conflicts? What is our hero’s primary goal that drives the conflict of the story? Look at the plot structure. Do we have the correct inciting incident, turning points, a midpoint, a black moment, a resolution? Pick those most important threads out of the knot of the story, and the rest will fall into place or reveal where it needs trimming or expanding.

3)      When we struggle for ideas. Maybe you’re staring at the blank screen or the empty sheet of paper. Maybe you’re midway through a WIP and have no idea where it should go. It feels like it’s fizzling out. The basics provide an easy checklist to make sure we have what we need and to generate ideas. Start with one, and that often leads to the next.

4)      When writing a scene that feels off or leaves you with that nagging doubt about it and you rule out simple writer paranoia, look at scene basics.  James Scott Bell‘s HIP system from his Plot and Structure is a good tool to make sure each scene contains everything it needs: hook, intensify, prompt. If the scene does not contain all the needed parts, the basics provide a place to start fixing it.

5)      When writing that dreaded synopsis or crafting a pitch, we need know only the basics or the details will overwhelm us. At least, that’s what happens to me. State these in a way that captures a reader’s interest and reveals your writing style and it creates something concise and direct that might actually fit on one or two pages.

It also helps to reread those writing books occasionally.

So good luck sorting out those gnarls of plot, diagnosing those characterization issues, and generally greasing the wheels of creativity and story.

What else helps you when you get stuck while writing?


  1. When one is struggling it always helps to go back to the basics!!

  2. Excellent post, Laura! Glad gears are moving smoothly again.

  3. Thanks so much, I'm glad my post was helpful! Yeah, I find that even with 3 novels under my belt and a 4th nearing completion, I still have to remind myself of the basics on a regular basis. Conferences are good for me that way; a few carefully selected craft workshops keep me on track.