WRITING UPDATE: Knowing When To Quit

It was all going so well. I had a fully drawn-up plan, I was halfway to my goal of 90,000 words, I had memorable characters, an interesting setting, some weighty themes, and I was approaching the pivotal scene I’d been planning for over a month. Then I hit a slight snag. The scene didn’t work. At all.

I’m not one of those writers who plans everything out beforehand. I used to incompletely freestyle it, but that wasn’t working out, so I started making sketch plans. Grab a couple of scenes or big moments that I know I want to include, and thread them together to make a full narrative. the detail of the plan varies from one project to another, but they’re never more than notes. Moving to Scrivener has been great for this, and I’d recommend the software to anyone thinking of taking up writing seriously.

So what was the problem here? If I had the plan, why was it not working? Well, it’s honestly hard to pin down. All the pieces were in place, but there was no reason for the action to unfold save that my plan determined it needed to. I could see no way of writing my way out of that particular corner without contorting the narrative into all manner of pretzel-esque abominations.

Sometimes I hear authors say ‘the characters chose their path’ or something along those lines. I don’t believe this is possible. Characters, being fictional, have no agency. they literally do whatever you make them. It’s not that the characters wouldn’t let me do this (because that is literally impossible) but there was no way I could make their motivations plausible, or even remotely realistic.

Usually this sort of roadblock isn’t a problem. I’ve hit stumbling blocks like this before, you see, and there’s always a way out. Shift the plan a little to the left. throw in a  curve-ball or unexpected betrayal. Fire one of Chekhov’s guns earlier than planned. the difference this time around was how pivotal this scene was in my draft. Everything built up to it, or fed from it. I couldn’t change this scene without having all the build-up be for nothing. It would take tens of thousands of words in edits just to make it remotely workable.

Maybe if I’d been more committed to the project I’d have invested that time and effort. Honestly though, I hadn’t been interested in my own writing for a long while. The ten thousand words leading up the scene in question had been an absolute slog. And if I hated it, I’m pretty sure prospective readers would too. The project was riddled with inconsistencies, dead ends, and the prose was as sharp as a tennis ball. To be perfectly blunt, it was the worst thing I’d written in years, and I’m glad to see the back of it.

Sometimes you need to say enough is enough, put down the pen, and turn off the screen. In the case of this project, I cut my plans short. Rocks fall, everyone dies. If you ask me, it’s better to have an aborted conclusion than nothing at all.

I’ve learned a lot from the mistakes of this project, which is more than I hoped for a few thousand words ago. Sustained first person is not my forte, as it’s ma struggle to keep my natural voice from keeping in. Sarcasm also doesn’t translate well to prose. or maybe I’m just not that skilled yet. Who’s to say? The big lesson though is that I need to stop writing stories hinging on betrayal and surprise. This latest was the worst offender, but it’s a weak thread running through my works, and one I need to snip off right now.

I have a few ideas of what to write next, but I’ll be taking the rest of the month to think them through. A little extra planning never hurt anyone.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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