A book written in fear is a book half-written

So, in my tooling around the ‘net recently, I read this post from Valerie Parv.

For those who don’t want to click and read, she is talking about writing a series and how, even if you have great series ideas, you need to write the first one well and make it a true stand-alone; or, as Lawrence Block would say, concentrate on the book at hand.

This led me to thinking about story ideas and ‘saving’ ideas for later stories.  I used to do this.  I used to think that I shouldn’t get carried away with ideas, that I should hold some things back for future stories. I didn’t want to spend all my ideas in one blaze of glory and have none left.

I now know that, the more you write and exercise that idea ‘muscle’, the more they come, until the problem is more how to write them all than how to come up with new ones.

I also know now that layering in the trouble is good writing practice.  Donald Maass says in The Fire in Fiction, that he never rejected a book for having too much story.  Conflict is the essence of story, so we should pile up the problems for our protagonists.  Load ’em down, make ’em suffer!  Pile up those problems till they have to use crampons to climb over them.  Nothing will tell you faster how much they want to get to the other side.

I am fully on board this conflict train, now, but here is my question:

How do I make sure that the conflict is finely tuned and deeply layered and not just a jumble of trouble?

The painting above is by Jackson Pollock.  Some think his work is genius.  Others think it’s a colourful mess.

I want to leave it ‘all on the floor’ as they say in those dancing shows (so you think you can write a novel?).  But (with apologies to Jackson) I also want it to be coherent.  How do I know when enough is enough?  How can I tell when nail-biting suspense becomes breathless nonsense?

Any bright ideas, this Monday?

13 thoughts on “A book written in fear is a book half-written

  1. You had me at your title! Great post. It’s so hard, especially when you’ve invested so much of yourself in your work, with no outside council. All I can say is that you work. Then you walk away. Then you come back and work the revisions. Then you walk again. Then you come back again. Lather, rinse, repeat. You’ll know when it’s right, as with everything else you do. You’ll just know. Keep going…

    • Thanks Brian! You’re right, of course, but sometimes, when the doubt fairy comes to sit on your shoulder, you need to hear it from the outside. Thanks for giving her a pop on the schnozz for me! I’m rolling up the sleeves to work on suspense this morning, so it comes in happy time!

      Glad you liked the title, too. It’s a paraphrase from the movie Strictly Ballroom; old now, but still great fun, if you haven’t seen it.

      Thanks for coming by!

  2. I heard this quote recently (from whence it came I am unsure): Perfection lies in knowing not when there isn’t anything left to add but when there is nothing left to take away. I don’t know if this applies to writing, but I hope it gave some insight. I love the Jackson Pollock pic too, great colors!

    • Hi Sahbina! I like that pic too – sometimes I think his work is genius AND a colourful mess!

      That’s the trick, isn’t it? Pruning appropriately. I suspect the answer is just more work! As usual! Back to the salt mines with me! Thanks for chiming in!

  3. Good thought starters, thanks for the link…I’m at a loss about how to proceed with my current WIP. They say that revision is where the real fun starts, but I’m not feeling any of this fun. In fact, I’m feeling more and more incompetent. I want to incorporate tons of great ideas and (thought I) planned things out during my really rough draft, setting up my scene summaries, and so forth. But, as I’m actually developing these scenes, I’m feeling more and more muddled.
    Thankfully, I love the process of writing, and the idea of having written, so write on I shall. I suspect that if I allowed myself to work on another WIP, I’d feel more up to working on this current one. I just have a conference I plan on attending, so need to clean up this WIP mighty fast.

    • Oh, Liza, I feel for you! When it isn’t coming together and there is a deadline, these are the times that try writers’ souls! If you can get even a small break from it, to get some fresh air and do something different, I find that sometimes helps. Good luck!

  4. love jackson pollock…I used to think the same too, that I would run out of ideas, but I think yes, It is organic, and the more we practice getting ideas, the easier they come. I guess then yea, write an awesome standalone one, without being afraid u’d run out of ideas…if it’s a series coming it’d come 🙂 …On layering, I still have no idea! I guess write, and write, and you’d get better at it? Brings to mind what one artist I interviewed recently (Chris Chong of Tanjung Aru Pictures) said though that curiousity is kind of the key to keeping creating….hmmm. Keep curious then. And keep writing.

    • Ah, you are wise, beyond your years, my young Jedi Raina! You’re so right, one does just need to write through it, sometimes! My conflict is going along a bit better now, thanks for the encouragement!

  5. Easy way to solve the character development problem in a long series: introduce a major protagonist/antagonist partway through their lifespan, like say 25-45% through their life. That way you have a nice big chunk of past life you can reference (or write a prologue story about) as needed, and only as much as is needed as the character moves onward into the future.

    Take Roland from the Dark Tower series for instance. The reader meets him a good way into his life, and his past exploits are constantly referenced as the story (and conflict) demand it. Usually brief glimpses (well brief for Stephen King :P) and in one case almost an entire novel.

    After all, you can always dip into the past, you just need to make sure you have something to dip into.

    • This is good stuff, Matthew, thank you. My characters always seem to show up with Louis Vuitton steamer cases worth of baggage. My challenge is sometimes to stop them thinking that they need to open ALL those cases. Or maybe that’s me? Of course, chosing to do this ms in first person, when there are complicated back-stories of other characters to reveal might not have been the easiest way to go… Thanks for commenting! I’m back to the word mines…

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