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Wednesday, March 7

The Circle of Write (Or Why Some Books Kick Our Butts)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I was chatting with a fellow author recently, and we were commiserating over manuscripts that drove us crazy and were hard to write. I’m in the middle of rewriting one of those manuscripts right now, but this time around, the writing is going really well. It made me think about what changed, why some books are harder to write than others, and what we can do when we’re faced with a book that makes us want to yank out our hair and throw away our keyboards.

I’ve loved and wanted to write this particular YA fantasy idea for close to ten years, but it’s been a hard book to write. The core of it has stayed the same—an undercover spy and the emotional stress it causes—but the plot and the character arcs of the two main characters has changed over and over. Draft after draft just didn’t do what I wanted it to do.

For me, this book has been a creative stretch. I’m a plot-driven writer, and deep, emotional character arcs are much easier to analyze and discuss than to write (grin). But this idea is all about the emotional journey. It’s loaded with subtext and emotional scars and horrible choices two teens should never have to make. It’s one of the reasons I love this story and why I keep going back to it.

It’s taken me ten years, but I’m finally doing justice to my beloved idea.

Here are some reasons why some books are harder to write than others:

Some stories need time to simmer and develop

Just because an idea hits us doesn’t mean the idea is ready to be written. Inspiration might get us thinking about a book, but if we don’t have all the right pieces yet, the draft goes nowhere. Maybe we’re jumping on the most obvious outcomes and paths, so the story feels predictable and bland. Maybe we don’t yet know enough about our protagonist to fully understand what they’d do in the story.

If this is you: Set the idea aside and keep thinking about it until you feel you have enough to make it work. Jot down notes when they come to you, discuss it with your writing pals, work through it with your critique partners. Or try some writing exercises or books on planning a novel or plotting a story (I happen to know of a pretty good one -grin-). Odds are all you need is more brainstorming to get you going.

(Here are five ways to grow your novel)

We don’t always have the skills we need to tell the story we want to tell

This was my problem. I had to develop my character skills more to craft the nuances and journeys of these two characters in the way I knew they needed to be. I couldn’t just plot my way to a good story this time. Every writer has strengths and weaknesses, and some ideas need us to be strong where we’re not. It’s common for artists to stretch their creative muscles, so we’re bound to run into stories that need us to really stretch—even if we’re not yet ready to do that.

If this is you: If you know what you’re weak on, study that area until you’re solid enough to get to work. If you’re not sure, set the manuscript aside and work on other projects that improve your skills. Just writing more books is often enough to build your skills and you’ll start thinking about that story again. Something will click for you and you’ll feel the urge to work on that idea again.

(Here’s more on getting back to basics in your writing)

We’re not pushing ourselves hard enough

We all have favorite themes and ideas we like to write about. Some books just repeat what we’ve done a bunch of times, and deep down we know it. The book fights us, because it knows it’s just a mash-up of the last five manuscripts we’ve written. We might even be bored with the same’old, same’old we’ve been writing and need something different to get our muse going again.

If this is you: Go wild and think outside the box on that book. What would happen if you changed genres? Markets? Maybe write in first person instead of third, or use third omniscient of you always write in first. You might also try reading outside your norm to expose yourself to different themes and plots than you’re used to. See what other authors are doing and try whatever excites you or makes your idea wheels turn.

(Here’s more on why some books are harder to write than others)

Some ideas just suck—at that time

No one wants to hear this, but not every idea is a winner. Maybe there’s a gem of an idea in there somewhere, but the direction we originally want to take it is the wrong one, or the usable aspect of the idea doesn’t fit the story we’re forcing on it. It’s also worth considering if the idea should be written at all. Maybe the book isn’t working because it’s a terrible idea for a story.

If this is you: These are hard, because it’s sometimes difficult to tell if the idea is bad or just unfinished. Setting it aside is always a good first step, as this allows you some distance between the draft and reality. Look at it again in a few months and judge it with fresh eyes and more objectivity. If it really does suck, move on. But if you still feel there’s something there, chase down the part that’s resonating with you.

(Here’s more on knowing if a story is worth telling)

In most butt-kicking cases, walking away from the book and working on something else for a while works. Whatever is causing us to struggle has to be worked out away from the book or we’ll just make things worse. If a book’s making you crazy, put it in a drawer for a few months and see how you feel. If it keeps fighting you, leave it for longer intervals until you either move past it, or figure out how to fix it.

Some books are trouble, no doubt about it. Ask any writer, and there’s a good chance they have at least one book that didn’t work they still want to write one day.

Has a book ever kicked your butt? Did you ever make it work?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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