Tuesday, July 16, 2019

4 Writing Pitfalls to Avoid at All Costs

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Even though every writer has their own process, we still all face the same problems from time to time. Laurence MacNaughton is back this month with tips on avoiding the pitfalls no writer wants to stumble into.

Has your writing fallen into a black hole? Has your pacing dropped to a crawl, or your suspense become a snore? Do you just feel stuck? You might be sabotaging your own writing without even knowing it. But don't panic. Here's how to avoid the four most perilous pitfalls of writing.

Pitfall #1: Your plot is going nowhere.

If your story is bogging down, it's probably because you (the author) need to spend more time visualizing the specific outcome your main character wants.

Think about your main character for a minute. This person should desperately want to either: A) achieve something positive; or B) avoid something negative. Maybe both.

What does your main character want, exactly?

It needs to be important. And it must be so specific that you can picture your main character's moment of triumph in your mind. What would it look like the minute this person reaches his or her goal?

Figure out precisely what that goal is, and write it down. Describe it in detail. Make it visual. Make it emotional. Make it real.

That strings a finish line across the end of your story, and instantly gives your main character something to work toward. Immediately, your plot will start picking up speed.

(Here's more on A Fun Test to Check Your Scene's Narrative Drive)

Pitfall #2: Your main character has it too easy.

Mediocre story endings just kind of happen. Good story endings are earned through struggle and sacrifice. Make your main character work hard enough to earn the ending. To do that, you need to pump up the conflict.

Start with the antagonist. Think about the most important person standing in the way of your main character, preventing her from achieving her goal.

Who is this enemy, and what do they want, specifically? Again, you should be able to visualize it.

This person's goal must directly contradict your main character’s desires. If one character wants to save the world, the other wants to destroy it. If one character wants to prove a suspect innocent, the other wants him hanged. If one wants to unearth a secret, the other wants to keep it hidden. You get the idea.

Picture it like two dogs fighting over the same bone. Only one of them can have it. At the end of the fight, someone is going to be very unhappy. 

(Here's more on Create the Perfect Villain: a 6-Step Master Plan)

Pitfall #3: You keep going back to fix things.

The learning curve for your first novel is often so steep that before you even get halfway through, you start thinking to yourself, “Wait, the stuff I'm writing now is so much better than the first few chapters. I should go back and fix everything!”

This is a trap. Don't fall for it.

Seriously. Do everything you can to keep moving forward. You'll need every last bit of creative strength to reach the end of the novel. Don’t squander your energy on perfecting something that you might end up deleting later.

Remember, the first draft of anything is just that: a first draft. You’ll make it better in the second draft, and in the third, and so on. It’s like a sculpture: once you have the basic form worked out, you can keep chipping and polishing until it’s beautiful. But first, you need that basic form. You need something to work with.

First, get it written — then later you can get it right. 

(Here's more on Onward...No? Write to the End or Go Back and Edit?)

Pitfall #4: You just can’t seem to get started.

There are countless reasons why writers procrastinate. But whatever the reason, the end result is always the same: a blank page with no story on it. Why does this happen?

In my highly unscientific study of writerly problems, based mostly on questions that pop up in my email, the biggest reason for writing procrastination is fear.

It's a far worse problem than a lack of time or skill. Fear is insidious. It plagues you with uncomfortable questions that you can't answer.

What if your story just won't work? What if you never finish? What if everything you've written is awful?

Fear is the enemy. Don't let it win. You can beat it with a simple tool.

A kitchen timer.

Yes, it sounds crazy, but it really works. Just set an ordinary timer for 15 or 20 minutes. While it's counting down, do nothing but write.

Don't check your email. Or social media. Don't look at anything else. Just write.

Think about what your main character wants, what they must do to get it, who stands in the way, and so on. Write down the first thing that comes to mind. One sentence. Then force yourself to write another. Keep going, nonstop, until that timer goes off. It's only a few more minutes. You can do it. 

(Here's more on Battling the Doubt Monster: Ignoring Nellie the Naysayer)

Don't worry about whether your pages are any good. You can always go back and edit them later. Your objective is to get something, anything, written down. When you do that, you break through the fear. You stop sabotaging yourself. You become a real writer.

What's your biggest writing pitfall?

When it comes time to sit down and write, what are the issues you struggle with most? What stops you from finishing a story or novel? Leave a comment below, or contact me on my author website at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About No Sleep till Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 3)

An inexperienced sorceress must retrieve a priceless artifact from the enchantress who stole it, break the curse on her half-demon boyfriend, and stop her friends from turning on each other before the enchantress calls down doomsday.

When a wicked enchantress steals a cursed doomsday amulet, crystal sorceress Dru Jasper has only twenty-four hours to get it back before the world will come to a fiery end. With this supernatural amulet in hand, the enchantress intends to break the sixth seal of the apocalypse scroll--making the seas boil, the stars fall from the sky, and the earth itself split apart. Overall,  bad news.

Dru must hit the road to get the amulet back. But she suspects her half-demon boyfriend, Greyson, and his demon-possessed muscle car, Hellbringer, are hiding a dark secret. Can she trust them to help her stop doomsday? Worse, tracking down the enchantress runs Dru smack up against a pack of killer  shape-shifters, the grim mystery of a radioactive ghost town, and a dangerous speed demon even more powerful than Hellbringer.

As the clock runs out, Dru is locked in a high-speed chase with the enchantress, fighting a fierce, magical duel she can never win alone. Can Dru and her sorcerer friends unravel Hellbringer's secrets, outwit the shape-shifters, and retrieve the stolen amulet before the dawn of doomsday?

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  1. Fear is my worst enemy, probably always has been but there are times when I deny it. I blame it on procrastination, my husband's extroverted behavior, the telephone ringing with one of those recorded messages. What I'm afraid of I haven't figured out yet.

    My 2nd problem is usually my main character, making her or him uninteresting, not finding the many quirks she or he would be better for it she or he had them. In other words, a little on the 'perfect' side.

    Thanks for the breakdown so I can address my problems more efficiently.

  2. Hang in there, G. J.! You can do it. Get your book finished, and make the world a better place for it. Rooting for you! : )