A great lesson I’ve learned through my writing is that I don’t have to write anything I don’t want to. It’s my story, my characters, and if I find that I’m bored with what I’m trying to write, that’s my cue to step back and reevaluate what is going on in the story because something is wrong. My excitement is key to pulling off the entire thing, like a one-woman heist. Only instead of jewels or Cayman bank accounts, I want to steal the reader’s attention.
That’s actually probably harder than a jewel heist.
To keep someone’s attention the story has to move. Stuff has to happen. Characters need to engage their world with agency. There can be introspective downtime, of course. In fact, the readers will need that now and then to process what is going on in the story, and so do you, but you shouldn’t stay there. Once the introspection is complete, it’s time to move again. Stagnation leads to dead fish and bored readers who abandon the story in favor of something else.
In my last post, I talked about moving the story forward by having the character reach out and touch the world, by making choices and following through with them. The other side of the coin is where the world reaches out to touch back. And by world I mean everything but your character, and by touch I mean royally screw up their day and plans. And possibly attempt to murder them, because what’s more exciting than that, right?
Interaction with the surrounding environment (actual environment, people, society, what have you) adds another layer of problems your character must deal with, because all sorts of possibilities arise and complicate the space between them and what they want. Your character should not exist in a vacuum. They have to come into contact with some outside force, preferably more than one, to keep them on their toes and the reader glued to the page to find out what happens next. If the storm doesn’t kill your character, it might be the forest. If not the forest, then it’s the bears. If it’s not the bears, it’s the bear traps. If it’s not the bear traps, it’s the illegal poachers looking to keep their profession secret so don’t count on them helping you out of your predicament. And if not the poachers, then it’s the gangrene breeding in that cut you got during the storm and ignored through the forest, the bears, the bear traps, and the scary backwoods poachers who want your head on a stake.
Outside conflict introduces friction and tension into the narrative and works against the character’s inner desires and plans. How will they deal with the problem? Will they overcome, or succumb?
Exciting, exciting stuff.
When writing Count Your Crows, I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times I have close to 50,000 words total languishing in a folder labeled CUT SCENES. Every one of them took me only so far and then lost their luster. I realized (eventually) that I was putting off what I wanted to write for later, and trying to shape the beginning into something more…I guess professional looking? I already had plans to publish it, so I got ahead of myself and was expecting perfection in a draft, as well as subconsciously comparing unpolished story to rigorously edited final versions of other people’s work. My expectations got me scared and I tried to play it safe with where the story went, what the characters did, which made me bored. When I figured out what I was doing I decided to say, fuck that noise, and started from scratch with the scene I was most looking forward to.
I stuck my character up a tree and trapped her there with a pack of hungry chupacabra below.
And it worked out awesomely. I finished a chapter I was proud of and the story took off in a direction that was thrilling and prompted me to show up at the keyboard every day until the whole thing was done. By shifting focus to have my character’s initial decisions meet the resistance of the world around her I created some pretty fun clusterfucks. I also learned that imposing an expectation on a draft at the expense of the story was holding me back, not just here, but with other stories, as well.
Overall, re-educating myself to first and foremost have fun, and second to write selfishly, not only made the act of creation entertaining for me, it drew out a more authentic story and character. Stories, after all, are not any one thing. They come in all kinds of packages and formats. They can be as short as three words or as long as a million. You can write from one POV or many. You can do it as poetry, as song, in traditional books or digital. You can write it all at once or in increments, write it from the middle out or from end to beginning. There is no limit to what kind of character and human, or non-human, experience you write. Just so long as it’s entertaining and you enjoy it. Because you, you are the first reader. Before it finds its way into anyone else’s hands, your story must first entertain you.
So go. Get excited. Throw out what isn’t working and write what does, no matter how crazy it feels, or unprofessional, or different. Write your story in a way that keeps you interested.
Because, honestly? You’re the only one who can.