Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Writing Yourself Into a Corner

I remember when Naomi Kritzer first joined Wyrdsmiths and she was worried that she might write herself into a corner and never be able to finish the novel she’d started. At the time, I told her with utter confidence that it was simply not possible to get stuck like that. Besides, I said, you’re a good writer; it’s just _not_ going to happen to you.

Luckily, she believed me and went on to finish what would become FIRES OF THE FAITHFUL and TURNING THE STORM.

Now, I find myself wondering if I lied – not to Naomi, mind you, but to myself.

I always thought that the fear of writing one’s self into a corner was completely groundless. Words are erasable, after all. Any corners you might wander into (speaking, of course, as an organic writer,) are either solvable by rolling with it and thinking up some clever escape plan for your protagonists… or by simply hitting the delete button until the “corner” disappears.

In a lot of ways, the fear of writing one’s self into a corner is really the fear of revision. The fear that you could, as I have, write a novel for a year and realize (a month before the deadline, no less,) that the story you’ve written isn’t really about the person you wrote it about, but that other guy whose been tagging along the whole time. I had this utterly terrifying discovery while writing APOCALYPSE ARRAY and ended up throwing out over two-hundred manuscript pages and completely re-writing a third of the novel – all in the month before the book was due on my editor’s desk. It was the only time in my life I was grateful for having been laid off a job. It was a hell of a corner to erase, but I did it. Our heroes made their clever escape.

However, I must admit that this is one of the biggest problems with my particular style of writing – that is to say, organically, without an outline, without a net. You can make pretty painful mistakes. I’m still not entirely sure I believe you can write yourself into a place that ends your story prematurely. Not permanently, anyway.

Sometimes, though, the entire structure is rotten and you have to tear the whole thing down, keeping only the core idea to build back up on.

That sucks.

And, I’m forced to admit, constitutes officially writing yourself into a corner. Luckily, I’m still half right. A good writer will survive it, regardless.


Kelly McCullough said...

This is from a lecture from one of my Loft clases:

The trick isn't not writing yourself into corners, it's learning how to write yourself back out of them. Don't fear the corners, think of them as opportunities and plunge on. Everyone writes themselves into corners.

I did it on Chalice - the climax scene has to be a surprise, but because of the nature of theater and the setup I had to show Robin gathering the artists necessary and rehearsing his final show. Too often what a writer does here is to say "here's my plan" and then cut away. This is cheating and it drives readers batty. So I had to find some other way to deal with it. It took effort and thought and some careful bending of the reality of putting on a show (with magical justification built in), but I managed it by continuing to write. In some ways I think I produced a better conclusion for the story by getting stuck.

If the writer doesn't see a way out of the corner when they get there, chances are good that the reader won't either, and that's what you want, a reader who doesn't know what's going to happen next, but who wants to know. Writing yourself into a corner is an opportunity to heighten reader impact.

Anonymous said...

I forget who said this, but some screenwriting guru said that the key to becoming a really good writer was becoming fearless at redreaming the dream, in revision.

For a really intuitive writer- and this is its own special cross to bear, argh - since you essentially skip full drafts by doing fiddly things that don't seem like writing, it invariably ends up happening in the middle of the big push, in a serious piece (not the fiddly distraction stories so much).

I'm not surprised at how the storyline you've ended up with is the classic romance novel storyline - the nice guy is who the reader has to come back to and be able to embrace when the novel ends. It's a powerful metaphor, and hanging in the stars right now too. Trust your instincts; works every time.