Thursday, June 16, 2016

Literally, What Is the Next Sentence?

By Annabeth Leong

I want to get very specific with this prompt. When I am staring at a blank page, or at a blinking cursor, the question on my mind is quite literally, “What should I write next?”

That can feel so paralyzing, so I want to share some of my tricks for dealing with that.

The Sensual Solution


What does the viewpoint character see? Hear? Taste? Smell? Feel? I used to regularly do a combination writing exercise/meditation in which I took a walk and focused on describing what I was experiencing through each of my five senses. Then when I returned, I would take out a notebook, set a timer, and write out those impressions with the most accurate descriptions I could.

I later found that the practice calms me, and whenever I’m distressed or anxious, it can help me to take this sort of sensory inventory.

If I’m in the middle of a story, facing a blinking cursor, it never hurts me to consider and write down details of the character’s physical surroundings. Once I get going with description, that can sometimes get my writing moving more generally. I can go back later and cut the description, or move it to a more sensible place, or leave it in if it’s appropriate where it is.

If I’m starting a new story, it’s a good idea to set the scene anyway.

The Time Travel Solution


Maybe I don’t know what the character is going to do next, but I might know what they’re going to do at some time in the future. There’s no law that says I have to write each sentence consecutively, in the exact order the reader will encounter them.

When I worked as a reporter, I often felt a lot of fear when I sat down to write a story. I particularly froze up trying to come up with a lede (the “punchy” intro that’s supposed to grab a reader’s attention—I have punchy in quotes because I have never heard that word outside the context of journalism and it’s always seemed odd to me).

What I eventually discovered was that I tended to be much less nervous about writing paragraphs toward the end of the story, when I summarized the conclusions reached by what I had written about and quoted final commentary from my sources. I learned to start there, and then write toward the lede. So, most of my articles were written conclusion first, followed by quotes from secondary sources, followed by the technical description that made up the bulk of the body, followed by the lede. If, while I was writing the stuff that would come later, I thought of anything that might work as a lede, I tossed a quick note about that possibility up toward the top of my file.

That’s a description of a process of nonfiction writing, but similar principles can apply when writing fiction. I really don’t like for my endings to feel rushed. If I’m under deadline, I often write what I expect to be the last passage earlier in the process, and then work on the middle until time runs out.

And when I’m stuck and uncertain of what comes next, sometimes I jump to a later point in the story. Am I dying to get to the sex scene? Maybe I should just write it now and then work up to it.

An added benefit of this approach in fiction is that it can give me a clue about where my writing might be flagging. Is it possible to cut some of the material that bogged me down? Start the story later?

Alternatively, sometimes when I’m writing a scene that’s supposed to take place later in the story’s timeline, a character will say or do something that makes it clear what needs to have happened at the point where I got stuck.

What’s important is to write something next, rather than giving up and closing the file, or surfing away into the deep waters of the internet.

The Contemplative Solution


What is the viewpoint character thinking right now? A story might be a drag to read if it’s written with too much internal monologue, but writing about what’s going on inside the main character’s head can get the cursor moving and suggest what action might be taken next. Some internal monologue might be good to leave in, and sometimes, depending on the situation, writing about what the character is thinking can lead to an idea of what the character might say to whoever is in the scene with them.

Sometimes, I’ll freewrite on a notebook or in a separate file. Sometimes I’ll type in my main file with the idea that I can cut the passage of internal monologue if it becomes repetitive or superfluous.

The Slow Solution

Really, all any writer is doing at any given moment is trying to type a sentence. That can get lost, though, amid various word count goals or larger viewpoints. Sometimes, it helps me to slow way down and remember the sentence right in front of me.

Lana Fox taught me an exercise where you set a timer and just spend five minutes on one sentence. It’s a lovely feeling to take slow breaths and really sink into this one small picture you’re painting with words.

Sometimes, I do one round of that and it unlocks me. Sometimes I’ll write whole passages that way. What’s funny is, even if you’re spending five minutes on each sentence, they add up. And you still end up writing a lot more than if you let yourself give up or get distracted.

The Superlative Solution

I once wrote a trilogy of short stories by asking myself at each turn, “What would be the stupidest possible thing for the character to do next?” I’m not sure how successful those stories were, but the question was interesting and it got me moving. I would suggest trying out various questions and looking for the ones that grab your attention.

What would be the kindest possible thing for the character to do next? The bravest? The meanest? The most surprising? The most obvious?

What this technique does is get me out of worrying and back into telling a story, which I think is about being interested in getting to know these people you’re writing about and, yes, wondering what they’re going to do next.

***

I hope some of these tricks are helpful to someone. I’ve used them all at one time or another, but if there’s anything I know about writing, it’s that you have to stay on your toes all the time. I am always having to come up with new tricks to keep things moving, but that’s part of what I like about this thing we do.

26 comments:

  1. This is a fabulous craft article, Annabeth! I hope you don't mind if I post the link to the ERWA Writers list.

    I write very linearly, so the Time Travel approach wouldn't work for me, but I really like some of your other suggestions, especially the Superlative Solution.

    One thing that strikes me about almost all these suggestions-- you have to be willing to get rid of stuff later. That's really difficult for me. I tend to spend a lot of time crafting each paragraph. Then I'm very reluctant to cut anything out. (This is, I know, not positive.)

    Thanks!

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    1. So glad you found it useful! Definitely feel free to share.

      Everyone has a different process, for sure. A lot of people talk about writing stuff and then editing later, which makes me want to run screaming (I edit as I write). Somehow, writing and cutting later works fine for me.

      Let me know if you do try one of these! :)

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    2. Every time I start to work on a story in progress, I go back a few pages (or many pages) and edit what I've already written (and edited.) No wonder I'm a slow writer. And whenever the story takes a turn that requires changes to what went before, I go back and take care of that right away, which is not a bad idea. My finale editing does consist of cutting extraneous words, especially descriptions. It did take a long time before I could accept the advice to "kill your darlings," but I do it now, and when I happen to be reading my work that was published some time ago I cringe a bit at what stayed in that I should have cut. On the rare occasions when I can submit a reprint, I get out my metaphorical sculpting tools and pare it down, sometimes with certain fiendish pleasure.

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    3. Sacchi, I do the same thing. I have to get my mind back into the story space. Also, I find it helps continuity. But you are right, it definitely slows me down!

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    4. Sacchi and Lisabet, I definitely do this, too. I think it's really helpful, as you say, for getting back into the story space, and also for keeping my writing clean. Whatever it does to slow you down, I think it saves in after the fact editing time.

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  2. Nothing to do with the post or the topic... but I would just like to mention that although I've been reading this blog regularly since 2009, I only today got how the contoured rubbery texture of the background pattern represents the "grip" in the title! Better late than never, right? (:v>

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    1. Haha, I totally never noticed that.

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    2. Hmm. I think it's all your imagination, Jeremy! Certainly it wasn't intentional.

      Are you into rubber...?

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    3. LOL. No, not especially. (Though I did write for the Rubber Sex antho.)

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  3. Thanks for all of these tips on how to get your creative juices flowing! About the only thing that has ever worked for me is to begin to imagine a sex scene, since I like to write them so much, then to, ahem, retire to the next room to do some, shall we say, research?

    And Jeremy, you're ahead of me. I've also been here for quite a while, and I never realized that. I just thought it was amoebas or something. But now that you say that, you're right. BTW,

    I really like the picture at the top with someone gripping someone else's butt cheeks. I'm a real "ass-woman," and even now, through we're both a bit bigger than we were when we met, I still think my husband's ass is one of my favorite parts of him. That picture alone inspires me. ;-D

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    1. Glad these are helpful!

      I'm very with you on liking to write sex scenes. (Probably how I got into this line of writing in the first place). It's hilarious how my writing speed will jump when I hit a sex scene. When I'm in the middle of a good one, everything else fades and I feel all the urgency to keep going until I, um, finish.

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    2. Btw, I answered your comment about the anthology I'm editing way after you left it. I'd happily email with you about it if you tell me your email address. (Or, you can use mine: annabeth dot leong at gmail dot com). It would be so great if you would send me a story!

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    3. My first ventures into writing erotica probably began with sex scenes. However, at the height of my career I talked (right here on the oh-so-grippable, rubbery Grip) about my tendency often to write sex scenes last:

      http://ohgetagrip.blogspot.com/2009/10/but-i-bet-none-of-main-hobbits-have-s.html

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    4. "Having a story two-thirds finished gives me a virile feeling."

      Amazing post, and so full of freaking hilarious lines like the one above. Also, the comment section gave me an intense nostalgic feeling. I've read and loved work by so many of those writers!

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  4. Good, concrete suggestions for kick-starting our writing, Annabeth. I will certainly try these tricks when I need to advance stories stuck in limbo.

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  5. Thanks for the tips. I'm also a believer in Raymond Chandler's advice, "When things are going too slow, send in a man with a gun."

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    1. In my line of work, maybe I'd go with "send in a woman with a strap-on," but, you know, same principle. Glad you like the tips. :)

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  6. These are good tips, Annabeth. Like Lisabet, I hate to cut out big swathes of something I've already written, but sometimes it seems necessary. Some of your tips look contradictory (the sensual and contemplative solution would tend to flesh out a story while slowing down the action, and the time-travel would tend to speed up the plot, IMO). However, all these techniques look like effective ways of getting unstuck, so they're all worth a try.

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    1. Some of them definitely contradict each other! I've amassed a giant amount of tricks I can try when writing that have various effects, and I find that sometimes I need one and sometimes I need something very much the opposite. Every time I think I've got a process that just works, it seems like I always wind up having to come up with a different strategy for some reason or other. That's part of what keeps this interesting. I often feel that writing tips are really a subset of psychology and the trick is understanding one's own psychology enough to figure out what's needed. Am I bored and in need of speeding up the action? Or am I not sufficiently invested and in need of sinking into the details of the story? Etc.

      Thanks for reading!

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  7. Another question for the writing self: do I feel squeezed to death by the word-limit in a call for submissions? I have a lesbian story that I reworked several times. I still want to tell it from the viewpoints of both central characters because they see things very differently, but when I revised it down to 4K to send to Best Lesbian Erotica, I felt I had to focus on one. This made the story more unified and faster-paced, but I had to cut out a lot of stuff that gave it depth (IMO), and the story was rejected. (The editor sent me a comforting message saying she got a huge pile of good submissions and had trouble making choices.) Another question for the writing self: does this story work as a self-contained short piece, or is it trying to expand into a novel?

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    1. Yeah, those are good questions. I've had ideas I thought would make novels that turned out to work really well as short stories, and then I've had short story ideas that really ballooned and stretched and needed to sprawl into novel length. Good luck answering that question about your piece!

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  8. Great article, Annabeth.

    Timetravel wouldn't work for me as like Lisabet, I'm a linear writer, but I love the sensory and inner thoughts solutions.

    My solution when I'm stuck is to go back a paragraph and reread and then continue on with anything, drivel, crap, even a rehash of the previous para, just to get the fingers moving, then I can usually shift into an actual next sentence. It makes for a lot of editing, but it's worth it.
    Sometimes. :)

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    1. Thanks! Glad you liked it!

      I think your solution and all the ones I listed boil down to: write something, somehow, then clean it up later once you've gotten things moving.

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  9. I'm saving this to read every time I feel paralyzed. Fantastic suggestions and approaches.

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