Here we go, picking up right where we left off last time:
Surprise yourself. If you can bring the story – or let it bring you – to a place that amazes you, then you can surprise your reader. The moment you can see any well-planned surprise, chances are, so will your sophisticated reader.
Over the years, I’ve found that I’m part discovery writer, part outliner (with a little drafter thrown in for good measure). As much as I may make intricate plans, though, it’s the moments when something unexpected, yet utterly inevitable, happens which are most satisfying to me as a writer. I’ll admit, since I’ve only got a few very short stories published, and those in relative obscurity, that I haven’t gotten a whole lot of reader feedback about such moments, but once in a while I get a moment of such satisfaction in a writing workshop when the thing that surprised me when it tumbled out of my fingers and into a story gets just such a reaction from a reader. No matter your writing method, you shouldn’t follow any plan you have so slavishly that you never let yourself write the things that surprise you.
I think I’ve used the phrase “killing your darlings” before on this blog. In that same spirit, don’t be too precious with your initial ideas of what a story might be. I’ll talk a bit more about this later, but for now, I’ll just say that sometimes the book (or story or essay or grant proposal or fortune cookie fortune) you want to write and the one you need to write aren’t going to be the same thing.
When you get stuck, go back and read your earlier scenes, looking for dropped characters or details that you can resurrect as “buried guns.” . . .
Face it: you’re going to get stuck while you’re writing. It happens. Earlier, I posited that one reason for getting stuck is not knowing where a scene is going. If this happens, your first option is to just scrap the scene, but this isn’t always the best option. Just as you should always keep separate copies of all your earlier drafts of a work in case you edit out something really good and want it back, you should hang on to those scenes that you’re stuck on. Take a good look at them and see if there’s something you’ve already written that you can resurrect in order to give life to the scene you’re writing.
This doesn’t just have to apply to things that are still in the piece. I often end up writing bits and pieces, sometimes entire chapters or sections, that don’t make the final cut or sometimes even the first draft, but I don’t throw them out. Instead, I keep them as reference. In my recent novel, I scrapped an entire chapter that I wrote from the viewpoint of the villain because it was making him too sympathetic for my tastes. Although that chapter itself never made it into the book (and I doubt it ever will), I still found it to be a useful artifact moving forward because it gave me a chance to get more into the villain’s head, so I could better understand what he would do as the story moved forward, even if some of his motivations remained opaque to readers and the other characters in the book.
Use writing as your excuse to throw a party each week – even if you call that party a “workshop.” . . .
I’ll admit, since I finished college, I haven’t followed this rule, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a good one. I think it’s a great one. One of the best parts of my writing classes at college was the opportunity, several times a week, to spend time with other writers and talk about things, both writerly and otherwise. Being alone with your writing can be great, but you need to get out there, too. Talk to other people about your writing. Your friends will show you things that might have been right in front of you the whole time but which you otherwise would never have noticed. You need to let your writing cool off, like a pie, but you should also share that pie. Even after the pie has cooled, there are still things about it that you won’t notice if you just eat it by yourself. Sharing it with friends will allow you to refine the recipe so the next time you bake that pie, it’ll be a bit better. If you’re lucky, eventually someone will want to pay you a great deal of money for your pie.