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“While I know you understand that you are not in this writing thing alone, I don’t think you are fully embracing it.” – admonishment from me to another writer who shall remain nameless.
How much of your story can receive input from other people before it’s not yours?
Trick question. Your story is always yours.
Even if you get ideas from friends or a tricky paragraph is rewritten by a critique partner, it’s still your story, your book. All yours, for better or worse. I could take every CP’s suggestion for The Water Castle and the story – by word count – would still be more than 99% mine.
That means it’s mine.
So WHY do we sit alone in front of our computers and struggle to solve our logjammed stories by ourselves?
Fear we’d be bothering somebody?
Nope. It’s probably lack of knowledge – as in, lack of realizing there are people who want us to succeed. Other writers. Who know what the process is like.
Yesterday I was chatting on Facebook with a friend who had a dilemma in her story. She saw a bit of a plot hole and – as is often the case – solved one problem and created a bunch of other issues. Stories are like that.
It can be like pulling a thread on a sweater and unravelling a BUNCH before you know it.
Fortunately, computers have a delete key. Or and undo key. Or a prior unfucked up version saved, hopefully.
As we chatted, I was in the advantageous position to offer ideas as how to solve her dilemma – and she was free to use or disregard any or all of them as she saw fit. We do this a lot because we’re friends and we know we need suggestions on occasion. She has given me ideas, too. In the end, she really just needed to explain away a time gap of about three weeks, and do it smoothly. One way to do that would be to move around chunks of the story – which caused other issues. Another solution was to just start a new chapter with, essentially, “Three weeks later…”
That’s not really the solution, but that’s it in a nutshell. She may have been racking her brain for hours or days over a solution, but together we came up with a good one in under an hour. And don’t kid yourself; it was mostly her.
A time reference planted earlier in the story, maybe in the previous chapter, with another one planted in the current chapter, would fill about 50% of the bill. Say a clean-shaven guy decides to grow a beard and dye his hair as part of a disguise in chapter ten. In chapter eleven, his beard is an inch long and his bottle-blonde hair is showing major brown roots. Time has obviously passed. In between, a smoothly worded transition to explain it; the “Three weeks later” phrase (redone to be well written and not sound like it came from a fairy tale. You get the idea.) It could have been a reference to seeing another full moon; that comes about every thirty days, right? See?
Today, I chatted with another author friend. She was stuck with a prison escape/possible battle/rescue-the-prisoners situation, with a population of shadow people who live among us. Kind of. But they don’t build big brick prisons like you’d see in a movie.
ME: Well, I suggested think Vietnam; go with bamboo cages, like in The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now.
HER: They’re in a cold climate.
Oh. Okay, think Vikings, then…
Oh, Vikings! That’s good. And it’s a cave, on an island.
Damn. Okay, what about…
A prison cave.
Okay, calm down. Can there be a secret way out for them to escape through? A hole people are afraid to go through or near, like the forbidden zone in the Original Planet of the Apes?
I didn’t see that. But it’s not an escape. Their friends come to rescue them.
Okay… so they use what’s available, a cave. There are sometimes places that people fear to go beyond. That was true in Papillon, where they said the currents would take you back to the island prison but throwing coconuts into the water Steve McQueen figured out that wasn’t true and he escaped.
Papillion? I’ll have to look that up
Pay attention! It’s a device.
I’m just referencing it so you know I’m not making things up. Caves go off in all directions. Some small tiny itsy bitsy holes open into big cavernous rooms. Maybe at lights out, somebody sees a candle flicker. It would only do that if there was an air current. From this hole too small to wedge through, and only at certain times – that’s why nobody noticed it before. BUT! There’s a hole at the other end that is covered by the tide. It’s only open to the air at a full moon/low tide. The draft proves it, but the draft only comes for a few hours once a month. HE KNOWS if he can get in there, he can escape.
And only in the time before the water freezes, which is why they have to hurry
Sure, or before polar bears move in, whatever.
Haha. Well, it’s supposed to be a rescue mission.
They can rescue from the other side, whatever you need. Maybe the friends get caught on purpose to explain the plan and set up the escape/rescue.
Oh, that’s interesting. Then it’s like a Trojan horse scenario!
Logjam solved, the ideas started POURING out of her. She was on a roll.
I’m not sure how long she worked on the problem, but
working together we came up with ideas relatively quickly that would solve her story dilemma and get her back to writing.
SHE has to write all this stuff. It’s still HER story. But she was able to get through a tough spot by way of kicking around ideas with a friend. My role was basically referencing other books and movies where similar problems had existed and mentioning what they came up with as a solution. Remember:
- If somebody contributes 200 words to your 80,000 word book, they haven’t changed it very much. About a quarter of one percent, really. That’s not a co-author, that’s a FRIEND.
- If they contribute a solution to a problem – one of the FOUR DOZEN you have in any good story – they didn’t do much. Don’t worry about it. You figured out the other 47 yourself.
My second friend grabbed onto the one idea that worked for her story, paring it down and adapting the essence of the idea into what she needed. Then she was off to the races. (And she’s helped me before, too.)
Often we’ll solve our story problems ourselves just by having to explain them to somebody else.
Story problems are complex and integrated with other story elements in our brain, but we have to simplify them for another person to understand the issue, and by doing so, we often simplify it enough to see a solution to our problem.
Use other writers for problem spots. They understand. They want to help. They like it. They sometimes help just by giving you ideas you don’t use, showing you that what you worried might not be good enough might in fact be just fine.
And they’ll need help on their story down the road, too.
You don’t have to go it alone. So don’t.
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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works.