Friday, May 25, 2012

What's the Hardest Part of Writing?

By Ellen Meister

Every writer has his or her struggles. Some find dialogue almost impossible to nail. Others wrestle with point-of-view. Many approach the revision process like they’re having fingernails removed.

For me, it’s story—shaping the concept of the book into a coherent narrative thread with a beginning, middle and end.

So it shocked me when my agent, rather offhandedly, said, “You’re so strong at story.” I swear, I looked over my shoulder to see if Michael Palmer or Tess Gerritsen was standing behind me. But no, she was actually talking to me.

I felt like I had tricked her. How could she possibly think I was strong at story?

But I now realize what she meant. There's something filmic about my stories and the way I construct them, which is why my books, including THE OTHER LIFE and FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER (Putnam, 2/2013), are getting a fair amount of attention in Hollywood.

The truth is, I work like that devil at it, because it is so damned hard. That's why I  hesitated for only a moment when Debbi Honorof from Hofstra University asked me if I would like to teach a high intensity writers’ webinar for her continuing ed program.

"Only if I can teach about story structure," I said.

Why do I want to teach something I find so difficult? Because it doesn't come naturally. Because I've read books and articles about it. Because I've deconstructed stories to see where the girders are. Because I've gone down the wrong roads so many times that I believe I know where most of the pot holes and dead ends are. The result is that I've come up with my own map, as well as a complete set of steps for demystifying the process of creating the kind of suspenseful 3-act plot that appeals to readers, editors, agents and even Hollywood.

The live webinar from Hofstra is on Tuesday, June 5 at 7 pm Eastern Time, and is available to anyone online. (Here's a handy clock converter that lets you see what time that is in your area.) At my request, Hofstra has kept the price very reasonable and even extended the pre-registration discount. Plus, they are recording the event and sending every registrant a link for future viewings. So if you're interested, I hope you'll sign up. Click here for more info.

In any case, I understand that every writer is different, and I'd love to know about your struggles. What do you consider the hardest part of the process? And if you have any tips on how you make it easier, I'm sure we'd all love to know!


NEW: LEAVE YOUR COMMENT ABOUT THE WRITING PROCESS AND YOU'LL BE ENTERED TO WIN A COPY OF THE OTHER LIFE! (U.S. residents only.)

34 comments:

  1. Great post, Ellen! I agree-- plot is so, so hard. And you are so very good at it! Your students are very lucky to have you!!

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  2. Agreed! Plot and structure and when to reveal what and when to introduce new characters... so hard! But deconstructing the process? That's even harder. What a great idea for a webinar and YOU will be awesome at teaching the course. Great post!

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  3. Makes me wish I was back in school! I have the idea in my head, but now need to wrap a story around it - tips welcomed :)

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  4. Brenda - Thank you! Our lunches have always been a rich part of my study of craft. :)

    Saralee - Thanks, friend. I'm so stoked to teach this webinar. (My first PowerPoint!)

    Lori - Did you sign up for the webinar? I think it might help.

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  5. I wrote a critical paper on story for my MFA so I find it fascinating as well. I bet the class will be amazing.

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  6. You ARE great at story, Ellen. I love the idea of your webinar. Those students are lucky.

    The hardest part for me in writing is dialogue (which you are also fantastic at).

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  7. Karin - No wonder you're a master at it!

    Myf - Big thanks! And fyi, I think your dialogue is brilliant. :)

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  8. Endings are hard for me. I believe that, like film, a good ending is an implied new beginning, but where oh where to mark that place in a narrative? Is it done? Did I wrap up all the threads? Is there enough momentum to keep the reader in the story even after the cover is closed or the e-reader is powered down?

    PS Plot's hard, too.

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  9. AGGH. Yes, story structure is the DEVIL! And yet, without it, nothing at all works. How cool that you're teaching a writing course...Go, Ellen!

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  10. Jessica - That's SO true about endings! That's why I try to deliver the reader to a place where the character's arc feels like a destination.

    Sheila - Thanks so much. And yes, it's a bitch devil!!

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  11. I have trouble remembering to include backstory. I just want to move forward, forward, forward. What's next? What's after that? And while that sounds like a good thing it leaves my characters looking like cardboard cutouts and my readers find it hard to care what happens to them.

    Also, semi-related, when I do include backstory, I have a hard time parsing it out slowly to fit the larger needs of the story. I have to work really hard not to throw a big data-dump at my readers first thing.

    So, basically, I'm saying that it's all or nothing with me.

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  12. I just registered! So looking forward to learning about something that slays me with every story!

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  13. Agreed-- plot is a tough beast to tame. I also find it difficult to move around in an interesting, non-linear fashion within a larger linear narrative (beyond an occasional flashback).

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  14. Mary - Thanks for commenting, and I really get how hard that is. I think most of us are inclined to dump all the backstory right at the beginning, which of course is the worst place for it. It's tricky!

    Christa - Thank you for registering! I hope you enjoy it and find answers to all your questions. :)

    Marissa - Good to hear from you. I think moving forward in a linear way IS interesting, as the reader wants to know what happens next. My two cents! :)

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  15. Great post! I have to say that usually, there really isn't anything about the writing itself that is hard for me. Once I'm writing, it's a great, fun, fast-paced time for me. What I MUST do before I write the story, however, is visually write and edit, then outline the story. On the few times that I have not done these things prior to writing, EVERYTHING about writing is hard for me.

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  16. Yes! Structure is so hard for me, too! Getting the pacing right and learning how to get those subplots and themes in there without bogging down the whole thing. Makes me wish I was a plotter sometimes. Then...nah. ;-)

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  17. Ooh, this is so fabulous you are doing the webinar! Story structure is the great architecture of literature. Sharing this now!

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  18. Ooh, this is so fabulous you are doing the webinar! Story structure is the great architecture of literature. Sharing this now!

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  19. Fabulous post as always, Ellen! Interesting, we suffer from exactly the same thing--though I'm still waiting for said agent/editor/Hollywood to inform me that I'm strong at story! Now I'm off to share your fabulous post, and great giveaway!

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  20. Shonell - What a terrific response, and I love that you found a method that works so well for you.

    Sela - Good to see you here! For me, the pacing comes together in rewrites. (First time through I often make things move too quickly.)

    Marlena - Big thanks and the kind comment and for sharing! I'm excited about the webinar. :)

    Laura - Sending good luck wishes your way! And thanks for the shares.

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  21. Suzanne Antoinette La ForceMay 25, 2012 at 3:27 PM

    For me the hardest part is the typing up the manuscript,---believe it or not !!! I'm a slow typist and also I tend to write at least half of a novel in a spiral notebook... Yes,---that way I can write my story anywhere my purse goes ! I get a lot written this way, but when it comes to all that typing up the extra material... Ugh,--- even the thought of it !!!!!!!!!

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  22. The hardest part of writing for me is plotting. It all sounds so good in my head, but when I put it on paper, I think.... This doesn't make sense...

    I use multi-colored post its and litter my desk with them. Each color represents a subplot. It helps to see where I should add or remove content.

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  23. The hardest part for me is plot development. I may plan for the story to go one way, but once I start writing it doesn't flow.

    Great Blog today, Ellen! And you are a wonderful story teller.

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  24. I signed up for the webinar several days ago and am looking forward to it! The hardest part for me is the denouement, always. Invariably, I feel like I've left my reader deflated and a little ripped off.

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  25. Great post and great comment conversation. Thanks for fueling the fire Ellen.

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  26. Suzanne - I've always been in awe of people who write entire manuscripts by hand!

    Kadi - Thanks for popping in! Have you ever tried arranging your post-its on a posterboard divided into acts? That might be helpful in letting you visualize your story.

    Bobbie - Appreciate the kind words, and I think we can all relate to the story taking a different turn once you get into it. For me, that outline is always a fluid document. :)

    Clara - Glad you signed up! My webinar will definitely be addressing how to deliver the reader to a satisfying destination in the denouement. Hope it helps!

    Amy - Really appreciate that! Thanks for coming by!!

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  27. the hardest part is getting started and staying that way for a sustained amount of time without getting side tracked like right now for instance I am listening to the Devils/Rangers game on the radio when I started out writing some on the old novel that seems to be never going to ever get writ.

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  28. I agree with you. Ellen. To me it's plot. Until I have a sound plot in my mind, something solid, with strong character GMC, I am not satisfied. I enjoy creating twists and turns in the story so, in order to jive for me it needs to have a high level of complexity which requires a tight plot.
    Thank you for the webinar information! That is timely. Book #3 is in need of some plot TLC.

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  29. Steve - Great to see you here! Getting distracted is a huge issue for me, too, though I can't say the Devils/Rangers game has ever pulled me away. Lol.

    Chris - Yes, I know that it can be so trick with a complex plot. Good luck with book #3, and let me know if you need more info about the webinar.

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  30. Great blog post, Ellen! The hardest part for me, as a writer who does this full time with a variety of projects in my home office, is the isolation. Especially in winter when you might not venture outside until it's dark, and then feel like a vampire when you do. Lunch with friends is the antidote, better than a garlic necklace.

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  31. For me it's slogging through the middle between the excitement of the beginning and the climax.

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  32. Great post, Ellen! I'm with you--story is hard, or plot. Keeping things moving with some tension. I love language so much I digress, but I'm getting better at knowing what I need to cut.

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  33. Judith - Ah, I can understand that. A lot of us who have kids at home and constant interruptions think the isolation would be terrific, but I've experienced that, too, and know that the need for human connections is powerful. Thanks for commenting!

    Rashda - Yes, that pesky middle! I agree with you. It's part of the plot structure issue I've struggled with.

    Bonnie - "Keeping things moving with some tension" Yes! So critical, and writers who get that are already ahead of the game. Thanks for coming by!

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  34. Wow, what a compliment! Good for you! For me, I think the hardest part of writing is nailing the opening. Those first few lines, that first paragraph/page - that's the hardest part. Once I get those down, the rest just seems to fall into place.

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