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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

New Book Update: An Unexpected Breakthrough


fist bump wirters blockKudos to me! I reached my target to create a scene card for every scene in the novel I’m revising. The pile of index cards is over an inch high. I wanted to complete this stage in August because it’s an exercise I’ll ask students to do in my new online Revisiting the Flow class.

But of course, that brought me back to the challenge of transitioning to the next stage. As I’ve said before, transitions are tough. This one was tougher because I was in the doorway, clutching the jams and struggling not to go through.

In other words, I experienced a tiny bit of writer’s resistance to moving on.

What’s the Hold Up?

hold upI’ve known for several months that my main character’s daughter, Katy, needs to be developed. In the current version, Katy isn’t much more than a pawn I moved around to create conflict for my main character, Peregrine.

I brainstormed and dreamstormed Katy’s character even while I was creating the scene cards of the current draft. I “saw” her (in a dreamstorming session) with a boyfriend, which opened all kinds of juicy questions: who is he, where is he from, what are his intentions with Katy, who’s side is he on, will he be involved in Katy’s capture or her rescue?

I’ve explored whether this man is a dangerous and secret antagonist for Katy and her mother or simply a self-serving scoundrel. I’ve pondered just how bad things will get for Katy. And pragmatically, how many tertiary characters do I want to add to interact with this secondary character?

I circled this uncertainty for several weeks. One day’s brainstorming took me one direction, the next day’s freewriting pushed in a different direction.

I love the “aha” thrill of discovering new stuff – “Oooh, what if he’s spying on Katy? Or he uses Katy to spy on her dad?” But…

At first, I wasn’t ready to make choices; I needed to keep dreamstorming to let ideas percolate.

chase tailAbout two weeks ago, I had the nagging sense that I was chasing my tail. My freewriting was more an exercise in rephrasing the same questions in different ways than discovering new possibilities.

I needed to make choices so I could keep moving forward with the revision. As I said before, choosing is difficult for me – I’d much rather keep my options open.

I couldn’t figure which way to go. I couldn’t see how to fit (“shoehorn” might be a better verb here) the new stuff of Katy and her “bad boy” into the current draft. I need to shift something and frustrated that I couldn’t figure out what.

A Tangential Exercise Provided a Breakthrough

Not knowing what else to do, I tried one of the exercises I designed for the new Revisiting the Flow class: I listed the fixed points in the novel.

doctor whoIf you’re not a Doctor Who fan, the term refers to events in history that cannot be altered, not even by the Doctor.  For writing prose, I define fixed points as the scenes that the author knows in her/his heart of hearts are essential. Changing these scenes would mean writing a different book.

If you want to try this, just list the scenes you know have to be in your story. Don’t look back at your draft, notes, outlines or anything else. Off the top of your head, what points are fixed in the time and space of your story?

Because I listed the scenes without looking at the cards or the manuscript, I wasn’t narrowing from a huge list to a small one. Creating a list out of nothing helps keep the number of fixed points reasonable. I wrote the list a few days ago and put it in the pile of novel-revision-stuff.

Yesterday, I had a breakthrough. I saw how some of the Katy and her “bad boy” scenes could fit without over complicating the story. I saw it because I had unconsciously detached from a scene that is not a fixed point no matter how much I love it.

When I realized that the poignant goodbye scene between Katy and Peregrine didn’t have to be where and how it is in the current draft and that it might not even need to be in the novel at all, other possibilities opened up. If Peregrine isn’t there with Katy when Katy placed under military arrest, she can learn about Katy’s capture in other ways and from other characters, including Katy’s “bad boy.”

This opened the door for “killing darlings” at the level of scenes.

Now I’m excited about creating cards for the new scenes and re-ordering the cards in that section of the novel. The revision not insurmountable now; it’s a fascinating puzzle again. (Intellectually I knew it was a puzzle all along, but that’s sure not how it felt.)

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play with my story now.

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  1. New Book Update: Reincarnate Your Darlings | The Bane of Your Resistance - December 29, 2014

    […] a previous post, I described how identifying the fixed points in my novel – the scenes that absolutely must happen […]

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