Writing Excuses 15.49: Maintaining Passion for a Story, with special guest Mahtab Narsimhan
Key points: How do you stay excited about writing a book, especially in the middle? You may not be excited and thrilled about writing every time you sit down to write. Muscle through it, but watch for “I’m bored with the story,” because if you’re bored with the story, the reader will be too. Leave out the boring parts! For each scene, think about why this scene could be somebody’s favorite scene in the whole book. Why does this part give a sense of progress? Stopping and then starting again is hard. To rekindle the passion, to get interested in this story again, look at your outline, your notes, and the ending. Look at the original pitch, what got you started. Beginnings are exciting because they are new, endings are good because they are climactic, but the middle? So when the middle drags, think about that. Often, there’s a lot of processing (sequel) to be done. Use clever dialogue, reveals, and such to re-ignite the first. Watch out for the attraction of shiny new ideas, finish your middle first! Stick with it, to the end. How about staying passionate during revision? Again, beware the attraction of shiny new ideas. Set yourself a deadline, with a carrot for doing it, and hit that goal. Check, is it hard because it is boring, or am I trying to do too much at once, and I need to reorganize my revision process. Think about the fun of solving the puzzles, of fixing the scenes or characters. Talk with a critique partner.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 49.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Maintaining Passion for a Story, with Mahtab Narsimhan.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mahtab] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.
[Brandon] And I’m Brandon.
[Dan] This is a topic that was requested by some of our listeners, as has been most of the year. How do we stay excited about a book? There’s a lot of different parts of a book that we need to stay excited for. So we’re going to talk about those. So what I want to ask first is how… What do you do if you are in the middle of a book? Books take a long time to write. Many months or perhaps even years. So if you’re in the middle, and you been working on this for so long, and you know that there’s a bunch of it left, how do you stay excited about it?
[Howard] At risk of saying the unpopular thing here, I long ago gave up on the illusion that I was going to be excited and thrilled about writing every time I sat down to write. I allow myself to… Not necessarily be miserable, because when I miserable, the writing’s not going to come out well. I allow myself to just muscle through it, with the understanding that not wanting to write is not the same as having become bored with the story. Because if I’ve become bored with the story, that might be symptomatic that the reader is also going to be bored with the story, and it is time for me to do something different with it. But I don’t always have to be excited to write. I mean, I love being excited to write, that’s one of my favorite things, and it’s wonderful when it happens, but I don’t assume that that has to be the case.
[Brandon] Yeah, I think that’s really an astute comment, that should frame the rest of this conversation. Howard is absolutely right. Everything that I’m going to say takes into consideration that you are understanding that aspect. For me, one thing that is key, particularly for a long book, is… It’s glibly said, and I don’t know who said it first, try to leave out the boring parts. Right? And non-glibly said, what that really has always meant to me is I ask myself for every scene, “Why is this potentially going to be somebody’s favorite scene in the book?” There’s a fallacy I think you can fall into where you’re like, “If I can just get through these boring bits, I can get to the exciting bits.” Where the really great stories are the ones where they make what would be the boring bits in another book the exciting bits in this book. I talk a lot about promises, progress, and payoff, and that progress is the big chunk of your book. Asking yourself why is this clue, why is this development, this character moment, why is this thing going to give this sense of progress? Why is it exciting that this step on the journey is happening? There’s a lot of tricks that you can use to do that, starting with that has always been helpful to me.
[Mahtab] I think, for me, it’s always been… Like, because I don’t write very long novels, for me the hardest part is when I have to stop in the middle of a novel or in the middle of a first draft, and work on something else, and then come back to it. For me, that has always been the hardest part of how to rekindle the passion or how to get interested in that story again. What I always go back to is I go back to the outline, I go back to all the notes that I’ve made about it, maybe any videos that I had, that I’ve seen about it, and I definitely look at the ending. For me, the ending is so important. If that ending is something that I love and I want to work towards, that’s how I kind of recapture the excitement to make sure that I finished the novel or get back into it. For me, that’s the most important.
[Dan] I agree with everything that Mahtab just said. I want to add, going back not just to the notes and to the ending, but to the initial pitch because that’s what got me excited about this in the first place. Right? There was some cool idea or character or something that I was super thrilled about that made me want to write this book. Just remembering what that was and thinking, “Oh, yeah. That’s… That was the hook that pulled me into this story,” can help get through those middle parts as well. So, one of the things that hasn’t been mentioned yet is beginnings. Beginnings are usually, beginnings and endings are the really exciting parts of a story. Because we’re either just starting it and it’s brand-new and fresh, or we’re finally wrapping it up and it gets to be climactic and exciting. I think one of the problems that people like the person who ask this question are running into is that new things are exciting because they’re new, not because they’re good. If your idea is both new and good, then that’s awesome and you should write it. But that makes the middle, which is good, but not new, kind of pale in comparison. It makes it not as thrilling. So it’s important to remember that as well, I think.
[Howard] I’ve been re-watching some episodes of The Blacklist, which has James Spader as a career criminal who’s now working with the FBI. James Spader can absolutely chew scenery. Absolutely chew scenery. There are action scenes, exciting reveals, and stuff in this TV show that are not the whole show. Then, some of my very favorite moments are these things in the middle where Spader’s character, Raymond Reddington, relates a weird offbeat story to someone like he’s talking just to fill space, and you realize this is very entertaining, and what does it have to do with the story? It’s just Reddington being random, and then he ties it into the story in a way that’s suddenly very sinister, and you’re like, “Oh. Oh no, you just foreshadowed our plot twist.” That model, for me, if you’re in… We’ve talked a little in the past about scene-sequel format, the idea that scenes are where things happen and sequels are where we process what happened. Sometimes when your [story] bogs down in the middle, it’s because there’s all this processing to be done and it doesn’t feel exciting. I love clever dialogue and fun turns of phrase, and when it’s actors chewing scenery, I delight in that. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the middle of a book, when one character brings us up to speed with their journey, just like re-ignites all the fires at once.
[Dan] Mahtab, what were you going to say?
[Mahtab] Oh, I was going to say sometimes people find the middle difficult or they kind of get stuck, it’s because as you mentioned earlier the starting of a story or a shiny new idea is always good because it’s so hard to get through the middle and then to the end. So you always get attracted to, oh, this is a fabulous idea, let me go pursue this. But what you’ve got to realize is that once you get through that hump of beginning and go back to the middle, it’s going to be hard again. The main, I would say the mettle of a true writer is being able to go all the way to the end. So, no matter how hard, stick with it. Just stick with it because you’ll always have these shiny new ideas jumping around. Ignore them. Go to the end, however difficult.
[Brandon] That’s really good advice. Extremely good advice right there.
[Mahtab] Thank you.
[Dan] Now, I’ve got another big question, a big topic for us to get into, but first it is time for our book of the week, and Mahtab has that for us.
[Mahtab] Yes. I would love to recommend Dust by Arthur Slade. Arthur Slade is a Canadian writer. He writes a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but that’s just one of my absolute favorites. Because he’s really melded middle grade horror with science-fiction, and all of this is set in Saskatchewan, which is a prairie town in the 1930s. The story starts with a young boy disappearing. He’s about seven years old. His older brother, who’s 11, is devastated and the entire town goes looking for him, but they don’t find the boy. Around the same time, a stranger comes to town. He promises to start up a rain machine or manufacture a rain machine that is going to end the drought in the area. As the story progresses, more and more kids are disappearing from the village… Or from the town, but the parents don’t seem to know what’s going on or they seem to forget about it. The ending is just fantastic. So… He’s also, the great part is, Arthur has also narrated this book himself, so it’s almost like he’s reading the book out to you. So I would definitely recommend Dust by Arthur Slade.
[Dan] Thank you very much.
[Dan] So we had another listener question about maintaining passion for a story, but this one was about how do you stay passionate about a story during the revision process? When you’ve already finished it, and you look back at it and realize it’s terrible, and that you’re going to have to fix all this broken stuff, and you see all these horrible flaws, how do you stay excited about it then?
[Brandon] This is what I’ve been thinking about this whole time, because I don’t often lose passion for a book in the middle of it. Where my passion wanes is when I’m on the fourth draft of that book, or even the third draft, right? We’re talking… I just finished Rhythm of War revisions earlier this year, and that’s a 450,000 word book, right? That I had to do five drafts of. That needed significant revisions in some places. I would say, the only tips I have on this are, number one, remember what Mahtab just said. That’s when the shiny new ideas really start to pop out at me. A big problem in my career early on was that I would go chase those instead of revising. I’d figure, “Oh, I’ve got this book done, I’ll go chase that idea and that idea.” I would never get to the revisions. I never learned revision. It held me back quite a bit. The other thing that really helps me as a solid deadline imposed on myself of a number of words I need to do in a day. I learn how much is a good day’s work for me. On revision, I say you have to hit this goal. Then, usually, there’s a bit of a carrot at the end. If you hit this goal, you may go take this time off and do something else. Like, the sooner you hit this goal, the sooner you get to take that time off. That structure, for the way my personal psychology works, is the way to make me do this. Is just to set it out and have a deadline and go.
[Howard] Gamification is key and a number of pursuits for all kinds of different people. Gamifying it so that you are looking at this horrible task in front of you, and it’s a game and once you beat the game, you look at your score, you get a prize, whatever. The… It’s… It is difficult, and I gotta tell you, fair listener, viewer, you want to be a person who does difficult things. That’s who you want to be, right? You don’t want to just do easy things. You want to be someone who does difficult things. Sometimes, when I look at revision, I’m just… I’m wrestling with it, and it’s difficult, I’ll remind myself, well, if it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s supposed to be hard. Then I ask myself, “Why is it being difficult? Is it difficult because it’s a slog, and I’m bored? Or is it difficult because I’m trying to hold too many things in my head at once, and I need to break down my revision process in a different way?” Having participated in Brandon’s writers group were a bit, the fact that he breaks down some of these editorial passes in character voices and other things access I look at that and think, “Oh, gosh. That’s a lot of organizational work.” But for a manuscript that’s got half a million words in it, that’s the only way to get it done consistently. So I had to ask myself, when I’m stuck in the middle of a revision, am I stuck because this is being too hard, because I can’t think of everything at once? If that’s the case, well, I’m just going to have to make some notes for myself. I’m going to do the pass this way and then I’m going to do the pass sway. It’s going to feel like it takes longer, but suddenly I’m more efficient, and it actually kinda becomes fun.
[Dan] Now, both Brandon and Howard have been talking about treating this like a job. Which I definitely think is an important way to go about it. But, I do think that there are some moments of excitement to be found in the revision process. I’ve heard both of you talk about puzzling over a problem and being stuck on it and I cannot make this scene or this character work until finally you find it, and that thrill that just floods in, that makes the whole arduous problem-solving worth it. So many authors, every author I know, I think, has had that moment of “Oh, my gosh, I finally made this work. I am as happy as I’ve ever been in my life.” That’s worth looking forward to.
[Mahtab] What I’d like to add here is sometimes just talking about your manuscript with a critique partner, it doesn’t have to be a whole group. I’ve got about five or six people that I regularly go to. But just one trusted person. If you are able to discuss what your issue is, or what is stopping you, or what you’re unhappy with, sometimes just talking it out (a) helps you get over that barrier and you start thinking of different things, and someone giving you feedback on what they think may not be working just helps you get past whatever was stopping you and think of new ideas. So sometimes I feel just speaking it out helps you get through it.
[Dan] Agreed. Now, our time is up. So we do have homework for you, and this comes from Mahtab.
[Mahtab] Okay. So I think this kind of almost encompasses what we been speaking about. For one, go back to your notes and your outlines and take a look at what was it that excited you about your story. The best thing to do is don’t look at it on a computer. Try and write it out in longhand. Because there is… I feel there is a deeper connection when you’re actually writing down stuff on paper using a pen, pencil, whatever. It helps you slow down stuff rather than when you’re typing at a very high speed. The other thing I would suggest, again, is what I do. Speak to a critique partner. It just needs to be one person whose opinion you really trust and see if they can advise you on something. I think the third most important thing is take a really good look at your ending. If your ending is not spectacular or really fantastic, that’s what probably is not… Why you’re passionate about getting to the end. As Brandon once said, plot backwards and write forwards. I think that’s my mantra right now. So, it really works for me.
[Dan] homework is take whatever you’re doing right now, go back to the original notes and write down in longhand what excited you, what attracted you to that in the first place. Awesome. Well, thank you so much. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.