From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.
In honor of Halloween, I wanted to reflect on several aspects of writing that can leave you quaking in your boots—and what to do when they happen to you. Take a look and let me know what other scary moments you’ve encountered in your own writing process!
1. When your characters take over your manuscript.
You have your plan (or maybe you don’t) and are merrily writing along—when one of your characters breaks out and does something so unexpected, you didn’t even see it coming. Maybe it’s a supporting character who rises to the occasion, or maybe your villain does something more dastardly than your darkest dreams. Maybe you don’t expect two characters to fall in love (or to break up!) and then they go and do just that.
Sometimes this is a sign that what you’d originally planned wasn’t working, or that your characters have developed beyond your first impressions of them and your subconscious is helping you embody those changes. Either way, these moments can feel scary and also thrilling, like a movie taking off before your eyes. Harness the creative energy by finishing up the scene and then reflecting on what this twist means for your characters and for the arc of the book.
2. When you come up with a plot twist and go back to incorporate foreshadowing…only to realize you already had.
This type of surprise sometimes makes you feel like you have less control of your writing than you’d like to believe. Other times, it makes you feel like a genius. It’s especially spooky when you’re far past the outline phase and find actual dialogue and character actions to provide evidence of your premonitions.
This can mean that you’ve been stewing on a character’s arc and purpose all along and the pieces are finally starting to click together. But be careful! Just because you find the original piece of foreshadowing doesn’t mean you’ve properly signaled it to the reader. Spend a bit more time thinking about whether your clue is too obvious (you’ve already thought of it twice, after all!), or whether you actually need to include additional bits of foreshadowing: a good rule is to include three separate moments in order to avoid your reveal coming totally out of left field, but that number will depend on the scale of the reveal and the length of your manuscript.
3. When the words aren’t coming.
Some writers say they don’t believe in writer’s block. I think what they really mean is that they’ve found strategies that work for them and can get them inspired—or at least help them push through—until the inertia eases. I’m not a fan of generalizations, but I’m comfortable saying that every writer reaches a crossroads where they aren’t sure what to do next, whether it’s which new idea to develop or how to deal with a manuscript that feels broken.
When this feeling creeps up on you, take a breath. You will get through it, just as you and countless other people have gotten through similar dilemmas before. Take a break from your writing if you need to—or, alternatively, set small goals that you know you can reach (one more sentence, one more paragraph, one more page). Consider revisiting your outline or reading the manuscript from the top. Gather some friends and tell them about your characters and plot, and ask them to throw ideas at you for what might happen next. Write all of these suggestions down, even if you don’t initially like them. The words will come again, but they can be shy little things: you have to find the right way to tempt them out of hiding.
4. The existential fear of never ____________.
Never getting an agent. Never getting published. Never having more than three people show up to your book signings. If you’re a writer who isn’t interested in publication and only writes for yourself, maybe you still have fears of not finishing your first book, your fifth book, your third short story. Maybe you’re afraid that even without pursuing publishing, you’ll ultimately disappoint yourself.
The fact that you’ve made it to a point where you can feel this kind of self-doubt, though, means that you’ve joined the ranks of thousands and thousands of writers, including Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Roshani Chokshi. Self-doubt to a point can even be healthy: it means you have goals and are working toward them. Just don’t let the pessimistic impulses sap your lifeblood entirely. If this happens to you often, you can even keep a scrap book of praise for your writing and/or of excerpts you’ve written and will always love.
5. Your Google search history.
I know what you looked up while writing your last piece.
Well, actually, I have no idea. But you and I both know it’d be scary out of context.
The only way around this one is to clear your browser history. 😉