What I learned by going round in circles

roundabout_signEver feel like you are going in circles? Sure you do. Everyone does, right?

I'm the type of writer known as an outliner, which means I like to plan my whole story in advance and make detailed notes on every scene and every step of the plot, start to finish. It's the engineer in me. It gives me a framework. Like a building is designed by an architect long before construction.

The worst feeling in the world is when you are halfway through writing your book and it all starts unravelling. You find flaws in the plot. It's just not working the way you intended. It doesn't sound believable. I'm on my third book now, so I'm no stranger to this mid-book gloom. It's probably not possible to plan something as complicated as a novel with multiple plotlines and numerous characters, each with goals and emotions, without missing something. I had this happen on both my other books and worked through the problems to "fix" my "broken" book. I hear similar stories from a lot of authors.

Something is very different on this new book. Three or four times I hit the wall, back-pedaled and rethought the plot, before going back and rewriting the first half of the story. Each time it ground to a screeching halt.

What's going on? Why is this book different? Why can't I get it right? Shouldn't it get easier with every book I write?

I believe this is what happens when you break new ground. I'm so far out of my comfort zone that I'm not even on Earth, let alone Kansas! 

After writing two fantasy novels and a few short stories, this book is different. Way different. This is a romance. Well… sort of. Technically it's a romantic fantasy rather than a hardcore no-holds-barred romance. Worldbuilding I can do, description I can do, tension, conflict, yep. Romantic and sexual tension and emotion? Not so much!

As I wrap up re-writing the first half for the fourth… or fifth time (who's counting?) I think I've got it right this time. I hope I've got it right. So what did I do wrong?

I've always believed that storytelling is organic, that the plot and events should come from the characters themselves, rather than the author coming up with some scenes and then cramming characters into little pidgeon holes. The secret to organic storytelling is what's known as Goals and Motivations (or some variation on those terms). Characters must logically perform an action to move the plot forward, not act just because that's what the plot requires. See the distinction? Ever read a bad book or watched a cheesy movie and you scream out loud that "she would never do that," or "it makes so sense that he wouldn't have gone to the police long ago?" That's forcing a character's actions to make the plot work.

Usually after coming up with a rough storyline of what I want to happen in the book, I go through every single scene and analyze it from the perspective of each character. What does he want? What is she hoping will happen? What would they logically do here? Goals and motivations, remember? The best, most memorable stories are when the antagonist's motivations are directly entangled with the protagonist's, such that they must outwit each other again and again, with the actions of each directly affecting the life and emotions of the other.

So what am I learning from the frustrations of my romance? In a hurry to get writing, I didn't pay enough attention to those goals and motivations. I analyzed the surface layer and believed I had captured their true desires, the essence of what they sought in life. But I hadn't dug deep enough. I should have known when Leo, one of the wise members of my writer group challenged me by asking direct questions about my heroine's needs and desires. My answers were weak. I told him that I knew enough to write, and that the details would come out as I became familiar with the character.

There's my mistake right there. That assumption is the inciting incident that led to so many rewrites.

Now I get it. I'm not sure why it took me so many rewrites, but finally I'd had enough and really delved deep into the psyche of my characters. What did they really want? Not what I thought they wanted. Not the shallow surface needs, but the deep emotional ones, which seem to play a much larger role in this story because it is a romance, because love and the betrayal of love are powerful emotions. Only then did it become clear to me why my plot had gone off the rails. Even better, I can now redesign the second half of the book with this deeper understanding to make it considerably stronger.

Many authors talk of their characters taking over, that the book writes itself through them. This is their own method for tapping in to the true goals and motivations, and listening to their characters real needs. I'd never understood what they meant until now. I've never had that happen to me. Perhaps because I'm an outliner and more rigid in my planning. I find it difficult to freeform write like that. On this book, I believe my characters were doing just that, but I wasn't listening. I knew best. I'd already figured out what they wanted earlier, hadn't I?

This might be the toughest, most frustrating book of my career, but I firmly believe I have moved forward as a writer. I have learned something fundamental. I hope that I will never make this mistake on any book in the future.

Going around in circles is painful. It instills fear, confusion, frustration. It's like circling the event horizon of a black hole, the noose drawing ever tighter. Am I overreacting? Think about times when you've gone round in circles. Hurts doesn't it?

Though my spaceship is veering away from the balack hole, leaving it behind, I must remain vigilant lest the invisible grip of its gravity grabs me again.I must pay careful attention to everything that my characters think about and every action they take. More importantly, why they take that action. I think the book is back on track again but I won't breathe a sigh of relief until it is done.

What horror stories do you have of going round in circles? Feel free to comment below.


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