The 4 Most Frustrating Story Hang-Ups for Writers

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

As a writer, it feels great to find your rhythm with a story. You’re flying along the keyboard — or paper, or vellum — and the words seem to shoot from your fingers. You don’t even seem to have the same tiredness in your hands, or the ink stains on your pinky that you so often get with less fruitful writing ventures.

But we all know those high-flying moments are the anomalies when writing a long piece, like a novella.

More often, you find yourself caught up in some absurdly minute detail that you simply cannot leave behind until you find the perfect word, even if it’s just one among tens of thousands.

These hang-ups can be entirely derailing to a decent writing flow, but you’re not the only one it happens to. Here are a handful of the more frustrating writing hang-ups we’ve all likely encountered.

#1 – That. Perfect. Term. Word.

I mentioned it above, and we’ve all been there. How many times have you searched through a thesaurus to find just the right phrasing? Or some alliterative flair? (I know that wasn’t alliteration, but I didn’t feel like spending several minutes looking for a synonym for flair.) Or even the word with the right etymological root to fit the style of your story?

The answer is too many times. But we’ll all do it again.

#2 – An NPC’s Name, or Clothes, or particular shade of brown hair

I know, I know, writers aren’t supposed to refer to their own creations as “non-playable characters”. Every character is the hero of their own journey, et cetera. But every story has them — characters that you know for a fact you will never see again, but because they’ve met your Main Character in some backwater inn and happen to have a bit of knowledge to help your Main continue their quest, they just have to have a name, and maybe a few clothing descriptors. And a cool tattoo. And strangely penetrating eyes that seem to hide deep-seeded pain. Aaaaaand now you’re writing a short story for them.

I suppose that’s what name generators are for.

#3 – The Dreaded Scene Transition

I definitely struggle with this one. You’re writing a scene that you know has to take your characters to the next place, or the next plot point, but you just can’t seem to make the turn. So it feels like you only have two options: let the transition drag on for another several paragraphs, detailing every step each of your characters are taking, throwing in random chit-chat dialogue that, while entertaining, is certainly not getting them anywhere fast, and overall just refusing to end the current train of thought…

Or you could make an awkward narrative jump that feels like you’re leaving something behind, but you’re not quite sure what. And now you just have to move on.

#4 – The Scene that Grows Too Big

This is sort of the opposite of number three, where a scene grows far beyond what you had intended, either in length, or scope, or even in its emotional weightiness. Maybe some of you wouldn’t consider this a hang-up, but it can be disruptive if it no longer lets your narrative flow in the way you had it outlined. That’s when the Dreaded Scene Transition hits, but you can’t just delete all that great work! So maybe you reform it until it flows better. Or you leave it and change your outline!

More Hang-Ups!

Those are just four potential hang-ups that I definitely run into every now and then, and I’d bet a lot of other writers do, too. Leave a comment with your “favorite” storytelling hang-ups!

Steve D

Book Review: KNIFE OF DREAMS sets up an epic final act for THE WHEEL OF TIME

I recently finished reading Knife of Dreams, The Wheel of Time #11. You may remember that in my previous entries about some of the books in this series, I have lamented the plodding pace of the narrative, especially for particular point-of-view characters.

After a few books’ worth of dragging plotlines, Knife of Dreams finally brings some real momentum to this series, and ties off a few narrative threads in the process.

For the most part, the reader spends several chapters with a particular character at a time, watching their narrative unfold in more depth. Unlike in previous books, however, there is actually forward progress with the main characters, and Jordan even returns to each character towards the end of the book to see where they’ve landed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was glad to find it spent the most time with only three of the primary characters: Mat, Perrin, and Elayne. There are check-in sections with Rand, Egwene, and others, mostly serving as compelling placeholders for things to come in the next book(s).

The three or four smaller plot lines that are all tied off in this momentous installment is clearly guiding the reader and each of the characters towards one thing: the Last Battle. With only three books left in the series — I say that as if each book wasn’t more than 600 pages — Knife of Dreams is definitely setting up the end game for the series.

I’m not ready to forgive the narrative slog that was books 7 through 10 (especially 10). I can see that groundwork that Jordan was laying for the mini-climaxes in previous books. I’m just not convinced that it needed to take as long as it did to get to this point.

Anyway, I feel like I’m over the hump of the middle part of this series, and I’m ready to jump into the final three books, which were completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death. The Gathering Storm (book 12) will be my first introduction to Sanderson’s writing, so I’m excited to see how he adapts Jordan’s story and narrative style. Then I can start reading Sanderson’s own work!

Steve D

Book Review: THE FORT, continues Goldsworthy’s run of compelling Roman military fiction

The Fort, City of Victory Book One is the first in what I assume is a new series of Roman military fiction novels by Adrian Goldsworthy, author of The Vindolanda Saga. I had read and thoroughly enjoyed that trilogy last year, so I jumped at the chance to read Goldsworthy’s newest work, only released in June.

I further hoped that this series would continue the saga of Flavius Ferox, the Roman Centurion and Prince of the Silures of Britannia whose dual-lives are always in conflict as he serves Rome.

The Fort once again follows Ferox, who has just arrived to a new posting in Dacia, a Roman province long troubled by local tribes and in which the Emperor Trajan had only recently established a more permanent foothold.

This continuation of the saga of Flavius Ferox is well written and narrated. The plot beats will feel very familiar to readers of Vindolanda, but I did not find the story as compelling as Goldsworthy’s earlier series. Ferox arrives in his new post in command of a detachment of Brigantes, all sworn to their new Queen Claudia Anica (herself sworn to Rome and now Ferox’s wife), and expecting a battle against the Dacians. The battle comes, of course, and becomes a siege of the fort whose name I can neither spell nor find online. (It’s possible this was fabricated for Goldsworthy’s story, like the titular fortification of Vindolanda of the previous series.)

Aside from mainstays like Vindex, Claudia Anica, and Sulpichia Lepidina, there is a largely new cast of characters. I found the politicking of Roman bureaucrats a bit dull in this story and even difficult to follow. It seemed like several characters were introduced and then discarded before the end of the story, except for Hadrian, tribune sent to Dacia, nephew of Trajan, and (for anyone who knows a bit of Roman history) the future emperor. Without giving away the ending to The Fort, Hadrian’s relationship with Ferox is likely drive much of the personal and political conflict in upcoming stories, and that is something to look forward to.

Other than that, I found myself leaning pretty heavily on Ferox’s interactions with his three close friends to stay attached to this story. I think the best scenes were those between Ferox and Claudia Anica, who lightened the tone of the story while carrying great narrative weight as a character.

The scenes which followed Brassus, a leader among the Dacians, were interesting but only scratched the surface of that people. I don’t feel I really know anything about the Dacians except that they obsess over “ascending” and “purity”, supposedly sacred concepts that are tossed around with no real explanation.

Overall, I enjoyed the story but pretty much knew what to expect from Goldsworthy’s writing and narrative.

The narration in the audiobook version (on Audible) was good, although the pronunciations have all changed. The narrator used softer s sounds in place of the Roman c, which I’m not here to quibble about. It’s just an interesting choice after the strictly Latin pronunciations in the Vindolanda stories.

Steve D

Balancing Reader Feedback with Story Constraints

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

Today I wanted to bring up an interesting conundrum I’ve been facing as I write the third draft of Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1. In a story that is effectively about how one family — and one woman in particular — deals with her entire life being upended, I’m now trying to add more characters.

Uprooted is also a novella. I only intend for it to be 35k-40k words if I can help it, so adding more characters seems counter-intuitive on the surface.

Alpha Reader Feedback

Back in December I asked a couple people to read the second draft of this story and provide some feedback. One of my readers gave me great feedback that I’ve really tried to take to heart in this rewrite.

She said that in settings like mine — a small village in a firmly patriarchal society and culture — the characters would likely have much stronger kinship ties than I had demonstrated in my draft. I focused intensely on the nuclear family of my characters, but that left this reader asking about their immediate relatives, cousins, siblings. aunts and uncles, and the like.

The crux of the story is that tragedy strikes this village, causing my characters to flee. With this now expanded family dynamic, my characters are not as isolated as they had been, but the dynamics of their struggle change. They now have to feed 10 or 15 mouths rather than three or four.

But that’s also 10 or 15 more names to keep track of as the story progresses.

Too Many Characters?

I agreed 100% with this feedback, and I built out a family tree for my protagonist’s family and their clan. This meant that I had to explain what happened to a lot of those family members alongside the more immediate narrative of my characters. What I’ve noticed is that in my third draft, I have to decide when to talk about these extended family members, and when to leave them out.

It should be obvious that the larger clan is still traveling together, and I don’t want to have to list the actions of every single member each day. But I also don’t want to ignore these characters’ existence. After all, they make up the immediate support system for my primary character. She needs them, and thus the reader needs to know something about them.

So I’ve had to figure out how to balance these additional tertiary characters within the more personal plotlines of the three or four characters who really drive the story. If I were writing a full-length novel, I could consider POV sections for a few of these tertiary characters, but Uprooted is not that type of story.

My general rule of thumb has been twofold:

  1. Take a quick tally of the family as they’re moving or something is changing so we (both the reader and I) know where they are.
  2. Try to include these family members in particular scenes, even if they’re just in the background or only offer one line of dialogue.

I think/hope that this makes it clear that these characters are important to the larger family dynamics, but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many names to remember.

Discussion Time!

How do you feel about tertiary characters in a novella? How many is too many?

Steve D

Book Review: EXIT WEST and relatable worlds

Exit West has been in my Audible library for at least over a year — when Audible used to make their Originals content available as part of a monthly selection.

I picked it up and sort of forgot about it, buried at the bottom of my Not Started list. I finally decided to give it a shot.

I ended up enjoying Exit West much more than I had anticipated when I first started. Mohsin Hamid’s narrative starts off slowly, the first couple chapters introducing the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, in terms of their relationships, families, and how they were raised in a predominantly conservative Muslim society.

What’s interesting is that Hamid never names the country in which Saeed and Nadia live, and the particulars of the political conflict that upends their lives is inconsequential. Hamid chooses to focus on how it impacts them to tell a story that could apply to any two people, from any society, at any time in human history.

This is reinforced in the structure of the story. Hamid uses a methodical narrative style to capture vignettes of the lives of his characters. He then extends this to nameless characters we meet only once, snapshots of people’s lives who on the surface have no relation to the protagonists but whose shared experiences enliven the story.

Hamid presents a fictional future that likely already exists in some countries and will be more widespread over the coming decades. As the political conflict quickly turns to civil war around them, Saeed and Nadia are forced to hide out in their own homes before making the heart-wrenching decision to escape through one of the many doors that transports people from one life to another.

This is a world in which human societies are more divided but also more interconnected, where large groups of migrants have to eke out their existence in new places, fundamentally reshaping the identity of the places they come to inhabit, as well as themselves.

Saeed and Nadia try to hold their fraying relationship together among this emotional tumult, and their bond becomes the strongest force holding the narrative itself together.

Speaking of the audiobook version, Hamid’s narration is steady, and emotional notes come not in his inflection, but in the meaning and rhythm of his words.

I’m pleased to find two other stories by Hamid available on Audible, and regret not listening to him sooner.

Steve D

Book Review: CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT, and middle-book syndrome

I just finished reading Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I’ve already mentioned this book a couple times in recent posts, mostly because it took me longer than I expected to get through it. And not in a good way.

Ten books into this series, I’ve run into more than a couple of stretches where there doesn’t seem to be any real narrative movement, and the characters’ insistence on running in place when there’s a path laid out for them has been frustrating.

This book, however, was the hardest installment of this series for me to get through. Rather than running in place, or even building up to something, the characters in this book just did nothing.

There were a lot of conversations, a lot of plans being made without any details as to what they were, or even what they were aiming to achieve, and a lot of schemes.

Always with the schemes in these books.

Schemes within schemes that are so convoluted, so tepidly hinted at by the POV character of the moment, that the reader can’t possibly have any real clue of what’s really happening. There are so many characters now in this series, and they all have their perfect little plans laid out and ready to spring, except the reader has no idea what any of them are, and there are 200 of them!

Ugh.

So, yeah, this book took me some time to get through. I was simply not interested in most of what was happening. I read the last third of this book in fits and starts just trying to get to the end.

The structure of the chapters was at first intriguing to me. The book is structured in such a way that you follow one particular character or set of characters for several chapters in a row before abruptly pivoting to another character. I think this would have been an effective mechanism to develop specific character arcs if most of the chapters didn’t feel like filler content.

Without getting into details, I was particularly interested in both Elayne’s and Mat’s narratives in this book, but I haven’t heard from Elayne since the first third, and Mat’s story took an unexpected if interesting turn at the end.

All of this is to say that I’m happy to be done with this book, and I’m taking a break before getting into book 11.

Jordan has always toed the line between being just vague enough while building suspense. This story did not build anything. The last few chapters are interesting and definitely set up for book 11, but they do not make up for the 700+ pages of what felt like filler content.

Steve D

NaNoWriMo 2020 Update!

If there is one thing I have learned from NaNoWriMo this year, it is that I do not have time to write 50,000 words in one month. And that’s not a complaint or an act of self-deprecation, for which I’m definitely not known.

It’s just an acknowledgment that my life and my priorities have changed since the first few years I participated in NaNo with great success. I’m still happy to be participating, and I’ve made some real progress.

Follow me on NaNo!

Continue reading “NaNoWriMo 2020 Update!”

#Review: BRIGANTIA – an excellent part 3 to the Vindolanda saga

Brigantia by Adrian Goldsworthy, historical fiction, Roman Britannia, war, military

Brigantia is the third novel in the Vindolana saga, Adrian Goldsworthy’s epic historical fiction set in Roman Britannia during the early years of Trajan’s reign.

The third installment of the Vindolanda saga is as compelling and full of twists as the first two. New characters are introduced who bring renewed depth to the story, but the mainstays all have their part to play.

The plot also uncovers even richer and more intricate details about Ferox’s past and his dueling identity as both Roman Centurion and Silures Prince. Continue reading “#Review: BRIGANTIA – an excellent part 3 to the Vindolanda saga”

Exercise 10: A terrible thing to do

I know it is already Thursday, but this week was just too stressful to post any sooner – and besides, a writing exercise seemed unimportant compared to the elections in the U.S. The continuing uncertainty is still stressful, but I have gotten a bit more used to it. So, to pass the time, here is the last of the writing exercises from Steering the Craft.

Chapter 10 is called “Crowding and Leaping” and deals with narrative flow and what details an author includes and what they leave out. One line from the chapter that I particularly like was: “Some say God is in the details; some say the Devil is in the details. Both are correct.” Page 118

Le Guin also says that there isn’t really an exercise she could come up with on this topic – it is such a fluid thing and unique to each story (and storyteller). So for a final exercise, she gives us “a terrible thing to do.”

“Exercise 10: A Terrible Thing To Do

Take one of the longer narrative exercises you wrote – any one that went over 400 words – and cut it by half.

If none of the exercises is suitable, take any piece of narrative prose you have ever written, 400-1000 words, and do this terrible thing to it.

This doesn’t mean just cutting a bit here and there, snipping and pruning – though that’s part of it…” Steering the Craft, Page 124

I chose the 1285 word short story I wrote for Exercise 4: Again and Again and Again. To see the original, full length story, go here to that post. I was able to edit it down to 628 words…so here is the shorter short story!

Continue reading “Exercise 10: A terrible thing to do”