I’m an addlepated dumdum jerkface with a limited grasp of language, and I shouldn’t be trying to write a book.
…is occasionally how my inner monologue goes, depending on how far into the first draft / editing process I’ve journeyed. Because something happens when I get past about 10,000 words (aside from biscuit-induced type 2 diabetes, that is); I start encountering writing problems that just don’t crop up with poems, short stories and blog entries. And these problems seem so simple and ridiculous, and yet become so absolutely confounding. They highlight how much I don’t yet know about the process of putting a story together, and guys, I DON’T LIKE IT.
Let me know if you’ve experienced any of the following, and what your solutions are.
Problem 1: Friggin’ tenses, man!
Tenses! How have I developed a problem with tenses? Keeping tenses consistent throughout a story is something small children get taught, so why is the present tense suddenly writhing around like a trans-dimensional eel? Is it because I’m also having difficulty with…
Problem 2: Time frames, dude! Ugh!
My characters, I suddenly realise, haven’t been to bed in several days and should realistically be experiencing some kind of sleep-deprived psychosis. So I send them to bed.
Does that now mean I have to get them up every morning and then send them to bed again after a certain amount of activity? Do I need to give them toilet-breaks, too? Would The Hunger Games have been as tense and exciting if Katniss kept having to stop for a wee? I can’t write everything in real-time: my manuscript would end up longer than the Game of Thrones septology and a fraction as exciting as the Yellow Pages.
So obviously I can’t do that.
So do I skip to whenever something interesting happens? Then I can skip ahead several days, if necessary. Cool. But if I do that, can I refer to minor things that might have happened in the days before? In which case, I’d have to use the past tense… even though the rest of the novel is in real-time present tense, and that confuses the timeline and makes my sentences sound reeeeally bad…
OK. Don’t panic. I’ll keep it as linear as possible, while not writing everything in tedious detail. Except… one of my days stretches over eight chapters because my plot demands that a lot of action has to happen in the space of 24 hours, and then I have several days stuttering in quick succession over a handful of paragraphs, and then two weeks pass in one page, and then my character takes a third of the book to drink a cup of tea and I DON’T UNDERSTAND TIME ANYMORE.
(NB. Romeo and Juliet happens over three days and they don’t do much sleeping during that time, so I’m pretty sure Shakepeare was experiencing the same issues. Yup.)
Problem 3: Well, at least everything else is consistent… ISN’T IT?
Nope. Your main character’s mum is variously called Linda, Lydia and Barbara at different points in your novel. She also switched personality, careers and eye colour each time too, and at one point you killed her off and yet she was hoovering the lounge several chapters later. Whoops.
It’s very easy to forget what the hell you’ve written. Especially when you’re on draft number five.
TOP TIP! I’ve actually solved this one. I’ve just invested in a whiteboard – I call it my ‘murder board’ because it’s like what they have in the incident room in police procedural dramas – and I can brainstorm on it, write major plot points, track changes, and stick up character sketches. All I have to do is turn my head, and there it is. It’s way more functional and efficient than trying to find the correct file and scroll to the relevant point. No more characters with multiple personality disorder for me! Unless I want one, of course!
Problem 4: Faces! Faces! FACES!
“Don’t tell, show! Don’t telllll, shooooooow. Dooooon’t teellllllshoo wwww.”
That’s me ‘showing’ you my nervous breakdown.
OK, so I’m not allowed to tell the reader that a character is upset / happy / lying / nervous / terrified / angry. I have to show it. With their FACE, mainly. Their stupid sodding face with their stupid eyebrows and twinkling eyes and sneering lips and creasing stupid bloody foreheads.
But there’s only so many times someone’s mouth can slowly curve into a smile or their eyebrows can rise quizzically (APART FROM YOU SHOULDN’T SAY THAT EITHER BECAUSE ADVERBS ARE ‘BAD’). I soon found that having to show faces doing emotional gymnastics can lead to (a) repetition and (b) ridiculousness. Suddenly, all your characters have morphed into terrible, ham actors with a limited repertoire.
Eyebrows on normal people just don’t move that much. Real humans express themselves with micro expressions, so subtle and fleeting that they’re impossible to describe quickly. I mean, you don’t want to read half a ruddy page on how a slight tensing of the muscles around the temple combined with an almost-invisible narrowing of the lips conveyed a slight hint of a character’s inner tension, do you? No. No, you don’t. But you’ve also been advised to avoid telling readers how a character feels, so what do you do?
I’m not entirely sure. Ha! That’s where editing comes in, I suppose. I found that a good way to ‘search and destroy’ for facial foolishness is to ‘ctrl’ and ‘f’ for words you know you over-use. There’s nothing like realising you’ve used ‘wink’ 64 times to make you hate yourself. And don’t get me started on twinkling, frowning, muttering, sighing, and vague gesturing.
Problem 5: Nothing flows
You’ve finished (ha), and you almost can’t bring yourself to edit the first half of your book, because it needs so much work. Stiff characters, laboured world-building, unconvincing relationships, exposition. But the second half is MUCH better, you think: your characters are interacting more naturally, and they have plenty of interesting things to do because they’re working towards the Big Climax (steady on.).
Actually, the inconsistent flow of your novel isn’t much of a problem, because you know what you need to do to fix it. You’ve lived with the story for quite a while now, so you understand your characters, you can see the story arc in its entirety, and you know what parts of the fat can be trimmed. You have all that knowledge at your disposal. So get to it, foo’.
Once you’ve sorted out the first half, you’ll realise the second half is pretty rough too, so basically, you just need to keep editing. Edit and edit and edit until…
Problem 6: You have no idea what is good anymore
What is time? What is good? Are these my knees?
I have a solution for this one too: don’t look at it for a couple of weeks. You need a break from these twerp characters and this limp-ass plot. Come back when you don’t hate everything anymore, and edit it with fresh eyes. You might find it’s not complete dog poop after all. Maybe.
Problem 7, 8, 9 and 10: I am disgusting
Oh look, I haven’t done any housework in several weeks, and my fleecy cardigan has fused with my epidermis.
Solution: there is none. This is how things are now.