By Linda Nagata
(cross-posted from Hahví.net)

The problem with the word-count-per-day goal — that is, swearing to oneself to write a thousand or two-thousand words everyday — is that to be successful you have to have a pretty good idea of what happens next in your story.

It’s no problem at all to write a thousand or two-thousand words of useless rambling thoughts. It’s also fairly easy to write a thousand or two-thousand words when you know exactly what comes next, and it’s a scene you’re feeling, and the voice of the characters and tone of the story is firmly established in your mind.

But what happens when you have no clear idea of the next scene? I’ve got eight published novels, with four more in various stages of development, but I still find myself in this situation all the time — even when I have a rough plan, even when I can see some of the scenes I want to hit down the road. Somehow I have to figure out an interesting way to get the protagonist from where s/he is, to, well, somewhere else, and stir in some conflict and/or mystery while I’m at it. But all too often I feel utterly clueless on how to do this.

So I sit down to just write — you know the formula: trust the subconscious, type away, something will come. Hrmmm…

Does this work for you?

Very rarely, I’ll discover useful plot lines this way. Mostly though, it doesn’t get me anywhere. So I wander about the house. Check email. Check ebook sales stats. Check twitter. Check facebook. Check G+. Shut off the wi-fi and try to write… I can spend hours like this, and then quite often, around three in the afternoon, a switch gets flipped on and suddenly I’m writing useful words!

Sometimes the switch doesn’t get flipped to “on” until nine or ten o’clock at night. In the past year I’ve had some extremely useful midnight writing sessions.

It’s pretty clear that, for me at least, ideas need to percolate. I wish it weren’t so. I wish I could sit down and know what comes next, and write it, and then move on to another project. I wish I didn’t squander so much time that could be put to productive use doing other things. But it is what it is, and I’ve been dealing with the process long enough that, despite the frustrations, I can remain fairly confident that the words will eventually come.

Does any of this sound familiar? How do you deal with the question of what comes next?

Linda Nagata is the Locus and Nebula award winning author of The Bohr Maker, Vast, and Memory, all available at Book View Cafe. Her latest book The Dread Hammer, is a fast-paced mythic fantasy of love, war, murder, marriage, and fate.




Percolation — 4 Comments

  1. I definitely think this is true; unless you’re the sort to plot the entire novel out in full and complete detail before starting to write, there will always be times when you have to stop to consider what comes next.

    We have dogs, so the dogs’ walk becomes my brainstorming time. They romp around the fields while I walk the paths, seeing just enough to keep me on the trail, my inner eye off in another world. Rather than just opening my mind and hoping for inspiration, I rather deliberately try to think through the scene or problem, and usually the next bits come to me fairly easily, though I may have to try out a few puzzle pieces to see what fits, first. By the time I get back to the house, an hour later, I usually have enough for two or three thousand words.

  2. A walk with the dogs sounds much more pleasant than aimlessly wandering around the house! And getting two or three-thousand words out of it is a fantastic reward.

  3. I’m doing NaNoWriMo right now, and I set up an outline well before I started writing. Also, about halfway through the month, I received the advice to outline again, pick out the Really Big Scenes, and do those because they’re more fun and overall taste better than the Necessary Information ones. That’s turning out really well, actually.

    Plus, I was given the gift of knowing my first and last lines. If I know my last line, even if I wobble off my outline (which I do early and often), I end up in the right direction anyway.

    Saying hi at 40,000 (sometimes horrible) words…

  4. I definitely sympathize with what you’re saying here. In the past I’ve tried to jog new ideas loose by going out for a stroll at whatever time, or a drive (sans music), or by washing dishes. What’s been working pretty well for me lately is to switch up my morning commute. Usually I bike to work, but when I know I want to use that time to figure something out, I walk instead. So far this year that’s been reasonably effective for me.