I picked up this article off of Twitter the other day (thanks @caferebee for posting): Top 10 Essentials to a Writer’s Life, published by Writer’s Digest. I particularly like #5 on the list – “Knowing where to stop.” I’ve always found that to be a worthwhile practice, closing up shop for the night at a point where you know you’ll be easily able to pick up again the next day. It gives me something to think about and brainstorm during the day so that by the time I get back in front of my laptop, I know where I’m headed with the story.
As I was thinking more about this today (of course after leaving myself at a great spot last night in my time travel novel), I realized that I have a habit of taking that one step further. Often as I’m finishing up writing for the day, I’ll leave myself with a challenge. One of my characters will end up in a precarious situation that I hadn’t necessarily planned, and I’ll make myself figure a way out of it. Especially in writing time travel, with all the loops and twists and multiple versions of characters doing various things, it’s been an enlightening approach. Two nights ago, I went to bed leaving wide open a scene in which there had ended up four versions of one character. I told myself to “deal with it.” Last night, I dealt with it. Very happy about that.
I know it seems a little ridiculous – four versions of the same character, but it makes sense in the context of the story. Trust me.
In my title here, I mention improv. One of the first and foremost rules of improv is “Don’t block,” which means that if someone gives you a queue, you can’t halt the action because you don’t like the direction. “Yes, and-” is a key to successful improv. “No, but-” is being booed off the stage. I like to think that’s what I’m doing to myself, forcing me to make a decision as to how my character would react in the most onerous of situations. It’s not difficult when the words are really flowing from your fingers (it made so much more sense to say “pen” in the past, didn’t it?) to keep pushing your character until she’s trapped at the bottom of a canyon with velociraptors advancing, no weapons except a toothpick from lunch and three minutes until the President will authorize the retaliatory strike that she’s supposed to be stopping. You just sit back in your seat and say to yourself, “How the hell am I going to get her out of that mess?”
Invoke Rule #5: “Knowing where to stop.” That’s how.
That’s not to say that the ridiculous situation always ends up in the final version of the story, but I find that pushing my characters is the best way for me to get to know their limits. Spending the day looking forward to solving their problem can be very invigorating, and keeps the momentum of writing going for me.
So, back to my manuscript. Let’s cook up a rescue from that canyon!