The Other Side Of The Story

JT Ellison

Bless everyone who has been talking about process for the
past couple of weeks, especially this guy, who always makes me think. I fear I was being held prisoner in a marketing hell,
surrounded by brambles with thorny ridges and forced to babble incessantly
about promotion, publicists and press releases. Granted, these are all
exceptionally important, but who am I kidding? I’m a writer. A writer. Man,
that feels good to say out loud.

This little epiphany has been building. I finished Book 2
and turned it in. What a relief to have that off my shoulders. And I decided to
try something a little different for Book 3. I planned, and plotted, and came
up with a comprehensive 12 page synopsis. It starts at the beginning and goes
through the end. Before you say “Umm, JT, DUH!” realize that I’ve only ever
written a synopsis AFTER the books are done or have been in process for a
while. This is new territory for me.

I’ve always fought against doing this, because I really
enjoy seeing where the story takes me. Well, I don’t have that choice anymore.
Now it’s someone else who wants to know where I’m going prior to me leaving the
station, and I’m thrilled to provide that for them.

Realizing that I’m doing this right, and that I can plan, is
a good feeling. Because there was a time when that wasn’t the case.

When I was trying to write my very first book, (I thought it
was a book, I found out later it was a novella) I hit a huge wall. It wasn’t
writer’s block. It was "I don’t know HOW to do this" block.

I’d been reading a great deal at the time, and was
fascinated with John Sandford’s PREY series. I’ve told the story before – I was deep into the series and said to myself “I can do this.” Ah, hubris. I sat
myself down at the computer, started to write. The first page came out with
such ease that I got up and did a dance. I’d written the opening for my first
novel. It’s quite a feeling. The next thing I knew, I had the first chapter. A
woman had appeared as a main character. She was a cop. She was a young cop. She
was a young homicide detective. No, she was the Homicide Lieutenant. She would
get involved with an FBI profiler. On and on and on.

There was just one problem. I had no clue how to make that
into a book. I typed and typed. Taylor Jackson (she was Bethany Taylor then) became a one-dimensional
character, pretty and intelligent, but lacking in those qualities that make an
iconic character come to life. The story was progressing, but things just
weren’t right. I knew that deep in my heart. I was writing a book, but it sucked.
Doubt crept in on its silent little cat paws and settled like a fog in my
brain.

All stop. My college writing teachers were right. I’d never
get published. Why was I doing this?

I nearly gave up. But I got disgusted with myself for those thoughts.
I mean come on, anything worth having is worth sacrificing a little ego for,
right?

I took a different tack.

I sat down with a notepad and one of Sandford’s novels, and
I outlined it. I started at the beginning and went chapter by chapter. I looked
at the point of view. I looked at the pace. I looked at the frequency with
which his main characters appeared, how they interacted with the story and the
other characters. I did what I’d been good at in college, deconstruction. Looked for all the things that weren’t being said.

The little lightbulbs began to turn on again, one by one. I
still had a ways to go, but after tearing apart how one writer did it, I taught
myself how I needed to do it. I wrote the book. And yes, it sucked. It
was fine, just nothing special. So I stole the best parts from it and wrote
another. That one went a little easier, and got my agent’s attention. It still
wasn’t good enough. It all came together on the third try. I was lucky. Very,
very lucky.

As I start my newest novel, I look back at the road I took
to get here and feel so blessed. I have a lot to learn. But I’ve also learned
so much by paying attention to how the people I enjoy reading write their
books.

My question for you – what did you do the last time you were
hopelessly mired in self-doubt and unable to move forward on your life’s
passion?

Wine of the Week: I did something different this week. All I
can say is I’m mad at Barry Eisler. I’ve been reading about Caipirinhas in his excellent
books
, and found myself at a Brazilian restaurant in Nashville this week
that serves them. I was feeling frisky and decided to try one. I am completely
addicted. Hubby and I bought some Cachaca rum, a bag of limes and
sugar in the raw
and have been making them at home. They are wonderful and
totally addictive, taste like a sweet margarita. So thanks, Barry, for leading me
astray.

PS. I’ve been reading Stephen King’s ON WRITING today and am further convinced that I want to read his novels. One problem. I’m a big wuss, which is why I haven’t been reading him. Can you recommend a couple of King titles that won’t leave me with nightmares for weeks?

25 thoughts on “The Other Side Of The Story

  1. Julia

    DOLORES CLAIBORNE. It shouldn’t work–King writes a sixty-something woman in first person, he uses a heavy regional dialect, the story structure harks back to Victorian “life-of” novels–but it’s brilliant. Nothing oozing up from the drains or appearing in mirrors. Just a bitingly realistic depiction of the hardscrabble life of a Maine island woman.

    Reply
  2. billie

    Good timing for your question, as I have had a rough week or so when it comes to self-doubt.

    I go live the rest of my life. See clients, ride my horse, plan an adventure with my children. Last night I spent an hour looking at barn plans and sketched out additions for a little hay barn complete with loft and cupola and a studio w/ extra stall space for the back of our property.

    Alternately, I fling myself into some book-related research that involves going somewhere in the book, or talking with someone who knows something I need to know. Yesterday I emailed my really nice new resource person and let him know I’m getting ready to start editing the book I need his insight into – and his email back saying how nice it is to hear from me was like a tonic.

    De-angsting, is what my tactics are about. Reminding myself that while writing is my passion and my dream, it is NOT all I have. Somehow that makes it easy to dive back in.

    Those rum drinks sound wonderful. 🙂

    billie

    Reply
  3. Jason Summers

    I’m not a big horror fan, since I have enough nightmares waking me up without any help. With that said, however, Mr. King has a few books that didn’t scare the (insert colorful regional euphemism here) out of me:

    The Dead Zone, The Eyes of the Dragon (fantasy), Cell, Nightmares & Dreamscapes (short stuff – some creepy, but you can always just move on to the next piece), “Memory” – a straight short story in _Tinhouse_ 7.4 (Summer 2006).

    Reply
  4. Mark Terry

    My favorite King novel is “Bag of Bones” and I think most novelists would love it, because the main character, Mike Noonan, suffers severe writer’s block after the death of his wife. It’s as much about creativity and marriage as it is about ghosts.

    Best,Mark Terrywww.markterrybooks.com

    Reply
  5. Bryon Quertermous

    When I was writing the first draft of my first novel, I did exactly what you did. I took apart Janet Evanovich’s ONE FOR THE MONEY and figured out where she did what and how. And lest you think it gets any easier, when I was just finishing up my last book, I did exactly the same thing with Jeff Shelby’s WICKED BREAK.

    And I agree with Mark that BAG OF BONES is a great King novel. Also, as a suspense writer, you would love MISERY. It is probably the best pure suspense book I have ever read.

    Reply
  6. Naomi

    Check out his novella collection, DIFFERENT SEASONS. I picked it up because I loved the movie, “Shawshank Redemption,” which is based on a novella in that collection. (Two other movies coming out of that are “Apt Pupil” and “Stand by Me.”)

    I’m convinced that it’s good to be in that place of self-doubt and uncertainty. If I don’t first have that feeling, “I don’t know if I can do this,” I’m sunk. Then I’ll be churning out the same dang book.

    That said, I’m finding that I can work off of an outline, too. There are changes, of course, but I do have a basic skeleton structure that helps push along the process.

    I think my problem lies before the outline. When I put labels on my book before I start figuring out voice, characters, plot, etc. I didn’t know I was writing a mystery before I started my series. I didn’t know I was writing YA before conceiving my present book. I’m genre impaired.

    Reply
  7. Guyot

    Jay-Tee,Believe it or not, as much as I’ve read and listened to ON WRITING (maybe six or eight times?), I have read but four King novels – mostly for the same reasons you’ve avoided them. Not my genre.

    I read MISERY, THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON and THE GREEN MILE, and COLORADO KID. I liked them all very much.

    I love reading his short stories – I think he is probably the most uderrated short story writer alive today. I say underrated because, though he gets props when his name is brought up, his name just isn’t brought up that much.

    Reply
  8. Alex Sokoloff

    Jason is right on with THE DEAD ZONE – it will give you a taste of the scary King I love without putting you through too much trauma, and it would be a great one for you to read for your own themes, Jay Tee. A fabulous book in every way.

    What do I do when immersed in self-doubt? Keep hitting my head against the wall until something happens. It’s undoubtedly not the most productive or healthy way to go about things but you didn’t ask that – you asked what I actually DO. I just keep grimly hammering away and writing stuff that completely sucks until the dam breaks and things start flowing again.

    I do that because it always works, eventually.

    Reply
  9. Regina Harvey (Heidi)

    I suggest THE GREEN MILE,THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON and DOLORES CLAIBORNE as well. They are all very character driven and not as scary, just a touch of odd happenings. DIFFERENT SEASONS has some of his finest writing.

    Uh, self-doubt? How about every day, at every stage. My best remedy for it is to go back and read good emails and letters, anything praising me as a writer. They let me know that at least sometimes I’m not fooling myself. But maybe I should try those Brazilian drinks you described! Sounds like they’d knock self-doubt right back to where it belongs.

    Reply
  10. Louise Ure

    For me, writing a synopsis is easy. Writing FROM a synopsis is not. When I look back over that summary of the complete story, I have no desire to work on it any more. Why should I? I already know how it ends.

    So I’m perpetually mired in that “I can’t do this” rut. Not knowing enough about my characters and story to push ahead.

    I use Alex’s solution: forging ahead with shitty writing, just so I’ll have something I know how to fix. I do so love the revision stage of writing.

    Reply
  11. Pari Noskin Taichert

    I’ve only read ON WRITING — so, thank you to everyone who made suggestions. I’ve avoided King’s books because strong images stay with me for a long time. I had horrible nightmares after “Bambi.” Such a softy.

    J.T., your post is timely. I’m slogging away at book #4 and wanting to write the first book in the new series. If I’m going to get two books out a year, I can’t afford to lose time by discovering story as much as I’m accustomed.

    But, I have no idea how to take apart books in the way that you and Brian described.

    Dang! I know so little about my craft.

    Outlines feel imprisoning to me. So, I’ve got to figure out a method that will work, that will keep focus without straight-jacketing my creativity.

    Argh.

    Reply
  12. Guyot

    You know, Pari – sorry to hijack your thread, Jay-Tee – I hear so many writers talk about the imprisoning of outlines.

    But the way I freed myself up to write this current thing was by writing an outline.

    Now, over a hundred pages into it, I have severely deviated from my outline four times. Twice, I went off somewhere that made the story better, then came back to my map.

    That’s what an outline is for me – a map to show me where my story needs to go, and to make sure – without writing 200 worthless pages – that my story does in fact have a beginning, middle and end.

    The two times I’ve left my outline and not returned, again has improved my story. I even rewrote the last page of my outline based on my new direction.

    So I have actually been freed up – as opposed to imprisoned – by my outline.

    Maybe it’s the word that scres people. Outline makes one think of a scene-by-scene deconstruction.

    Mine is more or less “He goes here and does this. Then he goes somewhere and has to learn this. Then this person has to show up while he’s doing this.” And on. But I get to make up all the “here’s” and “somewhere’s” and how’s and the people that show up. None of that is in my outline. Just the skeleton of my story.

    I would say try it. If it doesn’t work, you’ve only wasted the time it took to write up 3 or 5 or 8 outline pages.

    But maybe that’s better than simply writing away, churning out 100+ pages only to realize the story doesn’t work?

    Try it. You can always rip up the pages.

    Reply
  13. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Oh, boy, Guyot . . .

    This is a helluva good argument.

    (Big Breath): I’m going to try it for both of my books this weekend.

    You’re right, it’s only a few pages each and if I can save myself the experience of book #3 (version 1 and, finally, version 2), I’ll be a much happier camper.

    Reply
  14. JT Ellison

    No highjacking felt… your advice is fantastic, as always. Sorry, I’ve been gone most of the day and am finally able to join in the discussion.

    Pari, this big assed synopsis I just did feels right. I’m filling in all the little scenes that go with it, mentally thus far, and it seems to be holding together. But that’s the beauty of it all, the simple fact that we’re making the rules. Guyot is right, this feeling of imprisonment can be liberating in that if it isn’t working, you can deviate. Deviation is the most important talent we have, really.

    Reply
  15. Elaine Flinn

    Terrific post J.T. -and great advice all around! I’m out of town until Monday and would love to offer my insipid thoughts -but I’m working off my daughters*&*^%$ computer and I hate this dumb thing she uses for a keyboard and we won’t talk about her high tech mouse thingy.

    But I don’t use ‘regular’ outlines either – just bullet plot points and go from there. The Stand was great…

    Reply
  16. Naomi

    Pari:

    With the YA novel (or MG novel–I’ll explain the terminology in a blog post in April), I have a quick turnaround–the book is due at the end of May. I’ve discovered that with the completion of the first three chapters, I have a grasp of the voice (of course) and the general rhythm of the book. From there I’ve been able to figure out the threads of the plot for each chapter and this week I’ve been madly working on every single chapter, creating scenes here and there and even writing a rough ending. I don’t know if you could do this for a mystery. Mysteries are difficult because one clue leads to an investigation, which leads to another clue, etc. So it may be a more linear process.

    But I’ve been happy to alter my writing process some. This is fun.

    Reply
  17. JT Ellison

    Sorry, got drawn away. It’s been a crazy day.

    Thank you to everyone who gave King recommendations. I find it so interesting to see the varied choices, and will compile and ultimately report back once I get some under my belt.

    Have a fantastic weekend, everyone! I’m raising a glass to massvie word counts.

    Reply
  18. MJ

    Hey I learned to write that way too. After trying with two different books that were horrendous, I took a year and spent it studying three novels obessively. Took them apart, make a million graphs, charts etc then threw all out and tried again. Not magic but better.

    And as for those nasty Brazilian drinks… oh goodness… and then there are mojitos…

    Reply
  19. Alan Hardy

    JT, as a lifelong King fan, I recommend a couple of works from different genres. The first is ‘Eye of the Dragon’, A dark fantasy he wrote for his children to read when they were young, though it is one of my faves. I also suggest you try some of the short story collections like ‘Night Shift’

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.