What I Do When I Don't Know What To Do

I have a problem with focusing. I'm not going to lie. I jump from project to project and back again. It's just the way I do things.

I have two main projects going on at the moment. I refer to them after their main characters: Pearl, and Ivy. I also have Generation Lawless, which is something I fall back on when I'm stuck with either of the other two. And as of today, I have Syrup.

Which leads me to the title of the post. Syrup came up as something to do because I didn't know what to do. Why? Well, I have a rough draft of Ivy I wrote by hand that needs to be put on my laptop before I move on, and I'm on the second draft of Pearl so I need my laptop with me to work from that. But I did not have my laptop at the time so neither of those were options.

So I did what I do when I don't know what to do. I came up with a new idea.

This doesn't always happen due to being sans laptop. Sometimes it's cos I've gotten stuck with a scene, or I've hit a plot hole and I'm berating myself for my stupid, or maybe I've become disillusioned with a character or a way of writing cos I've been staring at the same chapter for weeks on end. This happens with Pearl, for example, because she speaks in a lot of slang, and I have to make a really conscious effort to keep my writing authentic to her voice.

Sometimes, I just need to do something a little less labour intensive.

So this is how I do it.

I open (or draw, if I'm not near a computer) a "plot grid" template. It's basically just a table with four columns: Chapter, Synopsis, Sub-plot / Things to remember, Word Count, that's split into twenty rows and divided into five parts: Introduction, Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Denouement. I split it into parts so that I can have a slightly different focus for each part and make sure the plot progresses and shifts rather than just plodding in a linear fashion.

So I get my grid and I think of ways to fill it in.

What's great about doing this is the complete freedom. I have no limitations, no preconceptions, no fear and no commitment. It doesn't matter if I only fill out the introduction box then give up because I'm really only filling my procrastination time.

And what's even more useful, is it helps me turn off my inner tweaker. Every time I read something or watch something, I get inspired. Which makes me make hasty decisions with my projects that I think are going to turn them into brilliant books but which in reality turns them into big piles of steaming confusion. Many a project of mine has ground to a halt this way.

Instead, what I do now, is make one of these plot-grids. Sometimes it's straight after a film, sometimes after the first page of a book. I just can't help reinventing what I consume (thought this mainly involves taking something that isn't set in space and sticking it in space...like turning dragons into robot octopuses or Nazis into aliens). It's fun but it's also important. Because instead of reading something and saying "Oh God my book is awful, why can't it be more like the master piece I'm reading?" I get to go "This is what I would do if I had the chance, but I don't have time to devote to this idea, so I'll just write it down and come back to it later." It takes the emotion out.

Then every once in a while, I hit on something I really like. Pearl was one of those. She was just an exercise in plotting and was where my plot grid came from in the first place. I wrote a first draft for her, put it away then came back six months later and realised I had something I could work with.

Today, I've struck something else that I'm willing to explore. I'm reading Divergent by Veronica Roth and it depicts a load of characters who I think are really far from the types I write. They're violent and selfish and arrogant and they take stupid risks with their lives. I'm such a cautious person that so many of my characters get bits of my own reticence seeping into them. So I started thinking of my own world where such selfish, dare-devil characters could live. Add to this the fact we have an ant infestation in my house at the moment, and a recent documentary that's been lingering in my mind about the Holocaust, and there I am, with a filled out plot grid that's the skeleton of a complete novel. Plus, I have a handful of characters to populate it.

Will I ever write it? Who knows. I've tried a preliminary first chapter which I like today, but may hate tomorrow.

The point is today hasn't been a wasted writing day. I've honed my skills. I've thought creatively. I've worked on character development, dialogue, action, rising tension. I've practised grammar and spelling.

And it's all helped my main projects as well, because I haven't been tempted to mess with them. Granted, it would be easier if I could focus, but in the meantime I think it's a pretty effective use of those dead spaces.