The Writing Rookie Season 2, #1: Floundering Around

Back by popular demand*, I now continue my blog series chronicling my adventures into the realm of creative writing. Previous posts recounted experiencies related to the writing of my first (now published) novel, No Going Back. This new “season” focuses on questions such as: What next? Is there life after publication? What’s different about attempting to write a second novel? And (for those of you who remember a certain PBS program of my youth): What about Naomi?

* For some particularly dubious values of “popular demand.”

For the complete list of columns in this series, .

They say that when you wipe out on a bicycle, the thing to do is get right back on and start riding again. At least, I think that’s what they say. Personally, it makes more sense to me to put on some bandages and let the scrapes heal first.

Be that as it may…

A couple of months after No Going Back was published last fall, I decided that I wasn’t going to try to write a novel in 2010. I’ve held to that, mostly. Instead, I’ve focused on my freelance informational writing and editing (which actually pays bills), reading and reviewing work by other people (a matter partly of paying off the karmic debt I feel I incurred by pushing my manuscript on other people for their reviews), working to promote No Going Back — which can be quite time-consuming — and generally catching up with things. More than once, I’ve congratulated myself on making a decision at once so wise (ahem) and so practical. Indeed, so nice has it been not to be writing a novel that I often doubted, during the first few months, that I should ever want to write another story. Alas, over time I started to feel that certain creative itch again…

During this past summer, I spent an hour one Friday morning in a local swimming pool celebrating the end of my younger son’s swimming lessons. (My older son hates swimming with a fiery passion, but the younger son is fortunately proving less hydrophobic.) He, of course, was off playing with his friends. Left to my own devices, I soon found myself observing my fellow swimmers, pondering their interactions, speculating about their internal motivations and mental processes, and generally thinking about them as inspiration for potential characters. That’s when I realized that pleasant fantasies aside, the habit of story writing has gotten too firm a grip on my soul to be set so easily aside.

Since then, I’ve been stumbling back toward writing, trying to figure out how and where to get started again. My hope is to reproduce the conditions, habits, and mindset that resulted in a completed novel, compared to the stalled efforts of years past. So far, the outcome is uncertain.


Story ideas, for me, often start with the notion of a particular character in a challenging situation. Ideally, there’s also some general sense of where the story is headed and how it has to end. Usually, though, it takes work to get to that point. I’ve generated countless (because I don’t particularly want to count them) ideas and possible starting points that haven’t gone anywhere — at least, not yet — because they haven’t connected with enough other story pieces, of the right shapes and types, to make a decent narrative.

Back before my older son (the non-aquatic one) left on his mission, I sat him down and made him read some of the various fantasy story beginnings and ideas I’d generated over the years. As he did so, his frustration mounted. “They all look okay, Dad! You just need to choose one and finish it!” (Or words to that effect.) And yet most of what I’ve done in the last few months consists of trying out still more starting-places.

Part of the problem is that I’m simply too aware of the universe of possibilities each new story represents. Without any effort, I can envision myriads of possible directions for any given narrative. However, one of the things I’ve learned is that charging ahead at random isn’t a good strategy for me. Instead, I need to play around and wait for that faint inner click that signals an organic rightness to the direction I’m contemplating. Proceeding without that internal confirmation leads to wasted efforts and a sense of dissatisfaction and doubt in my own writing. Since the enemy (for me) is largely my own internal doubts, that’s an experience that’s best avoided. I also have to believe (though I have no firm evidence of this) that the story ideas that feel better to me also result in better final products.


Young adult fantasy novels (which is what I’m hoping to write next, at least in part because I hold out some faint hope that they might result in a positive financial return) are pretty different from a realistic contemporary novel about a gay Mormon teenager. Still, I can’t help but hope that some of the lessons of my first novel might help give me a leg up on future efforts. Pondering on my experiences, I’ve distilled the following mix of declarative observations and imperative guidelines — tentative hypotheses about what works for me in writing fiction:

  • In trying to write a story, it’s good to know where you’re going.
  • Persistence over time can produce a novel, no matter how slow the progress seems to be.
  • If I can tell I’m writing crap, it’s best to go do something else for a while.
  • It’s important to get away from the computer from time to time to refresh my brain.
  • On a related note, writing in spiral notebooks can be a useful strategy for putting in quality writing time.
  • I’m more balanced and content when I’m writing regularly on a story, even if it’s only a little bit per day.
  • When I get stuck on one scene, I can jump ahead to work on another scene.
  • A lot can be figured out by taking the time to think about my characters and their situations in depth.
  • When the writing’s going well, it’s best to run with it. Even if it’s in the middle of the night.
  • When all else fails, (a) take a walk, (b) wash some dishes, (c) play with your kids, (d) grumble in your journal, (e) read a good story (by someone else), and/or (f) all of the above.

How all this applies in my current circumstances is a bit of a mystery. At present, I’m surrounded by fragmentary story ideas: characters, voices, setting. So far, nothing has jelled properly. Or maybe it’s just that I haven’t persisted to the point where one of my ideas starts throwing out roots and branches to become a real story.

In short, I’m floundering around. What I have to keep reminding myself is that I need to flounder. Floundering at least means I’m in the water (so to speak). Horrid and uncomfortable though it feels, to cease doing so means giving up — because all stories, based on my experience to date, lie on the other side of prolonged and profound discomfort. Floundering can ultimately lead to other things, if I gird up my loins (pull on my bathing suit?) and flounder in earnest. At least, that’s my hope.

9 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie Season 2, #1: Floundering Around”

  1. If I wait for things to jell, I run in to problems. Obviously there has to be some ideas floating around, but I’m finding I need to take stories to the brief outline phase as quickly as possible otherwise nothing happens.

    But that’s just me.

  2. What I find is that I have to keep prodding — the “play around” part I mentioned. It’s an *active* playing around with story elements, shoving them around in my mind like jigsaw pieces to try to (a) find more pieces, and (b) discover ways they might fit together.

  3. Jonathan,

    I just recently read your season 1, so am looking forward to season 2. Thanks! Oh and what do they say, BIC HOK? (Butt in chair, hands on keyboard). What those fingers type on the keyboard is a matter of discretion.

  4. Certainly there is a balance to be found between forcing yourself to write even if it’s crap and taking a break to allow your muse to sneak up on you. For me, I plow into the “crap” for at least another 30 minutes, and it usually produces some kernels of usable material, much better than nothing. But things do dry up quickly without doing, seeing, and carrying on with normal life. Balance can be much more difficult than caving to extremes.

  5. Everything is crap to begin with. Why walk away from crap? Think of it as fertilizer.

  6. My son is a very pleasant young man — but yes, his behavior can get a bit “rabid” when the topic of swimming is introduced.

  7. When I stray in the writing process, I can get back on track if I have fully formed characters in my mind, know the end of the story, and have a time line to take me there. It’s good to skip ahead when you get stuck on a scene. I often leave notes to myself in the manuscript so I know what’s supposed to happen at that point. Sometimes filling in around it makes more obvious what’s action is needed in the scene that’s troubling me. Besides that, I find that when I struggle with a scene it’s because I don’t know something that needs to be in it, so I spend a little time in research, clip my fingernails, and get my head into the characters’ milieu. That helps spark my creativity and gets me back into the zone. It’s okay to leave a little crap in the manuscript because, to mix a metaphor, the purpose of revision is to comb out the tangles.

    By the way, I have a great cartoon on my bulletin board that shows a big brick dropping out of the ceiling on a writer’s head. The caption reads, “An experienced author, Gigi DeVault was no stranger to writer’s block. This, however, was her first encounter with the more disruptive cinder block.” It gives new meaning to the phrase “keep your chin up.”

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