Like Riding A Bike

Like Riding A Bike

I don’t remember learning to ride a bike, but I do remember teaching my kids to ride. Training wheels, skinned knees, and running behind a bike for so long I worried about having a heart attack and leaving my kids orphans before they ever successfully balanced on two wheels. My husband and I talked about momentum and pedaling speed and proper grip on the handlebars. We strapped on helmets and knees pads. Heck, we even folded ourselves on those tiny bikes and showed ‘em how it was done.

Funny thing about teaching someone to ride a bike. You can tell them till you’re blue in the face; you can demonstrate, you can even piggy-back them so they get a feel for it, but in the end, success comes from consistent practice. Riding a bike is one of those things you can’t do, until, well, you do. One second, you’re wobbling and falling, and the next, you’ve got it. Your brain and your body suddenly click and you’re a bike rider. A little more practice, and you’re moving into advanced skills: jumping curbs, popping wheelies, no hands!

I’ve recently had a similar experience with my writing. Our very own, awesome Sandra K. Moore has given several workshops and written several writing articles/blogs centered around the idea that the best way to keep from getting bogged down in the middle of your story is know where your story ends. (She has excellent advice both on Writing to the Dark Moment and Plotting Backward.) Whenever she talks about these ideas, I think to myself, “Wow. That sounds great.” But honestly, it’s always fallen into the same category as solar panels and meal prepping. Great ideas, for you know, other people. Organized people. Conscientious people. Energetic people.

But not me.

During our latest challenge period, my goal was a publish-ready draft of my WIP. See, I started out thinking I had this one nailed. I’d already finished this book; all I lacked was running it through critique group. Easy peasy. Except, it became immediately apparent that my story had about six major plot and characterization issues, so rather than the slam dunk I’d anticipated, I ended up changing my goal to completing a second draft where I fixed these major issues.

About halfway through the process, we had a series of WoC blogs that touched on the idea that a draft should be fast, the writing down and dirty; the pages created don’t have to be pretty or even grammatically correct. Get the bones of the story down without sweating the small stuff.

This was a radical idea for me. I identify as a “clean writer,” and the notion of intentionally moving on from a messy scene or a chapter baffled me, but as the latest deadline bore down on me, I began to adopt this out-of-the-box line of thinking. In fact, I managed to excel at the down and dirty theory. My WIP is now one of ugliest manuscripts I’ve even seen. Multiple font faces, inconsistent paragraph spacing, highlighted passages, bold text, all cap reminders, brackets, parentheses. Heck, I’ve even got one chapter that got whittled down to five paragraphs!

But I did it. Beginning to end, I culled through the entire manuscript, deleting entire scenes, writing new ones, rearranging my time line, and even introducing a new character. When I was about fifty pages from the end, I got seriously frustrated with this new process. All I could see was the mess I was creating, but since I had a deadline looming over my head, I powered through.

And you know what? When I got to the end, I realized that yes, I most certainly had a mess on my hands, but I also now had all the information I needed to polish that mess into a publishable story!

As a writer, the things I know and the things I put into practice often fail to overlap. One such thing: the fact that characters must grow and transform significantly between Page One and The End. All the stuff that happens in the middle of your story should be the events and experiences that transform your character into a person who can and will handle the Dark Moment you’re barreling towards. But how can you write those scenes, how can you show your character developing, if you don’t know where that character is heading?

You see, up until now, my process was to drag my characters to a vague and undefined ending. I was constantly asking myself, “what happens next?” when I should have been asking, “what lesson do they need to learn next?”

Well, now that I know what challenges are facing my characters in their dark moment, I have a better grasp on how they need to get there. For example, in my heroine’s Dark Moment, she’s going to endure – and be the only survivor of – a life and death showdown, and in the process, she’s going to do something she’s certain the hero will not be able to forgive. To be certain, the woman she is on Page One doesn’t have what it takes to survive what I’m planning on throwing at her. So, as I go through my third, and hopefully final, draft, I have a list of changes she must undergo to survive her Dark Moment.

So, back to my bicycle analogy. For the past umpteen years, I’ve been struggling to learn to ride my writing bike. I’ve had minor, hard-fought successes, but more often than not, I’ve ended up falling off and getting boo-boos. But now, I’ve done it; I’ve banged out an ugly, messy draft and figured out where the story goes and how my heroine needs to transform.

Just like with riding a bike – one minute you can’t and the next you can, and once you can, you can forever – I’m hoping that since I’ve succeeded once at drafting my way to the Dark Moment and thereby creating a map of sorts to guide me through the Dreaded Middle, this is now a skill I own, now and forever.

I won’t know for sure till I tackle my next project, but this latest insight has given me hope for my writing future. I can now see a day when I can start and finish a book in a reasonable amount of time; a day where I can forecast my output and begin have an actual writing career.

Advanced skills, for sure.

Dawn Temple

Back when her twin sons were young enough for daily naps, Dawn Temple took advantage of those quiet moments to pursue her dream of becoming a published romance writer. Sneaking in an hour here and there paid off in 2005 when she sold her first book, To Have And To Hold, to Silhouette Special Edition. She managed to secret away enough time to write and sell the second book in her Land’s Cross series, Moonlight And Mistletoe, but alas, her boys outgrew naps and Dawn let go of those stolen moments with her laptop to enjoy life with her two little guys and her big guy, hubby of 21 years.
But now, as an officially retired stay-at-home mom, Dawn has once again found the time and the creative drive to return to writing, and this time around, she’s set her sights on independent publishing. Her first self-published book, Peace of Heart, is scheduled for release in 2017.

4 thoughts on “Like Riding A Bike

  1. Golly jeepers, Dawn. You and I are so similar in this regard it’s downright scary. I get the concept of an ugly first draft, but then the idea of turning something like that into crit group is daunting – at least for me.

    And then I THINK I’m plotting towards a dark moment, but in fact that dark moment is really quite vague. Not quite as bad as, “Shit happens”, but not too far from that.

    In my current WIP it boils down to a battle between the forces of good and evil and Chatora’s Wall comes down. I kinda sorta have an idea how all my characters get to the place where all this vagueness happens, but sheez – is that enough to keep my folks on track? Is it enough to ensure they have the character growth needed for a compelling read?

    We’ll see.

    Meanwhile, how wonderful it will be (someday when I grown up as a writer) to plan my stories with a bit more authority. I’m just hopeful that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

    1. I came up with a visual analogy after posting this blog. Writing a first draft is like working your way through an uphill corn maze. When you get to the top, i.e. The End, you turn around and see there was a way less convulted path you could have taken.

      Then, I realized that taking that convulted path gave me the time to get to better know these “people” whose story I was telling. I think what flows naturally in the first couple of chapters and the last couple of chapters will become my guide going forward. All that “shit happens” time in the middle is not wasted, but I will no longer become married to any idea/event/turn of phrase that turns up in those pages. It’s my initial burst of who they are and my later burst of who they become that I need to learn to trust in and honor.

  2. First off, let’s take a moment to say a huge “Congratulations, Dawn!” for meeting your October Write or Consequences goal! That wasn’t an easy goal you made for yourself, but you powered through, and that’s fantastic!

    So about your blog post: Back in the day when I taught with Writers in the Schools, I was astonished to discover that fear of the first draft coming up in third graders.

    Third graders, people.

    They refused to write down a word they couldn’t spell correctly. I finally had them call out words they couldn’t spell and wrote those on the blackboard for them because they got completely stuck in this crazy perfectionism from the start. (If I were still teaching with WITS, I would probably make them work through a shortened version of the draft process during that one-hour period I had with them: crappy first draft, revise for clarifying the idea, and THEN bother about spelling and grammar.)

    Dan J. Fiore wrote in Writers Digest a couple of years ago:

    …your first draft is all about story. It’s about discovering the details, characters, scenes and arc of your narrative. Everything else can wait until the second draft.

    Granted, I find that advice very hard to follow, too, but the Flowstate tool has put the kibosh on my perfectionism and has allowed me, ironically, more freedom in just getting story words (not perfect words, but story words) on the page. Go figure.

    1. Third grade perfectionism blows me away. Although, if I could go back and check in with my third grade self, I’d probably find a lot of that fear inside her too!

      I’m working up the courage to try something like Flowstate as I get the bones of Mike’s story down. For me, writing longhand has a bit of the same “just get it down ASAP before the idea flees” effect, but then I have to double my time investment because those pages have to be typed.

      Also: I have to add a kudos to Terri, who reminded me that I did get Darcy’s story done start to finish in less than a year, so maybe I am making progress of this whole getting my process figured out so I can write as a career.

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