This is my cat. Her name is Arya. Like her Westerosi namesake, she is small but fierce. At least, she’s definitely mastered the “Stick ‘em with the pointy end” thing.
I joke—she’s a sweet cat. Her fierceness mostly comes out when she’s playing with her toys. The other day, while I was jerking her favorite feather-on-a-stick around the room, I realized two things.
Thing A: she has two distinct modes of play.
The first I call the hunt. This is when she’s playing coy, watching the toy from around a corner, pretending not to be interested. She doesn’t move much during the hunt, but as much as she tries to pretend otherwise, she is definitely watching. Plotting. Just waiting for the opening so she can pounce.
Her second mode of play is the chase. Once she’s pounced, the jig is up. The feather knows she’s trying to catch it—at least, I imagine that’s her thought process, though it’s probably something more like mrrooow mew mew HISS meow. Anyway, once she starts for the toy, she’s committed. She will fly around the room like a Blue Angel with their ass on fire, her last shred of feline dignity a distant memory.
The chase is the fun part.
Which leads me to Thing B:
My cat has a better attention span than I do.
I get very bored with the hunt. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cute when she pokes her head around a corner or does that pre-pounce butt wiggle thing, but, hey, look. It’s not too much fun trying to engage someone who is deliberately trying to seem as uninterested as possible. Cats are especially skilled at this.
The nagging boredom I felt during that hunt phase—the way my hand instinctively reached for my phone—that felt uncomfortably familiar.
It’s the same feeling I often get when I’m outlining a story.
Or the one I get from lining up those narrative dominoes that I don’t get to knock down until the climax. I have never in my life been a setting-up-dominoes kind of person. I’m a knocking-them-down person. I like this about myself. It keeps things interesting.
But—ready for the kicker?—you can’t knock down the dominoes if there aren’t any there in the first place.
I know. PLOT TWIST.
Seriously, though, I’ve noticed this in every story I’ve written. Usually when I set out to turn an idea into a story, there are a handful of Cool Moments already in my head—maybe four or five of them. I could outline these and call it a day, but there would be a lot of weird logical leaps and gaping plot holes in them. I never want to sit down and connect the dots, because it feels like work. But if I don’t do it in an outline, it’s going to take me five times as long to do it in a draft, and I’m going to spend a ton of time writing weird detours that are going to get cut.
Aha! you say, but I’m not an outliner! I am a pantser/gardener/whatever the kids are calling it these days.
Okay, cool. I personally outline because I’ve tried a number of techniques and learned that I always regret it if I don’t do at least some kind of outline—but if everyone was the same kind of writer, books would be boring. That’s not a world I want to live in!
You have your writing style, I have mine, everybody’s happy! Right?
Yeeeeeeeeeeeeah, sorry, this still applies to you.
It doesn’t have to be outlining. The mental work that I do during outlining is just work that you’ve chosen to do entirely in the draft. You still have to find out how you get from A to B—or even “Where the heck do I go from A?” if you haven’t figured out B yet.
This is where “writer’s block” comes from.
It’s the time when you can’t lunge after the proverbial feather—or shouldn’t, because it wouldn’t get you there. You have to sit back and watch how it’s moving. Sniff out some clues. Where is it going next? What’s your plan of attack?
In other words, you’re stuck, and you have to do some hard thinking about how to get yourself unstuck.
The answer is to step back and decide: should you be in hunt mode, or chase mode?
If you’re like me, the chase is more fun. That’s when the words are coming fast, you’re excited about what you’re writing, and you feel like you’re really in tune with your characters and world.
For me, this is usually when some kind of setup finally pays off—even just minor setup, say, within a single scene or chapter. I’m always most productive at the climactic point of a story, once everything has gained enough momentum to carry through to the end.
But the hunt is equally important. There’s an old scriptwriting adage from Billy Wilder that goes: “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.” If you don’t get your dominoes in a row, it’s going to be hard to knock them down. The 60-80% stretch of a story is usually hardest for me, and I suspect this is why. That’s the point when it’s most critical to nail the setup.
And it stresses me out! It’s difficult.
But you know what?
Arya reminded me of something important: hunt or chase, at the end of the day, she’s still playing. There are plenty of points where it’s easy to get distracted. There may be times where it’s not obvious to look at that she’s having fun. There are times where your writing may not be fun. It’s work, and at times it feels like it. But, in the end, you’re doing it because you love it.
At least, you’d better be, because it’s a tough way to make money.