I have an encyclopedia, not a story: what to do?
April 23, 2014 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Authors Of AskMe, has this happened to you? During my self-imposed creative hiatus over the last year or so I conducted a lot of research into what would be my dream project. A project I could be passionate about, the kind of book I'd really want to exist. So I made a list of every thing, character, concept, idea, sudden kind of twist I'd like. I have three notebooks of this stuff. I cross-indexed it and included all my references. I have an astounding about of detail on what I want to put in and touch on but no actual story. I keep staring at it, like it's a list of SCP entries, and I can't think of a damn thing for anyone to do with these collected items, places, motifs, themes, and people. It's frustrating cause I can come up with quick pulp narratives on the fly for stuff I'm not working as hard on but every attempt to break and outline a rising action for these people results in rapid breathing and complete brain fume-lock. I keep asking "What does the main character want?" and coming up with nothing. Is this common? Is there a resource for this? Can I pay someone to go through these ideas and find something that other people might want to read?

Also I'm trying to avoid talking to my friends and fellows about this cause I've been talking about it for the past three years as I gather stuff and now that I can't GET GOING on it I feel like the biggest fraud ever cause talking a big game and producing nothing is the worst crime on Earth and clearly I should just die.

Yes I know it's irrational but that doesn't stop me.
posted by The Whelk to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Can you write a scene that happens in this world, to these characters (even a "quick pulp narrative")? Can you write another one? Can you figure out how those two scenes are connected? I think you need to just get started. Maybe resolve to write 500 words a day (or whatever is reasonable) on this idea. No notes, no research, just sentences and paragraphs on a page. Maybe it's about what the main character had for breakfast or some other dumb prompt. It doesn't matter.

It kind of sounds like you've built this project up so much in the abstract that you are afraid the actual writing won't be good enough or important enough to live up to the work you've done. And hey, maybe it won't. Probably the first few hundred pages you write are going to be shitty. All the more reason to get them out of the way! Start writing that shit down!
posted by mskyle at 11:15 AM on April 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

If I were in your shoes, I think I would write a first-person fictional narrative in which the narrator is a researcher who has been handed your three notebooks and tasked with making sense out of them. Not sure if I would make him an alien who found the books, or a member of another culture that found them in an archaeological dig, or something like that. But I would go at that massive cross-indexed beast you've got from the outside in.
posted by jbickers at 11:16 AM on April 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

I kinda know how you feel.
In my case, I opened a deviantart account and started posting short bits of fiction and digital comics. Life gets in the way to work on it often, but I have everything "on hand" to put up a little bit of prose or a 12+ panel comic when the mood strikes me. :)
posted by luckynerd at 11:18 AM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have this same thing, and I've seen it in others. I think that part of your problem is that you want to tell an idea, and it's a big idea, and you want to do it justice, but it's too big an idea and you fear you won't do it justice.

In screenwriting terms, you need somebody to break story with and/or for you. (Shameless plug: you can pay somebody to do this work. I'm available, have done this before for filmmakers and storytellers, and would be happy to talk about it. Memail me.)
posted by gauche at 11:19 AM on April 23, 2014

A) Everyone is a fraud. Carry on.
B) I, too, am susceptible to the research hole. I try to remind myself that research is not writing, and that since research is a THING it feels way better than writing which is a hot freaking mess before it's been edited.
C) Have you tried throwing out your outline and just writing? Writing gives you raw material that you can edit.
D) I'd give yourself permission to go with the iceberg technique...put your notebooks aside and let all of that detail, color, and richness live below the surface and inform your characters' actions, not dominate your narrative.

Best of luck to you...I very much identify.
posted by mynameisluka at 11:19 AM on April 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Start making a list of what your main character doesn't want and see where that takes you. What wouldn't they do? What wouldn't they aim for? Why?
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:24 AM on April 23, 2014

All tolkien had to do is slap some hero's journey on his encyclopedia and he had the hobbit

so yeah
posted by Oktober at 11:25 AM on April 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

Just steal a story you like and change it up some. This technique has yielded the majority of the best and most successful stories in Western fiction.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:27 AM on April 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

It's stupid, but whenever I am stuck on starting a project, I found that I can work backwards.

If it's a paper I have to write, I write the last paragraph first, then the one before that, And so on. I have to do some editing, but, yeah, starting at the end works for me more often than not.

So, maybe start with an outcome. How did that happen ? Like, say you have a field called McCoy's field, scene of a huge battle. Over what ? WHo was McCoy ? How did he get there ? Once you have that, take the next step back and work backwards.

Hope that helps. Also, don't die. I like you.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:36 AM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ask yourself: what would perfectly ruin your main character's life?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:39 AM on April 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Now is the time to step back, take a deep breath, and let the story come to you.

You're a little baby bull, and you're banging your head against the wall. Calm down and stop trying to force it. Everything that's needed is in place. Take a break from it all for a few weeks, go on long walks, eat mushrooms in the woods, drink more caffeine than usual, drink less, do those weird batman exercises where he hangs upside down and lets all that bat-ass blood go into his head, change your routine in large and small ways so that you feel like a slight stranger in your own life, and then one day you'll find yourself in a new place and you'll look up and the story is there.

Cross-referencing will help you once the story arrives, but no amount of cross-referencing or research or advance preparation can make a story if it doesn't want to happen. You've done your job -- now let it assemble itself in the dark; let it have some space; let it have some silence; let it come to you.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 11:47 AM on April 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

The stakes are too high.

You have to rediscover what you like about writing and about these ideas, get away from the thoughts that you "should" or "have to" do anything and find again a sense of possibility and wonder.

Put the notebooks away for a while.

Write short scenes at the margins of your world, with secondary or tertiary characters or new ones you dream up.

Write long, Anathem-like descriptions of pieces of your world. Write haiku instead.

And: ultimately the book will, or should, take you where it will, not where you want it to. Prepare yourself to not use all or any of your ideas along the way.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:49 AM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Write a story set in this world that pleases yourself. Something sexy or emotionally fulfilling. Just for fun. Don't look into your notes while you do that!

See if that jump starts you.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:58 AM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's often the case that the more you know about something, the harder it is to summarize it, or to accept simple metaphors for it. And, it's hard to leave scraps, really great scraps, on the cutting room floor.

I'd say pick a theme: fathers and sons, rich and poor, God and man, whatever. Arrange your players so there is tension on the theme line. Then tell any damn story you want.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:04 PM on April 23, 2014

I like writing bad stories (or, in my case, plays) in order to get the narrative flowing.

Write the worst plot you can think of and really keep chugging along with it. Use the characters and settings you've developed, but in support of a godawful story. Go ahead! Amuse yourself with the worst thing you can think of.

Okay, got that? Now you have your characters and settings in action. You can feel free to put them into a GOOD story.
posted by xingcat at 12:04 PM on April 23, 2014

You need relationships and feelings! Study soap operas, they're distilled plot crack: it's exclusively about people, all the characters ever talk about are relationships and feelings.

Try writing a basic triangle: someone loves someone else, but a third person stands in the way. Why? Tradition? Jealousy? Hate? Lies? Set this in your world, see where it takes you.

Have a look at Robert McKee's Story, it's about screenwriting, but the basics apply to any form of storytelling.

The story doesn't have to be new, the pleasure in hearing a story is all about how it's told. Try setting some of these in your world:

Seven Basic Plots

36 Dramatic Situations
posted by Tom-B at 12:12 PM on April 23, 2014

How about someone to talk this out with? Like gauche mentioned -- maybe a pro, but maybe also a writing partner or a supportive local writing group. You say you've talked this to death with friends, but a fresh set of ears and brains could offer some suggestions or at least ask some provocative questions.
posted by pantarei70 at 12:13 PM on April 23, 2014

Just in terms of plot, if your main character doesn't currently want anything, either take away the thing he/she loves most and see how he/she responds, or figure out how he/she got to this admirable place of having everything he/she needs. Maybe the story is in the character's past.
posted by unsub at 12:38 PM on April 23, 2014

A contrarian possibility: What if, even just temporarily, your end result isn't traditional?

Some further reading, just in case the idea's interesting:

The Rise of the Fragmented Novel.

An anthology of fakes.

David Shields, "Collage is Not a Refuge for the Compositionally Disabled."
posted by gnomeloaf at 12:42 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not an author, so this question isn't quite directed at me, but I'm an editor who has about ten years of experience working exclusively in genre fiction.

Is this common? This is super common. Super, super common. And the good news is that you're already missing the biggest pitfall, which is when authors mistake "awesome world and cool thematic elements" for "awesome story".

Can I pay someone to go through these ideas and find something that other people might want to read? Sure. I've been hired to do this before, and many other freelance editors would, I think, do the same. (Or, at least, I know several who have.) It might help you to have someone say "OK, this part right here, you can do an interesting thing with that." I suspect, though, that your problem is at least partly that you have this huge, sprawling world, and everyone and everything has a history and meaning and a backstory, and that matters to you.

It might help if you recontextualise this as not a book, but a potential series. What happens in your head if you pick one tiny aspect of the world and work to develop a story around that? So instead of the character's whole heroic journey and etc, you have the character's relationship to the blind almost-humans who live in the mines that produce the whatever that powers the city, or the way that the development of FTL travel affects the crew of an outdated spaceship, or whatever.

Stop trying to write Game of Thrones, and write Arya and the Hound on an ass-kicking road trip of near misses and murder, is what I'm saying here. After you figure out the one little bit, maybe you'll realise that you also want to tell about Jaime and Brienne having their own road trip, and also that in order to tell those stories, you have to tell the story of the people getting in their way. Or maybe you'll find that Arya and the Hound is enough all on its own--it's totally a show that I'd watch, anyhow.

This plot outline--hell, this book--doesn't have to be all the things. If nothing else, focusing on one or two of the things will make it easier to get started.
posted by MeghanC at 12:52 PM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Write stories about the characters that you never intend to use in the finished product.

Start with a sentence like this (choose which of your existing characters it will be about): Blankety Blank was surprised to find herself squatting behind a dumpster in the freezing cold, sniffing out the fragrant notes of her urine like a sommelier and testing how close she could get to the steam, for warmth, without further injuring her swollen ankle. But here she is, and she's drunk. And she's delighted, because at the beginning of the night, she thought she was going to be ####...

It's fine. You're not going to use it, so do it for each of your characters, same sentence.
posted by vitabellosi at 1:13 PM on April 23, 2014

I'm looking at something similar -- lots of content, but no effing STORY. ('What you have,' said a close friend, 'isn't a novel. It's a history book.' Yikes.) So I stepped back and relaxed for a while.

One thing I soon realized is that while I may not have A Story, I have lots and lots of stories, including some pretty good ones. One approach may be to ID the best of them and work them up as standalones, with some overlap. That worked for Michener, from South Pacific on. And I'm also hoping an overall arch will arise from them, rather than spring full-blown from my forehead.

I also think what-your-character-wants is important. But in real life, a lot of people don't know what they want -- until their experiences help them figure it out. My guy, in fact, just wants to get along -- sleep warm, eat well, maybe catch a nuzzle now and then. But he finds his path disrupted by life, and his wants change.

Sorry I can't be of more help. But I feel your pain.
posted by LonnieK at 1:15 PM on April 23, 2014

Give each character a set of 5 post-its in one colour, give each location a post-it in another. Find a blank wall, draw three different characters and one location at random and post them on the wall. Look at them. What are those characters doing in that place - what are they saying to each other? Is this situation implausible given their rich back story? If so why? What could make is possible?

Rearrange your clusters until you hit an interesting combination. Start throwing other post-its into the mix, make clusters in different areas and work out how the state change from one cluster to another could have occurred. Improvise until themes emerge. If a plot begins to appear catch just the bones of it using only simple sentences and vocab: She went there, she did this, he reacted this way, they decided that...

See what happens when you stir your world up.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:57 PM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Play the game Microscope with some friends. In it, you do worldbuilding on the fly. It's named "Microscope" because you have to continually narrow and expand your focus. Within twenty minutes, you will go from large scale worlds to focusing on relationships within those worlds.

Since that narrowing of vision seems to be exactly your problem, it might be a useful exercise.
posted by tofu_crouton at 2:05 PM on April 23, 2014

like it's a list of SCP entries

Have you considered actually writing these ideas as a series of SCP entries? If SCP comes to mind when you think of these ideas, maybe that's the right forum/subgenre for them.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:10 PM on April 23, 2014

Kill your darlings. If you like your characters too much, you'll never get anywhere. You can't feel attached to them. Be ruthless! Wreck their fictional lives utterly! Destroy their happiness! Give them everything and rip it all away in the next breath. Then write them out of it when all seems utterly lost.
posted by quincunx at 2:15 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

items, places, motifs, themes, and people...

You have a world.

Your world is a set of systems.

Those systems will all have weak points--some glaring, some subtle.

There exists some simple, surprising, but inevitable event that will expose and exploit all those weak points. There will follow, through a simple, surprising, but inevitable chain of events, the undoing of your world and the remaking of all its systems.

This is your overarching story in macrocosm. The chapters, episodes, subplots, and character arcs will be that story in microcosm--retold, distorted, and explored.
posted by Iridic at 2:29 PM on April 23, 2014

IIRC, JK Rowling has said that she wrote twenty versions of the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book and if you had read all twenty versions, you would basically know the entire plot for the entire series (or something like that). So it sounds to me like you are off to a fine start.

I will suggest you take a break from it. When my oldest son was something like ten years old, he was visibly frustrated with a computer game. I told him to walk away, his subconscious would continue working on it in the background. So, instead of fuming and raging some more, he walked away. He beat the mission the next day.

Take some time off. Let it gestate. Or simmer, if you prefer. Come back to it after a break. Then try to start on that first (of possibly many) first draft of that first chapter.
posted by Michele in California at 3:10 PM on April 23, 2014

I keep asking "What does the main character want?" and coming up with nothing. Is this common? Is there a resource for this? Can I pay someone to go through these ideas and find something that other people might want to read?

You can pay someone to do this with you, but honestly, I've never seen that work out all that well. Something I've seen work *better* is to try to throw together *some* kind of outline and take it to your writers' group. A couple friends and I were our own little writers' group for a while and we did stuff like this from time to time, if one of us was having trouble starting a project, and it was immensely helpful. We were doing TV specs and pilots, too, so lots and lots and lots of background material to choose from -- which was another reason why sussing things out with a couple other people not nearly as mired in background detail as you are is helpful, it helps cut out the needlessly specific background and lets you concentrate more on the story's structure/bones.

You do need to give them a super basic outline as a jumping off point, but otherwise, you can just meet for coffee and they can look over it and brainstorm out loud with you. When I've done this, the ideas run pretty hot for about an hour, and then it's time to move on -- but by the end of that hour, you'll probably have a pretty good outline and a lot more direction/inspiration. I've done the same kind of process *pretty* well with just one other person, too, but with just two people it feels more like you're somehow partners on the story and it can get awkwardly territorial pretty fast, and isn't as dynamic.

In terms of just getting that basic outline down -- I usually use five-act structure because it's so much easier to plot out the whole story that way. I also tend to go character-by-character and then weave all the beats together instead of trying to do it all at once. To try and figure out what each character's story should be, I usually just try to come up with what that character fears most. Then their story will be about having that happen. (I usually find it a lot easier to make a character run away from whatever they fear the most than to run toward whatever they want the most -- those are usually two sides to the same coin anyway, so it's basically same difference).

To make it easier to tie the characters' stories together, I also try to come up with some kind of central hook, or at least a motif. For example, for a Gossip Girl spec that I did a million years ago, I based it all on Tableaux Vivants. For me, things usually go best if I start with an image that really speaks to me and spin things out from there, but that's also because I'm a pretty visual person (and I write only really soapy and action-heavy things, natch).

Anyway, so obviously you have your own ways of working and doing these things, but just to give a quick and dirty rundown, if I were you, I would:
1. Think of a hook or image that captures your imagination.
2. Write up 5-act outlines for each of your main characters. If it would be helpful to you to see the literal "worksheets" I made for myself to do this, just memail me. Basically, though, how I break down the acts are: 1. Problem 2. Easy Solution! (Fails) 3. Shit Really Hits the Fan!!1! 4. (Real) Plan to Make Things Better 5. Things Made Better! (Or not!).
3. Copy/Paste the beats from the character outlines into a single document, which will be your "outline."
4. Have coffee with a couple of your writer friends/writing group, and shoot the shit together for about an hour.
5. Inspiration! (Until next time).

Oh, and if you're having trouble at any point during the outlining process, you might want to try writing those mini/character outlines as a treatment. It really helps you find holes and it's also a lot easier to run off in interesting directions when you're just noting everything in prose like that anyway.

And of course you're not a fake and this stuff is really difficult and nobody is going to think that anything's wrong with you because you're finding a really difficult thing relatively difficult!
posted by rue72 at 3:20 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have had that problem, and what usually solves it is flipping through my list of ideas-to-write, finding one that's a conflict with no setting, and putting it in. The confluence of two separate ideas usually does it.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:05 PM on April 23, 2014

I've only ever deleted my partially written novels, but I wonder if you're struggling against the genre your research fits into? If everything point towards a spooky story and that's not the tale you really want to tell, I can see where you'd have a problem getting a story started. How about outline the story you really want to tell, then see how it fits in to your setting?
posted by ob1quixote at 5:50 PM on April 23, 2014

Sometimes you can get too hung up on the story, the big thing that you want to do but don't have worked out yet. Instead maybe tell a story using the same research. Tell a story off to the side, about someone you don't think of as the main character. Maybe it's just a warm-up, maybe it become a short story, or maybe it turns into the main feature.
posted by zompist at 5:56 PM on April 23, 2014

What if you gave up the idea of A Traditional Novel, where you have main char, his/her/its POV, and A and B and C happens, you know, Traditionally, and instead made your own shared world type thing? You know, the Thieves World, Wild Cards, etc, where there are half dozen stories all in the same world/universe, with continuity. You don't have to share out the writing duties, but making short-ish stories about the whelk, and the researcher and the Thing and that Event and that mystery and that guy who just lives in this world could be a great springboard to A, get something down, and B, lets you play in the world you love without so much pressure and drive to make The Novel. :)

If you wanted, you could connect these short stories up into a over-arching plot, but I think the most important thing now is to play in this world, with putting Story on paper :) Good luck!

(I also like reading drafts and stuff.)
posted by Jacen at 7:29 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is some good advice I heard from mumbleOrson Scott Card on what to do when you have a world and no character or plot.

Ask who has freedom of mobility? and who gets hurt?

The first point regards picking people who have both choices and constraints -- it'd be easy to be back to drawing a blank if you're looking at people with unlimited options or people with none. And the second is about who, despite having some freedom of mobility, is ill-served by the status quo.

Then decide you're going to write something just to warm up that you're going to throw out anyway and silence your damn critic and pick something -- anything -- speed is the key here, pretend you're doing live improv -- and write it. What does your main character want? He wants to get back his mother's stolen cremains. She wants to see her boss go down in disgrace. He wants a bigger apartment. She wants corrective orthodontics. It doesn't matter.

Or write down a dozen of the pulp narratives you find easy, and then squint at them until you can fit them somehow into your world.

Whatever you pick, there'll be a voice telling you it's the stupidest idea ever. That voice is not the friend of you or your art. Tell it you know, but you're just going to write about it for an hour anyway.
posted by Zed at 10:18 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

The big-sheet-of-paper-story-diagramming-technique: for this, you may want an oversized piece of paper, whiteboard, or post-its, probably in landscape orientation.

On the left hand side, start out with a setting/character/artifact - this gets one descriptive/action seed sentence. Below the sentence, maybe some filler, daydreaming, backstory, etc subsentences.

"What happens next?" Off of the seed sentence or a subsentence, the next bit. Draw a curve 4 inches (10 cm) to the right, to a new seed sentence - something the character does or something that happens to the artifact/setting. More subsentences. Rinse, repeat.


* In a hole lived a hobbit --------> * Dwarfs show up ------> "A wizard sent us." --> * Adventure!
↳ Hole is cozy.
↳ Natural history of filthy hobbitsess.
↳ They collect shiny things, like rings.
↳ They store cheese for the winter, which attracts vermin such as dwarfs.

(free floating rings node)
* Ring
↳ Source of all evil in world? (Silly, might work.)


* We're sending a ship to Jupiter.
↳ Ship has crew.
↳ Ship has computer -----> * Computer has sealed orders -> * Computer has to lie to crew -> *Goes nuts, kills them.

(free floating seed sentence)
* There's an alien artifact on jupiter
↳Has motivations? ---> * Here to punk uplift humanity.

Try this diagramming technique. I think this helps nail down plot-like-substance instead of just more worldbuilding.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:41 PM on April 24, 2014

Take a look at Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's much more a collection of information (tales, rituals, descriptive information) than a narrative.

I wonder if using that approach as a way in would at least let you move forward. Once you start just writing the plotless encyclopedia, you might find that a narrative presents itself. If not, though - stories are great, but not everything has to be a story. (Alternately, several hundred miniscule stories can also be great. They don't have to be one story.)
posted by kristi at 9:04 AM on April 25, 2014

Yes, this is super common. So common that they write books and run workshops about it.

You might benefit from reading Wrede on Writing (I have linked to the "plot" tag, but you might also check out "process" and "starting" and...basically everything else).
posted by anaelith at 5:20 AM on April 26, 2014

Response by poster: First a big bolded thank you to everyone who answered, I'd have to mark the entire thread as Best Answer - this is so, so helpful and I don't feel nearly as lost or hapless as I did.

A big part of the problem is that I love this world so much I feel like I have to get it perfect and writing it just turned into this grim obligation that I wasn't having any fun with. I'd do th write-short side stories thing and hate them have it felt like dicking around. When I was writing unrelated pulply stuff, I'd find a really good line or twist or action I wanted to happen and build to that, punchline first, then setup. I'm trying to do that more with The Project but I have a fundamental confusion as to what kind ofbook it is: is it a series? Is it a same-setting group of stories? Is it whacking big doorstop?

So, because of that I've begun to look into developmental editors to help break the story because I feel way to close to it , even now, to see it right. (I'm 90% sure all my other friends are tired of hearing me talk about it for ...two years. ) Almost too on the nose to be true, but I'll be using the money from pulp stories and short humor pieces to pay for this.

Extra thanks again!
posted by The Whelk at 12:47 PM on May 6, 2014

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