Steaks—Er, I Mean, Stakes—and Ice Cream

I was rereading The Accidental Hero by Matt Myklusch not so long ago. It’s really good—hence why I was rereading it. I noticed that I’ve been picking up on foreshadowing and things that I obviously didn’t get the first time around. One thing in particular I’ve been noticing, though, are the stakes.

Not that stakes don’t get noticed the first time around, of course. Their purpose is sort of to be noticed. Anyway, fairly early on in the book, the reader finds out that if X happens (or doesn’t happen), it results in Y. (Pretend that makes sense, because I’d hate to give away spoilers.) We can easily deduce that Y is a bad thing and we don’t want it to happen.

Then, a little further on, we realize that Y is actually the stakes. If our hero doesn’t succeed, Y is going to happen and that would be disastrous.

Of course, it all makes things a little more exciting. By this point, I’m invested in the protagonist and I don’t want Y to happen to him. Actually, even if I wasn’t invested, I still wouldn’t want it to happen, because who likes to see anything bad happen to anyone?

But that isn’t all of it it. Some of this is subtle, and so maybe I’m only consciously noticing it since I know how the book ends, but I see that there are occasionally little things that happen that not only remind us what the stakes are, but also bring us a little closer to it.

Example. Say our protagonist wants dessert. In order to get dessert, however, he has to eat his vegetables. The stakes? If he doesn’t eat his veggies fast enough, his sister is going to eat the rest of the dessert without sharing. Sisters are mean like that.

So as he’s eating his veggies, his sister is inching closer to the, say, tub of ice cream. But she isn’t just nagging and saying, “I get the ice-cream if you don’t hurry up!”

No, instead, she’s getting the chocolate syrup out, and searching through the drawer for that ice cream scoop. It’s actually showing instead of telling. Her actions are showing the protagonist (and also the reader) that not only does he have a time limit, but the clock didn’t conveniently freeze—it’s ticking down. She finds the ice cream scoop in the drawer—success! She sticks her tongue out at the protagonist and starts to scoop it out of the tub. The ice cream is frozen rock solid and in her attempt to get some, the scoop slips out of her hand. (Hey, whoever said scooping ice cream is easy? It takes skill!)

The protagonist realizes this is his chance and he shovels three bites of veggies in his mouth at once. (Apparently, he wasn’t taught to thoroughly chew and swallow his food before taking another bite.). The sister picks the scoop up again and gets her ice-cream out and plops it into her bowl. Ha! Now for the chocolate syrup.

But the protagonist still has a few bites of veggies left. Is he going to make it?

Who knows?

Anyway, now imagine if all we had was the ticking clock, and the sister wasn’t actually doing anything. There’s a timer, and the protagonist can easily see his seconds sliding away, while there’s still a heaping mound—an entire mountain, even—of green veggies on his plate.  That could still have the same effect. It’s still tense and we still wonder if he’ll finish in time. We may even be making faces and wondering what kind of veggie it is. Maybe it’s that frozen stir-fry stiff with the squeaky, rubbery green beans and the slimy mushrooms. Yuck.

However, there’s a difference. Seeing the clock tick is all great. But if the sister starts pulling out her chocolate syrup and sprinkles, we know not only that the ticking is happening, but the stakes are real. There’s no easy way out of this.

So go eat your vegetables in a timely manner. And if you’re lucky, maybe I’ll share my ice cream.

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“Giving Up?” My Writer’s Curse….

Giving up and starting over. That is my biggest curse as a writer. I’ve started, oh, about six books. On one, I got almost to the climax, realized just how much I disliked my protagonist, and gave up. Another, I got about half way through it, got a little bored, and pushed it to the back-burner. I’ll finish it later—I know I will; I can’t give up on it yet (we hope)—but I won’t be doing anything with it for a few months, at least. If I’m accurately looking at my future, the soonest I’ll be able to work on it again is maybe December or January.

Another of my novels I wrote for NaNoWriMo. It was absolutely horrible. I won’t go into the details, but it wasn’t very good. Not even good enough to try to revise. In fact, the only good thing about it was that I got all the way to the end. I wrote THE END on it. (Though not literally. I never put that at the end of books.)

But that’s three books. The other three…. Two of them are actually the same book. I wrote it and finished it, realized it needed so much improvement that I needed to rewrite it from the beginning. (And I did so, again and again and again, never finishing before I started over again, for two years, with the only thing staying the same between each draft being the main character.) Eventually I did actually finish another draft that I’m really happy with it. I consider it a separate book because absolutely nothing about the two is the same. Not even, anymore, the protagonist.

And the last book of the six? That’s the one I’m working on right now. And guess what? I am seriously considering starting over again.

See, I’ve noticed a pattern with my novels. The only time I can ever really write the story is when the characters push me to do it. The one that I rewrote over and over for eternity—the reason I never gave up on that one was because I absolutely loved the main character, as well as a few other characters who snuck up on me. For my NaNoWriMo novel, I did like the main characters, though not as much as I could have. But it was enough to get to the end.

With my newest one, the one I’m attempting to write for Camp NaNoWriMo, I can’t get into a single character’s head. Not even my protagonist/narrator. Every time I try, he ends up sounding far too much like one of my other dear characters. But he adopts the other character’s bad traits, not the good ones. In other words, he’s entirely too much alike to her, but not in a good way. I’m not sure I like him at all. My villain isn’t being very villain-y, either. He’s got plenty of villainous traits, but…something’s missing, and I’m not sure what or why. My two lesser main characters have a backstory that’s currently driving the story, but that I know nothing about. They seemed to have interesting personalities when they were first introduced to the story, but then they lost it somewhere.

And perhaps it’s because I never wear my glasses, like I’m supposed to, but I can’t seem to find where they dropped it anywhere.

So here’s where the problem lies. I’m sure, at this rate, I’m going to end up giving up on this novel the way I did for my novel I wrote for Camp NaNo in April. That one had a similar pattern as this. I wrote a lot in the beginning. I have about 8k, when my goal would put me at about 5-6k. Last time, I think I was almost as much ahead as well. Then I got lazy and didn’t write as much…. and started to fall behind.

I panicked and tried to write, and of course, nothing came out. I barely got to my word-count each day, and it was horrible writing each time. Absolutely awful. And then I discovered that I really, really disliked the main character. Some of the others were okay, but the main protagonist was…boring. So I ended up giving up on that novel a week before April ended. I didn’t even write the climax, though I got right up to it.

So how can I avoid this? I see two options. A) Give up now instead of trying to force myself through it. B) Start over and change things, maybe even plan ahead more, so that I don’t run into some of these same problems.

And yet…. I dread starting over. I have spent the last two years, starting over again and again, because each time I wrote something, it wasn’t good enough. So I got rid of it, and started at the beginning again, without any of my previous notes. Started over completely from scratch. And whereas I can say that from doing that, I explored (and fell in love with) my world, plot, and characters more than I probably could have other ways, I do not want to go through that again.

I’m honestly not sure what I should do now. I keep wondering, too, why it’s only that one story that I can keep going back to, and never tire of. Even after two years of it nonstop. What’s different about it? Why can’t I find whatever it is that makes me like it so much, and find that same thing in another book? Why am I so attached to that one, and not another?

So here I am, rambling pointlessly. I realize I can be quite good at rambling when I want to be.