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Don’t Sit Down in the Middle of the Woods

By Bruce Cinnamon

Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. If I’m reading an article called “Top Ten Writing Tips” or “Margaret Atwood’s Advice for Writers,” it usually means that I sat down to write, encountered some difficulty, and then fled into the waiting arms of Facebook or Twitter, which promise me an endless smorgasbord of other people’s words while I avoid the hard work of writing my own. That’s what I was doing when I encountered this quote, number nine on Margaret Atwood’s top ten rules for writing fiction. Unlike the thousands of other pieces of writing advice I’ve read and ignored, this one spoke to me.

Writing a story often feels like wandering through the forest, trying to find the right path. Anything can happen. There are more than a million words to choose from as your next step in the road. Nobody tells you what to write, and the limitless possibility can be daunting. In writing, just like in life, I have difficulty making choices. How do I abandon a beloved pet character? How do I decide what happens next? So sometimes, when I’m feeling playful, when I have the energy, I make all the choices. I write them all, or at least imagine as many as I can, and see which one I like best. See what happens once I’ve written the story that glowed with golden potential in my mind (on the page it was terrible) and then tried writing a half-dozen alternate stories. Draft upon draft. Changes great and minuscule.

I’ve been working on a longer project for a couple years, and over that time my vision for the story has changed a lot. But there are things that remain constant, and those are the crucial elements of the story. Those are the things that probably won’t change, even if everything else does. When I put a draft aside and come back to it six months later and hate almost everything, those are the things I still love.

I’m not Margaret Atwood, and I’m not in a position to give advice that anyone should listen to. But to anyone interested in writing, this is my most crucial advice: write as many drafts as possible. Save all of them. Change a sentence. Change a single word. Change a comma. Change the setting. Remove a character. Consolidate two characters. Introduce a strange new plot line. Make your characters do something ridiculous. Send them to the moon. Send them to the bottom of the ocean. See how they react.

It’s only when you’ve run them through a dozen unlikely scenarios that you’ll really know what’s real and what’s just you thinking you’re clever, what’s crucial and what’s contingent. It’s only when you’ve seen a dozen things that you hate that you’ll start to know what you love about your story, and what it’s really about.

There’s another quote that has stuck with me lately. A poem by Alice Major, from her 2015 collection Standard Candles. I’m a big fan of parallel universes and alternate histories, and this poem makes me think of all these drafts, all these versions of a story, lining up like parallel universes. Being written and rewritten a thousand times until you find the right one. “A froth of iridescent, sapphire-tinted worlds, a multiverse of diamond and black hole. Through its branching histories, our doppelgängers live out all hypotheses. And in the circus of the infinite, somewhere there’s a system where everything turns out alright. It could be this one.”

About Bruce:

Bruce Cinnamon is an Edmonton-based writer whose creative work has appeared in Alberta Views, Glass Buffalo, and Work of Arts. His favourite authors are Haruki Murakami, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino. When he’s not writing, Bruce can be found crawling through mud pits in obstacle course races, figuring out what day it is in the French Revolutionary Calendar, and being a tourist in his home town.

Challenge 5: Change it up.

Find something you’ve written that’s more than six months old and change something significant, such as radically shifting the setting, removing the main character, or changing the story, then rewrite it (or a section of it if it is too long). Play with the story, the characters, and the setting that you created. Have fun with them. How do you feel about the changes? Does seeing your story in a different context give you a new way of looking at it? What about your characters? Your setting?

Try this again, but change something else, something smaller. Maybe someone says something different at a crucial moment and maybe that causes your story to go down a completely different path. Even the smallest changes can have a great effect on your work, but right now you’re just playing with the tools you already created so don’t be afraid if it takes you to a dead end or into a plot hole. That’s part of writing and that’s part of learning.

Let us know what you thought of the blog and challenge in the comments below and on our Facebook page!

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