On Writing: When A Story Clicks

Photograph of wild bird-of-paradise blossoms.

While perseverance matters, breaks are important too. Yesterday we went to Manuel Antonio Park and spent a fabulous day, culminating with coming home and going walking in wonderful, warm rain for a delicious dinner. You can give yourself the day off - just make sure you do something that nourishes you in some way and that you don't make every day a break day,

One of the things I stress to students is that you cannot wait for the muse. And, in fact, the more you wait for her, the less likely she is to arrive.

For example. The last few days I’ve been working at getting back into the flow of writing daily. I held myself accountable and post daily word counts here or on Twitter. And lemme tell you, some of those words were difficult to wrestle out of my skull and onto the page. One way I can tell things are going in difficult fits and spurts is that I’ll hop around a lot from story to story.

One of those projects is “Prairiedog Town” (which is definitely getting a different title). I started jotting down mental notes for it while traveling through Kansas, but only had a thousand words or so on it before last week. It was slow writing, partially because I wasn’t sure how I was getting from one point to another in the story. I knew it was a piece about a woman reclaiming her humanity and I had a good idea of what the penultimate scene would look like.

So I kept jotting words down in sporadic clumps of a few hundred at a time, yerking the story along in an awkward and impatient way. It helped when I incorporated a prompt from Sandra M. Odell, a woman finding an abandoned teddy bear by the road. But it still was slow slogging. Yesterday I took a break from it.

And then, this morning, while working on it, things began to fall into place. A secondary character had popped up, and I understood how to bring her back into the story — and why. A piece that was supposed to take three days suddenly shortened into a single night, and with that, the ultimate scene came clear. I went through, pulling the threads into place as close to a thousand words came spilling out and into the story.

It’s not done yet — maybe another thousand words to go, but I’ve got a map of it, and comments where I need to go back and insert things. Here, for example, is what a section of today’s work looks like:

They end up chatting. Talia asks after father. Relates that he’s died. Talia asks if she’s going to the funeral.

It’s what you’d say either way, isn’t it.
That’s true
I’ll be there. On the outskirts.

She freezes again. It’s an old code word they used to use, back in the days when they worked together. It’s someplace close but (some distance) to the (direction).

And most importantly at all, things have come together to a point where I’m excited about the story, feel that some clever stuff has been worked in or has had places made for it. It’ll end up being around 4-5 thousand words, and I know I’ll finish it by the end of this month, because it’s designated as the next story to go out in the Patreon campaign.

And if I hadn’t done that picking away at it — scraping those words out of my skull, even though it felt painful and awkward and uninspired — I would have never gotten to that point at all.

Enjoy this writing advice and want more content like it? Check out the classes Cat gives via the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which offers both on-demand and live online writing classes for fantasy and science fiction writers from Cat and other authors, including Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, Fran Wilde and other talents! All classes include three free slots.

Prefer to opt for weekly interaction, advice, opportunities to ask questions, and access to the Chez Rambo Discord community and critique group? Check out Cat’s Patreon. Or sample her writing here.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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