A while back, I was reading a biography of Kingsley Amis (what an entertainingly grumpy man he was) in which he mentions that the hardest part of writing is “getting your characters out of the pub and into the cab”.

Oh, yes, indeed. Even though I don’t write the kind of books where characters go from pubs to cabs—or vice versa—they do very inconveniently need to transition from one scene to another. Or from one side of the room to the other. The gall of them! Stupid characters.

Sex scenes are a cinch. Action ditto. Writing the tragic break up? Piece of cake. The death scene? Doddle.

But transitions? Total bugger.

Sometimes I am so stumped by my attempt to get a character to walk from one side of the street to the other—Just walk! Not even walk and chew gum! Nothing fancy!—that I give up and blow them up instead. So much easier. Or, you know, simply cut to the next bit. Thank you, film world, for inventing the jump cut.

And yet if you keep up that approach you run out of characters. Also endless jump cuts get really old really quickly.

So I spend hours writing and rewriting simple transitions: “Leandra Hotshot spied Gertrude Schadenfreude on the other side of the room. She had a red rose between her teeth and champagne flute in her hand. Leandra got out of her chair and nimbly darted towards her friend.”


“Leandra Hotshot meandered toward her red rose munching friend Gertrude Schadenfreude. Sometimes the other side of the room seemed so very far away.”

More gah!

“Leandra Hotshot spontaneously combusted, leaving both sides of the room coated in human ashes. Gertrude dusted the light grey flakes from her shoulders, wondering where all the snow had come from. She had never been very bright.”

Ah, much better! Except for the elimination of my central character. But I never liked her anyway.

Stupid transitions.

What do you lot find hardest about writing? For me it’s transitions and deadlines. That and the fact that non-paid writing (like blogging) is so much more fun than paid writing.

What? I’m supposed to be rewriting the great Australian Elvis fairy cricket monkey mangosteen knife fight novel right now? Me? I thought Maureen was taking care of that. No? Really? Huh. Well, that blows. Do you think Scalzi could do it then? Or Cory? They both write fast . . .


  1. Maureen johnson on #

    Right now you are singing the story of my life.

    Also, I *seem* to have some kind of terminal crush on the word *seem* right now. None of my characters are actually *doing* things, but they are *seeming* to do a lot of things.

    Oh dear.

  2. Justine on #

    Does this mean you’re really really not going to rewrite my book for me?

    “Seem” is your enemy. Exterminate it!

  3. Diana on #

    “maybe” is mine enemy. I shall definitely crush it.

  4. Rebecca on #

    um, right now, actually writing anything that isn’t a blog is a serious problem. school kills the creative soul. no joke. so does lego star wars, but for an entirely different reason. 😀

    but when i am actually writing:
    1)”suddenly,” “then”
    2)yeah, transitions- i always feel like i can’t leave something out b/c readers will get confused, but then i wind up describing every step it takes to get to the bathroom. or the kitchen. or the vampire lair. whatev.
    3)said said said. didn’t used to have a problem with this, but now i find i’m always writing he/she said, instead of just letting the sentence stand by itself.
    4)plot holes. oh god, the plot holes. *moan*

  5. Allen on #

    This is exactly what stuck out to me the most when I began trying to write. How much detail do I need to achieve what I’m going for? Sometimes describing a character going from A to B seems like it might engage a reader’s imagination, sometimes it seems better that they imagine it themselves (and while I don’t think the reader’s own imagination should be underestimated, it’s really hard to estimate it at all). Sometimes the story feels a bit spare jumping from place to place without accompanying a character in the intervening period, and sometimes it seems like TMI and a real pacekiller to be informed of whether a character took the bus or not.

    Every step of the way there’s a dozen different paths to get hung up on, leading to an exponential amount of different ways to write the same fundamental story. And the worst thing is people only notice these little choices when you make the wrong ones.

    LE SIGH.

  6. marrije on #

    1. getting ideas. i just don’t get good ideas for stories*. and hence i don’t sit down to write. and when i do sit down to write (as, for instance, during the annual madness of nanowrimo), i come up with plenty of ideas and things move forward quickly. though not always coherently, of course, but they do move. there is a lesson in there, probably.

    2. descriptions. i’m no good at coming up with pretty, ‘yes, that’s exactly right!’ descriptions of people or events or what have you.

    3. stamina, or what scott would call ‘get to the end!’. and rewriting the loose, incoherent, going-nowhere buggers.

    I am very good at dialogue, though, even if I say so myself 🙂

    *except last night, when i came up with a story idea about a very normal veterinarian and a unicorn. yes, especially for you, justine 🙂

  7. marrije on #

    also, ‘come up with’ is apparently mine enemy at the moment. le sigh, to quote allen.

  8. lili on #

    1. yes. the transitions. stupid crossing to the other side of the room.

    2. looking at my book with fresh eyes.

  9. Penni on #

    Transitions. Yes, yes. Transitions.

    Also sometimes, coming up with the why. Why do people do the seemingly ridiculous things they do? In real life, people do random things, they make stupid choices for apparently no reason at all. In fiction, not so much – everything needs a why. Why? Why? Why?

    And coming up with new facial and hand gestures that communicate complex internal feelings. Lip biting, hand wringing, eyebrow raising, breaking into a spontaneous tango…that sort of business.

  10. megan crewe on #

    What I find most frustrating you could call a “forest for the trees” problem. I’m pretty good at telling if this scene or that scene is working. But trying to step back and look at the whole novel and figure out if the pacing works and the tension builds and the scenes flow… Argh! It makes me feel like my brain is going to explode. Too much input. 😉

  11. carrie on #

    i’m with penni – i have a hard time coming up with new gestures for my characters. there’s an awful lot of cheek caressing in my wip.

    i’m also having a hard time having my group interact – i feel like if something happens i have have a roll call of reactions whish is lame and boring. so there’s a lot of maneuvering to get individuals away from the group so they can interact one-on-one.

    oh, and i don’t know what’s coming next in the wip. but those are just details…right?

  12. Kathryne on #

    oh, jeez. i have to slap myself on the wrist every time i write “to my surprise” about the narrator’s interactions with other people. apparently he doesn’t know his friends or relatives very well, because absolutely everything they do seems to come as a complete shock to him!

  13. Mary on #

    Transitions are definitely my nemesis. Like Allen, I have a hard time knowing how much to give. If nothing happens on the way from point A to point B, how much should I say? You can’t just have them magically appearing everywhere they go… I’ve been told conversation is a great transition, but sometimes the character is alone or there is nothing to say.

  14. Kristine on #

    Nemeses, yes. Both transitions–getting characters from A to B–and business–what they do as they’re going/when they get there. If I give a character a habit, I tend to fall back on it because it’s easy. My character who smokes does so way too much. I tell myself I will fix it in the rewrites, but I often don’t.

    I have found that much in the way of transitions/business can be cut in the first read-through because I tend to overwrite. I keep telling meyself that I don’t need to decribe it unless it’s important to the plot or defines the character in some way. But I don’t always listen to myself.

    One of these days, I will attempt a story that is all dialogue. Loves dialogue, *loves* it, the preciousss.

  15. Justine on #

    Tee hee. I did not think I was alone in my transition hatred.

    And I, too, find dialogue the easiest thing. I loves it. My first drafts are pretty much all dialogue. Maybe we should all be screenwriters or playwrights?

    Hope those of you with snow days are enjoying them.

  16. Ez on #

    Troubles I have with writing:

    1. Word length. I obsess over it, because I never have enough story to reach 100,000 words. I’ve never even reached 80,000 words. Even 70,000 seems so bloody difficult.

    In my defence, a shorter book is probably good for someone who’s just read the latest Harry Potter and their hands and fingers are red, sore and aching. Yes, I have mercy! 😉

    2. Rewriting. I can’t actually rewrite. I only edit. Reword a sentence, but never an entire scene.

    3. UnAussifying. Recently an American agent said she might be interested if I turned down the Aussie slang “but keep the young, hip voice”. Dude! Aussie slang is part of my personality, my sense of humour! If I don’t have humour, then what do I have.

    Did your agent ever tell you anything about toning down the Aussie-isms?

    Have a lovely day! 🙂

  17. Justine on #

    Ez: Did your agent ever tell you anything about toning down the Aussie-isms?

    I didn’t have an agent when I sold the MorM trilogy, but my editors saw the Aussieisms as a selling point. They did want a glossary though. Maybe you could suggest that to your agent. I’ve had a lot of US of A fans say they love the glossary. And also that it wasn’t necessary—that they could tell what the words meant from context.

    My current book also has a fair few Aussieism and my agent has no problem with them at all.

  18. Rebecca on #

    ez, i second justine. i love the slang in justine’s books. also, louise rennison’s books are full of british slang, also with a glossary at the back. slang makes stuff so much cooler and interesting.

  19. Lauren on #

    The denseness. Oh, the denseness. That’s my waterloo.

  20. Justine on #

    Lauren: Maybe I’m dense but, um, what is “denseness”?

  21. anna on #

    i’m ok with transitions across space, but hate transitioning across time! how do you write the prose equivalent of a film montage? what if your story needs to advance ahead months or even years, but the events during that time are too important to skip entirely, but not important enough to cover in the “present” of the narrative? it’s maddening, and there are so many ways to do it (ie. mess it up). the only way you can’t do it is to just play some inspirational music and show rocky getting progressively better at running and punching things, which totally works all the time in film.

    maybe we really should be screenwriters. 🙁

  22. Ben Payne on #

    I suck at keeping track of time! I cut between two scenes a lot and then realise that in one scenario, a couple of days have gone by while in conversation two they’re still at the party and aren’t even drunk yet…

    and eyes! my characters do nothing but look at one another and then not look at one another! “She looked away. She looked back. She frowned. He looked away”

    That, and I can never get my characters to say “Great snakes!” enough… I like to have them say it once in every chapter, but it’s hard to preserve the versissimilitude… especially since I abandoned my giant snake novel…

  23. Robert Legault on #

    Bag all that description. “Gertrude! What are you doing here? Why do you have a rose in your teeth?” That’s how I’d do it.

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