I participated in my first escape room experience and had so much fun not escaping. That’s right; my team lost. The six of us tripped around a tiny room, gathering clues and trying to convince each other we had the solution to the puzzle. We sifted through a bunch of nonsense theories to come up with the right one, form a plan, and execute it. Now I’m going to risk it and make a correlation that, I hope, will not doom me to the loony bin. Here it is: Sorting out these puzzles in an escape room is just like novel-writing to me, only I’m not brainstorming with five other individuals. I’m brainstorming with a bunch of differing opinions in my own head.
Will the character break here or does he need more pushing to come to the realization he’s got to change his thinking?
A third part of me thinks it’s time for him to break. A third thinks he’s not ready yet, and there is the final third that’s just not sure. That sounds like I only have three parties in disagreement, but there are really far more than even six opinions in the crowded room of my mind. For as many paths as there are that a story can take, there is a distinct and vocal campaigner in my head. And here’s what’s going to reserve my straightjacket at The Cracked Nut, A Haven for the Blissfully Barmy: I love this about writing! It thrills me when I have all of these directions presented to me because the possibilities are endless and ever-changing. I also hate this about writing! I’m not innately a ‘P’ on the Jung-inspired Myers-Briggs personality spectrum. I’m decidedly a Judging, closure-craving writer with a great need for open possibility and experimentation. So, I don’t want to be left in the crowded room of my mind, piecing the same puzzles over and over.
When our time was up, we left the escape room still hashing out our mistakes. First, we admitted we didn’t always know what the point was–as in, the object of the game or the goal of the individual puzzles. Second, we should have asked for clues. Third, we decided a different strategy would have sped up our progress considerably and kept us from getting distracted by details. In talking this out, I realized that these are things I deal with as a writer. These issues keep me from escaping—from finishing my book.
1. Know the Point
On entering the room that would be our home for an hour, our escape guide rattled off a bunch of guidelines and asked, “Do you have any questions?”
No one responded except to look at one another.
“Okay, then…” He backed out of the room.
“Wait!” I said. “What is the point of this? What are we trying to do here?”
He gave me a small, enigmatic grin. I thought he was going to say a line from Princess Bride. ‘You’re trying to trick me into giving something away. It won’t work.’ What he said was, “You’ll figure out what you’re looking for as you go.”
“No, I mean, what is the overall goal here? There’s this criminal who is going to be set free if we don’t find… what?”
He gave me another one of his ‘you can’t fool me’ smiles.
“Are we looking for evidence that will keep the criminal in jail?”
“Yeah, you have to find the evidence.” He said it like I was supposed to know this. “But there will be a number of puzzles before you get to that.” The other players in the room nodded or said, “Oh, okay.” And this amazed me. Had no one in the room known what we were doing? Would anyone else have asked? Did it matter to anyone but me that we didn’t know the point of the story we were following to escape? I guess not.
Some writers begin a story without any focus or object. The goal manifests itself as they go. For me that’s like watching Lady in the Water. That movie was so frustrating I cried out, “He’s making this up as he goes along, isn’t he!” That being said, I’m not sold on knowing the concrete ending to my story, either. I tend to want to hold the ending inside, feel it and let it create the impetus to write it all out. I used to avoid writing out that ending scene beforehand. While I still think it’s important to be flexible about the last scene’s details, I have learned that I need to write the ending first in order to keep that initial image intact, or I’ll lose the principle, the point of the work.
2. Keep the Clues Coming
Our escape room guide told us, “If you want a clue, just look at the camera and say, ‘Kevin, can we have a clue?’”
He left the room, and we adults did what most adults do: we tried to work out the puzzles without asking for help. I found out later we should have been asking for clues all along. We knew we were behind when they appeared on the screen without prompting.
Writers need clues to stay on track, too. Our clues are the pre-written chapter titles that organize our scenes, or that skeletal plot outline, or the one-phrase reminders on the index cards of our storyboards. Too many times I’ve been bogged down in a scene, only to realize all that info I’m trying to stuff into it really fits a future situation. If I’d just backed away and looked at the outline, I would’ve seen it and stopped pounding that material into the wrong setting, the wrong moment. I know now that writing down my vision for each plot point is so valuable. They’re the clues that help me keep on task and pare down the extraneous material.
3. Dismiss the Details
Speaking of extraneous material, I learned something else about my writing technique when the escape room guide opened the door to let us losers out. We were given two boards to write on at the beginning of the challenge. One was completely discarded at some point; the other was in my hands the entire time. Kevin looked at my board and said, “Wow. I’ve never seen so many notes before.” I’d written down every single detail I thought would be helpful and grouped them into lists. In some ways I think my notes became more intriguing to me than the game itself. By the time our hour was up, I had solutions to clues to a puzzle we hadn’t made it to yet. Sure we would have saved a lot of time, if we’d had any time left to save, but my notes were useless.
Writers have a hard time with this, too. Sometimes, I’m inundated with story ideas, details, and descriptions that want to be put on paper, making it difficult to work on one thing at a time. Add to that the hours of compiled research, and I have this scattered mess of pages and files that don’t seem to fit anywhere. Like my terrifically notes-heavy board, I’ve let the details overwhelm me instead of allowing them to fill in the gaps in the background of my story.
4. Approach it with a Solid Strategy
Realm told me later, “We should have divided up into smaller teams and tackled the puzzles in tandem.”
“Yeah, kind of like leapfrog,” I added. “One team tackles the current puzzle while the second team gathers clues for the next. Each team could begin working the next puzzle in line after their first puzzle is solved.”
“But the guide told all of us to work on the current puzzle.”
“The guide was wrong.”
“We have to go back,” I told him. “We have to test this new theory!”
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with how to approach my story. I’m not talking about the narrative, rather, the approach I use to get the first draft down on paper. In the past there have been two stages for me when working on that first draft: marinating and transcribing. In the marinating stage I hole up in the bookstore or library and start jotting down the bits and pieces that will make my plot feasible. It’s the time when, while driving the kids to class, my daughter says, “Mom, you look really weird, talking to yourself and making faces like that.”
“I’m marinating,” I tell her, because that’s really what’s happening. My story isn’t marinating. I am. While I’m attaching all of these tiny threads of thought, linking together to form the woven picture, the story is attaching itself to me, soaking into my sleeping and waking moments until it’s ready to be told in its entirety.
And then I type. I type like a student in the manic last hours after procrastinating on a term paper. I’m trying to keep up with my characters as they play out the entire story in my head. If I don’t, the story begins to fade and disintegrate. I know; it’s happened. I’m left with patches and frayed swathes of story material with no home at all. So sad. So, I need blocks of time in the transcribing stage. But I don’t have blocks of time. I’ve had to experiment with my strategy in the last few years because my kids don’t take naps anymore, and they don’t need to go to bed earlier. They do need more one-on-one time to understand their assignments, as well as a chauffeur, a mentor, a therapist, a cook, and a personal trainer and nutritionist. You know, a mom.
So, in all the shuffling and scurrying of these adolescent years, I haven’t found the strategy that works all the time. Like Realm’s escape room strategy, I’d like to try writing in tandem, but it’s just me here with my thoughts and my little fingers clacking away. I hope, at some point, to complete this story… and the next… and the next… and then I guess I’ll be a pro at escaping.
Have any suggestions for me, fellow writers?