Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why Isn’t This Working?

Sharon Wildwind

There comes a point when a chapter sits there and stares at you. The longer you stare at it, the longer it stares back. Some people call it writer’s block, but in fact, it may be more story block.

Granted, writers attempt to keep going under horrendous circumstances that have nothing to do with their story line. There comes a point where real life overtakes narrative. Writers have to stop writing while they work with health professionals, lawyers, spiritual advisors, or whomever the heck it takes to get through the crises.

On a less horrendous scale, we know the remedy list. Get more sleep. Exercise. Decrease stress. Eat more beans, steamed vegetables, and multi-grained carbohydrates. Drink less alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.

We also know the remedy list for the story. High public stakes, high private stakes, or both. (Donald Maass) Sufficient goal, motivation, and disaster for each major character in the scene. (Debra Dixon, Sherry Lewis, and others) Characters wanting something right away, even if it’s only a glass of water. (Kirt Vonnegut)

If we’re doing all that good stuff—or as much of it as we can accomplish in a given day—and the chapter still stares back at us, what next?

Change the point of view. Yes, your story may be in first person so all of the chapters have to be in Annabelle’s point of view, but as an exercise try writing from the point of view of anyone else in the scene, even the dog, cat or canary if you’re desperate. There a good chance that another character will spot the flaws.

Re-sequence. Right now Tyrone enters the scene after Annabelle says, “I've seen to it that Tyrone will never get promoted.” What happens if he comes in before she says it? Why would she still say what she said if he’s in the room? What if he comes in the split second after she says it, and neither she nor the reader are certain if he overheard what she said? The registered letter is delivered at the end of the scene. What happens if it’s delivered at the beginning? Or half-way through?

Mash heads. If one character is observing another character, have the two of them clash instead; the more raucous and public, the better. Instead of Tyrone suffering through Annabelle’s terrible presentation, why not have him challenge her: “You’re not prepared, you have no clue how to use a laptop projector and frankly, you’re boring us to death”? One of the delicious things about writing is that characters can say and do the most outlandish things, which can be undone with a flick of the delete key.

Backtrack. For some reason I’ve never understood, I always concatenate two of Robert Frost’s poems—Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and The Road Not Taken—when I think about this technique. The only reason I can figure out for that is that one poem is about moving forward when you’d rather stay in the same place, and the other one is taking what will likely be the more difficult route to travel.

This chapter may not be working because a few chapters back, you took the wrong road. Start by reading the chapter immediately before the one you’re having trouble with. Then the one before that, and so on back for about three to five chapters. Can you find any places where you skimped, skipped, or took a turn that led you to this dead end?

The registered letter arrived three chapters ago because a letter was a quick and simple way to provide a piece of information that moved the story along. Quick and simple is your clue. No, I don’t want to bring in an IRS investigator in person to tell Annabelle that Tyrone’s company went belly-up and he’s facing a tax audit of major proportions. I can whine to my heart’s content why doing it that way will be harder and longer and unnecessary, but unless I move forward and take the road more difficult to travel, chances are I’m going to stay stuck.

Five Writing Rights. In nursing school we had drilled into us five medication rights: the right drug, to the right patient, in the right dose, by the right route, at the right time. Similar rights apply to writing. Is this chapter about the right risk, for the right characters, played out to the right degree, told from the right point of view, at the right time in the story?

Unfortunately, as in many things about writing, the questions are easier than the answers. When I'm stuck in horrendous traffic waiting through multiple stoplights, it helps if I remind myself that there are no cars at that intersection from two hours earlier. Moving on may have taken longer than usual, but eventually the cars did make it through the intersection. Rest assured the same thing will happen with your chapter. Eventually, you'll get through this story block, too.

Quote for the week:

Never be afraid to ask the next question: “Why not?”
~Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction writer
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Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great tips, Sharon! I'll give this one a Tweet..

Mystery Writing is Murder

Julia Buckley said...

You always give such excellent writing advice, Sharon!

Lonnie Cruse said...

As always, excellent writing advice, Sharon! Thanks.


Wonderful detail! I don't believe in writer's block and, as you so informatively state, being unable to move forward is usually the result of something not being quite right behind us.

mand said...

Thanx for your tweet, Elizabeth - which i found on @MotsJustes - i'm retweeting it (i tweet as @mmSeason) because i'm very glad to have found this. :0)

And thanx Sharon!

Raval911 said...

Great, creative ideas about switching things up...it's so easy to get trapped in our own heads as writers and this post definitely gets me thinking outside the box. Thanks!

Rachel Starr Thomson said...

Great advice! I especially like your thoughts about changing sequence and backtracking (as much as I groan at the thought).

At the moment I think I can fix my writer's block just by getting offline and getting to work, but I'm glad I read this :).