“I’ve got this great idea for a book!” (or What to Do When You Write Yourself into a Corner)   Leave a comment

Once again, I have one of these posts for which I have to wear both my writing and editing hats part of the time, so I am cross posting it in both blogs.

The number two thing writers don’t want to hear when someone finds out they are actual published authors is probably “I’ve got this great idea for a book!” (The number one thing is probably “Where you get your ideas?”) Not because it isn’t great that you’ve got an idea for a book, but because it’s not the writer’s idea, it’s your idea. Rather than hear all about it, we generally think you should go home and write it yourself.

For a lot of writers, that’s harder than it sounds. Even those of us who have studied writing, who do characterization in our sleep and have settings coming out of our ears and at least one publication under our belts, still occasionally write something and get part way through it and just get stuck. I’ve had several people ask me, over the last couple of years, how to get something “unstuck,” or what things are the usual culprits when I’ve been stuck in a manuscript myself. I started thinking about it and keeping mental notes, and while there is no cure-all, no one magic answer that is true all of the time, I’ve noticed that there really are certain recurring problems that tend to cause “stuckness” on a reasonably regular basis.

Wrong point of view. This is the problem about 85% of the time. Usually, all other things being equal (i.e. there’s nobody who’s point of view I have to avoid for a story reason), I almost always want to write from the point of view of the character experiencing the most change or the most significant emotional reaction. If I’m stuck and I don’t know why, or if I finish a scene or chapter and it just feels flat to me, this is my number one culprit. I will always start here and try to figure out if there’s a better point of view. As a matter of fact, I usually save what I’ve already written under an alternate file name and go back and try to write it from the point of view I think might be better, because sometimes I can’t puzzle it out without actually giving it a go.

Wrong choice. One of my characters has made a choice somewhere in the scene, and it’s the wrong choice. For me, this is very often a turning point in the dialogue, but it can occur in narration, too. I start out by looking for a serious or negative choice and considering whether the character should have made a funny or positive choice. If I don’t find anything that looks like that, sometimes I’ve actually made the scene too light and it needs to be darker. (Not usually my particular vice, but it does happen from time to time.) This is the part where I have to do the painful thing, once again saving the version I’ve got under an alternate name and deleting everything back to that point of choice. I have the character make the other choice, and play the scene forward from there, which generally gets things moving again.

Wrong focus character. Despite my point of view character being correct, the problem scene may focus on the wrong character. This one is a little harder to pin down, but if I’m writing a scene from Juanita’s point of view, but the scene feels like it’s about David, that doesn’t always serve the story. If I really need that scene to be about Juanita, I need to go back and change her thoughts, feelings, etc. so that the scene becomes about her.

Not showing the action. There are lots of ways to do this. For me, the usual culprit is writing a scene that lays the groundwork for the action, rather than writing the scene that actually shows the action. As a spin on this, it’s also possible to write a scene remembering the action, or a scene that takes your point of view character away from the action, rather than into it. Believe it or not, this applies even if what you’re writing is not an “action” scene. If the action in the scene is an argument between two people over whether or not it’s appropriate to drape the blue jeans over the back of a chair to dry, that’s still the action for that particular scene, even if it would never pass as action on a movie screen. The point is that you need to show where things are happening–keep the “camera” on that, and don’t give in to the temptation to go elsewhere either in space or in timing.

Compound problems. It’s possible to have more than one of these problems at the same time. I only hit this one recently, when I resolved the point of view issue with a particular scene and was still stuck. So if fixing problem A doesn’t do the trick, start looking around to see if there is a problem B.

Nothing is happening. Finally, sometimes the problem is not actually internal to the scene–sometimes, we get stuck in a story because we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere in the plot. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that’s only resolved by better pre-writing, or by taking a step back and deciding that you have a lack of action or need another subplot even though you’re already into the story. And pre-writing and outlining, I’m afraid, are an entirely different post. *g*

I don’t know if these situations apply to everybody, and if you’ve had other experiences or have other suggestions, I’d love to hear them. But I do know that I’ve had people complain to me that their seen is stuck, and ask what I do, and then come back to me afterwards and say “You know, you were right, it was a point of view problem” or “I did what you suggested, even though I really didn’t want to make that change, and all of a sudden everything worked again.” So hopefully it will help at least some, and maybe most, of us crazy people who write. :-)

cross-posted at The Editor’s Pen

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Posted October 3, 2011 by April L'Orange in Uncategorized

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