Stuck Here in Chapter Sixteen Again . . .

Kate Flora here, leading off our weekly discussion with a topic not exactly near and dear to our hearts, though definitely familiar: What do you do when you get stuck in a book? I find that I often get bogged down somewhere between chapter sixteen and chapter nineteen, for a variety of reasons–sometimes plot, sometimes character. Since I proposed the topic, I’ll throw out a few of the techniques I use to get unstuck.

First, since crime writing involves a lot of research, there are questions that come up along the way that I need to have answered, but I don’t want to stop the momentum. I put all of those in a “questions to be answered” file, and when I hit a bump in the road, or get snagged on a plot problem, I pull out my list and give myself a day or two off to go and ask my experts, or sit in the library, or surf the net, looking for the answers. Sometimes, that doesn’t work, and I go do something completely different, like sit in a cafe in a busy place and people watch, or go to a museum, or go hear some live music. It reminds me that life is going on outside while I’m here at the desk wrestling with words, and sometimes that breaks the jam. Often, if it feels like a plot snag where I don’t know what my poor character is going to do next, I’ll go back to the beginning of the book and just edit up to the point where I got stuck. Usually, I’ll discover that I’ve planted everything I need already, and when I get to the end of what I’ve written, I’m know where I’m going and can keep on writing.

What about the rest of you?

Vicki Doudera:  My muddle usually comes in the middle of my manuscripts. The first thing I do is remind myself to keep going, to ignore the perfectionist telling me it’s all drivel. If I find I have unanswered questions, I do something similar to Kate, except I put them at the very end of my writing. That way I look at them periodically and see if I’m answering them… if so — ZAP — they get deleted (which is very satisifying!) if not, I keep writing and looking for ways to address them.

I will often change voice if I get stuck and that always seems to work. With a new character’s POV comes new ideas and that gets the words flowing again. So far, anyway!

Kaitlyn Dunnett:  Since I don’t do much in the way of outlining, I often hit spots where I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Usually just sitting down and applying fingers to keyboard produces something. It doesn’t have to be great writing. It’s going to be revised and expanded anyway. Putting two characters on the page and letting them talk to each other often gives me the springboard I need to keep going.

When that doesn’t work, I recommend the “water cure,” so called because doing things like taking a shower or washing the dishes by hand is what triggers a solution to a plot problem. Any activity that makes it difficult to write a note to yourself about the brilliant idea you just had will work just as well.

For those really difficult times when nothing seems to be right for the story and I despair of ever writing “the end,” I have a more drastic solution: stop working on that project entirely. Certain preconditions, however, have to be in place for this to work. It takes planning, and at least one other major writing project. Because I like to allow a WIP to “rest” for a significant amount of time between revisions (at least a few weeks) and because I’m usually under contract to write two books a year, one historical and one mystery, I give myself deadlines that are several months earlier than the publishers’ deadlines. My current goal, for example, is to have the rough draft of the next Liss MacCrimmon mystery done by the end of March. It’s not officially due until September 1st. BUT the next historical is due January 1st, so if I waited until I turned in the mystery to start the historical, I’d really be rushed. Essentially, I play leapfrog with my two WIPs. I work on one project until I either have a compete draft or revision done and am ready to let the ms. rest, OR until I hit a major obstacle. Then I switch to the other project.

FYI, when I say “rough” draft, I mean really rough. As in, no one will ever read it but me. As in, not only does the writing stink, but there are plot holes big enough to sink the Titanic in, complete with iceberg! BUT, once I have a rough draft, there is something to revise. I love to revise. The hard part is stopping, because I firmly believe that a manuscript can always be better.

Barb Ross: Sigh. Why is it always the middle? Maybe that’s why I like writing short stories. If I get stuck in the middle, I can go to the end and write backwards, figuring out along the way what the reader “has to learn” in the middle to have the ending make sense.

I took an online course from Pennwriters this October to prepare for Nanowrimo (which I ended up not doing because I did a proposal and a bunch of synopses instead). Anyway, the instructor was from the romance world, and if there’s one thing romance writers know how to do, it’s keep on keepin’ on, because they frequently write three to six books a year. One of the many helpful recommendations in the course for when you got stuck was to right down 25 things that could happen, or reasons something existed or whatever. So for example, why does the hero hate the sheriff? List twenty-five possible reasons. The instructor emphasized it’s important to go all the way to 25 because it’s only toward the end of the list that you get to the truly out-of-the-box solutions. Very often the answer is found in combining elements of several items on the list. I’ve tried it a few times, and it does work.

I went to MWA University in Boston in February (excellent, btw). Jess Lourey recommending Mind Mapping for plotting. I had to laugh because I taught my kids to use it for their elementary school essays and papers twenty years ago. I think they both still occasionally use it for papers. Although both my kids write fiction, I’m not sure it’s occurred to either of them, or to me for that matter, to use it for fiction. I’m going to give it a go.

Kate: Barb, could you tell us a little more about mind mapping (for those of us whose kids didn’t do it) or direct us to a site where we could learn about this?

Barb: Here’s the Wikipedia entry There are guidelines about half way down. I think mind mapping was big in the 80s when I learned it. I’ve always practiced a pretty simple form. I follow one tree and branch of associations until I can’t go any further and then go back to the center and start again.

Lea Wait: I’m living this issue. I’ve done everything Kate mentioned … editing from the beginning, researching the little research bits I left undone. I spent last night (not evening .. I do mean night) sorting through all my early notes and plans for the book. (Kathy, you said you didn’t outline. But for those of us who do — does anyone else write MULTI outlines?) In any case, I read through the perhaps dozen versions of this book that have evolved, hoping one of them would tell me how to get from point P, where I am now, to point Q, when my heroine puts all the clues together and goes to find the killer. What happened? I realized I’d changed killers a couple of times in my early outlines, and maybe I really wanted to go back to killer number 1. I still needed my heroine to understand that … but at least I’m beginning to understand why I keep running into a wall. So today I’m checking all those little red fishes swimming through my pages, and (red fish, blue fish) making sure they’re where they should be. And I’m hoping to start writing again. Wish me luck. (And, Barb, I LOVE the idea about the 25 reasons. That’s a keeper.)

Gerry Boyle: Well, now that I’ve read all of the tips here I may have to change my ways. But I’ve learned that the best way to get myself unstuck is to do absolutely nothing. To do with writing, I mean.

I say this having learned  the hard way. Some years ago I was struggling with a Jack McMorrow novel. Every turn the plot took seemed to take it deeper into impenetrable woods, never to return. I was the lost hiker, running in circles. When I didn’t get out of the woods, my solution was to run faster. I wrote more. I wrote harder. I concentrated. I diagrammed. Finally I talked to Helen Brann, my agent, and her advice was simple. Walk away. Don’t come back to the book for a month. Don’t think about it. Don’t doodle about it. Pretend it doesn’t exist. I did that, at least the best I could. And when I sat back down at the writing desk, the solution was as plain as the nose on my face. As they say.

So that’s my advice. When you’re having trouble writing, don’t.

Jim Hayman: My advice is absolutely the opposite of Gerry’sThe only way I know to get unstuck is to write.  Whatever pops into my head.  Even if I have to put the word “Woof” down on a page a hundred or a thousand times, I just do it.  The act of writing gets the brain working. It works out in the end.

Sarah: Yeah, I write to get through stuck-itis, too. I find that going away to think about it just ends up as ‘going away.’ Then when I come back it’s just as bad as it was before, or worse. Like Jim, even writing ‘woof’ — or copying the phone book, works a little bit. And then there’s always the surefire method of ‘when you don’t know what happens next, have a guy (or girl) burst through the door firing a gun.’ I do wonder how many times you can get away with that before the reader begins to catch on, however.

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10 Responses to Stuck Here in Chapter Sixteen Again . . .

  1. John Clark says:

    I agree with Kaitlyn that the ‘water trick’ works. I’ve come up with plenty of ideas while washing dishes and staring into the back yard. Showers have provided at least two short story ideas as well as numerous library and political columns. I’m currently stuck at the end of a YA novella, so I’m going to see which of your varied suggestions dislodges the literary boulder in front of the writing truck. One other thought. There are places where inspiration lurks. When I was the head librarian in Boothbay Harbor, every time I was stuck somewhere in my first book, I’d be driving through Edgecomb and inspiration would hit. Unfortunately I now live almost 100 miles north, so that isn’t a very practical option any more.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Gee…Lea lives in Edgecomb…so Lea…have you felt yourself driving through the inspiration spot?

    I absolutely agree about the water treatment. Similarly, going for a drive in the car. The log jam likes to unblock in heavy traffic when it’s not possible to write something down. I suppose I could use the hands free operation system to call home and leave a message on the machine. There’s a thought…and then my husband is checking messages and he reads: and the reason that that gang set the fire was really that one of their girlfriends…etc. Better, I guess, than, the reason she killed her husband was…


  3. Sarah Graves says:

    Watching a movie can help. Something like one of the Indiana Jones films can remind me what really good structure looks like. Or, conversely, a movie like CONTAGION can demonstrate just how dreaded a middle can be….to be fair, they’re trying to show an ‘if this goes on’ progression. But —

  4. Lea Wait says:

    When I lived in New Jersey I was SURE being in Edgecomb would work! Alas … but, yes .. driving in a car .. alone … no radio … and focusing on the book .. ideas often pop. (I keep a tape recorder on the passenger seat for long trips.) Long baths can work. And when I’m at a mystery conference, even if the panel I’m (don’t tell anyone this) pretending to listen to has nothing to do with any of my work — suddenly I’ll get an idea for a new book, or a twist in a plot. Those notes I’m taking? Nothing to do with what that last panelist said. But creativity is in the air. (Memo to self: must attend more mystery conferences.) Sometimes a long walk alone will help. And, John? If you ever need an Edgecomb fix …. my porch is available! A little chilly in winter, though.

  5. What a wonderful array of tips! New Hampshire writer Jessie Crockett contributed that sometimes skipping ahead to a scene where you DO know what’s going to happen works. I tried that yesterday, and produced a whopping 3500 words. Today I’m back on the earlier scene and it’s just flowing like, well, water.

    For me, too, just typing always produces something. Sometimes I type, “I have no idea what’s going on.” Sometimes it’s, “Just write the f**king book!” (Have you all seen the cartoon titled The Muse I Really Need, with someone standing standing behind the writer at the desk. The one behind is aiming a gun at the back of the writer’s head and saying, “Just write the f**king book!”)

    I’m going to save this post and keep it front and center. Thanks!

  6. John Clark says:

    Well I am happy to report that between my first post and now I finished the novella, so chalk up one victory for this blog post.

  7. Lea, after I commented above, I went for a fresh-air walk. After about twenty minutes I got a brilliant plot-moving idea. Luckily it was only a one-mile loop, so I got back to my desk without too much delay!

  8. Barb Ross says:

    Yay to John and Edith for getting themselves unstuck today!

  9. Jacqueline Seewald says:

    I find it helps me think when I’m walking, either outdoors or on the treadmill. My ideas seem to come together. But I agree that research is important if a mystery or any novel for that matter is to ring true.

  10. Pat Browning says:

    I’ve been stuck at Chapter 16 for months, literally months. Life has interfered, yes, but I’ve done lots of reading and miscellaneous scribbling — anything to keep from working on the book. A DorothyL discussion on killing off characters got my mind working in a different direction. Maybe I was killing the wrong character. Could I make her temporarily disabled instead of dead? I e-mailed a Sisters in Crime member who is a longtime nurse and she gave me all the information I needed (with graphics yet!) about a disabling wound that would work for my character. I won’t have to change much, but it gives me a whole new start on that dratted book– or, as someone on DorothyL called her own book — The Book That Would Not Die. Sometimes you just need to bounce an idea or a question off of an expert you trust.

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