You all know that I'm a big fan of the fabulous Julie Cohen. Well, Tanya bought Julie Cohen's first book, so you know she's one smart cookie! And the advice she offers today is awesome (and exactly what I needed to hear...)
Stuck In The Middle With You
Or, Help! I Don't Know What To Do Next!
Hi, everyone! Thanks so much to The Writing Playground for having me here today. For those who don't know me, my name is Tanya Saari and I'm a freelance fiction editor. I thought I'd talk a bit today about what to do when your novel's wheels of progress grind to a halt.
There are any number of reasons why you're stuck. You know your story better than anyone else, so with a little thinking and detective work, you should be able to figure out what the problem is. Today, I'm going to talk about three major areas where you might have problems, and offer a few suggestions for solutions.
Problem One – Plot
So things are moving along fine and dandy in your story when you hit a brick wall. You have no idea what's supposed to happen to your characters next. For the plotter, this shouldn't be as large of a problem. I'd presume you've planned most (if not all) of your story beforehand, and at this point you should be able to look at your outline (or whatever notes you have) and see that Jim and Sue are currently at point X and need to get to point Y. Here you would ask yourself: what needs to happen to either Jim or Sue (or both) to get them to that next point? (As a friend of mine would say, Throw in penguins! With machine guns! but I am loath to recommend that as a legitimate solution.) And that action to move Jim and Sue forward should ideally be in line with your story arc and character growth. Essentially, you know your destination – you just need to get your characters there.
For the pantster, or the person who doesn't plot things out beforehand, this problem is a little bit trickier. You don't have your series of dots to connect – heck, you might not even know exactly how the story's going to turn out at all! – so your best friend in this situation is the question WHY? Ask yourself: Jim and Sue got to point B. Why are they there? Why did Jim and Sue make the decisions they did to this point? Why are they behaving the way they are? Why do they need to keep moving on? Brainstorming here can help. If you know the resolution of your story, you will have a basic idea of what your characters need to do to reach that conclusion. It's a matter of working backwards to reach your goal. If you don't know what's going to happen at the end, brainstorming can also help by giving you ideas for new directions, new paths to take. You never know when one idea can spark a whole new plot point!
Problem Two -- Characterization
Another reason why your story might be stalled could be due to characterization. Are your hero and heroine behaving the way you'd imagined? Are they fleshed out deeply enough, well-layered in motivation and personality? Is the problem of moving from point W to point X because Sue simply wouldn't do something like that? Perhaps you need to tweak Sue's character (which would mean going back through your manuscript to make all of her character modifications through the earlier pages as well – don't forget!) or you need to figure out a different way for Sue to get to point X, a way that remains true to who she is. Readers will have trouble believing the actions of a heroine (or hero, too!) if she behaves in a way that conflicts with the way you originally outlined her. Don't try to force your characters to do or say things that wouldn't match with who they are. If you need to rethink your characterization to make your book even stronger, then I say go for it! (I know, this could mean having to do a lot more work, but the end result is better, isn't that the most important thing?)
Another question to ask yourself is: are the characters' growth arcs solid? Jim and Sue have to change in some way by the end of the novel, right? Otherwise, what's the point? So if you think characterization is what's causing problems for you, investigate their character arcs. Have Jim and Sue learned their lessons (so to speak!) already? Or are they still too unchanged for where they should be at this point? Their behaviour should reflect where they are in their growth. Perhaps you need to tweak either the story arc or their growth arc – or maybe even both – to tighten up the story and get it back on track.
Problem Three – Conflict
Have Jim and Sue resolved all of their differences halfway through the book? That's certainly one way to stall your writing. Remember that for every action there should be a reaction. It doesn't matter so much what kind of reaction this is, as long as it keeps your story moving and is related in some way to your plot and your character arc. It doesn't even have to be a large, dramatic reaction (in fact, most of them probably shouldn't. Readers will start raising disbelieving eyebrows as your characters face one life-threatening problem after another.) You can imagine this to be somewhat like a chess game. Jim makes a move. Sue reacts to that move and makes one of her own. External forces, secondary characters and villains can make their own moves, as well, and the characters should react appropriately to those moves.
And finally, when all else fails, I strongly believe in the value of a great critique partner, or at least a fresh pair of eyes to give you a read-through. Other people will think about things differently than you do, and may just have vital suggestions that will help with your story.
Well, gang, I hope that this post helps in some way. Thanks again to the Playfriends for having me here! And as a special bonus, just for being here and reading today, I'm offering an exclusive discount coupon! Just quote the code TWP1111 in your query email and you'll receive 15% off any of my services! (Code is valid until December 15, 2011. One code per person, please.)
Cheers, and good luck with your manuscripts!
Tanya Saari has been working in the publishing industry since 1998, when she started as a Proofreader with Harlequin Enterprises. From there, she became an Editorial Assistant, in turns working with the Temptation, Duets, SuperRomance and Blaze series. She also maintained a presence in the eHarlequin community (under the name Tanya Starratt) first as a contributor, then later as a host. In 2005 she left Harlequin to pursue other avenues, but has continued to edit in a freelance capacity.
Tanya has a post-graduate diploma in Book and Magazine Publishing from Centennial College in Toronto, Ontario, and an Honours Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature from Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario.
Rates and services for Tanya Saari, Fiction Editor are available on Tanya's blog: http://editortanya.blogspot.com
Contact Tanya with any queries at firstname.lastname@example.org