The Necessary Stall

On Monday at, Jessa wrote about false starts or what I call variously the Chapter 3 or Chapter 5 crisis. It usually comes once the initial burst of wonderfulness has faded from a new idea and the real work begins. Sometimes, the result is major book stall.

At this unfortunate point, one might be tempted to give up because:
a) There isn’t enough plot to hold up the story
b) The story started okay, but it doesn’t feel right anymore
c) A prettier butterfly just went past.

Problem A is solved by doing the necessary homework. If there’s no structure holding up the story, it’s going to collapse like melting Jell-o. What works for me is to plan a new crisis point every two to three chapters and work toward those high points one at a time. The benefit is twofold—it’s like a fresh burst of energy every 20 to 30 pages, and it keeps plot movement in manageable chunks. I think of those plot points like the pilings of a bridge; the more there are and the better they’re placed, the sturdier the structure. No sagging middles.

Of course, to do this effectively (that is, to come up with disasters at once logical and surprising) means layering in all sorts of perils for your characters, whether emotional or of the man-eating variety (who left their alligator in the bathtub?). That’s a whole other blog.

Problem B is a bit more airy-fairy. I’ll often start a book that has a certain something I really like – atmosphere, feel, flavour, whatever. Fifty pages in, I’ve lost it. Since I can’t name what the magical something was, I can’t figure out how to get it back. The only solution I’ve come up with is to backtrack to the point where I still like the manuscript and pick it up again from that point, doing everything I can to preserve the vibe. Sometimes this means wearing a certain sweater, drinking the right tea, putting on the right music, and other silly writing rituals. Once the book is solid, I can usually return to my haphazard ways, but until I’ve got it on the right track, I have to rely on authorial voodoo to woo my muse.

The above method works about half the time. Sadly, sometimes the book just turns into compost. Not all ideas are winners.

Problem C (butterfly chasing) can be put down to lack of discipline (who, me?) or the fact that sometimes books just aren’t ready to be written. The prettier butterfly comes along and we chase it because it’s the worthier prize. Our poor little caterpillar books will have their day, just not yet. I had a recent encounter with this, and the proposal had to be released back into the wild. It’s nearly there, but there is still some cocoon time in its future.

How do I deal with letting go? There is a balance between forging ahead because we refuse to give in and knowing when to walk away. I have faith in my “nose” about my own work. The hardest part for me is being patient and sitting with an idea until it shows its true colours. Is it a hummingbird or an eagle? A bon-bon or raw steak?

All you writers out there—what’s your acid test to know whether an idea is a firecracker in waiting, or just a dud?

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