Jilly: The Benefits of Getting Stuck

Getting StuckDo you ever suddenly hit a wall, with your writing or your life in general? Can persistence usually solve your problem, or is it a signal that something is wrong?

I have a lot to do before I leave for RWA National, and I was hoping for a productive writing week. Turns out I spent most of it spinning my wheels, completely blocked on an important scene. I was desperately frustrated at my lack of progress, but when I finally solved the problem I realised getting stuck had been a Good Thing.

I ground to a halt because what I was trying to write took the story in a wrong direction.

The problematic encounter takes place immediately after a fight scene in which much useful information has been discovered, but at a high cost. Most importantly, the hero’s father has been badly injured in an unexpected manner. The old man is unconscious and exhibiting severe hypothermia-like symptoms, and the hero and heroine must care for him and keep him alive until help arrives, while staying out of sight and earshot of the bad guys.

It’s a quiet interlude, allowing the story to breathe after the high-tempo action of the previous scene, but the aftermath of the fight leads the main characters to take significant decisions, so I wasn’t expecting it to be a problem. Wrong. The first draft was so boring I nearly fell asleep writing it, and I ground to a halt about halfway through.

I went back to the drawing board and started again. Got stuck again. And again.

It took me all week and I don’t know how many re-writes to get to a place I’m happy with.

My first big problem was that after making the old man comfortable and wrapping him up nice and warm, the hero and heroine basically hid on a hillside and talked. In whispers, looking around periodically for the enemy, but otherwise it was a kitchen scene, where the characters chat over a cuppa. In other words, boring. I needed Michille’s post from Thursday about character actions 🙂 .

My next mistake was letting the injured man regain consciousness by the end of the scene. What was I thinking? He started to improve quite quickly, which undermined the significance of the fight and took all the tension and energy out of this scene and the ones that followed. I can’t believe it took me two days to figure out that I’d made a colossally stupid decision.

So the stakes had to go up and the poor old guy had to be hurt much worse than I’d intended. That helped immediately, because it put much more pressure on the heroine (the fight escapade was her idea) and the hero (he approved it). That pressure drove them both to react in a much more powerful way. No more sittin’ and chattin’!

My final challenge was that I also needed the scene to change the relationship dynamic between the two main characters. I’d achieved it in a not-very-exciting way in the kitchen chat version of the scene, but now the situation had become more desperate, they needed to respond more forcefully. It would have been unrealistic and wrong to have them wrangle about personal matters when the hero’s dad lay so badly hurt and Somebody had better do Something about it PDQ.

I’d emailed fellow bloggess Jeanne a snippet of part of this scene, and she made the excellent point that in addition to covering up the injured man, one or both of the main characters should cuddle up to him for added warmth. I really liked that idea (thanks, Jeanne!) and it gave the characters something to do. So I wrote a scene where the H&H snuggled up either side of Dad and talked across his body. That felt creepy and I didn’t like it. But then – finally! – I had a brainwave.

The heroine is a skinny, underfed long drink of water and the hero is a wall of muscle, so the logical choice is for him to lie down and keep his dad warm while she stands guard over them both. Not only does that make the most sense in terms of the story, it also achieves exactly what I wanted in terms of changing the dynamic between the hero and heroine, and showing it through an important action.

Sounds obvious now. Seemed obvious as soon as I thought of it. I re-wrote the scene for (hopefully) the last time and I’m really happy with the result.

Lesson learned? For me, at least: if you get seriously stuck, there may be a good reason. Take a break, ask yourself what’s wrong with the story and why you don’t want to write it. Make sure the characters have a clear goal, identify the conflict, make the scene more active, try raising the stakes. Rinse and repeat until it feels right.

How about you?

9 thoughts on “Jilly: The Benefits of Getting Stuck

  1. I am so stuck right now, and I have been blaming life and work for that. But it could be a matter of direction, as well. Thanks to Elizabeth’s writing sprints, I know I can still come up with a thousand words, so it’s not so much a matter of writing. It’s a matter of plotting and characterization and so many other things.

    Anyway, so happy to hear you got a great solution, and unstuck! Always good to have that kind of experience so you can cheer yourself later — I got unstuck before; I can do it now, too.

    It sounds like a fabulous story! Can’t wait until you are done!

    • Sorry to hear you’re stuck at the moment, Michaeline! I loved your writing sprint this week, so maybe it is a matter of direction. Maybe your Girls are working away behind the scenes, trying and discarding ideas? Do you try tricks for getting yourself unstuck – like the Pixar writing rules one about writing all the things that wouldn’t happen next – or do you just keep thinking and wait it out until something shows up?

      A positive experience of un-sticking does provide a much-needed confidence boost – something to fall back on the next time I wander into the mire.

      Glad you like the sound of the story. I’m hoping you’ll read for me when it’s ready 😉 .

  2. I remember the time, not fondly, when I went 20,000 words down a rabbit hole, and it took me weeks to figure out why I couldn’t write another word. Everything had been going so well! Once I’d figured out the problem, I can’t say things always went swimmingly, but at least I encountered only the usual frustrations. Congratulations on getting the scene right! It must be very gratifying, and it sounds terrific.

    • Wow, 20K. That’s a mine, not a rabbit hole. Giving me goosebumps just to think of it, though, to Michaeline’s point, you obviously figured it out and had the inner steel to do the right thing. Not that you’d want to go there ever again, but it should be a confidence boost to know that you could if you had to.

      Very glad you think the story sounds good, because you and Jeanne will be hearing a lot about it when I see you at RWA next month 😉 .

  3. First of all, looking forward to seeing you and Kay at Nationals next month, and beyond bummed the other Ladies can’t make it this year.

    Second, I love the description of your scene. Having Kierce snuggle his dad (how touching is that?) while Alex stands guard creates an a-stereotypical male/female dynamic that feels really original and unique. So, bravo. (Great stuff isn’t easy. If it was the first thing that popped into your mind, it wouldn’t be great, because it would be something you’d seen a dozen times before. So, good on you for pushing through to excellence!)

    I’ve been working furiously, trying to get three entries ready for a couple of contests. I’m sending the first 6000 words of The Demon’s in the Details and Girl’s Best Friend into the Pages from the Heart contest. (There’s a discount for multiple entries.) I’m telling myself I’m doing it for the feedback, and that’s true, but contests are also a great way to get in front of editors. (See me waffling on self-pub/trad pub? Although the financials say self-pub makes the most sense these days, it also looks like a huge amount of work.)

    The other contest is Ignite the Flame sponsored by my RWA chapter, COFW. It’s a little different from most contests, because they don’t necessarily want the first scene from the book, but the first scene where your couple meets, up to 15 pages. If anyone has a strong first meet scene, it’s a great contest.

    • Glad you like the sound of the scene – and thank you very much for the assist! Can’t wait to see you and be warned, I plan to pick your brains shamelessly 😉 .

      Good luck with the contest prep. I think it’s time well spent. I decided to enter Alexis in a few, because she’s new and I need feedback. I heard a couple of days ago that she finaled in this year’s Golden Rose. I got three sets of really nice comments (yay!) and today I’m working on my 500-word synopsis for the final round (I’ve been diligently avoiding that task).

      I have entered Pages From The Heart, and am planning to try IGO (Indiana Golden Opportunity) – another one that requires a synopsis. I didn’t consider Ignite the Flame because while I love Alexis and Kierce’s first meet, and I think it would pass Billy Mernit’s test for signaling a romance, it’s not remotely swoon-worthy.

      • Neither is Jake and Taylor’s–definitely more of a cute meet. The contest is looking for “that first flicker of awareness” and I’m hoping I’ve got that.

        I considered entering Keeffe and Asmo’s first meet, but it’s so muddy because she’s already met his body that I don’t think it would make any sense. (I’m not sure that sentence even makes any sense.)

      • Congrats on finaling in the Golden Rose! I won that last year and judged a few entries this year (albeit not yours). I can’t wait to hear how you do!

  4. I really must get organised to do some contests!

    You are so right that being blocked or spinning wheels generally means something is wrong. (If you are generally writing regularly – if not, it is probably more procrastination). That’s happened to me loads of times – unlike now when it is varying degrees of useless procrastination. So glad you sorted it out!

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