Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Writers Wednesday : : Out of control

Anne McAllister, no stranger to messy middles, talks about what happens when the whole book unravels . . .or worse.

We talk a lot about ideas and inspiration and such. And that's all well and good. But eventually, you know, you have to write The End.

Even if you don't write it, you have to get there.

You have to Fin-Da-Boo, line up the ducks who've been milling around your manuscript for weeks or months or maybe even years, kick them out of the house and call it quits.

It's the goal, after all.

Well, maybe getting published is the goal. But it's a goal you can't control all by yourself. That takes two. You and someone who wants to publish your book.

And that part of the equation is not entirely up to you. You do the best with your part and then it's out of your hands.

But what about while it's still in your hands and it seems to be slithering through your fingers or bouncing away down the hall? In other words, what do you do when you're still in control, but you don't feel in control at all?

There are a few things to look at that might set you back on track.

Go back and re-read everything you're written simply as a reader. Send your Inner Editor out grocery shopping with a list as long as her arm. Or shut her in a box and nail down the lid. This time through is just for you to enjoy your story and your characters, to remember why you were excited to spend months with these people in the first place.

This is where you put away the red pencil. This is where you put away all your pencils and just read. Right now you want to experience your story as a reader would.

And after you have, go for a walk. Or put your feet up and think about what your original spark was. Does your book capture it? Does it depart from it in a way you are happy with?

The answer to that may help you either change your direction or give you the impetus to continue on down the path you're going down.

Think about what parts you zipped through. What made them so appealing? Consider what parts you slogged through? Why did you? What made them slow?

And finally, what parts did you skip?

Anything you skip, you might as well delete. If you're skipping it, your readers will, too.

When you finish that, you should have a sharper cleaner manuscript that gets you somewhere -- even if only to the middle of the book.

If it got you all the way to the end, more power to you. Polish it up and send it off.

But if you're stuck, go back and think about your characters this time. Do you know them well enough to know what they'd do given the situation you've thrown them in?

I'll admit up front that I'm very much a character-driven writer. When I get hung up, it's often because I haven't put the screws to my characters hard enough. They're keeping more secrets that they haven't shared yet.

Those secrets are almost always in the backstory or in the earlier part of the book. Not spelled out. God forbid your characters should be so helpful as to tell you anything straight out. No, you'll probably have to get out the thumb screws, too. Or bribe them. Or write morning pages for them. Or drag in all their relatives and grill them until someone spills the beans.

Or maybe it's not a secret.

Maybe you just don't know their lives well enough.

When I was writing The Eight-Second Wedding some years ago, I needed to know the exact order in which my bull rider hero and my PhD candidate heroine went down the road from rodeo to rodeo during the months of June and July. Until I knew it, I didn't have the structure to hang my story on.

Finding out what I needed to know -- closing a bar with a rodeo cowboy -- gave me the push that got me going through the part of the book that had, until then, stalled.

So if your characters are keeping secrets, maybe they're just waiting for you to learn more about their day to day lives.

Or not.

Sometimes it just doesn't work. You've re-read. You've pondered. You've used the thumb screws. You've taken out a subscription to Mercenary Soldier or Harper and Queen. You've picked the rodeo cowboy's brain. You know everything there is to know -- except your book is dead on page 126 and nothing will revive it.

Been there. Done that.


So what did I do?

I started over. In one case I began an entirely new book. I felt sure the people in the old book did have a story to tell and it was close to where I was, but I wasn't going to get there by the deadline.

Happily at that point another couple waltzed in just about that time and with none of the angst and uproar of the first couple, proceeded to write their own book in a matter of weeks.
When I got back to the first book, several months later, I re-read the story to that point, thought to myself, "Well, of course. . . " and continued straight on.

What happened? God knows. I certainly don't. But all of a sudden the characters knew what to do and took me with them.

This is an argument against over-thinking characters, I suspect. Anyway, it worked.

In the second case, I had a terrific synopsis, worked a treat. I thought so. My editor thought so. But apparently Charlie and Cait, whose story it was supposed to be, didn't think so.

They refused to go beyond page 30. We didn't even get to the middle. We got to the pool table in the Dew Drop Inn in Elmer, Montana, and we'd be there still, balancing quarters on the edge and waiting for someone (anyone!) to come up with a line of dialogue, if I hadn't finally offered to find them a different story.

I did. Completely re-thought it -- how they'd met, when and where, what their backstory really was. Much of it changed. I actually killed off my hero (which now that I think about it is probably significant), then brought him back to life because he had unfinished business in this one.

My characters stood up and cheered. They said, "Yes, that's our story!" They also said, "What took you so long?"

Again, God knows. But the other story is still here, waiting for the people it's apparently really about. I wonder when they'll turn up.

The moral of this is -- there are as many ways out of a messy middle as there are books. Sometimes it's the people, sometimes it's the story. Sometimes it's time to start a different story all together.

The important bit is to keep writing. Keep turning up at the computer. Keep playing with the characters. Don't stop the brain cells turning over. Don't wed yourself to one way of doing something. Even your most favorite scene might be the problem you need to get past.

Be open. Don't panic. You'll finish.

It will happen. If you persevere, trust me, it always does.

Anne is in the happy position of having finished one book (with NO revisions! Yea!) and not yet having really started the sit-down-and-get-to-work part of the next one. So she is spending a lot of time staring at handsome men trying to find the perfect hero. She thinks she's found the right one for the next book. You can see him on her blog.

If you haven't read
One-Night Love Child, which came out in March, there may be copies still kicking around somewhere. She'd love it if you tracked one down.

And keep an eye out for
Antonides' Forbidden Wife coming from Mills & Boon Modern in November, 2008 and Harlequin Presents in January, 2009. She also has a reprint coming out in a By Request in October called His Child (with Sharon Kendrick and Catherine Spencer), but so far no one has told her whose child (or book) it is!


  1. Great advice, Anne. I know sometimes I have trouble giving up on a certain story line because of all the time and effort put into it, and yet I can't ignore that gut feeling that says this isn't actually working!! The quicker you pay attention to your gut, the happier you'll b, I've found. :)

  2. Anne, would you believe I was writing a story about two months ago set in the Dew Drop Inn about an hour north of Melbourne and the story stalled on about page 30 and I had to start all over again with a completely different tale???

    Cue Twlight Zone music!!!


  3. And I've *literally* just done it. I'm now writing the same characters but it's a different story. And, like you, I had a great synopsis. My editor liked it, too. 20K in and I've had to admit defeat.

  4. Well, ladies, this makes me feel soooo much better, having just had to ditch my latest WIP and start another from scratch.

    In the end it was my ed that gave it the final kick out the door, but I'd already packed it up — could not make it work, whatever I tried. So I stopped trying, got myself a whole new Hero and Heroine and now I'm so much happier, and so are they.

    But one thing I will say, I'm never setting a story at the Dew Drop Inn. Not that I'm paranoid or anything...

  5. Fascinating post, Anne. And, as always, packed full of good advice.

    It's always great to come across someone as character driven as I am. So many people think I am bonkers because I talk to these characters in my head. It always starts with the people. They move in and take over. Some are quite laid back, some reserved, some all fired up and ready to go, which means there's a bit of good-natured - usually! - jostling to see who is next in line to have their story told.

    You just hope when they do get their turn that they don't start putting all sorts of obstacles in the way and create waves and doubts and wobbles before "the end".

    Anne, you always manage to pull it off to perfection and are a wonderful example to us all.

    Mags xx

  6. Thank you, thank you, Anne. Terrific advice. Glad to hear that perseverance will pay off!

    I was all set to write a new story, enthusiastic about the plot and the characters. Got to about page 12 and realised that, while it would make a good read, and the characters were so interesting, it just wasn't going to work for my line. It didn't have the oomph I needed. Something important was lacking. I've had to leave my characters stuck in an office block in Sydney's CBD and move on to something else. Maybe one day I'll work out what it is they're missing. Fingers crossed...


  7. Hi all,

    I'm so sorry I wasn't around the day this posted. I was taking a course and was up to my elbows in law library stacks.

    I'm glad misery loves company and so many of you have experienced the same mess. Though, really, Ally, your experience with the Dew Drop is a little eerie. It has been in my books before and hasn't gummed them up irretrievably, but maybe it knows something we don't know.

    I think the best advice is simply, "Hang in there!"