books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Is Your WIP in Deep Doo-Doo? 7 “Block” Busters from Ruth Harris

First, the winner of last week’s contest is PHYLLIS HUMPHREY and she chose GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY. Congratulations, Phyllis! 

For this week’s contest (there will be TWO WINNERS this week!) just put the title of Ruth’s bestselling thriller HOOKED in the comment thread.

Other news: my box set of all THE CAMILLA RANDALL MYSTERIES is now available on Amazon. Hope to have it on Nook soon (as well as FOOD OF LOVE.) Any of you who have reviewed one of the mysteries, if you had time to post your review on the box set page as well, I would be forever grateful.

Ruth has some awfully useful tips for us today. They really hit home for me, because I’m just at that stage where I’m seriously falling out of love with my WIP. So while Ruth takes the helm this week, I’m going to get out my tablet and chisel, change the love interest’s name to Bon Jovi, give the villain a tragic childhood, and maybe think about a sex change for Camilla…? These are fun ideas, and they work.

By Ruth Harris

You’re stuck. You don’t know what you’re doing. You hate your book. You hate your characters. The plot sucks. The whole *&%^ idea sucks. And don’t even mention the title. Oh, you mean, you’ve tried a kajillion titles and they all stink, too?

You have no talent and don’t know what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. On REALLY bad days, you even hate your computer which just sits there like a bilious toad and never, not once in living history, came up with a single idea. You’re mad at your cat, your dog and whichever politician is yapping away on the TV—none of THEM ever came up with an idea, either!

We’ve all been-there-done-that, including me who’s been writing stories, novels, articles, blurbs, flap copy, and blog posts for almost four decades and still, now and then, wonder WTF I’m doing. Lost, I tell you. Beyond clueless. Out of gas, out of inspiration, out of ideas. Hopeless. Blocked.

So what do I do to keep on keeping on? What have I learned about how to bust the block?

1) The Writer’s Tool Box

Really simple but sometimes all it takes: If, as usual, I’ve been composing on a computer, I pick up a pad and pencil. Working by hand slows me down and forces me to think more carefully. Often writing a few paragraphs by hand will get me going again.
I haven’t had to resort to a quill yet. Or even a stone table and chisel. But I don’t rule them out because you never know.

2) Geography

If a tool switch doesn’t work, try changing the venue. Leave your desk and go to the kitchen table, a coffee shop, a park.

Sometimes just moving around can make a difference. A short walk, once around the block: the street and sidewalk remain but the block might be gone. A run, a Pilates session, even getting up from your desk and making the bed or emptying the dishwasher can get you out of your funk. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a great idea pops up.

3) The Meh Character

We’re talking about the character who just lies there like a blob, does nothing interesting, says nothing provocative, and drains the energy out of every scene in which s/he appears. Even you, the creator, are bored to death by this loser.

The first thing I think about when confronting the meh character is his/her name. Maybe I’ve given this character a boring name. Sue, John, Jim, and Jen might be examples; names so common, they evoke no images or associations, give me no idea of who they are or were they came from.

Another possibility is that I’ve given the character the same name as someone I’d cross town to avoid because I don’t want to hear one more version of their latest drama with their rotten boyfriend/girlfriend or yet another installment of their decades-long battle with crabgrass.

Obvious solution: change the name. Look at baby-names sites. Plug “random name generator” into a search box and you’ll find a galaxy of suggestions. Pick a name you’ve never heard of so you can start fresh. Try something ethnic that will evoke a whole background and set of experiences.

Or else: Choose a name that has a strong association: Angelina, Brad or Madonna, for example, to get you going again. You can always change the name again later with a search and replace.

4) Escalation Strategy: The Sex Change

When the name change doesn’t help, go for the nuclear option: change the character’s sex. Leave the character exactly as you’ve written him/her but try a sex change. IME, the literary sex change, although it will probably feel traumatic at first, can work magic and the character who once seemed flat & boring suddenly isn’t. Putting a female character into what was once a male POV can really shake things up. Vice versa works, too.

You can also play with gender orientation: boring straight character/clich├ęd gay character? Do a switch: Different person, different motives, different experiences, different goals may well be the transformation that turns the meh character into someone you and the reader will care about.

As always, if the trick works, you can always change the character back again.

5) Sympathy For The Devil

Seems easy to write the villain, doesn’t it? They’re bad. Bad, bad, bad. Not to mention horrible, awful, and absolutely vile. They evoke terror, horror, revulsion and you have plenty of ideas for scene after scene of unrelenting evil. So what could go wrong?

The answer? Plenty.

Rotten, miserable human—or supernatural—being. Blood dripping from fangs. Evil oozing from every pore. Dictator, serial murderer, assassin, malicious neighbor, vicious ex—problem is, even evil can get boring after a while. Unrelenting vengeance, torture, and/or destruction give the writer nowhere to go after a while and, sooner or later, the writer is stuck and just can’t come up with another can-you-top-this? twist.

What’s needed is nuance—and nuance can come in the form of traumatic experiences ranging from neglectful and/or over-indulgent parents to war, famine, global financial upheaval. Give the reader a glimpse of why the devil is doing whatever s/he’s doing. Let the devil speak for him/herself in terms of motivation, goals, and longings. The point is to create a character, not a check list of horrific flaws.

Hannibal Lecter, one of the most famous of all villains, was intelligent, sensitive and thoughtful. It was juxtaposition of those qualities with his lurid crimes that made him such a fascinating character. Without them, he’d be just another cannibal. Yawn.

6) Plot Problems

I’m a pantser and my best stuff comes out of character but when I face the oh-god-what-happens-next block, I try an outline. Because I’m severely outline-challenged, my outlines usually emerge in the form of a list: scenes that need to happen, plot points, character details and future cliffhangers.

The truth is, even in the form of a list, most of the time the outline just doesn’t work for me. What does help is going back to the beginning and reading slowly. Very slowly. Several times. I will frequently find that I’ve left out something crucial and I’m rewarded with the aha! moment.

You may find the opposite: that you’ve revealed too much and must take something out—a particularly juicy morsel—and save for later.

7) Code Red: The Last Resort

When all my fixes have failed, I talk out the problem—usually with my DH. What we’ve found is that often it isn’t what he says—he doesn’t know the ms. nearly as well as I do—but what I say. Turns out I’ve known the solution all along but needed to give it breath and the receptive ears of an interested listener.

Michael and I have faced and fixed each of these problems (some of them more than once) in the course of writing our thriller, HOOKED.

To celebrate, we’re giving away two copies this week. To enter, just include the title HOOKED in your comment. The winner will be chosen at random and announced next Sunday.

How about you, scriveners? What do you do when you and your WIP are having a spat? Have you ever tried any of these “fixes”? Do you have any suggestions to add?


  1. Haven't changed the sex of any of my characters. That would feel weird all right.
    I switch between computer and notepad when writing. Write just about as slow either way!
    Good tips today.

  2. Great post! I'm trying to revise and Iam still learning.
    Would love a copy of HOOKED!

  3. Okay Ruth, I'm HOOKED on your post. Gees, how lame was that?

    I do some of those things or read, edit something else, write a few posts, but basically I give up for a couple of days and work on somthing completely unrelated. Then I read from the beginning and begin to see where it got me. Did a mystery last month and painted myself into a corner three times.

    It's done and "resting" and when I get back I'll do deep edits add a little, delete a little and then get it ready for my readers.

    Love some of your ideas :)

  4. Fantastic post! I do nearly all of these a lot of the time ... except a sex change, that was only once, and completely by accident. Said character will probably hate me forever because of it too, hee hee! I blame the NaNoWriMo rush I was on when it happened.

    I love the tongue-in-cheek tone, and as for that intro ... have you been reading my mind or something? It's a small world for authors, ain't it ;)

  5. Alex—It IS weird. Actually, it's a shock and that's the point. Sometimes I really need a shock to get off dead center. Bracing, as the Brits would say!

    Vera—Hope something here will help and good luck with the drawing.

    fOIS—Only three times? Wow! Good going! lol

    Charley—By accident? lol Sheesh, you're sure it was just a NaNoWriMo rush?

  6. I've given people serious car crashes and set houses on fire. Someone once said, "If the story (or I suppose the characters) aren't doing it for you, blow something up." It usually works.

    And I LOVE the sex change. That works sooo well.

    When I'm really desperate for a quick fix, though, I'm totally HOOKED on yard work. Something about raking the yard brings all kinds of ideas bubbling to the surface.

  7. Anne G.--I have to say I've just been out doing some yard work and a big "fix" just came to me. Something about pulling those weeds....

  8. AnneG—Let's hear it for yard work! Or any other kind of physical activity. A body is motion is a mind in motion. At least, IME.

  9. OMG Number four has gor me thininkg. :} I have two minor characters that suddenly opted for a gender preference change.. Okay one of them clambored for it, the other... maybe he's bi? *ponder* And i'm in the revision stage!

    Sadly my hubby isn't always that good to bounce ideas off (though he makes a great beta reader). But my mom is uber, especialy since she's a great rescource on some aspects I need.

    I also love moving. I find taking a walk and talking/acting scenes out helps me to write them down.

    :} Cathryn / Elorithryn

  10. Ruth, just what my novella needed. A name change for a secondary yet important character. Get me to the random name generator pronto! I'm HOOKED. Thanks so much for the great tips.

  11. Ruth,
    I especially appreciate your thoughts on the antagonist. I most often abhor villains with no soul. NO one is bad just to be bad (at least...they didn't start out that way), so a villain must have a motivating factor, preferably one that most people can identify with.

    Great ideas for changing it up; great post!

  12. Cathryn—Sometimes I even draw scenes to help me figure out who's where & who's doing what to who. For a writer, the rule is: "whatever it takes."

    Mindprinter—Getting the right name for a character is super important & not always easy. Drives DH nuts as he reads drafts and wonder's who the hell is Bob? Did Bob used to be Clayton or did he used to be Suzanne? (that's when I've decided I need a gender change too!)

    Veronika—Thanks! I think you're right on target when you make the observation that the villain's motive needs to be one most people can identify with. Other than that, s/he's just a cartoon.

  13. Walking always does it for me. I get my best solutions and ideas while walking. Never tried the sex change idea but I really like it. Very cleaver. And I can see how it would work.

  14. Christine—Walks are good. Sometimes the shower is great, too. As for the sex change, it can be the needed jolt to the system.

  15. Hi Ruth,

    I'm just coming out of an "I suck, my WIP sucks, everything sucks" funk. I have done the geography change up (sometimes it works), but I love your suggestion for a sex change. I never would've thought of that. Next time I'm in a rut, I'm going to see if that charges me up. Thanks!

  16. And if all else fails, remember, you can always add a cheetah. I know what you're thinking - where would the cheetah come from in the first place. But that's the beautiful thing; the world is filled with underused cheetahs. They escape from zoos or private collections. They form colonies in swamps and bell towers. They can liven up your story in unexpected ways. And when it comes down to it, who doesn't love a cheetah?

    William Doonan

  17. Tracy—Glad to hear you're out of your all-suck-all-the-time mode. Let me know how/if the sex change works for you. You know, curious minds...

    William—Alligators, too. They crawl out of the swamps and up from the sewers. Used mainly for expensive handbags. Other than that, fairly useless. :-)

  18. William--I had to comment on your cheetah solution! Isn't that a cheetah in the first Harold and Kumar? Magical plot booster! It might be a panther in the classic screwball comedy, "Bringing up Baby"? But it serves the same purpose--a couple of random jungle cats wandering about playing deus ex machina for tired plots. Love it!

  19. What a great post! The timing couldn't have been better. I'm at that point (past the halfway mark) on my WIP and am stopped dead in my tracks. Thought I'd made a wrong turn somewhere. So I'm going to take your list and see what happens. Thanks so much!

  20. Teri—I feel your pain. Been-there-done-that. Hope one (at least) of the blockbusters works for you.

    One tip I forgot to add is: research. Sometimes a new fact or even a new slant on a old fact will open the door. Research can be book/internet research or talking to someone who knows something about whatever it is you're writing about.

  21. Awesome tips! I love creating the villains but I stay away from the stereotypes (my current villain is a gorgeous woman) :-)
    Changing "geography" always works for me too, but I've never tried to change the sex of my characters. Intriguing idea.

  22. Angela—thanks! Villainous gorgeous women make fab characters!

  23. Awesome post. :)

    I haven't done the sex change trick as yet, but I've done quite a few of the others. Good suggestions all around and I love the humor in there.

    I'll add a trick of my own. If I'm really blocked on a scene, I'll gather up stuffed animals for secondary characters, arrange them to match the scene in my head, and then act out the scene with myself as the MC.

    Invariably, the "MC" says something unexpected. I get some weird looks from friends though if they stumble across my tableau... ^_^


  24. Liz—Ooooh! I LOVE this! Stuffed animals--sheer genius. Thanks for a great idea!

  25. Great tips, Anne! I had to do a sex change in my e-pub because I couldn't keep two gals from going at it, LOL. I especially liked your comments about the villain.

  26. I vacuum. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but for some reason, it stirs the creativity. I love my Hoover Linx! I've hit the wall so many times that I don't panic any more. I know "it" will come to me.

  27. Great blog and wonderful post filled with useful information. I wanted to thank you for posting my story on your Indie Chicks section. It's be a pleasure working with all of you.

  28. You're so right about #7. Sometimes I just have to talk it out with someone; then I talk myself into the answer to my problem.

  29. I've been reading your blog for days now, having just discovered it, and I almost spit out my beverage when I read "On REALLY bad days, you even hate your computer which just sits there like a bilious toad and never, not once in living history, came up with a single idea." I just thought something very similar yesterday! Thank you for the timely (year-and-a half later) post!!