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/clichéd 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?

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