By Louise Ure
A writer friend sent me a present this week that I initially thought might possibly be the finest gift (short of a lifetime publishing contract) that any writer could get.
It’s called “Deal a Story.” Or Plot in a Box. Or Writers Unblocked. Or How to Waste an Afternoon and Call it Work.
It’s the size of a canasta game, a box with two decks of cards in it.
- · 16 Hero cards
- · 16 Heroine cards
- · 16 Villain Cards
- · 16 Flaw cards
- · 16 Plot cards
- · 16 Genre cards
- · 5 Wild cards, for when you get stuck.
Just deal yourself a hand and all your troubles are over!
Let’s start with the genre cards.
I’m not writing “Inspirational Novels” or “Fantasy,” so I can put a couple of these aside. (Cornelia, there’s not one card here for “Literary Fiction” so I guess I can’t help you with the plotting in that non-genre category.) Inexplicably, they have five separate cards for “Thriller,” “Action,” “Crime,” “Mystery,” and “Suspense.” I could argue for a little consolidation there, but I understand their desire to offer sixteen separate cards so they used a little literary license. “Patriot Games” is a Thriller according to them, but “Ice Station Zebra” is an Action book. “Mildred Pierce” is a “Crime Novel,” but “Along Came a Spider” is a Mystery. Go figure.
The Hero cards are defined as:
- · The Outcast
- · Mr. Nice Guy
- · Mr. Organized
- · The Knight
- · The Explorer
- · The Daredevil
- · The Conquerer
- · The Confidant
- · The Boy From the Wrong Side of the Tracks
- · The Born Leader
- · The Avenger
- · The Absent-Minded Professor
- · The Wanderer
- · The Rogue
- · The Rebel
- · The Playboy
They’d probably consider Jack Reacher and “Avenger” or a “Knight,” but I prefer the notion of a Palladin. (He’s definitely not a “Wanderer,” as they describe that character as: “Lonely, he is easily hurt emotionally by criticism and censure, is unsure of his own abilities and feelings and is discontented with life. A vulnerable soul looking for acceptance.”) Not Jack Reacher at all.
I don’t want to write about Wanderers or Mr. Organized. Blech. What kind of hero would they be?
Heroines are equally pigeon-holed:
- · The Innocent
- · The Girl Next Door
- · The Darling
- · The Dark Lady
- · The Comedian
- · The Caregiver
- · The Bookworm
- · The Zealot
- · The Working Girl
- · The Wise Woman
- · The Trail Blazer
- · The Siren
- · The Rescuer
- · The Princess
- · The Orphan
- · The Know-It-All
I know I’ve written about a “Rescuer” before, but I hope never to create a “Darling” heroine, as their description reads: “The Darling grew up loved and adored by everyone around her and tends to make decisions with her emotions. Self-assured but impulsive, she often finds herself in a ‘pickle’ and needs help getting out. However, most of the time her ‘crazy’ logic will save the day. See Elli Woods in ‘Legally Blonde.’” God help us all.
The Villain cards run the gamut you’d expect: Evil Genius, the Devil, Corrupt Leaders, Assassins, Aliens, Psychopaths, Monsters, Machines, Tyrants, Terrorists and Traitors. I think they’ve forgotten that some of the most vile behavior is carried out by those closer to home: the Selfish, the Cruel, the Zealots.
I thought the Flaw cards might be the answer to all my problems. Deal a Story separates their suggestions onto cards labeled Challenges, Secrets and Attitudes among other flaw categories. On the Flaw/Challenges card, you’re encouraged to create a character that has “lost a limb, or is wheelchair bound, or has a speech impediment, or is unattractive, or is hearing impaired, or is awkward or is blind.” WTF? Being unattractive is now a flaw that a hero has to overcome? Sheesh.
I won’t bother much with the plot cards as I guarantee that they won’t be descriptive enough for you to say, “Eureka! Now I know what my next book is going to be about!” (Unless of course, you’re bowled over by headings like Puzzle, Pursuit, Relationships, Rescue, Rivalry, Conversion, Coming of Age. Hell, I could have gotten better ideas by reading the dictionary, let alone the TV Guide listings.)
In short, my afternoon of dealing myself a story was a bust. I could write a “(Genre Card)Suspense Novel” where the “(Heroine)Working Girl” who is a “(Flaw card) Nosy Parker/Blackmailer” takes “(Plot Card)Revenge” on “(Villain Card) Tyrant” who fired her father.
Hell, it’s probably better than what I’m working on right now.
So tell me, ‘Rati. What tricks, games and self-deception do you use when you’re stuck in a story. How do you deal yourself a story?
Hi Louise, I have no tricks to offer. When I’m stuck, I find it’s best to walk away and stop thinking about it. My subconscious mind seems to be more fertile than my conscious mind and it eventually works things out.
Since stumbling on this site I’ve enjoyed your posts and went looking for your books. I’ve just finished Forcing Amaryllis and thoroughly enjoyed it. The Fault Tree is now on my list of must reads.
I too take a break when stuck. Riding, mucking stalls, etc. and if the "solution" doesn’t pop into my head while mucking, it always does when I get back inside and take a bath with the jets. It’s in there, I just have to stop digging and it comes up to the surface.
Louise, I feel your pain. And these cards sound like they suck.
As for me, what I write is so much memoir that I usually just have to think harder about what happened. Maybe that’s why I’m weak on the mystery angle?
I hope it starts to go better for you immediately. You have one of the finest writing minds of the age, IMHO.
I definitely take a break and try not to think about it and usually my brightest ideas and breakthroughs come when I’m in the shower. There’s something about running water that clears my head and gives me inspiration.
I typically bang my head against a wall until I have an epiphany or the lights go out.
When I wake up, I repeat the action. Ultimately I have a storyline.
Those cards sound a lot like what I imagine the electronic generate-a-plot programs do.
They’d drive me mad.
As to what I do when I’m stuck . . .
Nowadays, I go to another writing project or even start a new one just to keep writing. Often when I’m working on something else, the nut that needs cracking in the first work suddenly doesn’t seem so hard.
Heh. Sounds like the card game version of that TV Tropes site. I want a deck of those cards.
When I find myself drifting towards a cliche, I try to rotate it 90 degrees so it comes out different.
My best trick when I’m stuck is to turn my attention for a while to something else, and let serendipity and my subconscious mind work on the problem. Fortunately, I’m busy enough right now, what with school, work, and my spouse and daughter, that finding something else to distract Monkey Mind long enough to find a solution isn’t usually hard.
I’ve also found that serendipity can be a great help in getting unstuck. My most recent sticky point in my novel was resolved when, quite by accident, a colleague of mine sent me a journal article that showed exactly the answer to the plot point I was stuck on (how an interview of a child crime victim works).
One other tip I learned somewhere along the way — for me, at least, being stuck is often my subconscious mind’s way of alerting me that something isn’t working right in the story. When I find myself stuck, one of my first diagnostic techniques is to backtrack over the last few days of story and see if I can figure out what’s not setting well. Quite often, I’ll find a solution that way.
Louise, youve done the ‘flaw’ card with your blind mechanic more than brilliantly.. Pack that deck away. But when I’m stuck and floundering, it’s old photos and photography books that set my wheels in my motion
Sorry for my late start this morning. You guys are great.
* Vicky and Billie: Walking away often works for me, too. Intead of a real walk, though, I’ve found some good ideas while cleaning out the linen closet or pulling weeds on the roof deck. As long as it’s not conscious writing, a break is a good idea.
(And Vicky, thanks for giving my books a try.)
* Cornelia: Your "memoir/mysteries" remind me of my friend Don Hadley’s quote. A gifted copywriter working for the even more gifted creative director Hal Riney, he said that when he died he "wanted Hal Riney’s life to flash before his eyes."
* Alli: I’m with you. The shower is the ultimate idea starter, whether it’s for a blog, the novel or a tricky letter I have to write.
Stkephen, you’re much too skilled to require headbanging for your creativity. But I sure do understand the image!
Pari: If I had more than one good idea in a year it would be easier to turn my attention to another project while the thoughts are swirling. Maybe if that "other project" is something as simple as paying bills?
J.D.: You made my day. "Rotate 90 degrees" is so much more interesting than "turn that idea on it’s head." It’s my new mantra. Do I have to credit you every time I promote it?
Tammy, you cute thing. Serendipity has saved me time and again. It used to happen when my mother would — out of the blue — send some old newspaper clipping that took my story in exactly the right direction. Alas, I don’t have her to send them anymore.
Cara: I picture you writing space with evocative photos (many of them your own) of Paris all over the walls. What inspiration!
Those cards sound like the kind of thing I see in a store and say, "Who the hell would buy that?"
I think about what my characters would be likely to do, and then work backwards and forwards to see what that picture would look like both before and after from the perspective of the other characters who don’t know the full story. Somehow I’ve managed to pull a book from the chaos (so far).
I’m with you, Alafair. I see some of these "Write a Book as Easy as 1-2-3" products and cringe. The fact that this Deal a Story product is produced by a self-publishing firm does not add a great deal of credibility to the mix.
CLUE might be better than that…Col. Mustard in the study with the candlestick.
I sat at my desk last night, exhausted at the end of my day, forcing myself to write those 300 words (see what we’ve become). I’m using a rough outline (thanks to Murderati inspiration), reading through it, and listen for the conversation in each of the sections/chapters/data points. It’s been working — I don’t write what’s next, just what I’m hearing, so plugging that into the outline. I’m jumping around a bit, but the characters are forming from that. Weird but when I can only get those 300 words out of me at night, seems to be working.
Also, I have a wall of "research" (maybe Cornelia, you have some old diaries?) that I can go to that will spark a part of the story for me (not unlike Cara’s photos) and help me get back into it. In this book, because it takes place in 1957-8, I even went through magazine ads from the era, looked up fashion (!), old "Top 40" song lists as well as hard bob jazz. Steeping myself in the period…I get some nice ambiance from that stuff.
Oh, the head banging? I have some dents in the drywall….
Hmm. Do these cards have interesting pictures, like Tarot cards?
I find that walking around a trade show like BEA or PLA or the regional ones (just got back from SIBA) can be very inspiring (and a lot intimidating, but if you can get past the sheer overwhelm).
It gives you a huge rush of story bites at once and you somehow get above it and start to see a big picture.
I’ve always said writer’s block is your story’s way of telling you you’re going in the wrong direction. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to find a single "thing" that helps, outside of time. I do like driving when I’m stuck, listening to music. I find that sometimes, buried deep in the lyrics, the kernel of an idea can come, and the soothing lull of the road allows my mind to relax enough to let it take seed.
Allison, I would have been MUCH better off starting with the CLUE game. And I like your idea of writing whichever scene is speaking to you at the moment. Ah, the joy of an outline!
Alas, no pictures, Alex. And my brain wasn’t supplying them either. I can see how the trade shows would be inspiring. That’s how I feel after a conversation with a well-read bookseller.
Music and driving, J.T. Brilliant! Although I’ll bet that there’s a fair amount of subconscious work going on with the selection of the right music to begin with.
I like the music ideas, and long hot baths are my favorite place for generating creative ideas (and there’s just no way that isn’t going to sound dirty, is there?).
The simplest way I have of getting unstuck is to ask, "What’s the worst that can happen?" and then "Why is that the worst thing?" The combo of questions forces me to examine the characters and their motivations and their goals, as well as what the central conflict is for the story. It’s a shade of Alafair’s working back and forth, before and after.
I’ve had good luck sometimes writing the scene from someone else’s POV. I’ve moved up conflicts which were taking too long to meander into the story. Nine times out of ten, (in my own writing), the story goes flat and refuses to move forward when the conflict has plateaued. I’ll ask myself, "Is what happens next a bigger source of conflict than the last thing that happened? If not, why not?"
I’ve never been one of those writers who like to look too closely to tropes or archetypes because there’s something about the fact that they’re written down which feels… too intrusive. Instructive. Like I’m sitting in an English class and someone is telling me this is how my story has to go. And as soon as I see those, my subconscious will latch onto one of them and start with the "shoulds" which drives me nuts. (A Knight protagonist should do x or y, but never z.) (Poor z, always left out.) Those sorts of things make me look at my crazy characters and start second-guessing myself. I decided a long time ago to just write the people as I met them. If they turned out to have some sort of archetype inherent in their characters, well, fine. For me, though, I have to know them as people–complex, messy, multiple desires and goals, what they’re ashamed of and why, to get to the next part of the story. And asking "what’s the worst thing can happen?" and why is that the worst?’ helps me get there.
I talk it out with a friend or I try to just move past what’s caught me up so I can go back. Both work really well.
I read everyone else’s great stuff and think, "Why the hell can’t I think up stuff like this?!"
Then I go back to my own plotting (long before the actual writing takes place) and go, "Well, so-and-so always likes to do a character twist here, and yet this guy usually drops in a reveal of a red herring and starts them back at square one. So obviously I need a twist…what would work?"
Next I bang my head against my keyboard until the jumble of letters spits out a recognizable word or two, use those in my twist, and I’M OFF!!!
(Just kidding, although that may work better than what I would normally do…)
Hm, I second everyone who’s said I don’t think you need those one-size-fits-all cards …
I’m with JT – going out in the car and listening to music is the best thing to get my mind moving. Or doing a photoshoot. Anything that ties up the practical side of my brain and stops it interferring with the creative half, so it can keep working on the problem subconsciously.
Sometimes, trying to unravel a plot is like trying to remember someone’s name, or what other film you’ve seen that actor in. The less you worry at it, the more easily it will come to you.
Toni, I’ve often used that "What’s the worst thing that could happen to her now?" approach, but it never occurred to me to add "And why is that the worst?" What incredible insight that would give to a character! Thank you for that.
Leigh, your "tell a friend" advice is so, so good. I don’t know why, but it’s more effective than just talking to myself.
Jake: Learning from others is a perfect solution. Sometimes I read another writer’s work in awe. I’d be better served to analyze how/when/why they did that thing that hooked me. (And banging my head on the keyboard just keeps giving me ER …ER…ER… Sounds like a stutter.)
Tying up the practical side of my brain is the easiest thing in the world. (All I have to do is some tax prep and all my creativity fades away.) In my case I need to disengage BOTH sides of the brain before the ideas start swirling again.
Hope all is well with you.
Managed to break another rib on a photoshoot yesterday, but apart from that, it’s tickety-boo ;-]
I make a list of at least five ways it could get worse, no matter how improbable. Then I write five ‘next paragraphs’ as if each was either happening or about to happen. If I actually know what’s supposed to happen but not how to get there (I’m a pantser, so that’s not usually the case) or am trying to get them OUT of trouble, I brainstorm at least five ways for that to happen.
My MC escaped and ran for her life with a chain padlocked around her wrist and wrapped around her arm so it didn’t drag on the ground, so I made her get picked up by some dudes going to a heavy metal concert three days early for prime seating. She was their fourth pick-up. Shortly, she’s going to go over a waterfall to escape some corrupt cops, and live only because she’s of a subclass of Humans with elemental powers.
I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. Not too sure about the plot, but one of the main characters was publicly chosen by God to be a prophet. The Elves haven’t had a prophet for hundreds of years, so they’ll do whatever he says and are ecstatic. Except the prophet is a Human, and Humans are currently the most universally disliked species out there. Worse, the prophet is speciesist against Elves. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but whenever I get stuck I’ll be able to give him something to do to either further the plot or complicate things even further.
Do I have to credit you every time I promote it?
Nah, just buy me a drink if I ever get out on the road again.
Zoe, I know you’re a Wonder Woman, but sheesh! Take care of yourself!
Eika, five ways for things to get worse? You’ve apparently got four more good ideas than I have on any given day. And I think that subclass of Humans you talk about are all those folks I see at the grocery store.
Thanks, J.D. I’ll have the drink at the ready next time we meet.
All those books and software programs that claim to organize your mind and make writing simple? I own most of them. Do any of them work for me? No. I’ve learned that there are no tricks or simple solutions to writing a good book or even a bad one. It’s all just damn hard work.
I know what you mean, Patty. Damn hard work and sometimes a damn fine writers’ group.
And if you’re in a less-than-fine writers’ group, get out and find a better one. The work you save will be your own.
I’m too inexperienced (ahem, as a writer) to offer any advice about getting unstuck. Or about anything else writing-related. [Sorry Cornelia, I really read that as a request for non-mystery, not non-genre. I always get distracted by your amazing pictures. Sigh.]
But I have learned that my creativity is tied to my sense of humour and ability to laugh — often at ridiculous things. And no, I’m not writing comedy. So I like to come over here and read crazy imaginative blog posts by one of my new favourite weird writer people. 😉
Um, I happen to have a rather ridiculously irreverent blog post of my own up at the moment. If you think it would help, you have my permission to go read it. Not the rest of you, just Louise. And only because she "thinks" she’s stuck. Pffft.
Tom, that should be a line posted on matchbook covers the world over.
BCB: You make me laugh. For those of you who actually followed BCB’s directions and DIDN’T go read the blog, my favorite lines are, "Unlike the heroes in romance novels of olden days, they are just not interested in virgins. They want writers who have done it a few times. … They want finesse and polished technique and proof that a writer can make it all the way through to a completion that leaves the customer satisfied and ready to pay for it again next time they’re in town."
Take that wry, distinctive voice, my dear, and go finish the book like your sister says. And in the meantime, thanks for the shake up of my own little soul-searching moment.
Ohmygosh. I didn’t really think you’d even go read it, and here you are quoting it. :blush: Thank you.
You make me laugh too, so I’m glad I could return the favour. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Send me your phone number. I’ll give it to my sister and tell her to call and pester you about writing progress. Bet you’ll get unstuck in no time. With that kind of motivation, you’ll soon have enough ideas for ten books.
And I’m working on it. 😉
I think I have learned that my creativity is tied to my sense of humour and ability to laugh — often at ridiculous things. And no, I’m not writing comedy.
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