Photo by Aubrey Rose Odom on Unsplash
So i’m in the midst of writing a new novel, and reader, I got stuck. I got stuck so bad that I had to go crying to my agent, Caitlin McDonald, who got back to me with the solution.
And I realized something – just about every time I get stuck while writing a novel, there’s a pattern. When I’m writing a novel and I stall out because something is *wrong* and I don’t know what’s wrong, it’s probably one or more of these things:

1. lack of protagonist agency.

I’m one of those people who gets the plot first, and then has to bolt on a character to do the plot. this is an awkward fit because I know what’s going to happen, because I outlined it, so I often just make it happen to the character.

2. Too much information at once.

For the same reasons as 1. I know all the things. and sometimes I mis-estimate how much information the character should get, as a treat, and mainline a bunch of information all at once, in the form of new characters who know things.

3. Reasonable, rational, thoughtful, cautious characters who think everything through and choose the best solution.

I love my characters, they are precious, and so smart and reasonable, and I know what is the best solution for the problem they face, and so I let them have it.

those are my big three mistakes. I do them without thinking, and then I get to a point in my manuscript where i’m stuck, because something is wrong.

For me, the answer is always to find out which of my three major mistakes did I make in the last 10k words?

In my current wip? All three. oops

So this means (for me) that I have to go back, toss out those words, and start over, keeping these guidelines in mind:

1. Let the Character Act
2. Take some Information Away
3. Let the Character be Irrational

1. Let the Character Act.

Yes, I know I have this shiny plot that goes 0-60 in under 7 seconds and it corners like it’s glued to the track. But when I hit an action sequence, I have to ask myself – how much of this is due to the story happening to the character? Where’s the agency?
I struggle with this because a lot of the time my action scenes are spurred by antagonist action rather than an intrepid protagonist getting her own ass into trouble. But re-visioning the scene in a way that gives the protagonist agency will nearly always make it much better.

2. Take some Information Away.

I like to pace things at what I call a brisk walk. a spirited pace. lively, even. but sometimes in my rush to put the pieces into place I overload the reader with information. I did a thing where i introduced my protag to SIX NEW PEOPLE in a scene–

WHOA THERE. That is a LOT. IT IS TOO MUCH. I have to figure out how to slow that down. I will have more scenes, because I need to introduce my character to all of them, but I need to give them a chance to shine, establish their character, show how they react to my character, etc.
But with more scenes, I can deepen the tension, the conflict, the atmosphere, and the variance in types of scene will be more interesting than me telling the story at a dead run.

3. Let the Character be Irrational

I don’t mean, let the character be completely unreasonable, or that thoughtful, cautious characters are bad writing or anything like that. I mean, people make mistakes. And sometimes they screw up when they’re trying to make things better.

Also, there’s something really relatable about a character who is trying to do the right thing, but doesn’t have enough information to get it right. or the character who gets frustrated and acts on that frustration.

But I let characters tiptoe through a floor scattered with lego, and they never step on a single one.

So my fix is to go back and examine the situation through my character’s – empathetic geniuses, all of ’em – through my character’s negative, fearful, people-pleasing, overly curious, impulsive, petty qualities.

I ask: How can my character screw this up without meaning to?

Once I’ve let the character have more agency, taken away information, and let them be impulsive (a specific subset of let the character have more agency) I’ve repaired what went wrong, and I can keep going. Hopefully you can too.
Special thanks to Caitlin McDonald. Really, this post is because of her.

It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like 

  • a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
  • how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
  • how to build a story when all you have is a character

I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!

Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!

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