Puzzling over paragraphs, and other story woes

By Kathryn Lilley

I set a personal record for myself last weekend: I spent the entire weekend–the entire weekend–working on one paragraph. I must have constructed and deconstructed that paragraph a thousand times. By Sunday night I’d whittled and rewritten that sucker until all that remained of it was a grand total of one sentence. One!

At this glacial pace of one sentence every two days, I will not cross the finish line of my manuscript anytime soon. Not good. But I feel like I’m stuck in the mud: I keep developing different ways into the story, then getting unhappy with it, then tearing it up. Hence the endlessly-reworked, bottomless paragraphs. And chapters.

My wheel-spinning is not a total waste–I have tons of pages that will work their way into the story eventually, but right now I feel like I’m playing with a Rubik’s Story-Cube. And I haven’t solved the puzzle yet.

When I described my problem to another writer, her suggestion was to keep going forward with the story without rewriting, and then go back and fix things later.

It’s a good idea, but here’s my problem with that approach: When I’m not happy with my writing, it’s because the elements in the story are wrong. If I write a chapter composed of the wrong elements, it’s like cooking with the wrong ingredients. I would end up with a spoiled dish–a dish that has to be thrown out, not merely reworked.

Maybe it’s time for me to do what I hate the most–write a comprehensive, detailed outline of the entire story. Then all I’d have to worry about is writing the prose itself, not the basic story components.

I heard some sage on the radio the other day–he described a “genius” as someone who persistently examines and reworks a problem until a creative solution is found. If that guy’s correct, I should be getting my Mensa card in the mail any day now.

Have you ever run into this problem, that finding the best path into the story has been unusually difficult? Other than outlining, do you have any good ideas for breaking through this kind of logjam?

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10 thoughts on “Puzzling over paragraphs, and other story woes

  1. Kathryn, I’ve found that brainstorming is one of the best methods to work out story problems like you describe. I’m fortunate to have a co-writer so we conference call daily to handle plotting issues. But as a solo writer, I would suggest finding another colleague or two that you can turn to when you get stuck. The old cliché has never been truer that two heads are better than one. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for outlining, too. But that’s an unwinnable cats-and-dogs debate that’s not worth starting here.

  2. LOL, Kathryn. You have out-Prousted Proust! The only difference is he used to writhe on the floor, agonizing about the words.

    Let me offer two suggestions that have worked for me. I do outline, after I’ve done things like this:

    1. Index cards. Spend a few hours brainstorming scenes, randomly, and write short summaries, one or two lines, on the cards. Don’t worry about coherence or order, just create a stack of scenes as they occur to you. Later, shuffle the cards and pick any two at random. Ask yourself about possible new connections, and jot new scenes that occur to you. Repeat that as often as you like. Next, separate the cards into three piles, one for each act. Where would the scenes likely fit? Last of all, try to put each pile into some sort of linear order. One at a time, lay them out on the floor, look at them, mull, and see what you come up with.

    2. The free form letter: Just write yourself a letter about your story, asking yourself question after question, deepening, going on tangents, jotting possibilities, how you feel about the story, problems you see, etc. The next day, edit the letter a bit, highlighting what really strikes you, then continue the letter. Don’t worry about order here, just let your imagination work it. After a week or so, do a full edit on the letter, getting things in some sort of order. The nice thing about this is it can serve as the raw material for a proposal synopsis, which most writers hate doing from scratch.

  3. Glad you posed this problem. I don’t have a sure-fire solution, although I’ve worked through it a few times, mainly by soldiering on with the story until it becomes obvious to me where I went wrong, then going back and laboriously making corrections. I’ll be watching the comments section with interest to learn a better solution.
    Note to Jim Bell: As soon as I finish with this, I’m digging the index cards out of my desk drawer.

  4. I’ve got to say the index card is a great technique, Jim! After reading your writing books, that is all I do. BTW when is the release date of your next writing book? Can’t wait!

  5. I love the index cards idea, Jim! It’s like story-boarding. I’ve used that approach before, but only in a sporadic way–mostly when I was walking on the beach, and wanted to jot down ideas. (My best ideas seem to come when I’m walking by the ocean or taking a shower. Fortunately we live just a few blocks from the Pacific.) And index cards seem so much better than outlining. I don’t know why I hate outlining so much–it’s probably my middle-school memories of being graded on my outline of the rise and fall of the Roman empire.
    Joe, I really think you’re right that it would help to have a co-writer. I actually started the first book in what would become my series with a co-writer, but she got too busy with her sitcom-writing job (and who could blame a girl for wanting to make big bucks in TV?).

  6. Your dilemma is why I outline. Sometimes the whole novel, but at least several chapters in advance. I use index cards when creating it to see where some things should go, and to keep subplots from getting lost.

    I’ve never tried James’s shuffling idea, but I like it. Next time…

  7. I feel for you Kathryn – I do tend to revisit my outline and that helps (being an outliner) but I second the brainstorming technique. I also write ad hoc scenes and let the creative juices flow – even if I end up never using what I’ve written – it tends to free up my mind. Good luck!

  8. I have been suffering through this plight with my current WIP. The others I have just flowed like warm honey over hot corn bread. This one is like slogging through knee deep day old oatmeal wearing rubber boots that are too big and too short and keep filling up with goo. Instead of characters rolling out like an improv routine they are walking backwards and throwing nettles in my eyes with every step. In six months I’ve only managed to get half done. By the time I finish a chapter I am mentally worn out. It is supposed to be a fast paced action thriller, and is working out ot be so, but the process is taking me through the USMC obstable course with an iron ball manacled to each ankle.

    So I have decided to shelve it for a few weeks and do something else. The hope is that the months of story slog will build up in a pile in the cistern of my cerebellum and spill rapidly onto the page when I again pick up the pen.

    Thanks Kathryn. Its good not to suffer alone.

  9. The index cards are a great idea, Kathryn. But if you have the complete story already in your head, why not sit down and do a broad-brush outline? You don’t have to go into a lot of detail with it, just the high points.

    If you just can’t bring yourself to doing an outline (which would describe me pretty well), or if you’re not completely certain of where the story is going, then I suggest getting together with a friend over coffee. Briefly describe to her the story UP TO the point of impasse. Then ask her where she would like it to go from there. This friend can be a fellow writer, or even a reader. You may be surprised what she would come up with.

    I’ve done this before and just one or two sentences from a friend broke the logjam and got me going again. A different mental process working on the same problem can produce a very workable solution.

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