Lost in Your Own Work

Parking areas around open air shopping malls these days in our part of Northeast Texas are carefully constructed mazes with cul-de-sacs, small dead pockets with only two or three slots stuck into a grassy area, and long winding loops leading back to the main entrance and exits.

I firmly believe they are designed by intent to raise my blood pressure.

Adding to the fun of trying to find a space and wishing the slots were angled instead of perpendicular to the lanes are those pesky little speed bumps that aren’t much for my pickup, but can drag the oil pan off of low-slung vehicles.

Personally, I feel it would be easier to drive into a lot reminiscent of amusement park waiting lanes. I’m sure you’re all familiar with them. Walk up to the entrance, turn left and walk alllll the way to the end, reach the post, and slog alllll the way back and reverse direction ad nauseum until it’s your turn to get on and ride of 90 seconds.

It would be preferable to creeping up and down a parking lot until you find a slot and then having someone whip in ahead of you, resulting in red faces and manic fury.

Why am I talking about parking lots and queues on a writing blog? Well, pour another cup of coffee brothers and sisters, and let me explain how my mind works.

These traffic swirls, eddies, and seldom clot-free lots are reminiscent of the plots in my books. They start with a good, simple idea that should be straightforward from Point A to Point B.

Should be.

Those who follow these blogs know I don’t outline, so the story’s progression is always an adventure for everyone concerned. I begin with a general idea, and hope the plot advances properly until the supporting characters appear at the right time take their places and guide the story. The first act usually comes together as everyone behaves themselves and sets a hopefully simple course.

It never does.

For some reason, my subplots grow like dandelions and as in the case of the project I’m working on at this writing, and I find myself turning left and right to keep up. Right now, I have a protagonist in a traditional western chased by three different bands of antagonists I didn’t anticipate.

Act II is usually difficult for me. Now at 30,000+ words into the manuscript, the loose ends that have been waving around for the bulk of that work in progress are starting to come together, and by Act III and 60,000 words, it should a fun downhill slide to the end.

But this time everything slowed at 75,000 words.

That’s unusual for me. This part usually writes itself as fast as polished steel, so I wondered why.

My characters are doing what’s necessary. For some authors, a stall in the plot is indicative of problems with character motivation. Some writers learning the trade place their protagonists in a place they shouldn’t be, forcing their creations to do something against their personalities or characteristics.

If you’re stalled because of those issues, the best thing to do is simply highlight those pages and hit Delete.

Good lord, Rev! We worked hard on those pages, sometimes sitting for days in front of the computer and staring out the window for eight hours at a time, and you want to send them into an electronic abyss!!!???

Fine then, maybe you can’t put ‘em into a shallow grave yet. Highlight, cut, and paste them in a fresh new separate document for later review, or when you’ve had a couple of cocktails and find the courage to finally hit the Big D key.

But I’m not stalled for that reason.

So I stopped, re-read all 300+ pages and realized I’d drifted away from my protagonist’s main strength. He doesn’t run. When cornered, or angered, he attacks. I’d drifted away from the one thing that makes Cap Whitlatch who he is.

We pause here for a brief recollection that directly ties into my solution and came to light while I was talking to my brother about an event that occurred back in 1976.

Feel free to pour another cup of coffee as I tell you about that night when…

…driving home from a friend’s house at two in the morning, a muscle car full of angry young men took offense at something I still don’t understand. They pulled up beside me at a light and the two on my side opened their doors and charged me. One had a tire iron, and the other carried a hammer.

Greatly outnumbered and shocked by the unprovoked attack, I hit the gas on my old ’69 Galaxie 500. The big 390-cubic-inch engine roared and I ran the light in a cloud of white tire smoke. They followed and tried to run me off the road several times for the next five miles. With no weapons of my own (and that was the last time that happened) I had few choices. There was no police station nearby and though I’d just left the house of a friend who was an officer, it as well before the days of cell phones.

I couldn’t run to my apartment, because it would still be me against four. I had no friends who lived nearby to offer assistance, but I had one ace in the hole. My old man, a veteran of the Japanese theater in WWII, lived close and slept with his windows open, with a double-barrel twelve-gauge always by the bed.

Using evasive driving skills taught to me by the aforementioned police officer friend, and relying on sharp 22-year-old reflexes, I stomped the gas as if trying to make a run for it. Just as I expected, the driver responded and soon we were running parallel at 80-miles-an-hour.

Nerves jangling, I hit the brakes at the last minute and whipped a hard right into Dad’s neighborhood.

They overshot.

Fast acceleration on my part, another quick left and a power slide to the curb in front of the Old Man’s little frame house. Tires squalling, I was out of the car in a flash. “Dad!”

A light sleeper, his voice came through the dark screen. “What’s wrong, son?”

“I need help.”

The muscle car rounded the corner and slid to a stop behind my Ford. The driver popped open his door and emerged with a makeshift weapon in his hand I couldn’t identify in the dark. The other three were out and coming for me as well.

Scared, furious, and finally cornered, I saw red and charged. “The driver’s mine!”

At that time I weighed in at maybe 135 pounds, but it was mad talking, even though that old boy was half again my size and looked as if he lifted baby elephants for fun.

From the corner of my eye I saw the Old Man step onto the porch in his drawers, but the twin bores of that big shotgun pointing at the other three was enough to make ‘em all stop. Fists doubled, I was heading for the driver when he turned and shouted.


They jumped into the car, reversed, and spun out of there.

Lowering the shotgun, the Old Man watched the taillights disappear. “What was that all about?”

I was suddenly weak. “I have no idea.”

We went inside, drank a pot of Mom’s coffee at the kitchen table and wondered why those guys wanted to harm me. I still don’t know to this day, but the story doesn’t end there.

My paternal grandfather was a rural constable upon whom I based Ned Parker in my Red River mysteries. The Old Man told him what had transpired before I saw Grandpa again, and when I did, the old lawman gave me a wry grin and some great country wisdom.

“It don’t do to run a dog up on his own porch, does it?”

Remembering what happened that night gave me the conclusion to this stalled work in progress. Cal Whitlatch is on the porch (read here a rough western town) and he’s no longer running. He’s turned to fight.

Now those three subplot threads are coming together and I once again have control of what’s happening. Instead of wandering through that maze, looking for…something…the story is now clear. With that, I’m on the downhill slide to a whiz bang ending.

So here are a couple of final points.

Don’t force your characters into a situation or place they shouldn’t be. They’ll either dig in their heels, or wander around lost and confused as you put ineffective and listless words on the page.

Don’t lose your initial thread. It’s okay for the plot to veer (in that parking lot), if you come back to the final trail at the end.

It’s all right to stop, reverse, and find your way again through that maze.

It’s okay to either move stalled works to a new page for later review, or to delete them and start over. It might hurt, but you’ll get over it.

Writing something outside of that stuttering project, like this post, can jumpstart your subconscious to find the plot trail again, too.

I hope I’ve led you out of that confusing and frustrating parking lot in this ridiculously long post.


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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com. “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

14 thoughts on “Lost in Your Own Work

    • Thanks, Cynthia.

      This one ran long, I know, but I sometimes get carried away with the story. Glad you liked it. And yes, to both you and Joe, I think that’s why thrillers are so successful. Strong men and women standing up for what’s right, despite the odds.

      A noted writer who also posts on this blog, and I, were once accosted by a lady to disagreed with this idea. She brought up the topic of Toxic Masculinity and what she referred to as the John Wayne syndrome. My friend and I escaped the conversation before blood pressures reached dangerous levels, but I wish I’d posted this question.

      If you were in fear of your life from some lunatic, which would you rather have to come save you, a strong and possibly harsh individual who will do what’s necessary to protect your safety, or someone who arrives to psycho-analyze the tormentor, hoping to find what deep-seated trauma brought him (or her) to accost you.

      I know which one I’d choose.

  1. Terrific story and great advice, Rev. I’m a planner, but this can still happen, and in fact, has to me in the past, with the last urban fantasy I wrote. The reason was letting action take over and losing the thread of the character’s stakes in the story and what it meant to her personally. I came back to the book last month and read the hundred pages I had written and realized that I’d lost her thread. Then figured out how to find it again.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • If I come to a dead stop in writing and can’t figure out why, I will go back a few chapters and reread it. Nine times out of ten, I’m going in the wrong direction, and my writing muse won’t move forward until I fix it.

    • Thanks, Dale.

      It’s easy to lose a thread when we start and stop or get interrupted. There are some days you go back and edit to excess, forgetting where you left off. It’s a natural trap, but easy to get out of and start writing on the straight and narrow again.

  2. Rev, when I’m developing a plot my mind is a dune buggy racing, jumping, skidding, wandering—discovering hidden treasures under the dunes, as I start a preliminary map that grows, changes, shifts, and eventually comes together in a series of happy surprises. I then eliminate wrong turns…if I drive into a mine shaft to explore and find it closed up, I back out and drive to another spot. I am then able to plan my writing from happy surprise to happy surprise, what I call signpost scenes. When I get into the writing itself, I have more fun dune buggying to the next signpost. So I know where I’m going, but get to explore some more without getting lost. Along the way the Boys in the Basement are sending up flares to send me on a path that I hadn’t anticipated…but without getting me hopelessly lost.

    What a ride is the writer’s mind, eh?

    • Our minds are scary places, but also full of wonder. Just last night we went to see the new musical, The Temptations, with another couple and both are well read. My friend Rick asked me how I do this writing thing and I paused, formulating an answer before addressing his question. ‘

      “I don’t know.”

      We laughed at the truth.

  3. “It don’t do to run a dog up on his own porch, does it?”

    Rev, your grandpa was a wise man of few words. And your dad sounds like someone I’d like to live next door to.

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