How To Get Out of Story Stall


I think about Paris when I’m high on red wine.
I wish I could jump on a plane.
And so many nights I just dream of the ocean.
God, I wish I was sailing again. 
If you read my last couple of entries here you know I have been struggling to get some mo on my WIP. This week I finally realized I needed something drastic to kick me out of my funk.
So I took a cue from that great Western philosopher Jimmy Buffett and changed my latitude to change my attitude.
I didn’t get on a plane and go to Paris. But I did take a boat to work.
Normally, I work at home, migrating from sofa to chaise to bed with Acer in tow. But I was feeling closed in and my story was reflecting that. So I stuck the laptop in a backpack, put on clean clothes, combed my hair and slapped on enough makeup so I wouldn’t scare the horses and left the condo.
I live in downtown Fort Lauderdale on a river. A couple days ago, the city started up a free water taxi service. So Saturday, I took the boat to my local Coffee Place With Green Mermaid Logo. I got a cappacino, switched off the Wifi and opened Word. In two hours, I wrote 956 words. And most of them were keepers.
Today, I am back. And as soon as I finish this blog post, I am back to chapter twenty-two. And you know what? For the first time in weeks, I am eager to get to work.
Maybe you are one of those writers who thrive on routine and quiet. God bless you. I envy you. But I can’t do it. I don’t have set hours and I seem to produce my best work when I am in a strange place, preferably with the white noise of hissing espresso machines or bar Musak. But I had gotten in the habit of staying at home and it had resulted in a bad case of story stall.
We all have times when we get stuck in neutral, when our mind-wheels are mired in mud or spinning fast and going nowhere. Yeah, we can call it writer’s block, as this New Yorker article does:

Writing is a nerve-flaying job. First of all, what the Symbolists said is true: clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort. For anyone who wonders why seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day, that’s the answer. Anthony Burgess…concluded that a writer can never be happy: “The anxiety involved is intolerable. And…the financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”

But I think writer’s block is a luxury of literary types. If you write for the commercial market, you can’t afford to wait for the muse to come around every couple years. My story stall and my move to coffee shop got me to thinking about all the ways we can use to un-stick ourselves. I’ll bet you guys have some good tips to add.

Change Your Habits or Habitat

Getting dressed and going to a coffee shop has forced me to treat my writing as more of a job. I also have eliminated all the distractions and excuses of home: dogs, full laundry basket, TV, husband, unfinished crossword puzzle. If you work at home now, go somewhere else. Do you write only in the morning? Try a shift to the afternoon. I know life intrudes (kids, day job, night classes). But even a small change in routine can make you feel renewed.

Switch Point of View

Not just your own, but your narrator’s. When I started my WIP, I envisioned the entire story from my female protag’s POV as she is pursued by a male investigator. But once the guy came on stage, he started stealing the story. I fought him for nine chapters before I realized his story was equally as compelling as hers. In fact, their storylines paralleled thematically. I switched to a dual protag and the story took off.

Simplify Your Plot

There is an urge, when you’re new at novel writing, to use all your best ideas in one book. Maybe it’s because we feel if we don’t, we will never get a second chance. Usually, a simple linear plot works best. (Which is not to say you don’t have complications, obstacles, setbacks, etc.) Two folks in my critique group were wrestling with confusing tangled yarn-ball narratives that overwhelmed their characters. One writer realized he had TWO books in one and has now excised one plot line for a sequel. The other writer realized she was trying to graft an international thriller plot onto what is, at heart, a lovely Romeo and Juliet mystery. Once she jettisoned the over-done thriller elements, the characters began to shine.

Pick a Different Point of Entry

The writer’s saw states, “get into a scene as late as possible.” I’d say that applies to your overall story. As James, Jodie and others have said here often, the optimum moment to begin your story is just before the stuff hits the fan. If you have too much set-up, all the reader “hears” is you clearing your throat. If you come in too late, you can risk losing any chance to build tension. Do you have a prologue? Try cutting it out. I bet you won’t miss it. Click here to read Joe Moore’s useful post on prologues.

Write Your Book’s Back Copy

Lack of focus is one of the biggest reasons for story stall. If you don’t know WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT, how can you know where it is going? I’m not talking about plot points; I am talking about the big picture, the main drama and the stakes, your character’s arcs, and the theme. If you can’t boil your book’s essence down to one sharply written paragraph of about five sentences, I’m betting you don’t have a handle on what you are trying to say. I wrote about this at length a while back. Click here to see tips.

Print Out Your Chapters

It’s scientific fact that looking at a computer screen changes the way our brains work. Print out your pages and read them like a reader. And here’s another twist: Format your chapters in single space, justified, Times Roman, so it looks as close to a real book as possible. I did this once and my problems with pacing and back story jumped off the page. Also, “typesetting” it breaks your mental image of your WIP, taking it out of “rough” draft (I’m struggling!) to “real” book. (Wow, not as bad as I thought.)

Speed Write

This is something I do in my workshops: I give students an opening line and make them write as fast as possible for ten minutes. Sure, it might produce junk, but more often than not, they come up with interesting stuff. Set a kitchen timer or your iPhone and just let it flow fast and furious. You will surprise yourself. Consider it a creative colonic.

Quit While You’re Ahead

This one’s from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” Caveat: This does not work for me. I must finish and light up my metaphoric ciggie.  

Get an Imaginary Dog

This is something I know a lot about: Not writing is like not sleeping. It does no good to lay there at 3 a.m. and stare at the glowing digital clock. Likewise, staring at the blinking curser won’t unblock you. Get out and go for a walk. Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical insights while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Walking is something of a luxury in our go-go world. But science has documented the relationship between walking and thinking, that the rhythm of the body seems to free the mind. The ancient sages even had a phrase for it: Solvitur ambulando. “It is solved by walking.” So walk, don’t run. No iPod. Leave early and take the dog.

Get Some Imaginary Kids

We are Writers (capital W). But sometimes it’s good to go lower case and remember we are first storytellers. In our quest for the perfect sentence, the lovely phrase, the big idea, we often get in the way of our stories. Did your parents or teachers ever read to you? Remember how enthralling it was? John Steinbeck once wrote about being stalled: “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” If you get stuck, imagine you are sitting around a campfire telling a good story to some kids. Would you open with a prologue full of back story? Would you start with some confusing dialogue? No, you’d do something like this: “Every night, before he turned off the light, Jamie would get down on his hands and knees and look under his bed. There was never anything there except the dust bunnies. But on the night of his thirteenth birthday, when he picked up the edge of the bedspread, he saw something he had never seen before.”

Stop Writing

I know, I know. This sounds counter-intuitive. It smells of defeat. But I think we sometimes just need to give ourselves a break and take a break. Maybe your break is only for a day or a week. Maybe it needs to last over a good vacation. Maybe, like I had to do at one time, you need to take a couple months off. The world won’t end. Your WIP will still be there when you go back. But don’t buy into this notion that you MUST write every day. I’ll give the last word to Hilary Mantel:
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ¬music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” 
I like that. Be patient. With your writing and with yourself.

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The Art of Writing Back Copy:Boiling Your Book to its Essence

By PJ Parrish

Congratulations! You finished your novel! You typed those two sweet words THE END. Right there on the bottom of  your Word doc is that magic line: Words: 96,788.

Okay, now the hard work begins. Now go back and write your book again – this time in 200 words.

Yes, I’m talking about back copy. I know. You don’t want to deal with it. It’s one of those tangential things like publicity, P&L statements, website algorhithms, or finding a good editor, that writers don’t want to think about but know they have to because that’s the way the book business is rolling these days. Writers have become one-man bands. We do it all or we die.

I can hear some of you out there saying, “I can skip this one today.” But you can’t really. Because being able to articulate what your book is about in 200 words or less is really valuable. Why? Here’s five reasons:

  1. If you are self-publishing with Amazon, you have to write your own back copy.
  2. If you are querying agents, you have to have compose a great hook for your book
  3. If you are going to a conference and meeting an agent, you have to be able to give a 30-second elevator pitch.
  4. If you’re doing a speech or a signing, you need to articulate what your book’s about in two or three sentences.
  5. And maybe most important: Being able to boil your story down to its very essence is a great exercise unto itself, one that will help you understand what, in your heart, you are really trying to communicate. 

Both of my traditional publishers, Kensington and Pocket, let us edit our back copy and a couple times we even wrote it. And we write all the descriptions that appear with our self-published backlist titles on Amazon.  I’ve written my share of query letters. I had an unnerving 10-minute pitch session with an editor from Harpers at a writer’s conference. And I’ve sat at card tables in malls trying to talk people into buying my books when all they really want is directions to the Piercing Pagoda.

I’m actually not bad at boiling down a story. I think it is because I made my living for years as a newspaper copy editor and once you get the hang of writing headlines that can be grasped by a guy driving by a newspaper box at 40 miles an hour, well, having 200 words to sum up a whole book doesn’t seem that hard.

But I know it actually is. One of the hardest things to do is to write with both brevity and verve.  As a reporter, I was always way over in my word count and my editor never bought into the Mark Twain quote that I would have written shorter if I had more time. So whenever I see back copy done well, I appreciate the care that goes into. Here’s two off my bookshelf that I really like:

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones and when the snow falls it is gray. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.

   * * *

More than a year ago, mild-mannered Jason Getty killed a man he wished he’d never met. Then he planted the problem a little too close to home. But just as he’s learning to live with the reality of what he’s done, police unearth two bodies on his property – neither of which is the one Jason buried. 

The first is from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s good because it captures not just the plot but also mimics style and mood of the novel. The second is from Jamie Mason’s Three Graves Full. I like it because it is short and very seductive.

On the flip side, I see a lot of bad back copy out there these days. In the New York Times book review today, I saw an ad for a print-on-demand publisher touting its books with the headline: UNFORGETTABLE STORIES. Here are some sample descriptions:

In the summer of 1863, an eighteen-year-old Amish farm boy feels trapped between his religious heritage and his fascination with the world outside his small Pennsylvania town. His solution is to leave home. And so begins his unforgettable adventure that will change his life forever.

[Title redacted] is a highly engrossing work of fiction, set in the north of England, extrapolated from the realities of the world of front line regional newspaper reporters and the sort of situations they they on a daily basis.

Abused and mistreated, Jane grew up in the field of restraints which she calls a prison. And she hopes there is still an ounce of sanity left in her which leaves her with the choice of breaking away from the [title redacted].

[Title redacted] is author [redacted] new novel that looks into the lives of the people who survived the 1998 Nairobi bombings and how they struggle to cope with the pain and loss.

[Name redacted] returns from the war minus a a leg and discovers that his wife has left him and his engineering business has shut down. Forced to re-invent his life, he and his family battle to overcome war’s damage.  

Now, these could be very good novels. But from the blurbs, there is no way to know. None of these entice readers or capture the tone or mood of the books. They are wordy (“feels trapped”), filled with cliches (“unforgettable adventure”) , vague on plot points, filled with generalities (“struggle to cope”), confusing, and devoid of any hint of conflict or suspense.

Writing great back copy is a fine art. It’s nearest kin might be advertising copy in that its form is short and specialized, and its purpose is to seduce, tease, and make us buy into something. It’s no accident that some pretty good novelists emerged from the advertising industry —  Don DeLillo, Fay Weldon,  Joseph Heller.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote streetcar sign slogans for $35 a week. Dorothy Sayers made a name for herself writing a mustard slogan before she got hot with crime novels. Salman Rushdie, who wrote ad copy while trying to finish his first novel, recalls taking a test for the J. Walter Thompson agency where, “they asked you to imagine that you met a Martian who mysteriously spoke English and you had to explain to them in less than 100 words how to make toast.” And then there was that guy who started out as a junior copywriter at  J. Walter Thompson, rose to CEO, and turned his ad experience into James Patterson Inc.

So what’s the secret? Our own Jodie Renner and James Bell laid out some great tips in a post here last year. CLICK HERE to read it.  And if you want some really helpful tips from a real agent on how to write good query letter hooks, CLICK HERE to go to the Miss Snark archives. But I’d also like to offer up some of my own tips, if I may.

Don’t give a plot regurgitation. Give just enough story to hook the reader’s interest while you also hint at the larger picture behind the book. Here’s a great tease:

From a helicopter high above the California desert, a man is sent free-falling into the night . . . and Jack Reacher is plunged into the heart of a conspiracy that is killing old friends.

Reacher has no phone, no address, no ties. But a woman from his former military unit has found him using a signal only the eight members of their elite team would know. Then she tells him about the brutal death of one of their own. Soon they learn of the sudden disappearance of two other comrades. But Reacher won’t give up—because in a world of bad luck and trouble, when someone targets Jack Reacher and his team, they’d better be ready for what comes right back at them.

Know your audience. Make sure the tone is right. Hit the high notes of your genre or the genre’s tropes. Romance or romantic suspense tends to stress the characters and relationships over plot. Thrillers tend toward the opposite. Just like your cover, you have to convey the exact mood of your story. Use language that appeals to the reader’s emotions. You won’t mistake Elaine Viet’s Shop Til You Drop for Lee Child:

Once on the fast track to success, Helen Hawthorne is going nowhere fast. Forced to trade in her chic life for a shabby one, she’s now on the run trying to stay one step ahead of her past. After two weeks as a new clerk at Juliana’s, Fort Lauderdale’s exclusive boutique, Helen still feels out of fashion. But in a shop where the customer’s collagen lips are bigger than their hips, who wouldn’t…

Start with a great headline. If you’re having trouble coming up with the perfect headline, write the body copy first. Later, go back and read what you wrote as if you were a consumer seeing it for the first time. Somewhere, buried in all that copy, you will find your headline. Here’s a sample you can find in our special Kill Zone Zone 99-cent Amazon offering Thrill Ride:

A KILLING SPREE. A MISSING BOY
A PLACE WHERE ONLY THE STRONGEST SURVIVE

A deep freeze is bearing down on the Florida Everglades, the kind of brutal storm the locals call a killing rain. For Detective Louis Kincaid, the coldest night of the year has brought a terrifying new chill — a grisly murder that tightens his every nerve in warning. This is no routine case. It’s the start of a nightmare.

Watch how it looks on the page. Is it too long? Are the sentences too long and hard to digest in one quick reading? Did you break it into paragraphs, if needed? Think about the best advertising copy you see. The block of copy must register in the eye as a fast read.

Tell us who your hero is and where we are. It’s a good idea to work in your protag’s name, profession, and the location(s) of your story. Readers want to be able to tell at a glance if the protag is male or female, what kind of person it is, and where you are going to take them. Geography is important to many readers. Here’s some effective copy from a Steve Hamilton book that does all this and gives us a little backstory:

Alex McKnight swore to serve and protect Detroit as a police officer, but a trip to Motown these days is a trip to a past he’d just as soon forget. The city will forever remind him of his partner’s death and of the bullet still lodged in his own chest. Then he gets a call from his old sergeant. A young man Alex helped put away—in the one big case that marked the high point of his career—will be getting out of prison. When the sergeant invites Alex to have a drink for old times’ sake, it’s an offer he would normally refuse. However, there’s a certain female FBI agent he can’t stop thinking about, so he gets in his truck and he goes back to Detroit.

Don’t give away too much. Good copy writing is a seduction. The back copy should make the reader want more. Think foreplay. One good tip is to pick a spot in the your plot, usually a quarter or a third of the way in, and don’t include anything that happens after that point.

TV reporter Candy Sloan has eyes the color of cornflowers and legs that stretch all the way to heaven. She also has somebody threatening to rearrange her lovely face if she keeps on snooping into charges of Hollywood racketeering. Spenser’s job is to keep Candy healthy until she breaks the biggest story of her career. But her star witness has just bowed out with three bullets in his chest, two tough guys have doubled up to test Spenser’s skill with his fists, and Candy is about to use her own sweet body as live bait in a deadly romantic game – a game that may cost Spenser his life.

Avoid passive voice and weasel words, clichés, twenty-dollar vocabulary. Don’t use big hard to grasp words. Again, back copy is like good advertising copy: It appeals to the senses and emotions. You can pile on the details and pretty writing inside the covers.

Hint at what’s at stake. Go back and read the bad examples I listed above. Each of them has the same core problem: There is no defining of the central conflict or what the stakes are. This is a complaint I hear often from agents about query letters. A successful hook in a good query letter works much the same way as back copy does — it makes the agent want to know more — NOT about plot points but what this all means for the protagonist.

End with a question.  We see this device a lot in back copy but for good reason. It works. It creates suspense.  (“What will John do when he discovers Jane’s deception?”) It hints at future complications (“When their investigation leads them to a city hall conspiracy, can their love stand the test?”) It sets up possible suspects, like in this back copy:

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

Go for the Big But. This  is a cliche construction in back copy writing, but hey, it works. First you set up a scenario of normality for your protagonist then you use a conjunction bridge to a new development in that person’s life (ie a crime) that has sent them on a new course. Go back and look for all the BUTS I have highlighted in blue and you’ll see how common this is. Here’s a sample from John Creasey’s Parson With a Punch:

The Reverend Ronald Kemp came to the East End of London with definite ideas of right and wrong, which was only fitting for a minister of God. But the people of the East End had a few ideas of their own and the Rev. Kemp quickly finds his world torn asunder…

From Michele Gagnon’s Bone Yard:

FBI agent Kelly Jones has worked on many disturbing cases in her career, but nothing like this. A mass grave site unearthed on the Appalachian Trail puts Kelly at the head of an investigation that crosses the line…Assisted by law enforcement from two states, Kelly searches for the killers. But as darkness falls, another victim is taken and Kelly must race to save him before he joins the rest…in the boneyard.

From Michael Connelly:

Mickey Haller gets the text, “Call me ASAP – 187,” and the California penal code for murder immediately gets his attention. Murder cases have the highest stakes and the biggest paydays, and they always mean Haller has to be at the top of his game. But when Mickey learns that the victim was his own former client, a prostitute he thought he had rescued and put on the straight and narrow path, he knows he is on the hook for this one.

Hyperbole? Heck, why not? It’s not uncommon for back copy prose to get a little purple, especially in crime fiction. We see a lot of this kind of stuff: “Time is running out…”  “As the nightmare increases…” “Even as danger mounts…”the shocking truth is revealed.” You can use this — but in small doses, please. Readers will turn on you if they sense you’re just throwing a bunch of adjectives at them like “dazzling” or “breathtaking.” CLICK HERE to read a bookseller’s take on how hyperventilating blurbs turn readers off.  And if you’re writing humor, please be careful tossing around stuff like “hilarious” and “side-splitting.”

Here’s back copy for Sherrilyn Kenyon that’s corny as all get out but hey, it works for me:

He is solitude. He is darkness. He is the ruler of the night. Yet Kyrian of Thrace has just woken up handcuffed to his worst nightmare: An accountant. Worse, she’s being hunted by one of the most lethal vampires out there. And if Amanda Devereaux goes down, then he does too. But it’s not just their lives that are hanging in the balance.  Kyrian and Amanda are all that stands between humanity and oblivion. Let’s hope they win.

A few final things to consider as you put together your back copy:

  • When you’re done, read your blurb out loud.  
  • Prune out all unnecessary words. See if you can cut out 30 percent.
  • Go into Amazon and read some blurbs in your genre for good books. Read the backs of paperbacks. Mimic the ones that work. 
  • Run your blurbs by beta readers and see if they salute.
Whew. Long post today. Sorry about that. I would have written shorter if I had had more time.

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