Asking for Help During Story Stuckery
1. Latest News from the Desk of Sooz:
May 2022 —
Y'all, May has kind of kicked my butt. I hate to open a newsletter with whining, but it's just been one of those months, you know?
First, my dog probably has aggressive cancer.
Two, I got sick for the first time in 2.5 years (which meant the toddler got sick too for the first time...ever).
Three, I learned I am deficient in Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, magnesium, and iron! (Okay, so actually this is good news because it explains my ongoing fatigue and is easily fixed with supplements.)
Then, number four: I got hideously stuck in my book. As mentioned before, when I'm stuck, I'm miserable. So that just made dealing with everything else a wee bit harder than it need to be.
Is this the worst month of my life? Hardly. Lol. But I sure feel like I have less resilience these days than I did pre-child and pre-pandemic. 🥴
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2. Writing Prompts
Ducklings hatch in the woods nearby. Seven look fluffy and normal, but there's something strange about the eighth...
Have you read anything lately that gave you pause? That made you think or feel a little bit more deeply about the world at large or perhaps your own intimate place in the world?
3. For the Daydreamers: Asking for help during stuckery
So, as mentioned at the top, I got brutally stuck during May. Again.
This time though, I was at least at the end of Act 2 -- a spot where I always get stuck because I need time to figure out how the plot can wrap up in the fewest scenes possible.
Basically, all of my plot threads typically collide at that turning point between Acts 2 and 3. You know, that beat right after the "black moment" when a character feels so defeated.
I really hate slowing down momentum right there.
Like, I enjoy it when my character sinks to their lowest point, then gets an injection of new information, and BAM! ACTION TIME, BABY!
Alternatively, if my characters have their lowest moment...and then need ten more chapters to deal with every plot thread and subplot one by one before the climax kicks off -- that isn't fun for anyone!
But, although my character might immediately dive into the climax, I as the writer do not. That turning point moment always requires me to pause and think and let my subconscious meander some...
Typically, it takes me a week or two before a solution emerges. Sometimes it takes me months. (*cough*Witchshadow*cough)
This time, I was definitely headed more toward the "months" end of the spectrum. Worse though, I could sense something was broken earlier in the book, and I know from past experience that if I don't fix what's broken, I'll never find the Best Solution for my Act 3 turning point.
Unfortunately, all my attempts to find what was broken were proving unsuccessful. In fact, I was just moving words around, cutting and adding, but never actually fixing anything.
Enter stage left: misery
So...I finally had to pull the plug and ask for outside help.
Y'all may recall that I promised myself I would get better about asking for outside help this year...? Lol, cue me never doing that. I was resisting and resisting...until I was just so tired from YALLWest that I couldn't resist any longer.
I asked my editor to read the first chunk of the book. I knew that the brokenness was somewhere in there, so please, could she find it for me?
And sure enough, she did. It was NOT actually a problem with the book (hilarious, right? She actually liked the book 😐) but a very tiny problem with something I was planning in the third book.
In other words, it didn't matter how many times I kept revising the first 70,000 words -- I was NEVER going to get myself through my Act 3 stuckery without outside help. I needed someone to look at what I had and then talk through everything I was planning.
And bam. The next day, as I brainstormed by the light of dawn (lol, that isn't a joke, I get up so early) my Act 3 turning point arrived! Changing one tiny element in my plans for book 3 totally shifted one tiny thing in book 2. From there on, I could see how everything unfurled.
I should also mention that while waiting on my editor to read, I chatted with my buddy Erin Bowman. She had just read The Luminaries ARC, and so she was able to give me some "outside perspective" on what she as a reader wanted to see coming next.
It was so helpful -- if for no other reason then that I could finally explain to someone all the things that had tripped me up thus far. And since she had read, she understood why I got so hideously stuck. (I will explain more once the book is out! I'm afraid it will otherwise be too spoiler-y.)
Just getting out all that pent-up frustration over my brain, my process, my story felt so good. 10/10 recommend talking to a friend! 😉
I am such an intuitive writer -- something Alex Bracken and I just discussed in depth on IG. I rely on feeling my way through the story.
Yes, I apply logic plenty too, as many of you know if you've followed this newsletter for any length of time. But in the end, I always choose gut over brain -- I literally have to. I have to find the Right Story and tell it, even if there are plenty of other Perfectly Fine Stories out there that would work too.
Something in my bones just knows when I've got the Right Story, and as soon as I do...ah, the words pour forth.
I recently read a fantastic book all about this that I highly recommend: Dear Writer, Are You Intuitive? by Becca Syme. I loved it! It was SO validating! I absolutely urge all of you to read it, even if you don't consider yourself a pantser or plantser. There is something in there for all types of writers.
But as I suspect Becca would say about my process: all of the sensors on my writing autopilot are constantly absorbing information as a I draft, and if a sensor picks up something wrong -- even if I don't know what is yet -- the autopilot has to stop and course correct. I sense that the Right Story has disappeared, and until I find it again...
Well, thank goodness I'm not actually a pilot relying on automated sensors to keep my plane aloft in the air.
Long story short: if you're stuck and have been for a long time, ask for help. It's a good lesson not just for writing, but for life in general.
Ask for help. Believe it or not, people often love to be asked -- they love to give their input and ideas. I know I certainly do! Which just makes it that much sillier that I remain forever afraid to "bother" people when it would never bother ME if they come to me in a bind.
So may you all learn from my mistakes! And may your words flow forth beautifully moving forward!
4. Something Extra: Five Works by South Asian Authors Where I Found a Part of Myself
It’s AAPI heritage month! I (Samira) was an 80s kid and growing up, and I never read a book in school that felt truly reflective of my experiences. There weren’t books on the school library shelves with characters who shared my intersectionalities. The phrase “representation matters” was still decades away from being part of the cultural conversation. My entire school career, I read books that were windows, but not quite mirrors. Still, there were the pioneers, the writers who came before me, who paved this path I now get to walk on. In their works, I found parts of myself on the page; I found hope. Here are works from 5 South Asian authors who help me become the writer I am today.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I adore this collection of short stories. When I was teaching high school, a fellow teacher walked up to me, handed me this slim volume and said, “This book was written for you.” She was right. Lahiri’s stories are about love and loss, human failures and triumphs, and the power and fissures of human connection. The stories were about desis, living their lives, and there was something elegant and extraordinary in the way Lahiri let me peer into lives that intersected with my own.
“What We Lost,” a poem by Michael Ondaatje. I’ve probably thought of this poem every week since I first read it in 1997. In spare verse, Ondaatje captured so much of what I felt about living in an interstitial space, about mourning things that are lost in diaspora, “the deeper levels of the self.”
Meatless Days by Sara Suleri. When I heard that Sara Suleri recently passed away, it took me back to college, when I first came across this memoir that is driven by metaphor. It might have been my earliest education in postcolonial literature. Suleri tells her story, unconventionally, by telling the stories of family members, reminding me of how much our lives are intertwined with those around us, with the ones who came before us.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Honestly, I love everything written by Mohsin Hamid. This list could’ve just been books by him. But this “metafictional” novel is the first of his works that I read. In so many ways, I related to the main character, to his uncertainties, to his anger, to the fear he saw in the eyes of strangers—a fear of him, of what they assumed he stood for. This novel raises questions of what defines us, of how what we see in others often reflects who we are.
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta. Bombay is the city where I was born. A city I shared, briefly, with Mehta. His keenly observed, unsparing yet loving account of life in one of the world’s great cities, in a city that hums in my blood even though I’m far removed from it, ensnared my imagination. There are so many things that have gone wrong for Bombay as it turned to Mumbai, led by fascist politicians, who wanted to erase Muslims from Bombay’s history. But Mehta found hope in small pockets of everyday life in this diverse, vibrant city and he gave voice to so many feelings that I shared—of being an outsider, but also of belonging.
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