Stuck on Something New and Different

I’ve started writing a different kind of book, which is going to be a mash-up alternate history, cli-fi, dystopia, and roadtrip novel. I have a reasonable sense of both the narrative and emotional arcs, the main character’s motivation, the kind of things that are going to happen to her, and how the end will play out. This is a very detailed outline for me. I’m also writing in the present tense, which is not my usual style for books (I’ve used it in short stories fairly frequently). But I’m 6K words in and already I’m stuck.

What I’m stuck on is the motivations of other characters. I’ve set up my situation/ problem/ change for my main character in a way that I think works. But now I have to figure out what other people were doing that got her into that situation. What are they hoping to gain by using her, why did they do what they did when, and what’s the threat she poses? I’m okay with her being a pawn, but not a random pawn, someone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So I have to raise the stakes, even if only in my own head. Essentially, I need to reverse-engineer the storyline. Making up history and backstory and so forth has always been one of the things I enjoy most about writing. (It may be why I wrote novels instead of short stories – I think novels have more space for backstory.) This has a different feel to it, though, because it’s really plot, not character development. I’ve been trying out a lot of different things, and they aren’t landing. I know that when I get it, it will be really simple and obvious.

I run into this problem fairly frequently in my writing. Usually it shows up when I’ve created a great big knot that is snarling the story. What’s different for me this time is that I am recognizing the issue early, not ignoring it and plodding on in the hope that it will resolve itself. This is going to lead to a better book ultimately, and one that will likely need less major revision, but it’s a bit frustrating now as I love that moment of diving in to a new story and letting it surprise me in all sorts of ways, even if 80% of them turn out to be crap.

I think the way I’ll get out of this will be by talking it out. I’ll talk the problem out with a couple of listeners, such as my family, and I may write out a conversation between characters. It won’t go in the book, because it won’t be very interesting to read, but in one of those real or fictional conversations I’ll say something that unlocks the problem. That’s the way my mind works.

In the meantime, however, I’ll find some other way to be creative. Take pictures or draw maps or play a game. If I consciously work too hard at the problem, it will have the effect of stripping a screw. It’s hard to give myself permission to walk away from a blank page and do something else that feels “lazy” or “unproductive”; writing time is so precious that I hate “wasting” it with some other activity. But I know myself well enough to know that’s what I have to do.