Getting unstuck

A long-stuck story came unstuck last week, and I was able to read a complete draft to my writers’ group on Saturday. One of my friends present asked how I got the story unstuck. The more I think about it, the more I realize just how incomplete an answer I gave.

I’m not sure how much a complete answer will help, but here goes:

Many years ago, way more than I want to admit, I got an idea for a mystery short story, tentatively titled “Please Don’t Sing Another Folksong.” It was going to star a detective I’ve written several stories about, already, and would involve the mysterious disappearance of a folk rock singer while aboard a cruise ship. Half the mystery was going to be “is it a murder?” let alone “who done it?”

I wrote a bunch of scenes, presented them to a writing group, wrote a couple more, backed up and rewrote the opening… And then got stuck. Part of it was logistics: my original idea for how it was done didn’t hold up to logic. Another stumbling block was character motivations that didn’t quite work.

I had other ideas for the detective, and completed and published more tales, while this one languished on my hard disk.

Sometime during this period, a friend of mine told an amusing story of her neighborhood being plastered with fliers about “the Return of Jesus!” With a date and an address. Because she had grown up in Phoenix, Arizona with lots of hispanic neighbors and classmates, she said every time she saw the fliers, in her head she pronounced it “Return of Hay-suse!” and thought it would be sad for the true believers who showed up expecting to meet Jesus Christ, but instead find out it’s only some musician named Jesus Hernandez returning from a tour of the east coast, or something.

As soon as I read her email, I found myself typing an opening monologue, in the voice of my aforementioned detective, that began, “Jesus Hernandez was the kind of politician everyone loves to hate…” and I had this idea of a murder mystery where my detective has far, far too many suspects and scantly any clues.

I tried several approaches to the story, and kept winding up deleting everything except the opening monologue.

Then, a few years ago, I was feeling a bit irritated because I had about five stalled mysteries for this character alone that had been lingering on my hard drive for ages. I set them side by side and read through them all, determined to figure out how to get at least one of them unstuck.

And suddenly this scene popped into my head of the politician attempting to thank the folk rock singer for the contributions her music had made, while the singer obviously hated the politician, but felt obligated to be polite… And the next thing I knew, I was writing the scene from the point of view of a stage manager, rather than the detective. And not just any stage manager, but the guy who had been one of three prime suspects in a novella-length mystery I’d gotten published years ago.

And as I wrote some more scenes, I started seeing how this tale was tangential to some story ideas I’d been discussing with another author I occasionally collaborate with…

I’d had one story with methods and motives that didn’t add up, another with lots of motives, but no good idea for the method. Put them together, and things started humming along.

Until I ran into a big obstacle. I knew how the stage manager was going to realize who the culprit was… but I couldn’t figure out how he was going to prove his suspicion right. The trajectory of the story seemed to be heading for a deus ex machina ending, where the detective swooped in and solved it, after the reader has been following another character struggling with the problem.

So it sat on my hard disk, untouched for nearly two years.

Until, because of two completely unrelated stories I’ve been spinning my wheels on for months, I decided to poke around at long untouched stories for a bit. As I was re-reading the mystery, I realized that I had another problem: the way the scenes were written, I had two completely different motives for the culprit. What happens if I commit to motive “B,” I wondered.

A scene came to me of how the stage manager could trick the culprit into giving himself away. Once that was written, all I needed were some scenes to get him there, revisions to all the previous scenes to either eliminate motive “A” clues or divert them to red herring status, and then I needed a good denouement.

So after being up all night long writing and revising, a bit after 7 am Saturday I finally typed “The End.”

Now I still have a lot of revising to do, but trimming and tightening is a lot easier once you’re confident you have the right beginning, middle, and end all together.

To summarize how I unstuck this story (which began as two):

  1. I realized I had started with the wrong viewpoint character
  2. I combined a method with the wrong motive to a motive without a method
  3. I let an unconventional detective use his assets
  4. I turned my frustration into a determination to finish it, whether I was sure it would work or not
  5. Perhaps most importantly, I was willing to set things aside and work on something else until the ideas ripened

Now, to the revising!

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