“Remember what the doormouse said.”

–Jefferson Airplane

I’m not going to write about what I was going to write about because, frankly, I don’t want to. We’ve been talking about community, and you can bet your britches that this conversation is going to culminate in a fantastic interview with the folks of MG Book Village. However, as I was traveling through Switzerland, Romania, and the Czech Republic,  I received a message from my CP.


Yes, stuck. Stuck on a pivotal scene in the beginning of his novel, not unlike the scene I’ve been stuck on for months when trying to hammer out the sequel to Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key. “Something is missing,” he said, “and I don’t know what it is.”

I remember his message so clearly because I remember thinking, “Well, golly. I’m facing just about the same thing. I know what needs to happen. I know what should happen. But it’s just…missing something. That je ne sais quoi.”  

I’m still staying tuned to his mechanics, but as I was climbing the stars of Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania, basking in the medieval history of Prague, and stuffing my face with fondue, something hit me—the quoi that had been missing in my writing for so darn long. Finally, I was able to go back to my apartment and fly through twenty pages of text without batting an eyelash.

What changed? I’ve narrowed down the spark to four distinct factors.

1. A change of scenery.

I mean, I ran away and joined the circus, but a change of scenery can be as simple as taking a good, long walk or watching a movie that you’ve never seen before. If you give yourself the chance to experience something fresh and new, you may find that this “something” might be the something you needed all along. For me, it was castles and mountains and funny, weeing statues.

2. A change of perspective.

“I’m just not getting it!” I lamented to one of my betas. “It’s just not flowing. Patel doesn’t want to go to the dance, his crazy Aunt Gilly is forcing him to go, the cheerleaders morph into zombies…”

So on and so forth. I went on about plot ties (this is the first mystery I’ve ever written, so it’s been tricky), character motivations, technicalities of the setting, and why these things were essential to the rest of the plot.

This wonderful man listened to every word, waited patiently for me to finish, and then said, “What if Patel wants to go?”

I was flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. That flipped the entire chapter plot upside-down, scrambling character motivations and redefining the tension between the main contenders. However, the more I got to thinking, the more I realized that he was on to something.

Swapping the motivation didn’t dissolve the tension. It made the tension stronger. I started my fourth rewrite with these new ideas blossoming in my head, and low and behold, I finally came out with the winning draft. It looks absolutely nothing like my original outline, but this new way ended up ironing out wrinkles that I had been trying to snag for months.

This is why you’ve got to have friends. Someone to talk to—someone to dribble with your ideas. If you find yourself in the quagmire of your own head, try getting out of it and into someone else’s.

Go find a new perspective.

It takes a village to raise a child, and I would absolutely argue that this applies to your book child, too. Don’t be afraid to tilt something upside-down or even to let someone else do the tilting for you.

3. A change of genre.

I write middle grade fiction. It’s very clean, very noble, and certainly not infested with blood-spurting fortune cookies or cannibalistic clowns. However, on my most recent trip, I decided to bring along a copy of Stephen King’s IT. Not for any particular reason; I like King’s writing and needed something for the plane.

Interestingly enough, I found my je ne sais quoi tucked between the lines of hauntings, graphic scenes of violent prejudice, and grisly murders. Certainly, IT has not prompted me to add festooned intestines to my books (every time Patel sees blood it’s described as a “dark liquid” or “a steady crimson drip”), but King’s description of such horrors as seen through a child’s eyes did highlight the “something” I was missing.

Fear. I was missing the emotion of fear.

Sure, Patel saw horrible things, but my main character was acting more like a Morgan Freeman-styled narrator than a thirteen-year-old boy. He was observing, not participating—that elusive “showing and not telling.” After seeing Pennywise the clown through the alternating perspectives of the Losers’ Club, I realized what was lacking was not plot or structure—it was emotional grit.

If you’re writing in a certain genre, it would do you well to do your research within that genre—to find out how thrillers, murder mysteries, or even erotica are successfully crafted. However, it took me stretching beyond my genre—reaching out into a drastically different and even polar opposite type of story—to see what my book needed.

Sure, I can write fairy tales full of globetrotting feats and dashing adventures, but it took a visit to Derry to remind me what it’s like to be afraid of the dark.    

4. Time

I spent quite a bit of time in the military, so I tend to take the bellicose view that if there is a wall before you, you run yourself into it until it collapses. Of course, this is a brave, stalwart, and often heroic approach, but the writing process is teaching me that patience may be obligatory.

You can take your time.

Believe it or not, your book will be just as finished this year as it will be next year. A letter of acceptance is received just as sweetly in June as it is in February. You may think that your book must be completed, edited, sold, and on a best-seller list right now, but believe me when I say that stepping back and taking time to clear your mind is not a bad idea.

Now, by no means am I saying procrastinate, but don’t be so enamored with success that you force plasticized prose. Trust me, your readers will recognize when that “something” is missing—and so will you. There is no harm in putting down the paper.

This is why I’m usually juggling two or three projects. If I get stuck on one, I put it down and tend to the others until I can resume. This way, I always feel productive and do better at warding away the panic of a blank page. This is also why most writers advise starting a second book while querying the first.

Some brilliant ideas take time. Give your imagination room to work.

Writing is a creative process—an art in every way, shape, and form. Unless you’re Emily Dickinson, I’m guessing that you get the ol’ brain machine firing with some good old-fashioned inspiration: a beautiful park, a kick-butt fight scene, some jiving tunes, or maybe even just a walk around the block.[1]

If your brain is a machine, it needs to be fueled. If it’s an animal, than it must be fed. If you’re frustrated and find yourself repeatedly smacking into the same brick wall, perhaps it’s time to step back, take some space, and give yourself room to breathe.

After all, a retreat is still a military maneuver.

[1] Stephen King walks for four miles a day. Unless he’s been hit by a car.

Author: h.kates

H. Kates is a war gamer turned author. Her middle grade fantasy, PATEL PATTERSON AND THE APOCALYPSE KEY, debuts... Eventually.

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