The Literary Roadblock

Remember when I told you about the literary pause? Well, last week I hit a literary roadblock on my string quartet novel, and it’s still quite blocked.

I’ve narrowed down the problem to this: my main character (Joey) changed a lot between versions. She’s more proactive now, but she still doesn’t have a central focus. Due to Joey’s toxic family, there’s a subtheme in the new version of the novel of people as being disposable. She’s generally been the one disposed-of, not the disposer.

In the scene where I got stuck, Joey is at a dinner with the quartet’s sponsor (complicated backstory) and the sponsor is questioning the cellist, leaving him uncomfortable/humiliated. The first violinist is in league with sponsor on this point.

In the first version: Joey just sat there, frightened.

Intended for this version: Joey should redirect the conversation by asking the second violinist a bombshell question, effectively stopping the grilling of the cellist

My problem: That’s pretty damned heartless of her — and it’s not really like her. It’s also going to make having the second violinist open up later (which is important) practically impossible.

How to solve this, then? I’m not asking for suggestions. I don’t want suggestions. What I want is something only the author can give, which is insight into why she wrote herself into a corner.

Oftentimes when this happens, the roadblock at the end of the book lies in the beginning. It’s my subconscious telling me something is wrong, only it’s buried way down low in the story. In the past I’ve unwound the knot with a crash self-psychoanalysis. I’ve solved it by taking an exchange from the final chapter and retrojecting it backward a hundred pages. In The Boys Upstairs, which you’ll all spend tomorrow reading (right?) it was solved by having Jay ask Kevin for something only Kevin could give.

But this one–this answer’s just not coming.

The obvious solution is to jump over the conversation and write it later, but in this spot I can’t backfillbecause this scene is pivotal to what happens in the next — and the one following this is pivotal to the rest of the novel. A lot of emotional intensity building right at this point. How the characters act RIGHT HERE, right now, needs to be emblematic of their approach to the rest of their lives. It needs to highlight exactly why they’re in this conflict in the first place.

I suspect the real answer is, I don’t know what Joey will do because I don’t know Joey well enough. She changed from Version A to Version B, and perhaps I haven’t got as good a handle on Version B as I need. So we may be spending the rest of the day doing character sheets and going backward through the book to rewrite her, re-define her needs, her wants, her fears, the things she never thought she would say or do — and how I’m going to maneuver her until she actually says and does them.

It sounds so evil when I put it that way. But at the last writer’s conference I attended, one instructor said, “There’s a point at which anyone will snap. You need to find that point.

Cricket asked a while ago if I’d write even if it didn’t feel good. And it’s occurring to me now — this kind of situation must sound maddening to a non-writer. (It’s maddening even to this writer.) But engaging with this person I’ve created does feel good. It feels great when I immerse myself in her. Solving this will feel like standing at the top of Mount Everest, minus the hundred mile an hour winds. With this roadblock resolved, this scene will hit the ball out of the park.

It’s just that for right now, I’m becalmed, and I don’t know why.


  1. Nina

    Well, Joey COULD ask someone to pass the bean dip. Or you could ask what *I* would do. 😉 I’ll tell you what I’d do… I’d ~think~ the bombshell question in my head but not say it.

    It’s like the conversation over dinner Sunday night. My dad referred to me as being compliant and not making waves. The rest of us fell off our chairs because it’s SO not true. But that was his impression because around him, I tended not to make waves or push back. But dangit, I was pushing back on the *inside*. I had an ingrained response to “not say” what I was thinking because it would cause problems/maybe they’d send me away (good ol’ adoption crap). It was only once I got to college that what I was thinking on the inside ever actually had a chance to come out. And people were shocked that I had all *that* inside. Whoda thunk that all those years I had a hidden sarastic streak?

    1. philangelus

      See, that’s where she was in the first version, seething on the inside but otherwise passive, afraid of the attention, afraid of being replaced. That’s realistic but it doesn’t make for an interesting protagonist.

      In this version, she knows better who she is. But until *I* know who she is, I suspect she’s not going to tell me what happens next. :-b

  2. Normandie

    Oh, Jane, I know exactly what you’re going through. In one of my stories, my protagonist was so the Joey of version one. She remained that way through the next versions, but the problem with keeping all the thoughts all inside (for fear of causing trouble), was that something had to break, didn’t it? For her, it was her behavior, which meant she acted in ways she hated because she wouldn’t deal with or confront the real problems.

    Messing with all our various protagonists is complicated but so much fun. How would each one behave here, there, and in that next scene? I’ll be praying that Joey shows you exactly who she is today so that you can either get her off her duff or glue her to it.


    1. philangelus

      Thanks, and LOL about getting her off her duff.

      See, I know what will happen next. I’ve worked that part out in detail (and it’s very very different from the first version) but right here, the rubber ain’t meeting the road.

      I know what you mean about one change changing everything else. Author Mary Lindsay compared it to moving the furniture in your living room. Your couch has been in one spot for three years, and when you move it, there’s the outline of a couch in the carpet so you’ve got to buff up the rug there to remove all of what went before. (I wish I had a link for that. If she stops by, maybe she’ll leave it. Hint…?)

      This is the problem with keeping your characters in character. It requires respecting them rather than forcing them. And respecting the readers too, since you guys deserve better than “This happened because I said it should happen.”

      1. philangelus

        Mary sent me the link to the post where she made the furniture analogy:

  3. mike

    Try ignoring the problem and doing something else for a while. If I get stuck coding something, it seems that not thinking about it and doing another task frequently results in one of those “its obvious – solve it like this” moments.

    1. philangelus

      I did that for a week. I thought ignoring it, celebrating Thanksgiving, visiting relatives, and knitting a hat would jog it loose.

      In general, I believe you’re right. This time, I’m not sure.

  4. Loriendil

    I felt such a resonance while reading this, Jane. It’s great to know other writers go through this too.

    I can’t wait to read you’ve gotten past this pivotal scene and are plowing ahead!

    Go go Gadget, Jane!

    1. philangelus

      LOL! Now I’m going to have that theme song going through my head.

  5. Marybeth Whalen

    Warning: long comment!

    I just went through this– not exactly what you’re describing but darn close. I wrote a novel, turned it in. Got THE LETTER from my editor. Thought about quitting, giving the advance back to the publisher. Sucked it up and made changes. Submitted them. Got another letter from my editor. She said the changes were much better, but we still weren’t there. And I knew she was right but was so hoping I was just being hard on myself and just this once she would write me and say “It’s so fab! You can rest easy!”

    Anyway this past weekend I checked into a hotel and worked on the new changes all weekend, Friday to Sunday. And I finished. I went through my list and made every change she and I both could think of. I just pushed aside that nagging feeling that there was one more change that needed to happen that I hadn’t thought of. On Sunday night I pressed send, went home and had a glass of wine and watched The Family Stone. I was celebrating inside– at least as much as a mom of six can on a Sunday night.

    So I woke up Monday morning and was reading emails and I read one line– one line, mind you– from a book review. And in that moment, I knew what was missing from my book… that one thing that I had reached and strained for all weekend. And it came to me after I had turned in the book and spent all weekend spinning my wheels.

    So I wrote my editor and she assured me I still had time to write the changes. (Was sort of hoping she’d say “Nonsense! The book is terrific as is! You push yourself too hard!” But no, she said, keep working girlie.)

    And so, with a resigned sigh this morning I got up, opened that dang file I’d rather never look at again and got to work.

    All of this to say, you never know what will cause that block to give way. For me it was one line in a random book review of another author’s book.

    One suggestion for your situation– could someone else come up to the table and say something that would change the course of the conversation? I am mindful of that writing advice that says “When in doubt, have a man walk in with a gun.” Not saying to do exactly that– but the dramatic equivalent for that particular scene/setting.

    Just trying to help! Best wishes!!

    1. philangelus

      Thank you — that’s kind of what I was hoping would happen during the last week, only it never did.

      Now a man showing up with a gun would definitely raise the excitement level here. My protagonist and the cellist probably both wish someone with a gun would show up and start shooting things off the walls. But because that would lower the emotional tension, it’s not the best idea. 😉 (Yes, I know that was a joke.) I don’t think there’s any way for help from outside at this point, just because of where and when they are in the story. Whatever happens, has to happen internally to the group.

      But I know exactly what you mean — it’s like suddenly realizing you need salt for the soup. When you find that missing element, it’s a little thing but it makes a difference to the whole fictional world. Thank you for sharing your experience, and I’m so glad you found your solution. 🙂

  6. Loriendil

    Love your reply, Marybeth! Praying you find that missing element, that salt for the soup, Jane!

  7. The Sojourner

    Oh yes, I get this. I’m about 1/3 of the way through a massive rewrite of what I’m hoping will eventually become my first published novel. I had a moment just the other day where I was stuck on a conversation that felt flat (oddly, the way I knew something was wrong was that I couldn’t *see* my protagonist’s face–usually the faces are what I’ve got firmly in my mind’s eye, when I’m writing a conversation), and I had to mull it over for 2 or 3 days before I finally realized what Stephen needed to do in that scene to be true to his character as it’s been slowly forming in my mind over the past 6 years. (I’ve “known” some of my characters for 9 years now…and some of them really do feel like friends. It’s a little disconcerting.)

Comments are closed.