I struggle to set up each new chapter in my novel. I want to jump right into the dialog and action and keep the story moving along. While writing the first installment of Valley of the Bees, I did just that. I wrote the story in the throes of momentum and didn’t slow down for anything as uninteresting as setting up my chapters properly. When all was said and done, my story came out to around 25,000 words and was in desperate need of transitional material between chapters. Imagine how I felt when I realized that I was going to have to sit down and write all of that boring stuff at once.
Because I dreaded writing all of that “boring” material, I ended up setting my manuscript aside for over a year and piddled around with other things instead. Every once in a while, I would consider how close the first draft was to being a full novel. I would try to talk myself into working on it. Then something shiny would catch my attention, and a few more weeks would pass before it would cross my mind again.
I finally ended up hiring a freelancer on eLance.com to do some editing for me and give me some feedback on areas that needed work. She marked up my document and made some changes to help me get moving in the right direction. While I ended up making even more changes afterward (she would likely be very surprised to see where the manuscript has gone since she last looked at it,) that freelancer was worth every penny because she managed to get me writing again. After all, I had just spent all this money to get some help. I had to get my money’s worth, right?
Finally, I got back to work last fall and tore that first draft apart. My 25,000 words plumped up to more than 50,000. I finished a complete draft and was ready to start writing book two while I waited for feedback from beta readers. I promised myself that this time I would do things differently.
So far, I have been true to my word. I have been taking things a bit more slowly and am working to write that transitional material at the beginning of each chapter. I think about where the characters are, how they are standing, what the surrounding area looks like, and where I want the characters to go in the chapter. I am about to break the 25,000 word mark and am only about halfway through the novel.
It has been going pretty good for the most part, but this past week, I am stalling out for some reason. I am trying to get this chapter moving along, but it just won’t cooperate. I’m telling, not showing, and I am sure my readers will be as bored with reading this as I am with writing it. Never mind the fact that – since I am at the mid-point of the novel – I am entering “Mushy Middle Land,” which writers often refer to as the bane of their existence.
What do you do when this happens to you?
Back to Basics
It occurred to me that when you get stuck, sometimes the best thing you can do is get back to basics. The beginning of this chapter is in need of some description. It needs some “showing” so my readers can see what is going on. They need to feel like they are right there with the characters. And what did I always teach my Composition I students about description?
Remember the five senses.
It’s such a simple tactic, but I often forget to do it myself. We all experience life using all of our senses. If we want our readers to experience the felt life of our story, we need to include all five senses in our characters’ experiences. So today, I am asking myself the following questions:
- Feel: What time of day is it now? Is the sun shining, or is it cloudy? How does that feel to the characters? Does the sun warm their skin? Does the protagonist get a chill when a cloud covers the sun? If she does, will that chill be a foreshadowing of the events that will play out in this chapter?
- Sight: How does the light (or lack thereof) affect the setting? Are my characters creeping from one long shadow to the next in an effort to remain unseen despite the fact that they are sneaking around in broad daylight? Does the light play tricks on their eyes? Do they see piles of garbage, or maybe even a fat rat digging through one of said piles? Are there wary eyes peeping out at them through dingy windows?
- Smell: What is the atmosphere like on the dingy streets of this mostly abandoned town? What odors are in the air? What if there is a storm coming in after weeks with no rain? What does that smell like? How do those smells impact the characters? Will the coming storm increase the tension?
- Sound: Do they hear their feet scuffing along in the quiet street? Do they attempt to walk quietly? Are there sounds of life nearby? Or is it eerily silent?
- Taste: This sense can be a difficult one to convey when your characters aren’t actually eating anything. But if you get creative, the sense of taste can actually drive your story. If there is dust hanging in the air, it might hang over their clothing and get into their mouths. Maybe one of my characters can take a swig of tepid water from her canteen to wash the dust away. Maybe the smell of the coming storm leaves a particular taste on her tongue.
As I ask myself these questions, I am getting ideas that will help me move my story along. The setting is becoming clearer to me, which makes it easier for me to then clarify it for my readers. So next time you’re having trouble getting started on a new trouble, remind yourself to include the five senses.
How do you get unstuck when starting a new chapter? Please share in the comments below.