When It Just Isn’t Working

The idea you had for your next book looked really great. After all, each book is supposed to be better than the last; your skills as a writer are growing. You set yourself a new challenge, one that would grab the attention of your fans and garner the respect of your fellow writers. You have 20,000 words already written. But now you encounter a problem and you’re stuck. What to do?

I wrote that in the second person in the hope that I am not alone. Surely others here have encountered a similar dilemma. It is the one I am facing with the third volume in the Earth’s Pendulum trilogy. Perhaps articulating it here will help me extract myself and set me on the path to the solution (as well as share options with others). Those of you who have faced this may have ideas for those of us who have not. The rest of us may benefit from some brainstorming.

While the scenario for each of us will be different, I will be specific about mine as a start off point for discussion – and admit that this is also a plea for some help, not something I find easy to do.

I wrote my first book in multiple third person. It worked well, I thought. Readers found it engaging and loved my characters. It was also fairly easy. With the second I switched to first person, a challenge that worked. The feedback was that this book is tighter than the first, that they liked the immediacy of staying with one point of view. But being the glutton for punishment that I am, I chose to write the third volume in dual first person, switching back and forth as needed from one point of view of the two main characters to the other. This works to a point. I have been able to find a unique and recognizable voice for each one. I can show scenes where they are together and where they act separately. So far, so good. It allows me to develop the changes in their relationship, which is an integral theme to the story for this volume. Still OK.

Now comes the hitch. I do not have enough tension in the story. I don’t know how to show enough of the back stage, what’s happening behind the scenes, to set things up for what my characters will face. These are problems my characters will encounter as the story progresses but do not necessarily see or understand until they come face to face with them in real time. These issues or crises are not pre-existing conditions before the time of this book. They are a direct outcome of fundamental changes challenging the accepted values of that society, recent changes that will meet with strong resistance from the population.

So what do I do? I could go back to the drawing board and write once more from the multiple third person. That would allow me to show things that my characters do not know but will create obstacles for them. It would certainly make my life easier. But what does that do to the progression I have set up? Can I actually go back to multiple third person once I have already written the second book in first person? Would there be anything wrong with that? And what about the challenge I set myself; about becoming a better writer, about learning?

I could continue with dual first person and somehow try to make my characters aware of the seriousness of the crises they must face – though that is where I am stuck. How do I do that? Yes, one character is a seer. But I do not want to rely too heavily on her visions. That is too easy and puts too much reliance on the paranormal, which needs to remain fairly low-key. Is it possible to reveal enough of the background situation to keep the required level of tension without resorting to too many visions or giving up my chosen points of view? How do I accomplish that?

I am fairly confident that I am not alone in finding that part way through a work in progress something isn’t working. How did you get past that? And what suggestions do you have for those of us still facing that dilemma?

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Yvonne Hertzberger is a Contributing Author at Indies Unlimited and author of Back From Chaos and Through Kestrel’s Eyes, Books One and Two of Earth’s Pendulum, an Epic fantasy trilogy. For more information please see the IU Bio page and her blog @ http:/yvonnehertzberger.com

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

37 thoughts on “When It Just Isn’t Working”

  1. The only thing that comes to mind in this situation is that you can have each of the characters discover something that will foreshadow something about to happen to the other character. Maybe they realize the significance and just can't do anything about it, maybe they don't see it is anything but extraneous… I don't know – does that make any sense?

  2. I'm sorry Yvonne I'm useless at first person pov so I can't offer anything helpful except perhaps to suggest that the story is the important thing; how you get there and which technique you use is just the means to The End.

    If the relationship between the two MC's is the really important part then maybe the story doesn't need the foreshadowing at all. Or perhaps the inherent differences between the two characters and how they react to situations will allow the reader to guess that if ever such and such were to occur then there would be conflict between them.

    Good luck and keep us posted on how you solve this problem.

    1. Thanks Meeks. Don't be sorry. I have already worked out a few of the kinks. I was also hoping that others have faced some mid-work hiccups that would generate discussion. It really doesn't have to be ALL about me. 🙂

  3. What the Evil Mastermind said is right on, of course. (More gruel, please.) Also, in real life, we can sometimes sense when something bad's about to happen – so some suspense could be built just based on that. Things are going too smoothly, and if someone tends to have "bad luck or no luck at all", then they would know the good spell couldn't last long. Since this is fantasy (and I apologize, I'm not a reader of that genre) – couldn't you have a crystal ball-toting creature forewarn one or both of them of great danger to come? Sorry if this isn't helpful. I haven't had enough coffee yet.

    1. P.S. – Try taking a moment to switch from character-driven to plot-driven and see what it is about the story that is suspenseful. Just a thought.

    2. Thanks Kat. I haven't had my coffee yet either. Actually in this case I have a goddess, Earth, who could show them but I don't want to rely to heavily on that as it is too easy and would be more 'telling' than 'showing' – though there is a place for that as well, when the time is right, and I do use it.

      Off for coffee now, then my 'other' job.

  4. I think my advice has been doled out already by the great masterminds above. I wrote my first novel in the first person, the second in a mixture of first and third. I agree with Kat's suggestion about changing to plot driven. It seems the only way that works. Sorry I can't be more useful. I could if you were writing a humorous fantasy! I'll tweet about this and maybe someone else can proffer a few suggestions.

  5. Thanks for the post, Yvonne. I was having a similar problem with the current novel I’m working on. The characters needed to be oblivious to what was happening, but the reader needed to know what was going on to feel urgency on their behalf. Every solution I thought up felt contrived or overused, like you’re trying to avoid with your seer, so I was stuck.

    I finally decided to set aside the whole POV problem for a while and write what I wanted the readers to see then figure out how to work it in to the POV later. I interspersed those omnipotent scenes into the manuscript as placeholders, but then I was surprised to find that as written, they gave the book texture it didn’t have before and sparked a whole new subplot and layer of tension. Omnipotence is supposed to be a cardinal sin, but I left them, and now they’re some of my favorite parts of the story.

    It sounds like you have worked out some of your issues, so this isn’t a suggestion, just adding to the conversation. =)

    1. Thanks Krista. Looks like you are on to the same angle, sort of, as Kat. But do I understand you correctly, that you combined first person with omniscient? That sounds intriguing. I didn't know that could be done – well, I know it can, but not that it would work. In the final did you keep it that way? You sound pleased with the result.

  6. I must ask you to read a book outside your genre to explain what I mean. Elizabeth Kostova solves this problem (I wonder whether she ever had the problem or if she conceived the novel just as it is, but bear with me…) in a shift-y way. That is, she shifts to a third dimension, which should not be hard for you.

    Read "The Swan Thieves" and see what I mean. Apart from the fact it's a brilliant book, the way it's put together should trigger some sort of inspiration for you.

    Good luck, Yvonne.

  7. I am totally stuck in the middle these days. I'm working on the first book in a dystopian trilogy. The first twenty thousand words came fairly easy. Setting the scene, getting to know the characters and their dilemmas, and reaching that call to action. From there, it seems I'm taking the long way around to get to the action. Lots of words on the page but not much happening…otherwise known as the sagging middle. It's tough to turn off the internal editor and simply plow through until something happens and then go back and cut and tighten later, but that's what I'm trying to do. There is something totally counter-ituitive about giving myself permission to suck!

  8. It's a frustrating dilemma. Perhaps if you let the story unfold, let a set for a week to a month, and then go back and read it, you will be able to see where you need to add the tension by utilizing a minor character or perhaps another will emerge. The next one I started was stalled for similar reasons for I wanted the character to do one thing and the person refused. By articulating the problem to someone not in the writing field, the answer was there. The character would do her own thing to mess up everyone's plans and another was suddenly there, life history and all. Good luck.

    1. Characters can be soooo stubborn. Glad it worked out. Going back to read what I have from the beginning is a good idea. I have been so busy with other things I think it may be better than I thought – or, if not something will jump out at me.

  9. A very frustrating situation that I understand completely because of course, you're not alone.:) First, I don't think there would be anything wrong with switching back to multiple third person for this book. It is, after all, your story and it's really whatever works best. I also believe that becoming a better writer will happen through the act of writing, no matter what person the writing is in. Having said that, you might find that going back to the beginning and writing a scene or two in the third person could help you uncover conflicts and tensions that aren't leaping out at you now. You might even be able to find a way to weave that into first person through foreshadowing, a minor character, etc. Or – you might prefer the flow of third. I hope this makes sense? And good luck!

    1. Thanks Carolyn. I do think I will need to do some experimentation. Lots of good suggestions here for that, yours included. A temporary switch might bring some things to light I have not thought of.Another idea someone gave me is to simply write as it comes and fix things at the time of the first rewrite, that if I get past the hump the holes will show themselves and the solutions will as well.

  10. I had this problem with Hubris. I originally wrote it in first person and there just wasn't enough story. Then I rewrote in 3rd person, still not right. Finally I found the problem. I re wrote it back to first person – that's the way it needed to be written – and added Val. The story came together after that.

    A long way of saying. The POV might not be the problem. It might be hiding the real problem.

    Good luck.

  11. When I get jammed, I like to write short pieces around my characters. Different POVs, stuff that has nothing to do with the novel. The solution usually comes.

  12. Okay, now I really hate to give free advice. I answer these sorts of questions and find solutions to story problems for a living after all, and believe me, I'm not getting rich doing it. BUT in any first person narrative whether it's one POV, Two, or More, what moves the story forward is that each and every "switch" has to reveal something NEW about the plot, just as every passage of dialogue needs to move the story forward. Otherwise you're just filling up pages. As characters interact, there are millions of ways to increase tension–somebody gets a piece of mail they don't understand; a hang up phone call; whatever. Yur characters can even argue about these unexplained incidences. One can become convinced the other is "wrong".

    As human beings we're all constantly worrying, conflicted, fighting with our intuition and projecting our fears onto the "other". When the outer circumstances of the plot serve in some way to reflect the inner conflicts of the characters, then you don't NEED foreshadowing.

    As for juggling omniscient and first person, just go back

    and read "Angela's Ashes". McCourt was the Master….

    1. Thank you. I appreciate the 'free advice'. And what you say is, of course, true. One of the reasons I am having some issues is precisely because I do not want to rely too heavily on foreshadowing.

      I need to go back and take another look at "Angela's Ashes'. I remember enjoying the book but that was before I began to write myself so I would not have paid attention to his techniques. Didn't like 'Tis' as much, though.

  13. Yvonne, yes I am pleased with the first person and omniscient combination, and have been for a couple of months now, which is a rare consistency! I also didn't remember that about Angela's Ashes, but relieved to hear it has been done with success!

  14. just a couple of other points: Too many writers make the mistake of switching pov and relaying the same info we as readers have just learned about from the previous narrative.

    That's not interesting to a reader,UNLESS it reveals something entirely new.

    The trick McCourt used so deftly is that he stuck to 1st person, but clearly established the difference between his child self and his older "omniscient" perspective, using it to describe events that the child could not possibly have witnessed, his parents and the "knee trembler" when he was first conceived, for example.

  15. I wish I could give you some advice, but I do believe that everything that could be said, has been. I wish you luck on your book!

  16. Thank you to everyone who left comments, suggestions and encouragement. I was hesitant to put this out for fear it would be seen as self-serving. I'm so glad others are finding it helpful as well.

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