How to Get a Story Unstuck

Let me start with a confession, just to get everything clear and out in the open: I don’t actually have a real method for unsticking a story. But wait! Don’t go away! I do have ideas and suggestions. Which, if you’re interested in this post, is probably more than you have at the moment. Right? Right.

1. Research first

Writing a story isn’t something I can just sit down and get done. Other authors might be different. (Brandon Sanderson apparently can write 1500 words before he wakes up in the morning.) For me, it takes a lot of background research, writing out ideas, looking up character names, collecting possible occupations, and just letting the whole thing simmer in my head for a while. This is an exciting time of development and discovery!

I hate it.

Well, what I really hate is the delay. I want to write, but instead here I am watching quilting tutorials. However, if you get interested in what makes up your characters’ lives and personalities, eventually that will result in a much stronger story.

2. Talk to People

Yes, I’m cheating, because this is technically part of the research stage. But it’s important enough to be its own point. If you need to know about an occupation, a hobby, how to cook certain foods, what it’s like to live somewhere you’ve never been — nothing beats real-life voices and opinions.

For my current Work in Progress (WIP, as we writers refer to it), I’ve messaged six or seven friends for their expertise in certain areas. I’ve watched YouTube videos. I pay attention to conversations, online and in real life, that relate to my subject matter. I plan to attend some community events and get to know real people involved in the world I’m trying to build.

Note:
The research stage takes a lot of time, so you can skip it in two ways:

A. Write about something you already know very well; your research is already done.

B. Fake it and fudge it and write around the stuff you don’t really know. You definitely can write a story this way. Just don’t expect me to like it.

3. Make a List of Possibilities

This trick has gotten me out of Unstuckness many times. But I’d completely forgotten about it until I couldn’t figure out how to start my WIP. I ran a Google search and came up with this article. It’s all good advice, but #9 reintroduced me to my old friend, List of Possibilities.

The concept is simple. You number your page 1 – 10 and then you write down ideas to solve whatever your problem is. You keep thinking and writing until you finish your list. You’ll be surprised at the ideas available once you’re forced to articulate them.

For my problem of how to begin my story, I sat down for my regular writing time* earlier this week, and wrote ten possible openings.

*See my next point about this. Which you would anyway, I guess, but I just wanted to make sure.

I kept making up ideas until I filled up the whole list. It looked like this:

****

Ten Possible Openings
(some written without regard to usefulness or craft, just to fill up the slots.)

1.My grandmother didn’t want to give me the topaz necklace.

2.I was fourteen, it was Christmas Eve, and I was riding around an unfamiliar town with brand-new friends, trying to find somewhere that sold fireworks.

3.When I was fourteen, my paternal grandmother gave me one of her own necklaces. It was smoky topaz, a color that she said suited my ginger hair and freckles. The necklace was special to her, but even more so once it was mine. She often asked me to wear it. That’s how she remembered the story, anyway.

4.Being a librarian, cataloguing comes naturally to me. So as I got ready for work one chilly day in early December, I kept track of the texts and messages that came in on my phone from my dad, stepmom, sister, and brother. Three started with “my god” or “OMG!” One inquired if I were insane. Five overused exclamation points. All seven messages told me to call my grandmother, apologize, and not ruin Christmas for everybody.

5.My life was bookended by grandmothers. Everything else—my parents, stepparents, half-siblings, Christmas in Maryland, Easter in Virginia, growing up in between—was enveloped by the influence of my grandmothers.

Grandmom on my maternal side, my rock and foundation when my life got shaky.

Poppi on my paternal side, the brick wall that never moved, and heaven help the family member who tried to get around her.

6.I wouldn’t say that I grew up with a Good Grandma and a Bad Grandma. I wouldn’t say it out loud, anyway.

7.I liked to curl up in the hanging hammock chair in my living room, snuggled into one of Grandmom’s quilts, and let the swaying lull me into peace. The quilt still smelled like the perfume that Grandmom wore.

8.I guess I like the Dewey decimal system because it puts everything in order and makes sense. It would be nice if my life had a decimal system. I could definitely use a spot for Feelings about The Divorce even though it happened when I was six and I’m twenty-seven now. Or, Of course I love my mother more than my stepmother but Mom could take some lessons from April on being emotionally present most of the time.

I’d need to have a section dedicated to relating to my much-younger half-siblings. And most of all, I’d love to shelve my paternal grandmother. I’m not sure that came out quite right. Then again, considering that it’s Poppi we’re talking about—maybe it did.

9.When I first met Carolina, she was only sixteen and I was only fourteen. But she had enough poise to greet me with a handshake. “Hi, Bria. Nice to meet you.”

I remember the sight of our hands clasped briefly. Her dark skin, lighter along the knuckles, set off my own fair and freckled skin. Even our fingers were a contrast—her smooth oval nails polished in shocking pink, my stubby nails a deliberately offbeat olive-green.

10.When my maternal grandmother died, I packed up all my stuff, left the sprawling suburbia where I grew up, and moved into her old house on 123 Day Street in Delmar, Virgina. If nothing else, it put me three hundred miles away from my paternal grandmother, who was still alive—in case anybody needed proof that life is very unfair.

***

I ran all the ideas through my personal rating system and eventually decided on one. Which one? Well, I hope that when I finish it and give it to the world to read, you’ll see.

4.Write consistently

I kind of have to say this one. When you become an author, you sign the super-secret pact of loyalty that says, among other things, “Anytime somebody asks me about writing, I will without fail tell them to find a time to write consistently.”

Haha, I’m just kidding. Or am I? You won’t know until you join the society of authorship, and the only way you’ll do that is to… guess what?… write consistently.

When I do finally get a draft done, it’s usually because I’ve written it in 300- to 500-word bursts every  morning. Note that, unlike Brandon Sanderson who can write 2500 words while dead, I don’t write a whole lot most of the time. But I’ve carved out a specific time to write, and can keep up any momentum I’ve created. Or even if I don’t have any  momentum, I’m still there to write.

Related to this point…

5.Write anything

Even if you’re not actively writing a story, novel, memoir, whatever — use this time to write. Letters, writing prompts, ideas you’ll one day use, blog posts… Ooh. Blog posts. Yes.

If you’re a writer, start a blog. And then maintain that blog. Who knows if anybody will read it? But it gives you an outlet to write regularly. During the years when I had four young children, homeschooled, and no emotional space to construct real stories, I blogged. It kept my hand in the craft so that when life became less intense, I was already primed and ready to write seriously. (As a major side benefit, we have a fairly regular record of our life stretching back to 2004.)

6.Don’t assume that where you are now is where you’ll always be

One benefit of having finished two serious projects is that now I know the truth. I know I’ll get stuck, the story will tangle up, I’ll hit dead ends… but eventually I’ll figure a way out and finish the story.

That’s not to say that I’ve finished everything I’ve started. I’ve got drafts of two separate stories that I’ve put away for now because I don’t yet know how to tell them properly. But I know that one day, if they’re important to me, I’ll break through the wall and get them in shape. I have before. I will again.

If you’re a writer, you don’t throw in the pencil, turn off the computer, and abandon your foolish passion. You just don’t. You take breaks, find new approaches, and never ever stop writing.

(That’s the in the super-secret author pact too.)

And when I do find a way through a tangle, or when I reach the end of a story, I’m on such a high that I will assure the whole world that it’s worth all that effort just to get to this point.

You know what? It really is.

 

The Bible Bait-and-Switch

lures-537661_1280There’s a certain class of Bible teaching that is mostly about verbs.

Pray this prayer so God will bless you.

Follow these steps so God will protect you.

Hear and obey so God will listen to you.

The teachers in this camp claim to know the hidden ways of God, and they want to teach you to access these exclusive treasures. They usually have some kind of gimmick—a certain prayer, certain steps, a certain way to read your Bible. Then they bait-and-switch ideas to make you think that they’re teaching what God says when it’s really just what they’re selling.

I recently came across someone who sounds a whole lot like a “verbing” teacher. Now, I don’t know anything about Bob Sorge except his titles on Amazon and the Kindle sample of his book Secrets of the Secret Place. So I have no axe to grind or hatchet to bury in his head. I’m bringing him up because all it took was two chapters for me to recognize:

  1. The verb
  2. The gimmick
  3. The bait-and-switch

His verb is to Pray. (He also adds “hear” and “obey” later.) By “pray” he means to sit in quietness and solitude, reading Scripture, and listening for God to speak. Is that bad? No! I think it’s a very good practice to learn to sit in silence—one I’m not good at myself. The Verb is usually a good thing to do, and pray definitely qualifies.

However, he’s got to have a gimmick to sell his special knowledge of God’s hidden ways. Like any good Verbing teacher, he frames it with a Bible verse. I’ve parsed it out below:

Sorge (from his book Secrets of the Secret Place):
“But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:6).

…When Jesus taught on prayer, He gave primary emphasis to the secret place. In fact, the first thing He taught concerning prayer was the primacy of the secret place. In the verses following, He would teach us how to pray, but first He teaches where to pray.

My comment:
This verse, in context, is actually emphasizing the right attitude of prayer. Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t make a big public display of our prayers to show how holy we are, but to pray privately to God alone, without seeking the admiration of others.

Sorge:
Jesus affirmed this truth twice in the same chapter. He says it the second time in Matthew 6:18, “‘So that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.’” Jesus says it twice for emphasis, so we know this word is absolutely certain.

My comment:
The key word here is fasting. Same point as the verse about praying. Don’t make a big holy display of yourself. Carry out your devotion to God quietly, seeking to please only him.

These verses have nothing to do with where your body is, but where your heart is.

Sorge:
Our Father is in the secret place! Furthermore, Jesus gives us the key to finding this secret place. If you’re wondering what you must do to place yourself in the secret place, Jesus made it clear. To get there, all you have to do is shut your door! When you enter your room, and shut your door, you are in the presence of your Father. Instantaneously!

My comment:
Hard to argue with that, but I’m also in his presence in the kitchen, at the mall, or stuck on I-81 in road construction. Finding God by going into a room and shutting a door… that, folks, is Sorge’s Gimmick.

Sorge:
It matters not how you feel. Regardless of your soul’s climate at that moment, you know with absolute confidence you have stepped into the chamber of your Father in heaven. The secret place is your portal to the throne, the place where you taste of heaven itself. Receive this word and you have gained one of the greatest secrets to intimacy with God.

My commentary:
And there you go! If you Verb, by way of his Gimmick, you gain a secret way to God.

They always have Scripture to back up their points, of course. Here’s the Bait-and-Switch where he leads you in with Scripture, and leads you right on out on his own hobbyhorse:

Sorge:
Cornelius was a devout Gentile who committed himself to the secret place of prayer.

My commentary:
The “secret place of prayer” wording is the author’s assertion, not actually taken from the Bible.

Sorge:
[Cornelius’] piety is described in the Book of Acts as fourfold: he gave regularly to the poor; he lived a holy lifestyle; he practiced fasting; and he adhered to the secret place of prayer.

My commentary:
I looked up this verse, Acts 10:2, and this is what it says: “He was a godly man, deeply reverent, as was his entire household. He gave generously to charity and was a man of prayer.”

It doesn’t say a “secret place of prayer.” Although I’m all for paraphrasing to keep things moving, this particular paraphrase is a seemingly innocuous, but very important, addition.

Sorge:
It was because of those four pursuits that God filled Cornelius and his household with the Holy Spirit and made them the firstfruits of all Gentile believers.

My commentary:
That’s the bait…

Sorge:
It’s as though God said, “Cornelius, because of your passionate conviction for the secret place, your life is the kind of example that I can reproduce in the nations.”

My commentary:
… and switch. He’s shifted from Cornelius and his four pursuits to a “passionate conviction for the secret life.”

Sorge:
…By making Cornelius the catalyst for the redemption of the nations, God was giving a powerful endorsement to Cornelius’s priority of cultivating a hidden life with God. The eruption of fruitfulness from his life must have caught even him off guard!

My commentary:
I feel like applauding. “Yay! That was so clever!” He so easily slipped in the idea that Cornelius was blessed by something that the author made up. Not only that, but God endorses it.

And he goes on to base the rest of his book (presumably, from the title) not on anything in the Bible, but on this idea of his about a “secret life with God.” Ideally, his audience doesn’t catch the shift, so they follow along thinking it’s all right there in the Bible. Even if they take the time to look it up, Sorge has taught them to equate “a man of prayer” with “a passionate conviction for the secret place.”

If this is how he justifies the very core of his teaching, then I’m extremely skeptical of what else he has to say. Anything he says about “hearing God’s word” now makes me suspicious, because what he claims is God’s word is actually his own. Anything he says about “obedience to God’s word” is a blazing red flag now, because if he can mold Scripture to fit his own ideas like that, then what does he think we ought to be “obeying”?

Following a teacher like this leads at best to disappointment, and at worst to bondage.

Pay attention to people who promise you a new way to access God. Watch for the Verb, the Gimmick, and the Bait-and-Switch. If you see it, then get up and leave the room. And shut the door behind you.

What To Do About That Rapey Song

This is a post about Christmas songs. And Shel Silverstein. And sex. And good wholesome naughtiness. All, I hope, without the side effect of sermonizing too much. Guess we’ll just have to see how this goes.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, who performed it with his wife at parties, according to Wikipedia. In 1949, it was featured in the movie Neptune’s Daughter starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton. You know this song, of course. It’s a duet, a clever weaving of two monologues: a woman who says she has to leave, and a man who is seducing her to stay.

Lately it’s gained a bit of notoriety. Not because it’s about sex, because that’s actually a recurring theme in winter songs. Let It Snow celebrates the fact that the weather outside is frightful, so good thing we’re inside and together and hey, how about it? Walking in a Winter Wonderland is a little tamer, but even then they’re looking forward to a little necking in front of the fire. Evidently the human response to cold weather is to have sex (which makes sense; at least it’s warm).

But Baby It’s Cold Outside, while pretty much the same theme as Let It Snow, is quite a bit edgier. It’s known as “the date-rape song” thanks to lines such as:

The neighbors might think (baby, it’s bad out there)
Say what’s in this drink? (no cabs to be had out there)

I simply must go (but baby, it’s cold outside)
The answer is no (but baby, it’s cold outside)

I’ve disliked the song for years for that exact reason. It makes me anxious, not cozy.

I’m not alone in this feeling. Seems like we could just let it die a quick death, but it’s hard to kill Christmas songs. Last Christmas by Wham!, anyone? Instead, several people are scrambling around doing damage control.

This article from the Washington Post is an example of one perspective. It maintains that at the time the song was written, it was all about women’s empowerment because a woman staying overnight with her lover could expect to come under fire from society. And that is a point. The woman in the song is obviously reluctant to leave, and keeps pointing out all the people who are going to be scandalized if she doesn’t go.

The problem with this patch-up is twofold:

  1. He never offers to protect her from any of the vicious fallout she’ll receive for staying the night with him.
  2. Lady, please. If you don’t want to go, grow a vagina (as the egalitarian saying goes) and say Yes. Stop saying No if you don’t mean it. That confuses good men. (Men unlike your lover who—if you ask me—will ditch you as soon as the family pressure comes bearing down for him to make you an honest woman.)

Others, finding that explanation insufficient, have decided that the song is a total loss as-is. They’ve rewritten it to illustrate proper sexual consent. One version features lyrics like this:

I really can’t stay (Baby I’m fine with that)
I’ve got to go away (Baby I’m cool with that)

My mother will start to worry (Call her so she knows you’re fine)

I ought to say no no no (You reserve the right to say no)

 

Okay, so I admire the effort… but it’s like drinking flat root beer. Instead of a predatory lover, now you’ve got somebody who:

  1. Doesn’t want her to stay at all but is too nice to say it outright
  2. Is missing all of her flirty hints by earnestly supporting her rights

Either way, the song gets increasingly awkward as it goes. At least in the original song, you’ve got some sizzle and fun.

That’s the problem with sanctifying things. They’re unobjectionable and a good example, but boring. Like characters in kids’ shows, who always make the right choices. Sometimes you’ve just got to be a little naughty for interest.

Shel Silverstein, for example, was a master at writing funny, somewhat macabre, poetry. Kids like them because, well, they’re so wrong.

For instance, Abigail who loved the beautiful pony, but her parents wouldn’t buy it for her. She said she’d die if they didn’t, and they said that nobody ever died from not getting a pony, but guess what? She did die. And her parents were very sorry. The author’s note at the end said, “Show this to your parents if they won’t buy you something you want.”

Or Clarence, who bought new parents. And if your parents nag you or get tired or yell at you, it’s because they’re wearing out and you need to buy new ones too.

Obviously these poems teach a terrible moral. But the kids know it’s wrong and enjoy it.

One reason why the original Baby It’s Cold Outside is (was?) fun is because of the tension of “I must go” and “I want to stay.” It’s naughty.

But that brings us back to why it’s a toxic song for our culture. Even today, sexual consent is widely misunderstood. Several times after Trump’s infamous description of sexual assault, I saw people (men and women both) defend it by saying that women bought Fifty Shades of Grey (the extremely horribly written trilogy about a dominant/submissive sexual relationship), so how can they complain about what Trump said? It’s like people don’t get the difference between consenting sex and sexual assault.

It’s not sex that’s the problem. It’s sex that’s forced on someone who doesn’t want it.

Baby It’s Cold Outside is about someone who wants capitulation, not consent. I don’t trust the man and his dismissive answers to her concerns, his smooth compliments, and his pleas for her not to disappoint him. I’m not convinced he’s going to let her leave if she insists.

Since this song is played over and over every single year to a society that can’t keep sex separated from sexual assault—well, I think it’s a problem. Explaining it away just justifies to all its listeners that its okay for a man to “wear a girl down” (another lyric in the song). Merely rewriting it to “clean it up” kills the thrill.

I see two options:

  1. Rewrite it creatively, so that there’s still tension but not that of a predatory male and a wavering female. Good luck with that.
  2. Just stop playing the dang song already.

And the second option is, really, the best option. Glad we had this discussion.

Now, since it’s cold outside, I think I’ll turn the lights down low and see if my man and I can warm things up. I’m pretty sure he’ll consent.

Speaking of Spiders: Some Marriage Advice

spider-macro-zebra-spider-insect-40795.jpeg

This past weekend, my husband and I got away for an hours-long date. As we were driving home sometime after midnight, I gazed at the stars over the Blue Ridge Mountains. We talked about spiders.

It was wonderful.

We’d driven two hours, eaten Indian together, enjoyed a two-hour show by my favorite indie band (all hail Carbon Leaf), and were on our way back home. We’d discussed his work, my writing, kids, school stuff, plans for holidays, church obligations, an article I read about teaching boys about sexual consent, the 24-disc Eisenhower biography he just finished listening to, the food we ate, the parts of the show we liked, and the boy named Wayne who was generous enough to ask gawky me to slow dance at my last middle school dance.

We still had an hour of driving time to go. So DJ told me about the radio program he’d listened to about some highly-developed spiders. It was interesting—part of the reason I fell in love with DJ was that he knows something about everything—and while he talked, I looked out the window at Orion and thought how happy I was.

If you’re married with little kids, you might be trying to smile and say how great that is that we could get away for all that time. Meanwhile, you’re lucky to get a couple of hours out every three months or so. Assuming the babysitter plans don’t fall through.

Yeah, don’t bother to be nice. Go ahead and bare your teeth. I know the feeling. We had our first child nine months after we got married, and have never lived close enough to family to have any of them pick up babysitting for us. Our dates for years consisted of hiring a teenage girl, eating out, then driving up and down Rt. 11 until after bedtime so we at least didn’t have to put kids to bed. Weekend getaway? Never done it. A week away? Unheard of.

But now I can see something we did right.

During those closed-in years when we had little kids, we could hardly even finish three sentences without interruption. We kept trying anyway. In among kids and work and spiritual meltdowns, we talked about books we read, thoughts we had, opinions we were chewing on. We’d lie in bed at night, sleepy, and talk about theology. While driving up and down Rt. 11, we’d play each other songs we’d discovered, or relate a funny conversation with a distant friend. We didn’t have time for long, leisurely conversations, but we filled what time we had.

And one day, we didn’t have such little kids anymore. This Friday, we left the house at 4 in the afternoon and didn’t get back till 1 in the morning.* We didn’t have to spend any of that time getting reacquainted. The connection we’d shared before life got so intense—that connection was still alive.

So my point isn’t that to keep your love alive, you need to get away without kids, because that’s not really an option for some of us. My point is to fill up the spaces of busy life with conversation, staying connected, never losing sight of each other.

And maybe some night, you’ll be driving together with your love. Maybe you too will gaze out the window as he talks, and see a shooting star trail down the sky. Meanwhile, he’ll tell you about highly-developed spiders.

And you too will be happy.

*Plan assumes you have generous friends who will pick up pizza for your kids’ supper, and neighbors who are always willing to be on call if necessary.

Earning Enough Grace

Danielle'sPhotoFellowship.jpg
Photo: Danielle Ayers Jones (DanielleAyersJones.com)

That title is supposed to give you whiplash. You can’t earn grace, much less “enough” of it. If you’re not actually sure what else you do with grace, or if you’re trying to find somebody who understands why this is a big deal to you… may I suggest a novel I wrote?

My ebook will be released soon, but meanwhile, you’re welcome to check out The Fellowship. This interview with my friend Danielle discusses what the book is, why I wrote it, and how I made a heavy subject approachable.

Danielle and I met when I was still in deep in my own Fellowship culture. We lived with three other young women for six months. They challenged my ideas, teased me, dragged me into conversations about topics I didn’t think we were supposed to talk about… and mostly, they plain liked me despite myself. That wasn’t the first time I ever experienced grace like that, but it was the first time I really recognized it.

So it was particularly fun, all these years later, for blogger Danielle to interview author Sara.

Read Part One: Earning Enough Grace

Read Part Two: Earning Enough Grace

And linger to browse Danielle’s blog, where she reads, cooks, thinks, homeschools, and takes beautiful pictures.