Stalled in Slow Gear

First off, a follower of the blog got in touch through my website and asked me to announce this free event, and I’m happy to oblige. Here’s what she wrote:

“…the Newbery Honor Winner and author of over 80+ books for children, Marion Dane Bauer, will be doing a FREE, LIVE teleconference call entitled “The Basics of Writing Successful Picture Books.”  It will be held on Wednesday, September 19 at 7:00 EST, and her readers can go to for more information.  She will also be offering a FREE, LIVE Webinar on Point of View in Fiction the following Wednesday, September 26, 7:00 EST.”

I plan to attend or tune in later. My picture book skills could use work.

And – you are among the first to know – I sent Beloved Elodie to my editor two weeks ago. I was afraid to announce that in case she despised it and told me to start over, but she called me, and looks like the manuscript will actually be a book! …after I revise and mostly trim. She does not like the title, so, after I bang my head against a wall a few hundred times, I may come to you guys for help again.

One more thing: I’ll be signing books at Children’s Book Day at Sunnyside in Tarrytown, New York, on Saturday, September 15th, from noon to 2:15. Hope to see some of you there! Please let me know if you found out about the event on the blog.

Now for this week’s question. On March 19, 2012, writeforfun wrote, In my last book, the beginning was really good. The conflict is introduced on the second page. For 15 pages, it’s all exciting and keeps the reader’s interest. After that, it goes downhill. The first 50 pages cover one week. During that week the MC never leaves the apartment he’s in, and the only action is his conversations with the others that live in that room and the secrets he learns about them (of which there are many). The reason for that is because he’s been kidnapped, and I needed all that time to learn about the kidnappers, who become co-MC’s, and to make them seem likable, as they are actually good guys. The trouble is, readers start to get bored. They tell me that they like knowing all this about the kidnappers, but it seems a little dragged-out, although they can never tell me what I should omit. I guess all I’m asking is, how do I know what to cut, and how do I keep the reader’s interest until AFTER the 50 page mark, when the action kicks up again?

To start, congratulations for soldiering through the gluey part, where the action is stalled. For me, when I sense the reader’s boredom the going gets tough. Writeforfun, if you’ve finished your story, by now you may already have figured out what to cut. For the rest of us, often we can get perspective on the parts we need and the parts we don’t only after we’ve written “The End.” As the plot works itself out, we develop our characters and discover what they’re driven to do. When we’re done we realize that some of the incidents, sometimes entire chapters, we thought were crucial have become unnecessary or actually impede progress.

But if you have finished and you still can’t tell, here are my ideas:

Consider whether all the secrets are necessary. Maybe you’re giving the reader too much and she’ll never keep it all straight as the plot progresses. If you can slice out a few story strands the pace may pick up. Or maybe some secrets can be revealed later, after the characters leave the room. You may be able to work in a few pauses for exposition, a break for a meal, a fireside chat before your characters go to sleep.

The message that the kidnappers are good can be conveyed economically. I gave an example of this in my post of November 2, 2011, in which Fllep and Yunk, aliens from another galaxy who don’t speak English, enter Keith’s house in the middle of the night and tie him to his bedstead. However, before leaving him alone and going on to the rest of the household, the aliens bring his stuffed elephant over from the bureau for him to cuddle with. From this single gesture, the reader gets the idea, at least provisionally, that these beings with a single eye and hands that look like spiders, may not be so bad. Follow this up with a couple more indications, and the reader is likely to be won over. The dog may be following them and wagging his tail; the cactus plant in the window may suddenly break into flower. A few sentences may be all that’s needed.

However, going the other way, I’m not sure that cutting is required.

If the characters are stuck in a single room, the setting may start to feel claustrophobic. I had that problem in Beloved Elodie. For most of the book many of the major characters are confined to the Oase, a residence and museum inside a mountain. I love being in caves, but even I started to twitch after a while. One approach I took was to shift POV to characters on the outside. Another was to have Elodie explore parts of the Oase beyond the great hall. In writeforfun’s setup there’s just one room, but there may be ways to create private, separate areas, perhaps a closet or bathroom that could be its own environment. Or maybe there could be a screen; or two characters might barricade themselves behind a piece of furniture. Or, getting imaginative, two characters might have a way to communicate that the others don’t understand, a secret language or hand signals or something else.

*Warning!* I’m about to use a word concerning the afterlife that may offend some of you. If you’re worried, skip this paragraph:

There’s a great play, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (definitely high school and above) that might be worth reading if you have this problem. For those of you below high school level, it’s about three souls in hell (literally), and their hell is a single room, a modern room, like a hotel room, no torture devices. The hellishness is that the three have been chosen because their company and their combination will provide each with unending torment. The setting doesn’t change but the audience or reader is never bored.

If all your characters are in a single room, dialogue still isn’t the only option. There can be action. For instance, a fight can break out; there can be escape attempts. Depending on who’s there, the characters can engage in a project that can break up the talk. They can play a game – rummy, Scrabble, Monopoly, whatever – which may reveal goodness and evil and power relationships.

I also wonder why the reader has to find out right away that the kidnappers are good. Doubt increases tension, always a plus. Their virtue can emerge gradually in the course of the action. Sometimes, because I like my good characters, I don’t want anyone to think ill of them for even a page. I may mire my stories in mud just to shine their halos – I need to remember that there’s no way I can actually hurt their feelings!

Here’s another approach, it’s possible that the story starts too late and a better beginning would have begun earlier. The secrets that are revealed may more properly be shown in action when they happened. Let’s imagine that Allura, one of the kidnappers, was tortured by the terrible regime in power. Under torture, she revealed the true identity of one of those held in the room, who doesn’t even know who he really is. Now she’s got to protect him. Why not start the story with the torture?

Or, suppose another of the kidnappers, Borick, is there because he had a vision. Why not begin with the vision?

Here are three prompts:

• Nora, Nate, and Nina are trapped in the basement of Nora’s suburban ranch house during a tornado scare. When they judge that the storm must have passed and try to leave, they discover they’re trapped. Write the story, and don’t let it get boring. Create tension through their desperate situation (little water, no food, no bathroom, no cell phone reception), their personalities, their attempts to free themselves, the secret that Nate has been keeping from the others, and any other harrowing factors you invent.

• Nora, Nate, and Nina discover they’re not alone. Write the new story. Unknown to Nora’s family, homeless Norton has been living in the basement for a month. Norton is bigger and older than the others. Give hints that confuse the others and the readers about his intentions. Make him seem evil one moment, good the next until you finally resolve how he is.

• Although the entire story takes place in a modern basement, find ways to vary the setting. Write a scene of exploration. Write a scene of privacy for one or two characters.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you so much for answering my question! I have forgotten you had even promised a post on it:) What a treat! And, while I have already finished the book, this was still a problem, so I DEFINITELY appreciate your advice. Thank you!

    Oh, and congratulations on finishing Beloved Elodie, or whatever it ends up being called! How wonderful that must feel!

  2. Congratulations! I cant wait to read it! I have a little question. Would you ever or have you ever considered making a sequel for any of your previous books or creating a trilogy?

  3. carpelibris and writeforfun–Thanks!

    Lizzy–Thanks! I sometimes think I might like to write a prequel to THE TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE, and I have a dim idea for a companion book to DAVE AT NIGHT. I don't know if I could write a trilogy. Plotting is so hard for me that the challenge of a story arc covering three books makes my stomach twist.

  4. It's a comfort to know that pros find plotting hard too. I love creating characters, but giving them a consistently interesting plot to enact is much harder. This might be why I often have Writeforfun's problem- a character and an interesting scene spring to mind in full color, but the next scene is still in pencil sketch, or maybe the next page is completely blank.

  5. I have a question that maybe everyone could answer… *Warning- some religious views may be expressed below unwittingly*
    I am considering writing a book on the subject of heaven, but I don't want it to be a "religious" book. I recently read "Heaven Looks A Lot Like The Mall" by Wendy Mass and it was interesting; it wasn't anything religious, really– there was no religion involved, it was simply a teenage girl's conception of "heaven" (the mall). I was wondering if there might be a way to market it as fantasy? "Heaven" (which will have some mystical name, by the way) is access through death of "believers" (which is where the going gets tricky…) My MC should really be going the other way- she accidentally stumbled upon "heaven" after nearly dying while robbing a high-security government facility. There's like 3 layers- the underworld under the earth, and "heaven" above the earth, and they can be accessed by slipping through the "layers" during someone's death.
    But I *REALLY* don't want to write it as a "religious" book, or preachy, or an allegory, or anything. I know the Percy Jackson books briefly take place in "the Underworld" and the book by Wendy Mass is really more "religious" than this book would be- but I think it might be treading on dangerous ground. Do you think I should attempt it? Or attempt it as a "religious" book? What does anyone here think?
    By the way, feel free to ignore this comment if you don't agree with it. 🙂

  6. Lark–It sounds interesting! If you're worrying about offending people, you might make this an alternate world outside the religions observed today. The layers might be part of a god system such as the ancient Greeks believed in. But I think you should tell the story you want to tell without worrying about giving offense.

  7. Gail– that's a much better idea than what I had! Thanks!
    By the way, I was reading Writing Magic again (for the 5th time) and noticed that you dedicated it to Jack Starkey… ?

  8. Lark, it sounds fascinating! Here's my data point, FWIW. I have an as-yet-unpublished novel that includes "serpent-demons" and characters that look like your typical feather-winged angel. I originally called them Seraphim. Then somebody pointed out that Seraphim are very specific beings in a real-world belief system and my casual use of the term might turn off some readers. I changed the name to Aureni, but I wondered: The book's full of "angels," "demons," at least 3 afterlives, holy water, a deity…was I really pushing my luck?
    I've sent the book to a dozen or so agents, and while none of them have bought it, the comments have been things like "While your proposal shows merit, I'm afraid it's not right for us." None of them have mentioned a problem with the religious symbols. (The demons eating people, though…THAT's been a problem!)
    Hope this helps!

  9. carpelibris– your book sounds amazing (except for maybe the demons eating people :P)- I don't know why it wouldn't be picked up by an agent 🙂 I suppose many books are almost allegorical, like yours– CJ Redwine's new book Definance, for example, uses a Leviathan-like beast, which I believe is found in some religious texts… But I guess I would just call it "the afterlife", which is found in a lot of Rick Riordan books– and he also is quite free with many beliefs in the afterlife, and Egyptian and Greek and Roman gods as well. So "religious" aspects, agents and publishers probably don't mind… as long as it's not, like, "Jesus" or very specific "Heaven" and "Hell"… just my very jumbled thoughts on that.
    Thanks, carpelibris! It helped a lot.

  10. You're welcome! I'm glad it helped.
    I think that my problem is that the MC (whose mother was a serpent-demon and father was an Auren) was raised as a demon, so he starts out thinking that eating people is a good thing. Since the story is about how he goes from thinking of Aureni as food to falling in love with one, it's kinda necessary to the story, though.
    I've even seen fantasy involving Jesus or other specific aspects of Christianity or other active religions. The closer you get to real life, though, the more you risk hurting or offending someone. It's tricky!

  11. Hey, I've posted here a few times before as Kilmeny-of-the-Ozarks, and I lurk and read every post! Congrats on Beloved Elodie!

    I have a writing question. It's about the use of hyperbole. I was reading an excellent article on the subject this morning and it reminded me of an instance where my writing instructor said I had used hyperbole and should delete it.

    The problem is, my story is Christian fantasy based on Norse myth–and the hyperbole was the World Ash Tree that, according to myth, the world is built upon. I described the trunk of a tree as "larger than a mountain." I didn't think it hyperbole but logical for my imagined world–if its holding up the whole world then surely it would be bigger than the mountains! She said its too big a stretch of the imagination.

    My instructor has been very helpful, so I want to listen and learn, but this seems like a necessary "hyperbole" for my story! The article I mentioned, used Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series (etexts can be found on Project Gutenberg–fun read!) for an example–that hyperbole doesn't work well when everything is stretched to the limit. Like all the women are gorgeous, all the bad guy are the cruelest he's ever met, the hero has no faults…but it seemed to me that I had enough contrasts in my story for the huge tree to stand out…

    So, I guess what I'm asking is, what do you think of hyperbole? How can it be done well and when should it be avoided?

    Thanks for reading! I know its rather long….

  12. Oh, anyway, I'm going to write that story (@Gail: You sure know what I am talking about.) real fast because the tests are approaching!!!!! Anyway, I want to ask:
    1.Have you ever read a story which one of the main characters are antagonistic but mostly protagonistic? You said that Kyle should be the villain, but I didn't bear to have him purely evil, just 'sometimes wise but nasty' *quoting from story!*. Do you sometimes feel that the villains shouldn't be villains? I normally experience that too!
    2.Do you have any suggestions to make a story feel like it is very vintage? Some authors have precisely failed, but some did it very successfully. I hope that I did it too with the story, considering that it was set about seventy-nine years ago.
    Anyway, please post this one. I never got posted, not like writeforfun! Please give me a chance!
    Anyway, please visit my blog and the V.F.D Solo Blog!

    • I have not read the book, but I was looking on Amazon the other day and found a book called Artemis Fowl, in which the protagonist is a villain. I don't know if the book is any good, but you may want to try it just to see how the author did it.

    • Awww I love Artemis Fowl!! I was so sad when the author, Eoin Colfer, said that the Last Guardian is really the last. 🙁 It's an 8-book series, so there's a lot of leeway for character development too. Colfer does it masterfully. I highly recommend those books!

  13. Gail, would you be willing to read a 220k, 613 MSword page book? I finished mine recently and I'm trying to improve it as much as possible. My 13 year old brother was crying at the end and claimed it was the best thing he'd ever read. It's really complex, so I'm trying to probe out plot holes as soon as possible.

  14. Leslie Marie, your "hyperbole" makes sense to me! I think hyperbole has its uses, especially in Fantasy, where things tend to be larger-than-life.

    (Grumble. I'd love to be able to tell the computer "No, I'm not a robot. I'm just extremely nearsighted. Let's try this again…)

  15. Leslie Marie–Doesn't sound like hyperbole to me. Seems literally true, or maybe even understated. If the whole world rests on the tree it may be even bigger. More information about the tree's size may help. Do the roots anchor into anything? Or does it drift in space? Are there leaves? How big are they?

    I'll see if I can come up with a post on hyperbole.

    7355lynn–You may find my posts on villains and the one on vocabulary in historical fiction helpful. Take a look and ask me if you still have questions.

    me, myself, and I–Congratulations on finishing your book!!! Alas, I'm kind of busy and don't have time to read it. Sorry!

  16. I hope Gail doesn't mind me asking this here, but with so many fairy tale fans, it seems like the perfect place. Are there any fairy tales that you're tired of seeing, or that you really like? I'm working on a project, and I'm trying to avoid both "Not another retelling of X!" and "This is based on a fairy tale? Which one?"


  17. carpelibris–It's not the fairy tale, it's how it's told that pleases or displeases me. I'd love it if someone did a great retelling of "Humpty-Dumpty." I enjoy Donna Jo Napoli's fairy tale novels because they're so original and suprising.

  18. I hadn't thought of Humpty Dumpty. Thanks for the suggestion!
    I went out and got Zel because of this board, BTW.

    Are there any fairy tales that AREN'T in the public domain? I've been assuming that anything on SurLaLune is, and avoiding the Andersen and Wilde ones, but I'm not 100% sure that's right.

  19. Hi Gail, Congrats on the new book! Yay!

    Quick thoughts: I find that Beth Revis' ACROSS THE UNIVERSE does a good job of keeping the story flowing with all characters stuck on a spaceship and for a while one character is trapped in a cyrogenic box. Katheleen Duey split the POV in SKIN HUNGER, one character roams and the other is trapped in a school. The contrast works.

    Hope everything is flowing along fabulously, Molly

  20. Hi, Molly! Thanks! Yup, flowing. Hope for you too!

    carpelibris–Well, THE TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE is a fairy tale that isn't in the public domain, so anything recent isn't. I rely on the Lang fairy tale books, because the adaptations as well as the fairy tales themselves are safely in the public domain, and you can find all of them for free online.

  21. Gail- Thank you. I have the Lang books too (well, almost all of them), but I didn't know if they were public domain. I wouldn't touch anything by a living author.

    Thank you for suggesting Humpty-Dumpty. I got a dark science fiction flash out of it.

  22. Thanks carpelibris! And yes, I'd like to tell the computer I'm no robot as well…

    And thank you, Gail 🙂 I look forward to the post. I'm sure it will be interesting.

    Another thought for a blog post: how about a post about WRITING blogs? Just a thought. I'd like to start one but have absolutely no idea what to write. I think my biggest block is just fear of some sort holding me back!

    Thanks again 🙂

  23. Gail– I was looking through some old posts/comments, and I noticed that quite a few readers (including me) have requested a post on publishing. Is there a post coming up soon? Is it on your calendar at all? Thanks!
    Wednesday is my favorite day of the week because of your blog, by the way! 🙂

  24. Hi Gail! This comment is unrelated to this post, just to warn you. I would have emailed you but I couldn't find an email address.

    I write a blog at, and every year I host a blog party from December 12 through January 15. This party includes contests, giveaways, guest posts, and author interviews. As one of my favorite authors, I was wondering if you'd have time to join the party with a guest post or interview? If you're interested, you can email me at

    I love your books and just recently discovered your blog. Thanks for being an awesome person!

    ~Emily Rachelle

  25. Gail– sorry! It was more bits and pieces of curious readers (and writers, including myself!) who were wondering "how to get published" or "the publishing process". I know that's a tall order, and might be a lengthy post- I wrote my 9th grade research paper on book publishing and got a C because it was WAYYY too long, was more of an instructional manual (!), and most likely mediocre at that because I've never been published- but as a FAMOUS 😉 published writer I, at least, would love to hear your thoughts on that. I'm sure that getting published is a main goal of at least a few of the readers here 🙂
    Thanks so much!

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