Digging Up the Dead: When What You’re Writing Hits Too Close to Home

A couple days ago I got over the 40,000 word hump on my newest project. That’s a great feeling. If you’ve ever been involved in a big, multi-stage project, like designing a new garden or renovating a kitchen or building a suspension bridge, you know what it’s like to know what you need to do in the beginning, and know how you want things to turn out in the end, but be just a wee bit fuzzy on how the middle will work out. Well, maybe that’s not the best analogy, because probably most of you plan your big projects. Measure once, cut twice, etc. Wait…that’s not right.

But me? I’m not a big planner. Not when it comes to writing and not when it comes to projects. Sure, I’ll start sewing a dress with a pattern, but I usually buy fabric in various lengths without a solid idea of just what I’ll make with it. It always works out. And I’ll start a major garden rearrangement with one solid idea — that one plant will go here — but the rest is just keeping up with the dominoes as they fall. It always works out.

We’re thinking about redoing our sunroom and making it a more masculine room that will serve as a cigar lounge. That will take some doing. It will mean finally installing a railing on the roof, painting the girly wicker furniture with all-weather paint, moving all that up on the flat roof with an outdoor area rug and maybe some plants in the warm weather. It will involve redoing the flooring, painting the walls, installing a good ventilation system, getting new furniture, moving some books around, trading out my natural decorations for some that fit better with the manly, mid-century black leather look. It will be a big project. I can see the beginning and the end…but that middle bit is hazy. Knowing me, we’ll dive in with these vague plans, figure out the muddy middle, and it will all work out.

Writing a novel is more of a mental project than a physical one. Beyond the words and sentences and paragraphs stacking up in your Word document, writing a novel involves going deeper and deeper — into characters and conflicts, into settings and subplots. And into one’s own experience. Even if you’re writing about a world very different than your own, you will be writing about yourself, your thoughts, your struggles, your memories.

In the book I’m writing right now, I’m delving into some deeply confusing and sometimes painful experiences from my own childhood friendships and encounters, and using those things to propel the plot and affect the development of my characters. I’m dredging up the friendships that ended (why?) and the things that happen to us that we’re too young and inexperienced to process. I’m remembering the insecurities and the rugs being pulled out from underfoot. I’m remembering the things I got wrong and the things I didn’t even know were things.

By the middle of the book, with the tension and conflict ratcheting up, I’ve written myself into a place that I must go through, that I can’t put off any longer. I have several options for which way to take the story, to take the characters. There are cop-outs to avoid, there’s melodrama to avoid, there are wrong steps to avoid. Somewhere ahead is the right path for the story. And I know it runs right over a dead body.

Not literally, of course. I’m talking about those incidents you had long gotten over, had put to rest in your mind years ago, but now must dig back up because they were never wholly dead. You buried them alive, hoping, I suppose, that in doing so you’d smother them and all the questions they’d raise in your mind. And now, after 40,000 words, you have to dig them up, examine what’s left of the evidence, and come up with some answers.

It’s a tough place to be. It makes you start searching for people on the internet, looking for clues as to whether what they did or said to you all those years ago have had any effect on their lives. Often you come up with results that can feel incomprehensible but at least positive. Maybe you find that the girl who was so mean to you as a kid is now a sweet-faced fourth grade teacher. Maybe the kid who stole your bike is a now police officer.

Other results might be more troubling. Maybe your friend’s older brother who molested you is now married with two little girls and you wonder, had you said something way back when, if his life would have gone a completely different way. Maybe the friend you unceremoniously dropped when cooler kids came around ODed or committed suicide. And you find yourself wondering if her troubles started with her losing her close friend.

All those little childhood incidents — could they have had lifelong consequences? The little cruelties that were convenient at the time…what unknown repercussions might have been echoing for the past twenty-five years?

The lovely thing about writing fiction is that you can make things more or less consequential as your story demands. You draw upon those experiences, mold them, and let them propel you toward your conclusion. Yes, the writing of a novel in which you draw deeply from your own experience can be emotionally taxing. You might dig up that half-dead body only to find you still cannot understand it any more than you did when you first buried it.

But maybe you’ll finally be able to put it out of its misery and put it back in the ground for good.

And now, I must get back to writing. A hard scene is staring me in the face, daring me to write it. And that’s my only way forward.

Revising Your Manuscript: Solving Plot Problems

You know when you watch a movie and you find yourself asking “but why wouldn’t he just…” and you can’t enjoy the rest of the show because everything hinged on that one thing that doesn’t make a lick of sense?

Congratulations! You’ve identified a plot hole. Spend much time on IMDB.com and you will find thousands of threads about plot problems in popular movies. Some of them are little, and rabid fans quickly explain them to the not-so-observant watcher. They’re the potholes, something we Michiganders are intimately familiar with this time of year. They make the ride clunky, but they’re not going to ruin the trip altogether.

Others are, well, like this.


For the pothole type, you probably just need a patch. You find a reasonable explanation for why this character did X or why Y caused Z and you work it into the story. For the sinkhole type, you may need to do some intensive structural repair and rerouting.

The sinkholes are the things we wish we could ignore because fixing them could alter everything else in our story. So we pretend they don’t exist, convince ourselves that we’re worrying about nothing, and in the meantime they swallow up the whole story because no one can get past them. Sometimes we need others to point them out to us, so we know–for sure, now–that yes, this is tripping up everyone else as well.

As painful and labor-intensive as they may be to fix, they must, must, must be fixed. And here are a couple ways we can approach them:

1. Go back to the beginning and prepare us.

Want to keep that plot device? Then you need to go back and lay out for the reader why it has to happen that way. Give the reader signposts and clues and reasons. If adequately done, then when we come back up to where that sinkhole was, you may find that it’s disappeared. Everything makes sense and falls into line and we go trucking right along to the next chapter.

2. Go a completely different direction.

Just can’t get your mind around how to salvage your plot and not fall into the sinkhole? Turn around and go another direction. Choose that direction according to the natural flow of the story. What would really happen next? And next? And next? Make that happen. Maybe you’ll get to the place you had wanted to be in the end anyway. Or maybe you’ll discover an even better ending in this new direction. I like it when the latter happens, because those are the endings that can both surprise us and still feel inevitable. They never feel tacked on.

What about you? How have you handled big plot holes in your own work? Do you find they tend to pop up in the same places, like the muddled middle or the ending that you just never quite thought through until you found yourself there and had to wrap this blessed tale up? I’d love to hear from you!

Finding Your Story’s Triple Point

Remember in high school chemistry class when you first learned about triple point? No? Let me refresh your memory. The triple point of a substance is the temperature and pressure at which the three phases of matter (solid, liquid, and gas) coexist in a kind of equilibrium. It’s not any of the three and yet it’s all of the three at the same time. Mind blown. In our class we used to annoy the teacher by asking what the triple point of human flesh was.

Here’s a handy chart:


The triple point of your story (and I’m just making this up here, folks–it’s not a real thing so don’t bother googling it) is when all the right elements of your story come together and you reach the point where you can really take off writing. It could be research, outlining, and a sudden burst of inspiration. It could be characters, plotting, and finally landing on the right point of view. It could be just the right combination of procrastination and pressure (looming deadlines!) It might be a hundred different factors finally converging and giving you the perfect kick in the pants you’ve been waiting for.

In the Bartels household the past couple weeks there’s been a lot of flirting with literary triple points and I think I’ve just reached mine.

Ah, the happiness and contentment one can feel with a good start on a big project. I’m two good chapters into a new novel, one that has been brimming with possibilities in my mind for some time but which has had several false starts and one fairly detailed and then discarded outline. I’ve been struggling not with characters, themes, or plot, which are all firmly implanted in my mind and loosely drawn out in a series of notes, but with form. It was the last piece of the puzzle I needed in order to really get started, to reach the triple point.

Any time you are trying to tell a story in the present that has parallels to and lessons to learn from the past, it can be hard to decide the best method for revealing the important parts of the backstory–especially if the backstory spans a long time period. I’m personally dealing mostly with 150 years of a family history. It feels like a lot to wade through to decide what is most important and determine the best method for slowly uncovering that information in the course of the narrative. But my husband (who is also a writer) is working on a new novel where the backstory covers centuries and crosses oceans. But he too is right there, hovering at that triple point.

I’ve had a few aha moments in the past few days, moments that rendered my earlier outlining fairly useless, but moments that may not have happened if I didn’t first try something that didn’t quite work for me. Luckily, I’ve been able to salvage most of the writing, removing chunks to save for later in the book and revising the remainder to lay the right hints and focus on the right thematic elements. I did kill some darlings in the process, but of course that is inevitable.

Now I feel some real inertia and the road ahead looks pretty clear. The trick will be to harness that and make the time needed to use it wisely.


What are you working on right now? What problems are you facing? What happy moments of clarity have you experienced? Have you ever experienced the exhilaration of reaching your story’s triple point?

Taking My Own Writing Advice (or, My Terrible Epiphany)

I hope you won’t mind if I direct most of this post at myself. Because, frankly, I need a good talking to/kick in the pants/smack upside the head.

Myself in a Mirror

Listen, Erin, you have some problems. It seems like everyone compliments your writing (all those agents who declined to take you on had very nice things to say about your technical skill) but there are some serious problems with your manuscript for A Beautiful Fiction that, even if you self-publish, you’re going to want to fix. You know what these are.

Problem 1: Beta readers find it difficult to sympathize with your protagonist.

Your rationale: My narrative voice is detached in an attempt to counter the tendency in a lot of modern fiction to tell too much and therefore not allow the reader to think at all.

Solution: Uh, DUH! Switch from 3rd person to 1st person so you can let people inside your protagonist’s messed up head! (Yes, this will mean rewriting the entire 85,700-word manuscript.)

But that’s not all is it? How about…

Problem 2: Story takes too long to get going.

Your rationale: It just wouldn’t make sense to start later or move things along faster because the storyline would be completely implausible.

Solution: Start at the point the action is intense, then flash back a bit here and there to fill in the details. Seriously, it took you this long to figure this out? For crying out loud, you just wrote a blog post about this very technique for a different story!

(Yes, I admit, it was when I was rereading my own blog post [hanging my head in shame] that I realized this advice could be applied more broadly in my own work.)

There are probably other problems in that manuscript, but two is enough to work on for now. So get your butt in gear, Erin, because you have got a LOT to do now.


In my defense, though, I will say that had I not stepped away from that manuscript for about six months, I would not have come to realize these possible solutions to my problems. Now that I can look at it more objectively, I can get back to work and make A Beautiful Fiction beautiful indeed.

Beginning at the End

Some stories start at the beginning. Some start somewhere else. It’s not always an easy thing to recognize when your story actually begins. I’m still unhappy with how A Beautiful Fiction begins and may need to massage it before publication. For one of my current novels-in-progress (yes, you can tell I’m not a full time writer just by this statement alone I think) I think I’ve just discovered where it truly begins.

You see, as I began last November to write the book I’m now calling My Life in a Minor Key (you may remember my derailed and then failed NaNoWriMo plans) I knew how it would begin and how it would end (a change from how I wrote A Beautiful Fiction, for which I had no plan at all of how it would end when I started). The first and last chapter would be book ends that echoed one another and I had a vague idea that the entirety of the book would be one big literary chiasmus.

I still kind of like the idea of that structure, but it occurred to me randomly and out of the clear blue cloudy gray sky the other day that what I really ought to do is start with the very last chapter. Rather than being a straightforward narrative in which the reader discovers only at the end what has happened to a character, I believe it would be better told already knowing the climax and then backtracking to see what could have possibly led this character to this point.

Breaking Bad Season OneThis is not a new idea. You see it in a lot of post-Tarantino movies. The very first episode (and then many others) of Breaking Bad did just this, starting at the climactic moment of the episode, giving the audience absolutely no background to understand what the heck was going on, and then restarting a bit earlier to fill in all that missing information. The joy of watching in these cases is not discovering along with the characters what will eventually happen. It’s knowing the end and then, like a detective, sorting through all the little events that lead up to it.

Sometimes, if a story is long enough, you as a reader or audience member won’t even remember that you really already know how it will end. Remember how the 1999 film American Beauty started? Kevin Spacey told you he would be dead in less than a year. But I don’t know anyone who remembered that fact by the time they got to the point he actually dies in the movie. (Wait, you’ve seen it, right?)

Thinking of your own WIP, where does the story really begin? What is the most engaging way you can start it so that a reader simply must read on? Sometimes it takes a few chapters of writing to get to that point. Sometimes you need an outside reader to tell you where things really pick up, then try using that as the starting point. If modern cinema has taught us anything, it’s that people really don’t need to know much at the beginning to get sucked into the story. In fact, too much information and exposition up front is kind of tedious.

As for me, I’m beginning at the end this time around. I guess we’ll see how it all works out. Eventually.

So, What’s Your Point?

Snowy Forest

My dreams are rarely guided by what we might call a plot. Nothing actually happens in them. They are scenes that flow nonsensically one into the next and go NOWHERE.

My husband can attest to this. The poor man is often subjected to partial recounts of my dreams–partial because at some point he simply walks away because he knows this is going nowhere and yet will not end. He even used my “method” of dreaming in a sermon to illustrate the difference between reading Scripture as a bunch of boring, unrelated stories (“and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened”) and reading it as God’s very well plotted and intentional story (which he generously compared to my more deliberate method of writing) in which we find purpose and meaning. In case this interests you, you can listen to it here. It also contains a fascinating tidbit on the real St. Nicholas, who was apparently a bit of a hothead and prone to decking heretics. True story.

Now, I’ve been busily working on February’s short story, The Door, which I have deliberately made a bit dreamlike. Last week I realized that this was becoming a problem. It was becoming much too much like one of my actual dreams–rambling and random and pointless.

So I stopped writing. And I started plotting. I thought about this story in the shower. I thought about it in bed. I thought about it in the car. I thought about it but did not write down anything I thought of. I just allowed myself to think it through, to think myself into a plot, a purpose, a point.

While turning back toward home on an ill-fated trip through white-out conditions to my office today (Lake Effect Snow = 1, Erin = 0), everything fell into place like fat snowflakes aiming directly for their spot on the ground (rather than swirling madly around my car). I got home safely, put a space heater at my feet, and got back to work with the lovely feeling in the back of my mind that I now know where this story is going.

Dreams are okay. Their very weirdness is interesting. But interesting is not really enough for a story. Writers, we owe our readers a bit more than a rambling but interesting story. We at least owe them a compelling plot or, as is often the case in shorter fiction, a point.

How can you take those intriguing but (admit it) pointless scenes and weave them into a larger tapestry to make them an essential part of your plot? How can you give your readers a clear (though pleasantly winding) path through your forest of very lovely, very interesting trees?