Once in a very great while, which is to say three or four times per book, I find myself facing a stone wall.
Now, there are several kinds of stone walls. Some are only a few feet high, and can be vaulted with a middling leap of imagination. Some are considerably higher but have possible hand- and foot-holds that might get you up and down again with your neck and your self-regard unbroken. These usually seem to be a prompt for a methodical review of where I am in the manuscript, and how (and why) I got there. Often, the process of going through the story, up to the point where I hit the wall, will tell me where I went wrong and/or what direction to pursue next.
And then there are the stone walls that are polished smooth as glass and stretch into the clouds. Like the one I'm facing right now.
These walls often require something I almost never recommend to anyone. They require that I quit writing.
It's probably obvious by this point, but maybe I should have started this piece by telling you that I write by the seat of my pants. Since I think that plot is what characters do I discover my story by following my characters. There is much to recommend this method, but security isn't one of them.
When that stone wall looms and the process collapses, so do forward momentum and confidence, and I have the dizzying sensation of a first-time rope walker when they decide, far below, to take down the safety net.
I think anyone who wants to write a book should work seven, or—at the very least—six days a week. I have dozens of reasons for this, but the one that's probably most relevant here is that it keeps the world of the book tended, irrigated, and ready to welcome you back. Annie Dillard once compared writing a book with taming a lion; the longer you stay out of the cage, the more dangerous it is to go back in.
But when the smooth, apparently infinitely high stone wall looms in front of me, it's usually time for me to get away from the book, long enough to develop a 20,000-foot view.
I find most of the time that the worst wall is telling me I have a potentially lethal disconnect, which is to say that the book as it's written is incompatible with the unwritten portion, as I'm imagining it. In other words, there's a breakdown of character or logic or both. And the only way I know to find my way through the wall—since there's no going over it—is to take a last long look at the story thus far, and then close the computer.
Just live my life. Be aware when something that happens, or something that someone says, nudges me and says, “bookbookbook,” because that's a little gleam of light. I write down whatever it was and then whatever is triggered by the act of writing it down, and then I close the notebook and move on. Sometimes, I'll talk about the problem very broadly to a sympathetic listener. This can be very valuable—not so much because of what the listener says, but because I get to hear myself stating the issue. Sometimes, the solution presents itself instantly, either whole or in pieces.
If I do these things, sooner or later—most of the time—a new path will open, and it usually involves reconceiving where I'd thought the book was going. This can be disorienting, but in the end, it's a lot easier to reconsider an as-yet-unwritten portion of the book than it is to toss the written part. And I know, because I've done both.
So the message I hope I'm conveying is that stone walls are actually a prompt. Depending on which one you hit, you need to make a minor imaginative adjustment, or review your story in detail to figure out what's gone wrong, or pull out of the whole thing for a while, keeping your mind wide open to whatever the universe throws your way or whatever emerges, waving a tiny white flag, while you're describing the problem to someone.
And once you're over the obstacle—or through it if it was one of those—write like there's no tomorrow, and with the awareness that you've hit (and managed to overcome) a stone wall.
Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the traditionally-published Poke Rafferty series of Bangkok thrillers, the most recent of which is The Queen of Patpong, and the Junior Bender Los Angeles mysteries, which are ebook originals. The most recent Junior Bender adventure is Little Elvises. Earlier this year Hallinan conceived and edited an ebook of original short stories by twenty top-ranked mystery writers, Shaken: Stories for Japan, which is available from Amazon for $3.99. He lives in Santa Monica and Southeast Asia and is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy. His website is www.timothyhallinan.com, and the largest area of it is devoted to helping writers finish their first novel.