What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Hey there! How’s it going?

The incoming e-mail waved at me.

It continued: If you’re a fiction writer, chances are that you’ve had to fight off a powerful case of plotilitis. Also known as writer’s block, this chronic condition has symptoms that include loss of hair, crippling headaches, and severe concentration problems.

Uhh, yes. I’m stuck right now somewhere between Joe Mayfield at a biotech incubator in Florida and Weezy chasing an hacker in Bethesda, Maryland.

The e-mail continues: And, luckily, we have the solution for you.

I’m all ears 👂👂

Meet our brand-new Plot Generator, which has more than 1 million* story combinations to inspire you. Simply choose from our fantasy, mystery, romance, sci-fi, and drama genres. You’ll get characters, a theme, a setting, and even a plot twist… with just one click of the finger! 

Characters without depth in places the author has no familiarity with, themes considered only superficially. What could go possibly go wrong?

Listening to One’s Characters

I am a product of my age and education. As a result, I read instruction manuals rather than pounding buttons on gizmos to see what happens. When I open the box, I look for the manual (or, these days, for the web address of the manual).  So quite naturally, I looked for instruction manuals on writing when I decided to write my first novel.  Stephen King, John Gardner, Anne Lamott, William Zinsser.  All fine books on writing. Manuals.

When I read how a character comes alive,  how the author follows along behind, discovering the character his own words create, I was, shall I say, skeptical.


Damn, they were right.

I discovered this through my critique group’s discussion of my elderly female hacker whose internet handle is Jake. In my novel Open Circuit, she has been called on by a fellow hacker, HoHumJr, for help.  He is being pursued by bad people and needs a place to hide while he decrypts dangerous messages and alters software.  My first draft pass has Jake quickly advising him to get on a bus and travel from Miami to her remote Wisconsin home, where he can hide out.  Critique group says, “Nope.  Not plausible. Jake would find some way to help him, but not bring danger on herself by having him come to her.  Doesn’t make sense.”

Hmmmpf, I thought.  They just don’t understand the reality that others in the hacker group wouldn’t help HoHumJr.  Wait a minute … the first aha … I know the reasoning, but I haven’t told the reader.  I often make that mistake.  No problem. I added a couple of paragraphs to hammer home why the trip made sense.

Next meeting … Nope, the group said.  Still not justified.  Yet, I had this strong feeling that HoHumJr had to travel to Wisconsin.  I agreed with my friends.  It didn’t make sense.  Was I just wanting it to happen because the plot required it?  No, that wasn’t it.  I could leave him in Miami, and the plot would work.

I finally realized that my character Jake had a life and feelings.  It wasn’t that she couldn’t help HoHumJr from afar, it was that she wanted to be part of the solution he was going to bring to the plot. That was what I had to tell the reader.  I had been going with plot logic, which my helpful friends in the critique group quite correctly shot down.  I should have been going with motivation.  I should have listened to Jake.