Tuesday, May 5, 2015

13 Week Novel—Week 10: Getting Past the Slump

Well, it's Week 10. We should all be close to the end.

I'd like to take this time to remind all of us that this is not perfect. It may not even be good. But it's a draft that we can work with in the revision.
Is your brilliant story wilting in the middle? Image "Drooping Tulip" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Lynn Friedman
By this point in the novel, I'm skipping scenes, or just writing summaries, or just writing something terrible that I want to erase right away. But I don't erase it. I tell people I want to delete it, but I don't delete a damned thing until I revise. Not even he worst crap.

I have fragments of things all over the place and I save them. My first draft is a huge mess.

Fine. It's fine. (I'm quietly soothing myself.) I remind myself that my other novel wasn't messy at all and it's sitting on a hard drive, wondering if it'll ever be read by anyone again, even its author. I'm convinced this messiness is a result of complex characters pushing their way out of a bad situation. That's good. I don't need to worry. I just need to get there, to the end.

And here's the thing: how complete can the end really be until the themes and subplots have been revised? I don't think it can be. I can't wrap this story up with a little golden bow until the whole story before it is refined. So I don't think I need to worry that the resolution sort of falls away right now. The resolution is the last thing.

What I need to worry about is that I care about the characters, that they are still interesting and keeping the action of the story going.

But how do you keep the story going when you've been writing for over two months (or two years) and you want to get to the end?

To answer that, I am going to look at suspense writer James Scott Bell's, Plot & Structure. This is one my beloved books on writing, mainly because it's all about the stuff I tend to ignore and makes me put those things in the forefront of my mind.

So if the purpose of this middle part is to drive the story to the climax and resolution, it needs to do so with tension and conflict, and it should raise the stakes.

Hmmn... It seems like all we're ever doing as novelists is creating tension and conflict. And hell, we've been doing it for a hundred pages already.

So now we've got to do it in a bigger way.

1. Death. Physical death may happen, but what we really need, especially in character driven novels, is more figurative: psychological death. 

Death, whether physical or psychological, should be a constant threat for the protagonist. It should follow her around and get really close.

James Scott Bell speaks of psychological death in Catcher in the Rye this way:

"...in that gray world, many go on a search for a reason to live. If Holden doesn't find it, he will die inside. And maybe that will lead to a physical death through suicide."

2. Opposition. We all know we are supposed to relentlessly throw obstacles at our protagonists. But how do we know which ones work best with our story? Which will build to a climax?

Generally, the obstacles will come from an opposing force, but we, the authors, need to know our forces well.

Opposition comes in four forms: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, and man vs. self.

Man vs. man seems most common in literature right now. There's a reason for it. It is easier to characterize that opposition character. Most often, we need this opposing character so much that even man vs. society and man vs. nature take on some of the qualities of man vs. man.

Man vs. society... hmmn... Hunger Games? President Snow, obviously. Then, secondarily, just about everyone else... Cato, Clove, etc. The Giver? Uh, yes, the Giver--the one who perpetuates a society in which no individual has the freedom to choose his own path. Secondarily, the Community.

Young adult dystopian novels seem to be the clearest example. The thing is, when you fight society, you fight specific people in that society as well as the leaders who control it. In this way, it feels natural to put a face to the opponant--even if it is a group.

Man vs. nature. Guess what? We characterize aspects of nature similarly. Think of Moby Dick. This is a classic man vs. nature story. But who is the antagonist? That white whale who kills sailors, chops off Ahab's leg, and destroys ships.

I'm not going to tell you that every one man vs. society or man vs. nature creates a character to represent that entity, thus seeming much like man vs. man, but many do. So it's not a bad idea to embody your opposing force into one or several characters.

Did I leave out one?

That's because I believe that every good novel utilizes man vs. self. I mean, goodness, Into the Woods is as much man vs. self as it is man vs. nature. Good mystery novels always have a protagonist wrestling with himself. Man vs. self is always, always present... or we're bored.

Okay, so now we have determined that our opposing force has characters representing it. That alone does not answer the question of what obstacles we will roll out at the feet of our protagonists.

This does:

  • The oppostion must be stronger than the protagonist. The opposition cannot be easily defeated. I know it's obvious, but even the most brilliant among us forget the obvious from time to time.
  • Find a way to love, to adore, to root for your opposition. If you can view the oppostion with some sympathy, the plot becomes more complicated.
  • Tie the protagonist and opposition together. If either of them can solve the problem of the story by walking away, then there isn't enough there. There needs to be a reason that they cannot withdraw from the action. It could be obsession, moral duty, professional duty, a life and death situation, or even a physical limitation in setting that leaves them trapped together.
  • Find an additional level of complication. This might mean finding a new threat in a character we didn't see as a threat before. It could mean turning the plot back on the protagonist, so that a whole new group of people becomes an opposing force. How would the larger opposing forces operate? How would they attack?
  • Consider other aspects of the character's life and those people who are involved. Drag them into the trouble. Make them reveal something dark that sets the protagonist into a tailspin at just the time he doesn't have time for it.
If none of this is helpful, you might be exhausted from writing. You might be suffering from a temporary lack of confidence. It's important to take care of yourself. This exhuastion might seem like an insurmountable wall, but there is a solution.

Take a day off. A real day off. Don't go and catch up on your chores or argue with people at work. Play hooky. Go hiking, go to a beach, cook a gigantic gourmet feast, take a nap in the sun, see a movie, buid a table, go shopping, paint... whatever is fun for you. No work. No writing. Just fun. Then go to bed early and read one of your favorite writers until you fall asleep. In the morning, the first thing you should do is write and keep writing.

That's pretty much what James Scott Bell says about getting through the middle.

And it doesn't keep you from your weekly 2500 words.

See you right here next week!

Coming in a little late? Find out about the 13 week challenge here. And see the first week's activities here.  

Subscribe to get posts directly, or check back during the week of May 11th for the next installment.

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