Thursday, December 22, 2016

Getting Past the Middle: An Invitation to a Novel Project

I can start novels all day. I’m full of ideas, full of intriguing starts, lines, scenes, dialogue. I started writing my first book when I was 12. I also started writing my second book when I was 12. The problem has always been getting through the second half to the end.
Words. (sigh.) Image: Jim Pennucci "Words" (CC BY 2.0) by pennuja
I did finish one novel. It didn’t make much sense, in terms of traditional storytelling, but I was young (like 30), full of myself, and not really sure how to revise this tangle of words and scenes and
emotions and people into something more coherent. Also, I needed a job to support myself after grad school. So I just didn’t revise it. Didn’t have time.

Stopped writing. Worked.

Yeah, yeah, lots of writers write while working. I’ve heard it. I don’t think I’m unusual for losing sight of intentions, dreams, purpose—at least for a little while. Purpose gets displaced. Some of us are the “passive dreamers” who don’t really know how to power through to the vision. (I’ve recently learned I’m not alone in not understanding this.) I guess I’m the less exceptional sort. Or maybe I’m more exceptional because I can have another purpose for a while.


I’ll tell myself that. But I know it's an excuse.
* * *
Anyway, there (finally!) came a time when all my attempts (over years!) to get myself back to writing led me back to a writing life. I implemented what I needed to make it appear I was living up to my commitment, but I obviously still have your doubts—even though I know I can write complex and interesting characters, and even though I know I have something worth sharing with the world, even though...

I mean, where’s the damn book?

I write and write and write something really good and am convinced of my genius for a few days. But then you get to the middle. This is where I always get stuck.

Can you relate?
* * *
Let me tell you a little story about my current novel(s).

I have been writing this coming-of-age story for what seems like forever. In reality, it’s been about five years since I started the writing. It’s been stewing for longer, of course, but getting scenes on paper started about five years ago. I told myself that, if I could just get through the first draft, I’d be relieved. I’d be home free. Revising? Editing? I’ve always loved that part of writing short stories and essays. Revision is where the real writing begins, I used to say.

So I wrote the first draft to get through to the revision and it took a really long time.

Like four years.

I got hung up in the middle, of course. I kept writing the same kinds of scenes over and over. But I got to the (sketchy) end. And I knew it was time to revise, rewrite, rethink, redream—take a whole new look at it.
* * *
I am an intuitive writer—what is more popularly called a pantser these days, but I think this term is a way for planners to disregard the intuitive process because it doesn’t seem productive or they don’t understand it. I write to discover. This discovery of the characters and their predicament and how they drive their stories is what I find fascinating. However, it leads to a highly episodic novel, since people don’t generally live their lives as a novel and I believe in my characters as human. Lots of things happen that influence the characters in my stories and they don’t tend to follow a neat little line. So when I get to the middle of the book and I start wondering how this will all lead to what I see as the end, I try to take control. I try to plan, envision, map out chapters and character arcs, and all that crap.

But the truth is that, as well as I know my characters, my characters run much deeper than I usually suspect and there are new things that I don’t know. It takes a long time to know these characters, just like it takes a long time to really know people. I keep re-thinking the story and why the characters do what they do. I seek help. I ask for others to read it. I look for advice and I get wildly different opinions and different ideas of writing and of what novels are.

And then I get entirely overwhelmed.

So, even though I finished the first draft of this book, I chose to do something weird to get me through the revision of this 5-year coming-of-age novel. I put it aside and to start writing a middle grade book that had a clear trajectory. I didn’t know the characters too well, but I started writing this little book with the idea that this would help me envision a path for my other book. I didn’t need it to be good or anything; I needed it to stay the course and happen fairly quickly.

I mean, it’s still character-driven, but I try to focus on the plot more than character. The idea isn’t to be brilliant or heart-wrenching or deeply true—it’s just to get through and write a decent book with a clear trajectory.

Only now I’m stuck in the middle of the middle grade book. Go figure.
* * *
I am here, though, to invite you on a little journey to finish the draft within a month. (I have to start teaching again in a month—built in deadline!) I have a plan and it’s happening.

Here’s what to do the day before embarking the plan for finishing the second half of the novel in a month:
  1. Find a place to write. I know you have a place to write. You’ve written the first half of your novel, after all.
But are you writing your novel in that place lately? If you’re not, it might be time to change things up. It may be subconsciously acting as the space for being stuck in the middle right now.

Personally, when I get too comfortable in a place, it starts being a distraction, so I have to change my writing space every few months. Think about it this way: when you have trouble sleeping, you have to change the environment. You have to change the lighting and turn your bedroom into a space that is dedicated to sleep—not family time, not watching television, not eating in bed. Your bills and your computer should not be in there. You have trouble putting those things aside and simply sleeping with all the ghosts of those other things in the room with you while you sleep because your mind associates family time, T.V., food, bills, work, and whatever else you have brought into the room, with that space. Sleep not a priority there anymore.

Don't let your mind associate your writing space with being stuck. The reality is that there is nothing wrong with your novel that needs attention right now. You simply need to get through it before anything else. Put yourself in a space that tells you it is time to write. It may be the library, an office or co-working space, a cafe, a different room in the house. It may be rearranging that room or cleaning it, too, but you’re trying to get the novel done in a month, so cleaning and rearranging the room might just be another distraction. Clean it when you’re done, accept that writers have dirty houses, and go to set up your laptop in the attic. Wherever you end up going, when you choose this space, formalize it as your writing space. Remind yourself that this is where you get down to work and write, then do it. Write for an hour just to prove it. You don’t get to be bothered there. It’s all about writing.
  1. Prepare your mind for tomorrow. Ask yourself if you are ready to do this, because writing half a book in a month is no small feat—it takes time.
This is not a plan for people who plan on putting in 30 minutes a day. It takes hours. Every day.

But the full-on plan is simple:
  1. Write for three hours a day, even during the holiday season. Keep in mind this is write your novel for three hours a day—not a blog post (ahem) or emails or articles or your dissertation or whatever else you might tend to write.
  2. Read at least a book a week, even during the holiday season. Read novels similar to the one you’re writing. Read novels that are entirely different. Read literary novels and read genre novels. Read them and note what works, what is exciting to you, what makes you want to read more. Read.
  3. Follow through with reflective and planning activities, even during the holiday season. I have culled several from some well-known writers and teachers of writing to help move the novel forward. I’ll update here a once or twice a week with those.
Easy, right?

Well, it’s not, but keep telling yourself that it is. Keep reminding yourself that thousands of people write novels every year. Go the library, the bookstore, wander the virtual aisles of Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Powell’s and marvel at how many stories are right there, piled up to the ceiling. All kinds of people have written books. Many of them are not good, aren’t genius, may even be poorly written, but they’re done. That’s a leg up on you and me. Seriously, a moron can write a book, and you are not a moron. You’re smart and observant and you’re writing has personality. You don’t even need to try too hard and your first draft will be better than a lot of the books that have been published. Talk yourself up. Writing a novel is not so difficult that all these other people couldn’t do it. Obviously you can, too!

So find your writing place where you will sit yourself down and get your work done—remember that you may need to change it from the space in which you have been having difficulty with your novel. And quietly commit yourself to writing for three hours—every single day.

Then, when you’re ready to start, start writing.

Okay, go!

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