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Thursday, May 08, 2008


Mid-book blues

An interesting experience, that I'm starting to realise I've had with every book I've yet written. Who knows if it'll continue? But I've been reflecting on it, and something occurs to me.

The way it works is this. Beginning a book is exciting. Finally, you have an idea that looks like it'll work, it could be great, you're ready to go! So you begin the book, and start setting out the stall. This is particularly satisfying: little enough has been written yet that it's easy to keep it all in your head; you can block things out, tour round the situations you need to set up, set out a bold diagram from which you can build a story. Everything you write creates something new, and you can create by fiat, because everything you say establishes rather than violates the parameters of the story. It's hard to contradict yourself when you're only two chapters in: everything is establishing, rather than harmonising. The main sensation, I find, is this: quick, get it all down, write, write, write!

Finishing a book is scary: after all that effort, the finish line is distantly in sight. But how far? You don't know. What ends do you have to tie off? How can you make it come good, make it satisfying enough to do justice to all the work you've put in? That's intimidating - but it's also rewarding. You can have climaxes, surprise yourself with ways to knot plot strands together, explode story arcs like fireworks. The payoffs come thick and fast. As you close down one subplot after another, you begin to experience the same thing you had at the beginning: you're down to limited enough tasks that you can keep them all easily in your memory; your goals are clear and straightforward; you're exercising writer's authority and declaring that things will go this way, and not that. That moment is in sight where you'll sit dazedly in your chair, a little breathless, saying, 'I just wrote a book. I just wrote a bloody book!' And then you can get up and dance.

The middle, on the other hand ... oh, the middle. That has many advantages of its own, in fact: the story's sufficiently underway that it looks like a proper book; you've established enough story to keep things moving, but you're not so close to the end that it's time to start worrying about what you're going to do next. But there are some difficulties in the middle as well. I've been wondering why, and I think I've finally identified it.

What the beginning and end have in common, and what the middle lacks, is a sense of being finite. There are only so many chapters you've already written, or there are only so many strands you need to tie off before you can stop. Which is to say, you can keep it all in your head. There's no need to read over your timeline or check your notes: you can just sit down and write, and that'll be enough.

In the middle, though, you're dealing with a tremendous amount of verbiage. My current project, for instance - which is far from finished - has topped eighty thousand words this week; that's already the length of a short novel, and involves too many scenes to have every last detail memorised. Every now and again, I think to myself something along the lines of, 'So, that scene I was thinking of with so-and-so - have I written it yet, or did I just plan to?' Some things are in my head because I wrote them, some because I just thought of them and possibly made a note about them somewhere, and it's hard to be certain which. The only way to be sure is to go back and check.

And that's a problem. Because, you see, that involves the organising part of your brain. Writing doesn't come from that place. The subconscious does have a sense of structure, probably a sounder one than the conscious mind, but it doesn't have a senes of fact-checking. The subconscious is about expanse, innovation, possibility; fact-checking is a yes-or-no mission, the worst possible state of mind for writing.

So back you go, looking to see what's what. And this is what happens to me: I read over the scenes, trying to find a vital fact ... and I start being an editor. The editor looks at the fiction, and goes: 'Wow. How on earth did I write that?'

The answer is: you didn't. Because it wasn't the editorial side of my brain that wrote it. It was a different me; my subconscious, my talent, my inner artist, or whatever else you want to call it. It's not the side of me that usually shows; people are often surprised at the difference between my fiction and my normal behaviour. The writing self is only present in the writing. Reading the writing in the wrong frame of mind, I start to wonder where it came from - which is a sure sign that, whatever bit of my brain it came from, it's not the bit I'm using right now.

... And that's the killer. Because what it creates is a sense of inability. I don't know how I did it, so I don't know how I'm going to do more of it. As long as I'm trying to get a grip on the structure with my conscious mind, I probably can't.

The thing to do, actually, is relax. My most productive day this week was the day I decided that I wasn't in as big a hurry as all that, and took a detour through the local park so I could walk through the wet grass in my sandals and admire the daisies. I came in, sat down to write my usual three pages of free-association warm-up, and found, to my amazement, that ideas for the next few scenes were unfolding all over the place - and unfolding easily; there was no sense of struggle, I just kept thinking of new stuff, because I'd cheered up a bit and moved into a more playful frame of mind. The writing bit was starting to surface.

But the block demon, the bit that doesn't want you to write, is very good at telling you that if you don't get control of the structure, if you don't read it all carefully and align all your facts, then you'll never finish.

That's not true, of course. You can finish fine without having all the exact details, and then clean them up later; that's what editing is for. The worst block I had while writing Bareback, I actually solved because of a change of plans separated me from the rest of my draft: I went to visit some friends, ended up staying longer than expected, and found myself working during the day without my computer or notes. There was nothing to do but plunge in at roughly the right place, saying, 'I'll link the two bits together when I get home', and move forward, and as a result, I managed to fix a problem that had been bugging me for weeks. Tangling details beyond recognition creates problems you have to solve, but being too anal about them is worse, because it means you get stuck, and then you don't even have anything to improve.

I've gotta say, being on the third book rather than the second helps a lot with this; when you've done it twice, it's much easier to say, 'Ah, I'm just having mid-book blues, I'm sure I'll solve them eventually' than when you've only done it once. But if anyone else is having mid-book blues right now, take my word for it: things usually work out in the end, and they tend to work out sooner if you stop fretting about them. Go pick some daisies while they're in season.

Aaack, I'm in that place right now. Writing, then checking, writing, then checking. It's like trying to drive with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake.

Plus, I secretly suspect that my characters have been struck boring while I wasn't looking.

But this is book number four or five for me. I know this place. I've been here before. And so have you. And we will both survive.

Happy daisy day.
Us habitual NaNoWriMo participants learned to call the mid-book blues "The Week Two Wall." Because in a 30-day race to 50K words, Week 2 is pretty much where mid-book blues hits.

Bset wishes getting through it. I know you will.

Also? Today I got the happy call from my local bookstore that my order had come in. And now I am just back from a bike ride there and back, and my little canvas sack of purchase contains a copy of Benighted, which I am very very much looking forward to reading. So much YAY!

(It also contains the two sequels to Amanda Hemingway's marvelous The Greenstone Grail, which I just finished rereading this morning. This weekend is looking like it'll mainly take place in bed surrounded by books. Aaaah.)
Thanks, guys! :-)
I'm also prone to the mid-book curse. I always know the beginning when I start, and I always know the ending I'm writing toward, but the path from one to the other always ends up filled with unanticipated roadblocks and detours.

In order to get here, I discover, I have to go there first, and there, and this other place.

Plus I'm a character-based writer, and sometimes a character will offer an oppoportunity to further delineate what that person's made of in a nice 2000-5000 words, and I can rarely resist.

One way I've found of overcoming the doldrums is to reserve a couple big set-piece scenes for the middle of the book, so that I can look forward to them and have fun writing them.

"I don't know how I did it, so I don't know how I'm going to do more of it. "

The perfect one-sentence summation of writer's block.

That's interesting, dubjay. With character-driven stories, I almost always refuse to allow myself to know how things end before I get there. Otherwise I'm too tempted to get to the "good stuff", and give short shrift to the necessary journey.
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