The Midstream Temptation

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m currently writing a series featuring a character named Mike Romeo. I have three books out in that series. I also have a little over half of the next Romeo completed.

But during my creativity time a couple of months ago, I was playing the first line game. That’s where I just make up first lines, not knowing anything else about what is to follow. I have a file full of firsts that I would love to develop someday. All I need is a 28-hour day and and a perpetual espresso machine.

Anyway, I wrote an opening line and it blasted me. I just had to know what it meant. So I found myself writing an opening chapter. And when I was finished I knew I had the makings of a stand-alone thriller that I wanted to write.

Only I wanted to write it now.

I call this the midstream temptation.

I was faced with a choice. Continue to write this new project, leaving Romeo sitting there waiting for me to get on with his story? Or finish Romeo and come back to the new one? (A third option, writing both at the same time, seems to have worked for Isaac Asimov, but it gets me too confused.)

When I was writing for a publishing company, they had a triple-barreled vaccine for the midstream temptation—a contract, an advance, and a deadline.

But as an indie, I am free to decide what to write, and when.

Now, I know enough about the mental game of writing to realize there’s a danger here all writers face. Sometimes you reach a point in a novel where you hit “the wall.” For me that’s usually around the 30k word mark. It’s a place where you’ve got a whole lot of book to go, but start thinking maybe your concept isn’t as hot as you thought. Or you wonder if you are really the writer you thought—or hoped—you were. Maybe the day of reckoning has come, and they’ll all find out you’re a total fraud!

For me, I just write through the wall. The doubts go away.

But that wasn’t the case with Romeo. I didn’t hit a wall. The book is solid. I know my signpost scenes.

So I had another thought (two thoughts in close proximity!). When I finish a first draft I always set it aside and let it cool for a time before my first read-through and edit. So! Why not let the Romeo cool off now? Use the cooling period to write this new one while it’s hot, and then approach my Romeo manuscript as if it is a first draft (a short one, to be sure)!

Which is what I decided to do.

This is the first time I’ve done something like this. The conditions had to be just right. So let me run through some thoughts on the matter:

  1. When you are tempted to leave a book in midstream for another idea, resist the temptation and keep writing on your WIP.
  2. If the new idea keeps demanding your attention, take one day off and…
  3. Put on your “thinking cap,” as Mrs. Barshay used to tell us Kindergartners. Ask yourself if you’ve merely hit a wall of doubt. I suspect a lot of the time the answer will be yes.
  4. Write some analysis. Talk to yourself about your WIP. Identify issues, and make a list of possible solutions.
  5. Keep at your WIP unless you are at a point where it’s pretty much complete in your mind. That means you have a good bulk of it done and are pretty sure where it’s heading, and how it’s likely to end. (Admittedly, this is more difficult for a panster. And it should be. Because you’re a pantser.)
  6. Take a day to do some freewriting on the new idea. Then take another day to map out where the story might go. Do a preliminary outline, at least of signpost scenes.
  7. Write the opening chapter. Then ask yourself if you, as a reader, would have to read on. Do you have compelling characters? Are the stakes death (physical, professional, or psychological)?
  8. If the answers to #6 are affirmative, take one more day to make sure you’re not going to the new project just to avoid facing the task of the WIP.
  9. Make your decision.
  10. Continue to meet your quota. (Don’t have a quota? Get one!)

I don’t know that I’ll ever do this again. My routine for twenty years is to finish a full draft while at the same time developing the next project with notes, index cards, character work and so on. I just got caught up in the excitement this time. The new idea kept tapping on the window, inviting me to come outside and play. And isn’t spontaneous play what we used to love as children?

Okay, so writers are big children. That’s how we roll.

But if we want to be paid for our play, we need more than a little discipline. So when a midstream temptation comes calling, subject it to hard and objective scrutiny. If it passes … go play!

And be sure to look both ways before crossing the street.

Have you ever had a major midstream temptation? What did you do? Do you ever hit a wall in your first draft? How do you handle it? 

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25 thoughts on “The Midstream Temptation

  1. I love this.

    I have never been able to do only thing at the time. It drove my mother crazy. She was very focused, very one-thing-at-a-time. I get bored very easily. The compromise we reached was “As long as the work gets done by x, I don’t care how you do it.”

    I love #7 – it looks like a great weeding tool.

    • There’s a “wild mind” that’s essential for good writing, and a “focused mind” that’s essential for good business. Putting them together is also an art and craft, I’m beginning to think.

      Your mother was wise, Cynthia.

  2. “He’s dead, Jim.” That line, although not the opener, demanded to be written into a story, but I still waited until I was done with the project I was working on before writing it. (Brag moment – it ended up as part of a collection that won the Silver Falchion award.)

    I’m definitely a one at a time person. I have to stop working on the WIP when my narrator sends an audiobook to proof because I can’t work in two worlds at once. I keep saying I’ll listen in the morning, then write in the afternoon, but it’s been 11 audiobooks and it hasn’t worked yet.

    I hit walls all the time even when I have a “Plantser’s Map” of the book. I do toy with ideas, but I can’t abandon the WIP. I’m about a week out from turning this round of edits in, and I’m going to plan which book I’ll write next while I wait to hear from her. I hope. Or will I be stressing over all the other bits, like the cover, a marketing plan, do I release it for pre-order … ?

    • Yes, Terry, and learning to get rid of the “stress bits” is an essential, too. I’m reminded of something Dennis Palumbo wrote, to the effect that every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing

  3. Oh the tales I could tell about switching midstream, but I won’t because I want my fellow writers to be very productive, which has not been my case. I will say that your idea about doing a pause to evaluate the new idea and subjecting it to some strenuous examination before making the switch is very sound advice and I believe in keeping with productivity advice you’d find just about anywhere.

    It could be advantageous either way–sometimes you might stop in the middle of your WIP and just need to sketch out some ideas or character notes and that might be enough to set it to stewing in your basement while you finish the WIP. Then you’ll be excited to start with a bang the new project once the WIP’s done. Or sometimes, you simply can’t resist and must move forward with the new project.

    Although writers at all levels of experience go through doubts, I think sometimes you have to go with your instinct on a decision like this. And when you have a history of productivity to back you up, so much the better.

    • The history of productivity is a good thing, BK. In an interview Dean Koontz said before each book he goes into the special room of his mansion that holds all the editions of all his books…shelf after shelf…and he looks and says to himself, “I did this before. I can do it again.” Ha!

  4. Just went through this. More by luck than design, I wrote a short story that only took a few days. I’m digging into the novel again.
    One more thing. A perpetual espresso machine. From your lips to God’s ear.

    • Good point, Brian. Some ideas are best worked out as short stories, and can be done rather quickly. A little of that can keep the boys in the basement busy on the novel.

  5. Something that’s happening with me right now also has some bearing on this dilemma–I’ve been arguing with myself [That’s one skill I’ve more than mastered] whether to focus on another novel (the 1st book in the series is roughly drafted) or a non-fic idea that’s been bubbling in my brain.

    Lately, a lot of things have been coming onto my radar that feed into the non-fic concept I want to write (for example books I read on totally different subjects that end up having bearing on my nonfic). I think I’ve reached that intuition stage that says “Take note! You’re being fed a lot of leads here. WORK ON THE NONFIC!” It’s a relief actually. Now I can set goals the way they are supposed to be set–specific, time delimited, and broken down into steps. And when the time comes that I switch back to fic, I have no doubt that what I’ve learned from this will feed into those projects.

    • Now here is where I am able to relate to Asimov. He could work on fiction for a while, get up and stretch, then walk across his room to another typewriter where he was working on a nonfiction project. I find it easy and refreshing to go between fiction and nonfiction, and try to have at least one nonfiction project going even as I’m writing a novel.

  6. Last year I hit the wall with my WIP. It was book 7 in the series and I thought my imagination had run dry and perhaps the series was at an end. I am a card carrying pantser. So I started a new series and then wrote a second book for that series. Then my conscious drove me back to the WIP and I kept at it, but I couldn’t move the story much beyond 60,000 words. So I sent it to my first reader – should I toss the story or let it be at 60,000+. She said keep it, so I went back and polished it. My editor said it was a keeper and I released it this week, 18 months after I started it. Now the words are coming easy for book 8 of the first series. For the 3rd book of the second series I haven’t figured out the plot so it’s simmering on the back burner waiting for that ‘ah-ha’ moment.

    Lesson learned – my pantser imagination is tied to physical location; don’t write any stories in locations I haven’t visited in the past three or four years or I’ll lack the fuel to keep going.

  7. Zoe saw the flash of light–it looked familiar. It looked like . . . exactly like the flash of light she saw moments before the Iraqi SAM rocket blew her and Pusher’s F-16 apart. The light, missile exhaust, was now centered in one spot. Not good. She had to leave. Except now, she didn’t have an ejection seat to get her out of the way. She was going to have to [ . . . ]

    There’s where I left it. I realized right then I was going to have to have an entire, different character before what was happening now and what was going to happen next.

    I broke away–unlike Zoe–and am writing an entire novella to create that character.

    I really hope Zoe makes it. Without her, the entire planet may be doomed.

  8. Jim, I loved this post. It has had me thinking all morning.

    “Midstream Temptation” And here I thought I was manic. Now I can say, “No, I’m not starting another project because I’m manic, I’m just having another midstream temptation.”

    With non-writing projects, after too many to count new ideas and pulling my wife into helping, she threatened to buy a T-shirt that said “Just say no.”

    Seriously, I am encouraged to read that you find working on a nonfiction project and a fiction project, at the same time, doable. That is something that I definitely want to do, someday, when I have time.

    I look forward to reading your book that germinated with an idea so powerful it couldn’t be denied.

  9. Good rules to live by! I’d add “Writer, know thyself.” Funny, I just this morning did what you did, wrote the first line of something entirely unrelated, and it grew into the first few paragraphs, and I had to make myself get back to work on the stuff I’m halfway through…but we have a date next week. 😉

    I was always one book at a time, write until finished. For some fifty books. And always linear, start to finish. But then a side project started coming at me in bursts, scenes in no particular order. In the evenings I would write them, with no idea what order they needed to go in. At least, no conscious idea; apparently somebody in the basement knew, because when the time came to put it all together, wonder of wonders, it all fit.

    But for the last two years I have been writing three books at a time. Call me crazy (wouldn’t be the first time someone has!) but it’s working. Mainly because the three books are very different in most ways: romantic suspense, space opera, and pure romance. The key for me has been writing music, story boards for each, and where I’m writing them. (office, den, outside, etc.) I’m on my second go round of this, so it wasn’t just a fluke. Which I always expect it to be. 😉

    I thought I’d be slowing down after surviving 25 years in this crazy business. And instead I’m doing the opposite.

  10. Hit a wall last month as I approached the big murder scene–my first violent scene where one of the principals actually dies. I kept writing slower and slower, fearful and more fearful. I resorted to a lot of back-editing and “must-see” TV. Finally my editor friend gave me great advice. “Stop now and outline the forensics.” I already had the murder scene in my outline; I knew how he would do it and how he would finally prove himself innocent. I just didn’t know the right before and the right after. “List what the police will look for, what questions they will ask, and everything the Protag. has going against him,” my friend continued. When I did that, not only did it jumpstart my enthusiasm, but I discovered that my exoneration evidence was trite, and I came up with something totally original. Now you probably do this anyway, but for me as yet unpublished, it was great advice.

  11. For me it’s not writing ideas that will intrude–usually at the 30k point–but something else shiny, or critical, or diverting. A major renovation project, decluttering my clothes, starting a diet, planning a trip, or doing a spring/fall/summer/winter cleaning. I convince myself that whatever it is is terribly important–at least as important as the work. In the end, it’s not even as close to satisfying as having written.

    I do find that the more I write, the more ideas I have, but I’ve never felt that pull to abandon one project for another. I’m incredibly stubborn that way. I eventually finish a project before moving on, even if I suspect it’s a stinker.

    Go for it! You’ve been doing this long enough that you know what you’re doing. It sounds like you’re excited about it–and that’s REALLY what it’s all about!

    • You know, Laura, daily we face these temptations because of social media. It’s so easy to hit a challenging part of a scene and think, “Let me pop over to Twitter for a few minutes.” I wrote a post about this, the idea of “deep work” and how it’s getting harder to do these days.

      As if we didn’t have enough mental landmines already.

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