When Writers Hit The Wall

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Early in my writing career I noticed something happening when I got to around the 30k word mark in a manuscript. It was like I hit a wall. It’s not that I didn’t have ideas or know the direction of my plot. It was just a strange feeling like I wasn’t sure what to write next. I’d look ahead at the 60k or more words I had to write, and got the heebie-jeebies. What the heck was going on?

Luckily, I found out I wasn’t alone. Lawrence Block reported the same thing in his book Writing the Novel:

One thing I’ve come to recognize is that I tend to run into a wall at a certain point in all of my books…. I find myself losing confidence in the book—or, more precisely, in my ability to make it work. The plot seems to be either too simple and straightforward to hold the reader’s interest or too complicated to be neatly resolved. I find myself worrying that there’s not enough action, that the lead’s situation is not sufficiently desperate, that the book has been struck boring while my attention was directed elsewhere.

I got to thinking about “the wall” again while reading Kris’s post on settings and Game of Thrones. It put me in mind of the current plight of author George R. R. Martin. Now, I’m not an epic fantasy reader. I’ve never made it past the halfway point of The Fellowship of the Ring (stop with the singing already!) But I am definitely an admirer of those writers who excel at the genre. Especially Martin, whose page count and popularity I look at with awe. He is, at the moment, in the midst of a long patch of writer’s delay involving the next book in his series. Last year, he talked about it:

I know there are a lot of people out there who are very angry with me that Winds of Winter isn’t finished. And I’m mad about that myself. I wished I finished it four years ago. I wished it was finished now. But it’s not. And I’ve had dark nights of the soul where I’ve pounded my head against the keyboard and said, “God, will I ever finish this? The show is going further and further forward and I’m falling further and further behind. What the hell is happening here?”

This sounds like the wall and is completely understandable in light of the complexity of the books, not to mention the TV series running ahead of him!

Patrick Rothfuss, another popular fantasy writer, has also been in the midst of a very public delay for the third novel in his Kingkiller Chronicle (the second book was published back in 2011). Fans have expressed their displeasure—some going way over the line.

In an interview Rothfuss said something interesting:

“But I am moving forward. More importantly, I’m finally getting my life sorted out so that I can go back and approach my writing and my craft with the joy that I used to feel back in the day, when I was just an idiot kid playing D&D or working on my unpublishable fantasy novel.”

I think most of us can relate to that. When we first sat down to write a novel, we felt the joy of creation, the pure fun of making stuff up (see Jordan’s post on the “fun mojo” of writing). We shouted Huzzah! when we typed The End (or something that sounded like Huzzah. Maybe it was just Whew.)

But then we got the stunning news that what we had written didn’t work. We had to figure out why. We had to learn the craft. We had to work.

Then some of us got contracts and had to finish books with the cold, merciless wind of deadlines blowing across the backs of our necks. That chill was even more ominous if we found ourselves at a wall in our manuscript. So I developed some strategies to prepare for that dreaded moment.

1. The 20k Word Step Back

At 20k the foundation of my novel had better be strong. There’s a whole lot of words to write, characters to flesh out, plot twists to justify. So I stop around 20k to assess my plot:

A. Is my Lead compelling enough? Will readers care about his plight? Is he likable? Does he have qualities with which readers can empathize?

B. Are the stakes death (physical, professional, or psychological)? What can I do to ramp up the stakes?

C. Has my Lead been truly forced through the Doorway of No Return (when the book plunges into Act 2)? [Note: if your Lead isn’t forced into Act 2 by the 20% mark of your novel, the readers will feel it dragging.]

D. Do I have enough of an orchestrated cast? Do my secondary and minor characters have enough uniqueness about them? Are they sufficiently in conflict with other characters?

2. The Joy Factor

I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating. This is from a 1919 text on fiction writing by a man named Clayton Meeker Hamilton:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction)

“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”

Finding—and keeping—the joy in your book is thus absolutely essential, not just to break through the wall, but to elevate the entire thing. For me that means:

A. Going deeper into characters. This is a source of originality and interest. Giving even a little bit of backstory to minor characters creates all sorts of possibilities. You’re more likely to feel joyful when your novel teems with the possible coming out of characters.

B. Make things even harder for the Lead! Stop being so nice. Keep asking: what could make things worse? Oh, yeah? How about worse than that?

C. Keep a novel journal. This not only keeps you in the story; you can look back at early entries to recapture what got you hooked in the first place.

3. The Skip Ahead

If you’re still feeling hampered or unsure at the wall, get a long pole, back up fifty yards, then run like mad and vault right over the thing. Land a few scenes ahead. Pick the future scene you’re most excited about writing. Then write it!

Now, turn around and look backward. You should be able to plot a way to get from the wall to the scene you just wrote.

So what about you? Do you ever hit a wall in your writing? How do you deal with it?

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All Stories Have Legs

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

During Abraham Lincoln’s law-practice days, he had occasion to share a stagecoach with his soon-to-be adversary, Stephen A. Douglas, and a man named Owen Lovejoy. They were on their way to the courthouse at Bloomington, Illinois.

Douglas, known as “The Little Giant,” was about five feet tall with a long body and short legs. Lovejoy, on the other hand, had a short body and long legs. Lincoln, of course, was 6’4”. It must have been crowded in that coach.

At one point, Douglas tossed some shade at Lovejoy, remarking on his “pot belly” and long legs. Lovejoy came back with a barb about Douglas’s vertically-challenged sticks.

Then Lovejoy looked at the future president and asked, “Abe, just how long do you think a man’s legs should be in proportion to his body?”

Lincoln replied, “I have not given the matter much consideration, but on first blush, I should judge they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.”

And how long should a story be? Long enough to reach the end, and no longer. (Please note, I have not run this theory by George R. R. Martin.)

Which is why I love the novella form. In a brisk 20k-50k, you can grab a reader and deliver a wallop. Did you know that The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain is only about 35k words? Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has a similar count.

Stephen King has done some of his best work in novellas (e.g., The Body and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption)

The novella really matured during the golden age of the pulp magazines. In the classic years of the pulps, roughly 1920 – 1955, America was awash in inexpensive commercial fiction of all types. These were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, bound between wonderfully lurid covers. You could buy one of these magazines for a dime or 15¢, and inside you’d have a plethora of short stories and novellas and perhaps even an entire novel (or an episode from a novel in serialization).

A productive pulpster who could deliver the goods could make a living, even at a penny a word.

The novella largely disappeared after the death of the pulps. It was a difficult sell for book publishers who had to price them to make a profit, while bookstore browsers thought they might not be getting enough story for the price.

That didn’t mean the occasional novella didn’t break out (***cough***The Bridges of Madison County***cough***). But by the 2000s there were few being published simply because production costs exceeded revenue.

Now, because of the digital universe, those costs have disappeared, which has brought a revival of novella-length fiction.

Like the one I’ve just published.

Here’s how Framed came about. A couple of years ago I was playing the first-line-game. That’s a creativity exercise where you just come up with great opening lines and see if any of them spark a story idea. I’ve got a whole file full of ’em, some of which have led to published work.

This particular morning I found myself writing It’s not every day you bleed to death.

I had no idea who my character was or how he or she got into the implied predicament.

So I started to play with it. How could this have happened? Was it a suicide or attempted murder? Did my character have a near-death experience? Could he be narrating from the beyond?

I kept asking myself what if questions and writing things down, and eventually came up with an explanation that I liked. And from there I proceeded to develop the story.

I set it aside for awhile as I worked on other projects, then late last year came back to it and finished it. And you know how I knew it was done?

Because its legs had reached the ground. The ending felt just right.

So now, in the spirit of the pulps, I am launching the ebook for just 99¢ on Kindle. I want you to have it. I believe there is a huge market for brisk, suspenseful fiction, just like there was in the 1930s and 40s.

Do you agree?

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