I've been doing this blog since 2005. You'd think by now there wouldn't be a writing subject I hadn't touched upon.
However, this morning in answering a question on a writing loop, I realized I've never addressed the issue of the phases of writing a novel.
First, a disclaimer. This post is obviously based on my writing process. Other writers may have completely different experiences.
As I began to think about the subject, I realized my connection to a manuscript roughly follows the pattern of some of my real-life relationships.
The Honeymoon Phase: This is always how it is when I start a manuscript. I'm in love with the idea of the novel, with the characters, and with the story. I want to write 24/7. I get up early to write, I write during my lunch hour, I rush home from work to write, and I wake up in the middle of the night to write. If I'm lucky, this burst of creativity carries me through the first third of the novel (somewhere between 25K to 30K words). It also helps to establish the voices of the main characters so that they start to help direct the action.
Ennui: Lots of writers are familiar with this phase of a manuscript. It's often called the "sagging middle." It's a particular bête noire for pantsers like me . . . people who do not plot novels out beforehand, but who approach a novel organically, allowing it to grow in a non-linear fashion as the individual responses of the characters dictate.
I always know how my novel will start and how it will end but, as my characters develop, their unique personalities help to mold the plot. The problem comes when that initial bubble of creativity bursts, and I find myself saying, "Okay, what happens now?"
For me, the middle of the novel always involves experimentation. Keeping in mind the classic structure of Western novels (the three-act format) I try different paths, exploring where each will lead me as I head toward the climax.
When it works, it's magical. The characters learn and grow and the tension builds. When it doesn't work, it's like slogging through a bog of mud with a heavy backpack weighing me down.
In Bad Boy, the cross-cultural nature of the relationship between Leah Reece and Quin Perez has each introducing the other to their very different worlds. I decided to experiment with turning the stereotype of the possessive Hispanic male on its ear, giving Leah a moment when she acts very possessively of Quin. He allows it to pass without comment. Later when he responds negatively to a grab-ass friend of Leah's, she doesn't like it and lets him know in no uncertain terms. Quin calls her on the double standard. That interaction between the two is an important step in their developing relationship.
When I started to write that scene, mutual jealousy was the farthest thing from my mind. However, as the couple interacted with a crowd at a party, the incident simply evolved.
The rough part of experimentation is when nothing seems to go right. I write for hours and then, the next day, end up moving all that output into a "overflow" folder because it just doesn't work.
Another problem with sagging middles is when I write myself into a corner. Or when I think I've "lost" a character's voice. Or when I just can't stand these characters one more minute. I call it manuscript fatigue.
Invariably, somewhere between 33K and 65K words, I have to put the manuscript aside and take a break for a few days. Walking away gives me the distance to look at the manuscript with fresh eyes. But it's hard to do. I'm stuck in the middle . . . caught between wanting to write and knowing I need to stay away from that work-in-progress.
I'm not much of a shopper, but while I'm trying to stay away from my manuscript, I usually call my BFF and ask if she wants to go shopping. She almost always responds the same way: "Who are you, and what did you do with Maya?"
After five days or so, I go back. I ALWAYS start by re-reading the entire manuscript. By doing so, I fall back in love with my characters and regain their voices.
Almost every time I have written myself into a corner, it began two or three chapters before I stalled. During my re-read, I can usually spot that moment immediately. Time and distance permit me to be objective.
The Dash to the Finish: The last thirty thousand words present a different challenge for me. I'm getting close enough to smell the finish of the manuscript. I'll soon write "the end" on the story.
Inevitably, I begin to procrastinate. I avoid writing on my W-I-P. I avoid even thinking about it.
It took me a long time to figure out the cause of this problem.
I'm back in love with my hero and heroine and don't want their story to end.
Silly, isn't it? I am generally pretty goal-oriented and pragmatic. This emotional reaction completely surprised me, but it happens every time. Once I identified the problem, I was able to come up with a solution.
When I near the end of any manuscript, I start something new. For a month or so, I work on both the last third of my W-I-P and the first third of another. Initially, I don't want to leave my nearly finished novel to mess with the new one, but--before long--I become anxious to concentrate all my attention on the new one and am, therefore, willing to wrap up the old one.
I know it sounds goofy, but it works. I satisfy my emotional needs and trick my own brain into success.
The whole point of this lengthy post is to encourage you to identify the phases of your writing and, more importantly, to recognize the barriers your brain or your process erect in your path.
Once you identify the obstructions, you can begin to overcome them.
Taking the day off tomorrow to play in the dirt and go see the film Duplicity. See you on Monday.