I’ve hit a rough patch with my novel lately. Part of it is energy and working, and trying to balance a million priorities within the same 24 hours as everyone else. Part of it is that I’m at what I’ve learned is my weak spot in a story (the bit right before the third act turning point.) But it’s really because I am S-T-U-C-K. Stuck! I keep hitting dead ends, reversing tack and trying new things, hitting awesome NEW walls, going into tailspins and, whoa, new incontrovertibly impenetrable dead ends! Isn’t writing just awesome?
Of course, I know this is part of the process — doing hard time in an MFA program got me well acquainted with the ups and downs of long-form writing and revising. It’s still hard when you go through it, though: the doubt, the uncertainty, the cloud of irritation, general spaciness and questionable grooming (non)choices you exist under as you try to slog your way through a bog of narrative issues.
Besides the agonizing issues of “Should my werewolf disappear before or after the mysterious appearance of the clan chieftain?” or “Should I kill off the best friend in view of the protagonist or maybe I should have it discovered by her boyfriend, this precipitating the shapeshifter equivalent of the nervous breakdown?”, the hardest thing is feeling like I’m wasting time going in wrong directions. For this draft of this section, I’ve already burned through 10,000 words that have gone nowhere — investigations and explorations into new threads of stories, expanding moments that I thought were key but now seem secondary, and a whole scene involving an oral report on John Milton’s Paradise Lost that is really an apology and declaration of love. (It sounded good in my head.)
I keep trying to remember that it’s okay to go “nowhere” in stories — that, as Kanye West likes to tweet, #ITSAPROCESS, because your characters, if they’re good, will always have something to reveal when you’re writing. But after awhile, encouraging tweets/mantras only go so far, and soon you’ll resort to doing crazy things like talking to your characters to get through these rough patches.
Which is actually what I did last weekend after a whole week of eking out nonprogress on my book. Five whole days of sitting down for hours at my laptop after whole days of being chained to a computer for my job resulted in nothing but frustration. It really made me want to throw myself under the train. After I couldn’t take it anymore, I went for my daily walk, my head too full of that fog of frustration to really notice that it was the first truly glorious day of spring. (Yet another item to add to my “Why I sometimes hate my novel” list.) I tramped along, stewing over how much I hated myself for being such a fuck-up and Why weren’t my characters behaving?!!
I was loping along when suddenly I had this strange thought: that I was walking exactly like my werewolf prince, sort of hunched over, brow furrowed, preoccupied. (You don’t know how many times I’ve written that he’s furrowed his brow. He’s a brow-furrower. It’s his thing. On him, it’s sexy. On me, it makes me look oddly hungry.) And then — and here’s where I reveal what a lunatic I am — it was as if he was there beside me, both of us just strolling along on a fine spring day. Well, if he’s here, I thought to myself, I may as well ask WTF is going on with him right now. And so we had a chat, and it turns out that even though he was plotting his disappearance from my story, it didn’t mean that I could stop being in touch with his point of view. He kind of glowered about it (he’s kind of broody that way), but he had a good point: characters’ opposing choices often fuel a narrative’s energy. And so for the rest of the walk we talked about what was happening with him, how that affected my protagonist (she joined us at some point but being a cool, independent sort, she had other things to do), and a few other things.
When I was a kid, I used to talk in my head to imaginary people all the time. Everyone assumed that I would outgrow this. Apparently, I have not.
I don’t think I’m the only writer who’s ever chatted in my head with my characters, though I’m pretty aware that it makes me sound certifiable or at least very New Age-y. But sometimes it’s good to get a reminder that 1. it’s important to understand your “antagonist”; 2. it’s good to take walks; and 3. in some subconscious level, you’re not totally in control of the story. And if it takes having long, intense discussions with your characters in your head, well, I’d gladly pay a price of seeming like a literary looneybin in order to zoom forward with 10,000 more words of solid writing that actually does something.
And if all else fails, this TED video was a good reminder that being “wrong” is actually a valuable learning process. (When she gets to 13:26, she goes into the particular way “wrongness” works with stories, via examples of “This American Life.”)
And of course, this old favorite from J.K. Rowling, on the benefits of failure: