Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Thing And The Half Of The Thing

First of all let me start by saying that yeah, yeah, yeah, we at Mad Genius are messing with you. We have all decided to randomly switch days so you never know which of one of us you’re going to get, Mwah ah a... I mean, Amanda is busy today, so I picked up her day and she’ll blog on Wednesday.

I debated briefly doing a web-linky type of post, but frankly, I haven’t looked at that stuff in so long I’d probably steer you wrong.

So instead I’m going to talk about something that I hit again and again and again in my writing life. (In art too, but since art is a hobby, that’s inconsequential.)

About a decade ago I took a workshop with Oregon Writers’ Workshops. It was invaluable for various reasons, but I got my money’s worth before the first day was over. As one of the instructors, Dean Wesley Smith was talking about this and that and the other thing, trying to get us acclimated to the surroundings and each other, he said casually, “of course, every novel dies halfway through. If you push through that point, you’ll find it lives again and gets finished.”

I had at this time several unfinished novels, because I lost interest about halfway through. That information alone, would have been worth what I paid for the workshop.

It had never occurred to me that this was normal or that it happened to other people. I assumed if the novel died, it was because something in it was fundamentally wrong.

Since then I think I’ve come to understand it better. See, when a novel first comes to me – and I suspect to other people – it’s this bright, splendorous thing, with complex connections and meanings everywhere.

There is only one problem with that – there isn’t the room to put all those connections and meanings into a book, let alone the fact that readers would need to STUDY it, not just read it and it would fail the basic duty of entertaining.

There is also the need to pin the book to the pages – to give enough information about whatever you’re talking about that the reader can follow. Like this: in your head, the book is of course complete and clear, but for the reader, you need to provide clues. “Must remember to start with John doing something nice, because if he is flogging conscript workers, they won’t know he has to do that to survive his brother’s rule” type of clue.

This takes away a lot of the cool and shiny that the novel had in your brain before you wrote it. And by the middle of the book, it might seem to you that all the cool and shiny is gone, and why bother finishing?

But if you push through, you eventually realize it’s just like ... falling in love versus being married; writing down your dream, instead of just dreaming it; baking the cookie and eating it, instead of dreaming of the cookie.

Reality – the reality of the finished book – might lack the shiny-cool that made it sparkle in your head, but it will be outside and – hopefully – in a form other people can read and enjoy. It’s a compromise, like seeing your spouse with messed up hair and morning face, but it is the only way to make it real.

So, next time you’re stuck around 40k words – or if you’re me at 20k, 40k, 60k, 80k, 100k – push through. You’ll be surprised, afterwards, that the split doesn’t show where the book stopped.

What is amazing is that by the time I took that workshop, I had written eight full novels (one recently published as Darkship Thieves ) and countless short stories, but I did not know this. I thought I was alone in having the novel “die” halfway through. While for the pros it was so obvious it wasn’t even the point of the instructor’s speech.

Well, I’m a pro now, more or less, and there are a bunch of other pros on this blog. What are the problems that consistently bedevil you that you think you might be alone in? Who knows? It might be a well known complaint, with a well known work around. See if you can stump the writer! (not hard) with your real or fictional writing problem. (Hey, since fiction is such a part of our lives, it should get its own billing.)


Jim McCoy said...

Alright Sarah, since you offered.

I'm working on a novel. The book is (in my opinion at least) turning out pretty well. The problem is that the hook is nearly non-existent. I've been thinking about going back and adding something to the beginning that would turn my first few chapters into a flashback sort of, but would give a hint of the action to come. This would (hopefully) suck the reader in enough to keep them interested to get through about the first ten pages or so before the real insanity starts.

The problem that I'm having is how to make it work. I'm not a big fan of prologues and it wouldn't really be long enough to make up an entire chapter. Do you have any thoughts as to how to make this work? Should I do a whole chapter? I'm just a wee bit confused about how to fuse this all together.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Go read the beginning of Starship troopers. Look how he brings us in to the thick of the action, then goes back to how it started. Then read the beginning of Friday and tag the information he sinks into the first five pages. Report back.

If this doesn't cure you, then finish the novel. When you're DONE go back and look at the beginning. It's not my process, but a lot of people redo their beginning everytime they finish a novel

Jim McCoy said...

Thanks Sarah. You're right. I think I will do it that way.

C Kelsey said...

Not ready to write a novel just yet... I'm head-down in the weeds doing research. :)

Kate said...

I don't have a particular "spot" where it happens, but often I get partway through and realize a) I don't actually have a novel b) I don't want to write this thing any more c) I have no idea where the heck it's going and it's breeding weirdness on me (this is the most common issue) or d) any combination of the above.

Since I've yet to manage an outline that actually works and stays relevant more than a chapter or so, this may have something to do with it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris, get your head out of the weeds. That will only muddle your research -- and that's even if these are legal weeds. My husband almost died of a ragweed allergy. This you don't need.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I still think you need to perfect the art of the "short, short outline" about five to ten pages that tell you what -- in general -- will happen and where it will go. This will allow you to know up front if you have no novel. (TRUST me.) Then you do detailed about fifty pages at a time.

Kate said...

Um, Sarah?

I get the 5-10 page broad outline, but is that a detailed outline of the next 50 or so pages, or 50 pages of detailed outline? Because 50 pages of detailed outline and I'm hiding under the desk never to emerge again.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


ROFL, no I mean detailed outline of the next fifty pages of the book. I do that on yellow pads in pencil so if I change something, I can erase the outline of the next chapter and change that too. Say, a character comes on stage and refuses to be the villain, like Tom's dad in DOITD. Erase the parts of the next few chapters where he's a villain and add in the new ones.

It's sort of like driving with GPS that can only tell you the final destination and see five miles ahead or so. OTOH it's better than driving blind. (trust me.)

C Kelsey said...

Sarah, these weeds are important, sort of. I admit to reading material simply because it's interesting. I'm focused on short stories for the time being anyway... Gotta develop the skill before I take the plunge to novel land.

Chris McMahon said...

Building up a head of steam and 'tuning in' to the story is always my challenge. It makes it hard when I have to step away from one particular world for a while and come back.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the story and the characters and plot before I can even get going.

Generally I don't have that block in the middle. Once I get going my pace increases steadily until by the end I am literally flying.

Anonymous said...

I do the 'bog down in the middle' with almost every book. Outlining is sometimes the problem, as it lets me skip the tedious parts and write the fun ones. And once I've done the final wrap up, and I feel all satisfied and happy, I have trouble making myself go back and write the hole in the middle.

Writing a mystery and not telling myself who dun it has been rather fun, and hasn't bogged down. I do need to start eliminating suspects pretty soon now, though.;)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris K.

yeah, understood. As long as you realize no one can make a living from short stories.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I'm trying to finish a book I left in the middle of a year ago. It's SO hard.

Whine, whine, whine. Does anybody have cheese?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I did that with the first mystery I ever wrote. YES, the unmentionable one. It was fun. I had to go back and clean up some stuff in edits, but I wrote it in two weeks, in a heated rush.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. That sounds painful. It would be almost a start from scratch proposition for me - at least in terms of mental energy.

Good luck!

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I've found that when I had The Idea for my novel, it was basically a host of Really Awesome Scenes(TM) - I knew there was a unifying story to it all, but my mind focussed on detailing these cool scenes.

Now that I come to the nitty-gritty, I find that this lack of fore-planning on the less thrilling parts of the book are really telling. The passage that I have just finished, in particular, is very unsatisfying because, I think, I hadn't thought about up until the week I came to write it.

There isn't really a question here; just a cautionary tale which I am sure you have all already learnt. Really, deeply plan the whole book before you begin, not just the cool bits.

C Kelsey said...


I'm just trying to live up to that New Year resolution I made of getting two short stories published.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Good on you that you discovered what worked for you. Do not however say that everyone must do this.
If I do that, I stop being able to write the novel. In my mind it becomes "done". So what I do instead is plan a little higher level (movements/changes instead of chapters ro scenes) and then when I'm actually in the thick of writing, plot five/ten scenes ahead. You see, the characters and even the world changes as I write it. I create a really neat shop, say, that I then want to use again. Or the character I thought was the villain turns out to be ripe for redemption. Or even a subplot shows up to enliven the duller parts of the book. This gives me room to go with those changes, while still having the book mapped ahead.

Ellyll said...

Okay, I'm very late reading this, but I got to the "every novel dies halfway through part" and just gaped for a while. Then my brain said, "Oh."

I thought it was just me. Somehow, this all makes me feel much better. * trots off to write more *

Thanks. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


NOW you know exactly how I felt when I heard it.