Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Story Behind the Story: Hitting the Wall

by Sandra Parshall

Second in a series of occasional posts about writing Book 6.

I know it will happen every time, I know the point at which it will happen, yet I always feel blindsided when I hit that first wall in the first draft of a new book.

While I do as much preparation as I can before I begin a novel, I’m not a writer who can produce a detailed outline and stick to it meticulously all the way to the end. I decide what the story is. I collect the most important characters (knowing others will show up as I go along). I know the identity of the villain(s) and the motive for the murder(s). I know where I’m going without being sure of every step along the way.

When I have a first scene in mind, I start writing.

You may sneer at “the mystery formula” if you like, but I’m comfortable with beginning each book in a roughly similar way, counting on circumstances and characters to make it fresh every time. The dramatic inciting event – a murder or the discovery of a body – comes in the first chapter. This is what I look for when reading crime fiction too. I want to know quickly what the story is going to be about. By chapter two, we begin to understand who is affected by the crime. From  chapter three through the middle of the book, the story opens up, it expands to include subplots and unexpected threads.

And that’s where I always hit a wall.

I question the premise itself: Can I really make a good story out of this material? Do I have enough material here for the kind of complex story I enjoy telling? I doubt my ability to pull it off. (That doubt will linger until the book is finished.)

Once those doubts set in, it’s awfully easy to let them expand into overwhelming angst. Does it matter whether I write this book? Who will care if I don’t finish it? I consider destroying my computer. And so on. When I find myself at the edge of a sheer drop into a black chasm, it’s time to pull back, refocus, and move on.

That's where I am right now.

I will do more outlining. The middle of a crime novel should be bursting with suddenly exposed secrets, rivalries, and unsuspected relationships. But before I can write all that, I need to give the characters more thought. The hidden story – what really happened – matters most, because it drives the actions of the characters. If I don’t thoroughly understand the hidden story, I’ll get to the end of the book and have trouble justifying what the characters have been doing for the last 300 pages.

Eventually, I’ll regain my confidence and plow back into the writing. I don’t worry about writing well at this stage. I’m not concerned with pace or continuity. I don’t include much description. I don’t go into a lot of detail about anything – except what the characters are saying. I let them talk as much as they want to, and if they’re new to me and I’m not sure who and what they are, they will reveal themselves and their lives in their own words. I can shape the dialog in the next draft.

Many writers say they love the first draft and hate rewriting, but I’m the opposite. The first draft is torture for me. But I have to produce that big, messy lump of story before I feel safe, before I can breathe a sigh of relief and think, Yes, I’m going to make a book out of this.

Rewriting – shaping the story, finding the right pace, filling out the characters – is what I love. Rewriting is the prize at the end of the first draft, the goal line I’m running toward. It looks a long way off right now, but I know I’ll get there if I keep coming to the computer every day and letting my characters talk.


Barb Goffman said...

I'm inspired, Sandy. If only it weren't 3:30 a.m....

Kathy/Kaitlyn said...

This is how I write too. When I hit the inevitable wall what helps most is reminding myself that I've gotten past it to a finished, published book every other time (40+ times as I write this). And that anything can be fixed with revisions.

Kathy Lynn Emerson (aka Kaitlyn Dunnett and Kate Emerson)

Sheila Connolly said...

Sounds familiar! I usually have no problem starting, and I have a mental picture of the final confrontation and resolution, but at some point I panic and say, how on earth am I going to fill up this gaping pit of a middle?

I find it helps me to write down conversations with myself at various points--not outlines, just thinking out loud, but on paper.

Susan said...

I can't tell you how much this inspires me because I'm exactly at that middle point now. And everything you describe is totally familiar. I think in the middle you realize there are multiple directions you could go, so which will work best? Thanks for letting me know that I'm on the right track.

Sandra Parshall said...

What helps me is knowing the characters' secrets. If the suspects all have something they want to keep hidden, that gives me plenty to fill in the middle and send my sleuths off chasing red herrings. The past is a gold mine -- and fortunately for writers, everybody has one!

Alan Orloff said...

I hate the first draft, too. Really, really hate it. And I'm also convinced the story stinks right about then. It's only the knowledge that I've fixed many manuscripts before that keeps me going.

Kaye George said...

I sometimes have to write my characters for awhile before I get to know them. That might be what's happening for you, Sandy. I KNOW you'll get through the muddy middle! Your middles are always in great shape when I read them.

Sandra Parshall said...

Yes, that's exactly what it is, Kaye. Recognizing the process doesn't always make it easier, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Alan - the first draft is the worst! And that part just before you wind up all the pieces for the bang at the end... Sandy, you have really resonated with lots of your fellow writers in this piece. Thanks!
Thelma in Manhattan

Jeri Westerson said...

Sandy said in her post: "Can I really make a good story out of this material? Do I have enough material here for the kind of complex story I enjoy telling? I doubt my ability to pull it off."

Oh boy. Do we all feel that. It's like we've never done this before. Funny how it evolves and by the end of the book I think I'm a genius!