Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Story Fatigue

Sharon Wildwind

Last week, I was Absent Without Leave from this blog. It wasn’t intentional, I just slipped quietly through Tuesday into Wednesday without noticing. The problem was spending five long days stuck in Saturday, June 8, 1974—rather like Bill Murray spending day after day in February 2 in the movie Ground Hog Day. During those five days 2007 melted away.

I had reached the climax chapter in my current work in progress. As always, standing on the threshold of actually finishing the book felt icky. Part of that icky feeling comes from story fatigue, which is a lot like combat fatigue. After months of living with this particular story, I no longer cared who killed whom and why. I just wanted all of the characters to go home and leave me in peace, so I could have my own life back.

I’ve never been much of a horsewoman and certainly never jumped a horse, but the image that haunts me in every book—starting around chapter 28 or 29—is that I’m not going to jump this hurdle. It’s down there, at the end of the arena, ten feet tall, red-and-white stripes, and I’m riding a skittish, 16-hands tall jumper, who is going to take a run at that barrier, stop cold at the last moment, and both of us are going to stand there quivering forever.

This is past the point of sorting my buttons by size and color, past tidying my desk, past scrubbing the kitchen floor, past suggesting to my husband that we chuck everything and go out for lunch. Getting through that murderer-revealed, character-in-jeopardy, resolved-by-violence chapter absolutely stumps me. None of the clues make sense. None of the characters have any more goals or motivations. There is no way—absolutely none—that I am going to tie this story together. Plainly, writing it was a mistake, which I should never have started, and never mind that I’ve written 29 chapters before this one and know of a certainty what happens in the 3 chapters after this one, this time I will be completely incapable of finishing this book.

The way through this is to mentally and emotionally chain myself to my word processor for several days in a row, usually 12 to 14 hours a day. I start with one word after another, rather like very bad abstract poetry.

June 8, 1974.

Eventually I work up to short sentences. Sky is Carolina blue. It’s breakfast time. No before breakfast time. Dawn. What happened at dawn?

“Shortly after dawn Saturday morning, Avivah rolled out of bed the sound of invading caterers. She considered a quick kitchen raid to liberate their coffee maker and a box of Pop-Tarts. As it turned out, an insert-and-extract mission wasn’t needed. . . .”

Eventually, I force my characters and myself to face real physical danger. Not describing it as an outsider, but being inside the character, looking at the weapon the killer holds, facing fear, living in a moment that demands raw courage, and somehow finding that courage. In one blinding, clarifying moment the book comes together, and when that moment passes, the book is essentially over for me. It’s out of my head, and now, a week later, I’m a little fuzzy on some of the story details.

Of course, I still have a few things left to do: write a couple more drafts, sell the book, do the editorial changes, proof-read the galleys, wait for the advanced reading copies, market the book, etc. but all of that is no big deal. That’s just stuff to get through. I survived!

So I’m sorry I wasn’t here last week. At least both of us won’t have to go through this again. Until next time . . . .


Sofie Kelly said...

Oh Sharon, I know what you were feeling. There is always a point close to the end of a book where I decide that I would rather stand by the doors at Wal-mart and ask, "Would you like a cart?" So far I'm still here, but you never know. Congrats on getting over the hump.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, that's the best "Please excuse my absence" note I've ever read, bar none. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

You know, you could have just said, "The dog ate my blog." We would have believed you!

I know just how you feel about writing the climax of a crime novel. I hate it, hate it, hate it. How to do it without sliding all the way down that muddy slope into a big disgusting pool of melodrama? I put it off until I can't put it off any longer. I get so sick of the characters that I'm ready to grab a gun and finish them off myself.

I put my new manuscript in the mail to my agent yesterday. And now I'm starting to miss those characters I was so eager to be finished with.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, I hear all of this. Isn't it nice that we're all in this together!

Anonymous said...

Bahwahahahaha! Sharon, I soooo understand this. Same thing with my manuscripts. After a point I start thinking about burning them all and running off into the woods to hide. And NEVER writing another word. Sigh. Good thing you've figured a way out of it. I can't wait to read your next book. Hugs, Lonnie/glad to be in this with you as well.

Julia Buckley said...

It really is like an exorcism. :)

Anonymous said...

I think I have a similar experience at about chapter four. The excitement of starting a new story has passed, and the recognition of how far there is to go looms. I start to wonder if the story is worth the effort. I grow resentful. I try to find ways to avoid working on it.

But then I push through and pick up some momentum somewhere, and then I pretty much sustain the pace until the end (of the first draft).

Sandra Parshall said...

You know what I really love? The middle of a book. I don't understand people who talk about sagging middles and the muddle in the middle. The middle is where all the good stuff happens! Beginnings are harrowing, because you have so many things to accomplish and you know you could lose the reader at any time. Endings -- bleccch. (See my earlier post.) But the middle! I just love writing it.

Anonymous said...

It's so nice to have company.

Paulo, I think it's interesting that your spot happens so early in the book. Glad you can find a way through it.