Getting Past the Horrible
Several years ago, I attended a panel discussion in which authors were talking about their writing process. Peter Robinson, who then had twelve successful Inspector Banks novels under his belt, spoke about that point in his first draft when he hated it. What am I doing, pretending to be a writer? he lamented. This is crap, I can’t write, I’m just a hack. To which his wife replied, Oh, you’re on page 170.
It’s a story I resurrect whenever I hit the first draft doldrums. Where I am now. I’m actually at about page 190, but close enough. It’s that point in the book where the plot is at its wildest and I have no idea how to pull it all together. Where the excitement I had at the start of a new adventure has given way to a sense of utter confusion and panic. The book had seemed like such a good idea at the time, but it’s gotten out of hand. I am too close to the story to see the whole and to see if it is any good, but it feels dreadful. A hundred doubts fill my thoughts. Is this plot too convoluted? Are there so many twists and turns that the reader will give up? Or worse, is it even interesting enough? Are the characters dull, superficial, clichéd?
Usually it’s at the two-thirds point of the story, but the dreaded “horrible” can hit an author at any time. When they read a bad review of a previous book. When they get an abysmal royalty statement. When they find their Amazon rankings are in the million-plus range or there are none of their books in any of the stores in their hometown.
Or it can happen when they have no idea where to take the plot next. For me, it’s usually a combination of these factors. The one sure thing is that it will hit at some point in the process, likely more than once. Reminding myself of Peter’s story helps. Reminding myself that I have ten previous books under my belt, all of which went through this stage and emerged as quite decent books. A shopping spree or a bottle of wine helps, as does lunch out with a writer friend to remind me I’m not alone.
The single most important action at that horrible moment, however, is to stare that book down. It’s the last thing you want to do. You want to stick it in the corner, pile newspapers on top of it, maybe tear it into a gazillion little pieces. You want to skirt a wide berth around it so as to avoid even a whiff of the stink. But it won’t improve by being ignored. It won’t write itself out of the tangle you have put it in. You need to pick it up and keep writing in order to get yourself out of the hole. As you write, keep in mind those doubts you had – are the characters boring or clichéd, is the plot too convoluted or flat – because they may help you generate the next steps in the book. But don’t be a slave to them; they can be addressed in rewrites. In first draft, you just need to get the story down.
Easy to say ‘keep writing’, but write what? I throw two characters together in a scene and make them talk. Make them argue. See what comes out of it. Or I put a character into an unexpected situation (like coming home, getting stuck in traffic, running into his boss in the hall, anything) and see what I come up with.
Often when I stare the book down and keep writing through the horribles, I write pages or whole scenes that get tossed in the bin later, but in the writing of them, new inspiration strikes. I see a path forward, however short. I come up with a brilliant new twist or a new insight into a character. I feel that quiver of excitement again, that tells me I’m back in the game.
If I can’t bear to even get near the book, or the page remains blank as I stare at it, and if the shopping spree or wine don’t help, I take the story out on the road. I get out of the house and into a peaceful setting, like walking the dog, where I can think without interruption. I worry away at the knot, ask myself questions about what has to come next, what would such and such a character do next, what thread have I forgotten. I’ve been known to talk aloud to my characters, a technique that’s become a whole lot easier with the advent of hands-free devices. People no long think I’m stark raving mad. They think I’m talking on my cellphone.
Usually by the end of the walk I have some ideas. I feel that quiver of excitement to get on with them. It might not last more than a couple of days, but for those days, I am writing again, and enjoying it. Bit by bit, often in fits and starts, I get through the horribles and reach the end of the book.
Here’s hoping. If anyone has some novel, preferably fun ways to get past the horribles, I’d love to hear them.
Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which havewon back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, explores love in all its complications. And, her new Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched in May.