The Writer’s Wall

July 18, 2008

You’ve heard of runners, marathoners in particular, “hitting the wall” — reaching a point in their run where they lose all their energy and feel like they can’t go on.  Usually experienced runners will get through “the wall” and will actually feel energized for the final part of their run.  Others, I suppose, don’t get through it.  They just stop, unable to go farther.

Well sometimes writers hit their own kind of wall.  I know that I do.  What does this mean exactly?  I have found with just about every book I’ve written, that when I get somewhere between 60% and 70% of the way through a book, I suddenly face some sort of crisis of confidence about the project.  Sometimes (and this was particularly true with my early books) the crisis is pretty severe.  I remember with my first book that I got to that point and suddenly thought, “Oh my God!  There’s no story here!  I can’t finish this!  I have no idea where this book is going!  I’m a hack!  I’m hopeless!  Why didn’t I listen to my parents and go to law school?”  Eventually, of course, I figured out what the problem was.  The plot needed adjustment, and when I made the changes, the rest of the story just came to me.

It happened again with the second book, and again I questioned myself; I feared that I was a “one book wonder”.  The crisis passed a bit quicker the second time through, but it was still traumatic in its own way.  During both of these crises, my wife was very sympathetic.  She talked me through some of the issues and was a compassionate sounding board at all hours of the day and night.  When it happened again with my third book, she started to recognize the pattern and decided that she wouldn’t be my enabler.  

“This book is a disaster!” I whined.  “I have no business claiming to be an author.”

“Uh huh,” she said, not even looking up from the book she was reading.  “Two-thirds of the way through again?”

“Ummm, yeah.  Why do you ask….?”

With more recent books, I’ve been able to anticipate the problem.  I don’t panic anymore.  I don’t lose all faith in myself.  But I do still find that I’ll have dry spells around the 60% mark.  Even if a book has been going well to that point, it will often stall a bit.

There’s a reason for this, of course.  The two-thirds mark is about where you have to start pulling things together.  If you’ve been throwing crap at your lead character for three hundred pages or so, you now have to start giving him or her ways to dig out from under.  You have to start leading your reader toward some sort of satisfying climax and resolution.  It’s not easy, and if the path to that resolution isn’t immediately apparent, it can be downright scary, particularly if you haven’t done it too many times before.  This is the place where so many beginning writers get stuck.  

“I have this great story that’s more than halfway finished.  I love the beginning, I love my lead character.  I love where I’ve taken it so far.  And I know just how it ends.  But I can’t seem to get from where I am now to that ending.  So I recently started work on another book….”

Sound familiar?

I bring all of this up, because I happen to be at the two-thirds mark with the third book of my Blood of the Southlands series, and I have yet to figure out how to get from where I am in the book right now (a place I like very much, by the way) to the ending I have in mind (which I also like very much).   And rather than grappling with the book, I’m thinking that I’m just going to punt for a while.  I’m about to go on vacation for a few weeks, and I’m pretty certain that I won’t figure out anything before we leave.  So I’ll put the book away and come back to it fresh in a couple of weeks.  I’ve never tried this approach to getting past the crisis before.  It’ll be interesting to see if it works.

Advice for beginners on scaling the wall (without going on vacation….)?  Hmmmm.  Nothing really profound.  As with so much in writing, it’s simply a matter of putting one’s butt in the chair and writing.  I like to do stream of consciousness when I’m really stuck.  I’ll put myself in front of a blank computer screen (it would work long hand, too, if you prefer that) and I’ll type a question.  “Why am I stuck?”  Or, “What does Character X have to do to reach the end point of the book?”  Something like that.   Then I’ll type out a response — not in prose that I’d use for the book.  I just let myself type without worrying about syntax or typos or anything like that.  The key is getting past all of that to my thoughts and ideas.  I’ll pepper myself with questions, I’ll argue with myself, I’ll play devil’s advocate.  And more often than not, I’ll wind up finding an answer that works.  Those stream of consciousness sessions have gotten me past many a crisis — I recommend the approach.

Ultimately what I try to remember during these difficult stages is that I began the project with a good idea, I’ve written a good book to this point, and I like the ending I foresee for the story.  Eventually I will find that bridge that links where I am to where I’m going.  It might take some time.  I might even need to do some repair work on the bridge when I find it in order to make it sturdy enough to support my characters and narrative.  But it’s out there.  Yes, there’s a leap of faith implied in this thinking.  But I write fantasy for a living.  I demand leaps of faith from my readers all the time.  It’s only fair that I should make some, too.


4 Responses to “The Writer’s Wall”

  1. Brian said

    Thanks David, I really enjoy reading these kinds of posts.

  2. davidbcoe said

    My pleasure, Brian. Hope you found it helpful.

  3. Hello David,

    I enjoyed your talks yesterday at World con. You’re right on about the two thirds thing. That’s the hardest part of writing. When building a house a person gets the house framed in and then discovers that the studs aren’t straight and little hings have been measure wrong so the carpetenter gets out the sledge hammer an starts swinging. Things break and then have to be fixed in creative ways. It happens in art too. I think the sledge hammer part is where the real art begins.

  4. uncabaret said

    Apparently it’s a known dynamic of the creative process that you have to hit your head against the wall until you are so frustrated that you actually give up (at least temporarily) and walk away from the project in defeat. Then and only then does the solution or clarity arrive. A way to wear down our conscious filters?

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