Part of the novel-writing process, at least for me, is sporadic periods of angst, irritability, and rampant self-doubt that starts when I reach the middle. Often, these come late at night, like bad dreams. I doubt I am the only one, and I suspect that it’s at this stage that many who attempt to write a novel stop and consign their manuscripts to the bottom drawer or the circular file. Having written two novels and being mid the third, I’ve become better at recognizing the symptoms early on and adjusting my mind to deal with them. I cannot speak for others because writing a large work is its own unique journey, and different for everyone who dares to undertake it, but for me, these feelings, doubts, and uncertainties, well up, starting inevitably in the middle of the novel and conclude only after “The End” is written.
They are symptomatic of two difficulties, both of which are the result of the story itself. The first is the writer’s uncertainty about the future, and that really becomes apparent in the middle. At that point, there are forces in the novel moving in one direction and others opposing them. They are in conflict but evenly matched. The writer must resolve the conflict and inevitably asks, is the conceived solution the best I can do? One really doesn’t know and having spent countless hours working to get this far, it’s not a pleasant place to be.
Of course, one can say that’s why a writer outlines the plot before starting and then follows along. No big. I answer, “Oh, really? I think not.” A story, particularly a good one, has a life of its own, and the writer can follow the outline only to discover that’s not the way the story’s going at all. Now what? Do you change the story or the outline? The result for the writer is uncertainty because that is where the story is and strangely, it’s not just the writer who feels this. The reader feels it, too.
The second difficulty is more systematic. A story consists of pieces of information that build, one on top of the other. The story and the writer are always constrained by what went before, and thus a story has a certain inevitability. It gathers momentum and has a trajectory. At the beginning, the author can change the story’s flight, but by the middle, that is much more difficult. The paths available are fewer and fewer, and the writer wonders if they are sufficient. Are they impactful enough? Can they be changed? One is unsure, and doubts creep in. The story is going where the story is going, and the writer is along for the ride.
There are a few things I would recommend. First, realize almost every story, even the great ones, have been told before. Given boy meets girl, there are only a limited number of ways the story can go, and chances are, they’ve been tried. In the end, it’s not just the story itself, but how the story is told that counts, and that is something the writer can control. Concentrate on the how.
Second, recognize that these symptoms are part of the process. You’re not going mad. The anguish is like the aches and pains from over-exercise. It’s inevitable. Get a good night’s sleep, and all will be better in the morning.
Third, and most important, put one word down and then the next. Everything sorts out in the end by doing that. How it does so is a mystery, but that’s the truth of it and the most magical part.
Lives too, are stories.