That Part of the Book

I reached an important and stomach-churning milestone over the weekend, what Neil Gaiman’s agent affectionately refers to as “that part of the book.” Since August 4th I have written 50k words–a little over halfway by my estimates, although, if you take the word of the lovely folks at NaNoWriMo, enough to qualify as an entire book!

Even if all you NaNoWriMo participants haven’t reached this milestone yet, you probably know what I mean about stomach-churning. Every couple thousand words feels like I’m hitting “that part of the book.” Usually it’s after a big event, a major revelation, or anything else I’ve been building up to for a long time. I put a lot of effort into making these tentpoles just right, hit all the major points, end the chapter with a killer line, and. . . .

Fall flat on my face.

Truth is, after all the energy I put into these exciting parts, parts that come after, where characters react, can feel sort of anticlimactic. They tend to sit around thinking, feeling, and well. . . reacting. Pretty boring. If I don’t handle it right, it will be boring, and that means bye-bye readers.

Even more frightening, it’s these passages of reaction that put your skills as a writer and your understanding of the interior world of your character to the test. How characters react to big, life-changing events reveals them at their most vulnerable, before they’ve focused themselves and moved on to the next round of action. What they think and feel now supports what they do later. And if you, the writer, get this wrong, events further on down the line are going to feel flat.

I think that’s why a little over halfway through the book can be so crippling. Everything’s been set up. By now, we’re very aware of what the story problem is, and we should be actively involved in trying to fix it. Not all the pieces may be in place yet, but characters should be gathering strength, preparing themselves for the final push, the final crises, the final desperate acts. Things said and done now justify all those coming things, and messing up now puts them in jeopardy. Those moments are why you’re writing the book, after all. They are the great character-defining events that demonstrate change, the soul of any story. Storytelling is just a form of artistic chemistry, after all, and any deficiency on either side of the equation can result in disaster.

That’s a lot of pressure. And for me, that results in a lot of blockages.

Thankfully, we get do-overs. An infinite amount, or however many we need to get it right.

Go back and click on the link at the beginning of this post to read Neil Gaiman’s wonderful pep talk from a previous year of NaNo. I read it whenever I feel like giving up. Every writer feels like giving up, at one point or another. It happens to me every other chapter. The only solution is, as Neil says, to keep on keeping on. Put one word in front of another. It’s the only way to get it done.

Good luck all you NaNoWriMo participants and writers everywhere! Get something done.

(This song is good for whatever your challenge is, be it finishing a novel or finding your place in the universe.)

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “That Part of the Book

  1. Boy, you sure hit the nail one of the park with this one. And gotta tell you the song was a real pepper-upper. On my blog, I have a menu called Writing Tips. One of the posts there is Some Rules for the Road. # 9 is what I call a Kramer. If you’ve ever watched Seinfeld, you will understand. Just when two characters, say Jerry and George, have run out of things to say, maybe they’ve been talking about the Soup Nazi and what a soup nazi he is. They’ve completely run out of insults. Through the door comes Kramer and he starts off telling them about this whale he saw at the beach. Completely takes the scene in a whole new direction.

    So how does a Kramer work. When you’re not sure what’s next for a character, bring in a second or third character, or an incident, and let them take the story in a completely new direction. I have done this several times. In the novel I am editing now, “The Absolutely Unbelievable Extraordinary Adventures of Lady Wimpleseed-Prissypott”, the husband dies on the honeymoon. Didn’t know that till it happened. Another part, the ship sank. Allow this new character or incident to surprise you. Try to come up with something that is completely off the wall. It will give you a whole new energy and bring back the fun of writing the novel. Try it. You might like it.

    • I’ve been reading a ton of these NaNo pep talks, and about half of them offer this advice in one form or another. In one, Jonathan Lethem quotes Raymond Chandler’s suggestion to have a man walk through the door with a gun in his hand any time you’re at a loss for what happens next. I think there’s a ton of wonderful in this advice, and I’ve done it myself many times.

      My problem’s a little different. Since this is a rewrite of existing material, I pretty much know what’s going to happen next, and what happens next works in the great scheme of things. It really is the character reaction part that trips me up. I want my characters to react to what happened but I don’t like simply spelling it out, you know? For some reason I have to be more complicated than that and come up with ways to portray it through actions instead of straight internalization.

      For instance, in the chapter I’m currently working through, Andy just got back from visiting her father in prison for the first time. She’s conflicted, not sure what to think about her experience. She has a conversation or two with people, trying to work out her feelings, then goes on a spray-painting spree. What she paints amounts to her reaction without resorting to straight internal narration of her being like, oh gee, that didn’t go the way I thought it would…

      Hard to strike the proper balance.

      • One technique is to have her talk about anything but what she really feels. Then show her conflict by her actions. For instance a character’s parents are getting a divorce. The character says to her friend, “Why don’t we do a movie?” she said, smiling. Her fingernails dug into her palm. “I heard your mom is divorcing your dad,” the friend says. “You okay?” “Yeah,” she says, then almost trips,, catching a stop sign to avoid falling. “It’s good my dad is getting out of the house. He’ll be taking my brother with him. That’ll be a relief. I won’t have him around to tell me who I can date.” Or even better. Totally avoid the subject completely. This is what many of us do in real life and it will create a lot of tension for the reader.

        • Yeah, I like addressing things in oblique ways. That technique of having her actions conflict her feelings really works for me, and I use it a lot. My character’s also a great avoider. At some point, though, she has to confront feelings, or else the reader starts to feel disconnected from her. And since I hate melodrama I always struggle between being too heavy-handed and too obscure. The reader needs something to go on; she can’t be expected to infer everything. I’ve gotten into a lot of trouble that way so I’m really careful whenever it comes to this sort of thing. It’s probably what I struggle with the most.

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