by J.D. Rhoades
Right now, I’ve just cracked 45,000 words in my current WIP. Given the length to which I usually write, this means I’m deep into the middle section, or, as I call it, “The Valley of Despair.”
If you ask around, I suspect you’ll find that a lot of unfinished projects died at around the 30-40,000 word mark. That’s the point at which you have your characters, you have your situation set up, you’ve reached your first crucial turning point, so everything should be a gallop, right? Except there are few things happening.
For one thing, unless you write very quickly, you’ve been living day in and day out with these people as houseguests in your head for a month or more. Like most houseguests, you’re not as crazy about them as when they first moved in.
This is also the point where doubt creeps in. Do I really have enough story to make a novel out of this? Am I really a good enough writer to pull this off?
Doubt is followed by certainty: No, there really isn’t enough to make a novel out of this. If the first act is “chase your protagonist up a tree” and the second act is “throw rocks at him,” you see your pile of rocks diminishing, and you start to panic. That’s when the real fear begins: no, I’m not good enough to pull this off. I suck. I’m a fraud. I really should go back to the day job.
Or, there’s the danger of getting distracted by what writer Lynn Cahoon, blogging over at Elizabeth Lynn Casey’s joint, called “The Bright and Shinies”: new ideas that pop into your head for something different. Ideas that make you think “maybe the problem is I’m writing the wrong book. The science-fiction-vampire story is the one I really should be doing right now.”
So how do you get past this? How do you climb out of the Valley of Despair to reach the sweet, pure exhilarating air of the Mountains of Climax?
Well, first, go back to the basics. It’s very easy, in the Valley, to forget your fundamentals. Therefore, I cannot recommend Our Alex’s “Story Elements Checklist” highly enough. Go back and look at it. You don’t have to follow it (or any advice) blindly, but as a springboard for ideas, you can’t beat it. Could the story use a “training sequence?” Maybe some new allies could be picked up? Is there a big reversal coming up and how do we lay the groundwork for it?
Another aspect of going back to basics is to remind yourself that the story is driven by want: the desire of the characters, and how, knowing them as you do, would they go about getting it? Make a list: What does the protagonist still want? What about the antagonist? The secondary characters?
Which leads us to a great idea I picked up from a lecture by top screenwriter Steven J. Cannell: turn around and be the bad guy. “When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven’t been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist’s head and you’re looking back at the story to date from that point of view.”
Oh, and that story you think maybe you should be writing? Make some notes, maybe write a scene or two to get it out of your system, then put it down. It’ll still be there. And you know darn well, if you drop what you’re doing and start the new, ‘bright and shiny” project, you’ll be right back at this same place with that one in a month.
So, most of all, keep going. And give yourself permission to suck. It’s the first draft. Push your way through the Valley. Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain, etc.
Anyone else have any tips for slogging through the Valley of Despair? Or does this just never happen to you?