The Valley of Despair

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?


25 thoughts on “The Valley of Despair

  1. Ed Marrow

    I couldn’t agree more. When I got to the big scary middle for the first time, it was so bad, I put the whole book aside. It totally killed my momentum. Eventually, I had to just go in and grind it out.

    I questioned the whole project. It was awful. Then it was over 🙂 You are not alone.

  2. Joe Moore

    Nice post, Dusty, and excellent tips. We all get stuck in the middle or "muddle" as I like to call it. My suggestion is to not look back until you have at least the bones of the book laid out in its entirety. Only then will you know if there’s enough story or it’s time to expand. But until the first draft is complete, there’s no way to know for sure.

  3. Eika

    I don’t have the valley of despair; I have the cliffs of the ending. And the brick wall of the beginning. Then again, the middle’s hard too…

    See, whenever things get difficult for me, I ask myself what the worst possible (possible-in-story, anyway) thing that could happen right now is. And I do it. It makes my endings freakishly complicated, but making things worse helps there, too: I recently finished a story. In one of the last scenes, protagonist was searching for something. I was stuck, so I made her accidentally walk through an audience chamber of royalty that wanted her locked up for being crazy (because the thing she was looking for ‘didn’t exist’). Caused problems, but it easily solved more when they were there as she found it. Time before that, when I had trouble in the middle, there was something watching protagonist from the bushes, and it was in an area where wolves/bears/etc. were. One shot person later…

    Probably only works for me, though.

  4. Dana King

    This is among the many reasons I outline. I still hit that point where I’m in the middle and it seems like the damn thing is never going to end and it’s only the first draft and I have to go through it again God knows how many times before I even feel like showing it to anyone and it’s still going to suck because, well, at that point I’m pretty well convinced everything I write sucks, and by proceeding I’ll only be scaling new heights of suckiness…

    but at least I know what comes next. More or less.

  5. Louise Ure

    "Doubt is followed by certainty … of failure." Whoo boy. Nailed it.

    Like Eika, when I reach that flabby middle I ask, "What’s the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist right now?"

    Or I blow something up.

  6. Judy Wirzberger

    I hit a bunker and I jumped over it and went on to write scenes down the road I know I wanted to travel. In doing so, something new cropped up and I knew the cause could be written about in the murkey middle. So after writing a few scenes, I went back and wrote the middle muddle and one day it will be a marvelous middle.

    Sometimes I want to creep into Alex’s mind and play in the growing field of those ideas. She’s super at sharing all her great ideas.

    Excellent post to read early in the morning with a fresh cup of coffee – now if only I could be home writing instead of at work…

  7. Tom

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Events are conspiring to get me back in the saddle. You all have just helped a big bunch.

  8. JD Rhoades

    How could I forget about "blow something up"?

    Dana, I was wondering if outliners had the same problem. Of course, I’m now a faux outliner. I make outlines and then don’t follow them.

    "What’s the worst that could happen" is also an excellent question.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    What Louise said. 😉

    I am one of those people who always have too much story, so that isn’t the issue. My real problem is act one. I hate beginnings. By the time I have beaten and wrestled and knifed that sucker into submission, I know so much about what’s happening later, that the story gels for me, and I’m okay. Part of it’s the "what’s the worst that can happen?" question. Another part is, "What’s stopping the character from getting what she wants?" [This isn’t to say that the rough draft is smooth–it’s still going to have things that have to be rewritten and fixed. But usually? It’s my first act that has the problems, not the rest of the story.]

    I look at obstacles as an escalator — each one has to be a bit more difficult than the one before, and the only reason the protagonist can deal with it is from the lessons they learned or how they’ve been changed from the challenge before. So when I’m stumped, another set of questions to ask are, "How has my protagonist changed in the last section? What did they learn about themselves? their abilities? their options?" And then throw something at them which is going to challenge that growth even further.

    Usually, once I hit the midpoint, I am a happy camper. It’s more of an issue of, "Can I cram everything in that needs to happen?" than a lack of events to fill up the story.

    Part of this has come from my screenwriting background. Screenwriting *IS* structure, and it’s so ingrained in me, that after writing ten scripts and all the permutations of those scripts, structure has become more instinctive. I could never in a million years explain it as well as Alex does, though.

  10. Allison Brennan

    My problem isn’t the middle. It’s the beginning. It’s really the end of the first act/beginning of act two. That damn threshold. Opening chapters? No problem. Almost every one of my opening 30-40 pages have remained 90% intact through the entire editing process. Middles? I really don’t struggle through the middle. When I get stuck I do exactly what you say, Dusty–I figure out where all my other characters are, what they’re doing, and find the most compelling scene to show.

    But the first act . . . I struggle . . .

  11. Spencer Seidel

    I’m an outliner, and I still have this trouble. As many outliners probably know, very often when you’re in the thick of it, your characters start misbehaving and going off script. On the one hand, this is a good thing; it means your characters are starting to become more real. On the other hand, you feel like stabbing yourself in the eye with a pencil because you’re now stuck with an entirely new set of unsolved problems.

    Different paths to the same dark abyss.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    The worst thing that can happen to the protagonist is that I stop writing his story.

    Thanks for the reminder, JD – what does the protagonist want? What would he naturally do next?

    I’m in the exact same part of the process now, but I’m doing it for my book proposal. The tips help.

  13. Anonymous

    Well, the Dusty Rhoades to the Valley of Despair is affecting us all today……..

    Cornelia’s black abyss and Spencer Seidel’s merely ‘dark’ abyss says that you writers face the unknown and the unfulfilled and the unedited.

    Spencer, your quote:

    "On the other hand, you feel like stabbing yourself in the eye with a pencil because you’re now stuck with an entirely new set of unsolved problems."


    The unsolved crazy problems. Flow!! …… throw it all in and see what floats..what the F.

    Readers WANT to know that there is eclectic out there. No formulas, PLEASE!!!

    an always eidt after your bing hit wears off…………..

  14. Anonymous

    That last line was a total typo and I didn’t bother to delete it (Ay Yay Yay……….fucking Cinco de Mayo raises Anon’s ugly fiesta cabeza ….yeah sure…………I am sooooooooo cracking up

    Whose bong hit is in play…….? ……….Hmmnnn. Mine obviously.

  15. Mark Terry

    Nailed it. Aside from "bring on a new element, ie., the one-armed man with a gun" another technique that sometimes work is to try writing a part of it primarily as dialogue, or as a screenplay, just to move into the next section.

    My biggest killer is typically the "bright and shinies" although I call it my Eureka Moments! (Eureka, I’ve got a great idea for another book!) and my friend Erica Orloff calls it Bright and Shiny New Idea Syndrome, although I suspect it’s the first 2 letters of the acronym that are most meaningful.

  16. Spencer Seidel


    Yes, absolutely. I outline because I feel that I need something to hang the flesh on before I start writing in earnest. But I’m usually kidding myself. It’s no less painful a process.

    Outliners dream of the freedom of not having an outline and non-outliners dream of the structure that must prevent them from getting tangled up in a plot.

    I think we’re both full of shit!


  17. Carolan Ivey

    [[Give yourself permission to suck.]]

    I should tattoo that on my forehead backwards so I can see it every time I look at my reflection in my laptop screen. 🙂


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