Sometimes the words just flow, right? And then there are the other times.
The stops and starts. The rough going. The flabby, ugly, dark middle of the process, where you’ve spent all the energy and excitement of beginning but haven’t yet arrived at the stage where you know there’s something really valuable and wonderful, not quite done yet, but you can see how you get there from where you are.
The middle can be so painful and it can last for a really, really long time.
I’ve been in the middle of my WIP for a while, and it’s been… let’s say tough. The main issue is that this book has required far, far more research than my other work, and while I strongly prefer to research and then write and then research again, I’ve had to move forward with writing this book while I’m still researching, and that introduces all sorts of challenges into a process that’s already, at least in my case, pretty challenging.
But I feel like I’ve turned a corner at last, and the breakthrough came from a place I wouldn’t have expected: the non-novel writing that I do. It’s particularly hard to make time for when I’m under a tight deadline for my fiction, but in this case, thank goodness I did. I was reading about lit-to-screen adaptations for a list I pulled together for the Chicago Review of Books, and in reading critics’ thoughts on various adaptations, the question that came up over and over was this: Why?
Why did Greta Gerwig feel compelled to adapt Little Women when that ground has been trod and trod and trod? Why did Edward Norton make the choices he made in his long-time-coming version of Motherless Brooklyn? Was there really a good reason for HBO to make an extremely expensive, hours-long version of His Dark Materials? And it got me thinking.
How long had it been since I’d simply asked myself Why?
Then the ideas started flowing. I need to ask myself not what my characters were doing, but why they were doing it. Who they were and how that drives them. And why was I writing this book in the first place? (Besides the obvious answer, which is that I came up with the idea for the book and pitched it to my publisher and they paid me to write it, which is a totally valid answer, but not a complete one.)
Viewed through the lens of why, the shapeless, meandering form of the novel came much clearer. I realized how I needed to write differently about the characters–an ensemble of more than a dozen, my largest cast yet–to bring the reader along. And I remembered what I found most compelling about the idea when it first occurred to me, the book I want to write, the story I want to tell.
So this is my new strategy whenever my energy flags. I stop what I’m doing. I look at the problem or challenge facing me. And I ask myself Why? And I listen, really listen, to my own answer.
Q: How do you move forward through the rough middle of a manuscript, or motivate yourself when you feel stuck?