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Slow Dancing in the Dark: How to Avoid Giving Up on Writing Your Book

Am I doing this right? Do I look drunk? Is he a vampire?

You have your killer opening; you’ve polished it nicely. At least if you’re like me, you can’t help polishing a bit every time you look at it. You’re now fifty pages in, and everything seems to be going too slow, and you’ve lost track of where you were going, and you start to panic and think you’re doing it wrong.

This happens whether you are a plotter and had everything exquisitely planned in advance, or you’re flying by the seat of the pants and have no clue what actually works.

Once you have the first few pages of the book ready, and you are aimed more or less in the direction you will go, you start feeling everything went wrong and the idea you had to begin with is completely impracticable, and… and… and…

Keep calm and carry on. Take deep breaths. The experience you’re having is uncomfortable but completely normal. It’s sort of like having a root canal. Just because it’s unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Trust me.

What is happening at the psychological level is that you’ve now set yourself on one course to write your novel, and part of you – you know, the part that thought writing should be a really exciting adventure – is sitting back there going: “What? This is all there is? This is not fun.”

It’s bad enough if you’re making it up as you go along, because you can just have the nagging feeling something has gone wrong, and not know what.

It’s worse if you’re an outliner, as you might have had that opening happening much faster. Writing an outline is much like dancing would be if there were no gravity. You can make your character do anything and – because it’s impossible to plot all those details without making the outline longer than a novel – you don’t know what the opposition is doing precisely.

Then you come to write, say, a jail-escape scene, and gravity hits you with a thud. Your character can’t do that unless you wish to make the opposition almost comic-opera stupid. So you have to make her escape more difficult, every step more negotiated.

The bad news is that at this point, you can’t tell. All of us professional novelists have read a third or a half of a novel we started long ago and put down unfinished and thought, “How in heaven’s name did I think this made a good beginning?”

On the other hand, we’ve also all read beginnings we abandoned long ago and thought, “Wow, this is really, really good. Yes, I am better now, but this has sparkle and life, and pulls me right in.”

The problem here is that when you’re less than a third (I’m less than a fifth) into a novel, you truly can’t judge it. Worse, the friends who normally read stuff for you also won’t be able to tell you if it’s any good or not.