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When Your Novel Dies

[This is part two of my series on becoming a more effective (or simply a) writer.]

Sometimes your novel dies.

You know precisely what I’m talking about. You’re standing there – well, usually sitting, but I do have a standing desk – typing away, the novel is going great guns, and suddenly… nothing.

There was life there, a spark of interest, you knew what was going to happen next chapter, and you were dying to write it and unfold every nuance. And suddenly there’s nothing you’d rather do than clean the kitchen, scrub the toilets, or even rotate the cat.

Worse, when the desire to write strikes, it’s always a new and shiny thing.

First of all, know you’re not alone.

Second, know that if you push through and force yourself to write past that point – yeah, I guess the toilet will go unscrubbed one more day. You can do it – the novel will come back to life and you’ll be interested in it again.

The most common complaint I hear from would-be writers other than “I’ve got no time to write” (join the club. Neither do the pros) is this one “I never finish anything.” Or “I have a drawer full of half-finished novels. I can’t get myself to finish.”

Long ago and not so far away (well, Denver to Manitou Springs, Colorado, is what? 130 miles?) that young writer was me. I had files and files, and even the occasional typed out half-manuscript. I have (still do, because I’m not stupid and never throw anything out) notebooks filled with handwritten scenes and character descriptions, and research for a dozen novels ranging from Tudor England to nineteenth-century China, to the trenches of World War One.

What I didn’t have much (a few, but not much) was finished novels, ready to be submitted.

In the first Oregon Writers Professional Workshop, Dean Wesley Smith, casually talking after the scheduled lecture, changed all that with these words: “Every novel dies halfway through. If you keep going, it comes back to life, and you finish it. Afterward you can’t tell why it died.”

For me, it’s actually a third through and then a third from the end (what can I say? I’m special) but the principle is the same.

Over the years I’ve tried to understand the mechanism, and I think it’s this: When you start a novel, everything in it is shiny and new. As you contemplate the work in potentia, you see all these glittering scenes, and interesting aspects you can cram into it.

When you reach the fifty thousand (or in my case, thirty-five thousand) mark, though, you know precisely what the novel is going to be, and its scope.

Along the way you’ve made decisions that reduce the size and scope of the novel (in the process of making it focused and stronger, actually.) You know you can’t cram in a hundred voice characters and a full cast of elephants. You know it’s not going to illuminate the whole of WWI, though perhaps you can show a bit of the Somme, etc, etc, etc. You’ve made decisions, and in the process, you’ve killed that glittering thing that was in your mind before it became the actual novel.

It’s in a way like catching a butterfly. In the process of catching it and pinning it, you both make it possible to show it forever, and you kill it. It is a thing of beauty others can see for a long time, instead of dying and rotting unseen, but it’s also dead.

If you continue, your subconscious makes peace with what it lost, and instead, it starts getting ready to polish up what remains, as it were, and make it as good as possible (to continue the slightly macabre analogy.)

I figure with me it strikes twice because I first make peace with the limited choices remaining – since given my experience I can see those limited choices before I hit my nose on them – and then have to make peace again with my climax being somewhat less than the greatest show! On Earth! With a thousand elephants! And a heavenly choir!

Look, some of us have great hopes. When we can’t be larger than life on paper (or pixels) we just stop and sulk for a while before continuing.

So, that drawer full of novels that are half done? You should go finish one. Push, and force yourself for a little while, and it will come back to life again and be a joy to finish.

Also, you can sell it – because again, you can’t sell what’s trapped in your head.

The only caveat is that if it’s been more than five years or so, you might find that you can’t finish the novel because the part you already have doesn’t read like you at all.

But unless that’s the case, do yourself a favor. Before you run after the glittering new novel idea, finish what you have. It’s like a long-term marriage versus a new fling: the hot new thing will just disappoint you. Stick with what you have, make the most of it, and it will surprise you with joy and wonder.