“Next to the defeated politician, the writer is the most vocal and inventive griper on earth.
He sees hardship and unfairness wherever he looks. His agent doesn’t love him (enough).
The blank sheet of paper is an enemy. The publisher is a cheapskate. The critic is a philistine.
The public doesn’t understand him. His wife doesn’t understand him.
The bartender doesn’t understand him.”
– Peter Mayle
Reason #8 : “I’ve hit The Wall.”
“Don’t get it right, just get it written.”
— James Thurber
Marathon runners may hit what’s called “The Wall” – sudden, paralysing exhaustion – at around the 28km mark; two-thirds into the gruelling 42km run. The cause is well known – glycogen depletion – and can be avoided or quickly remedied with an energy drink. Writers too often hit a wall of sorts, typically one-third of the way into a new novel. At that point, with the glorious burst of that first flash of inspiration long behind them and the story seeming to grind to a halt, they peer ahead, see the endless hilly miles to come and give up. One-third in is the point at which most novels (and stories) are abandoned.
If you hit the writer’s wall, guzzling down an energy drink won’t help. The real solution is doing the opposite of what marathon runners do – and almost certainly what your instinct tells you too. You need to speed up.
The cause of the calamity is invariably a toxic mix of self-doubt and uncertainty. Writing can be hard work – not in a physical sense like a road race – but sustained sitting and concentration still take their toll. But it’s mostly self-doubt, (”This isn’t working any more. What the hell was I thinking?”) and uncertainty, (”I don’t even know where this is going!”)
Like reaching a cliff edge, the natural tendency is to pull back and retrace your steps. You must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Go back, see if you can spot it.
What you should do it take a running jump. Or rather, a leap of faith.
The cause is our old adversary Resistance from Reason #6. It’s a wily old sod and will use any means it can to slip between you and your creativity.
“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole … It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimetre in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.”
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Picking up the pace is the way to catch Resistance off guard. Just when it expects you to slow down and start looking around, you put on a burst of speed and leave it in the dust.
It really works! Making yourself go faster focuses your concentration and helps push doubts aside. Ever had an urgent task and a tight deadline? I bet you got it done.
If you typically write 300 words an hour, push for 450. If you do 500 hundred, try for 750. Even if you “fail” and only make 400 (or 650) words, the increased velocity will carry you over the bump and deeper into your story. Once you’re back in control, you can carry on at that pace or throttle back. That’s up to you. The important – no, the vital – thing is to keep moving forward.
Yes, there may well be structural problems somewhere in that first third, but it’s only Draft 0, remember? What’s easier to work on; something tangible in black and white, or something that’s still unwritten?
The other alternative is to move to a different place in the novel, skip over the bit you’re stuck on, and come back to it later. Just because novels are read contiguously it doesn’t mean they have to be written contiguously.
The myth of slow writing
While we’re here, we might as well tackle this head-on: slow writing does not necessarily mean good writing.
Like any gathering of creatives, the behind-the-scenes of writing can be a bitchfest. Scratch the surface of any writers’ group or organisation and you’ll soon find a division between what could be called the artistes and all the rest; the view that Literature (with a capital L) is somehow superior to popular fiction such as thrillers, fantasy or romance. It’s something Raymond Chandler railed against 70 years ago when he complained of “that snobbism which makes a fourth-rate serious novelist, without style or any real talent, superior by definition to a mystery writer who might have helped recreate a whole literature”. (As, indeed, Chandler did. Since his death in 1959, three of his novels have come to be regarded as literary masterpieces.)
Or how about this experience from contemporary science fiction author Neal Stephenson:
… a while back, I went to a writers’ conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we’d exchanged a bit of small talk, she asked me “And where do you teach?” …
I was taken aback. “I don’t teach anywhere,” I said.
Her turn to be taken aback. “Then what do you do?”
“I’m … a writer,” I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.
“Yes, but what do you do?”
I couldn’t think of how to answer the question—I’d already answered it!
“You can’t make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?” she tried.
“From … being a writer,” I stammered.
At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn’t snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.
Ever wondered why, in most countries, romance writers have their own writers’ organisations? Despite the fact that some of their members are the most popular and highest-earning writers on the planet, the genre isn’t regarded as being quite respectable. It’s not proper writing.
Part of this snobbishness seems to derive from the speed of output. Good writing, it’s asserted, is like the production of fine wine; it can’t be hurried. It takes time. Every word, every nuance is critical, and the true artiste constantly hovers between keyboard and thesaurus.
But good things can be done quickly too. Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks. Longhand. What’s more, he wrote it for money. (Sales of his previous book, Martin Chuzzlewit, were slowing and his publisher threatened to slash his monthly income.) According to Dickens’ biographer, he built the story in his head while taking nightly walks of 15-20 miles, then came home to write it in a “white heat”.
Or what about William Faulkner who reckoned he wrote his 1930 classic As I Lay Dying from midnight to 4:00 AM over the course of six weeks “and did not change a word of it.”
Whether you can run faster or write faster is largely a matter of practise. Regular workouts are essential, as is gently pushing yourself from time to time to build up muscle.
There’s another reason to ignore the myth of slow writing: the world has moved on. Once upon a time, publishers believed – without any reason I can discover – that the public could only stomach one book a year from any given author. Which, of course, is nonsense. I first discovered Lee Child two or three years ago and have since read all his books – 21 at the present time. In the same way, TV producers have discovered that viewers like to binge watch their favourite shows, not wait for them to be rationed out at the rate of one a week.
If you read the ripping start of a new fictional series, do you really want to hang around for a year waiting for part two? I have a friend who won’t start a Peter F Hamilton sci-fi series until the last book is out, (Hamilton tends to write trilogies), because he likes to blitz through the whole thing in one go.
And from a writer’s perspective in this new indie publishing world, getting good books out faster is a sound business move.
Who knows, you might even reach a Nora Roberts (aka J D Robb) level of productivity. Since 1980, she’s produced an average of six novels every single year.
“In music we admire musicians who practise ten or more hours a day. Painters and other forms of art are the same. Only in writing does the myth of not practicing to get better come roaring in. We teach new writers to slow down, to not work to get better, to spend fewer and fewer hours at writing, to not practise, and then wonder why so many writers don’t make it to a professional level.”
— Dean Wesley Smith
KEY POINTS FROM THIS CHAPTER
♦ Slow writing is no guarantee of quality or readability.
♦ If you find your story’s grinding to a halt, skip the place where you’re stuck and carry on. You can come back and fix it up later.
♦ Like many other skills, writing takes practise. So practise!
 Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The Little Sister (1949), and The Long Goodbye (1953). [return]
 Stephenson’s analysis of this division is fascinating and detailed. I summarised here http://geoffpalmer.co.nz/brief-anecdote-neal-stephenson and you can read the full thing here: http://slashdot.org/story/04/10/20/1518217/neal-stephenson-responds-with-wit-and-humor. [return]
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_I_Lay_Dying. [return]
 And Hamilton’s book aren’t lightweights. His Night’s Dawn trilogy – which I highly recommend and have read twice – weighs in at around 1.5 million words! The series starts here: https://geoffpalmer.co.nz/RFNW10. [return]