The Cursed Fifty Pages

Yeah, I’m still struggling with Noah’s Boy.  Part of the process I was talking about to a friend on Saturday goes like this: you begin a book and it’s rather like pushing a very heavy rock up a hill.  Then you reach the top, and you look at how much further it’s got to go, and you look at all the moss and stuff that’s smeared it on the way up and you think “this is the ugliest ro–  Er… This is the worst novel ever written.  I’ll never be able to show it to anyone.”  Then you sit there a while and gather your breath and if you are a newby writer, you flit away again, and start a new novel, pushing a cleaner and much nicer rock up that hill.

Certain types of newby writers never finish anything.

If you are another type of writer – either more experienced, or you have friends who are more experienced and who’ve told you “Every novel dies halfway through” then you push on, and in a little while, that novel hits the downward slope and starts rolling down the slope, with you barely keeping up.

I think it’s something inherent in the human brain – because I heard other writers talk about it – that on this phase, even the most meticulous of plotters finds connections and reasons and motives he or she hadn’t thought about.  And then you finish the book, and send it to your betas, and they tell you it’s a book, not a cabage… and then you start rolling another novel uphill.

There is one thing I omitted from that process because it doesn’t happen every time (though it’s happened consistently with all my fantasies, which makes me go “um”) and that is “the cursed fifty pages.”

These are usually the last fifty pages.  Remember all those connections you saw, all those motives?  Well, unless you plotted very well in advance and aren’t given to “plotting by fit of brilliance” which I am.  (I.e. suddenly seeing it all clearly in a fit of brilliance and throwing something more into the soup.  This is why I can’t revise more than three times, because after that it’s not Jack is in love with Jill who is in love with Jim who is in love with someone else, but Jack is in love with Jill who is in love with Jim who is really an alien pretending to be human and is only waiting to lay eggs in Jack, who will pass them onto Jill and that will be the beginning of the Earth invasion – all while I’m trying to write a fantasy short story with an innocuous love triangle.

What it means mostly is that I get bored once the story is clear, and try to make it interesting for me, which, usually, by that point, my being in a snit at story character and the act of writing, means taking revenge on the characters by making them people not even their alien mothers could love.

The last fifty pages are the sane part before that.  Sometimes they are literally the last fifty pages of the book, sometimes, when the book has been particularly difficult – glares at Tom and Kyrie – they are fifty pages of connecting material or back story or, G-d knows—whatever.

They are where you remove the alien love plot and put in sensible motives, and where you decided that your character (RAFIEL!) is too much of a cry baby and try to make him sensible again.  And when…  You get the point, right?

Noah’s boy has been particularly difficult because, through no fault of its own, it has been outlined for – four? – years, and sold for that long.  Only I took off on a jaunt of writing space opera, and Noah’s Boy got forgotten.

And that’s the other thing.  When you come back to something that’s sat that long it’s always difficult.  But in the time since it’s been sitting, I’ve gone on to my first love of Space Opera, and written a couple of mysteries to boot.  What this means…

Well, when I first took Dean W. Smith’s workshop – the very first – he told me that I should trust the process and that writers learned by doing.

I didn’t believe him.  Of course I didn’t believe him.  After all, I’m me.  Life is something to be got through hand over hand by your fingernails.  This thing of learning to write by writing seemed too simple and frankly too sixties.  (Those who, like me, were born in the sixties know exactly what I mean.  We grew up being handed down boomer platitudes like “Nudity is nothing to be ashamed of, man, we’re all naked under our clothes” [Usually when some older guy was trying to convince us to peel off.]  “All you need is love” [usually when some older guy was trying to convince us that not putting out was a mistake] or another of a dozen things that automatically bring out the worst in us ever after.)  “Trust the process” seemed to inhabit some region next door to “if it feels good, do it” and just three steps from “Open your third chakra.”

So I rolled my eyes and went “Well, Dean IS older than I” and went on believing I needed to study, analyze, dissect and intellectually LEARN to write.

Not saying I was completely wrong, mind.  I still do that.  If I read a novel that’s particularly well done and/or hits me like a punch between the eyes, I am going to diagram and dissect it.

But…

But Dean was right too.  And if I hadn’t had the immediate knee jerk reaction to sixties-sounding lingo, I’d have seen it too.

You see musicians and painters and every other sort of artist practice ad nauseum.  No artist expects to sell the very first picture they draw.  No pianist gets up from the piano stool after one lesson and gets booked into a concert all.  There is learning, sure.  You learn the theory behind what you’re doing.  You study with your head.  But then your train your hand, and your body, too.

Which brings us to…

Writing is not a physical thing, you say.  You can’t train the same way.  Like fun it isn’t.  Talk to Speaker to Lab Animals (or my older son) and they’ll tell you training the brain is a lot like training a muscle.

A brain is still physical and part of your body.  A lot of the physical tasks you do, like driving, involve the brain – and most of it is done on automatic.  To an extent writing is the same.  Even training yourself to be IN the story, and ignore the physical fingers hitting a physical keyboard that allows you to convey the story to your fans is training.

Then comes training to BE in the story.  Then other training.  For me it involves following the twin threads of logic and emotion, and knowing when I’ve violated one of them.  It used to be when I first started writing that I didn’t know when I’d broken something in the story.  I only knew something wasn’t right, and so stopped dead (sometimes for years) before I could go back and look at it and go “oh, of course.”

Now I can usually tell when I’ve stepped off the ledge, and go back and fix it before it stops me.

Only Noah’s Boy was OUTLINED years ago – more importantly – it was outlined five novels and a dozen short stories ago.

The writer who outlined it is not the writer who is writing it.  In fact in many ways, by allowing me to write space opera, Baen unleashed more growth and change than I’d experienced before in five books.  It was much harder going back to Noah’s Boy than it was going back to, say, Heart of Light, after eight years of letting it sit.

My first problem with it was that it felt too small, and also like this should be the book where I kick the series into high gear.  Only there was nothing of that in the outline.  So…  I started introducing it, along lines that, weirdly, were planted in previous books.

The problem with doing that is two fold, though.  The Shifter’s series is not the Darkships or its brother series, the Earth Revolution series.  It is in many ways set in the quotidian, however fantastic it might be.  Some of the charm of it (at least for me) is that this dragon and panther shifter are in a way (or are trying to be) normal young people and cope with money issues and young love.

So, that had to still be there.  Plus, in this one Rafiel falls in love.  And that had to be there.  It’s part of his growth.  But on the other hand there was this massive plot that has to be put in place, so that it can propel the rest of the series without getting stale.

My second problem was one I’m prone to when I outline well in advance of writing.  There are things that seem perfectly reasonable in outline that will simply not work when it comes to writing the book.

Yeah, outlines are logic.  But real characters aren’t.  And I don’t hear/see/feel the character until I actually start writing.

So in outline it seemed perfectly logical that a great-great-great-granddaughter of the Great Sky Dragon would obey his orders and try to marry Tom.

Brother!  It’s perfectly logical, particularly in an Asian culture.  It is also completely impossible for me to write.  It’s even more impossible for me to have Rafiel fall in love with this creature, and to have the creature hang around (with Rafiel or not.  No spoilers – grins) for the rest of the series, pretty much.

So…  Bea Ryu became someone else and very American, yes, with some Asian ancestry (about ¾), Japanese and Chinese and everything in between, but also a Scandinavian grandfather and an American upbringing.

And then the problem was how to make the plot still work.  And then exactly what the lineaments of this greater menace were, and how much to show in this book.  And then I became aware of what the plot of this book does to Tom, and it’s very, very hard to make him do what he has to do without breaking the character and making him someone the readers will hate.  At the same time, there are thing she has to do I didn’t even think about, because in the outline Tom can pull what I’d call a “Kirk trick” – those who are fans of the original Trek know what I mean – something twisty and verbal/mental jujitsu and people will leave him alone.  But the only reason that worked with Kirk is that they left the planet before his opponent could go “Wait a fracking minute.”  In the tight confines of small town Colorado, that can’t – in fact – happen, and the opponents can’t be total dumb*sses and we KNOW they’re not doormats.  So when he pulls his brilliant trick, they’re going to come up with something…  What Tom will have to do  to stop that and keep those he loves safe is something I’m very much wrestling with right now.  It has to be convincing.  It has to be strong… but it can’t make Tom into a total bastard.  Um…

So … I’m in the cursed last fifty pages – that can be as man as a hundred, or as few as thirty, but they are called “the cursed fifty pages” for convenience.  I’m actually starting to see the book take a shape I like, except for Rafiel annoying me, but he usually does.  (Uppity Lion-boy.)  Though even he is growing a bit.

I meant to write a blog post about the concept “sins of the fathers” and also about how we’ll “study peace no more.”  But we’ll leave that for (an)other time(s.)

Tonight I’ll try to do my post with the readers’ publications, and put it up at insty – but until then I’m going to be in the office furiously trying to exorcise the cursed fifty pages.  (I heard exorcise wheels are good for this.  Oh, come on, you were going to say it.  I just anticipated you.)

I WANT to get this done by tonight or tomorrow night at latest, and then I can start giving more thought to my blog posts and resume (sorry, everyone, sorry) the long interrupted blog tour.  (Between illnesses and all, it will now be a joint tour for Darkship Renegades and A Few Good Men.  There’s also some stuff I want to do for the Tatler – but it will have to abide in patience till Noah’s boy is on Toni’s desk.  And then there’s shwag, for both DSR and NB and we’ll talk about how you can get some for your very own.

Until then, you guys tiptoe gently past my office and keep an eye out in case I leave my purse in the fridge and get out of the house with a frozen chicken under my arm.  My sons can’t be expected to keep this sort of vigil alone.

See you on the flip side.

37 responses to “The Cursed Fifty Pages

  1. From the Grand Master himself, RAH:

    Five Rules for Success in Writing:
    First: You must write.
    Second: You must finish what you write.
    Third: You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
    Fourth: You must place it on the market.
    Fifth: You must keep it on the market until sold.

    That’s all. That’s a sure-fire formula for getting anything—anything at all!—published. But so seldom does anyone follow all five rules that the profession of writing is a soft touch for those who do—even though most professional writers are not too bright, not too wise, not too creative. For these rules work in series, not in parallel. If you bilge any one of them, you bilge completely—and your writing will not be published.

    From Channel Markers, a speech he gave at his alma mater the US Naval Academy back in 1973.

    And might I add that one or more of those five things is and always will be the curse of every budding writer extant.

  2. I am happy that I am not the only one that goes dry around the middle of the book and then near the end of the book. ;-) I keep plugging and so should you–

    Could Tom find ways to make his enemies into allies? Or are they too evil… Grandfather Dragon sounds like a total b*stard.

    I am in the middle of two moss-covered rocks right now– I know I will eventually finish them. Then on to the next rock. ;-) Everytime I finish something, I spawn two more books. I won’t have time to write them all– … Or I’ll have to live forever.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      Cyn, not sure how Sarah sees “Great Sky” but I see him as basically a good guy but with very annoying manners. Partially from being extremely “old fashion”, partially from being non-Western and the rest from centuries of having to manage beings more contrary than cats. [Wink]

      • Well– having lived in Japan for two years with the Navy and being around the culture somewhat– I can see that to the Western mind he would be– annoying. ;-) Then add dragon to the mix (Eileen Wilks writes some good dragons), you have problems.

      • They do have a totally different culture. That’s part of the issue.

    • Ah, Tom spikes Grandfather Dragon’s souvlaki with some of those really fierce little red Asian peppers (the ones that put the pow in kung pao chicken) and deals with the plot problem while (a rather distracted) G.D. is drinking every last bit of milk in Goldport?

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        TXRED, sorry but that won’t work. Dragons (especially older ones) enjoy peppers that would *kill* humans. No way could Tom find peppers that would be too hot for Great Sky. [Very Big Dragon Grin]

        Now, Great Sky could find peppers that would be too hot from Tom in dragon form. [Very Very Big Dragon Grin]

      • But those little red peppers is what makes kung pao chicken good, and sour cream is better for diluting to much heat than milk.

        Besides if he gave GSD to many peppers he might become a dragon who could breath fire :)

  3. My problem comes from writing such “interesting” stuff that I realize near the end that I can’t possibly resolve all the threads in a satisfactory way. The only way to do so seems to be to take out some of the parts in order to simplify it and reach an actual ending so readers don’t come back and say, “Hey, what about X?”

  4. Let the hamster run in the exorcist wheel for you–

    but good luck and God speed on the writing.

  5. Wayne Blackburn

    Yes, absolutely you train your brain in much the same way you train your muscles. See how much difference it makes by forcing yourself to to as much everyday math as possible in your head (if you’re working on something particularly important, like balancing your checkbook, you may want to check your answers with a calculator, if you’re not sure). Do that for a month, and see how much faster you get.

    Most people can learn by doing, and many people can learn by reading/being taught by another, but to get the most out of it, you need to do both.

  6. Sarah,

    Thanks for this post today! I’ve been working on my novel (now split into two novels) for two years now. That’s three complete drafts and about 2,000 hours of work. This bit:

    > What it means mostly is that I get bored once the story is clear

    is exactly where I am now. The book needs one more draft to clean up the characters’ motivations and given them crisper arcs, and I find myself chafing at the burden. ANOTHER 500 or 1,000 hours of work?

    Ugh.

    But…

    > Life is something to be got through hand over hand by your fingernails.

    Yes, exactly.

    Also expressed well in this bit of Deadwood:

    I need to take a deep breath and dive back into draft four. It’ll be done soon enough.

    Thanks for the pep talk (even if you didn’t know it was one, or that it was aimed dead between my eyes! ;-)

  7. Use the Force, Sarah, Trust the Force.

    Or is that “Wax on/wax off”?

  8. Odd. When I’m on the last pages, I’m on a roll. I often stay up WAY too late polishing off the denouement.

    Perhaps I’m just reluctant to stop when the end is in sight.

  9. Not quite halfway through the post, I just had a chain of thoughts that went something like this. Dragons, cats, kittehdragons, KilteDave, Dragons in kilts!

    *Sneaks back to the point in the post where she was distracted by herself and continues reading.*