The Wall

This is not a post about Pink Floyd.  Sorry.  I know next to nothing about them, save that once in Ninth grade, and I don’t remember why, my entire (gifted and troubled) class got up and greeted our Portuguese and Language Arts teacher witha rousing (off key) rendition of The Wall.  I’m still not sure if the fact she sighed and told us to sit down was well handled or if we’d trod on her last nerve.

I’ll get my apologies out of the way now: this is also not a post about hitting the wall on Witchfinder, I haven’t – I just have a feeling of stuff being all up in the air and I’m trying to compose my mind on it – but I’m going to postpone/cancel the chapter for this week.  The reason for that double is that I don’t know which one it will be.  However, given travel – the travel curse struck again yesterday and we got in very late and very tired, and went straight to bed and now I have several administrivia details to deal with because of the week away – and the fact that as a result of this trip I now know what to do with the (GROSSLY) overdue Noah’s Boy makes it very likely that next week will be a double post, instead of this one.

The wall I want to talk about is internal.  I have mentioned it before but not by that name.  There is this point you can be at, where you have the entire story in your head, sometimes even words, but SOMEHOW it won’t make it to the fingers.  There’s a wall in the way.

There are several reasons for this wall.  It often – in my case at least – is just a lack of energy.  For a while, leading to the years of almost no income, it was sheer “mygiveadamnisbusted” – I had done my best and failed, and work was difficult because what was the point.  I was throwing my words out into the world and it seemed like nobody was reading, and “why bother” formed a solid wall around me, till it seemed the only words I wrote I had to pass out one by one through a cinch in that wall only large enough to admit a fortune cookie paper.

That was perhaps the most frustrating of times.  The words still come, and the stories, but you simply can’t get them out.  What freed myself from it was – weirdly – writing Sword And Blood on spec.  It was a book like nothing I’d ever written, so I had to step outside my mental comfort zone, and I felt like it had unlimited potential – I still think it does.  Less than happy with placement, but that’s something for a very different day.  And it wasn’t “mine” – ie. It was different – therefore it might not be doomed.

After that I reoriented to find my happiness in the writing itself – hence the indie and on spec books.  Weirdly this came at the same time something finally started moving, and it looks like I might have a career after all and readers – however the possibility of just writing on spec, with no agent or editor telling me “that will never sell” and of publishing indie if nothing else.  That freedom was the final knocking down of that wall.

But I still hit the wall now and then in anything.  And then the trick is to know WHY.

New writers tend to assume they hit the wall because they lost interest.  This accounts for the young writers I know with twenty started novels and not one finished.

Honestly, the only thing that saved me from that fate is that I’m the most stubborn person on the face of the Earth, except for #2 son.  This is no idle boast.  Until marshall was born, if they needed to distill stubornium the best way would have been to grind me down and concentrate me.  (And mind, the publishing industry might have done both.)

This type of obstinacy is ALSO not normally a survival trait.  I wonder HOW I ended up here at all, because I can well imagine an ancestress advancing on a mammoth and going “No, YOU move.”  I presume she’d had kids before that.

Anyway, being obstinate applies to my own stuff and to stuff I do and make.  I don’t like being defeated by a story.  So, when I was a young writer I learned how to get through, over or around the wall.

There’s a lot to be said for each method.  Sometimes you power through and afterwards you’re not sure what held you captive.  Over is where you skip the point that gave you trouble and move into two or three chapters ahead, to the next scene that catches fire for you.  What I find in those cases is that when I go back I find I’d made a huge logic misstep in the plot (or character misstep, for that matter) and that the section looks not at all like I’d outlined.  This happens mostly when I HAVE outlined.  It’s sometimes very hard to look past one’s clever contrivance and see it will not do.  Around is more complex.  This is when I find myself cleaning, cooking, rotating the cat, going for a walk, forgetting the novel, until in the middle of the night IT gets tired of being ignored, takes advantage of my being tired and weak, and assaults me, flowing past the wall and out the fingers at speed.

The problem is when you’re not sure what’s causing you to hit the wall – and that was the problem with Noah’s Boy.  Frankly, I thought my subconscious was just throwing a fit because it wanted to write science fiction.  Or perhaps it was JUST the fact that this Summer has been rather hellish, and I was doing too much.  Maybe I was just tired?

In these cases, going away helps.  Not that the wall broke till my last day there, but it did break.

It didn’t break in the sense of getting me great wordage.  I did produce some, slow as molasses and will mostly be discarded.

But that’s because I figured out there was a HUGE flaw in the novel.  Not in the point at which I first sensed the problem – oh, no – but in the concept of the novel.

How in holy h*ll can someone like you, you’ll say, with twenty three books under your belt, still hit the wall because of a fundamental flaw in conception of novel?

Oh, let me tell you.  First, to a certain extent each book is your first book.  I don’t care if you’ve written 100 books and have more experience than G-d, you will eventually come across a book you don’t know which end you should start on.  Worse, the method that worked for youf or 15 books – say, detailed, careful outlining, half the size of the book – will suddenly not work.  The writing thing – whatever that is – will rebel and throw a fit, and not allow you to write to that outline at all.  You find yourself killing your main character in the first chapter, grabbing goon #3 to whom you’d not even given a name, and taking off on an uncharted course through primeval subconscious which only allows you to see – if you’re lucky – a chapter ahead.  Sometimes it doesn’t allow you to see more than a page ahead and you feel like you’re writing straight from someone else’s head, until you emerge on the other side, with a full book that’s undeniably yours, might be the best thing you ever wrote, and you have NO clue how it happened.

Two – and partly because Noah’s Boy is the last of my “old model” books, sold on detailed outline… three? Years ago, after which intervened a year of deep depression, then years of writing space opera and vampires and heaven knows what, to leave me here, staring in bemusement at that outline and going “I am not this writer.”  This is very weird, because I am demonstrably still the same Sarah – my husband hasn’t noticed anyone slipping in a body double, nor have the kids complained of pods in the basmeent.  Also, Darkship Thieves was MUCH older and I could go back to it with no effort.

But the last three books I’ve written have been… scouring books.  If my writing were a gun, the last two projectiles fired, especially, changed the rifling of it.  It is … different.  And the way it is different is a way that directly hit Noah’s Boy.

That other writer could have done it, no problem.  This writer needs it to be something more.

I’d been making very slow progress on it for weeks, because I had “stuff that must be done” – stuff for the kids and the cats and the house.  In a hotel room, forced to face it, I suddenly realized that the plot was missing an essential element, one that sets the series up for not just unlimited sequels, but BIGGER sequels.  I’d say I kicked down one of the walls of the world, to let the light in.  HOWEVER in examining the other two books, the hints are there that the wall never existed, the characters just assumed it did.  And there are hints of the big-bad lurking just beyond it, things that make the Great Sky Dragon downright cuddly, and which also tie the universe together and give the shifters – all the shifters – a purpose.

So, now I know. And all I have to do is toss my outline and recast the whole thing, losing perhaps 3/4 of the book (groan.)

Which is where I am.  However, it is a relief that the writing-wall is no longer confining my work, and maybe I can stop rotating the cat.

And now I’m going to shower, go to bank and the grocery store, then sit down to work.

41 responses to “The Wall

  1. Like Cthulhu? [Shudder]

  2. I wonder HOW I ended up here at all, because I can well imagine an ancestress advancing on a mammoth and going “No, YOU move.” I presume she’d had kids before that.

    You know that this could be taken two ways. She had kids so whatever she did there was chance of descendents. On the other hand, as one who lives in a family of distilled stubborn, there is another suggestion: She had kids and had learned how to say, ‘Move,’ such that no mere mammoth would dare disobey.

    • Some animals respond well to an air of authority. And mammoths must have been a lot like elephants, and humans can make even wild elephants move (especially since elephants are social beasts, and some of our social traits hook into their social traits), assuming that you don’t hit any of their defensive or anger triggers instead.

      Not advising it, just saying that some people can do it.

      I wonder why humans don’t seem to have tamed mammoths for work, though. Needed too much food and range, when the tribe was hanging on by its fingernails? Too tasty and fun to hunt?

  3. losing perhaps 3/4 of the book

    Fah. Make it a second-in-the-series book about a dream sequence from one of the characters’ point of view and sell it for $.99. 🙂

    My wall has the word RESEARCH on it in giant, bold, neon letters. Honestly, I think I’m so intimidated by the sweeping vista of the story that I’ve been afraid to start writing it in earnest for fear of fucking up the wonderful internal narrative I have for it.

    That being said, I got a great idea for an Epilogue, out of the blue, and forced myself to sit down and bang it out. It was a complete rush! Since I’d already outlined and researched my story to death, the details of the Epilogue flowed out like Hoover breaking down the middle. (why did I think that sentence as…down zeh middle, like a faux Nazi?). Hopefully RES and Mike W will get their critiques of said Epilogue back to me asap…wink, wink.

    What writing the paltry 5k did for me was prove to some inner demon that this story DOES work and that it HAS a good ending, setting up more “does work” for the next two books I’ve got outlined for the story arc. That inner demon, which I suppose I’ll start calling Wall now, is hanging on a meat hook in the corner, draining his vitals into the scuppers.

  4. You know, sometimes I think these posts have value not because each of us so much experiences the same thing, whether or not in the same way, but in the realization that that book that flows with such seeming lack of effort was produced by THIS writer, with all the same (or her own unique) set of problems each of us faces in writing our own work.

    Did I just recapitulate “misery loves company” in a run-on sentence?

    WHO needs an editor!?


  5. Ummm – so I am doing it wrong? I need detailed outlines etc, etc? Cause I tried that with the first book, and it took me almost twenty years to complete and it never looked like the outline. All of my books are a jump into the void, hoping my characters know what they are doing. Sometimes I get stuck and need to get away for awhile. A little walk or maybe shopping sometimes helps. 😉 But, the last three books I wrote were all character-driven. The one I am working on know on my blog – also character driven plus I meet the characters as I go. The only concession I make to my lost mind is that I try to write the character’s names down so I don’t lose them.

    • You are NOT doing it wrong. I have done it both ways and still do, depending on the book.

      • I had finished one/third of my book when the character’s voice stopped… just completely gone. I knew the book wasn’t finished and then all of a sudden I realized that I had to go to the next character to continue the story. ARG. It was so strange. I know now that three characters will have their own voices. I was sorta surprised because it is not my usual, stay with one character book. 😉

    • Cyn, I sat down and wrote my first book in six days – 75,000 words. Took me three MONTHS to get all the rough spots out of it, but the characters were there, the words were there, and the action was there. It just flowed. I just finished a sequel to another of my books, and it took THREE YEARS. Part of that was me, part of it was the book, and part of it was that I could NOT figure out how to end it. Sometimes you get an idea, and the whole book flows. Sometimes you have to wrestle with the words, the plot, even the characters. The one thing you CANNOT do is give up! The words won’t let you!

    • Heh, I started The Novel with an outline, then adjusted the outline. And then a minor character became a major character who snarled, “oh helk no you are not killing me off.” About that time a bad guy became one of the good guys, requiring me to find the real antagonist and sort out how to deal with him. I can hardly wait to see what gets changed when I go back and look at the thing again (it is on 6-week fallow).

  6. My subconscious wants to know what everyone is doing.

    Now I feel like I’m weeding a garden. “This POV goes in the compost pile. How did _that_ get in here? Well, it’ll do for a short story some time. And, dear Ghod! Bring out the Napalm! That POV must die!”

    Editing is an interesting way to learn how to write. Or in my case, not write. My Wall seems to be the last ditch defense of the doomed sub-plot. “No, no, the house needs vacuuming, and you’ve been neglecting Free Cell lately!”

  7. The lack of energy and poor health thing always seems to derail me just when I am on a roll with a story. Also that moment when I realise I don’t have a clue how I’m going to write the ending properly, and have to wait for an epiphany to tell me what is supposed to happen next.
    But I keep climbing up the wall by my fingertips and toes, and eventually I will reach the top, bruised, bloodied and sore, but triumphant.

  8. My wall comes when I’m writing a story and suddenly say, “That’s just dumb.” With luck, that happens before I’ve written a couple hundred pages. 😉

    • That’s when you figure out a rationale to make it Not Dumb, or Dumb Yet Entertaining.

      I don’t mind if every character isn’t the pointiest fork in the drawer, or if they do dumb things because they’re tired and fixated and not thinking well. What I mind is characters who are set up as smart and savvy doing stupid things for no reason, other than Writer Says.

      • I am blessed with insane characters. In my defense, looking back through my life there are plenty of those, too…

      • I definitely agree with your last sentence. One of the most maddening things in a book is when things suddenly get inconsistent. If the character is a giant rock, keep him a rock – don’t make him into Sherlock Holmes just in the nick of time…and vice versa.

        • Wayne Blackburn

          I think that a sudden outbreak of genius (without acknowledging that it is totally uncharacteristic for the character – strange things DO happen sometimes) might actually bother me more than the other scenario. When the guy who has been stumbling through the whole thing barely able to tie his shoes suddenly puts all the clues together and comes up with a plan of action, and NO ONE notices how strange that is… that”s messed up.

          • There is a character in an Anime that is a brilliant natural swordsman, but a bit of an idiot. But somehow it works when he arrives at an answer that the others cannot. Why? Because the simple mindedness keeps him from over thinking. He will have noticed things that the other did not. He generally fails to mention things he has noticed because he doesn’t realize the others have missed them with their clever analysis. (And because he has often been told he is an idiot, he also is inclined to doubt himself.) One of my favorite moments of his was an off hand comment dropped over a dinner, when he observes, as a matter of fact, that the mysterious new character is a demon — much to the utter surprise of everyone else.

            • Wayne Blackburn

              But that is at least an explanation. That’s all I ask for – give me a reason that the dumber-than-a-stick character is suddenly the one with the answer.

              • You know that my baby sister has Downs Syndrome. They may be dumber-than-a-stick when it comes to academic achievement, but they see things and feel things other people don’t. I saw this little girl suppress some of my parent’s darker passions by just crying before they came to blows. She trained them to be kinder.

            • Porthos in the musketeer mysteries!

  9. Theodore Sturgeon [genuflect] addresses this in his story “It Was Nothing, Really” — that we humans have mental blind spots that enable us to observe a phenomenon without ever actually perceiving it. Mental walls acting as blinders, preventing our imaginations from perceiving the forest for the trees.

    We also find this phenomonomona in visual puzzles, such as the two faces/vase and crone/fashionable lady illusions.

    I have even noticed this phenomonomonomomomenna while working crosswords puzzles, when I look for an answer to the clue Lead, 5-letters — guide, direct … — only to blink and realize the answer is plumb. When you have a wrong idea lodged in your mind its worst aspect can be that it blocks you from the right idea.

  10. My Walls are 1) having no idea where to start because my MC refuses to tell me what she’s been up to and 2) feeling penned in. If I start thinking “oh, I’ve got to write something because otherwise I’m not a Good Writer because I have not been Productive,” everything shuts down. Note that this only happens with self-imposed deadlines. Real deadlines keep me moving.

    The cure for Wall number one seems to be going back through my snippets file or earlier stories and finding hints that the MC dropped about her adventures and doings.

  11. Cinch is what you tighten on a saddle, I believe you meant chink in the wall 😉

  12. Congrats on discovering what can let you write, condolences that you have to pitch so much, and no-worries on Witchfinder. 🙂

  13. The Wall in WIP just came down when I realized that I needed a third strand in the telling, to make the reader ask some of the questions the other two strands lead to.

    I’ve been worrying it like a dog the proverbial bone off and on for a month or two, unable to proceed with the other two strands because I realized (subconsciously, drat) that I was getting farther and farther away from something necessary, with each edited chapter.

    The third strand also makes it much easier to write a blurb or a premise statement or a pitch… so it is a giant plus, but the process of making the subconscious speak up hurt my brain.

    I LOVE your image of rotating the cat, and the mental effort to go from ‘rotating the…tires? …car?’ that came when the letter in the noun wasn’t the expected t but a c instead. Like a good punchline in a good joke, it had a delayed hit. Nice.