This week is the perfect moment to consider The Writer’s Midway Crisis, as hopefully you’ve had time to write over the holidays and are a fair way into your project. Here, New York Times bestselling author and screenwriter Janice Graham talks about the frustrations of being halfway through your book. Janice has five novels translated into eighteen languages so she well understands this challenge.
Why is the Midway Crisis so important to understand?
The creative process undergoes a change in dynamics midway through a novel. After finishing a book, I inevitably regret not keeping a journal to chronicle the process and the changes. Writing the novel itself is so draining that I can’t seem to pump up the energy to write about writing. So generally my thoughts would be in retrospect, which is why this is a great opportunity to articulate what goes on at this stage, so I thank you Lisa!
What are you writing now, Janice? I absolutely loved Romancing Miss Bronte.
Girl Slanted is a radical change in subject matter for me—it’s the story of a restless young woman who finds stability and empowerment by conquering a painful addiction to a destructive man. The story is dark, the writing emotionally raw and very honest. Although it’s situated in romantic Tuscany, it’s no Under The Tuscan Sun.
How have you worked out the structure?
Having worked as a screenwriter, I write my ‘first draft’ as a screenplay: it’s a strategy that works well for me. It allows me to see potential weaknesses in the story structure, and I get my characters, setting and story sketched out without losing precious energy on prose. I get the script written in 3-4 months, then go back and start the novel. There are drawbacks to this method—there’s a temptation to use the exact language or follow the story development as set down in the script rather than allow the creative flow to take me where it wants to go—so I have to navigate between the two. What emerges in prose is very different in tone, style, even character—but I’ve got the roadmap before me so I won’t get too far off track.
Being halfway through a book is a notoriously difficult time/slump for writers. What emotions or difficulties can we look out for?
Even with my blueprint/roadmap, midway is indeed a shifty business. I’d say there are four major factors that kick in here:
- Resistance. This is really the point where the road is steepest. I liken writing a novel to a strange sort of uphill marathon where you pick up weight as you go along. At this point, you’re carrying a lot of story in your head. You’ve invested a lot but have a long way to go. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield sheds a lot of light on this phenomenon that plagues the artist/writer. By characterizing Resistance as an enemy rather than a weakness within us, he rallies us to break through the wall. “Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelt,” he writes. “But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.” So we take up arms and go to work!
- Setting Your Character and Structure. By now your characters have to know who they are and how they interact with each other. In Girl Slanted, midway through the novel I had to go back to the beginning and re-imagine a principal character—his actions from here on out will be a function of who he is. By midway all the characters need to be ‘up and running’ as Joseph Conrad expressed it. Likewise, story structure by now needs to be firm. I work in acts—and this is the point where the acts need to solidify. I need to know how my characters and their conflict will be developing in the last half of the novel.
- The Pregnant Pause. At this point, you’re really beginning to see the potential in what you’ve written. You’ve got this wonderful thing growing inside you, and it’s such a thrilling feeling that you just want to hold onto it and savor it. There are endless possibilities, and I always feel this like a creative fullness. I know how the story will end, but the path to get there is uncharted; I feel a bit like an explorer all kitted out and deep into his territory. I have so much going on, characters poised to act, to speak, scenes drifting in and out of my thoughts, ideas floating around waiting to be realized. It’s too easy to walk around thinking of what CAN be instead of actually firing up the brain cells—putting down the words and making the story choices in order to realize the work. This ‘feel good’ stage can be in itself a very powerful Resistance.
- The Brain Drain. I write drama, and in order to move a reader, I’ve got to move myself. That means I’ve got some serious ‘drama’ to live out as I write. This is emotionally draining and requires some pretty stiff guidelines. By this point in the novel, I’m in very deep. Mentally, I’m thinking more about my characters than about anyone else. My family is resigned but still annoyed, friends often feel abandoned. Social life is limited, and new relationships doomed! When I turn down offers to speak or present, people are offended. I don’t do lunch—lunch is creative suicide. Non-creative work is frequently task oriented whereas creative work requires flow, and you don’t turn it on and off easily.
For that same reason, when I’m writing I read only work that nurtures my writing. I re-read my favorite stylists—they’re my ‘comfort food.’ I just finished re-reading Madame Bovary and am now re-reading The Magus by John Fowles. I always re-read a bit of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Donleavy’s style is brilliantly dynamic and modern—although the novel was written back in the early fifties. I also go back to Jennifer Egan’s The Good Squad and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I love how Flynn knocks out a minor character with a few sharp details. But the master is Graham Greene. Reading Greene is a self-styled tutorial in the art of the novel.
When we recognize these factors and how they affect us, we begin to see them not as a problem but as a validation of our creative process.