Janice Graham on the Writer’s Midway Crisis

Graham profile picThis 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!

graham cover oneWhat 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.graham cover two

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:

  1. 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!
  1. graham cover threeSetting 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 2c2210898dee31022bc976575c3355acThe 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.

bdf771604da26bb3bedfb7561c366c2aFor 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.

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14 thoughts on “Janice Graham on the Writer’s Midway Crisis

  • David Picken

    What I like about this is that you get two things (at least); two for the price of one, as it were. There is the simple instructive element – so valuable – pointing out, enlightening us as to what is actually going on in this frustrating “midway” phase. How often have you been frustrated or just plain confused as to why is this happening? Janice sharing her perspicacity on the matter is a gift. Then she tells us what to do about it – major tip: Find writers whose ‘work nurtures’ your ‘writing.’

    Lisa, I would still like to post something on earlier topics, but I don’t want to distract the flow of this item from Janice by (as you suggested) including something with the current topic. Can I write to you on your gmail address (with the proposed items) and get your suggestion on how to handle it?
    Cheers
    David

    • Lisa

      Hi David,

      thanks for that – I’ll forward your comments to Janice too so that she can see them. Janice is great on advice as she works so hard to keep getting her books out. She is utterly dedicated and I guess that’s what we have to be to get our work done.

      Sure, do send them to my gmail address and we can see how we can start some conversation about your thoughts.

      Looking forward to hearing from you,

      Lisa

    • Lisa

      Actually, David, did you tick the box to alert you to emails on this thread?
      Let me know because I don’t think it’s working. I am not receiving email alerts telling me that you’ve commented. Are you receiving alerts telling you that someone has commented on this thread? You’ll only receive the email if you ticked the appropriate box etc.
      Thanks David,
      Lisa

      • Lisa

        Great, thanks for letting me know you received the email David, regarding alerts to comment threads!
        I look forward to hearing from you,
        Lisa

    • David,
      Thanks for your comments.
      I thought I’d throw out a point I think very important but didn’t include in the blog. There’s resistance all the way through the writing process–beginning, middle, even end of a novel. Most writers experience this, and it’s important to understand that Resistance is to be expected. If it takes us 1, 2, 3 years to finish a work — so be it. The point is to finish and move on.

      I recently attended a writer’s conference where a very successful and prolific romance author spoke–she put a good deal of emphasis on how quickly she wrote, making it seem very easy for her, which I believe it was. Although her success is to be admired, it’s important to stress that both the process and the product are vastly different for different writers. There’s Hilary Mantel on one end of the spectrum–spends 7 or 8 years on one tome and buries herself. And James Patterson on the other, who works more like a head writer on a TV series, with a staff of co-writers who work out ideas which Patterson then develops. Both Mantel and Patterson are extremely talented but in very different ways. But however we choose to work, it’s important to find ways and means to validate what and how we write.

  • A very practical and vivid explanation of your process, Janice. I liked the way you write a ‘screenplay’ then develop the work in the next stage. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Lisa

      Thanks Elaine, I’ll send your comments on to Janice!
      Don’t forget to tick the box that lets me know by email that you’ve written.
      If I get an email I can always answer or comment or pass on your thoughts.
      Sending my best to you Elaine!
      Lisa

    • Lisa

      Actually, did you tick the box to alert you to emails on this thread?
      let me know Elaine because I don’t think it’s working.
      Thanks Lisa

  • [* WordPress Simple Firewall plugin marked this comment as “trash” because: Failed GASP Bot Filter Test (comment token failure). *]
    [* WordPress Simple Firewall plugin marked this comment as “trash” because: Failed GASP Bot Filter Test (comment token failure). *]
    As a new novel writer halfway through, I just had this huge slump/depression and then saw this article and felt such a rush of relief! That it’s normal, that it can be helped. I’m definitely picking up a copy of The War of Art. I need to get control of that pesky resistance. Thank you!

  • Just a test, as I am not receiving any emails telling me that you guys have commented!
    Will get onto it and reply to both your messages in a minnie!
    Lisa

  • Elaine –

    Thanks for you comments and I apologize for the late reply.

    The screenwriting format can seem intimidating to writers because it has its own special language, which is intended to be translated to visuals by the director/filmmaker. But if you’re using it only as a rough draft for a novel, you don’t need to worry about the finer points of formatting. It can be a wonderful vehicle to speed the process along. I teach workshops in Florence on storytelling and the lessons we can learn from film, so if you’re an expat yourself or have friends in the hood, put them in touch with me.

  • I stumbled upon this post during a mid novel slump ! having never heard of it before (as this is my first novel). I felt mired in doubt and poised to quit (at least considering it) until I read this. I felt such relief! Thank you Lisa and Janice for easing my fears. Also, I bought Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art and love it!

    • Dana – I’m so glad my words found you. There’s another book I suggest you pick up if you don’t already have it – “Becoming a Writer” by Dorothea Brande. Published in 1934, I find it the best book ever written on the writer’s life. It’s not about the craft but about how to nurture and protect your inner life, the source of your creativity. The book is a wonderful validation of the creative process. I very much enjoyed your blog post about the poems in the cookie box. Keep writing!

  • Lisa

    Hi Dana,
    so happy you found us here. And super nice to hear from Janice, she really knows what she is talking about when it comes to writing books.

    It’s my joy to get you all together on this page, writing is a hard, long, trying slog. So if you glean some motivation from us here at The Art of Writing, you will have made my week!

    My best to you, Dana and you, Janice…now, am off to write (a quite, lovely, wintry day in Florence, so a great day for writing).

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