Wrangling the Sticky Bits

In the words of Max Gladstone, and of a dozen others in my private Inspiration folder on Pinterest, “First drafts suck.”

I know that. You probably know that, too. Most people who have finished a novel and gone back to revise know it — or should, anyway. But just because I know my first drafts are allowed to suck — are supposed to suck! — doesn’t make it any easier to push through the sticky bits.

The first ten or fifteen chapters are a delight to work on. My book world is brand new, and the ideas are positively gushing from the idea geyser in my brain. (Is there such a thing as an idea geyser? There should be. And someone should get right on that, bottling that stuff and selling it. Some days I’d pay good gold for a drink of pure unfiltered IDEA. Story gold, of course. I don’t actually own any real gold.)

The last ten chapters or so are also wonderful to work on. The end is in sight, all those pesky dominos have been set up by now, and you’re ready to knock them all down in one triumphant sweep of your author-hand. Or your keyboard. Or something. (Look, it’s been a long day. My metaphors and other stuffs are getting a bit unhinged.)

The problem is *waves hand* that stuff.

hiccup

Jim Butcher calls it the Great Swampy Middle. I like to refer to it as the sticky bits. Even if you have a great outline, and a fabulous plan for filling up the middle of your novel and convincing people to keep on going, this is still a tricky part to write. By now, if you’re anything like me, you have about a million notes, and scraps of paper, and post-its, with all these crucial story points and plot bunnies that need to be wrangled into something reasonable and stuffed into your work in progress before you can leap into your grand finale. Half of those notes aren’t even on paper, they’re just floating around in my head in neon pink letters that say random things like, ‘remember dagger’, or ‘more anger’.

The sticky bits are hard, even with a road map.

Some days I can push through and get my wordcount down. Other days I get frustrated and end up binge-watching Netflix shows instead. I know my middle doesn’t have to be perfect; after all, that’s what revisions and rewrites are for. And I know that, in order to revise, I have to get to the end first. But I call it ‘sticky’ for a reason: because it feels at times like I’m pushing through mud, or wet cement, or an entire people-sized tub of treacle.

I’ll get there, eventually. I just need to keep writing until I come out at the other side. And if I can do it, so can you. Just don’t let the sticky suck you down.

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Working on my sticky middle; notes finally organized!

Retreat, Regroup, Resume

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This morning’s view from my kitchen window

I sit here in my cozy kitchen looking through my manuscript notes as yet another nor’easter blasts my town with snow, and I’m content. Not only content, but downright happy. I don’t even care that it’s snowing AGAIN. I’m happy because the new story I’m working on has finally had its niggles worked out and its outline charted, and I’m ready to blast my way forward.

After getting my head stuck in boggy, swampy plot points for a good couple of weeks, I’m finally moving on. The main reason for my breakthrough is this: I was lucky enough to spend time this past weekend with friends in Vermont on an informal writing retreat.

We gathered for meals and coffee/tea breaks, and for post-lunch writing prompts, as well as evening readings and critique sessions. The rest of the time, I was able to dive into my work. No distractions of family, grocery lists, or laundry piles. No TV shows calling from my overflowing DVR. Nothing but my laptop, my notes, and a dog or two. I ended my weekend with:

  • 70 pages of revision
  • The makings of a much-needed new start to my work in progress

Now, I know not everyone can take a weekend off — there are many things going on in people’s lives, like small children or elderly parents, pets, or weekend jobs. Not everyone has a place to go, or knows someone with an awesome house in the snow (like me!), or can afford a hotel or a cabin rental. But there are other ways to break out of your routine if you’re stuck. Try spending a Saturday, or a weekday evening, writing someplace where you wouldn’t usually go, like your town’s library, or a welcoming coffee shop. Hide away at a friend’s house for a morning. Sneak away from your colleagues at lunchtime and find yourself a quiet corner. Get away from those everyday distractions, even if it’s for an hour or two.

Now, rather then just stick with your usual writing routine, label this a MINI RETREAT and set yourself some ground rules. Give yourself an internet allowance, and ignore the online world the rest of the time. If you manage to wrangle yourself an entire day or two, set break times, meal times, and times to relax. Start out with a clear idea of what you want to do. In my case, it was revise the work I had already done and adjust the plot points I’d changed so I could move forward. You can make this work for you, even on a 1hr lunch break: say, 15 mins to eat and browse the internet, 40 mins working on a chapter, developing a character arc, or mapping out a fight scene, and then 5 mins of free internet time at the end.

If you allow yourself to carve out this sacred space every now and then, and keep it fiercely for yourself, I hope you’ll find — like me — that it boosts your productivity and sharpens your focus. Retreat, regroup and then, with your ‘writer brain’ back on track, prepare to resume your regular writing schedule, full speed ahead.

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Retreat bliss: a peaceful writing corner

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For my Blade Hunt fans: no, I haven’t forgotten you, I promise! I have a gazillion notes and a basic outline for Book 3, Star Blade, and will be jumping back into my Blade Hunt Chronicles world in April, as soon as this draft of my new project is ready for my beta readers’ eyes… More updates on Star Blade and King’s Blade (Book 4) coming soon!