Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Wall

I have never run a marathon. I suspect, somehow, that I never will. I’ve never been enthused by the notion of pushing my body to that extent, and I’m not a big fan of running for no particular purpose. Don’t get me wrong: I go to the gym. I spend so much of my time sitting at a computer that if I didn’t go to the gym someone would end up cutting me out of my chair in the not-too-distant future, hacking away with a saw as the chair arms dug painfully into the rolls of fat at my belly and my thighs lay compressed like great wads of pale dough and . . .

Sorry, got a bit carried away there. I do worry about these things, you know.

Anyway, I’ve never run a marathon, but I have some concept of what marathon runners “the wall”. As most of you are probably aware, it’s that point at which the runner feels that he or she just can’t go on, when energy seems to dissipate and the legs begin to feel like lumps of iron. The urge to give up is incredibly strong, yet most runners struggle through it. They know it’s coming up so they prepare themselves mentally for it. It’s harder, I imagine, for first-timers. They don’t know what to expect, even though they’ve been warned about it, so when they hit it the shock is probably quite considerable.

I can’t speak for other writers, but there is a wall that I hit during the writing of every book. The point at which it occurs varies from book to book, although it’s usually around the halfway stage or just beyond it. I start to doubt the plot, the characters, the ideas underpinning it, my own writing, in fact every element involved in the process. Progress slows. I find all kinds of distractions to keep me occupied rather than face my desk and the empty computer screen. My office suddenly becomes very tidy. E-mails assume massive importance. I listen intently for the arrival of the postman so I can deal with my mail. Yet, in the end, I still have to turn on the computer and eke out at least a thousand words a day. That, or give up and start all over again.

You’d think that, by now, with eight books written, those doubts would have become less intense. After all, I’ve been through it before. I know that I’ve had these concerns about other books and in the end those books have been written and published without bearing any obvious scars from the turmoil that went into their creation. But there is always that fear that this book, this story, is the one that should not have been started. The idea isn’t strong enough. The plot is going nowhere. I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way and now have to try to find the right path again.

I attended a public interview with Michael Connelly a few years back, in the course of which he told the audience that he had experienced just such a dilemma during the writing of his novel Void Moon. He had been forced to scrap tens of thousands of words after realising that he had written himself into a creative dead end, and had no choice but to go back to the beginning and find an alternative path. At least he had the confidence to do that, based, I imagine, on the experience of writing the eight or nine novels that preceded Void Moon. A first-time novelist faced with the same difficulty might have greater difficulty coping with that moment when all seems rather lost. I suspect that’s why a great many would-be novelists abandon work at about the 40-50,000 word mark, because that is typically the stage at which doubts begin to set in, the point at which a new idea becomes potentially more compelling than the current one.

I’ve been trying to remember the circumstances of the writing of Every Dead Thing, my first novel. Did I encounter similar difficulties in writing that book? I must have, although it seems so long ago now that I’ve largely forgotten most of the day-to-day details of its creation. There was less pressure then, I suppose. There was nobody waiting for the book. I had signed no contracts, made no commitments. Delays hardly mattered until it began to near its end, and even then I was compelled less by outside agencies than my own desire to finish it after years of work. Now there is less time for mistakes, and a false start could mean postponing publication of a book for six months, even a year, with all of the difficulties that would then present for my publishers.

Anyway, this week I hit the wall with the current novel. It’s a Parker book, to be called The Unquiet. The doubts began creeping in on Thursday, and became a full-blown crisis by Friday morning. Even writing about it makes me feel a bit uneasy, as though by confessing the problem I’ve given it substance and made it more real. Still, I forced out those thousand words yesterday. They weren’t good, and I doubt that they’ll survive into the finished novel, even in a heavily revised form, but I wrote them. I kept writing. And on Monday morning I’ll start writing again - a thousand words, maybe a little more - in the hope that I can work through this.

What I have learned from those eight books is that if I were to abandon a novel unfinished then I think it would be the kiss of death for my writing. Better to see it through, even if it does prove to be a false step and never sees the light of day, than to toss it to one side without a conclusion, because if I begin giving up on the writing of a book when it gets difficult then it could prove to a be a habit that’s hard to break.

I’ve had these doubts before. They will pass, they will pass . . .

This week John read

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
Cell by Stephen King

and listened to

The Decline of Country & Western Civilisation by Lambchop
At War With The Mystics by The Flaming Lips

and saw

The Drive-By Truckers live in Dublin.


Jayne said...

You can do it, John - I'm sure you'll go back to your desk on Monday morning feeling refreshed. It might help if you could take your mind off your work over the weekend. Then again, I would imagine it's very difficult, if not impossible, for an author to just switch off: your head must be constantly filled with ideas, plots, characters etc.

Good luck, though - I know you'll get through it and all your hard work will pay off when The Unquiet is published.

Noeni said...

Well, that's inspiring John.
If I had a cent for every half-finished piece, I'd be better off.
I guess it really is about self-discipline and making yourself work rather than day-dream.

I'm following the "write a novel in a year" thing on the Telegraph site, and all the little writing exercises seem so easy - great ideas flow and I've actually abandoned other stuff to follow up something that I started from there. But self-doubt as to whether anyone will actually be gullible enough to publish something I've written is a huge mental block for someone who's never even finished a first draft!
Well - except for my school magazine when I lived up North.

And you know, it's pretty damn cool that you take the time to share honest observations with your forum. A lot of people tend towards the glib publicity-speak and I tend to roll my eyes and discount every word by at least 75%.

You're a stupendous writer so you have no such excuses. Get with the programme on Monday! And until then just enjoy the wonderful weather... (looking out at the thunder, lightning & hailstones)


Cathyanne said...

Your honesty gives hope to this novice writer. I'm currently reading your first novel and am thankful you perservered as I'm enjoying it as much as your later writings.

I laughingly emphathized with your thoughts on exercise. The gym beckons me daily but, unfortunately, I visualize it as the relative one detests visiting all the while knowing you will reap the consequences for years if you don't show up at holiday time!

Hope your writing goes easier very soon. In Texas we refer to these times as "a day you just wanna kick your dog" (which of course I'd never do!). Keep doing what you do, John. Our world is richer for you being in it.

Cathyanne said...
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Cathyanne said...
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Lee Goldberg said...

Great post, John. But I have to you outline your books before you start writing?

alldewater said...

They will pass, they will pass...

All is well, all is well.

As long as you're not sitting on your porch with ghosts, the parallel is sly and funny.

Thanks as always for the posts.

Rhino said...

Think of Every Dead Thing as your baseline. Apart from the Bad Men diversion, the Mobius stream is pure through to The Black Angel - in fact The Black Angel returns Bird to the Maine reality.

Never shrink from your ability to frankenstein literary craftsmanship, historical empathathy and shit-hot storytelling to deliver the modern Poe-novel. No-one else comes near this stuff. I have thrown 20-chapter books away and started new ones - do not go quietly into that literary stasis.

Listen to Bliss by Muse - it should inspire if only through idiot-savante-ness. If that does not appeal, try anything by The Wildhearts.

Be a literary Terminator - you will not stop and you will be back.

ESADB - as Crockett used to say.


Robbin Pearson said...

My Dear Man, I hit that wall with my life last weekend. I hung on and prayed my ass off. It got me to this week and one second at a time. Then your newsletter comes... and there is this new link to your "column" and what are you talking about? Thank you once again for your words, I told you before that it somehow feels like your writing is helping to make me a better person. It is still true. I will look forward to any visit you make to Maine and hope to see you at a friendly book event or a warm "Pub" event. Kindest Regards, Robbin Pearson

Robbin Pearson said...
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JD Rhoades said...

If I didn’t go to the gym someone would end up cutting me out of my chair in the not-too-distant future, hacking away with a saw as the chair arms dug painfully into the rolls of fat at my belly and my thighs lay compressed like great wads of pale dough and . . .

Don't knock it till you've tried it. It's not as bad as it sounds.

Peter said...

Hi there John,

I am not the react person in general but I know what you mean. I write programs and am a fanatic racing bike driver or whatever you call it there... I know about the wall and I know that nobody but you can do anything about your wall.
What I do mostly is keep hammering at that wall untill it crumbles, wether I am biking or programming. But sometimes, I just walk around it and instead of standing in the cold shadow hammering away, I face the sun on the other side for a while and listen to the birds singing...

Keep up the good work! You are one of the people on my very short list of writers of which I have to read everything (along with Michael Connely and Stephen King btw)....

Louise Ure said...

It's inspiring to know that every writer hits that "Story-Isn't-Good- Enough/ Not-Worth-The-Paper-It-Would-Be- Printed-On" wall. You've given me hope.

And thanks for the Neko Case recommendation! I just sampled her music and she's grand. As is today's mention of Lambchop. I think you and I have twin ears in music appreciation.

Tom Hyland said...

It's obvious that the 'wall' you mention is a temporary condition that will receive the 'cure' as you go along.

I'm guessing that the change of venue and attitude with your latest novel has left your base characters from the Parker novels floundering a bit and not knowing which direction to take.

Plotting through outline provides a path to follow but tnat isn't your bag (and probably not a trait of your main characters either).

This is temporary and will pass into a fading memory.

wiklagirl said...

Walls can be knocked down, or jumped over. Give it time and I'm sure Mr Parker will inspire the way ..

Btw, DBTs rocked in Whelans - I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did. I love the fact that DBTs have 3 very individual songwriters ..

wiklagirl said...

Walls can be knocked down, or jumped over. Give it time and I'm sure Mr Parker will inspire the way ..

Btw, the Drive-by Truckets rocked in Whelans - I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did. I love the fact that DBTs have 3 very individual songwriters ...


wiklagirl said...


wiklagirl said...

I'm almost embarassed to say that I learnt 2 thing yesterday ..
1. these blogs can't be edited
2. never let a cat near a keyboard (his wonderful contribution is a dot)

Looking forward to your next opus ..