Writers Question Time at Frome, and other stories
Prologues, and other stories

The Thirty Thousand Doldrums

At the Frome Festival Writers' Question Time (click on Programmes > Frome Festival > Frome Festival 2011 Live Recordings) one question which came up was about keeping going: how do you deal with getting stuck? We all chipped in with our experience, from Debby Holt's Plotting Walk, to Matt Graham's printout of his mortgage payments stuck above the monitor. At one point I mentioned the notorious Thirty Thousand Doldrums: how for some reason, at least to judge by straw polls among my writer friends, round about the 25-30,000 words seems to be the sticking point for many writers.

The odd thing is that the 30k doldrums seem to happen at that point whatever the natural length of your novels. Debi Alper gets stuck there, nearly half-way through her 75,000 word thrillers; I get stuck there when I'm only about a fifth of the way through a 140,000 word novel about history.

And then quite separately, when we were talking about planning, Rosemary Dun metioned something she's learnt from long-established creative writing teacher Roselle Angwin. Apparently, Roselle suggests that however much you do or don't plan things, and whatever form those plans take, you should stop to take stock at 30k: read it through for the big picture of what you've got so far. Things will have changed: either the writing has taken you in a direction you didn't foresee, or you're sticking to a plan which no longer really works. Characters' relative importance has changed perhaps; a setting or bit of backstory you wrote in great detail has turned out not to be useful after all; the beginning turns out to need stuff you haven't written; the future will need stuff you haven't researched... Whether you go back and change things now, so you feel you're on solid ground, or whether (like me) you just make notes about what needs changing and continue moving forward as if you've changed it, is up to you.

But surely these two ideas are connected. It's obvious, whether you're just plodding along feeling bored and worried, or your Inner Critic is on the rampage and convincing you that the whole project is worthless, that at 30k you've run out of the initial glee of your idea, and you're into the long haul, but can't yet see the end (in a writing sense; you may or may not know what the end of the story's going to be yet). But the initial glee and energy isn't quite as simple as "it was fun before and now it isn't". I'd suggest that you've run out of storytelling fuel. Perhaps the average writerly larder is capable of holding about 30k's worth of ideas, feelings, open doors and keys to as-yet-closed ones, and then you've got to re-stock.

Matt Graham and Rosemary Dun both talked about un-sticking by changing something either temporarily or for good: even bringing in a gun and a girl, Chandler-style. Matt described it as being like a splash of cold water on the face, and I might think of it as opening the window in a study where you've been sitting all day, and letting in the wind to blow away the stuffy air and the cobwebs. So perhaps Roselle's taking-stock is also about re-energising, but in a more thorough-going way. By sitting down and reading through your work so far, you don't just find out what needs changing. Perhaps the gun and the girl have been seeded without you even noticing, and other things which crept in unnoticed turn out to be new stores. If it's true that the central activity of craftsmanship is problem-finding, as Richard Sennet says, then in getting a clearer idea of the shape of the gaps on the shelves you get some new energy to fill them. And you also re-connect with why you're doing all this, day after day: the story you want to tell.