Sometimes the Cards Ain’t Worth It to Have, If You Don’t Lay ’Em Down

Or, Well begun is half done, my ass

Writing a story seems to happen in three mental stages for me. 

The first one is the excitement of a new story, wherein I fearlessly write the beginning, introduce the characters, begin to lay the groundwork for their story.  That part is easy, exciting, inspiring.  

So is the final section, the part where you can see all the plot threads beginning to weave together, when your confidence builds with every page you write because each page makes the picture of the whole more and more visible.  That part is exhilerating, inexorable, satisfying. 

The part in between, that mushy middle third, is by far the hardest part of the story to write. It is slow, hard, and demoralizing.  It’s the part of the story where you have enough established that you begin to question what you’ve done, because you can’t see enough of the whole to tell whether you’re on the right track. It’s the part of the story where you have to try and hold in your mind all the various plot threads that will eventually start coming together, but at that point in the story are all completely separate.  It’s the part of the river where you can’t quite see the far shore, but you’ve gone too far from where you started to turn back.  All you can do is go on, and hope that you are going in the right direction…but you have no way to know, just like you have no way to know how long it will take you to get within sight of the far shore even if you are going in the right direction.

That fog-shrouded, godforsaken middle is where I have been stuck since I floundered out of words at the end of my half-NaNoWriMo.  I have written…10,000? words since then.  They have all come hard. One scene has been written at least twice and significantly tweaked a third time.  Others had to be skipped and filled back in later.  Progress has been uncertain and halting, and worst of all I’ve been unsure whether I was making any progress at all, or simply treading water there in the middle of the river. 

I have felt like the Vikings in Valhalla Rising, trapped in a fog bank with no means to gauge my progress and no confidence in my ability to navigate.

So you can imagine how excited I am to have broken out of the cloud to find that the far shore is barely, just barely but nonetheless unmistakably, on the horizon ahead.  I still have a long way to go, and no mistake, but now, finally, at last, I can see my path clear to the end and begin to swim with confidence instead of hope.

My current novel required 77 (single spaced!) pages and 44,167 words to reach the tipping point. Now I finally get to the part of the story where the hero and heroine begin spending “almost every page together.”  This in direct contrast to the normal ways and means of romance novels where that happens from like…page 5. It is also the part of the story where, from here on in, the scenes are almost all what I would consider “reward” scenes, AKA scenes that I am looking forward to writing.  I am sure that some people would suggest this point must be where my story *really* starts, therefore I should have started here from the beginning. I disagree, because if I were just starting here then I would have to fill in all the parts of the characters’ lives and points of view that have by now been established under my version of the story.

In order to get to this point, I found myself having to battle my own doubts and insecurities. I had to force myself to get through this section even if not a single word of it came “on an inspiration,” because if I am serious about making a career of writing then I cannot allow myself to work only when I’m “in the mood” or “inspired” or whatever. If my dilettante muse is drunk in a gutter somewhere, then I just have to get through the words without him.

Hilariously, what has become my motto for the past week and a half is a line from an old Grateful Dead song (“Truckin'”):

Like the Doo-Dah Man once told me, “You got to play your hand. Sometimes the cards ain’t worth it to have, if you don’t lay ’em down.”

It’s worked. It’s an inspiring thought, to point out to myself that the stories in my head do me no good whatsoever if I cannot put them into words. Even if the words don’t come out right, it’s still better than wasting the story by not telling it at all.

I’m sure my dad, old Dead-head that he is, would be so proud to know that I have found such a use for all those Saturday Nights we spent dancing together in the living room while he played Live from Europe, ’72 at full volume.

And as for my muse…well. I suggest he read this Point/Counterpoint the next time I hit the sticky middle of a story and see if he can’t maybe try a bit harder to sit on the arm of my chair and whisper sweetly into my ear.

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Filed under Muse Music, Writing

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