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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #12: Wandering in the Wilderness with J.K. Rowling

I love starting a new project.  When the project is short and manageable, like a short story, I usually just toss the idea around for a while, then plunge in.  When the project is book-sized, I prepare.  I spend a month or so reading for a living, searching out books and websites that tell me more about my setting or about my subject.  Then I make an outline.  And then I plunge in.

The first 75 pages or so of a new project seem to write themselves.  In fact, if writing an exciting beginning didn't flow easily, I'd question whether I'd done my job during the preparation stage, and I'd go back to reading for a living for little while longer.

Similarly, the last 75 pages of a book seem to write themselves, with the words tumbling onto the computer screen as fast as my fumbling fingers can type.  If they didn't come easily, I'd worry.  The previous 250 pages were written expressly to set up those last exciting chapters.  Difficulty writing a book's climax is almost certainly a sign that it's just not time to finish it.

But what about those middle 200 pages or so?  For me, some of those pages are just back-breaking to write.  (Mind-breaking?  Finger-breaking? know what I mean.)

I was writing Findings when the last Harry Potter book came out.  My son called to chat, and he mentioned that he was reading it.  Then he asked how my book was going.  I was bogged down in the middle of the action, and I said, "Awful.  I feel like I'm wandering in the wilderness."  He laughed and said, "So's J.K. Rowling.  Wait till you read this one."

Within 24 hours of the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, my younger daughter had finished devouring it, so I got a crack at reading it.  After I raced through the slam-bang beginning, I found that my son was right.  A goodly chunk of the middle of the book involved Harry and Hermione and Ron fleeing from one remote campsite to another, and not a whole lot was happening.  In other words, they were wandering in the wilderness.  I laughed out loud. 

Now, maybe this wilderness wandering was completely calculated by Rowling.  The woman is a storytelling genius, and I admire her work immensely.  I find it amusing that her books have stirred religious controversy, when the entire series spins on the power of self-sacrificial love, even its ability to conquer death.  (Do these concepts not sound just a little bit familiar to those of us who grew up in homes steeped in Christian concepts?)  It is entirely possible that she intended those middle chapters to hark back to the 40 days and nights that Christ spent wandering in the wilderness.

Nevertheless, as a fellow writer, I cannot help but wonder whether Harry Potter's creator was slogging through her own wilderness, agonizing over how to get Harry and his friends from that slap-bang beginning to the eventual mythic ending.  She pulled it off very nicely, and my hat's off to her.

So what's a writer to do when she finds herself in her own wilderness?  I do two things:  I rely on my outline, and I keep slogging. 

The beauty of an outline is that you know where you're going.  If you find yourself in a mushy spot, point yourself toward the next big scene in your outline, and do whatever it takes to get there.  Push your characters toward the location of that scene.  Write the dialogue that will get them ready for the action in that scene.  Give them the knowledge that they're going to need when they get there. 

Do these things, even if you feel like you're just pushing chess pawns into place.  Do them even if the action feels clunky or limp.  Write the transitional scenes that will get you where you need to go, even if you know in your heart that they are awful...because you can always edit them later.

When I come back to those awful transitional scenes later, a couple of things happen very frequently.  First, I usually find that a lot of the narrative is unnecessary.  I can just surgically remove ninety percent of the ugly and troublesome text, and the narrative still works.  Still, I needed to write that ugly and troublesome text in order to generate the all-important ten percent.  And second, I often find that the scenes that seemed so ugly and troublesome aren't really that bad.  With some honing and polishing, they turn out to be good enough to stay in the book, after all.

Don't be afraid to write bad stuff.  You can always fix it later.  Sometimes writing the bad stuff takes you straight to the good stuff.  J.K. Rowling knows that.  And now you do, too.

See you at the Anhinga--
Mary Anna


  1. Thank you, Mary Anna! I realize I was trying to go down the slide without going up the ladder. There'll be other hikes but you got me on the right path this time.
    Thanks again!

    Giggles and Guns

  2. Thank you for the post because it pointed out something I was missing -- a piece of research. I was trying to go down the slide without going up the ladder.
    In checking things out I realize steps in my outline also needed moved. You've made this a most productive Tuesday.
    Thanks again!Mary
    Giggles and Guns

  3. Well, I see that Blogger has punked us. It refused to publish Mary's comment this morning, so I asked her to resend it. Then it refused to publish it, but I didn't bother her with that little problem. Now it has published them both. Heaven preserve us from these machines we invented to help us...

    Love that metaphor of trying to go down the slide without going up the ladder. :)

  4. What a wonderful essay today! I love the part about the middle 200 pages being the tough part ... HAHHAHAH! Ya think??? Of course, fortunately you've figured out how to bookend those pesky pages between substantial chapters: good start and finish. Brava!

  5. Tom Petty said the waiting is the hardest part. Tom was wrong. It's those middle 200 pages...

  6. I just read your post at DorothyL about the audiobook versions of your mysteries having some minor mispronunciations that could have been corrected with a 5-minute phone call to you (and that all of the audio planning had been done without any nod in your direction at all). That is terrible. I wrote a book (nonmystery) a few years ago for a paperback series in Britain (the Pocket Essentials), and saw it recently available as a Kindle title--but no notice to me and of course no information about royalties. I don't have an agent (I am an English professor), but there should be something like a union to stand up for the writer of the book and put across that point of view in situations like these.

  7. Glenn, I think emails to your publisher and to Amazon are in order. A reputable publisher would not put your book on Kindle without the intent to pay you royalties, so you may in fact be receiving a check for these sales. I think you should contact them and find out.

    My publisher is wonderful, and I didn't mean to imply that they did anything unethical...they just didn't remember to call me and tell me the good news. And they weren't contractually obligated to involve me in the negotiation to rights that I had sold them. They have certainly paid me the royalties I was owed for my audiobooks.

    If indeed someone, either your publisher or someone else, has put your work up for sale without your permission, then I suspect Amazon will move quickly to remove it from their site. Yes, a union would be nice, but this is a legal issue that could constitute copyright infringement, and you have recourse in court. Amazon is a reputable business and I think they will work with you.