Or at least that’s how it nearly always feels when I reach the halfway stage.
One of the reasons for this is that I tend to use word-count landmarks as a psychological trick to keep me positive. Usually, by the time I’m ready to start a novel’s first draft I have a pretty good idea how long the draft is likely to be: in my mind there are clear differences between an idea that’s going to be an 80,000 word novel and one that will need 120,000.
So, with a 100,000 word novel, at the end of day one I’d usually be a fiftieth of the way in; then a twenty-fifth; and it won’t be long before I’m a tenth of the way in and suddenly it feels like I’m making real progress. The fact that I still have 90,000 words to go doesn’t seem so daunting when I tell myself I’ve written a whole tenth of it already.
It’s great to have written a quarter of a novel, a third. And at the halfway point you know that from here on in you’re always going to be closer to the end than the start.
But then the landmarks fizzle out.
Being 55% of the way into a novel just doesn’t seem noteworthy. So suddenly I’ve gone from ticking off the landmarks to having nothing on the horizon apart from the long slog home.
The other side of this is that it is a slog. As I’ve already written here, writing a novel when you have a demanding day job and lots of other commitments is hard work. In the early stages you have the adrenalin-rush, but by the time you reach halfway you just have to keep going, chipping away at it, finding ways to keep yourself feeling positive.
For me, passing halfway is the toughest part of a novel first draft. I’m exhausted, I’ve been intensely immersed in this thing for months, I’m getting impatient to just have the whole thing down in print (or at least in an electronic file).
I passed the halfway stage of my current novel, alt.human, two or three weeks ago and still had the momentum, but then I hit that novel-half-empty point last week. I’d had a good three-day writing burst, but then went away to a conference for a week, where I had almost no opportunity to work on the novel, other than a 500-word burst on the first day. The following weekend was tough: dragging out barely more than a couple of thousand words in all. It didn’t help that the gap coincided with a natural break point in the novel, which made it harder to pick up again.
I still had something like 30,000 words to go and I was floundering. The stress in the day job was piling on. My health was suffering. I seriously thought I might have to put the whole thing aside and come back to it in a month or two, regardless of deadlines.
And then I got tough with myself. Yesterday was my first real chance of a writing day in a couple of weeks. I woke with a migraine, not a good start. I took painkillers, waited for it to ease, and then just sat down to write. Slowly – so slowly! – I picked up the pace, got past that natural break point and into the next section. I hit a couple of thousand words, which was pretty damned good considering the amount of reading and editing I’d had to do in order to get going.
That was enough for the day, so I stopped.
And then I did that writer’s trick of starting a new session after a bit of a break. Anything I wrote in that session would be a bonus, and I was delighted to hit 3000 words for the day. (See? I still use landmarks to gee myself along. It works for me. It works for lots of writers: a way of convincing us that we’re making progress in something that edges along in relatively tiny increments.)
Suddenly I find myself within about 20-25,000 words of the end and my novel’s no longer half-empty. It’s pretty damned full and suddenly I believe again that I’m going to get this draft finished quite soon.
Most authors would argue that a writer’s life is a pretty good one: we make up stuff and write it down. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s pretty tough too: if it’s not difficult, we’re not doing it right.
I do love it when the writing comes easy, but I appreciate it when it’s tough, too.
And I’m so glad that I’m safely past the half-empty stage!