Monday, December 1, 2008

Churning

Lately I've started to read several novels that I've been really excited about, novels with wonderful concepts and solid, evocative writing -- at least in the first chapter or two. And then something happens. The story stops moving forward, the voice grows stiff or foggy and hard to follow, and the book just turns into a real slog. In fact, lately it's the rule rather than the exception that this happens. It's like watching someone tread water or churn butter, except there's no butter. What's going on?

Surely some of this is just me, because usually these books are well-praised and admired. Maybe I don't have a lot of patience for the slow bits. But I have a couple of alternate theories. Maybe the writers sold their books on the basis of the beginnings, and then panicked at the prospect of writing 300 more pages. Or maybe the writers are still early in their careers and have spent a lot of time writing short stories and simply don't know what to do after page 50.

Or maybe it's just that great concepts are over-rated, and the abilities to write clearly and compellingly and to sustain a storyline are very rare things indeed.

I've learned not to name names on this blog when I'm being mean, because writers have a way of Googling themselves and I really don't want to ruin anyone's coffee break. But one example is All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, a novel with a terrific review in the New York Times, and a great set up: a cranky medieval re-enactor goes to Europe to search for his missing son. The prologue and first chapter are just perfect: funny and tender and arch. But I'm on page 92 now and working hard to persuade myself to keep going. I think I will, because I just love the idea so much. But what happened to all that clever energy?

Here's one last theory, based on evolutionary biology: it doesn't matter what happens after page 50, because if the reader has gotten that far, he's already bought the book. There's a lot of pressure to make the blurbs, the cover, the title, and the first chapter really great, but not so much on the middle. Perhaps eventually, like tails on primates, the middles of books will disappear altogether.

18 comments:

Art said...

It's true. The same thing just happened to me with Kate Christensen's The Great Man. I'm going to start reading page 84 first before picking books up.

jrlennon said...

I think that it's really hard to sustain a long narrative--it's a specialized skill to begin with, and then you have to really push yourself to figure out how to fill the space. Plus, doing it over and over again doesn't make it easier--you have to learn it anew every time, unless you're writing romances or a crime series or something schematic.

Almost nobody, even the best novelists, can hit the long ball every time out...and first novelists are often given the benefit of the doubt by hopeful publishers.

Diana Holquist said...

Oh, it's not so easy for us romance novelists either.

I read a screenwriting how-to book where the author says when he reads a script, he opens to page 25 (or something like that) to see what happens because if the writer doesn't know that something crucial has to happen on page 25, he obviously doesn't know what he's doing. I loved that. Page 25. Nail THAT page, baby....

...there must be a similar page in novels. Maybe 227.

jrlennon said...

Diana, do you have a guide from the publisher you have to follow; ie., certain kinds of things happening at certain times? Or do you have a lot of leeway to mess with the forumla? Or is there, in your case, no formula?

I don't mean to belittle your genre; I'm just saying that genre fiction, in general, can provide the writer a built-in structure that solves a few momentum problems ahead of time.

Anonymous said...

It is strange how these stretches of seemingly stalled-out novels arrive in groups of three or four -- but then, suddenly, you fall in love again with a book that fully engages you, etc.

In the last few years I've decided as a rule, if the novel's energy lags somewhere between pages 100-150, or the proceedings get silly, boring, etc. I just put it aside on move on to something else. I used to force myself to slog through and hope for something better, but inevitably the book only gets WORSE, not better, and next thing you know I'm investing all this time in something that gives me no pleasure....

I mean, at least a bad/mediocre movie's over in two hours, but there's just not enough time in life for half-assed books....

rmellis said...

It has been my shameful habit to toss aside any book that loses me at any point. I'm trying to be more forgiving. At least once it has paid off: Tom McCarthy's Remainder started well, and then turned stiff and slow. I stopped reading, and then because Matt at Condalmo loved the book so much I gave it another chance. And slowly a new kind of life seeped into it.

Matt said...

For sake of argument, I would point out that Crime & Punishment's fourth chapter (of six) was sometimes unbearably slow-moving, and yet shovelling through it was (ultimately) rewarding.

In my dream-world, however, there would be index cards placed on all the books in bookstores, summarizing whether said book was worth reading all the way through.

Matt said...

(I'm not the "Matt at Condalmo", btw)

rmellis said...

Yeah, I know! I don't think that guy wears sunglasses.

jrlennon said...

Anonymous, it's interesting that you often stop between pages 100 and 150. Because that's where the crisis ALWAYS comes for me, when writing a novel. In fact, I can narrow it down even further, to like 115-140. I even call it the "page 125 crisis." This is the moment when you realize you're not writing what you thought you were writing, and you can choose either to force it back into the box, or follow it to its sloppy new destination. I think a lot of writers, too many, choose the box.

E. said...

Hooooh boy, this is (as always) interesting.

My novel workshop instructor, with a dozen novels under his belt, says he routinely hits the wall at p. 80.

I'm up to 75 pages in my first draft.

I am not scared.

I am not.

I took a screenwriting workshop that a) taught me how three-act structure works and b) put me right off writing screenplays. All that rising action, all those inciting incidents, all that mind-numbing formatting, all those rules... But p. 25 did come up, and I remember thinking, why not just start on p. 25 and write my way out? (We read Robert McKee's "Story," which is a *great* book for anyone writing fiction, as it examines how stories work, regardless of medium.)

There are a lot of novels whose midsections I found flabby, but I powered through -- The Master, The Reader (I guessed way up front what the female character's problem was, so I was impatient for the revelation). More often than not, I stop reading.

jrlennon said...

E., I am glad to hear it's not just my wall, but everybody's...

rmellis said...

Hm, my wall's a little sooner than that. Somewhere between getting the idea and writing the outline.

jrlennon said...

*rim shot*

Diana Holquist said...

No hard feelings on the romance comment. Someone has to lurk here to keep you literary types in line.

There aren't guides or rules the publisher gives out (unless you write Christian romance--and then they're hilarious), but if you mess up the formula, readers sense it and get pissed. Thing is, if you asked an editor or a reader what the formula is, they couldn't tell you past a vague, "happy ending" or "lots of conflict."

But the writers know. They've got a million formulas. But the truth is, none of them work. It's all about building a natural rhythm around real characters, and you can't force that into a formula.

Anyway, that's what I think.

And sagging middles best advice I ever read: stop the plot and explore premise. The middle should be pure emotional action where each scene asserts the theme, but gets a slightly different response every time. So if my premise is: a modern woman can't love a rogue, I construct the scenes to pose this theme over and over and the answers are: never! well, hardly ever! um, maybe tonight...gah, never again! well, maybe once more! oh, yes.....

Or something like that.

That probably doesn't help with literary fiction much, but it makes a romance move nicely.

-d.

jrlennon said...

Actually, that helps with literary fiction a lot. Openings often serve to introduce us to the conflict; the middle is where our understanding of the character and her motivations is deepened. If you're an outliner like me (or like I used to be, anyway), there's a temptation to stick with the program. But maybe this is the best time to explore tangents.

GFS3 said...

Maybe its because agents and publishers generally want to see the first few chapters of a book to determine if they'll want it. Writers send so much time perfecting the front end -- so they don't get the time for the entire book.

Just a thought.

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