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A horse with no name – the dreaded middle

Perhaps appropriately, my characters are now in the desert.

One of my favourite Nano Pep Talks was by Maureen Johnson about reaching the middle part of your novel and realising that it’s pretty much like the middle of Australia – large, barren and “all teeth and venom”.

“Those first few days with your idea… oh, how wonderful they are! How sweetly it goes! And you wander on, past the city limits, into the bush,” she says. “The signposts disappear, and the creatures come out. You have wandered into The Middle. Thing is, writers spend something like 97% of their time in The Middle. Once you leave those first pages, those first days… you wander into strange land and you stay there for a long, long time.”

It sounds depressing because it is. Every year I know it’s coming and it still depresses the hell out of me. I doubt everything about my novel from the character motivations to the over-arching plot. In my desert I find holes – and these ain’t oasis-like holes. They’re more like those giant holes left by worm monsters in Dune (or the tunnels left by the same worm monsters in the latest Hobbit movie). I find monsters (where did that character come from? What does he want? How do I get rid of him?). I find the deepest pits of self doubt (why am I even doing this?).

When I mentioned that my characters were in the desert, Graham immediately began singing that America song “A Horse With No Name” and the damn ditty has been chasing itself around my head ever since. Which is just as well because aside from the tune being bizarrely uplifting, the lyrics make a nice metaphor for novel writing.

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

This encapsulates Week 1 perfectly to me. Even though your landscape (and page) is blank and the pressure is on, your head is full of ideas and you’re pretty much worry-free with all that wide open space/sky in front of you. The second verse is less positive:

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

This is Week 2, when you’ve fully immersed yourself in the “fun” of writing a novel but the river of inspiration is drying up. You’re also starting to tire after many late nights or early mornings chipping away at it. I guess that’s a bit like creative sun burn. You’ve spent too long thinking about the parts that you like in your novel, they start to shrivel under your intense gaze or seem boring (even though they’re not!) just because you’ve gone over them in your head too often.

After nine days I let the horse run free
‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
there was sand and hills and rings

This verse is a reminder to me that eventually the novel will grow legs and gallop ahead again. The characters will sort out their motivations, the plot will wrangle itself into place. You’ll probably introduce an element that you didn’t expect to before that changes everything. There is always, eventually, that new flood of inspiration. You just have to survive the desert long enough to find it.

So, I’m not going to give up just yet. I’m holding on and hoping that something great sprouts from this desert, literally and figuratively.

(And I don’t mean a Sandworm.)








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