IOctober 19, 2012

f you’ve been with us since April and been diligent about your writing on a daily basis, there is a good chance that you have at least 80 pages by now. Isn’t that remarkable?

Yes, it is! You may deserve a break today, but I’m here to caution you not to take it. Many writers have talked about the mystique of page 80. This is the point where many first-time novelists begin to wonder what more there possibly could be to write in their story.

This is also the point where novelists might ask themselves if they have a novel at all — perhaps the story they want to tell is better suited to a short story, a novella or even a different form altogether, such as a screenplay. This inquiry is probably most appropriate for an experienced novelist who has a deeper understanding of the genres and what it’s going to take to make the novel successful. Standard learning is that at page 80, you are only a quarter to a third of they way “done.” If this is your first novel, the success will be in getting to the end, even if that means writing a really bad first draft. So my view is the first-timer should push on. To quit now is to drop out of a marathon at the five-mile mark.

How to go forward?

First, make sure you are holding to your routine. Again, this is just like exercise. Skip the treadmill today, and then the day after tomorrow and then the weekend. I don’t have to tell you: It’s a slippery slope.

Next, review where you are in your story. What has happened? Anything big? I remember going to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for a week some years ago and on Day One the instructor, Gordon Mennenga, wrote in large letters on the blackboard a single commandment: WRITE BIG.

Usually lawyers aren’t accused of being shy, but are we too bound to the truth, too afraid of overstating our case? Don’t be. If run-of-the-mill stuff happens to run-of-the-mill characters who react in a run-of-the-mill way, well, your novel may — just may — come out a little, uh, run-of-the-mill.

WRITE BIG. Something has to happen. Ideally, in the first 80 pages, we’ve gotten to know your characters and what they want, what their strengths and weaknesses are and what stands in their way. The situation is somewhat unstable. Now, it’s time for a major obstacle, something that shakes things up, changes the status quo. Something that was looming over the first 80 pages, either as yet unidentified or unexpected. At page 80, the reader is ready for a confrontation that threatens everything the character cares about: his or her livelihood, relationships, self-image, well-being.

What is that? It almost can’t be too big. Most of us don’t get bitten by sharks, parachute out of planes, become homeless, lose a spouse or a child, suffer a soul-sucking depression, win the lottery, train for the Olympics or argue at the U.S. Supreme Court, and we’re kind of curious what “it” is like. And even if “we’ve been there, done that,” we probably wonder if others handled “it” the same way we did, felt the same way we did, had the same outcome we did. We don’t mind reliving our best and worst adventures.

It is very possible that you don’t, today, reading this, know what happens next in your novel. But you are beginning to know your characters. What are they yearning for? Robert Olen Butler said, “The yearning is also the thing that generates what we call plot, because the elements of the plot come from thwarted or blocked or challenged attempts to fulfill that yearning.” What does the character do to try to fulfill his or her yearning? They do something, and they are successful or not, and they try again, in a different way, or they don’t, and because they don’t, something else BIG happens.

I’ve even read some writing coaches who say something has to happen on every page.

It obviously can’t be HUGE on every page, but there will be something that creates tension. A conversation, for instance, might be an argument, or it might sound civil but be full of lies. Characters often say one thing but mean another, or, better yet, intend to do another. It’s been said that every conversation is a power struggle — something is happening in the dynamics of the conversation.

We can talk more in later months about dialogue, but for now, we need to get past page 80. We need to sit down and write.

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