Keep Going: How to Tackle The Middle of Your Novel

Although I’ve never even joked about running a marathon, I have friends who punish themselves in this way quite often. Because I’m nice and occasionally need a reason to get up at the crack of dawn in order to feel like I’m getting a jumpstart on my day, I come out and cheer. As a friend, it’s the least I can do. Because so much of watching a marathon is quite boring, I have often used this as an opportunity to study the people running as best I can, figure out what drives a person to torture themselves. The runners—at least early in the race—move past you fairly quickly so you have to take in a lot at a fast clip. Everyone apparently harbors different motivations for participating and the runners will boast vastly different skill levels.

Still, they all seem to share the same look: none of them appear to be having an ounce of fun.

Although I love being a writer and feel most at peace in my day-to-day life when I’m writing consistently, I don’t know how much “fun” I have while doing it. That said, I can’t imagine my life without it. This feeling is most prominent at the moment, with my new novel The Intersection recently published.

During the process, though, as I took twelve distinct, linked character monologues about characters living in a gentrifying Philadelphia neighborhood grappling with the effects of a car accident involving a white driver and an African American bicyclist, I faltered in my determination to complete the book and get it ready to be the story it is today.

In order to keep pressing forward, I will pass on some sage advice, courtesy of Anne Lamott: use the 1” picture frame.

But just like in a race, there’s more to think about during the writing process than having it published—staying focused and motivated throughout takes discipline.

Once you decide to take up the task that most rational people will avoid—committing to all the time and energy it takes to complete a novel—How do you press forward? The exciting part dissipates early—the part where you sit down with your good ideas and ambition and knock out a stream of pages, perhaps even a chapter. What do you do when you hit that first hurdle, that first moment: now what?

In order to keep pressing forward, I will pass on some sage advice, courtesy of Anne Lamott: use the 1” picture frame.

The point here is that you keep writing only what you can see through a 1” picture frame. Writing in small doses means you only have to finish the sentence, then the paragraph; before you know it you have a full page. Then one becomes two, and so on. Don’t think about needing to write a whole book or a whole chapter, just think about the sentence right in front of you.

This approach allows me to accomplish small writing goals—I just need to write 500 words today. Or maybe a 1,000. These small goals make me feel like I’m always moving forward, even if I’m discouraged where the story is going—at least it’s moving. Eventually, something useful will emerge, and that payoff—which always happens when you embrace the writing process—is the carrot I’m constantly writing towards. And in the process, I rarely look back at what I’ve written until I’ve completed a chapter or an entire draft.

I’ll have plenty of time to cut the junk out during the revision process—the key long term goal is to finish the first draft.

But, before you reach that glorious day when the complete draft is done, how do you stay motivated, when you sit at the computer and nothing comes. You’ve used small goals to produce work day after day. But then you get a rejection letter/email for a story you’ve submitted—you’ve racked up several such rejection notices. You begin to feel that maybe you’re not any good, that no one will ever see your wok, and worse, no one cares? How do you keep up your spirits to convince yourself that you should keep going?

A lot of fledgling writers quit—even some good writers—they can’t take it. Yes, this is a tough industry, and you will face more rejection than acceptance. BUT. If your work matters to you, it will matter to someone else—the size of that potential audience will vary. But if you are invested in your work, it will show, and eventually you will find a home for your words. Keep telling yourself that, and in the process of writing, keep reading, keep studying, keep honing your craft.

And when your work does see the light of day, you’ll be glad that you kept at it.

Although I won’t be running a marathon anytime soon (or, to be honest, ever), I do appreciate their determination to keep going and be able to say they finished the race, regardless of record-shattering time, etc. All my friends who run have conveyed this as their ultimate goal. And when asked how they approach the run, they mention how they tell themselves they just have to get to the next block, and then when they reach it, they set another small goal—even—or especially—when their bodies are screaming to stop. Writers can learn a lot from their mindset.

Check out Brad’s new novel The Intersection.

When a white driver critically injures a black bicyclist, the residents in a tense, gentrifying South Philadelphia neighborhood can’t decide whether to unite, hide, or explode.

Brad Windhauser lives in Philadelphia, where he is an Associate Professor (Teaching/Instructional) of writing at Temple University. His short stories and work have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Santa Fe Writer’s Project Journal, Ray’s Road Review, Northern Liberties Review, and Philadelphia Review of Books and Jonathan.