Writer Tech: the chapter from hell

It took me three tries to pass statistics in graduate school, but one thing I learned is that sample size is crucial to discerning patterns. After 6.5 novels, I have finally realized that there is always a chapter that stops me cold.

The chapter from hell usually comes about 2/5ths of the way into the story. Lots of important decisions have already been made. Tense. Tone. Point of view. The characters have been introduced. The plot is under way. I know more or less where I’m going and how to get there. And then…

Bang. I slam into the chapter from hell.

I don’t think this is what is called “writer’s block.” It’s not that I can’t write at all. It’s that I can’t make this miserable chapter work. I write and delete, write and edit, write and curse, write and try a different approach. Print out, cut paragraphs apart, lay everything on the dining room table and tape things back together in a different order. Rewrite, with new transitions. Edit and rewrite again.

For the past six weeks, I’ve been trying to crash through that kind of a chapter in An Unremembered Life. This morning, I finished it.

That means my seventh novel is half-done, and here is what I’ve learned on the basis of 6.5 data points. The chapter from hell arises when the characters are established and there are multiple relationships developing as the plot moves forward. Two-fifths of the way into the writing is when the maximum number of story elements are twisting together as the central conflict is played out.

In An Unremembered Life, the overall story is framed by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but in this case, the “two houses alike in dignity” are two sides in the early American labor movement. The 1913 Calumet copper strike is determining the plot, but within the frame, I’ve got two romances and a crumbling marriage going, along with the increasing tension caused by the strike.

At that point in the story, everything has to move forward. Everybody needs to react and change and absorb what’s going on and then take new action. That’s hard. That’s why my husband hears so much snarling and moaning come out of my office. But once that damned chapter works, I’m done pushing everything over the hump. The momentum of the story carries it more and more quickly toward the end.













14 thoughts on “Writer Tech: the chapter from hell”

  1. “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder,” April 1950.
    Good luck, Mary!

  2. Looking forward to reading it….I am half way through Titan…bio of John D. Rockefeller…400 pages done 300 to go. Thanks for update.

  3. I’m glad you’re “over the hump” because I can’t wait to read it! I believe it was Sherlock Holmes (and possibly Spock) who said “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Thanks for going through all of that for us, your readers. 🙂

  4. Lady Russell,

    The lady who wrote:

    How would you like for the rest of your life to be judged by
    what you did in thirty seconds standing six feet from armed
    men sworn to kill you?

    will in the end write something perfect to carry the story forward. Ditto the lady who wrote those two paragraphs in
    Doc detailing the might-have-been if Big Nose Kate hadn’t gone
    to see James Earp on her way out of town.

    I am a very good writer, quite skilled in language, vocabulary, etc., but these simply struck me dumb with admiration. I cannot tell you what hope it gives me to learn that you, even you, struggle in the process.

    God and you, Lady Russell, bless all of us with many more books of such rich joy to read!

    bob jones

  5. As someone who loves your work and writing, who loves history and is involved in work and labor issues I’m really looking forward to this.

  6. So, Mary says: “At that point in the story, everything has to move forward. Everybody needs to react and change and absorb what’s going on and then take new action.”

    And I think “that’s why writers write fiction—-a belief in alternate realities”. You know, like where people realize they are in need of decision making to move forward. But for such a meticulous historian, it must be hell. Thanks for sharing your process, we’re rooting for you to bust through!

  7. Wow! Thank you! I have a box of short stories, book sketches, chapters of this and chapters of that, children stories, outlines, progressive chapter chunks. I even tried a blog. But it is so freeing to hear you ‘curse’ your struggles and continue to push through them. And the suggestion that there are characters who might want more than their fair share of attention or situations crying out for explanation (and I have reams of paper doing just that) is such a revelation for me. I have been ruled by my writing and let it overwhelm me. I am always delighted by your writing – in your books and here in this blog! I look forward to this next book with great anticipation!

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