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.