Going the Distance
In the early 60's, there was a hot art-house movie called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I think of this film sometimes when trying to help my writer patients working on long-form projects---novels, plays, screenplays, etc. The running analogy is a good one, because long-form writing is like running a marathon: it requires endurance, patience, a deep reserve of will power and commitment, and an almost Herculean ability to delay gratification.
(To continue the analogy, other kinds of writing might be likened to sprints---short stories, sitcoms, poems, etc. Sprints require a burst of speed and power, the knock-out punch of a single idea or concept, and a quick build to an explosive finish.)
Where the long-form writer gets in trouble is in believing that he or she can maintain over the length of the project the same vigor and intensity that's brought to a shorter piece. Hence, when the work slows, or gets bogged down in exposition, or drifts off on tangents, the writer panics. His or her confidence flags. Enthusiasm drains away. The unfinished novel or screenplay is, metaphorically speaking, "put away in a drawer," often never to be brought out again.
To avoid this, here are some suggestions to help you "keep on keeping on" during those long, painful stretches that plague anyone writing a big project:
**Pace yourself. As I said, it's a marathon, not a sprint. 16-hour days at the keyboard, living on pizza and Red Bull, may get you through a short piece or re-write that's on deadline, but for a novel or screenplay it's deadly. Hard on your family, your vital organs, and your outlook on life.
**Expect slow spots, things that don't work, and reverses. Long-form story-telling has its own rhythm, in the reading as well as the writing. The reader needs to take a breath, be reminded of plot points, given a break from unending action and/or revelation. This is true for novels as different as The Corrections and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for screenplays as disperate as The Bourne Identity and As Good As It Gets.
This same rhythm is true for you, the writer. Like any extended trip, the journey through a novel or screenplay involves wrong turns, pleasant surprises off the beaten path, some down time to remind yourself why you're even taking this route---even return visits to places and events to see what further gold can be mined from them. Just keep reminding yourself that you're in this for the long haul, that there'll be good days and bad, pitfalls and peaks of inspiration, and then get on with it.
**Take side-trips. Stop occasionally to write a short piece---an article or essay, an email to the local Op-Ed section, a blog, etc. This gives your long-form muscles some much-needed R & R, and helps flex those short-form ones. Just because you're running a marathon doesn't mean you want to forget how to sprint.
**Don't rush the ending (just to get the damned thing finished). A hard temptation to resist, but you've got to try. There's no sense laboring over a piece for months, or even years, getting the narrative, characters and tone just right, only to rush the thing to its climax because you're so relieved to finally see the end approaching. Let the reader---and you, too---enjoy the fruits of your labor; give yourself the luxury of bringing the same effort and care to making the most out of the conclusion. Do justice
to your characters, your story---and to yourself.
**Finally, when the project is done, expect some post-partum blues. You've lived in the world of your novel, play or screenplay so long, it's familiar, the known. Despite its myriad problems and headaches, it's what you've called home for a long time. Believe me, after bitching about it the whole time you've been writing it, when it's finally finished...you'll miss it.
Which is why, as hard as it is to write a long-form piece, as vehemently as you swear that you'll never do it again, pretty soon you'll start thinking about a new one.
It's like the end of a long, painful relationship. You swear to anyone who'll listen that you'll never fall in love again. You don't want the grief, the false hopes, all the drama. Then, one day, you see someone in a bookstore, or at a party, and you say, "Hmmmm..."
It's kinda like that.