20,000 words. I have six or seven different projects with 20,000 words. 20,000 words seems to be just the right amount of narrative space to introduce a cast of characters, get comfortable in a setting, maybe even set up a little inciting action to get those characters moving around. It’s what happens next that kills me every time.
It’s not that the first 20,000 words are easy. Make no mistake, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (and gallons of espresso) go into those 20,000 words, each time. Each time, I have a scenario, characters that I truly love, and a general sense of where the “story” is going. But something happens around the 20,000-word mark.
Sometimes, I lose interest. It took me so much work to get here, and now I am sick of these people. And I figure, if the characters aren’t compelling enough to me, they sure as hell aren’t going to be compelling enough to a reader.
Sometimes it’s the plot that goes off the rails. What seemed like a neat idea in my head just isn’t translating onto the page. I have a larger story, but I can’t think of the individual events that make up that larger story. It’s like a having a great idea for a puzzle, but not being clever enough to solve it. What happens next? I have no idea. In the draft of one of my young adult novel drafts, I swear I left my two characters standing on a street corner, calling “Line?” into the wings because they’d run out of script pages. Sorry, guys, I’ve got nothing.
So, this time, when I got to the 20,000-word mark, I didn’t celebrate. I tried not even to notice. Head down, keep going. 25,000. Then 30,000. Each of those words felt like grunt work. There was no elegance to it, there was no poetry; this was straight-up, sit-your-butt-in-that-chair, force-yourself-to-do-it-everyday work. I was mired in the land of the awful middle. Some days I was getting 100 words. A 500-word day felt like triumph. The momentum had stalled, sure, but it wasn’t entirely gone. My characters still had life, they had things they wanted to do, they weren’t done saying what they had to say. I hadn’t done them justice yet. I owed it to them. Another 100 words. And another.
And then I’d made it to the 40,000-word mark. The second 20,000 words, the part that had always eluded me before, was done. I knew exactly where the story was going now. From there, I finished the rough draft in a crazy rush. It was like downhill skiing (which, by the way, I find terrifying). The elusive 2,000-word work day a la Stephen King became standard. I wrote the last 11,000 words in three days. It was as if, having finally pushed through the soul-killing, story-killing second 20,000 words, the final 25,000 or so was just a matter of showing up.
Maybe some of those 20,000-word projects I have lying around have some life in them after all. Maybe I just need to make it through the grunt-work second 20,000 to see through to the other side. Or maybe I didn’t have the stomach for the grunt-work because there wasn’t enough there to make it worth it. But at least now I know to expect that even a work that deserves to be finished will lag at the 20,000-word mark. And even with all the headache and heartache of getting through the awful middle, it’s all worth it when you get to the crazy exhilarating free-wheeling ride of the last 20,000, and you arrive at the bottom of the hill in a sweep of snow, out-of-breath, alive, and in possession of the complete draft of a novel.