The Thirty Thousand Word Pyramid

Recently, I happened across this tweet from Kacen Callender (@kacencallender), and like a lot of observations from other writers in the throes of their work, it stuck with me:

a tweet from @kacencalleder

I’ve lost track of how many times thirty thousand words — or something around that order of magnitude — has been a snare in my writing. One night I’m working late, churning through an idea, and then the noose slips around my ankle and there I am, dangling upside down, staring at a project that just five or ten thousand words before made sense and might even have looked pretty good. Maybe I didn’t have it all figured out back then, but it was new, lively, fresh. I’d sent it chasing down a certain path, barking after a plotline, only to find myself suddenly lost trying to follow it. The pace was suddenly wrong, or my characters’ motivations had grown muddled. I hadn’t really sharpened the inciting incident, or hadn’t introduced some necessary context, or, or, or —

Based on the responses to Callender’s tweet, it seems many writers have felt this same frustration. If I’m being totally honest with myself, the place where my current project gets boggy and confused is, well . . . right around thirty thousand words. 

At thirty thousand words, we’ve written enough that it starts to feel essential that we know what we’re doing. Perhaps it feels like too many words to throw away and start over. I’ve known fellow writers who have given up on a project at that point, trunked it never to return, but something about that seems. . . like a lost opportunity. Certainly everything we write has value in that it teaches us something about our craft and gives us the chance to wrangle with new challenges. But I’ve never been good at walking away from something and calling it a total loss.

If, like me — like others who empathize with Callender’s tweet — you’re looking for a way to survive the collapse of your next thirty thousand words, you might try these techniques. 

Consider reverse-engineering an outline.

By going back to what I’ve already written, re-reading it, and writing an outline based on what’s actually on the page (ignoring whatever outline or plan I thought I was using going into the story) I often find the reason my current writing feels “wrong” is that I’m trying to make my story fit a plan I’ve actually long since abandoned. Perhaps it’s just the plantser in me — never quite committing to wild abandon or a strict outline —  but trusting that when plans change, there’s a good reason, has saved me some self-inflicted grief.

Try jumping ahead to the next scene you “know” how to write.

There are days you sit down at your keyboard or in front of your notebook and feel an icy certainty that you’ve completely forgotten how to write. You don’t know how to move the characters ahead. The scene you’re in is stagnant. The setting is muddled. All is lost. At these moments, I jump to whatever scene or chapter I feel confident in or passionate about. Maybe it’s just a chapter or two ahead. Maybe it’s far, far away. But working on that essential piece of the story I do know how to tell and (just as importantly) want to tell feels like a reward. And inevitably, I feel better when I’ve done it, having proven to myself that, yes, I do still know what I’m doing. Often, it gives me the confidence I need to go back to that more challenging moment and see the way out of it and get back on track.

Talk to yourself in the margins. 

In a previous essay for Luna Station Quarterly’s blog, I interviewed several writers, collecting their advice about writing dialogue. Caroline Yoachim shared her habit of dumping bracketed descriptors in place of specific dialogue — [touching dialogue here]; [tense conversation about the future] — so that she doesn’t get slowed down by the minutiae of a conversation that’s important to plot and character, but not important yet to actually finishing the narrative. Often, what chokes us up in the moment of writing is something very specific. If you leave a note for yourself — talk to yourself in the margins so that Future You, armed with a complete knowledge of the text and the blessings of hindsight — then you preserve whatever momentum you’ve built up. Future You may not be happy at how many “change this laters” or “add more description here” notes you’ve left, but Future You will also have a much better idea of what really fits into the whole of the story and what doesn’t.

Fast forward to the end. 

I have a friend who always reads the last chapter of a book first. I love this friend, even though they are obviously a monster. But they’re a monster with a pretty decent rationale for a reading habit I could never adopt.

“It’s not that I’m checking to see if the ending is stupid or not,” they explain. “Since I haven’t read the rest of the book, I don’t have the information to judge if it is or isn’t. But I do a better job of understanding the book and the choices the author makes in it if I know where it’s headed. I can think more carefully about how it’s all adding up.”

This friend of mine has, as a reader, copped to something Victoria Schwab has long subscribed to as a writer. 

a tweet from @veschwab

If skipping to another part of the story you already know how to write (see above) is like giving yourself a pep talk, a little treat and some encouragement, writing the ending is drawing the map. It’s no more indelible and unchangeable than anything is in a first draft, but you at least know what kind of country you’re headed toward and what terrain you’ll cross in getting there. 

You might be bored. Torture somebody.

By which I mean your characters. Sometimes I spend too long letting my characters get what they want, or I let it come to them too easily. Every character should have both wants and needs (ideally, these things should be different from each other, or even contradictory, and the character’s confusion about what they really are and how to reconcile them key to the plot) — and challenging their process of getting them is what makes plot happen. When I realize I’m muddled and frustrated around thirty thousand words, it’s often because I haven’t complicated my characters’ lives or raised their stakes enough yet.

Be a little mean. Be a lot mean. Either way, you’ll wake yourself up to new possibilities — including having faith in your work beyond thirty thousand words.