I always get stuck at around 30 thousand words. I have been thinking about why, and this is my thoughts on it at this point in time.
Let’s open a story.
He entered the hidden room, returning to confirm his suspicions, not expecting an occupant. The lady was there, standing with her purse gun in her hand, her eyes welling with rage. He ducked out. She shot. The bullet ricocheted off the wall shredding a shower of debris into the dark hallway, filthy and cold, where he crouched on the floor fumbling on the shoulder holster, hanging empty and limp, for his gun that was not there.
This is pretty much a typical opening for me. Being a pantser, I just pile on events after an opening and see where the story goes. But we don’t know who “he” is or who “the lady” is at this point. We do know that something is happening and someone is being shot at. Within a page, it is revealed that “he” is a private detective who has almost solved a case, and that “the lady” is the murderer, desperate now that she is about to be uncovered. She is a poor marksman and handles her .38 snub nose badly. The detective has an empty shoulder holster and has a difficult time reaching for his ankle holster with his previously injured arm. For the next five pages, that is all you need to know. There is enough conflict, tension and action to keep the reader reading and the writer writing.
The lady dies by the end of chapter one. Private detective Fred Gallagher, a former soldier and a former cop, decides to play quits. He goes to a seminary in order to become a priest. Not long after he had entered priesthood, he is called upon by the bishop to act as the church’s private investigator. He hesitates at first – he is even older now than when he called it quits – then takes on the job. He teams up with a principled, tough-as-nails, middle-aged nun and follows a serial murder case whose evidence is obscured because someone needed to cover up an inner-priesthood corruption case that somebody believed to be connected to the killings.
That is not a very original story, but it serves as an example. Around the time the nun makes an appearance, the story slows down. Reluctant witnesses walk in and out, Law & Order style, offering or refusing to offer small clues to the investigation. The detectives follow a series of leads that seem to lead nowhere, but when they put them together, a story emerges. I have the clink, the snatch, the one Eureka element that the detectives were missing while it was right under their noses all along. I had it all figured out. All I had to do was to lead the story to that scene where the two of them, over lukewarm coffee and cold pizza, realize what it was. But it won’t get there. I am stuck at 30 thousand words as usual.
By this time, we know a lot more about Fred Gallagher. The story has also grown much more complex than a shootout between “he” and “the lady”. When Sister Monahan, Fred’s partner, says “Shit” we should know exactly how likely it is for the nun to use a word like that. We should know why Fred would stop short and look at the Sister, and be able to guess what he is feeling. On the opening page, we see a “she” shooting at a “he” and neither of those characters look blurred in any way. But after 30 thousand words, when you have given the characters names, bodies, clothes, habits, and quirks of speech, they look ill defined and out of focus. You do not know them well enough to predict exactly how they will react to a given situation. To a certain extent, this is inevitable since this is only the first draft and you are making up the story as you go along, but the author should be aware that the demands on the characters increase as the story develops. You do not have to even know their names on the first page, but half way into the book you need to know why they stop running and look down the side alley in the middle of a chase.
This is why some people advise you to start writing character biographies when you are stuck. Some people say that you should write your character biographies before you even start writing. Personally, I think character biographies should be easier to formulate when you have some idea of what your characters are like. But your main characters are not the only ones who have back stories. Your villains, your supporting cast, your bit players all have back stories. All these biographies will never make it into the manuscript or even hinted at. They are only tools to help these method actors portray the characters you want them to play.
There are other elements also at play in the 30K block. One of them is that second draft problems start creeping into the unfinished first draft. That beautiful woman who turns out to be a vile character should not be exposed as a villain until near the end, but you have already revealed her villainy in the first half of the book. Or maybe that tearful confession about having been a rape victim came too early. And now you have to write the second half of the book over the first half when the foundation is already showing its design failures. You know you can fix those things in the second draft. Your job in the first draft is to finish the story. But it’s getting kind of rickety because the framework is showing signs of strain.
One way to get around that is to employ a trick I call “The Watson Line”. I try to avoid it as much as possible because I like to see a first draft that has a continuous story from beginning to end. The Watson Line is like a major scene shift in a story, like the moment The Wizard of Oz turns technicolor. If that vile woman is exposed as villain too early in the book, just pretend it never happened and start writing the next scene.
When Professor Moriarty makes his first appearance in the Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in The Final Problem, Dr. Watson had never heard of him and Sherlock needs to explain what kind of a powerful villain they are dealing with. But when the prequel to the short story, The Valley of Fear, was published, Dr. Watson was already familiar with Professor Moriarty. If this had been a novel, there would be a disconnect between the first half and the second half. But if it is only the first draft of a novel, you are going to change that anyway, so it is forgivable. There is a “Watson Line” between the Valley of Fear and The Final Problem. Never mind that. Just keep writing. This is just one of many things you will have to fix in the second draft anyway. So you just type **** across the page to mark the Watson Line and get on with the next part of the story.
Like I said, I try to avoid it if I can, but a first draft without a Watson Line is not any easier to edit later than one with it. In fact, a first draft chopped up in several places by some glaring Watson Lines often prove to be easier to edit than the story you took pains to make consistent. It is easier to kill your darlings when you already know that your darlings are striding fault lines of a major earthquake. I have to slap myself in the face and try to remind myself of that sometimes.
Of course there are other elements that contribute to the 30K block: Fatigue, self-doubt, loss of interest or confidence, all the usual joys of writing. But some of the elements are manageable if you can recognize what they are; the chief problem being that when the draft approaches half the book, the story comes into closer focus, and the missing components become more conspicuous. The real reason you hit the wall when you nearly reach half the book is that your story is about to breathe the breath of life.