Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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The doldrums: when the wind leaves your sails

At some point when writing your novel, usually when you're between a third and a half of the way, that fiery burst of energy you started with dies on you. You find yourself adrift in a calm sea without excitement, without the hunger to write, too far into it to abandon it easily, but too far from the distant shore ahead for a final surge of commitment. You're in the Sargasso Sea of writing.

Around you are the decaying hulks of stories that other writers abandoned. These fragments drift past, their half-realised plots hanging in tatters from the masts, their characters, once alive and full of hope, languishing, ghostly. You stand on the deck of your own manuscript, debating whether to jump ship and condemn it to a similar fate, or to break out the oars and strive for a word, a sentence more.

You might be tempted to think that there's no point in going on. The wind is gone. Your initial impulse is gone. Without it, the task seems pointless.

The Doldrums are where the real writers are forged. When the going gets tough, it's the real writers who can be seen still moving out there, almost imperceptibly perhaps, but never giving up, never abandoning their ship. How do they do it? How do they find the strength to blow into their own sails, to get into that longboat and tow the hulk of their novel back into the freshening wind?

First, they have a map. They know where they're going. The map is called a plot outline. They had their first hint of the Doldrums when they created it. As they came to those middle chapters, they were tempted to leave the details 'for later inspiration'. But a wise writer tackles the problem when it first appears. If you don't know where you're going, you'll find the Doldrums last forever. The real writers do their best to fill in their maps as best they can, charting courses by the latitude of motivation and the longitude of obstacle, and making sure why they'll be at every point they reach. With their plot outline spread before them, they know that, if or when they reach the Doldrums, the efforts they make to progress, no matter how small and weak, will not be wasted: every keystroke will be pushing them forward on the right course.

Second, the wise writers have provisioned their novels with characters richly imagined. These characters are as real to them as their friends, perhaps more real, and even in the worst of the Doldrums the writer can't abandon them. With a compelling crew of characters, the writer finds that the Doldrums seldom last for long. In fact, writers often find their characters taking over, manning the oars when the captain loses heart, powering the story along with the force of their invented personalities. A writer who has faith in his characters, the writer who has chosen to take this journey with them because he thought they would 'go the distance', will find himself rewarded.

Third, they steer by the lodestone of commitment. They don't let present despair wreck previous hopes or future plans. If a writer only wrote when the fever of creative energy was upon her, she would seldom pick up her pen. Writing a novel is like a long sea journey: you don't know what you'll encounter, but you do know that no sea is without storms, dangers, Doldrums. You pushed off from shore knowing this: now, when the Doldrums come to pass, you accept them, square your shoulders, and start blowing into those sails. The lodestone points the way even when you doubt your map and your characters. You made a commitment to yourself to see this journey to the end. That's why, in the middle of the Doldrums, you can be found, day after day, with your fingers on the keyboard, never giving up.

Fourth, the real writers follow their inner star. Beyond the confines of this dreaded Sargasso Sea, even beyond the bounds of this particular novel, they have a passion that leads them, that lights their way. This star, this inner burning core, marks the true teller of tales. It is the hunger for story. It is the need to write, even through storms and danger, clinging to the wheel, or in the windless Doldrums, inspiration lost and alone on deck, it is the need to croak, though dry-throated and without hope of seeing the end, "Once upon a time..."