Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Moan Zone

After watching my alma mater get soundly beaten in the National Championship game Monday night, I was feeling down. Very down. Especially since, on the writing front, I have officially entered the Moan Zone.

The Moan Zone is a specific, generally unavoidable stage in the process of writing a novel. Like the "red zone" on a football field, which covers the last twenty yards before the goal line, the Moan Zone comprises the last quarter of a novel, those final ten or so chapters that precede "The End."

diagram from Sports Morsel

First-time novelists don't expect the Moan Zone, and even seasoned writers forget. After all, you, the writer, have already moved the ball (your manuscript) eighty or so yards down the field. Maybe it wasn't always smooth going, but enthusiasm and discovery powered you forward. Your characters pulled together, your muse juked the best defenders, the refs made all the right calls. You ground out hundreds of pages, pleased with your progress, impressed with your skills. Now the goal line beckons, tantalizingly close. Just a few more plays and you'll score what's sure to be a best-seller.

Then you hit the Moan Zone.

All of a sudden, you feel deflated, exhausted, scared. Those last twenty yards stretch longer than the eighty you've already traveled. The characters who played seamlessly on the trek downfield turn ornery and fumble-prone, misreading cues, dropping passes, flubbing routes. The antagonists loom larger than ever, fused in a chink-free wall, determined never to allow the ball into the end zone. The seats behind the goal post are filled with opposing fans wearing t-shirts that read "Your novel stinks like old cleats!" and "Even your mom won't read it." Your cheerleaders snarl and snark, tossing aside their pom-poms and chanting "Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!" through their megaphones to confuse and dispirit you even more.

The play clock ticks down as you try to devise the perfect play, a clever route past these obstacles. But the game plan that seemed so brilliant, so clear-cut in the first quarter is now a tangled mess of dropped themes, dead-ends and forgotten details. Instead of coalescing, the threads of the novel break formation, zipping about like fans storming the field. You bang your head against your clipboard, cursing your ineptitude. You're convinced you've lost control of the team. There's nothing left to do but punt.

The Moan Zone is a painful, frustrating, messy place to be.

But, if you've done your job right, it's exactly where you want to be.

Look at it this way. You've spent the last three hundred pages making life difficult for your players, complicating their relationships, foiling their plans, lobbing problem after problem at them. You've stumbled onto plot twists you never envisioned--never could have envisioned--when you first stepped onto the field. Motifs and metaphors have bubbled up from your subconscious. Backstory has offered new insight into character. Tangents have multiplied and gained importance. Now you find yourself drowning in possibility, despairing over how to make it all fit together in the final chapters. Don't lose heart! Instead, rejoice in the challenge--the riot of ideas shows you've delved beyond the obvious, the straightforward, the cliched; you've pushed yourself and your material to exciting, provocative places. Of course it's going to take effort to bring everything to an effective close, but that's what makes a great game. If you knew who was going to win before you started, why bother playing?

When you reach the Moan Zone, you must ignore the jeers and groans and listen to the story. The story will offer its solution, but only if you silence the defeatist voices and let it speak.

So buck up and buckle down. If writing a novel were easy, everyone would pen one. Only two teams play in the National Championship, and they didn't get there by freezing at the opponent's twenty yard line.

Best thing is, when you write a book, you get unlimited downs. If a play fails, scratch it and try something else. Go back to previous plays and make adjustments. Repeat the opening kick-off as many times as you need. Unlike a real game, you can do things over and over until you get them right.

If you up your game in the Moan Zone, you'll not only cross that goal line--you might even take home the trophy.

Now crank up the Fight Song and let's play ball.

photo credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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