At a creative crossroads

I’m continuing to toil away at what will be my first novel, but have once again run into the “What exactly am I doing here?” stage.

Meaning, in this particular version of the question, what the book will end up being. And more pressing right now, what it even is at the moment.

Here’s the thing: Without giving away excessive detail (call that a teaser, if you’d like), the protagonist is an everyday (but of course key) character with a particular skill and background that makes him a solid candidate to have a high tech crash course in basic training to help resolve a contained-but-not-contained apocalyptic situation that may or may not (but does) involve zombies.

Oh, and walking.

There’s a lot of walking.

So. What is it?

Well… it’s an alternate history, with a dusting of a dystopia, at least where this localized apocalypse happens. And it’s got low-end sci-fi aspects, but only in his training. And it’s got horror aspects because… y’know… zombies. And it’s got some action elements. And an underlying attraction between him and one of his team members that may or may not (but will) click toward the end of the story.

Now I don’t have any issue with mixed genres. But the issue I’m having is how to approach writing Act 2–traditionally the biggest part of the story, where the setup has happened and now we get to the meat of it, where the action and intrigue and setbacks and splosions happen, all leading up to the climax, which then leads to the Act 3 conclusion and wrap-up–because of all those mixes of stuff.

I had to do a big overhaul on where they’re headed with this walk, so will have to revamp a lot of stuff I’ve already written, but the heart of the issue is that as the team goes into this bad situation to do the key thing, I’ve… got nothing.

This should be the exciting part. This is what all the cool training was for. This is the scary thing the protagonist has been dreading but pushing himself to get through the whole time.
This is zombie time.
This is the biggest tent pole of the tent poles holding everything up, what I’d thought was going to be the main driving force of the story, but very little of the zombie aspect is occurring to me to put into the vitalness that is Act 2 that doesn’t feel forced. And as the advice goes from writers who’ve had some/a lot of publishing success, it shouldn’t be forced. Character and situation should inform action, and be informed by it, to make the story progress. Taking the square peg of your characters and trying to force them into the triangular hole of what you want to happen is frustrating to write and feels contrived when read.

All of which tells me there’s something wrong.

I mean, let’s face it: There’s a problem when your characters finally head out to do the big mission and they’re effectively looking at a dust-blasted horizon with tumbleweeds rolling by and nothing happening.

I should clarify: I know where they’re going and why, and I know a big thing that’ll happen as they do so, and a big thing that’ll happen as the mission seems to be wrapping up and there’s a big thing revealed previously then dealt with at the end.

So what could be wrong? Well… big parts of it feel okay. I like the characters and the setup and the big stuff I know of that happens in the middle and the ending. But it’s undeniably an issue that I have a zombie zone with very little zombie action.

And it’s not a matter of just dropping them in, because that just doesn’t seem like the solution. But if I remove the zombie aspect completely since they aren’t showing up to play anyway, then a huge part of the story background and setup and need for the mission is gone.

The zombies, which is where the problem seems to lie, are at once a Jenga piece that is holding everything up and so can’t be taken out, but is also the wrong shape and is skewing off everything built on top of it. If that makes any sense.

And so I’m not sure how to proceed. There’s the school of thought that says just get anything and everything down in your first draft and it doesn’t matter how good or bad or lacking or lopsided it is because no one else will see it yet and it’s all going to get fixed up anyway–I heard one writer calls it her “vomit draft” because she just throws up everything she’s got onto the page and deals with cleaning it up later, which makes sense, albeit a super unappealing visual–but there’s something inside me balking at writing another 15,000+ words on a story (to get it to the magical 80,000 words that a new writer should shoot for as a minimum book size) that’s at once driven by zombies but then almost totally lacks zombies.

I’m also questioning the weightiness of the sci-fi training aspect. It’s cool. I mean, it’s really cool. But I perhaps dwell on it too much because of that, and then it’s abandoned entirely once the mission starts, the real heart of the story, as the team heads to the dreaded zombie area that has very few zombies.
Ooo… am I the only one with goosebumps? *eyeroll*

To complicate things further, I just finished Rachel Aaron’s book called 2,000 to 10,000 (mentioned here), and she underscores the importance of how liking what you’re writing is an important part of making writing easier and faster.
After she’d had a few books published by slogging through the storylines and making herself write, she had some epiphanies about how better to approach her writing, and one of those was cutting scenes (no matter how seemingly important) that she didn’t enjoy writing. She’d make it all work in another way that she liked more. The theory there being–as I’ve dealt with at times myself–that if she’s not enjoying writing the stories, people will pick up on that and not enjoy reading them. She says that if you aren’t enjoying what you’re writing, you shouldn’t be writing it; that it’s your instinct (which she says you should always listen to) telling you there’s something wrong with what you’re writing. It isn’t the right thing or the right time or shouldn’t be there at all.

Well, my instinct is telling me something is really off here.

So the bottom line is that I have some options, which seem to be:

  1. Writing what skinny-on-zombies-but-an-alleged-zombie-story stuff I have and just getting through it so whatever the story is is done and then I can always revisit it later and perhaps make it better (but that seems like I’m retroactively adding in what are supposed to be key aspects to the story, which feels bizarre). This is what I’m leaning to, but as said, feels forced and weird.
  2. Stopping and taking a hard look at those key aspects to the story to figure out what else could drive the story instead of zombies since they’re scarce anyway. But in taking some looks at the idea from a few angles, nothing else has presented itself yet.
  3. Accepting this far into the project that it simply isn’t up to snuff and just shelving it for now or abandoning it wholesale. Which would be heartbreaking, plus break a promise to myself that I’d get through this and finish this book, but arguably better to stop and shelve a project that isn’t working than making myself unhappy for weeks more writing a story I’m not enjoying telling, when I could be working on something else instead that I like and will be better because of that.

Friends, family, artists of any stripe who have dealt with uncertainty in what you’re making: What has your experience been with such issues, and/or what are your thoughts?