Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stuck in the Middle

by Michelle Gagnon

So I've once again hit my least favorite part of the manuscript: approximately 50,000 words down, 50,000 to go.

This is always the point where sitting down at the keyboard seems to thrust me into another dimension, one where time eases to a standstill and no matter how many hours I log, the word count fights me, barely inching upward. Oh, the saggy middle. How I loathe it. My writing pace slows. Plot points that seemed brilliant 20,000 words ago are now, clearly, just dead wrong. It sometimes feels like I'll never pull all the disparate elements together into something coherent that readers will actually pay for. These are the days when I dread opening that .doc file, when I'm tempted to do almost anything else (including laundry and cleaning my oven).

So in lieu of more whining, I've come up with some tips for surviving the midpoint (or, really, any writing lows):

1. Walk away
This can be accomplished literally: by turning off the computer, heading out the door and walking around the block a few times. Sometimes engaging in real-life activities, like dinner with friends or a movie, actually provides a new perspective on a particularly tricky plot point.
Or figuratively: closing the manuscript file and starting a new document. Writing a short story, or starting the first chapter of a different book. Sometimes to jar things loose, I'll embark on a completely different project. Lately during breaks from the manuscript I've been working on a screenplay. In some ways that flexes a different part of my brain. Then when I return to the manuscript, the well has been replenished.

2. Engage in some positive reinforcement
If I'm really starting to feel as though my writing has taken a nosedive, I dig up some of my earlier work and re-read the stronger passages. Reminding myself that once upon a time I managed to write intelligible sentences is always heartening. It also helps me remember that I've been in this position before, and in the end I managed to finish the book, more or less on time.

3. Spend some time with a master
If re-reading my own work isn't motivating enough, I turn to authors whose writing always blows me away. For instance, I was struggling with a love scene. The prose was painfully purple, the dialogue cliched, I was beyond frustrated with it. So I went back to a bookmarked passage in Tana French's last book FAITHFUL PLACE, where a love scene was rendered so painfully well, reading it almost felt intrusive and voyeuristic. Seeing how she accomplished that was inspirational.

There's simply no getting around it: this part of the writing process is always a monotonous, painful slog. It's like a train inching up a mountain, the going always gets toughest right before hitting the peak, then it's a race down the other side.

If you have any tips/coping mechanisms for getting through these next 25,000 words, I'd love to hear them.

17 comments:

  1. The middle of a manuscript drives me nuts too, Michelle. If I've outlined the entire story ahead of time, I'll double-check the scene to determine if it needs re-worked or cut altogether. If the middle is slow to write, it might be slower to read and the book could go back on the shelf, or worse, a bag to a thrift store. Aside from that, the remedies you listed work wonders.

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  2. Once I hit the middle, I'm on a roll. I know the characters and the story is in my head. It starts to flow and gather momentum. Beginnings are the tough part for me. It's hardest when I have to introduce my characters for the first time.

    I always write a pretty solid synopsis so I know where the story is going. But if you get stuck in the middle, try bringing in a new secondary character or kill someone else off. Those have worked for me. Or maybe explore a new issue, something involving one of your suspects and a topic that interests you.

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  3. I feel you pain, Michelle. I'm at 60K words right now and my production pace has slowed considerably. Fortunately, having a co-writer helps. We increase our conference calls and brainstorming to get through the "muddle". One method that helps me is to write those "snapshot" scenes I see in my head that will occur later in the story. It may only be a paragraph or a few pages of an event that won't happen until further into the plot, but once I've written it, that image seems more solid and gives me something to work towards. With a few books, I've drafted the ending while still at mid-point. Now the sub-conscience starts working on a path to get there, and the middle mud doesn't seem so sluggish.

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  4. Maybe I’m weird (don’t answer that) but I always look forward to getting past the mid-point. It is at that point that we seem to have reached the conclusion of the matter, the murderer is found or the guy saves his girl, but then we realize that things aren’t what they seem. The guy we thought was the murder becomes a victim or the solution that was supposed to save the girl only makes it worse. The pace of the story quickens after the mid-point and we hit the keys a little faster because the situation is worse than we imagined and we’ve got to find a solution or die.

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  5. Michelle, recently I mentioned the journal idea Sue Grafton uses. She writes in it each morning, a running letter to herself, noting how she feels about things, then asking questions of the book, and jotting answers. It's not formal so she's freer to play, and comes up with things that way. She's not an outliner, as far as I know, but has managed pretty well this way.

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  6. Similar to what Nancy said--maybe it's time to introduce a new element that wasn't in your original plan? Pile on a woe, something to spice things up, like the most awful thing that could happen to your character right at this very moment. Let it happen, and then watch her battle her way out of it. Or, introduce another layer of complication (you'll have to weave it back through the previous pages too).

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  7. Oh, I'm the king of walking away! And most of the time it works, but it really does drags things out. :)

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  8. Middles are the worst for me too. For my latest novel, I did more planning than usual, and it really helped.

    I wrote and thought in chapters -- each chapter needed a mini-climax and/or a unifying location or theme, and when it was over, the focus shifted. I pored over maps -- my characters were travelling, and once I knew how far they could travel in a day, I knew how many days I had to work with.

    I still had my share of "saggy middle" days, and the climax was a whole new problem. And I'm about to start editing and find out just how saggy my middle was. But at least it felt better while I was writing it.

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  9. This is exactly where I am at right now. Thanks for the tips!

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  10. Great advice. Yes, I am experiencing that mushy middle, and the way daily life is completely disrupted -- did you ever notice how that happens right in the mushy middle, too?

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  11. Good points, everyone. I'm not a plotter, so I think maybe that makes it harder as well.
    Nancy & Joe: Those are great tips, thanks.
    James: I love that idea--I'm going to have to try it.
    Wonderer: I'm actually using Scrivener for the first time this manuscript, and I have to say what I really love it being able to see the entire thing scene by scene as virtual index cards. That's helped some.
    Cassandra: Oh, I hear you. Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way just when you most need things to be going smoothly.

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  12. To spur the thinking process along I do not recommend tazing one self on the the inner thigh. While such a plan to induce motivation may seem sound at first the electrical current is somewhat unpredictable and has a tendency to flow to locations that are most conductive (apparently the tes...uh...squishy pecan-shaped male anatomical areas are such a conductive area). The resultant full body spasm, phlegmatic expulsion and lightning bolts behind the eyelids, rather than inducing creativity, generally just reduces one to a quivering mass of blubbery sobs and begging one self to stop the torture. Also the shrill squeal emitted at the "moment of discovery" by say an overweight, hirsute forty-something used to be weightlifter with a jiggly belly as he somersaults through the air with wispy tendrils of stinky smoke curling up from his chest hair will likely induce a state of terror in the dog who will henceforth be rather scared witless and may refuse to come near one anymore. Said dog may even wet itself in the corner as one writhes and thrashes about.

    The walk thing, I have learned, works much better. Although it took two weeks to be able to walk normal again instead of "cowboy style". At least, that's what I was told.

    And never try this experiment whilst lounging back in a recliner, at least not unless one's living room is longer than 17 feet 3 inches. Bloody thing launches one like a trebuchet!

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  13. This was awesome! Thanks for sharing!

    Kennisha

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  14. Walking away is good. I also do brainstorming on butcher paper just to free up my brain and try and resolve the sagging bits. Sometimes it works - sometimes it makes me realize the mess I am in and then I walk away and practice deep breathing!

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  15. My mind has never liked plotting things out very far. Some people are geared to seeing a story through to the end at the start, but I have to go against my nature to outline. I can't usually see linearly. The middles don't give me any more bother than does either end. I find everything but action, characters, psychology, motivation, and choreography are maddening. I find walking away easy and returning harder and harder.

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  16. Great advice all. I'd like to add something that author Angela Hunt shared at a writer's workshop. Plan a reward. She likes Netflix so whenever the next CD comes in the mail she sets the disc beside her computer spurring her onward...until later. It works.

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