The Gooey Center

gooI am eleven chapters, give or take, into the WIP. Since my books tend to work out to about 20 chapters it is fair to say that I’m half way through the book. And ever since somewhere in chapter eight, I have found myself in a piece of writing real estate that is familiar, if not beloved, to me: the Gooey Center. Also called the Slough of Despond, Did I Suddenly Become Stupid?, or, sometimes, Why Did I Think I Could Do This?

What is the Gooey Center? It’s the point somewhere in the middle of the manuscript where it becomes really, really difficult to move forward.  I have always likened my writing process to a journey: I know where I start out, and I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going, and the process is in getting from point A to point B.  The Gooey Center is that point when I suddenly find myself hip deep in mud on a cloudy day, unable to figure out which direction to proceed, making false start after false start, some of them entertaining enough that it takes me a while to realize that they won’t take me anywhere near where I meant to be going.

The first time this happened, I thought there was something wrong with me, that I would never be able to finish this book. My writing career over before it had fully started! And then, somehow, I found my way out of the bog, got my sense of direction back, and reached the end of the book. And with hindsight and editing, I realized that the middle was no where near as soggy and impassable as I had imagined when I was up to my hips in it.

I’m on my twelfth novel. This has happened to me ten times (it didn’t with my first book, because I had no idea I was actually going to finish it, nor that what I was doing was unlikely at best, and impossible at worse; it didn’t happen with my Marvel tie-in novel because I had to outline the thing so tightly that my hair curled). The Gooey Center appears to come with a soupçon of amnesia, too, because I don’t generally recognize that I’m in the middle of it for some time, which leads me to despair. When I do recognize it for what it is… well, I feel a little less despairing, but deeply impatient.  I look for tactics to shorten my time wading through the Gooey Center, but they generally avail naught. The only solution I have found was to 1) remember that I’ve been here before, and I will get out of it, and 2) just keep writing.

I once mentioned this problem to my then-editor. “Ah,” he said sagely. “You’ve spent the first number of pages opening up doors, leaving yourself terrific stuff to work with, making all sorts of choices possible. And now you have to narrow down your field of vision and select which doors, what choices. Of course it’s daunting to have to do that.”

So that’s my mantra, which I share it with you: When you find yourself bogging down, take a look at all the interesting options you’ve left your characters. Me, I’m wondering if all my entertaining false starts could be knit together into something resembling a story.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


The Gooey Center — 7 Comments

  1. There was a New Yorker cartoon many years ago, by the immortal Charles Addams. It depicted a bunch of zookeepers holding a boa constrictor out straight for a photographer. (The snake naturally does not cooperate with health care and so you need a lot of guys to hold it down for the tape measure.) A forlorn keeper stands to one side and his boss says, “Don’t worry, with normal growth you’ll be in there next year.”
    How do they do that, grab a boa and hold it flat for the picture? You have two brave and experienced keepers, and they jump in and grab head and tail. Immediately (before the constrictor can get to constricting) the other guys jump in and hold down the wiggly middle. Once they have it pinned down they can gradually straighten it out and line up for the photo.
    Your novel is like that snake. The middle is very wiggly and not at all anxious to be held down.

  2. Welcome to the muddle in the middle blues. Even outlines don’t help when your characters wander off into left field and start blowing raspberries at you. Learning to listen to them, or how to coax them back onto track is at the whim of the muse. I’ve got 36 books and I still hit the MIMB.

    Some books I hit the MIMB at page 50. Sometimes I hit it at page 200. We aren’t talking about the books that fall apart on page 2. With them I have to remember that a premise does not a story make and go away for a while, write something else until that premise stews and matures.

  3. Having read some of your novels, I have great faith in your ability to muddle your way through.

    Though I must say, I’d assume that when you had to outline — horrible thought — your hair would have gone dead straight, given that it is usually curly.

    • I was asked to write the Daredevil book in late June, and told I had to get the outline in for Marvel’s approval by July 5. So I sweated blood and got that done in five days (almost 30 pages of outline). The book was due September 1, so my editor said “why don’t you get started on it, and I’ll let you know if Marvel has any feedback.”

      I turned the book in on September 7th. We got approval on the outline on September 18. Fortunately, they liked the outline and had few alterations, all of them easily done.

      If I told you my hair was bone straight before this, you probably wouldn’t believe me, but…

  4. I was mired in the Gooey Center of my W.I.P. not long ago. I’ve mostly slogged through it now, but am still somewhat hindered. In the old days, my usual technique was just to skip to the end, then come back and deal with the Gooey Center as the final part of the process.

    • That can be dangerous. You might wind up with the Doughnut Hole, in which you have everything but the hole in the center, which you now cannot fill.

  5. What makes me glad is that the novel is progressing!

    I think one of the problems with discussing Mid-Book Issues (and Middle Book Issues) is that we have to talk in metaphor. What works for one doesn’t work for another. We have no handy dandy equation for coping.

    I tend to think in arcs. Maybe that’s a lot like the open door one.