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So You Want to Commit Novel: Muddle In The Middle

Originally published 7/1/2010

How many books have you read where the middle sags?  I mean the plot tends to wander off track, the characters act out of character.  We wade through wonderful but meaningless descriptions of the landscape, the buildings, vehicles, clothing, food, Mum’s fridge….  Nothing happens and we waste a lot of pages in pointless scrappy dialogue.  Or worse yet the villain tells all in a boring info dump so we know everything he knows but the protagonist has to scrape the information out of mud piece by piece.

Every author I know reaches a point, around plot point I, where the first gush of words dries up.  They suddenly look up from a blinking cursor that hasn’t moved in three hours and shout invective at the story.

The writing sucks.  The premise is illogical.  The characters are too stupid to breathe.

What was I thinking when I started this project and thought it was the coolest thing ever?

Welcome to the Muddle In The Middle Blues.

Yeah, I suffer from the syndrome as much or worse than anyone.  Some books it hits me on page 50.  Others last to almost 200 pages–but those tend to be 900 page monsters.

One of the reasons I allow myself multiple drafts is to edit out the crap and find a decent path through the murk once I’ve waded through the middle.  I plan for those extra drafts.

So how does an author overcome the urge to throw the project out the window and start something new and much more interesting?

First off I have to recognize the consequences of not finishing the draft.  If I have a contract for that story, chucking it will cost me money and credibility with the publisher.  It’s a fast way to ruin a career.  For an unpublished author, or someone writing a book without a contract, not finishing one story is temptation to never finish any story.  There is always something new and exciting waiting to be written.  Until that story too, hits the muddle in the middle.

Consequences firmly in mind, I plow forward; 1 sentence at a time.  I review my notes.  I look back to my sketchy outline for a reminder of the next big milepost I’m aiming for.  I allow myself to write out of order if a big or emotional scene tugs at me.  That’s the beauty of computers and wordprocessing software.  We can cut and paste later.  I talk to the cat.  I go for long walks or extended bike rides.  I dance.

But everyday I try to write something

I allow myself to go back to beginning once, and only once otherwise I’d fiddle with the beginning forever and never finish the story, to rediscover why I loved this story 100 pages ago.

Inevitably the moment I shut down the computer an idea will wiggle its way into the back of my brain.  I write down the basic idea so I don’t forget it, and then chew on it while I walk, ride, dance, chop vegetables, or whatever.  I even make up character conversations and run them by the cat.  He gets bored easily and wanders off, but I don’t let that stop me.  By the time I get back to the manuscript I have fleshed out the idea, found its logic, and some of its failings.  But I have something to write, for an hour or a day.

As I hit wall after wall of muddle, I lather, rinse, repeat.  And then one day I look up and I’ve passed the milepost I aimed for and I’m approaching the next.  Before I know it I have the exciting crisis, denouement, climax, and resolution in my sights.

My word output during this part of the creative process slows to a crawl.  I accept that now.  I plan for it in my schedule.

But I still throw things, scream at the story, and cry when I’m deep in the muddle.  That’s why we call it the blues.


2 thoughts on “So You Want to Commit Novel: Muddle In The Middle”

  1. This is why I sometimes just outline scene by scene and sometimes insist on doing a beat sheet — the beat sheet is when I realize I have to put something decisive in the middle.

    1. The minute I try to outline scene by scene, the next thing I write goes in an entirely different direction. So, I only decide one thing that MUST happen in pivital scenes and let the next milestone pull me forward.

      Or I spend the night pacing the floor while I choreograph a fight scene in my head. Fight scenes always slow me down.

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