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Three Things to Tell Your Teenage Writing Self: #2 And then stuff happens


One joyous discovery I made along my journey to full-on authorhood was that the middles of books are hard, yes, but they are hard for everybody. Most authors writing most books get to some point between page 100 and page 250 and stop dead, feeling like they’ve lost their way in the story, or lost their minds, and in dire cases, lost the will to live. Every author, in fact, gets stuck somewhere in the middle of every single book they write, and suffers a period of despair.

I wrote three novels by the seat of my pants – my teenage writer self would have loved to know the term “pantser” – and then I heard about novel outlines for the first time. Up to that point, I had thought outlines involved Roman numerals and desperately tedious material about history. I learned to outline a novel in advance.

I’m not saying that outlining made the middle of the book easy. No indeed. But as I got into outlining my book before writing it, I discovered a way to tell where that “stuck in the middle” spot was going to happen.

Outlining for me involves thinking up something cool that can happen, then writing it down on one side of a 3×5 card, trying to keep the cool thing to twenty-five words or fewer. Then I lay the cards out on a table and move them around until they are more or less in a reasonable order. When I think I can imagine the whole story, reading along, card by card, like telling the story with training wheels, I start writing.

What I learned doing this was that inevitably I still got stuck. Somehow, in spite of all those 3×5 cards and mental rehearsals, the system still broke down at least once. I’d stare at the next card and choke. Sometimes for days or weeks. Where did I go wrong? How could I have missed this utter dead spot in the outline?

When this happened on the third book in a row, I noticed something. “The next card,” the next scene I had to write, was never just one card. Every other scene in the story was pinned to the cork board: one card, one scene. Except this one was actually four or five cards under the pin, each with lots of writing on them, sometimes on both sides. On book three, I laid all five cards out and tried to work out how they were different. They weren’t. They were actually very much the same, if maybe using different words. And, reading between the lines, what they all said was, “And then stuff happens.”

That time, on that book, I decided not to waste weeks wondering where I’d gone wrong. I just … jumped over that scene. I moved on to the next 3×5 card, the next scene where I really knew what should happen, and which by now I was dying to write. Whee, writing was fun again!

By the time I had finished drafting the book and read it all the way through, I realized that I didn’t miss that missing scene. Because it was never really there at all.

I outlined most of the next 17 books. Every now and then I’d pants one, because it was coming to me in that beautiful overwhelming wave like a vampire lover or the first ice-cold beer of summer, but mostly I’ve outlined.

So, teenage writing self, if you get stuck because you’re pretty sure there was something you meant to insert here but you can’t remember what it was, take a little risk and just hop over it to the next part you want to write.

Every single author in the world, on every single book, has been where you are. The big difference between them and an unpublished author is that they finish. And that is a huge secret about published authors.


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