I’ve just blasted through the first act of my new work in progress. It was like falling in love again, my passion ablaze for this new subject and new characters. My fingers flew over the keys and the exhilaration of creating had me in its grip—until I got THERE. You know the “there” I’m talking about. That point when you realize you’ve laid all the groundwork you need, and it’s time to start making things happen. This is where the stakes must rise and the character really starts to unravel. It’s the place where I down-shift from fifth gear to first, and suddenly feel as if I’m wading through waist-deep mud.
At this stage, the “shiny new idea” has lost some of its luster. Those perfect and lofty concepts of story have suddenly morphed from glorious, inspired musings to basic building blocks: word count, paragraphs, dangling participles, bad grammar. GAH! Yeah, that’s all part of it, but the other big issue is the psychological mind f*ck that happens during the long, rambling second act. The characters seem to all sound the same, the plot feels flimsy and unbelievable, and the descriptions awkward. My confidence drains away and I start to feel like a total hack. I begin to question myself. Should I scrap these pathetic pages? Is this novel complete tripe? Does it even have a point? NO ONE WILL READ THIS CRAP.
I sink deeply into that mud. In a moment of desperation, I dial a writer friend! Invariably the conversation goes something like this:
Me: I AM THE WORST WRITER EVER. This is such shit. Why am I doing this to myself again?
Her: Because you’re a writer and writers write. Are you in the middle?
Me: How did you know?
Her: I always feel like crap in the middle. A “poser”…and then I worry the novel won’t sell—
Me: And then other writers will think you’re a loser. Worse, you won’t be able to pay your bills.
Her: And then I’ll lose my house.
Me: And your dreams will be flushed down the toilet, and your reputation ruined.
Her: Yep. But you have to keep going or you’ll be stuck in the middle forever. You’ll be that writer who doesn’t finish anything. Just throw something down. You’ll figure it out. KEEP WRITING. You’ll fix it in edits. Go have some wine and get back to it. Also, you’re one of the most brilliant people I know. Now, go!
Me: Thank God for editing. And wine. And friends who say you’re brilliant.
No matter how many novels you’ve written, these nasty feelings pop up and fairly often. So how do we combat those destructive, negative vibes, and more importantly, how do you write through the middle? Let’s take a look.
DIAGNOSING THE PROBLEM
Are there big picture problems with the draft that are preventing you from moving forward?
Reorganize: If you’re really stuck, chances are, something is out of whack and needs to be moved to a different point or cut. Study your outline. Do every single one of your scenes need to be there? Examine the Goal-Motivation-Conflict in each scene. Do each of your scenes have GMC? Is there tension? Did you leave a breadcrumb trail to follow to the next pivotal moment This should give you a feel for the pacing as well as the direction your arc is taking. It may also help you ascertain any issues you’re having with raising the stakes. *** If you’re a pantser and don’t have an outline, write a rough outline of the scenes you’ve already written and study them. You’ll be able to get a real sense of what’s already there and how you should move forward.
Research: Perhaps the problem is that you don’t have enough information about a character (backstory including hurts, triumphs, history, and traits), an event (inciting incident or stakes), or maybe even something as simple as a prop needed to carry the scene. Spend some time digging for more information. This could take the form of nonfiction research, journaling in a character’s voice, or even reading other novels that accomplish well what it is you’re trying to do. Study. Absorb. Take notes. Again, look at your outline. Weave these new-found tidbits into the scenes. Research can unlock the deadlock you’re experiencing in a snap. It feels magical when it happens.
Relax & Write On: It’s just your first draft so don’t beat yourself up. They’ll be plenty of time to revise—though if you don’t get SOMETHING down, there will be no bones. Just write. Keep moving forward. ***If you’re slogging through the middle during revisions, this could be an indication the pacing needs adjusting (in other words, there’s not enough tension and the stakes aren’t high enough. Perhaps the emotional ties to the stakes are flimsy). It could also mean you need time to let the manuscript rest and cool off. Give yourself a break and come back to it. Meanwhile, see “research” above.
You’ve diagnosed the issue, but you’ve got ZERO motivation to move on. Writers write. Remember that from my crit partner above? And just how do you THAT?
15 Minute Warm-Up: Pull out a pad of paper before your “real” writing begins. Scribble down a few notes about what you’d like to accomplish that day. Now think about what you’d like for this next scene to convey to the reader. Perhaps you even scratch out a few ideas on what that scene should look like. These notes are a great way to “stretch” before you dive in. You may even find the words flowing instantly to the page. There’s something about that “fake writing” that disarms your defenses and blocks.
Small Goals: After a rough or busy day, a very small goal can make you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Aim for a lowly one hundred words—even if they’re terrible. Just get them down! Often a miraculous thing happens. Not only do you meet this tiny little goal, but you exceed it. Sometimes you won’t, but at least you’ve given it a fair go.
Work with Sprint Partners: This is one of my favorite ways to stay motivated. Hook up with a crit partner or friend through an online chat, or perhaps in person if that suits your schedule. Set a short time limit, say thirty minutes or an hour, maybe an hour and a half. (It’s important to keep the time short so that you don’t meander on the web or decide to clean your toilets in the middle of your sprint. It helps keep the pressure high.) Next, there are two ways to go about your sprints: 1.) You can race against your partner for the highest word count (I never do this), or 2.) you each set your own goal. For example:
“I’ll edit two pages this hour. What about you?”
“I’ll write 250 words.”
At the end of the allotted time, report back to your partner. Peer pressure is a beautiful thing. It works. I promise. You don’t want to be the jerk who doesn’t meet their goal and you don’t want to feel like a loser-writer.
Above all, keep going: Many of these issues work themselves out in editing, so don’t give up! Push on until THE END. You won’t have a book unless you push, pull, and drag yourself there.
How do you combat the middle blues? Or are you one of those miraculous humans who love drafting and zip through it?
Quick Note: Writers looking for more help on this, or to dig deeply into their manuscripts, join me in Ireland this July at Ireland Writer Tours. Only a couple of spots remain!