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Muddling through the middle of a story - a first-hand account


Photo: Manuela Hoffman/flickr

Well, it is January 18, 2010 and, by my count, that means I haven’t contributed any new content to Examiner.com for two months. For those of you who follow me on a regular basis, you know where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to: attempting to complete the first draft of my current novel. Long story short, I made a deal with my husband – who is also my biggest supporter – that I would stop pussyfooting around and complete a novel in time to pitch it at my favorite writing conference in May of this year.

So, what does any of that have to do with my low-productivity on Examiner? Mainly that I, a true procrastinator, put off getting down to work until the last minute. Here was my plan: plot the whole book from August to November and write the rough draft during the month of December. Not impossible, but not easy either.

The plotting phase went pretty well, as far as it went. By the end of November, I was still muddling through Act 3 of a five-act structure. I always know how my stories will end so I did have some idea of what I was ultimately writing towards, but moving forward with the rough draft without the meat on the bones of my story was pretty scary. As for the rough draft itself, it was like plowing through my own little NaNoWriMo in December. I wrote nearly every day, sometimes up to five and six hours a day, often into the wee hours of the morning since that’s when I am most productive. The result: 48,000 words that took me only 1/3 of the way into my third act. It was December 14 and I was, yet again, mired in the middle of a story.

This has happened to me before. It was 1993 and I knew virtually nothing about the craft of writing. I only knew that I wanted to write a book. Specifically, I wanted to write a mystery. At the time I still had a full-time job so I’d spend my lunch hours in my car taking notes, creating a multi-layered mystery with multiple subplots and enough characters to fill a Robert Altman film. I will say that for someone who had no idea what she was doing, it wasn’t too bad - at least in broad strokes. When I came to something I didn’t know about, say, character development or dialogue tags, I studied and I learned.

I nursed that story off and on for over ten years. I’d take notes and study, learning everything I could about the craft for six months, take eight months off, and then get back to the story for another three months. In 2004 I took the plunge and tried to take my years of notes and charts and mold them into a true story. After approximately 50,000 words I had written to the beginning of the middle of my story. I knew where I wanted the story to end; I just had no idea how to get there. I forged ahead, writing whatever came to me, believing that I could "fix it in editing."  Soon my well-ordered mystery was filled with even more characters, additional subplots, and was moving so far off course that only a 180-degree turn could push it back towards my intended ending. That book, even though the plot is one of my favorites, is currently resting, pages bound by old rubber bands, at the back of the bottom drawer in my desk.

So, here I am, six years later, in the same situation. I created an entirely new series story idea, developed the basic plot and characters, and got as far as plotting to the beginning of the middle. Again. I know a lot more about writing than I did when I began that first book but it's obvious that I don’t yet know enough. Somehow, the techniques for pushing through the middle of a mystery are still eluding me. But, I’m not giving up. I’m closer now than I have ever been to completing a true first draft. And what I have learned, although specific to my circumstances, has some basic principles that can be applied by just about anyone trying to complete that first draft.

The 5 things I’ve learned about muddling through the middle

  1. Know where you’re going – there are two types of writers: people who plan and people who wing it. If you’re a writer who wings it, the idea of plotting probably doesn’t interest you. If you’re a plotter, the idea of writing a book without a plan is probably unthinkable. But scene-by-scene plotting isn’t the same as having a plan. Even the most successful wing-it writers (Stephen King, for instance) have at least some idea of where they’d like to go with their stories. First, figure out what kind of writer you are and stick with it; don’t waste your time trying to be a different kind of writer. Second, even if you don’t plot out every single scene, have a story end in mind; it gives you a destination.
  2. Be kind to yourself – if you’re having trouble with completing your story, especially if, like me, this isn’t your first attempt, keep in mind that writing a book might be akin to reaching a destination, but learning to be a writer is a journey. Keep studying, keep practicing your craft; and keep telling yourself that you can work it out. You can fit all those jigsaw pieces together to form the picture you want.
  3. Be open – while I obviously advocate writing to a plan, I also try to keep my ears open to that little voice in my head that tells me when deviating from the plan is what my story needs. Caveat: do not mistake boredom or fear for true inspiration. When an inspired idea comes along, something radically different from your originally plotted elements, it will improve the story you are trying to tell. If moving forward with a new idea changes your story so much that it is no longer recognizable, you may be working from a place of fear. Being uncertain with your story is part of the process; completely changing the plot every time you get to the end of Act 1 is giving into fear. Writing is hard work and anyone who tries to tell you it isn’t is feeding you a line. The world is full of would-be writers who didn’t have what it takes to put in the hard work. So, save your new idea for another project and push through the uncertainty of your current story.
  4. Be organized – charts, mind-maps, tables, lists…all can be used as visual cues to help keep you organized not only in the middle of your story, but throughout the entire rough draft. One of the things that is so intimidating about the middle of a story is that it is so long, the largest section of a well-balanced book. All the subplots and character interactions are coming together, mixing and shifting and, if your don’t know who is supposed to be where when or whether or not you’ve introduced your first subplot yet, it’s nearly impossible to move forward. Take some time and create a support system that works for you, a way of keeping hold of all those loose threads before you start weaving them.
  5. Just do it – ultimately, the only way to work your way through the middle of your book is to just do it. One of the downfalls of tight plotting is the belief that you can make your story perfect (my personal weakness) if you just keep working the plot. Nothing is perfect. My favorite example: Agatha Christie, one of the master plotters of all time, was approached by an actor who was starring in Christie’s play, “The Mousetrap.” The actor, intimidated at the thought of approaching the great writer, nonetheless took courage in hand and pointed out an error in the plot. Christie’s response: she was aware of the error but couldn’t figure out another way to make the story work so she went with it, hoping no one would notice. “The Mousetrap” has been in continuous production since 1952, making it the longest-running show of the modern era. Christie’s “mistake” – whatever it was, for the error has never been made public – obviously didn’t hurt the popularity of the story. So forget perfect and just write it! You can always make any fixes in editing.
For more info: There are a number of writing books that can help you as you struggle with the middle of your novel.  Try How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey, Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, and The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield.  Other great sources include podcasts like The Writing Show, Pen on Fire, and I Should Be Writing, all available free of charge on iTunes.

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