I’ll make the obvious joke about the bit of me that keeps growing the older I get. The bit that flops over the waistband of my jeans instead of laying flat.The bit that wobbles when I run and concertinas when I sit down. Yes, that’s quite a tricky middle but I think it goes hand in hand with the wine and the cake, so I guess I’ll have to live with it.
However, as a writer, the REALLY tricky middle is the troubled waters I have to sail myself through in order to get to the magical island of The Finished Novel. Having been on this journey a few times now, I always seem to have trouble halfway through my journey. So this blog is my thoughts on why, and what I need to do to get back on course.
Like me, I suspect many writers happily whizz through the first few thousand words. Hoist the sails and off we go, to continue the analogy. The waters are calm and the wind is behind me. And if I look through my telescope, I can see the magical island in the distance. I have had The Big Idea, roughly plotted where the story needs to go, assembled the necessary cast of characters and am keen to write the story that will have publishers everywhere in a bidding war to publish the Most Amazing Book Ever.
But even though I know where I’m going with my story, inevitably hitting about the 40,000 word mark problems arise. I can’t see land anymore, I’m isolated, my sails are blowing all over the place and I’m struggling to plot a straight course.
SO where am I going wrong?
- The characters won’t do what they are told (rather like my children) but even though I shout at them they and threaten to impose an array of sanctions, they stubbornly do what they think they will and to hell with the consequences (unlike my children – who wouldn’t dare).
- It’s become a gargantuan task; plot threads are everywhere, questions have popped up that I don’t know the answers to, and some of my brilliant ideas just aren’t working. (What do you mean, you can’t quote song lyrics? But that’s what he does!)
- Self doubt starts to set in. Things I thought were funny/clever/attention grabbing don’t seem as powerful now that I read the story back. It’s not working. It’s not good enough. It’s rubbish. What am I doing? And who am I kidding?
- There is a very excitable New Idea jumping up and down next to me, poking me and demanding attention. Perhaps THIS is the story I should be writing?
But as I sit there, adding to the word count at an embarrassingly slow pace, I realise I have been here before and managed to come out the other side. So what did I do? Because deep inside, I know I can do this…
- Write something – write anything – even if you think it’s total pants. Sometimes it can lead to a great idea, sometimes you delete the lot the next day, but it does get your floundering backside (and your tricky middle) moving.
- Stick something in there that takes you by surprise. Hopefully it will do the same to your characters and it might make them get up of that sofa, pop on some metaphorical running shoes, and stir them into action.
- Write sections that you want to write. Don’t worry about it being in chronological order. I was listening to an emotional song on my iPod and suddenly decided to write a weepy section near the end of the book. The whole scene wrote itself in my head so I quickly got it on the page. Some details may need to be changed when I reach that point, but it was 2,000 words that got me writing again.
- Try not to obsess over the number of words you have actually produced. It’s also productive to reread and edit (although don’t get bogged down in this either). When I’m writing I leave rows of “xxx”s if I need to research something or the scene isn’t coming to me. The tricky middle is a good point to go back and fill in some of those gaps. It adds to the words and it has sometimes given me other (truly brilliant) ideas for later in the story.
- If you are really struggling, give yourself some space… or some wine… or both. Walk away. Write something else. DO something else. Live life. Have an experience. Then write about it. It’s a bit like being married. Spend a few days apart and then when you get back together you have LOADS to talk about. (Although let’s skip over the initial conversation “How did the house get in this state? I was only away for the weekend!”.)
- Print your story off, sit crossed-legged on the floor, grab a Big Red Pen and analyse what you’ve written so far. Are there bits that can be cut? Do you really need a scene where all they do is drink coffee and talk about things the reader already knows? As brutal as it seems to take words away when you are trying to ADD to the word count, it is often necessary. Follow each character’s journey and see if it makes sense. Are there too many characters? Is there a strong hook? Basically have a good old spring clean.
And before you can say, ‘How will I ever get through this disheartening and soul-destroying tricky middle bit?’ the little row of numbers at the bottom of the page that has been taunting you for the last couple of weeks says 60,000.
You are more than halfway through, so by definition, OVER THE TRICKY MIDDLE.
It will be plain sailing from here on in… right?