My Tricky Middle

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.

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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.

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This will be easy peasy.

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.

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Hmm… Getting a bit choppy out there…

 

SO where am I going wrong?

  1. 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).
  2. 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!)
  3. 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?
  4. 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?

boats3But 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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!”.)
  6. 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.

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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.

Yay!

You are more than halfway through, so by definition, OVER THE TRICKY MIDDLE.

It will be plain sailing from here on in… right?

 

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The Underwire Bra of my Writing Life.

No, not some piece of faded, lucky underwear I’ve had since 1989 that I don every time I sit down to my keyboard…

What I’m talking about here is support; the kind that only an underwire bra can give.

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(Quick aside – how cool is my bra bunting? I KNOW – RIGHT? It’s not what you know but who you live up the road from…)

As a writer, I get support from all sorts of groups and individuals, both online and in the real world. These people make me smile when I want to sob silently into my half drunk glass of Pinot Grigio, point me in the right direction when I’m wandering around aimlessly in the dark, and I’m sure will be the first to pop the champagne cork when things are going my way.

Of course, I can only comment on this from an unpublished point of view, as there is a whole other platform of support when you are published; from agents and editors, to retailers and most importantly readers. But as someone still on the bumpy road to publication I want to talk to you about the support I receive in my writing life.

Creative Writing Courses

Five years ago when the I suddenly knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, there weren’t many people I could turn to for guidance. (A few special people have been there for me from the start but they know who they are.) So I searched for a local group or course in order to connect with like-minded souls and to point me in the right direction. A creative writing course eventually came up at an Arts Centre nearby and it was the first time I met writerly people like myself in the flesh. We had an excellent tutor who covered everything from mechanics of writing – like grammar, to the abstract – like inspiration. A lot of it I knew but some topics had me scribbling down her every word, steam coming from the pen, as I soaked up her superior wisdom. Our tutor was a journalist, so a master at cutting excess wordage, and her red pen taught me many things.

But there comes a point when the best way to learn something is to get on and do it. You can read a car manual a hundred times over, but until you get behind the wheel you will never be a competent driver. Plus, there was the odd person in the group who I wanted to slap around the face. Repeatedly. (These groups really aren’t the place to air your political views and/or turn it into a let’s-talk-about-me session.) If the tutor is not on the ball, certain personalities can dominate, and it’s easy feel uncomfortable about sharing in front of the class. But for me it was a fantastic place to start and my tutor’s support gave me confidence.

Bikini bunting

Writing Groups

I belong to the Scribblers; an informal group of people who met through the creative writing classes, decided we didn’t want to slap each other, and now meet regularly to support and to share. Our meetings have gone from a couple of hours, with no real direction but copious amount of coffee, to a whole day (including a homemade lunch) with a definite structure. We take it in turns to chair the meetings and set the agenda. It is an environment where I feel safe and I trust all the members of the group implicitly. We’re a mixed bag of ages, genders and writing genres – but that makes for a  rich mix. We critique each other’s work and, using various online resources, discuss topics such as dialogue, structure and viewpoint. (We even had a fascinating session on writing Haikus.) There are plenty of laughs and I always come away feeling motivated – but it is rather the case of the blind leading the partially-sighted and there have been occasions when we have all sat around the table, scratching our heads, trying to get to grips with the slippery eel that is third-person objective narration.

If you don’t belong to a writing group, either a formal one run by a professional, or an informal one like ours, I would recommend you find one. Or start your own. It is the underwire in my bra.

Family and Friends

These are my number one fans – and rightly so. They want to support me and want me to succeed, but here’s the problem – they aren’t objective. So while my ego might be boosted by their praise, my inner author suspects the short story  I showed to my mum might not be my best work. I’m sure some of my fellow writers will agree, this group of people don’t always have the courage to tell you when something stinks, or the knowledge to point out that you’ve written a whole novel with a passive heroine. (*Cough* – not that this has ever happened to me.)

As much as we don’t like constructive criticism, we do need to hear it. It makes us better writers. Everyone has room for improvement. A writing group or a beta reader can gently nudge you in the right direction. But do go to your best bud or your mum on the days when you receive the rejection email or the one star review on Amazon. Your mum, after all, was the one who took out a three page ad in the local paper the day you took two tiny steps across the living room without clinging on to the sofa, farted, gurgled and fell on your bottom. Rest assured – she’ll LOVE anything you do.

Bikini bunting

Virtual Support

By this I mean the online writers  I am connected with via Twitter, Facebook and other social media. They support me in so many ways. From the wonderful published authors who have been kind enough to befriend me, pass on their sage advice and answer my naive questions, to the struggling, unpublished friends who have sympathised with my trials and kindly shared the nuggets of information they have gleaned on their quest. And best of all, this online group is amazing when it comes to help with research. All you have to do is post a question regarding ritual virginal sacrifices in 13th century Paraguay, and you can bet your bottom Euro, someone will have an aunt who has written a thesis on this topic and they will happily put you in touch with her.

Virtual write-ins, where participants set aside a particular time slot to write and then feedback their progress, help to motivate me when I’m struggling and feeling isolated – which as writing basically involves me sitting in a room with a cat and a computer – I am. And of course author events, hot off the press book releases and industry news is shared via social media, which keeps me up to date with the writing world.

I’ve made some amazing friends online, some of the very best are people I have yet to meet in real life, but I would be lost without them. We exchange private messages of support (thanks for all the motivational pandas and naked Poldarks in my darkest moments Liz) and share information and resources through online writers groups (thanks Paula). And sometimes it’s merely a private joke connects me to another person (Mary and I sign off to a chinese “Siam Son” after autocorrect misinterpreted “speak soon”) and even though we live a hundred miles apart, it is another person who I am connected to, who understands me, and who is there for me. Bikini bunting

 

So talk to me, lovely people, and tell me who is your underwire bra? Who supports you when everything on your writing journey is heading south?

(Or jock-strap of your writing life for all the fellas out there.)

Search For a Star…

… but may need to work on my twinkle.

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Way back when the daffodils were in bloom… oh, hold on, I have freaky winter daffodils out at the moment. Way back when daffodils are supposed to bloom, my first novel Dead Gorgeous was shortlisted in the Choclit Search For a Star competition.

Six hopefuls were shortlisted on Valentine’s Day last year and the lovely Jan Brigden was announced as the winner in March 2015 with her debut As Weekends Go. To be shortlisted was a wonderful moment – making me believe perhaps I could master this writing malarkey after all.

As an optimistic, half-full kinda girl not winning wasn’t a big deal – being shortlisted was. You can’t over analyse these things – I just needed to work on my twinkle. I quickly wrapped up novel number two, decided it was a huge pile of pants that needed to go through the washing machine on a boil wash (but that’s a blog for another day) and embarked on novel number three.

Dead Gorgeous will always have a special place in my heart, and who knows? It may yet make it into print. Robert John Whitton was gorgeous and, interestingly, although he was over two hundred years old, he wasn’t dead.

So when is a ghost not a ghost?