General, Self-editing Tips, Writing tips

Stuck In the Middle

For some, it happens around the 30,000th word. The lucky ones make it to 40 or 50K before they start to wade through it. You know what I’m talking about. Yeah, the dreaded Middle of Uncertainty. (Okay, no one really calls it that. I just made it up because it sounds imposing).

Just what is the Middle of Uncertainty? Well, it’s a lot of things, but in the simplest of terms, it’s that place where you start to lose hope/interest/momentum in this novel that you were certain was going to be a beautiful saga of love, loss, redemption and werewolves.

It’s the place where you’re suddenly stymied. Stuck. Or perhaps worst of all, beginning to fear that the rest of the book won’t live up to the first pages. Oh, and sometimes? You don’t realize you have a Middle of Uncertainty until the whole damn book is written and you’re starting work on your second draft.

Not every writer struggles with the Middle of Uncertainty. Some feel practically giddy when they hit the midpoint, then frolic to the finish line without the least bit of gastric or career distress. (We hates them, we does.) But most writers I know struggle here.

There are two main reasons for this struggle, and it’s important to know which is your root cause before you try to fix it.

The first? Writer fatigue. This is all about you. You’ll know this is the root cause when you start to write metaphors and similes that are as weak as other things that are weak. Another clue is that you start to write the same sentence over and over again. Another clue is that you start to write the same sentence over and over again. And you don’t notice even after reading and re-reading the paragraph six times. Sometimes this happens when you sit too long in the same place. Sometimes it happens when you try to write after a long, long, long, long day. Sometimes it happens when you’re feeling the pressure of a deadline.

The solution to writer fatigue is simple: take a break. I mean it. Stop writing. Writer fatigue isn’t quite the same thing as writer’s block. After all, you do have an amazing plot worked out for the story, right? Of course you do. That’s why writer fatigue is so frustrating. You know exactly where you’re going, but you just can’t get there from here.

Here’s the best way to fix it: do something that doesn’t involve writing. Go bowling. Plant a garden. Bake cookies. (Preferably thick, cake-like chocolate chip cookies.) Mail those cookies to your favorite noveldoctor. Run a marathon. Borrow your son’s Legos and build a scale model replica of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull.

Just leave the laptop alone for a while. I don’t mean ten minutes. I mean a day. Or two. (Yes, even if that deadline is looming. Your editor doesn’t want a crappy book on time. She wants a great book. On time. Or maybe two days late if you call and ask really nicely.) Then, just before you sit down to write again, think about the critical plot points that are yet to come. If they don’t shout at you and command your pen to paper so you can get there and then onto the big finale, well, you might need a longer break. Or…you might be suffering from the other reason for the middling struggle:

The broken story.

This is all about the work. It’s quite possible your book has no middle. Or no good one anyway. The beginning? You’ve got that down. And the ending is so perfect, anyone who invested six years in “Lost” will weep with joy when they read it. But that middle-to-end stuff? You don’t know what to write. Or maybe what you already wrote just isn’t working.

Try these second-half ideas:

  • Raise the stakes. Make the protagonist’s journey more dangerous. Don’t make it easy for the protagonist to get to the ending you know is coming. If the path is too clearly laid out, the reader will finish the book long before the final page.
  • Set a major obstacle in front of your protagonist. Kill his hopes. Kill his career. Kill his dog if you have to.
  • Stretch your protagonist. Push him to places he hasn’t yet gone, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.
  • Send your protagonist on a quest that seems to pull him in the opposite direction from his goal.
  • Give the subplots their due. Remember when you locked uncle Sal in the insane asylum back in chapter three? Maybe it’s time he escapes. Or gets a visit from the protagonist.
  • Check your pacing. Does the action slow to a crawl in the second half after a blistering first half? Maybe you need to mix that up a bit more. Vary the rhythm to keep the readers’ interest.
  • Reveal more secrets. If everything is out in the open by the midpoint, readers won’t have anything left to discover along the road to the ending. Everyone has one more secret. Your character just hasn’t told you about it. Yet.

And heed these warnings:

  • Don’t repeat yourself unnecessarily. Readers have good memories. Stop rehashing the fact that Becky is a loner with a drinking problem. We know this. Give her something new to do.
  • Don’t introduce a new plot element that goes against the story’s logic or “rules” just to mix things up. Readers will stop trusting you. Then they’ll stop reading.
  • Similarly, don’t introduce a new character late in the story who suddenly has a key plot role. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but readers will find it hard to swallow when a mysterious woman in black lands on the page just in time to save the hero, then disappears again because that was her only reason to be there.
  • Don’t fill the space with flashbacks. Again, not a hard and fast rule, but the second half of your book has to do more than maintain interest, it has to propel readers to the end with purpose. A bunch of “remember when” content will usually drag the story to a halt. Keep the tension high.

Of course, you could just read a good book on plot and structure like Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and do what he says. That would work, too.

Here’s the bottom line, writer-friends: The middle of your novel can’t be the boring part. Know which part can be the boring part? None of it. Sorry, there’s no “coasting” in a good novel. And there’s definitely no place for filler.

No one ever said writing was easy. Actually, someone probably did say that. But he was being sarcastic.

Write well.

19 thoughts on “Stuck In the Middle

    1. I knew that was just what you needed. That’s because I’m clairvoyant. And, to answer the question you’re about to ask, yes, I did look up clairvoyant to make sure I spelled it correctly.

      See?

  1. I landed on this post because I googled “random tag of meaninglessness”, and boy, am I glad I did!

    Thanks for reminding me to push my protagonist to the extreme. I like her. I want her to be okay—but that would be boring to everyone else. There is no triumph without turmoil.

    1. I was hoping that tag would hook a conflicted stranger struggling with existential angst. Apparently, it also hooks conflicted writers in search of ways to hurt their characters merely for the benefit of the reader. Wait…those aren’t so different after all.

      Never mind.

  2. really, really good post. I run into this with my photography all the time, believe it or not. I am continually amazed how much the two lives intersect. I go from one to the other when I get fatigued.

    1. I think having two lives sounds wonderful. Now all I have to do is figure out which five of my seven personalities I should kill. And how to do it.

  3. I can’t believe this is my first visit (or maybe the first time I haven’t been too intimidated to comment). In any case…you’ve triggered a ‘something’ that makes me want to dust off the manuscript I started to let out of my head a year or so ago.

    1. Intimidated? Don’t be. I’m just a normal screwed up guy who sounds a whole lot more confident than he really is. Even when he’s writing in the third person. Especially then. (Yes, he’s doing this to sound pretentious. But ironically.)

      Always happy to trigger things. Well, except for explosions that aren’t totally called for. And worldwide financial collapse. And Armageddon.

  4. Or have someone else bake those cake-like gooey chocolate chip cookies. Milk chocolate, not dark. With lots of walnuts. Just for you. Or, heck, just give me the dough.

    And if you don’t have a deadline, go away. For awhile. Until you can no longer stay away.

    Yup.

    1. Yes. I like the idea of having someone else bake the cookies. Semi-sweet for me, please. Do you have my address, Nicole? Just a note: I’m going to be gone for a while. Until I can’t stay away. Um…you might want to hold off on sending those cookies for a while.

  5. The middle of the book is so scary. That’s usually when I wonder why I thought I should be a writer. I feel like I’m alone in the middle of the ocean in a rowboat, remembering that all my friends convinced me this was a good idea.

    But I will confess, with every book I write, the middle becomes a little bit less terrifying.

    Lovely post, Mr. Novel Doctor.

    1. But you write scary stories. Don’t you want the middle to be as terrifying as possible? Oh, right. You’re talking about the writing of it. Got it.

      Phew. You scared me there for a moment.

      Wait…

      Ah, clever girl.

  6. I love this! I always struggle around the middle of the book – I’m at the 35,000 word mark of draft three right now and I’ve hit another snag. I thought I was going to skip it this time, but it’s just come a few thousand words later than usual. Ugh, it’s so painful! But you’ve just given me a whole lot of new things to think about now – thank you!

    Is it okay if I link to this post on my blog? Because it really is so perfect!

  7. Stuck at 50,000 words on novel number two, and just got another rejection letter on novel number one. Up to 24 “no thank you’s” now, but must keep writing! The protagonist is setting up the villan to be victimized by her rip crew, and she doesn’t know it yet, but will soon stab him in the eye with a screwdriver. Can’t wait to write that scene! But it feels hopeless when I”ve dumped two years into these books and was brought to the brink of publication TWICE, then dumped. Disheartening, crushing, maddening. Its midnight, and I’m nearly blind from staring at the monitor, so it’s time to go bake those cookies. Thanks for the encouragement to soldier on. Your site is motivational bliss!

  8. Just what I needed to tamp down the rising panic attack. Thanks! Whoever invented the internet archive gets a nice big kudos from me.

Comments are closed.