You

Sit down. No, you’re not in trouble. This isn’t about dangling too many participles or ending sentences with prepositions. It’s not about your premise or your plot. It’s not about your characters (they’re all really very lovely). And it’s not about your craft.

You want what? A drink? Sure. What would you like? I have tea and coffee and…

Really? This early? How about just the orange juice without the vodka?

Okay, where was I? Oh, right. You’re a good writer. Your novel is competent, smart and entertaining. You’ve obviously read lots of books on how to write. I bet you read all the really popular agent and editor blogs, too.

But…

Hmm? Yes, you can move to the couch if you want. No, I don’t have any Xanax.

Like I was saying, your novel is good, but it’s missing something.

Yes, I know, I know. You’ve labored on this for months. You’ve poured every available minute into the writing and the re-writing. Your husband thinks you’re having an affair with someone named Strunk N. White. Your kids are wondering what a “crit group” is and where to find one and do they really need more feedback on their two-paragraph “what I did last summer” essays anyway? And your dog, Pulitzer, is afraid to ask to go for a walk because, apparently, his whimper sounds excessively adverbial and this causes you to scowl like Stephen King and it makes him nervous when you scowl like Stephen King.

No, you haven’t wasted your time. All that study has paid off. Surely you can see how you’ve improved. And if not? Go back and look at the first story you ever wrote. You’ve come a long way. I’m impressed. You should be, too.

But your novel is still missing something. Something really important.

It’s missing you.

You’re looking rather pale. Maybe you should lie down.

Let me say again – you’re a good writer. I’ve seen manuscripts from contracted novelists that aren’t as well-written as yours.

Good. You’re getting some color back. You were making me nervous there for a moment. I’m not trained in CPR.

It’s quite possible that your novel is good enough to capture the interest of a good literary agent. And maybe even good enough to get published someday. Of course, that could take a while. You know how tough it is for writers to break through. Of course you do, that’s why you’ve been so diligent at the craft and so dedicated to learning the business.

Maybe persistence and patience are all you need at this point.

But I can’t help wondering about that “missing something.” Where are you in your novel? Where’s the smart, slightly snarky writer whose email correspondence always makes me smile? Where’s the clever wordplay? The knowing smile? The arresting blend of confidence and vulnerability that I think of every time I think of you?

All that great writing advice might have kept you off the page. I like you. I like the way you think. I think readers would like you, too. And if you found you – if your novel had more of you in it – I believe that might just bump your manuscript from the “good enough to be published” pile into the “wow, I love this!” pile on an agent’s desk.

Ah, yes, that’s the million dollar question. And there’s no easy answer. I’d suggest these three steps:

  1. Let the manuscript sit. Don’t obsess over it. Forget about it and do something else for a while.
  2. Stop reading “how to write” books and websites. Instead, read novels. Good ones by authors you admire. Fresh ones by authors you’ve never met.
  3. When you finally do go back to your manuscript, forget the rules. Just (re)write as you hear the story in your head. You already know craft – that will come naturally now. This time, listen to your inner voice, follow it. Trust your instincts with word choice, pacing, rhythm, attitude. And here’s the real key: have fun.

Be you.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. And if you find you’re still struggling, start another novel. Yes. From the beginning. The more you write, the sooner you’ll find yourself on the page. When you do, you’ll not only be “good enough to be published” – you’ll be the only person who writes like you.

That’s the book I really want to read.

Yours.

Yes, you can have the vodka now.

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.

Thief of Something

I am a thief.

There, I said it. I hope you don’t mind that I’m using my blog as a confessional. I feel so much better now.

Actually, that’s not true. I lied. I feel about the same as before. Except maybe a little guilty about pretending those four words assuaged some deep-seated guilt. Trust me, my guilt is almost always seated near the surface, like algae.

Also? This blogpost isn’t about stealing.

You probably shouldn’t trust anything I say from here forward.

Except, maybe, these lessons I’ve recently discovered (some for the hundredth time) in my role as a freelance editor of fiction:

  • Pet words and phrases that are used over and over and over and over and over and over and over again can make an author look far less skilled than she actually is. Please note: writers are often blind to these tendencies. Thus, editors.
  • “People who get all creative with dialogue attributions make me want to ban the thesaurus as a writing tool,” he burped. “Seriously, folks, ‘said’ is fine most of the time,” he hiccuped. “Sometimes you don’t need anything at all if it’s clear who’s speaking,” he reiterated with an annoyingly unnecessary attribution.
  • Christian fiction is allergic to the word “nipple” and it doesn’t matter if that nipple belongs to a woman or a man or, presumably, a pipe fitting.
  • Since publishers usually work with a tight schedule (and also because it’s the right thing to do, professionally), writers should never miss a deadline. However, no one will be celebrating if you meet that deadline with an unfinished, sub-par, plot-hole-filled manuscript. Obvious takeaway lesson here: Frequent, honest communication with your editor is critical to having a successful writing career.
  • You know those books you’ve read that have terribly unsatisfying endings? See note above.
  • If you can’t imagine how the protagonist of your novel would act after waiting in a long line at a packed Starbucks only to being informed by a surly barista, “we’re out of coffee,” then it’s quite possible you haven’t sufficiently developed your protagonist’s personality.
  • Showing vs. telling is still one of the greatest challenges for writers. But I’m finding that it’s equally challenging for writers to tell a story without resorting to flashbacks. I’m not a flashback hater. Sometimes a flashback is necessary. Sometimes a flashback works fine. It certainly is a convenient way to impart information. But is it the best way to tell that piece of the story? Before stamping a flashback scene with “It is finished,” consider other ways to reveal the critical info to readers.
  • A subplot that suddenly goes away is like a buffet that’s out of teriyaki chicken when you were just beginning to think how nicely that teriyaki chicken would complement your fourth helping of shrimp fried rice. Subplots that serve no purpose might as well not be on the buffet in the first place. (Just pretend the metaphor works, okay? Thanks.)
  • On a related note, subplots don’t need to be neatly tied up by the last page, but they ought to at least point toward appropriate resolutions.
  • If your monkey can’t fly on page 7, your novel demands that you develop a believable argument between pages 7 and 212 for why he can fly on page 213. For the record: “because that’s what the plot needs” isn’t good enough.

Guess what? If you’ve read this far, my opening line isn’t a lie after all. I stole some of your time.

And I’m not giving it back.

Have a nice day.