Monday, March 15, 2010

Do you fall into the Muddle-in-the-Middle Trap?

    When attempting to write a novel—that is, fiction that's book-length, say 80,000 words or so—some novice writers never get past the first few chapters. All of the excitement and enthusiasm they felt when inspiration grabbed them by the throat and shouted, "You must write this story!" suddenly leaves them high and dry. Sure, you have a good idea where the story needs to end. That's part of the reason you're writing--to share that fantastic scene you envision near the end of your tale that blows away your readers. But how to get from Point A to Point Z?

    Although most writers recognize the danger of running out of steam in the middle of a book, those who are experienced realize that a lot of work is done in those central chapters. In fact, if you do all you should as a novelist, there's so much material for you to play with, you need to choose carefully to avoid stuffing too much into one story. Here are six tips you can use to keep your novel on track, moving forward, and holding your readers' attention without wandering, repeating information, or padding with unnecessary scenes.

  1. Further develop the main character(s). Instead of dumping details about your characters' personalities, childhood, education, jobs, or friends and family at the beginning of your novel, save these for the middle. By now you've hooked your reader with strong writing, active scenes and conflict that readers will want to see resolved. Now, you can use conversations, flash-back scenes, or a character's thoughts to reveal more about what makes this character tick. You'll enrich your paper people and create an even stronger bond between reader and character.
  2. Move the plot forward by increments that feel natural. Instead of leaping from conflict revealed in the beginning to conflict resolved (resulting in a far-too-short book), give the characters time to work things out for themselves (with a little help from you). This creates a much more realistic feeling story and will help avoid the dreaded deus ex machina conclusion. (In a children's book God takes the form of Mom or Uncle Joe, who supplies the solution to the child's problem.) Readers generally want their favorite characters to resolve their own problems.
  3. Steadily increase the level of conflict and tension by making things worse, then even worse again for the central character. When the same problem occurs over and over throughout the story, the reader becomes immune to the danger, threat, or issue at hand. Using the middle of the story to "up the stakes" will guarantee your readers will stick around to see how their favorite character handles the ever-more-complex crisis.
  4. Details make the story, but writers often forget to continue filtering them throughout the book. You may have described Main Street or the family homestead in Chapter 1, but by the middle of the book several days may have passed for the reader. Work, family demands, interruptions of all sorts may have wiped away the vision of the story's setting that you worked so hard to create in early chapters. Now you need to refresh the reader's mind. And my returning to a particular setting in your story, you strengthen the reader's belief that it might actually exist. However, never stop the forward motion of the plot to spend a few pages of solid description. Some readers simply skim passages that seem to have nothing happening in them, that are simply picture windows into the setting. Better to weave details through active scenes and keep the plot moving forward.
  5. If you get lost in the middle of your story and don't know what should happen next, or you have written yourself into a corner, return to your plot outline. If you didn't write one, now is an excellent time to take a short break and brainstorm possible scenes, complications and solutions for your mid-story. Relax, pour yourself your favorite beverage, sit down in a comfy chair and write down everything that comes to mind without censoring yourself. In fifteen or twenty minutes you may come up with a dozen or more possibilities. The next day, look over your list of ideas. Some will be off the wall, not at all useful, and you can eliminate them. But there will be a few gems. Recharging your muse in this way will usually break you out of your block and give you new fuel for those middle chapters.
  6. Reach out for support. Sometimes we need to know what's working and what isn't. We lose confidence and need someone to tell us we're on track and need to keep going, or there really is something wrong that needs fixing. Finding a writer's organization, critique group, professional writing mentor, or another author willing to partner up with you can be just the help you need to urge you on toward completion of your novel. Many published authors today rely on a personal support system they've developed for those times when they become too close to the book to make effective decisions about one or more elements.

Remember, writing to completion is important. To sell a novel you need more than a great idea. You have to get it down on paper—all of it—before you can hope to interest an editor or literary agent. Fight your way through that nasty middle by using the skills above, and you'll soon arrive that that exciting climax scene you've been dying to write! Happy writing, all--Kathryn