Writing Your Book, part IV: The Leading Edge of the Slog


It’s been a few weeks since my last post in the “Writing Your Book” series.  When we left off, we had done the prep work, found our voice, and had finally gotten down to working on the opening lines and pages.  At this point we’ve had some time to get to work on the meat of the project, to move beyond the opening chapter and really delve into the book.  So, how’s it going?

Hmmmm.  Not the enthusiastic “It’s going great!” response I was hoping for.  I hear some enthusiasm, but I also hear some grumbling.  So maybe this would be a good time to chat about writing the vast middle of a novel.  We’ll define “the middle” as everything between the end of Chapter 1 and the beginning of the climactic chapter.  I did say it was a “vast middle,” after all….

Defining the middle so broadly, it almost becomes inevitable that this will be the hardest part of the book, the place where you’ll encounter the most problems.  And quite often those problems begin to manifest themselves early on.  The excitement of the opening is behind you; the payoff of the climax seems miles away.  Now it’s all about character growth and narrative flow and pacing.  It’s about putting the worldbuilding and background development to practical use.  In short, it’s about work.  Welcome to the slog.

I don’t mean to say that this part can’t be fun.  Of course it can.  But make no mistake:  It is difficult, long, at times exhilarating, but at times deeply discouraging.  Let’s take a look at some potential scenarios that you may have encountered, and talk about possible solutions.

Scenario 1: You’re forty pages into your novel.  It’s a going a bit more slowly than you expected, in part because you’ve found that your plans for the book (whether in the form of a true outline, or merely the collected thoughts you keep in hour head) are already falling by the wayside.  The novel you envisioned and the novel you’re writing bear little resemblance to one another.  It’s as though the characters have conspired against you — an imaginary coup d’etat as it were — and have taken over the book.  It’s not that what you’ve got is bad, it’s just not what you thought it would be, and so you’re really not sure anymore where the book is going.

Solution: Congratulations!  That’s great news!  Seriously.  Keep on doing exactly what you’re doing.  I outline.  And my outlines rarely remain relevant for more than a few chapters.  The fact that your characters are taking over means that they have come alive, that they have become something more than names on a page and collections of traits and bullet points in a history.  So then what’s the point of outlining or of planning a novel at all.  For me, it gives me some guidance at the outset.  It points me in the general direction and allows me to set out with some sense of purpose.  But writing a book is an organic process, and sometimes that means jettisoning the outline and the plans and following your instincts.  And those instincts often manifest themselves through the things your characters do and say.  Where is your book headed?  Right now that’s a bit uncertain.  But have faith in the process and in the characters you’ve created.  They will lead you where you need to go.  And chances are that when you get there it will be more similar to your envisioned ending than seems possible right now.

Scenario 2: You’re one hundred pages in, and everything seemed to be going just fine for a while.  But now you’ve hit a wall.  The story has dried up on you.  You thought there was a book here, but now it seems you were wrong.  There’s nothing.  No plot, no direction, no reason to be doing this.  You were never meant to write.  Why the hell didn’t you listen to Mister Gerlach, your high school guidance counselor, when he said that selling insurance was a perfectly legitimate way to make a living?  You’ve stuck to the outline for the most part, but now you see that the plot you’d outlined originally is riddled with holes, and the ending just won’t ever work.

Solution: Okay, first things first.  Pour out that cup of coffee and trade it in for a glass of wine.  Or brandy.  Or single-malt….  You need to relax.  The story is still there; maybe not in the form you thought it would take, but in some other form that is closer to the original than you think.  It may be that you’ve taken one false turn that has led you down a path to a narrative cul-de-sac.  I often find that when I get stuck it’s because I’ve done just that.  I’ve made one narrative choice that has taken me off the path.  If I can backtrack to that decision and go in a different direction I can usually solve the problem.  Sometimes though, the problem is more fundamental.  Sometimes I’ll plot things one way only to realize once I’m into the book that the plot points don’t all line up.  My impulse is to panic, but once I calm down I can usually see that the problem can be fixed.  Look at your major plot points, the big events that lead you from the set-up to the conclusion.  Which ones don’t work.  Chances are most of them still do.  Your job is to find the few that don’t and change them.  Yes, you need to fix this, but no, it doesn’t mean that your book is crap or that Mister Gerlach was right….

Scenario 3: Everything is going just the way you planned.  You’re making great progress and it’s all good.  No problems at all.

Solution: [Hysterical laughter]  I’m sorry.  I couldn’t resist.  Cracks me up every time.  This never, ever happens.  Let’s move on.

Scenario 4: You’re pretty much on course with your original plans, and the plotting does seem to be holding up.  But the book lacks something — sparkle, punch, that breathtaking excitement you were hoping for.  Whatever you call it, it’s not there.  What seemed like a thrilling idea seems to be turning into a somewhat pedestrian story and while you think the climax will be good, you’re still far enough from it to fear that you won’t keep your readers long enough to get there.

Solution: Yeah, we’ve all experienced this one, too.  Sometimes a story that looked great in planning falls flat.  That doesn’t mean the book is destined to fail.  But it does mean that you need to shake things up.  You don’t want to introduce action for the sake of action — no Apple Cart scenes, as Faith would put it.  You need to keep the narrative moving forward.  One solution might be to introduce a new character — a love interest, a second villain, a sidekick.  Someone who complicates things in such a way as to create more conflict and action.  Or you can take someone away.  When was the last time you killed a character?  Has it been too long?  Start sharpening the knives… Or you can make a small change with huge ramifications.  I had this problem with the original version of the book I’m working on now.  So I changed the villain’s gender from male to female.  Totally changed the book and the tension level, introducing a sexual dynamic to her battles with my protagonist.  What can you change to shake up your book?

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of possible scenarios.  But it’s a good place to start.  What problems are you running into?

David B. Coe

25 comments to Writing Your Book, part IV: The Leading Edge of the Slog

  • Amy

    I don’t comment on blogs very often, but I just wanted to say thank you for posting this. This post was absolutely what I needed to read today! I’ve been working on a novel for a few weeks now and whilst the beginning is good and the ending’s going to be good, the middle seems to be faltering a bit. Scenario 4 is exactly what I’m experiencing right now. I’ve been through it before, but being reminded that I’m not the only one facing this and that there is a way to fix it was exactly what I needed. So again, thank you! Now, which character should I kill off… *evil grin*

  • Ah, the slog. Where I trudge at this very moment. Thanks for #3. I needed a laugh to put things in perspective!

  • Great post, David. For what it’s worth, for me I find that when I run into versions of these “2nd act problems” it’s because my character’s conscious goals aren’t clear enough. The story loses urgency because my characters are getting passive and I need to rethink what exactly they are supposed to be doing and why.

  • Yes. What Amy said. This was exactly the kick in the pants I needed today. Thank you!

  • David, I’m with you on Scenario 4!
    My advice is always to kill someone off.
    Er…a character. A character!

  • Scenario #1 all the way. I wrote a kick butt outline, but I’m on Ch. 4 and it doesn’t even remotely resemble the story I started with. My outline was for a sci-fi space opera for adults and I’m writing a upper middle grade or YA fantasy. What the heck?

    I find that I’m spending a day or two envisioning the next scene. I get it all fixed in my head like a movie and when I start typing, I’m more transcribing than writing. This has never happened to me before. In manuscripts past, the story has flowed from word to word as I’m typing.

    Maybe I’ve finally found a system that works for me. Optimism, optimism, I remind myself. If this is the case, maybe I can use the same outline over and over and the novels will always come out as something different. That would at least save time in the outlining process, ha ha.

  • Amy, thanks for the comment. I’m glad to hear that the post helped you a bit. I really think that of all the scenarios I outlined here, 4 is the most prevalent, and also the most frustrating. It’s certainly one that I deal with a lot, and that I hate every time. I mean, the book is just where I expected it to be; it’s just not the thrilling masterpiece I had envisioned. Very frustrating, indeed. But as I say, easily fixed. A murder; an “accident” [evil grin]; a seduction; a new wrinkle of any kind — and you’re right back where you want to be. Best of luck with your book, Amy. And thanks again for the comment.

    I’m slogging a bit, too, Stuart. Glad you got a chuckle out of number 3.

    A.J., that’s great advice, and something I don’t do nearly enough. We should be asking ourselves again and again, what our characters are doing and how it relates to their needs/goals/purpose. As soon as we lose sight of those things, of course the narrative will begin to languish. Thanks!

    Thanks for the comment, Lori. Glad this helped you.

    Faith, do I need to send a cautionary email to your loving husband…? Yes, all — lest we forget [gives Faith a wary look]: We’re merely killing off CHARACTERS….

    April said “Maybe I can use the same outline over and over and the novels will always come out as something different. That would at least save time in the outlining process.” April, that made me laugh out loud. It can be your lucky outline — the one you ignore to write all your best books…. I love it. Of all the scenarios above, number 1 is, in many ways, the best one to face. At least your book is going somewhere. It might not be where you expected, but it’s moving forward. And as you get to know this new story better, you’ll start to figure out the major plot points, the narrative flow, and the ending. Enjoy the process, and trust your characters and your story. Good luck with it, and thanks for commenting.

  • QUOTE: Yes, all — lest we forget [gives Faith a wary look]: We’re merely killing off CHARACTERS….

    Aww man! Rats. Well, good thing I live out in the country… now I gotta find a place to stash this body…

  • Sorry about that, Daniel. But if you’ve seen FARGO, then you know what to do with the body….

  • Scenario #4 seems not to strike much—or, at least, it usually comes on the heels of dealing with another scenario. One-two punch in the writerly gut.

    I tend to oscillate between Scenario #2 and plowing through the book only to find I’ve left the middle off almost entirely. There’s more than one way to screw up the middle.

    Personally, I favor the slog. For me, it’s much hard to tear part of a story out and rewrite it from scratch. I mean, I’d rather still be on the leading edge than hit the trailing edge and have to go back for more.

  • I am a little #1 and mostly #4. I think I know what I need to add tension and spice to the book, but I am driven to write forward rather than go back to Page 1 and make changes. I am someone who wants to write a rough draft regardless of the quality, then go back and make the required changes.

    Is that a good way to write or am I shooting myself in the foot by not stopping and fixing the problems?

  • Atsiko, I understand what you mean. I used to feel much the same way. I preferred to slog through and minimize my rewrites. Not anymore. I think that after going through revisions on so many books that I’ve come to embrace the rewrite process. I’m a linear writer. I like to get one part done before I move on to the next. But sometimes, I’ve found, it’s impossible to write certain scenes until I know exactly how the book is going to look before and after the scene in question. So I do the best I can with the scene on the first write-through, and then go back. And if I have to tear it out by the roots and start again, so be it. We all work differently, of course, but this has come to work very well for me as I’ve progressed through my career.

    Mark, our usual caveat is “There is no right way to do this; different approaches work well for different people.” But my answer to your question would be an emphatic NO. You are not shooting yourself in the foot. You’re doing exactly what you should be doing. Get the book finished. Don’t retreat into rewrites. There is nothing that can’t be fixed later once you see how the entire project has turned out. As I say above to Atsiko, I didn’t always feel this way. But I do now, based on years of experience. Move forward, my friend. And then go back to fix. Make sure to jot down notes to yourself so that you remember the changes you intend to make, but then keep going. And best of luck.

  • Emily

    David? Great Post. I think I’m in part Four. Friday night I finished the first draft of my novel. It is too short (68,000 words) but that’s fine. Now I’ve got to re-read it and make the middle sparkle. I had an outline. It changed, a lot, like #1. I just plowed through it, knowing that a lot will change in rewrites because it has to in order to accomodate what I wrote at the end of the book (if that makes sense. I guess I change what I was doing without going back and rewriting).

    Honestly, I’m looking forward to getting in to the rewrites.

    I’m also terrified of lookiing back and what I’ve been doing over the last 6 months. 🙂

    So, again, thanks for this, and feel free to do your next “Writing your Book” on rewriting. 😀

  • Thanks, Emily. I know for a fact that having your manuscript fall prey to one of these scenarios doesn’t make them immune to one or all of the others. So yeah, a #4 with a bit of #1 sprinkled on top…. But you did the right thing plowing through. The rewrites will be easier for having gotten to the ending. Knowing where your headed makes inserting those scenes along the way easier in many ways (although, make sure that you don’t telegraph things early on — you’ve gotten to the end, but your reader hasn’t at that point; it should make sense without making it all feel pre-ordained, if that makes any sense). And I bet you’ll find yoiurself pleased with what you’ve got. Congrats on finishing and best of luck with the revisions. But no, we’re not to “revisions” yet in the series. Sorry…. 😉

  • You make a good point, David. I’m fine with rewrites. I only meant that rather than rush through not knowing whether I’m doing good or not is less preferable than setting a scene side after deciding I need to let it rest and move on.

  • That makes all sorts of sense, Atsiko. And the most important thing, of course, is finding a method that works for you. It sounds as though you have.

  • Ellinoora

    I’m writing my PhD thesis at the moment, and the process of getting all my material was definitely #1. Now, writing stuff up in a coherent fashion, it feels a lot like #4, after getting through #2. Except that I’m not sure I’ll make the deadline, but that’s a whole other problem!

  • Yes, I wrote a Ph.D. thesis many, many years ago, and I remember it being remarkable to novel-writing. You’re telling a story, and that story has to be coherent and engaging, it has to include interesting characters (who just happen to be real), and it has to build to a meaningful conclusion. Naturally, of course, many of the problems you encounter while writing it are similar to those we encounter with our novels. Best of luck to you with finishing it up, and with the job market explorations that will follow!

  • Admittedly, I’m a plotter. A heavy plotter. I lay out the whole book from start to finish before I start writing. I ponder over it, mull it over, run it over and over again in my head, playing out parts like a movie, and seeing (hopefully) what works and what doesn’t, what makes sense and what has to change. I like to have it worked out before I lay down word one. It worked with my last book. I wrote it from start to finish without dileanating much from the outline. I’m hoping the sequel works out much the same. I’ve just about got the outline done, and am writing up a synopsis for my agent and editor. Crossing fingers that they like what’s there.

  • Good luck with it, Jim. I would think that meticulous plotting would allow you to mitigate some of the scenarios I list here, but not eliminate them entirely. It’s just hard to avoid some narrative drift, and frankly, I like that little bit of uncertainty. It makes the creative process, for me, a bit more spontaneous. Best of luck with your sequel.

  • Currently mired hip deep in scenario 2. Had a great start and what I thought was an exciting direction, but then something very crucial was pointed out to me that I wasn’t seeing in it, and I ended up needing to back off entirely. Now I’ve got to re-route/write/think everything. It’s frustrating, but I also know that things will turn out better this way.

    Thank you so much for the post! It really helps knowing that there are other well established writers out there that go through the same thing.

  • Glad to help, Jhada. That can be deeply frustrating — and yes, we all go through it — but you’re absolutely right. Re-examining your work is bound to make it stronger in the end. Best of luck with your work.

  • Eleni

    Just what I needed to read, David – thank you.

    I am mid-slog and feeling like there are just soooo many words. Have become a bit obsessed with the word count. Am I the only person who does this?

    Have done 30,000 so far but am aware I am only one third of the way through. It feels daunting to say the least. I spent a couple fo days brainstorming my plot and came up with a whole other strand in order to make it meatier. I’m hoping that will carry me through most of the way. If anyone has other tips on how not to get bogged down in the word count I’d love to hear!

  • Eleni, it is very easy to get caught up in word counts or page counts, and to lose sight of the story itself. Being at 30,000 and 1/3 of the way through is actually right on target for an adult book. 90k-100k is right where you want to be in today’s market. And you want to pay SOME attention to your word/page count, because you want to make certain that your story is progressing at a pace that fits your desired finished length. That said, you shouldn’t obsess over it.

    If you’re feeling daunted — like another 60k to 70k words is more than you can face, try reconceiving the project as a series of chapters, each one, say, 5,000 words. Break it down to smaller, more manageable units and attack it that way. If, on the other hand, you’re feeling that you have too far to go in terms of word count and not enough plot to carry you through, that’s a somewhat deeper problem. Brainstorming for more subplots is one approach to dealing with it. You might also want to ask yourself if you’re conceiving your central conflict broadly enough, or if there can be more to it than you’ve written so far. In other words, are their deeper implications for the threat/conflict/quest that forms the centerpiece of your story that might draw in additional characters.

    I hope this is helpful. If not, let me know and I’ll try again.

  • Eleni

    Thanks David. That’s really interesting – I will certainly look at the idea of deeper implications / new characters and see where that takes me. I’m a freelance writer and am so used to writing tightly (and cutting words) that the idea of such a large word count is at times daunting. It’s such a different discipline.

    I’ll also try chopping it into more manageable chunks. Thanks again for your sound advice and for the blog. I Googled the words ‘novel’ ‘slog’ and ‘advice’ and as if by magic your page appeared! Best wishes, Eleni