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 http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net