In our last Endurance post, Judi Lauren (aka Lost Girl of the Dark Sea) left us with these words, “Your words are waiting to change someone. So don’t give up on them.”
Today I want to build on that and talk about perseverance. But, more specificifically, because this is where I’m at (and where I see a lot of authors struggle) the murky middle.
As a writer and editorial assistant, I get to see both sides. This is a plus and a minus. In this case, it’s a bit of a plus in that I have a lot of perspective and can say, without a doubt, that how writers approach the middle of the story is what separates those who have endurance (and are dedicated to their craft) from those who don’t. Why? The middle is where stories go to die.
I don’t know about you, but here’s what my writing process looks like:
The Beginning: Beautiful, shining idea.
It’s great. I love it. Sure, it’s not all fleshed out. Sure, I’m not completely sure who my character is. But, this is about to be THE best book ever. Instant bestseller. A classic.
When I started writing the southern gothic I’m completing for YAB Bootcamp, I was so in love with it. I’m from Texas. My mama’s family is partially from Texas, partially from Louisiana. My daddy’s family is from Alabama (where the book is set) and I’ve spent many summers there. It was like coming home. Every character made me laugh, reminded me someone I knew. Every description of a live oak tree or the tire swing by the lake where my characters hang was very much modeled off events from my childhood. It was just glorious. And if we want to fast forward a lot, to the end, I bet that by the end of this month I’ll feel the same. My manuscript might not be perfect, but I’ll be proud at the work I’ve done. Plus, I’m confident in my ability to revise.
But, none of that matters…
I’m in the middle.
the murky (swampy) middle
My story is like one big leech, sucking the life from me. Or, chiggers biting my skin so I can’t concentrate on anything but the itch. This is the murky middle. And it’s hell.
Okay, I know. I’m supposed to be writing something enlightening or at the very least inspiring? Motivational…? Peppy?
Well, I’m getting there. Here’s the thing about the middle: it’s also the part I forget about, which is why it’s so painful. I NEVER prepare myself for it. At least, I didn’t used to. Last year was the year I stopped writing as a lot of personal things took over. And so when I came back to writing this year, I vowed not just to write the stories I’ve always wanted to tell, but to truly hone my craft. To find my voice and to write those stories well.
I’m not saying I now have THE keys to making your middle less murky, but hopefully these tips will make it a lot more fun.
Why is the middle so murky to begin with? Well, think about it. Like I said, in the beginning everything is fresh. Every bump is a challenge to be overcome. Why? Because we’re excited about our shiny new idea and, as a result, we think creatively about solutions to our plot problems. By the end, it’s the home stretch. You know what your grand finale, your big twist, will be. But most stories don’t make it to that point. Many writers give up before they reach the beautiful second half where the words are again flowing. The middle is the point where writers' motivation is waning. It’s when and where I get bored, so what’s to be done?
Make it fresh again.
What do I mean by this? (re)Ask yourself these three questions:
1. Who is my character?
2. What does my character want?
3. How can I make it even harder for them to get what they want?
The beginning is all about establishing #1 and #2. You’re weaving in backstory. You’re sprinkling character motivation. The middle is time to make it near impossible for your character to get that thing they most desire. How do you do that?
Bear with me for a minute. When I think of roadblocks, I think of "The Amazing Race." You know that TV show where teams race around the world, receiving clues that lead them to various challenges? Just as everything going well, and your favorite teams are in the lead, there’s a roadblock. And it’s always something interesting that takes the teams “off the beaten path” and really pushes them to their limits.
That’s how I expand my stories, especially when I hit the middle. When I get bored and stuck and miserable, I hit my character(s) with a roadblock. How?
Imagine it’s lunch time on a Monday. And all weekend you've been craving an almond butter and jelly sandwich. Yes, almond butter. It’s delicious (and when your sister’s allergic to peanut butter, it becomes your favorite thing). Luckily, last night, you made an amazing AB&J sandwich. But what if you go to the fridge and what if you discover that someone mistook it for their PB&J sandwich (as if) and ate it *gasp* (Roadblock #1).
Okay. Fine. I have the supplies at home; I’ll make another one.
But what if there’s a fire on the tracks and ALL the uptown trains are delayed? What if you have a meeting right after lunch? (Roadblock #2 & #3). You’re ready to give up. After all, you’re not about to buy more bread, almond butter, and jelly for one sandwich.
But then, turns out a specialty almond butter and jelly shop just opened up around the corner from your job. (I work in Soho, there’s a rice pudding shop, so I wouldn’t be surprised). By now you only have about 15 minutes for lunch so you walk down there and guess what? The line. It’s crazy long. You turn around and grab a taco from a food truck.
But what if you never make it downstairs to begin with? What if the elevator stopped working and your office is on the 26th floor? What if on your way down the stairs you hear coworkers planning a jewel heist. What if you are determined to stop them by gathering a crew and beating them at their own game? What if…
Ha. Gotcha. That was fun, wasn’t it?
See, you plotted through the middle. YOU took a story about a character who just wanted to eat a AB&J sandwich and made it thrilling. You found a way out of the swamp and told that murky middle to go— Well, you get my point ;)
Endurance, as defined in our first post, is “the ability or strength to continue despite fatigue, stress, or other adverse conditions.” The murky middle is definitely an adverse condition. Often, in the beginning we’re so focused on expanding the story and deepening our characters that that natural curiosity wanes by the time we hit the middle. But YOU are the writer. YOU have the power, the skills to change the entire game. Don’t hold back. Don’t save ideas for book #2. Put it all in this one.
You can do this, I believe in you. And hey, I’m write (haha, sorry). I’m right alongside with you. Literally. My characters are in the swamp. But I’m going to get them out. And you, too, will show this murky middle who's boss.
Go forth. And don’t forget the magic of “what if” and the power you, the writer, hold in making your story what you want it to be.
How do you persevere through the murky (swampy) middle?