Tuesday, August 04, 2020

How to Drive Through the Muddy Middle of Your Novel

By Jodi Turchin, @jlturchin

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: The middle of a novel sucks many a writer down into its murky depths. Jodi Turchin shares six ways to make it through when the story gets muddy.

Jodi Turchin is a Young Adult novelist represented by Dawn Frederick at Red Sofa Literary. She’s also a photographer, a high school English teacher, an adjunct college professor, and a former actress and director.

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Take it away Jodi…

There are three different kinds of writers. Plotters tend to start with an outline of some kind and have a strong idea where they’re going to go before they even write the first word. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants and follow the story wherever it may roam. And Plotsers are somewhere in-between – they have some stuff plotted out but are willing to follow plot bunnies down their rabbit holes mid-stream.

Whatever type of writer you are, most of us have found ourselves in a position where we know how to start our story, we have an idea where we want the story to end, and somewhere in-between, we get lost in the muddy middle.

Sometimes, getting lost in the muddy middle can result in the infamous writer’s block. We don’t know where to go, so we stop until we can figure it out. I’m in that position with my latest WIP – despite having a somewhat fleshed-out plot clock, around the midpoint of the book, I lost it. Took a break. And now, my story is languishing because every time I open that file and look at the last lines I wrote, I have no idea where to go next.

Does that sound familiar?

If you’re where I am, or have ever been there, you may have been tempted to just shelve the book – not the right manuscript, right? – and work on something else. But I have some other ideas to share. Some tips on pushing through the mud and getting to the other side without having your manuscript stuck forever on your hard drive.

1. Write out of order. 

A lot of writers write sequentially. But if there’s a part of the middle of your story that’s hanging you up, skip over it for now. There’s nothing to say a book has to be written in plot order. Move to a part of the book that’s easier to put on the page, and go back to the hard part later. When I do this, I’ll usually type in big, bold red font “COME BACK TO THIS” and then I know when I’ve finished my initial draft where I have to go back and fix the gaping plot holes. 

In the last blog I wrote for Fiction University, I talked about The Writer Emergency Pack, a deck of cards to help you through writer’s block or missing plot points. Pull a card, do an exercise, see how you can apply it to your current WIP. You can also use writing prompts or other exercises that poke your creative brain; even if what you write doesn’t end up in your current WIP, it may trigger a solution for the WIP as a result of, you know, writing.

3. Take a walk. 

I know, sounds kind of silly, but it WORKS. I was at a writer retreat a few years ago when I got stumped on a plot point. So I put in my earbuds and took a long walk around the neighborhood of the woman hosting the retreat. After a good half-hour walk, enjoying both nature AND the music in my ears, my brain figured out where I needed to take my story. Sometimes the physical action of movement in the world can jar an idea loose to get you past the broken piece of road your story got stuck on.

4. Explore multiple options. 

Wherever you stopped writing or got stuck, open up a new file and think about different places your story COULD go and still take you to the ending that you envision. Instead of working in the document itself, open up a fresh document and do some stream of consciousness writing. 

Write for a set time, maybe ten minutes. Then open up another blank document, set the timer for another ten minutes, and write another possible path for your story. Try it at least three times and see if one of the three alternate directions lights you up. If they don’t, all you’ve lost is some writing time. If one of them makes you happy, cut and paste it into your WIP and run with it! 

(Here's more on A Fun Way to Brainstorm Story Ideas)

5. Interview your protagonist (and your antagonist). 

Sometimes when we lose our way in our stories it’s because we’ve lost the headspace of our main characters. Take a mini break from your WIP and play journalist with your main characters. I highly recommend doing this with your protagonist, but doing it with both your protagonist AND antagonist could result in breaking through the hurdle keeping you from finishing your book. 

Has your protagonist’s goal shifted since you started writing? Maybe that’s the holdup – what you thought s/he wanted isn’t what the endgame is anymore! Take some time and figure out what in your characters might have changed that is making forward progress difficult. If you’re a plotter or plotser, you may have to alter your original plot trajectory to make the book work based on the answers you get from your characters during your interview process. 

(Here's more on 5 Common Problems With Middles)

6. Be willing to re-evaluate. 

When we go into a novel with a prescribed plot – when we wrote down our outline and thought we knew what had to happen in order to take the book from plot point A to plot point Z – getting bogged down can come from the intermediary plot points we THOUGHT would work don’t work. So sometimes, taking a step back from our original outline and redirecting from where we are now might fix the problem. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline (pantsers, obviously this is NOT for you!) if it might get you past the mud in the middle of your WIP.

Writing a book is HARD

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. So don’t lose faith when the road gets murky. You are not the only one! When all else fails, I like to remember this iconic quote from E. L. Doctorow: 
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

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