Help, I’m lost in the woods and I can’t find my way out! Does anyone have a map?
I’m gonna be real for a second: I am at this exact place in my manuscript. It’s funny; I used to say that middles weren’t a problem, endings were. But to be completely honest, I’m floundering through the weeds at the moment, and I have no idea how to go about it.
Pantsers generally tend to be better at beginnings. I can certainly attest to this; writing is usually easy-ish right up until the midpoint reversal. (The midpoint is more or less when I run out of storytelling juice when I write my long, shitty synopses.) I can write set-ups all the live-long day, but actually resolving said set-ups? Eh-heh…1
In some ways, I don’t actually believe the “middle” exists. I think of books as having beginnings and endings, with the midpoint as the line of division between Set-up and Resolution. Of course, everyone structures their books slightly differently, but for the most part, my stories tend to fall into four acts, not three, with a decisive turning point about halfway through the book. For me, this often results in what I call the 60,000-to-90,000 Hole, the point in the novel where I am completely lost. I can see the end, but it’s on the other side of a marsh I have no idea how to navigate.
I suppose the 60,000-to-90,0000 Hole (or the Act III AAAAAAAARGH) is my “sagging middle”. My natural “pace” when it comes to storytelling averages around 120,000 words (although I usually aim for 100,000). But 60,000 is also about the midpoint of my book, the point after which everything goes to hell. I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m a terrible writer! What gave me the stupid idea I could write a novel in the first place? And so on and so forth.
For me, my middles don’t “sag”. I tend to build and escalate tension in the first half of a book, but solving the set-up is something else altogether. Most of the time, my agony arises from a lack of logistical, logical solutions. I know what my ending is supposed to be, but I don’t know how on earth I’m going to get there. It’s a perfect storm of How and Why and What, and trying to juggle all three of those seems beyond my skills. Usually, I hand-write my way through What Happens Next in my journal, but in the 60,000-to-90,000 Hole, my notes look like this:
And then my protagonist ASDFwa;e;sdkf;QELIDFSGH? because s/he needs to 23p9r8 up;dsifjk for the end to happen.
This is when I envy my Plotter friends. They have road maps! And outlines! Why can’t I have taken the time before I started writing to do this? Then I wouldn’t be suffering right now!
But the honest truth is, every time I’ve tried to outline before writing, I either wander so far off-outline that it was a waste of time to even write one, or it kills any and all enthusiasm I have for the book. I am a Discovery writer, after all. For me, the most profound joy and delight comes from discovering things as I write. Unfortunately, there is a point when everything that can be discovered has been discovered, and now you’re just left with the slog.
So how, then, do we wade through it?
We do just that: wade through it.
The thing about middles is that no one writes them perfectly the first time. There’s always something that gets left out: plot details, characterization layers, etc.2 Getting the words, the story, on to the page is the most important thing, even if what you’ve put there is crap and no one should ever read it. Everything can be fixed. (That’s what I tell myself, at least.)
The middle is when Butt in Chair is the most important. The middle takes place after the first blush of infatuation has worn off, and now there’s nothing left but work. The middle is why, as a child, I had a string of 60,000-word unfinished novels. Because it’s not glamorous or fun or easy. It’s hard and it sucks but you have to get through it to cross the finish line. And wouldn’t you rather have a finished book than a half-finished one?
That’s all for this week! Next week, we’ll tackle ENDINGS. If you have any writing-related questions you would like to me tackle, please let me know!