Writing the middle of a novel is hard. I start out a first draft starry-eyed and eager to write, enthralled by my sparkly premise and seduced by my enticing characters. This book will be different. I know so much more about writing a novel now. I won’t get lost in the messy middle this time.
Words come easily. One chapter flows into the next. Then, at some point, maybe around chapter eight, I slooowww dooowwwnnn. Word production reduces to a trickle. My characters don’t seem so sparkly anymore. My plot tangles.
Can you tell where I am in my current work-in-progress? Yep. You guessed it. The messy middle.
Here are my tips and tricks for facing down the messy middle:
Re-visit Your Plot
I typically create a full synopsis before writing. Throughout the writing of my first draft, I stop to revise my synopsis periodically. It’s easy to find places to tweak wording, but more importantly, I find places to expand. Sometimes, I get stuck in the messy middle because I haven’t fully envisioned what’s going to happen in a section of the novel. I have the larger scenes in mind, but the nuances and details fill in as I write a first draft.
Take a Walk With Your Protagonist
I may be lost in the messy middle, but my protagonist can guide me through. Sometimes, I pause during the writing of my first draft to expand my character notes. Now that I’ve written a portion of the novel, I may have a better idea of who my protagonist is, and how my other characters relate to him or her.
Research Your Next Scene
I may become stuck because I don’t have enough detail to imagine the next sequence of scenes. Researching setting and other particulars can help me get back on track. Once I’ve researched information I may have been missing, I can write more specific notes about my upcoming scenes. If I’m lucky, I’ll slip into writing the next scene without even noticing. If not, at least I’ll have a better plan for what I’ll write, when I’m unblocked.
Write About Your Novel
I sometimes need to write journal entries about my novel. Typically, I ask myself questions about what’s blocking me or how I feel about the novel and its characters. My entries are rambling and sometimes grouchy or whiny, but they eventually help me figure out why I’m blocked. When I identify the block, it’s easier to clear.
Make Revision Notes About What You’ve Already Written
Sometimes I need a running start in order to tackle the messy middle. I re-read from the start of my first draft, making notes about how to revise and deepen. I try not to do too much revision at this stage, because I know I’ll see the manuscript more clearly once I’ve written a whole first draft. But if I discover my manuscript has traveled far off track, I wrestle it back into place. This process helps me to re-connect with what I’ve written and where the story is headed, kickstarting my writing again.
Make a Project Playlist
I love collecting songs that inspire my work-in-progress and even specific scenes. Listening to my playlist before a writing session can help me get writing.
Find Images to Inspire You
I also love collecting images that inspire my work-in-progress. I’ve collected photos of people who look like my characters, setting possibilities and artwork that captures the emotional tenor of my work-in-progress. If you like to draw, you could also sketch your characters and settings, even mapping your world.
Make a Daily Word Count
I have an over-active inner editor who likes to judge whether I’m writing well. I like to keep him busy by counting words. If I set a daily word count for myself, he’s distracted from judging the quality of my writing, which frees me up to simply get words on paper. I can’t revise if I don’t write a first draft.
I prefer to set my daily word count low. If I aim for only five hundred daily words, but I achieve one thousand, I feel positive. If I aim for fifteen hundred words and achieve one thousand, I feel discouraged.
Write To-do Lists
I like to break my big-picture goals into smaller daily ones. My yearly goals are vague (for example, write a first draft of novel A and revise novel B). But I break those down into realistic weekly and daily goals, depending on the non-writing tasks I also need to do. This takes the pressure off in terms of personal or publisher deadlines. As long as I’m meeting my monthly or weekly goals, I’ll get where I’m headed.
Find a Goal Buddy
I love solitude. On my high-school aptitude test, my top job was a long-distance truck driver. I figure that’s because I answered every question as the introvert that I am. Sometimes, I need to fight that urge for solitude and talk to writing friends about my goals. When I state my goals aloud to someone I trust, it helps me feel more accountable.
I know that frustration is part of the creative process. Yet, with each project, when the messy-middle stage arrives, I’m caught off guard. This manuscript feels harder to write than any other I’ve ever written. Where do I go from here? How can I move this project forward?
I’m about to dust off a few of these techniques to re-kindle my enthusiasm for my work-in-progress. Hopefully, some of these techniques will work for you too.