3.3 STICKY MIDDLES
How to keep going when that initial energy and story buzz dissipates
“Keep going. Half the battle is not stopping.” Catherine Johnson, Swallowed by a Whale.
Ahh, the thrill of the new. It might keep the fashion industry going, but it’s kryptonite for writers.
We’ve all been there. We start a new project, excited as a puppy with a new chew toy. But then about 20K in, it’s got all soggy and tasteless and anyway, there’s a Shiny New Thing over there. So we grab a new notebook (and that in itself feels goooood) and we start again. And again, and again.
Which is fine if you’re writing short books, but not so good if you had a YA quadrilogy in mind.
So how can you keep up the enthusiasm for a Work In Progress when your brain keeps trying to tempt you away?
Here are some tips … try to get to the end without getting distracted!
- Schedule it in – this works for me across multiple aspects of ‘getting stuff done’. Get your current WIP in the diary. It acts as a sort of promise to yourself and it stands out like a sore thumb if you break that promise. I use a bullet journal, so if I have ‘write at least 50 word on WIP’ on the day’s list and I have to > it to the next day, it irks. The more I bump it, the more guilty I feel! Other ways to hold yourself accountable might be to ask a friend to check in on your word count, or sign up to an online tool (The Jedi/WM master himself uses https://750words.com/)
- Take a break – sometimes the reason the energy and buzz has left the story is that the energy and buzz has left you. Perhaps you just need to recharge by putting the work aside for a while and doing something to refuel. Spend a few days on a hobby, or on doing absolutely nothing. Whatever you do, don’t think about that WIP. You might find that after a few days, all you can think about is that WIP!
- Brainstorm it – I would be nowhere in this writing game without my writing buddies, and it’s them I turn to when I hit a middle-slump. If you have a group of friends who get it, bounce some ideas off them, let them reignite the spark. You can also brainstorm with people who aren’t into writing too. I’ve had such fun conversations with my partner about futuristic world-building (yup, we really are geeks). Nothing to do with narrative, plot, or the themes, but just talking about my invented world got me fired up about the work again
- Read – (See also, take a break). Reading gives the brain permission to relax and work all at the same time. While you’re enjoying the hard work of some other poor, tortured writer, your own brain is remembering the joy of the craft and working away subconsciously to search out that mojo you might be missing
- Re-read what you’ve written – I know, this is ‘against the rules’ i.e. don’t read back until you’ve finished the first draft. Oh well. The rules are more guidelines anyway. I flout this so called rule every time I write: before I embark on a new chapter or scene, I re-read the last one. It gets me in the flow, back in my voice and it doesn’t feel like starting with a blank page again – I simply carry on where I left off
- Read/watch something in your genre to get you in the mood again – if like me, (like most people, I guess) you’re influenced by other media, dive in. Enjoy the genre, see how it inspires you. Remember why you started writing, whatever you’re writing, in the first place. Also an awesome excuse to box-set binge, or virtually wander through a gallery or museum
- Write the exciting scenes – if you’ve hit a ‘talky bit’ and that’s slowing you down, ditch it and write something fun. Write the scenes you imagined when the spark of your premise first hit you. You might find the energy you’ve been looking for in there
- Make peace with writing multiple books – this is me. I won’t say it’s ideal, but it does mean if I lose my way in my funny, quirky, animal story for young readers, I can turn my attention to my upper MG horror, and vice versa. If nothing else, this strategy keeps me writing and provides time away, whilst maintaining productivity
- Don’t! Quit and write something new – At some point it is OK to simply say, ‘this isn’t the WIP you’re looking for.’ If another idea is biting at your ankles, perhaps that shiny new thing actually is more deserving of your attention
- Figure out why you’re not motivated to write – global pandemic, anyone? There are so many drains on our emotional energy at the best of times, but when there are other influences piling on the pressure it can be hard to get the day to day done, let alone be creative. Is there something beyond your control holding you back? Are you expecting too much from yourself? In all seriousness, this business comes with strange pressures and they’re not always obvious or visible
So there we have it. From one confirmed procrastinator to another: Don’t beat yourself up. Most of us hit the wall, sink in the middle and are, like magpies, drawn to the shiny. But try and keep in mind, the only book you’re certain not to publish, is the one you don’t finish.
Emma was once a very sensible biologist. Now she uses her transferable talents such as attention to detail, patience and fine motor skills, to extract Lego from under the sofa. And of course to write children’s books.
Her favourite things in the world are: badges, Death On the Nile, hats, foxes, deserts, desserts and Buck Rogers. Her one regret in life is never having trained to be an astronaut.
Why have a section of mid-points? Well, in my experience and many others, this is where any problems with your story can develop during the first draft stage.
Many of us plan well for the first third, some of us know our climax’s and endings well, but often it’s the part in the between, the escalating series of problems for our main character, that we struggle.
I am certainly one of those who often gets to 20-30k and then starts to struggle.
My first tip – which doesn’t necessarily solve this issue – is to skip any sticky points and go to the next scene you can clearly see and imagine and are motivated to write. I often writer drafts in fragments, which I later have to blend together, either by inserting missed scenes, or creating new transitions.
The advantage to this method is momentum and getting down more of your WIP and the encouragement and motivation that brings, which can then help you go back to those trickier sections and can even help unlock whatever the problem was – it may even no longer exist. All have happened to me before.
The disadvantage of course is that writing out of linear sequence can lead to continuity issues and it can be tricky dipping in and out to different phases of the story, especially on the first draft when you are less familiar.
But how about we look at story structure and character arcs in a way that might mean we can avoid issues in the middle altogether.
One of the books I mentioned in the reading list, John Yorke’s Into the Woods, explores how the mid-point can be viewed as an inverted mirror image. Here’s what he said in an interview I read with him:
‘One easy trick is to look at your Act Two – and then do an inverse mirror image of that, so that the things that go well in Act Two start to become really difficult in Act Four. This works because all narrative aspires to a symmetrical shape. Another tip is to ask yourself. “What did this character learn at the midpoint?” and then to look at why what he or she learned is so difficult to carry out. So, in The Godfather, Michael learns evil at the midpoint, but then he has to go back and deal with the love of his family, and it’s really difficult for him. If you’re really in doubt about Act Four, a fairly common trick is to kill someone close to the hero – there’s a really good example in the novel One Day by David Nicholls.’
Being familiar with his 4 act structure, rather than the traditional 3 act might help when applying this advice of his, but it’s the same whether it’s the middle of Act 2 or between 2 and 3…what is the lesson your main character has to learn, what flaw or fear do they need to overcome…did they learn it by the mid-point? Or are they still on their way?
A false-dawn or a small win are commonly used at the mid-point, followed by a fall in Act 3, leading to our Darkest Hour for our MC, building through a series of crises, before they use what they have learned to overcome the final, biggest obstacles during the climax.
If you’re unfamiliar with this terminology in terms of story structure, don’t sweat it, but I always think it’s worth learning every aspect of story structure and craft, even if it’s simply to consciously choose not to do it that way for a specific reason.
But back to the mid-point, that inverted mirror image can be used as a starting point – find the exact middle of your story and write forwards or backwards from it, like ripples moving away from the point where water is broken. Hopefully by a huge stone, that makes a massive splash, or at least a significant one.
I always think about Avengers: End Game (Part II of a duology) which I watched recently. They have that false dawn, that small win, where (SPOILER) the Avengers return from their trip back in time with all the Infinity Stones and manage to snap everyone back that Thanos had got rid of. Then, we enter Act 3 (or 4, depending on which model you use), where there is series of crisis points and it results in the very Darkest Hour for the Avengers. And what happens – we get another small win – all the back-up arrives.
But even then, with all of these small wins, they still have to overcome their greatest obstacles in the climax. And they do, and it’s a mirror image of the end of the prequel to that film, Infinity War, where instead of Thanos snapping half of life out of existence, Tony Stark use all he has learnt since (he lost first time around to Thanos) and snaps Thanos and his followers out of existence.
It’s poetic and mirrored and all the sweeter in terms of story structure because of that inverted mirror image.
So maybe think of that final act – what happens that can be mirrored at the mid-point in a similar way to help us elevate that section of the story.
Another tip, from the inspiring Donald Maass, is to build towards a small success at the mid-point, then think of the worst thing that could happen to your MC in that moment in time and do it. Haul them down, spiralling towards that darkest hour. Make us feel like the MC is close to achieving their goal, to learning the lesson they need to learn, the fear/flaw they need to overcome, then start making it harder and harder for them.
Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong, should go wrong
You can view the mid-point as the beginning of the sun setting and the darkest hour rushing in, trying to consume and defeat our MC – note this, if done well, will only heighten the elation of finally succeeding at the climax. And it will keep our reader firmly and more securely rooting for our MC to overcome those impossible odds.
* We will discuss the Darkest Hour next time.
We always remember great openings and endings and sometimes our mid-points can let us down. Let’s make ours count and keep your reader flying through those middle pages, catapulting them down towards the darkest hour. Make them beg and miss sleep to find out if our MC’s can overcome these escalating obstacles.
Think of your mid-point like a mountain. The peak is actually the middle of your journey.
Elevate those MC’s as we approach the mid-point, then tear them down and your story will no longer have a ‘saggy middle!’
Suggested writing task
Find your inverted mirror image, or your mid-point where your MC has begun the learn the lesson, to overcome their fear/flaw, or made some good progress towards their end goal. Then bring it tumbling down. Post your mirror on the channel. Tell us about it. Get excited about your mid-point.