I’m M.G. Herron, a science fiction author, content strategist, and the founder of the Indie Author Society, a community that helps writers learn the ropes of the publishing business. As an innately adventurous spirit with several years indie publishing sci-fi books and freelance copywriting, I’ve become somewhat adept at writing myself into a corner…and climbing back out again. Here are some of the tactics I employ when the going gets tough, which seems to happen most often in the middle of a novel. Maybe you can find a use for one of these tools in your own arsenal. To learn more about me, or check out my SF adventure/thrillers, visit http://mgherron.com.
It’s almost the middle of November as I write this, which means that thousands of people around the world are approaching the middle of their novel projects for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.
The middle of a novel is where a writer’s resolve really gets tested. Perhaps you have already felt bored, stuck, lost, or at a complete dead-end when you’re working on your book.
This is a signal that you’ve reached the soggy middle.
The Soggy Middle
It’s not uncommon for a writer to feel lost in the middle of a long project.
In fact, it’s perfectly normal—even to be expected.
Known as the “soggy middle” or sometimes the more pun-y “muddle,” this is the phase of the project where you, the writer, feel as if you’re lost or stuck.
This is a perfectly natural feeling to have. These, and many others. When Chuck Wendig sardonically constructs the “The Emotional Milestones of Writing a Novel”, the names of the arbitrarily numbered middle points run the gamut of fear and anger and self-doubt, from “Septic Dread” to “Destroy Boredom with a Hammer.”
Which is to say, you’re not alone!
To put it another way, as Stephen King said, “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.”
The soggy middle is where you let that self-doubt overcome you.
It’s dark. It’s stormy. It’s scary.
You’re paralyzed. You’re frozen. You’re dead in the water.
Take a step back
First of all, take a step back.
Then inhale a deep breath. Maybe two or three.
Getting lost in that septic dread isn’t productive. At this point, it has always helped me to remind myself of two personal truths I’ve learned over the years.
Truth One: Acceptance
It’s okay to feel however you feel about the writing. Those are your instincts trying to teach you to be better. Keep in mind that what you’re working on doesn’t have to be your best story ever. It just has to be the best you can do today.
Truth Two: Feelings Do Not Correlate To Quality
How you feel about the writing has nothing to do with the quality of your story. Notice how I phrased the introduction to this post. The soggy middle of the novel is all about how you feel about the work. Surprising to many new writers, how you feel often has little to do with the quality of your work.
Not only are writers terrible judges of their own work, but if you ask any pro, they’ll tell you that they have written well on bad days, written poorly on great days, and everything in between. On this topic, Jerry Cleaver, writing teacher and author of Immediate Fiction, gives some sage advice:
“Everything that happens is OK. No matter what problem you have (confusion, worry, self-doubt, panic, emptiness, paralysis), it’s OK. It’s no reflection on you or your ability. It’s all a natural part of the process—what every writer must face. You’re not the only writer who’s ever had these problems. You’ll feel as if you’re the only one, but I can tell you that you won’t be inventing any new writing miseries. They’ve all been experienced before—and dealt with successfully.”
However you feel about your work today, it helps to have options. The show must go on. So what do you do when it’s difficult? You employ the tools at your disposal. Here are five tools and tactics I employ to break through the soggy middle.
1. Cycle back
Whenever I get really stuck, the first thing I try is to cycle back a ways and read through the draft I’ve written so far, correcting as I go.
Often, that’s enough. When I reach the place I stopped, I’ve had time to think and I’ve realized what happens next.
You can cycle back a thousand words, fifty pages, or all the way back to the beginning of your draft.
Only go as far back as you need to. The trick is that as you smooth out your prose, fill the story with more rich detail, or fix errors, you gain confidence and momentum.
Cycling back also helps refresh your memory and allows your subconscious the time and space it needs to think up solutions to whatever had you stumped.
You may find that when you hit white space again, you know exactly what to do next.
2. Reverse outline what you’ve written so far
If that doesn’t work, take an even bigger step back and look at the big picture. Start by reverse outlining (by that I mean, outlining after you’ve written, rather than before) what you’ve got on the page so far.
Take out a blank sheet of paper.
Then go back over the chapters and/or scenes you’ve written so far and write out a fresh a list of what’s happened so far.
The trick is to keep it short, 1 page if possible, so you can see it at a glance. Describe each chapter/scene in as few words as possible. No more than 1-2 sentences per scene.
Look for clues—often, the way forward is buried between the lines of what came before.
And if you can see the whole picture, to get a sense of the shape of the story, maybe you can see what needs to happen next. This is where a knowledge of story structure is really helpful. We don’t have time to go into that now, so I’ll point you at a blog I wrote on structure: A Writer’s Cheatsheet to Plot and Structure.
3. Do timed sprints
This one is the brute force approach. Put your feelings aside, set a timer for a minimum of 5 minutes, and start typing.
While this may not be the tactic to employ when you feel like the story is going off the rails or in a wrong direction, I find it’s very effective when you’re just bored or easily distracted.
Sometimes, cranking up the pressure is exactly what you need to get back to work.
The trick is that as long as the timer is running, you’re not allowed to do anything but write.
No internet, no social media, no talking, no phone.
Don’t know what to write next? Type, “I’m still thinking about what happens next” until you get so sick of typing that sentence over and over that you start coming up with more interesting things to say.
4. Map out the next scene
Just as you can try reverse outlining, you can also try listing out what happens in the scene you’re going to write next.
Focus on the most crucial moments.
This happens
Then that happens
Then that happens at the end
Allowing yourself to tell the story in this basic format will enable you to visualize it in scene easier.
Since you’re not distracted by what needs to happen, you can allow it to unfold through the words you type.
5. Jump ahead
Did you know that you don’t have to write in order?
You can write the ending today.
You can write that romantic scene at the end of the book before you write the scene where the characters first meet.
You can write all the action scenes first, and then go back and fill in the dialogue and emotional elements.
You’ll have to edit the book anyways. So don’t sweat it. Free your mind, Neo. Write out of order.
I also find that sometimes, when you’re bored and you jump ahead, it helps you realize that whatever scene you were stuck on before wasn’t actually needed in the story at all. Maybe you were stuck because your subconscious knew that scene needed to be cut!
Instincts can be weird, but you should always try to listen to them.
With patient persistence, employing some of these tools will help you push through the soggy middle of your novel.
Good luck!
You can talk to me, find my books, and more at any of these places:
Online: mgherron.com
Twitter: twitter.com/mgherron
Facebook: facebook.com/mgherronauthor
Amazon: amazon.com/M.-G.-Herron/e/B00OEKX55E/