Jun 01 2009

The Dreaded Middle

I’ve heard a lot of writers complain that they can write the beginning of a story, and many can even write the end of a story. The expanse of unknown territory between those two points is a large part of what stops beginning writers from finishing projects. How do you get a reasonably coherent story with the bits between the beginning and the end filled in?

One writer, Marissa Lingen, seems to solve this dilemma by writing non-linearly. (I’m sure there are other non-linear writers, but I know her so she’s my example.) I would definitely check out her website or LJ to find out more about her process, since I’ve only dabbled in experimenting with non-linear story writing, and she’s quite good and experienced at this technique. But essentially, if you can get your mind to have no problem writing chapter 27 after your chapter 9 which followed Chapter 31 and so on, the middle-of-the-book becomes much less worrisome as a concept.

A variant suggested by several authors is to break your project down into more manageable goals. If you’re trying to fill in the entire story between what you know about the beginning and the end, the project can seem large enough to feel overwhelming, especially if you’re writing a novel. If, however, you know a few major scenes or events that happen along the way, write those scenes, then see if you can figure out how to get from the beginning to the first of those written scenes, then from there to the next one, and repeat until you reach the end. (This process can also be done non-linearly for those who prefer that method.)

For me, on larger projects like novels, I find that working for too long on the novel can get discouraging in part because it feels like I haven’t accomplished anything — an irrational feeling, to be sure, but it still slows down my writing process. Once I get too frustrated at the slowness of forward progress on a larger work, I’ll give myself a couple of weeks to switch my main focus to writing a short story instead. I find that the act of writing and completing a shorter work tends to rejuvenate my desire to work on the novel. I don’t usually have the “Dreaded Middle” issue come up for my shorter stories, but hopefully someone reading will have some good thoughts to share on how to get through that for anyone who struggles with it.

Similar to this, you might find it helpful to create an actual checklist where you can record your completed stages and goals still pending and have the physical record of your progress where you can see it. If you have a writing support network, telling them about your stages of progress when you finish them will get you some pats on the back that many writers find helps them continue creating. A more controversial suggestion is (for trusted writerly supporters only) show them the completed sections or chapters as you finish them; your early fans will be begging you for the next installment and that can be a big motivation to keep writing. Do NOT try this option if you are the sort of writer that feels that once you tell the story to someone else there’s no point in continuing work on it, or if a fan failing to respond in timely fashion will crush your spirit or bring your work progress to a halt.

If you can work in a group setting, consider having regular meetings with likeminded folk where you all share space and work on your own projects. Sometimes just the proximity of others will help keep you focused and on task. If the group contains other writers, a creative roadblock can often be gotten around with a shared brainstorming session. If you’re the type of writer who prefers solo work, you can still get some of this effect if you have a public blog and post your progress markers there. Either way, remember to genuinely congratulate yourself for accomplishing the pieces along the way toward a finished story, and don’t beat yourself up for all the work that still needs doing unless you really, genuinely are motivated best with the stick rather than the carrot. And speaking of carrots, for those of you that work best that way, make sure to have rewards that you are working toward for completing your more manageable milestones. And then, remember to actually give yourself the rewards when you get to those points.

One thing to keep in mind, especially for novel-length works, is that project planning and organizing skills, even those gained in other areas than writing, can be quite useful. While writing is art, and a creative process, most people can’t get to a completed major work on creative drive alone. Finding ways to educate yourself on the skills needed to keep forward momentum going on a project; breaking large unmanageable project pieces down into smaller, achievable chunks; learning to manage your resources and energy so that you don’t get burned out along the way: all these skills and more aren’t just useful for writers, and there’s more than one venue you can learn them in.

As always, don’t forget to care for the main tool of your trade–your body! Getting enough sleep, eating meals with a variety of needed nutrients, getting some form of physical activity or exercise that occasionally gets you out of your chair, and monitoring your mental and emotional health and needs are all ways that you can keep yourself in optimal writing form. The more you are stressed, exhausted, or unhealthy, the less well your mind functions, and the more likely you’ll experience roadblocks in the way of completing your writing project.

There are even things you can do to alleviate accumulated stress while keeping your butt in that writing chair. Writers often spend long amounts of time sitting in one position and staring intently at a computer screen. The same healthy habits you’re supposed to be practicing when you do that behavior in an office setting (that no one really does, but they DO make a difference and really are a good idea) will help you not get too stuck on one thinking track. Every 20 minutes, take 1-2 minutes to look away from the computer screen and focus at something on the far wall from you. Stretch out your hands and arms or give yourself a little hand rub while you do. Every hour, take 5 minutes to get up out of that chair again and stretch your legs, arms, neck, and any other sore parts. Pace around a bit if you have the space and find that you are feeling slow or sedentary, to get your blood circulating more vigorously. Every 2-4 hours, take a short break away from the computer to do 20 minutes of more vigorous stretching or eat a meal. Don’t forget to eat! If you’re having problems remembering these, and it won’t be disruptive to your process, consider setting an alarm.

If you’re the sort of person likely to forget to eat or take breaks when you get caught up in your project, arrange your workspace so that you have (preferably nutritious) snacks at hand. Buy a big drink container with a sealed lid for water and make space to have it next to you. Staying hydrated and fed will feed your mind and help generate ideas as well as more writing.

Steven Brust suggests that “the illusion of progress can often lead to real progress”, or it’s better to write something bad and delete it later than it is to be stuck and not writing. He also mentions that if you can manage it, find ways to enjoy writing the middle part for its own sake, and turn your focus away from the goal-oriented attitude. Trust that the end will arrive eventually, and if you succeed you’ll often find that the middle part writes fairly quickly.

This reminds me of my one of my own writing mantras that I’ll wrap up with : Remember, it doesn’t have to be good, it has to be done. You can always edit, revise, and improve a crappy first draft into something better; it’s pretty hard to do that with something that isn’t at least technically “finished”.

What are your preferred ways of getting through the middle parts of a major project without getting bogged down?

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “The Dreaded Middle”

  1. Ellaon 02 Jun 2009 at 7:38 am

    if a fan failing to respond in timely fashion will crush your spirit

    Oh my goddd I feel so awful now D: D: D: I’M SO SORRY BABY, I really hope you’re not that sort of writer and also, um, I’ll totally get back to you once my soul and body heal themselves of the ASSRAPING I was given by school. Finals season = not fun. But I’m about halfway through with edits, and I only have two more tests left! Please bear with me a little longer.

    As for writing thoughts, you’ve pretty much nailed it. I find side-projects to be immensely helpful, as well as talking about the story and sending short samples to my beta readers if I feel like I’m straying off-track. Trying to think back and capture what made you so excited in the first place is also a good idea–whether it was a feeling, a scene, or a particular relationship, remember what you think is wicked cool and try to write the next scene with that thing in mind. Add another snarky dialogue or another sex scene if that’s what will get you going; worst-case scenario, you can always cut it out later.

  2. Reesaon 02 Jun 2009 at 11:42 am

    Hehehe, if I were that kind of writer you wouldn’t have been given the chapters. I took a few weeks pause from the chapters to focus on getting this short story done. Good suggestions on remembering what excites you and focusing on telling something cool! And good luck getting through your finals with a few shreds of sanity still left!