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Stuck in the Middle

We’ve reached the midpoint of the Winter Writing Festival, and I have a confession to make: I don’t like middles.

Of anything.

Put me on a treadmill for a 30 minute walk/run, and I start off great. Such energy. Such lofty goals. But as I reach the halfway point, something strange happens. A sense of exhaustion seeps into my muscles, and I begin making excuses as to why I can knock off early: “Even if I only do fifteen minutes, that’s better than nothing, right?” Sometimes my rationalization works, and I stop. And I feel awful for the rest of the day. But if I can just push through and make it to the two-thirds mark, my energy miraculously returns, and I’m off and running again.

It’s the same way with writing. I love the beginning of a story. My characters are fresh and full of all kinds of possibilities. The endings are just as fun to write. I get to see those same characters get their HEA. Put me in the middle of that same book, however, and I start getting edgy. Bored. I grumble about how much I still have to write. My productivity drops off, and the excuses begin to fly. For me, things can easily snowball into days or even weeks of no writing.

How can we combat those middle-of-the-manuscript blues? I have several strategies. Sometimes I only need one of them to get me back on track. Other times, I have to pull out the whole arsenal.

*Have realistic expectations. Telling yourself you’re going to write 20,000 words every day is setting yourself up for failure, especially if you’re in the middle and already dragging. Every person is different. Define an amount (it can be a number of minutes per day, a word count goal, or pages per session) that will make you feel like you’ve been a productive writer. I’ve heard our WWF writing sprints have been a boon to those who’ve participated.

*Write when your energy level is at its highest, if at all possible. Mine happens to be at night. If I try to write first thing in the morning, my head is likely to thunk onto my keyboard. I’m just not up to tasks that require thinking in the morning. And if I’m already struggling with writing the dreaded middle of a story, I do not want to give myself yet another reason to quit.

*Plan ahead. When your energy starts to flag, and you feel like stopping, take a break and jot down ideas for the next two scenes you envision. Even if you prefer to wing it when you write, this can work because you’re not doing detailed plotting. You’re just exploring a direction you could take. If that avenue doesn’t pan out, that’s okay. Head in a different direction. But at least it’ll get you seated at your keyboard again.

*Change things up. Sometimes just moving away from my desk will get me back on track. Or putting pen to paper for a few minutes can break the monotony and make your work seem new and fresh. Your body has muscle memory, which means with enough repetition an action becomes automatic, which is great for all kinds of skills. Have you ever driven home from work and blinked, wondering how you got there? I have. But one downside to muscle memory is that it allows your attention to wander. Sit behind your desk for long enough clicking at those keys, and you can easily zone out. You wake up and realize you’ve just wasted twenty minutes daydreaming.

*Find a CP or a person you trust and send them your pages every day. I do this with one of my CPs. She sends me the pages she’s written for the day, and I send her mine. Every day. We don’t read the pages or critique them…but we both know we’re expected to deliver the goods. We have a special pair of pointy-toed boots that can dish out an awesome wallop, if either of us gets lazy (unless there’s a valid excuse). Don’t have a CP or need a little extra inspiration? Kim Law wrote a great blog post on accountability just a few days ago. Go back and read it, if you haven’t already.

*If you fall off the wagon, don’t beat yourself up. Tomorrow’s a brand new day. But don’t make one off day into a habit. Acknowledge the error of your ways and tell yourself you will write tomorrow. Even if it’s just a page. With me, one page normally turns into two. Then a scene. And if I forget to get those pages to my CP, then…ouch!

So, let’s make a pact for the rest of the WWF. You help keep me on track, and I’ll do the same for you. We can do this together. Which is why the Winter Writing Festival has been such an awesome experience. I know there are hundreds of other writers pushing for the same thing I am: that golden finish line.

What’s the hardest part of writing a book for you? Share how you keep yourself motivated and on track. After all, I need all the help I can get!

43 responses to “Stuck in the Middle”

  1. Tina Joyce says:

    I want to start off by sending a quick hug to all those dealing with the aftermath of the blizzard in North America. I’ve been following the news reports, and my daughter–who lives in Ohio–is currently digging her way out little by little. I hope everyone stays safe and warm!

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  2. Keeping on track often requires a push out of the gutter. Life has a way of slipping oil under the drive wheels, sending the whole shebang skidding to one side or the other. Sometimes some deft driving can get you back on the road with only a fluttering heart. Other times, you need the auto club, or in my case, Laurie. So the fender took a hit, the car still runs, get out there! The body shop can wait until after the race.

    I have learned to set goals; some I can control, like BICHOK, others are just dreams, but those dreams fuel the engine. Am I on track? Sometimes it’s two wheels on the road and two in the ditch, but as long as I’m still moving, I’ll take it.

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      What a great analogy, Gwynlyn! Once I come up out of that ditch, I tend to overcorrect and skid across the road and land in the one on the other side! I love your advice to keep moving, that you can fix the problems later!

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      BICHOK is the best!

      I haven’t managed it at all for the last week or so, with semester grades due (I’ve graded literally hundreds of essays, which left time for only about five hours of sleep per night….Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be English teachers.)

      But just sitting down at the keyboard has a kind of magic to it…make the fingers move and SOMETHING will develop.

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  3. Tamara Hogan says:

    I think I’m odd. (Um, tell us something we don’t already know, Tammy.) For the second book in a row, I’m fighting to push through not the middle, but the climax. I’ve written the ending scenes. I know what I want to write. I know what happens. I just have to …write it, to stitch the scenes together, to connect the dots, in a way that feels like a climax! Which right now it doesn’t. Close, but no cigar. Thankfully I enjoy revising. Because I have a lot of it to do. 😉

    Changing it up tends to work for me. If I feel clogged up looking at the glowing screen, taking it to notebook and pen for awhile usually loosens things up.

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      I don’t think you’re odd at all, Tamara. I think every writer struggles with a different part of the process. One of my CPs ends up tearing her beginnings apart over and over. Once she gets past that part, she’s off and running…all the way to the end.

      The reason paper and pen works for me (when I’ve been on the computer for too long) is that the muscles in my hand are having to change the way they move. It also forces my mind to slow down and think about what I’m writing. After a while I get antsy with the pace, and I know I can move back to the computer again.

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      • Shea Berkley says:

        I have a crit partner who does this too, Tina. She’ll go through three to five versions of the beginning before one sticks. Thankfully, she a fairly quick writer, so it’s not too painful.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      No, not odd at all.

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    • Tammy, I struggle with endings most of all. Beginnings write themselves; I run through middles like a gazelle. But climaxes can stop me in my tracks for weeks.

      Ann Voss Peterson held a workshop last year on pacing, which was fabulous, and I asked her if she had any tips for creating powerful endings. She said, among other things, that if you’re struggling to write your ending, then it might mean that you’ve done your job and given the hero and heroine a truly difficult conflict to overcome before they can be together. It’s that “These two people belong together–but I can’t imagine how they’re ever going to get there!” that’ll keep your readers on the edges of their seats. If you don’t see how it can happen, neither will your reader, and that’s great page-turning tension.

      So, if you’re struggling with your ending, that means you’re doing it right. 😉

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      • Tamara Hogan says:

        Great point, Jamie. For this climax, the black moment has already happened, the h/h have emerged from the battle with the antagonist bumped and bruised, but still standing. It’s getting them to the HEA that’s tough, because I’ve spent so much of the book focusing on how, before Gabe, a physical relationship’s been perfectly fine for Lorin. She simply doesn’t have the vocabulary, the life experience, to talk about how she feels. Apparently I don’t have the vocabulary right now, either. 😉

        I have to find a way for Lorin to either find a way to say the words, or have Gabe be OK with her not saying them right now. I have some thinking to do.

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  4. Elisa Beatty says:

    Great post, Tina…and very timely!

    In my WIP, I’m bogged down in the great wretched swamp of the middle– it’s all mud and alligators in there. I haven’t had large chunks of coherent time to work out what needs to happen plot-wise (I think I have TOO many plot points to deal with). And this is definitely the worst part of working on the manuscript.

    The first hundred pages were so FUN!! And now my brain hurts. But you’re right–there are strategies to make yourself push through it. As Winston Churchill once said, “When you’re going through Hell, just KEEP GOING!”

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      Great Churchill quote, Elisa! Maybe I need to pin this to my corkboard when I reach those dreaded middles!

      And yikes on all those essays…but we love our English teachers! I had a great one in High School who taught me to love literature!

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  5. Hey, sister, we have the same watch the clock gene. Sometimes it’s hard to put your head down and plow ahead, but if you remember the joyous feeling the last time you did, it gets easier and easier.

    I’m in the middle of the middle now and going to our sprints has helped me plug ahead.

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      The middle of the middle! But with those WWF sprints, you’ll be out of there in no time and on to the second half of the story.

      And you’re right, if you can just remember what it is you love about writing, it’ll carry you through.

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  6. Shea Berkley says:

    Middles. Yuck. All I do is keep pushing. If I push hard enough and long enough, I’ll break through and then all’s well. The idea of putting down the ideas for the next two chapters is a good one. Sometimes just having a tiny bit of direction can keep you from getting bogged down. Jumping ahead to a scene you know you want later can help. Even though I don’t plan things out too much, having a quick goal to write to can give me the energy to keep going.

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      Sometimes that’s all I can do, too, Shea. Just push through it until it’s over. Kind of like having kids (not sure whether I’m referring to the birthing part or to the raising part). Then you can just look back and say *whew!* glad that’s over with.

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  7. Diana Layne says:

    Oh, I like my plan–only a loose one but having some idea where I want to go tends to keep me on track. Although I don’t start with a plan, usually I have to write the first chapters before I get an idea.

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      Yep, a loose plan can get me back on the road. I tend to come up with an opening line and scribble it down before I do any plotting or planning. I don’t know why that is. Just how my mind works, I guess.

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  8. Hope Ramsay says:

    I have several stumbling blocks when it comes to writing. They all stall me:

    1) Chapter 2. I don’t know what it is about chapter 2 but it’s bitch. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book where the original chapter 2 makes the cut. It’s like I’ve got the first scene all figured out, and I’ve got the book plotted, but I just can’t seem to connect the first scene to the first turning point. I end up writing crap and dumping backstory and a bunch of things.

    2) The big ordeal in the middle of the book — this is the big turning point scene in the middle of every book. I usually write to this scene from the beginning and from this scene to the end. This scene is always deeply emotional, exposes by characters to their inner faults and is just harder than hell to write. I put it off for days on end. It drains me every time.

    3) The black moment — The same thing goes for the big black moment. Such unpleasant things happen to my characters in the BBM, and who wants to spend the day poking at their misery? I would much rather do crosswords.

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      I love your idea of writing your way to the big middle scene and then writing from that scene to the end. That’s a new way of looking at it (for me, at least)! Hmmm…maybe this would be a good tactic for me to try. Thanks for that, Hope!

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      What a great way to think about the central point, Hope!!

      I just scrawled it down on a post-it to stick on my computer at home.

      I think this may help me navigate the WIP swamp!!

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  9. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    Hi Tina. I have a hard time with writing the end even if I know how it ends. Fear of finishing or maybe I don’t want the story to end and the characters to go bye bye.

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      You know, I don’t have a problem writing the end so much as I do coming up with a great ending line. The final sentence always sound so lame the first time I type it. So I normally have to go back and tweak it several times before I’m happy with it. I do get sad about saying goodbye to that particular set of characters, however. At least until I’ve revised the story two or three times–then…not so much.

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  10. Earworm! And a good one.

    I’m more like…at the starting gate. Sorry, I fell a tad behind. My house is a disaster, too. But I’m away from it all today, and hoping to focus on my writing life for a few hours.

    BTW, fifteen minutes on a treadmill is five minutes too long. Lordy, I hate running.

    Love racing. Hate running. Competitive, I am.

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      Heels clicking you have a successful writing day, Jamie!

      I laughed at your hating to run comment. I only WISH I could run for thirty minutes straight (or even fifteen). I can jog for about seven minutes before I have to slow it down to a walk. For someone who used to be able to run for three miles straight, it’s seriously frustrating.

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      • I can elliptical for longer than I can run. I just hate all that jostling about, especially now that I’m old and decrepit.

        You’re 100% right about that awful 5-, 10-, or 15-minute mark. There’s a point in every cardio workout where I want to stop, and I can’t believe that I can go on. But I try to remember that I’m just hitting the first wall, and if I break through it, it becomes easier on the other side.

        It’s just like writing. Or sex, when you’re tired and just want to go to sleep. It never seems like it’s going to be fun when it’s proposed, but once you get over that initial hump (so to speak), you remember how much fun it is, and can’t imagine you ever thought you didn’t want to do it.

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        • Old and decrepit, she says. If you’re old and decrepit, doll, I’m terrified to learn what you consider your more experienced (sounds more flattering than mature or older) sisters.

          The things making you feel this way will pass. And when they do, you’ll still be young and vibrant. Celebrate. Enjoy. Don’t get ahead of yourself. There’ll be plenty of time for old and decrepit in about 40 years.

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  11. Katrina says:

    I really needed this right now. Work’s been kicking my butt for two weeks, and this week I’ve let it knock me off track a little. I keep staring at the chapter I’m working on and beating myself up that the words aren’t flowing.

    I’m going change things up, but in a different way to the one you mention. I’m going to work on a different scene. A sex scene! Because a good sex scene will always get me going.

    Since I’ve had an idea in mind for a while but have been trying to write the story from start to finish (a first for me – I usually write scenes as the pop into my brain and then figure out where they go). I now recognize that the words want to flow, they just want to form a different scene.

    Thanks for your help!

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      That sounds like a great plan, Katrina! I have a friend who writes her scenes (out of order) and saves each one into a separate file. She makes a kind of title for each scene and writes it on an index card. Once she’s done, she shuffles the cards into an order that makes the most sense for her story and voila… She links the scenes with a transitional paragraph or two where needed.

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  12. I don’t like middles either — not in my writing, not on the treadmill, and most certainly that section that sits right above my waistband.

    I’m bogged down in revising my WIP’s middle right now and feel like I’ve got big cement shoes on. I’ll have to take your great advice and DO something!

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      Ugh, Eileen…I have one of those sections around my waistband too. Which is exactly why I need to climb on that monstrous treadmill! Can you guess which of the two is winning? Hint: It’s not the treadmill.

      Hugs on that WIP middle. I know you’ll pull through it and be off and running again!

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  13. jbrayweber says:

    Great tips, Tina!
    I sometimes feel the same way about the middle. For me, it’s probably because I’m a pantser. I know how the story begins and I know how it ends, more or less. Getting from point A to point B can be so exciting. However, there are times, I’m not moving as fast as I’d like. Darn all that meaningful deep POV and stuff…. LOL!

    Thanks again!

    Jenn!

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      Lol, Jenn! Deep POV, indeed. It’s in the middle section of a manuscript that I tend to cut corners. Then, when I go back and read what I’ve written…oy!

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  14. Rita Henuber says:

    The hardest part is trusting myself and writing. Some people call it turning off the internal editor. When I write for myself and have a good time I do much better than when I worry about doing it ‘right’. Oh! And typing is hard. I’m a lousy typist

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      That internal editor is a killer, isn’t it? I could go over the same passage a million times and still not be happy with it. You’re absolutely right. Sometimes it comes down to trusting yourself and moving forward.

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  15. LOL, this is great, Tina!!! “Such lofty goals.” I had to laugh. That is me, 100%. For me the hardest part is simply the first draft. I love the rewrite/revision phases. That first draft is a killer. And if anyone were to glance at my first drafts they would see that they are about 93% dialogue. Apparently, I like to talk.
    🙂
    ~D~

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      I love to revise too, Darynda! It’s always more fun to play with around with it once the pressure to finish is off. I could stay in revision mode forever, if I let myself, lol.

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  16. Joya says:

    Great post, Tina.
    Like you, my energy is highest at night (when the house is peaceful, too).
    Glad to hear your daughter is safe and digging out from the blizzard.
    The toughest part of writing for me is revising. It’s what I’m doing right now. The ideas pour out while I write and create, but revising? Ick! A necessary evil.
    Thanks for the tips! 🙂

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      Thanks, Joya. I enjoy revising, but by the second or third pass, I’m tired of the story and ready to be done.

      Writing is definitely easier once the house is quiet!

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