Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mid Point Sniff Test

Don't let saggy middles happen to you!

Alright folks: it's here. I have officially reached the middle of my book. 

This is about the point where my unfounded optimism that this is the best book in the history of the written word starts to wear off. The thrill isn't quite gone, but it's fading, and fast.

So in order to combat the mid-book slog, or the Great Swampy Middle as Jim Butcher eloquently puts is, I sat down and did a mid-book assessment.

I didn't use to check my progress half way through writing the book. Traditionally, I just lowered my head and pushed through the middle, bloody and bruised. But now I fancy myself older and wiser, and checking my progress mid-way has proven useful for correcting things.

You know, the fiddly things that most people don't mention when they talk about writing, but it's important anyway. Like all those plot threads you threw out in the beginning like confetti, or how your spunky character is morphing into a serious character, or how the bad guy is a lot nicer than you imagined, and the secondary character that was meant to act like Mother Teresa is acting more like Genghis Khan. 

Things drift in the middle of the book. This drift is normally cause for me to panic. I'll IM my poor writing friends, "Ahhhh! The book is taking longer than I thought! I'm only on plot point 2 of 10!" or "This character isn't acting the way she should!"

Then the panic goes away (mostly) and I get down to business. I now have a good feel for the rest of the book. I used several writing articles to accomplish this feat, and I will now walk you through what I did.

Step 1. Establish a battle plan: Structure

First, I read Jim Butcher's post on The Great Swampy Middle. It's hilarious. Here's the first part. It always makes me smile:

The Great Swampy Middle (or GSM) knows no fear, no mercy, no regret. It doesn't come after you. It darned well knows that you're going to come to it. It knows that you're going to be charging along, sending up the spinning plates, ripping out the strong character introductions, planting cool bits into your story for the future, and generally feeling high on life. And just then, as you get all that fun opening-story stuff done, it pounces. And suddenly, you're staring at a blank word processor screen trying to figure out how to get your story through the next paragraph.

And it laughs at you. It laughs and dances on the ashes of your enthusiasm. It knows full well that you are going to be its bitch from now until you somehow finish the book or else give up in despair and slit your wrists with the edge of one of those index cards you're using to try to figure out the rest of the plot. It rejoices and dances around a primal bonfire, howling its glee at the uncaring stars.

Just look at the alligator, rejoicing in your turmoil.
Pretty epic, huh?

If you go on to read the rest of the article, Jim talks about putting a major event in the middle in order to get yourself over the hump. Or, you could introduce a new subplot or new character. This is good advice, because it gives you something to work towards.

I think that's the problem with middles. There's a lot we have to work for in the beginning of a book--great opening, hook, introduce characters, inciting incident...there's lots of writerly like stuff happening.

Same goes for the end of the book. Wrap up all the threads, bring story to satisfying conclusion, etc. Both the beginning and the end have very specific requirements.

The middle? Generally, it's supposed to get you from the beginning to the end, and sometimes there's talk about the mid-point reversal where everything changes.

The sad thing is the middle is really the make or break it part of the book, at least for me. Maybe it's because there's a good bit of attention paid to the beginning, but there's nothing like reading a book that starts off strong and just sort of...meanders. The middle sags. The character gets lost in the quicksand of the middle, and it's just a steady clip until the end. 

So in order to save yourself from the same fate, you need a plan. Figure out what method works best for your story. Janice Hardy also has a great post on middles here

She breaks up the middle into smaller problems, like so:

Start of act two problem – minor problem one – mid-point problem – minor problem two – end of act two problem.

Start of act two problem:
This is the problem created by trying to solve the inciting event/story catalyst from the beginning.

Minor problem one:
The plan to solve the start of act two problem has run into a snag.

Mid-point problem:
Major problem discovered, possibly sending the story in a new direction or really shaking things up.

Minor problem two: A snag in the plan to fix whatever problem occurred at the mid-point.

End of act two problem:
The discovery of a major problem that will be the focus of act three, and will lead the protag directly to the climax of the novel.

The "mid-point problem" dovetails nicely into "Mid-point reversal" if you're using the three act structure. This very basic format gives you a structure to hang your middle events on. So you can add in another subplot, and plan it loosely according to Janice's middle problem structure.

Now, we just need to decide on said events.

Step 2. Assess your story as it currently stands: Corrections

Some never make it out alive.
Using some questions I found on Janice Hardy's post about over plotting novels (guilty as charged) I assessed where my story was right now, and where I wanted it to go.

I realized that having three point of view characters was too much for the word count I originally planning, and bogging the story down. A character who was supposed to be minor had taken over and overshadowed one of the two main characters.

This same main character wasn't pulling her weight. And it was my fault. I didn't give her enough specific goals, so whenever I wrote a scene from her POV it slowed down the story. So I decided to do away with the third POV character, and give the interesting stuff in his backstory to her. 

Rather than start over, I simply wrote on the pages I had already printed out what changes would be made. I will have to rewrite these scenes during revision, but this will let me get on with the story.

If the main character is morphing into someone you don't like, now is the time to catch this error before it gets out of hand. If the book is turning into something you didn't expect, assess this change. Do you like the new direction? Will it cause you to rewrite the entire beginning? Can you go with this new direction until the end of the book to see how it turned out, or is it completely changing what you're currently writing?

By making these corrections, you can apply your ideas for the middle to the structure you laid out in Step 1. You have a map to traverse across the swampy middle now. It probably won't stay exactly as you have it, but it's something to help you to not just get through the end of the book, but do so with grace.

Or, at least a vague clue.

Okay, so sound off: what are your tricks of getting through the middle of the book? Besides chocolate, I mean.

No comments:

Post a Comment