Muddle in the middle (of my novel)

I’m trying to improve the middle of my novel. When I realized it needed revision, this was the section that called out, “Lifeguard! Police! Somebody! I need help!”

I feel confident in my beginning. And I love my ending.  So it’s just the muddle —  I mean ‘middle” — of the book that needs work.

This isn’t an uncommon problem. Lots of writers run into problems with middles. (Well, so do lots of non-writers but that’s a different kind of middle and it can be addressed through exercise and Weight Watchers.)

James Scott Bell, in his book Plot & Structure, writes:

Writers sometimes refer to the infamous ‘Act II problem,’ which boils down to this: How do you keep the reader interested through that long portion of the novel?

Photo from menwithpens.ca

In my case, I’m still trying to diagnose the problems. I’ve got a bunch of scenes that seem to cascade without enough emotional differentiation. The movement is all in one direction – down, down, down – rather than down-up-down-down-up etc.  There are also probably too many instances where I describe something rather than show it. And feedback from my writing group this week made me take another look at my main character, who may be too passive and just drifting along with events in this section.

Next month I’ll be attending the Squaw Valley Community of Writers – a weeklong conference with dawn-to-dusk critique sections, writers’ panels, workshops, and readings. I’ve heard wonderful things about it and am looking forward not only to inspiration, but perhaps to some discussion of muddled middles.

In the meantime, I turned to my shelf of books about writing and then to what I could find about “middles of novels” on the Internet.

(Classic Web moment: You do a search for “middle of novel” and get a lot of responses that have to do with NOVELS for MIDDLE school students.)

The two best Web posts I found on mid-novel muddles are by a fantasy writer named Hilari Bell. I’d never heard of Bell, and her books aren’t the kind of thing I normally read. But one thing I’ve discovered is that good advice about writing transcends genre. You have to do a little mental translation while you read – a thriller writer may be talking about external threats from terrorists, while your literary novel may involve an internal threat from a failed relationship – but if it’s good advice, it works anywhere.

One of Bell’s posts that hit home for me is about inactive protagonists. Another is about “middle of the novel mud.” They’re somewhat related in that they focus on the need for the main character to act, not drift:

The middle of the novel is, notoriously, a place where writers get bogged down…. Generally, it’s either because they don’t have a big enough problem to drive a whole novel or because their main character is just wandering around while the story happens to them.

This overlapped enough with the comments from my writing group to spark a little “ah ha!” moment.

Now on to some middle-of-the-novel wrestling — or would that be “mid wrestling?”

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Coming Attractions: I’m very excited about my next post — another rabbi interview, this time with Rabbi Andrew Straus, the new senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. I’ve already done the interview, and should be able to post it sometime this week. Stay tuned.

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3 Responses to “Muddle in the middle (of my novel)”

  1. laurastanfill Says:

    I’ve had middle-lag and middle-mess in previous novels, so I totally relate. I’m midway through novel #3, and it’s a first draft, so we’ll see how this one goes!

    In addressing your comment about the emotional down-down-down, I heard a piece of advice through a friend who took a theater class that’s a similar, but slightly different, way to look at scenes. Each scene should either pull another character closer, or push him/her farther away or everything stays the same. I found it helpful to mark my scenes with +, – and = signs in the margins. That helped me realize when nothing was moving forward and to diagnose when there were too many positives or negatives in a row. Have fun at the conference. Sounds great!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Thanks! I find that pieces of advice like your friend’s are useful as a new lens through which to look at the work. You can stare at the same section for weeks and read it over and over and get nowhere, and then you hear something that allows you to look at it in a new way, with a new question in mind.

      Laura, are either Novel #1 or #2 published? If so, let us know the names and give us a link!

      • laurastanfill Says:

        Thanks, Ilana! That + and – bit of advice came when I was sorting through a late draft of my last book, and it was exactly the diagnostic tool I needed to look at each scene in a new way.

        Neither book is published–yet!–but thanks for asking! I earned an agent for #1, but nobody bought the manuscript, and that was a lot of years ago when the industry was a lot healthier. I finished #2 last summer and, honestly, barely sent it out because I got so wrapped up in writing #3. I really believe in #2, but I only have so much time in the day, so I’m spending my energy writing.

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