The middle

Here’s a post from Patricia Wrede about getting through the middle of a manuscript.

I liked this part particularly:

Unexpected assistance can come similarly, from other characters (intentionally or not), from landscape or weather that helps the protagonist, from unexpected helpful twists that result from thing the protagonist did a while back. Or the “ups” can result simply from the protagonist’s grim determination to continue in spite of all the obstacles they’re facing. …

which led into this part, which made me laugh:

As with the protagonist, the solution for most writers, most of the time, is to slog steadily onward with grim determination.

Ha ha ha sob, yes, that’s pretty much the experience for at least part of the middle, for at least most books. There’s a great extended metaphor here, about slogging onward through the blizzard vs backtracking and heading for the gates of Moria:

Ultimately, the important thing is to keep moving. If you sit around in the blizzard thinking for too long, you (and your story) will freeze to death. Backtracking to a safe pausing-place is still moving. A safe place to pause, for the writer, is one where one has options to consider. The pass is full of snow, but the Mines of Moria are still a possibility—dangerous, but so is this whole journey. An alternative is to consider which of the characters’ options would be the most fun to write, or which would provide the greatest opportunity for the writer to throw in an unexpected cave troll or Balrog. This is where the advice to “have ninjas jump through the window” turns up—it’s not really about the ninjas, it’s about what the writer can do to make the story fun and interesting to write again. Because generally, in my experience, if the writer has fun writing it, the readers will have fun reading it.

And here I would say: readers almost always love the parts I loved best while writing, BUT readers also generally seem to be pretty happy with the parts that were a slog. Not always, but that seems pretty typical. Which is a relief, for some books in which the whole dratted middle was a dire slog, which can happen.

One of the things I don’t see here, but fine to be true personally, is that some books don’t have a tough middle. They move right along from front to back. That’s why they’re fast to write. For MARAG, I’m wondering whether any early reader will point to a few paragraphs about 15 pages in, 20 pages in, and say, “This seems slow right here.” But then things start happening, and I enjoyed those earliest chapters, but the action kicks up at the end of the third chapter and is almost, but not quite, nonstop from there. With a lot of grim determination to continue in spite of increasingly difficult conditions.

Even the action climax was fun. Both action climaxes, which happen boom-boom, one right after the other, though in alternating points of view. Then the falling action. I almost always like the falling action part.

It’s a lot less typical to enjoy the middle. Definitely nice when that happens, as with most of the books in the Tuyo series.

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4 thoughts on “The middle”

  1. And here I would say: readers almost always love the parts I loved best while writing, BUT readers also generally seem to be pretty happy with the parts that were a slog.

    I think it was Neil Gaiman who said when he went back to a book a few years later he often couldn’t even remember which parts had flowed out easily, immediately seeming brilliant to him, and which parts he had to beat out word by word, flogging out stuff that felt stilted just to get something on the page.

  2. The other thing that I would say about writer’s block is that it can be very, very subjective. By which I mean, you can have one of those days when you sit down and every word is crap. It is awful. You cannot understand how or why you are writing, what gave you the illusion or delusion that you would every have anything to say that anybody would ever want to listen to. You’re not quite sure why you’re wasting your time. And if there is one thing you’re sure of, it’s that everything that is being written that day is rubbish. I would also note that on those days (especially if deadlines and things are involved) is that I keep writing. The following day, when I actually come to look at what has been written, I will usually look at what I did the day before, and think, “That’s not quite as bad as I remember. All I need to do is delete that line and move that sentence around and its fairly usable. It’s not that bad.” What is really sad and nightmarish (and I should add, completely unfair, in every way. And I mean it — utterly, utterly, unfair!) is that two years later, or three years later, although you will remember very well, very clearly, that there was a point in this particular scene when you hit a horrible Writer’s Block from Hell, and you will also remember there was point in this particular scene where you were writing and the words dripped like magic diamonds from your fingers — as if the Gods were speaking through you and every sentence was a thing of beauty and magic and brilliance. You can remember just as clearly that there was a point in the story, in that same scene, when the characters had turned into pathetic cardboard cut-outs and nothing they said mattered at all. You remember this very, very clearly. The problem is you are now doing a reading and you cannot for the life of you remember which bits were the gifts of the Gods and dripped from your fingers like magical words and which bits were the nightmare things you just barely created and got down on paper somehow!! Which I consider most unfair. As a writer, you feel like one or the other should be better. I wouldn’t mind which. I’m not somebody who’s saying, “I really wish the stuff from the Gods was better.” I wouldn’t mind which way it went. I would just like one of them to be better. Rather than when it’s a few years later, and you’re reading the scene out loud and you don’t know, and you cannot tell. It’s obviously all written by the same person and it all gets the same kind of reaction from an audience. No one leaps up to say, “Oh look, that paragraph was clearly written on an ‘off’ day.”

    It is very unfair. I don’t think anybody who isn’t a writer would ever understand how quite unfair it is.

    Neil Gaiman

  3. I’m glad I don’t have quite that much of a “inspired by the Muses / total crap” dichotomy when I’m writing.

    I do remember that I cut and replaced Chapter Five twice in The Floating Islands. That was obviously a hard chapter for me. I don’t remember the experience of fighting my way through it particularly, though; I just remember the fact that I deleted the whole chapter and wrote it over from scratch, twice.

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