Faced with this very issue the other night, I climbed onto the treadmill. If I wasn’t able to conquer the shapeless middle of my book, I might as well work on my own.
Five minutes in I was fine. Feeling good about choosing to exercise instead of cruise the Internet or eat the rest of a pan of brownies (there weren't that many left). Hopeful that I’d soon be in good enough shape to go on a decent run with my son in the jogger without inspiring good Samaritans to call emergency services.
Ten minutes in I was sweating and my muscles were straining. It was hard. It was repetitive. I wanted off. I could count at least eighteen things I’d rather be doing.
And that’s when it hit me. That is what a reader feels like when the book sags. When the writer decides that now is the time to reveal the entirety of the characters’ massive and surprising (!) backstories. When the writer dispassionately plods down a contrived path toward red herrings in an effort to complicate the story. When the writer loses her or his way and wanders aimlessly through clever dialogue and sudden-onset “tension” between characters with Nothing Else Happening.
So, to toss out a metaphor, while writing a novel might be a marathon, writing the middle of that novel is a single workout that you don’t want to complete.
Here are my five steps (order up to personal preference):
- Change up your playlist. Parallel: Change the location to a place your characters don't know. Where they will be uncomfortable or surprised. Add or remove a character. Has the all-knowing crutch stopped answering his phone, leaving your peeps to fend for themselves. Has the supportive, fatherly supervisor been replaced by a hard-ass more interested in properly completed paperwork than results? If your character doesn't know what's coming up next, neither will the reader. This is what makes readers turn the page.
- Think of the end goal. That hike you want to be able to complete without passing out. The pants you bought two years ago that still have the tags on them. Those target numbers your doctor sternly lectured you about. Parallel: When you started the book, was your goal to type out a certain number of words, or to finish a story that would entertain and satisfy the reader, even if you plan to be the only reader? Aren't you eager to type "the end" on a book that horrifies or delights or makes your first grade teacher tear up (in a good way - don't write books for revenge on primary school teachers. That's just petty)
- Monitor your progress in two-minute increments rather than staring down the next thirty. Parallel: Work scene by scene. Don't worry about hitting three thousand words a day, or completing a chapter. Worry about ramping up this scene, having your characters emerge further down the plot path than when they entered it.
- Look at the runners around you. Parallel: Think back to similar books and see what the authors did to keep you reading to the magnificent end. I'm not advising copying other books. That would lead to a very sad state in literature. I'm saying look at the devices, where and how tension was turned up, and see if there are opportunities for derailments and re-railments (let's play "is it a word!") in your story.
- Tough it out. Just keep going. One foot in front of the other. Parallel: One word after the other. Sometimes no trick in the known universe will help. Sometimes it's just a matter of grinding through the process until it gets easier. Eventually you will hit a smoother patch, you will finish and, even if you don't love the story, you've completed it. That's a phenomenal accomplishment. And the rest? The tightening up, the transitions, the de-triting of the dialogue? That's what revisions are for.