Friday, October 22, 2010

The Muddle in the Middle

I'm in the middle of the rough draft of the current manuscript I'm working on--the third book in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series. And that's always where the writing bogs down.

In the first third of a mystery, the goals for the writer are fairly straight-forward: start off with a bang--usually a body hitting the floor, introduce the sleuth, commit the sleuth to investigate the crime, introduce most if not all of the suspects, start the subplot(s) rolling, and end with the first turning point (big surprise). There's the excitement of starting a new project and discovering my characters. So, I usually can plow through the writing of those scenes in my outline fairly quickly.

Similarly, the goals for the writer in the last third of the mystery are fairly straight-forward: in an ah-ha! moment the sleuth makes the final determination of who-dunnit, the villain is confronted and captured, subplots are resolved, justice is served and everyone (except the villain) lives happily ever after. Also, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and the excitement of nearing the end keeps me motivated and moving forward. So, again, I can plow through the writing of the final scenes in my outline.

The muddle in the middle, though is a whole different story. Hidden motives and relationships between the characters are revealed, the stakes are raised, more turning points occur where the sleuth realizes she's been heading in the wrong direction. The sleuth mucks around talking to suspects, discovering clues, changing her mind from one minute to the next who the killer might be.

And I muck around, too. This is where it's important for the writer--and the sleuth--to remember who was where when and who knew what when. So, I'm constantly scanning back in the manuscript to remind myself of these things or to discover whoops, I didn't set them up or define them and I have some repair work to do. The writing slows down. The motivation ebbs.

That's when I need "a little help from my friends" to keep me churning out those pages. My critique group helps, as does setting weekly goals and reporting on those goals to people who will hold me accountable. And, knowing that I've eventually found my way out of the muddle in the middle five times before in prior manuscripts helps. But, none of that takes away the agony, self-doubt, backtracking and just plain hard work it takes for me to muddle my way out of the middle.

What about you? If you're a writer, when do you tend to lose that motivation or get bogged down in the writing? And if you're a reader, is the middle of a mystery when you start to get confused and the reading slows down? Do you find yourself going back in the book to remember things, as I often do?


Alice Loweecey said...

I've been there with every ms. too. It's also the point where I think this'll never get to 8k, my plotting sucks, my dialogue is like watching paint dry... you know the drill.

I work my way through it by brute force. Not fun. But then it becomes fun again.

Vicki Doudera said...

I'm glad you mentioned how hard it is to remember what happened when, who was where, etc. I find it so tricky to keep all that accurate! This is where my husband the detail-oriented attorney comes in handy... he catches most of my slip-ups before Terri or Connie has to!

This post is very helpful to me -- thank you!

Jess Lourey said...

For me it's the first 50 pages that are the hardest, Beth. For some reason, once I get over that hump, the rest rolls fast and furious. We just need someone who hates to write the last third, and the three of us can team up to co-author a series.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I liken the writing of a book to riding one of those mammoth, old fashion roller coasters. The first 2/3 of the manuscript is comprised of chugging at a snail's pace up to the top - complete with the "chunk, chunk, chunk" of the cars being dragged upward. At the top there is a momentary pause, then all hell breaks loose and I go speeding downward in a death-defying plung of twists and turns until I arrive at the end, out of breath and with my hair standing on end.

Beth Groundwater said...

I love your analogy, Sue Ann! Yep, I'm chunk, chunk, chunking along right now, working my way through the pages by brute force, as Alice puts it. The fun parts for me are the beginning and the end, much like a roller coaster ride. :)

E. B. Davis said...

I'm at that stage of my WIP now too, Beth. It's a problem of logic, placing your protagonist in a forward direction, but one that's interesting to the reader. In a bit of a muddle too. I have these great break-out days when the new ideas come and the script just pours out. But I'd better have one of those days soon, or I won't have anything to submit to my critique group! Good luck, I've enjoyed your last 2 books and this one will be the same.

Darrell James said...

I always say writing a novel is like raking sand. You pull some of the story forward, then reach back into it and drag another rakeful forward. Keep raking until all the sand has been spread to the end.

Possibly the result of being a "no-outline" type.

Donnell said...

Beth, I go for a lot of walks. I re-read what I've written and then I play what if I went this way scenarios. I do what I believe is the logical way the reader would expect the book to go, and then I turn it. I try to do something they'll never see coming. Believe it or not, this is where writers show their muscles. The unexpected. Have fun with it!

Anonymous said...


Are you a plotter or do you just plow through and let the story go where it will?

I'm asking because I need to know if you've already got the end in mind or if you're waiting for it to be revealed to you.

If you do know the end (or even if you don't, but for some reason to me it seems easer if you know the end), ask yourself a few questions:

--What clues/bits of info/experiences need to occur to get my characters where I need them to be? Try to come up with maybe 3-5 things.

--How can I make it hard for them to get those bits?

Do I need a subplot or a stronger subplot in there to keep action going/provide depth?

I'd recommend doing some mind mapping around the above.

Then go take some walks and let them brew.


Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Gina,
I am a plotter, so I know what the basics of each scene are. The main problems for me come in dialogue regarding who knew what when, because that influences how the characters talk to each other about the events and how/when the small revelations occur. I know what happens when, but of course, not all the characters do. :)

Kari Wainwright said...

Ah, the problem of the muddled middle. Many writers know that well. I'm currently there and am trying a technique I've not tried before. I'm questioning my secondary characters (in my head) to find out more of their motivations.

Then I'll see how they wind up interacting with my protagonist.

Fran Stewart said...

I generally start writing my books in the middle. It's a chaotic way to write (or so I've been told) but it seems quite normal to me.

Right now I'm in a muddle because I'm putting so much effort into my efforts at beginning beekeeping, that my writing has gone a bit on hold, except for my daily blog

Carolyn J. Rose said...

It's exhausting but, on the positive side, while I'm thrashing around in the middle, I often come up with some terrific ideas for plot twists that make the story stronger or even develop ideas for other books.

Alan Orloff said...

The first page isn't too bad, and the last page is pretty easy. The rest is the muddle in the middle for me. So I muddle through.

And Beth, I'm like you. I forget many of the details as I go and I have to keep referring back to know what the heck is going on!

Kathleen Ernst said...

The words "muddle" and "muck" say it all. The muddy middle is a challenge for me as well.

I'm not an outliner, but I build an outline as I write, which does help me remember what happened in chapter 3!

Beth Groundwater said...

I EXPAND on my outline as I write, often adding what other characters are doing off-stage during a scene, what's promised or told by one character to another, etc. And, I add page numbers, so I can easily find that scene again when I invariably have to go back in the manuscript to find something.

Kaye George said...

I felt like I there forEVer on the first draft I just finished. It' agony while I'm doing it, but I get to places I didn't even know existed and I always, for some crazy reason, think it was fun--afterwards. It wasn't, but I get that illusion. It's fun to have gotten to THE END!

Beth Groundwater said...

Here's an email from Don Neeper about this post that I thought might be useful to others struggling with this stage:

I sympathize. I co-write, and I'm the one who checks that all of the dates are possible, that what a character knows actually happened in his past, that a character hasn't changed name or home accidentally. In this technical debugging, the future plot--wherever it may go when you write it--is irrelevant. What is important: all previous material must be consistent and credible (I don't do magic). Every detail. So I put details on an actual calendar, and make an outline of events--not before I write draft, but AFTER I've (or we've) drafted it. That's happened two or three times during the course of the book, but not before at least half the story was written.

Don Neeper

Beth Groundwater said...

And here's a couple of Facebook comments:

Gee, Beth - I write non-fiction books, and it's the same with me. A good opening, a great finale, but when I'm writing the middle, I say to myself: "Who in the heck is going to continue reading this nonsense? It's turgid, it's boring and it...'s going nowhere. All I'm doing is filling up the pages with words." But I soldier on, and eventually it all becomes clear. When I've finished I go back and tweek, and tweek again. I rewrite, I worry and eventually I can see the book as a whole.

- James Gracie

Great piece, B. I'm in the same spot myself...bogging down like a Humvee in quicksand.

- Sean Patrick Little

Terry Shames said...

I'm so happy to have read this. I'm having a muddle much earlier than usual. Not even 8,000 words. It's driving me crazy. I have a plot that feels solid, and know where and when everything happens, but it's as if every single character is playing hide and seek. Each time I introduce a character, it's like a stick figure. It takes me a lot of poking and prodding to get them to seem real. Right now the victim is defying me. A minor character who seemed larger than life in the last book is sulking around the outside on this one, saying she doesn't want to play. Grrrr.

Susan said...

Thank you so much for writing this post! I was just talking about this last night. The first half of the book was so exciting. But now I can't get my bearings. This is my first mystery, so I don’t know what’s normal. Reading the comments here reassures me that my book can survive. I, too, have to reread to refresh my memory. (The benefit is a lot of editing.) This week I got a jumpstart by talking with professionals (in this case PIs) who were willing to help with the main character's next steps. I hope before too long we’re posting about making it through the middle and enjoying the end!

Marilyn Levinson said...

You couldn't have said it better! And half my new plot points require some sort of research.

Beth Groundwater said...

You know, it makes me feel a whole lot better to know that so many other writers feel the same way in the middle of writing first drafts! I hope it makes those who commented on and read this post feel better, too. We are not alone in our struggles. :)

And Susan, I agree, I can't wait to post that I've written "THE END" and the editing can begin!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

I find beginnings more difficult, when all the characters show up on stage for the first time and I'm getting to know them. By the time I reach the middle, the story is usually zinging along. A couple of times when the plot has lagged, I've added a new character. Who is this person and how does she relate to the mystery plot? It's a surprise for me as well as the reader with interesting results.

Sheila Deeth said...

I'm looking forward to number 3.

And in my own manuscript I'm constantly bemoaning how my plans to be organized always get derailed by my desire to keep writing.

Susan said...

I had to come back to this blog post today. I've never forgotten reading it when I was stuck in the middle. It helped me look forward even more to THE END. And today, I reached it! I am so thankful to authors who post openly about their struggles. It helps rookies like me understand how normal--and surmountable--their first-draft (and other) challenges can be. Thank you! Now on to the reworking, re-editing and reminding myself to push forward. Thanks again!