Stuck in the Middle of Your Novel? Try These Methods to Get Moving Again

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I started writing my first novel nearly three years ago. After rewriting the opening chapter at least a dozen times and writing a draft of most of the chapters that followed, I’ve landed somewhere in the middle not sure where to go next. So I’ve set the novel aside to work on other projects while I figure out if I should rework the novel or give up on it.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Many aspiring authors experience this sticking point. It can feel like trudging through a muddy forest, feet sinking into the ground.

The middle is the largest section of your story, and where most of the action takes place. It’s where your protagonist begins their journey, faces trouble, and meets adventure. Life gets complicated and the antagonist displays all their power. The middle is where you present challenge after challenge, each getting more difficult and raising the stakes higher for the protagonist. Without this series of setbacks, false starts and obstacles, readers may lose interest in your story.

Literary agent Donald Maass describes this middle section as place to play, a literary playground of sorts. “The middle isn’t quicksand; it’s a sandbox. It’s a place to play, the place for surprises. It is the most fun part of the novel because it’s the least burdened with the heavy requirements and rules of set up and resolution,” writes Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel.

If you’ve been slogging through your latest novel-in-progress, and the middle part has stymied your progress, it’s time to step back and review the work you’ve done so far. It may be that several scenes are out of proper sequence and need to be moved around. Or maybe you have provided either too much backstory which slows down the pace, or you have provided too little backstory that readers can’t understand what’s happening on the page.

The good news is there are ways to fix these issues.

First of all, it’s important to relax and keep writing, writes Heather Webb on the Writer Unboxed blog. This is especially important if you are working on a first draft. First drafts are usually messy anyway. Don’t beat yourself up because there is plenty of time to revise it later. Many of the issues related to tension, pacing and stronger narratives can be worked out in the editing phase, Webb adds.

What other issues might you be having with your middle section? Check out the solutions below.

1. Have you done enough research? Most of your story’s research should be done before you start writing. So you might be stuck because you didn’t research adequately, says Webb. You can’t move forward until you know X, Y and Z. Maybe there isn’t enough backstory for your main character, or about a prior event, or maybe there’s a key prop needed to carry a scene. You might need to go back to research the time and place of your story, especially if it’s set in the past.

2. Do you know your protagonist inside and out? The middle section provides the challenges that will test the protagonist’s strengths and abilities, as well as their fears and weaknesses. It’s important to understand what those strengths, weaknesses, desires and special skills are. Understand the flaw or wound that keeps them stuck in a rut and makes them feel they don’t belong in their current environment. Webb suggests journaling in your character’s voice to get to know their motivations and personality inside and out.

3. Have you introduced sub-plots? Focusing only on the main plot can be boring for readers because it’s one note. By introducing subplots, you complicate the protagonist’s story, weave in complex situations and reveal the protagonist’s secondary concerns and goals. “Every scene is a mini-story where the hero struggles,” writes Zara Altair at ProWriting Aid blog. This increases the tension readers need to stay engaged with your story.

4. Have you allowed enough space on the page for your supporting characters? The middle section is the prime opportunity for your readers to get to know these supporting – and sometimes antagonistic – characters. These are the characters who will accompany your protagonist on their journey – or hinder their progress, says Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA. A good example is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where readers learn more about Harry’s classmates and teachers at when he first arrives at Hogwarts.

5. Have you tried the rule of three to move the story along?  Pay attention to stories, books, TV shows and films and you’ll notice the rule of three appears somewhere in the middle of their story lines–three ex-boyfriends, for example, who show up to court your female hero. Or as in A Christmas Carol, three ghosts of the past, present and future who appear to Scrooge during the night.  The number three is common, says Pereira, because “it gives us a feeling of completeness. Two is not enough to establish a pattern, and four feels like too many. Three is just the right balance. It sets up a pattern but allows room for a twist in the third repetition.”

Remember, getting stuck in the middle sections happens to most writers. It’s part of the process of creating. It just means you have to step back, re-evaluate your plot structure, and alter where necessary. As Webb writes, “Be patient with yourself and with your story.”

How to Juggle Multiple Writing Projects Without Losing Your Sanity

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Like most writers I know, I tend to work on several different writing projects at one time. In addition to writing this blog, I’m currently writing a novel, I have several essays in various stages of completion, and I just completed a freelance writing assignment for a client. The work certainly keeps me busy, but sometimes it can be difficult to keep them all straight. If I decide to work on one project, it means I can’t give my attention to the others.

Add to that all the extra administrative and marketing work that goes along with writing for a living, and you can see how easy it is to get overwhelmed.

There’s a constant struggle to maintain balance in my work schedule. Every morning, I ask myself, “Which piece should I work on today?” It’s a problem I don’t mind having because the alternative is spending hours in an office doing work that sucks the life out of my soul.

However, managing multiple projects does have a few upsides, writes author Heather Webb at the Writer Unboxed blog. It alleviates “manuscript fatigue,” she says. Switching between projects prevents you from getting too tired of one project. After a few days away from it, you can come back to it with fresh eyes.”

Having multiple projects also takes the pressure off of trying to create the “perfect” piece, Webb adds. Since you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket, you have more freedom to experiment with your writing. That can only help you produce better quality writing.

Managing multiple projects has its upsides, but it has plenty of challenges too.

Challenge 1:  There’s a limited amount of time to work on any one project.

When you’re working on several stories at once, you don’t have as much time to work on each of them as you’d like. Obviously, the paid work comes first because there are deadlines, and if you don’t make those deadlines, you don’t get paid. Once you submit your paid piece and return to an essay that’s closer to your heart after an extended time away from it, it can be difficult to get back into the flow of the story again. You can begin to feel disconnected from the story altogether.

Solution:  Re-read the last chapter of your novel, the beginning of the essay or review your notes. These are obvious starting points that will allow you to pick up the thread of the action. With fresh eyes, you might even resolve a plot point or come up with a new character.

Challenge 2:  Characters and story lines can blend in with one another.

Sometimes characters and protagonists begin to blend in with one another when you switch from one story to the next too often. This is even more disconcerting if those stories happen in different cities or eras of history.

Solution: Much like challenge #1, re-read the previous scenes to get inside the character’s mindset, or as Webb suggests at the Writer Unboxed blog, try journaling in the character’s voice to get inside their head again.

Challenge 3:  Creative burnout can occur.

When working on many projects, or worse, when you’re up against multiple deadlines, things can get a bit crazy. Working at that level of creativity for too long can produce creative burnout, writes Mark McGuinness, author of Productivity for Creative People (a book I definitely must read). That’s not a sustainable routine for the long term. (See this article in The Write Life for details.)

Solution:  Create a sustainable workload by limiting yourself to two to four writing projects to keep yourself sane. Make a list of the most important activities you need to work on, such as client work, family obligations and recurring tasks. These activities form the base for your time obligations. Next fill in what’s left – your spare time – with one or two writing projects. That approach, says McGuinness, will give you the time and space you need to work on what’s important to you while keeping you sane.

While it’s easy for writers and creative professionals to have several projects going on at the same time, it’s not so easy to manage them efficiently without ruining your life. When you set priorities and allow some downtime to transition between stories, you can manage multiple writing projects with greater ease and better results.

A Writer’s Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt

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“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win
by fearing to attempt.”

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Shakespeare said it best when he said that “our doubts are traitors.” They betray us by preventing us from engaging with our creativity in a healthful way. They betray us by instilling fear in us that our words will never matter. And they betray us by asserting their will over us. If we give in to those doubts and fears, we lose the chance at achieving greatness with our writing and making a difference in the world.

In my previous post, I wrote about how we can manage our own writing expectations. One of the factors I described is the inner critic, that internal voice that suggests you may never be good enough.

That inner critic is especially adept at creating an atmosphere of self-doubt. When that critic plants seeds of self-doubt in your mind, they are bound to sprout numerous buds that can grow into overgrown weeds.  When those overgrown weeks begin to choke your creativity, you know it’s time to take action. The last thing you want is self-doubt creeping into your writing practice.

Many writers have written about how they have dealt with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity all their writing lives. No one is immune from feeling that way, not even the most successful published authors like Stephen King, Clive Cussler and Sandra Brown, to name a few. I’m sure even Shakespeare had moments when he doubted himself. Self-doubt is as common as breathing.

Every writer who has experienced those feelings have found ways to deal with them, from journaling to staying focused on their craft to simply ignoring them. Borrowing from some of their ideas, here are a few ideas how you can deal with self-doubt when it makes its presence known in your writing practice.

1. Acknowledge its presence. Every writer who has ever written anything, published or not, has experienced occasional bouts of self-doubt in their careers, and the more successful ones are more prone to experiencing its ugly cousin, Imposter Syndrome. That’s the unshakable belief that you’re getting away with something and that you will soon be found out as a fraud. Realize that self-doubt happens to everybody. It’s a normal part of the writing process and it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you. In fact, many writing experts say that if you don’t ever feel self-doubt, you’re probably doing something wrong.

2. Give self-doubt a persona. Whether you call it your internal critic, the fraud police or something else, it might help to give self-doubt a name, writes Jim Dempsey at Writer Unboxed. Or try drawing a picture of it. What does self-doubt look like to you? Then put the drawing on your wall and stare it down whenever it tries to speak to you. When it shows up in your practice, you can say, “Oh, no, here comes Negative Nellie again!” It might be easier to fight off its effects when you can bring it out in the open, rather than hide it away in your subconscious where it can do more damage.

3. Write about your feelings. If you keep a journal, as most writers do, take time to write about those dogged feelings of doubt so they don’t overwhelm you. It can be easy to allow self-doubt to consume you to the point where you cannot write or create anything. Don’t do that. Instead, write about those feelings. It’s another way of acknowledging their existence, and that’s healthier than brushing them aside in the hopes they will go away.

4. Realize the feeling is temporary. Feelings of self-doubt and insecurity will ebb and flow in your life like ocean waves. Recognize that those feelings will pass in a matter of hours or days. Don’t let them deter you from your writing. In fact, most writers say it’s important to keep writing during those blue periods. You’ll eventually come out of them.

5. Give yourself permission to write junk. During those periods of self-doubt, it’s important to keep writing, suggests Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice. Your writing won’t be the best stuff, but at least you are still working on your craft. There’s no such thing as wasted words, she says. No matter how awful your writing may be during that phase, there’s bound to be nuggets of valuable content that you can build on. Have faith in the writing process. It won’t let you down.

Acknowledge that self-doubt is part of the writing process. Make friends with it. Know that it will come and go in your life like old friends do. The next time it shows up in your writing practice, welcome it. Remember that it’s there to help you overcome obstacles so you become a better writer.

Why Writers Are Bigger Risk Takers Than Most Non-Writers

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How much of a risk taker are you? Not just in your life, but in your writing?

At first glance, it would seem that writers are not big risk takers. Writers are frequently perceived as thoughtful, introspective and cautious. That may not be true necessarily, but the cerebral nature of writing gives writers those qualities.

The reality is that writers are bigger risk takers than most average folks. Think about all the ways you’ve taken risks with your own writing.

* Writers risk putting their thoughts down on paper. The very act of doing that shows a certain level of commitment to the writing process. Putting words down on paper (or typed onto a computer screen) feels more permanent. It makes the stories, even in their most primitive forms, seem more real than if they were left alone in their brains.

* Writers risk exposing their emotional lives. Some feelings are so deeply hidden and so deeply felt that it is only by writing about them and with them that writers can truly embrace them. Writers take ownership of those emotions. Writing helps them process those feelings and give them life on the page that is both socially acceptable and healing.

* Writers risk looking ignorant or foolish. There may be times when writers express an unpopular opinion. The way around that is to do plenty of research to help support that opinion. Back up those opinions with factual data and studies or interviews with experts. There will always be people who disagree with you or who don’t like what you write. That is par for the course. That is the risk of being a writer. Writers will never please everyone, which is probably why they focus on pleasing themselves.

* Writers risk criticism of their work. Let’s face it – the world can be a sour, cruel place. Not everyone plays nicely in the sandbox of life. People won’t think twice about tearing down all your hard work, whether because of their own jealousy, fear or insecurity. Writers will need to develop thick skins to ward off those blows. But the satisfaction of doing work that they love is worth the brief moment of pain that harsh criticism can bring.

* Writers risk sharing too much of themselves. Especially in memoir writing, writers expose so much of their personal lives on the page that would make most non-writing people cringe. It takes courage to share stories of trauma, pain, anxiety and disappointment. It’s much easier to share stories of joy and triumph.  It takes courage to reveal the darkest sides of our souls. But it is a necessary evil if those revelations help heal others who experience a similar pain.

* Writers risk anonymity. They risk the possibility that no one will ever read their work. Writers can toil for weeks, months, or even years on one literary masterpiece only to see it never published. Or if it does get published, it gathers dust on the bookshelf. But like the risk of criticism, most writers probably won’t mind the risk of anonymity because it’s the writing process that gives them the most pleasure, not the outcome.

* Writers risk their pride. Many writers I know are not afraid to show their work to others when the story is still in its rawest form. It takes courage to ask others for assistance. Others, like myself, prefer to wait until the piece is nearly 100 percent finished before asking people to review it. Somehow it does not seem fair to ask people to review work that is still in progress. That’s like asking someone to view a partially finished jigsaw puzzle. You only see part of the picture, not the entire piece. Many writers are willing to set aside their pride to welcome suggestions for improvement along the way.

If you feel you don’t put enough risk into your writing, there may be ways around it. For starters, try something new and different that you would normally not consider doing, says Kellie McGann a contributor at The Write Practice blog. For example, if you’ve never been a big fan of poetry, sign up for a poetry class. Because the creative process for writing poetry is different than for other types of writing, you can learn a different approach to putting words and phrases together to tell a story.

It’s important to push yourself to try different things, McGann writes. “If you always write about what you know, you’ll never be a better writer,” McGann says. Which flies in the face of a long-held belief that we need to write what we know.

The next time you feel stuck in your writing or you just want to experiment with a different writing technique, do something different. Take a class or do something that is out of your comfort zone. Taking risks are necessary to open the flow of ideas. Or as McGann writes, “When we take risks, we step into the unknown. That’s where ideas begin to flow.”

Of course, not all risks go well. In fact, some fail miserably. There’s no worse feeling that taking a leap of faith and falling flat on your face.

So what can writers do when that happens? Grieve, suggests author Annie Neugebauer at Writer Unboxed. Give yourself a few days, or even a week to process the disappointment. Give yourself permission to mourn the loss, the failure. Set a time limit too so the grieving process does not go on indefinitely. Then when that week is up, roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

The writing process is filled with risk. Embrace the adventurous, risk-taking part of your soul. It may just help you become a better writer.

Get Motivated to Write with a DIY Writing Retreat

 

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I’ve been reading about do-it-yourself writing retreats a lot lately. I became intrigued about these retreats after reading an article on Writer Unboxed, which provided some practical insights about planning one. After further investigation, I was surprised by the number of articles about writers’ retreats. There’s even an e-book that can be purchased on Amazon.

Writing retreats, especially in exotic locations, sound like a dream. Imagine sequestering yourself for days in a quiet place to focus on your writing, with occasional breaks for meals and hiking and sleeping. Think of it as a solo getaway to inspire and motivate you. But writing is a solo activity, and sometimes you need a change of scenery to unblock yourself and perform more creatively.

If you have ever considered attending a writing retreat, you know how pricey they can be. Most writers I know don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend on a retreat. But many writers who have planned DIY retreats say you don’t have to spend a ton of money for a fancy hotel and air fare or go to exotic destinations.

Sure, it’s nice to meet other writers and attend workshops to immerse yourself in your craft. But it’s not always possible if you are short of time and money.

To plan your own writing retreat, here’s what you need:

1. Create a vision for your writing retreat. Think about your definition of a writers’ retreat. What does it mean to you? What does it look like? Where would you go? Would you confine yourself to a library for a few hours or would you spend an entire weekend at a hotel? What would you do during the retreat? Would you do only writing, or would you take short breaks to explore the neighborhood, practice yoga or read up on your craft? You are in charge of planning your retreat, so it can be anything you want it to be. If you’re unsure what a do-it-yourself writing retreat looks like, here’s one example.

2. Start small, then work up to larger retreats. If you are a busy mom with young kids, you may not have the luxury of spending a few days away to write. Consider a short-term solution, such as a morning at the public library. Offer to house sit or pet sit for friends when they go out of town, and use their home as a writing sanctuary. Other low-cost options are a hotel lobby where there may be quiet reading areas, an unused room at the local park district fieldhouse or a neighborhood community center, a hospital lounge, or a university library. Some would argue a coffee shop, but they can be fairly noisy if there is music playing.

As you do more of these on your own and as you earn more from your writing, you may decide to venture on to larger retreat experiences involving groups of people. Writing is a solo journey, and meeting with other writers can be stimulating and socially rewarding.

3. Decide if you want this to be a solo adventure or a group outing. There are advantages to both. Going solo means you are in charge of your own schedule, you don’t have to meet up with other people and you can do what you want on your own terms. Some writers have organized retreats with other writers to share the experience, swap ideas, and motivate each other. However, if you’re doing this for the first time, going solo might be the better route.

4. Pack everything you need. Obviously, bring along your pens, notebooks and your imagination. Let go of any guilt or preconceived ideas of what you think you will accomplish. Remember to bring along books to read, especially books about the writing craft that may be collecting dust on your bookshelf. Be sure to bring a battery recharger too.

5. Re-treat yourself. Once you’ve done one or two retreats, you’ll want to do them more often. It’s like eating potato chips – you can’t eat just one. Commit to a mini-retreat once a month or every other month or even once a week. A mini-retreat can be a few concentrated hours on a Saturday morning or an entire weekend at a hotel or B&B. Planning repeated retreats shows your commitment to yourself and to your craft.

Other tips:
Do-it-yourself retreats don’t have to be just for writers. They’re perfect for aspiring entrepreneurs planning their business, artists looking for inspiration from nature, or students studying for exams.

If a retreat is beyond your schedule or budget, look into write-in programs at your local library or university. These write-ins are usually free and open to the public and give you a chance to work quietly along with other writers. Snacks are usually provided so you don’t have to take a break for meals. It’s a great opportunity to engage with other writers and immerse yourself in your writing. You can stay as long as you want, whether that’s for an hour or the entire day. The one downside is that they are planned events that may not fit your schedule.

That is why planning your own do-it-yourself writing retreat is such a cool idea. Need ideas for planning one? Check out the following articles:

Create your own mini-writing retreat
Introducing the DIY writing retreat
If you build it: Do-It-Yourself Writers Retreats