Managing Your Middle

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So…I used to have a problem with my middles—bigger issues than I do now. I know this time of year that’s a normal cause for concern. Most folks do pay a bit more attention to what goes in and what it becomes. But I’m not talking about stuffing my face. I’m talking about my writing. Those middles. Those bloated or deficient middles that did little more than bridge my beginnings and endings. For too long, I took them for granted, figuring that most readers don’t quit on books—that they would make it to my dynamic, twisty ending.

But alas, I had to face facts: A. attention spans are shortening. Readers may not be so generous to finish what they started. B. It’s just poor form. As the old saying goes, the only sin a writer can commit is to bore the reader, and if I’m not as passionate about my middle as I am my beginning or end then shame on me. C. I wasn’t going to get it published with a sagging middle.

So how do you fix middles that need attention? First, I can’t say enough about the James Scott Bell book that WWAT crew’s Jess Toman wrote about here. His advice forces you to focus on the middle and its importance. Second, I’ll tell you what helped me with my plot-driven stories, and finally, I’ll give you some examples of what you might do to help your character-driven novels.

So about my issue. My biggest problem? I was a pantser, and my novels tend to be plot driven. I absolutely hated preparing to write by doing preparatory writing. I wanted to dive in. Get going. Crush that beginning fresh. Doing anything else felt like reading the Cliff Notes of a great book prior to reading it—it spoiled it. But since I knew how I wanted my stories to start, and I’d planned out my exciting ending, I found myself wading through the middle only because I lacked the passion to sustain me. By the time I reached the end, I was mentally exhausted and my ending even suffered. So what was I to do? Sadly, I figured I would have to be that guy—a plotter.

Fortunately, I found a happy medium. I discovered that if I dove in and wrote the first chapter(s)—the ones that really got my juices flowing and then stopped to outline, things went much smoother. Now outlining isn’t for everyone. I hated it as a student, but returning to it as an adult, I found it to be a boon. (K.M. Weiland has some wonderful resources on structure and outlining: ) As I said, this hybrid method helped me maintain a level of pantsing while giving me the stability that a plotter usually has.

(Minor spoilers below)

wednesdayNOW, if you’re writing a character driven novel, I’ll give you a couple of books to look at for ways to help that middle stay strong. First is the amazing Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars. I know if I’d attempted something so character-centric, I would have gone off the rails, but Schmidt is a genius, so there’s that. However, in analyzing the book, you can see how he was able to hold everything together so well. It has an awesome, built-in, skeleton: the calendar.

Schmidt structures the story around a calendar year of school. Come fall, you have the back to school days and getting to know our hero, new seventh-grader, Holling Hoodhood. You’re introduced to his ongoing predicament of being the only student who is neither Jewish nor Catholic. This predicament leads him (in a round-about-way) to getting involved with a community acting company, and since fall is the beginning of theater season, you get his reluctant involvement in a Shakespearean performance. Winter brings a powerful incident that coincides with his theatrical performance and a harrowing incident related to treacherous weather conditions. Spring means getting outside. We get Holling’s difficulties being the youngest member of the cross country team and an event at Yankee Stadium that further shapes our main character and affects his family. By using the calendar as a back-bone, Schmidt tracks the character’s growth throughout the year, and the events specific to each season propel his story forward and keep the reader engaged. (And then there’s that part about him being a genius.)

maniacThe other book is Newbery award-winning Maniac Magee from author Jerry Spinelli. Another character book, this one features Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee. A mixture of tall-tale and heart-warming reality, the story follows Maniac Magee as he attempts to find a place he belongs in a city divided by lines of skin color. Spinelli does something really interesting here as he tells a story within a story. The first act details how Maniac came to be on his own. It tells us how he joined a family of the opposite color and what ultimately drives him away. The third act brings us back to this setting and wraps it all up. The middle act? It’s essentially a separate story with mostly new characters except for Maniac. Why would a reader go for this? Because we are so invested in what happens to Maniac Magee. HE is the story. So the fact that we are torn away in the middle only to be reunited with elements from the story’s start doesn’t bother us as much. (And Spinelli is also a genius.)

Now having said all of this, middles still get me (as do beginnings and endings, but that’s a different a post). In the story I’m working on now, I had a critique partner confirm what I feared—I’d gone a bit astray in my most recent story’s middle. How had it happened? I’d veered from my original outline. It didn’t include the chapter/arc where things went off track. So I mopped it up and feel better about it. Will I one day be able to deviate with confidence from my outline? I hope so, but for now, I need it for my middles. (As, alas, I am not yet a genius.)

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