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Sagging Middles


As I wrote each of my first three novels, I found the middles were the most difficult parts to write. Each time, I started out full of enthusiasm for my characters and their basic conflicts, and with some idea of the resolution in mind. Then, six or seven chapters in, the plot began to bog down. I ended up writing roughly twice as many words than appeared in the finished books because I cast around and explored many directions to find the right path that would pull the story forward. And I was lucky that at some point, that path always appeared. But with it came a lot of wasted time and words. With each book, I ended up cutting out roughly half of what I’d written to produce the solid and interesting stories.
Would I ever learn to be an efficient writer? Would I ever get it right the first time?
And I’m not alone dealing with this problem. I’m talking about sagging middle syndrome – and I’m not talking about what happens to the body of a writer who spends too many hours at the computer. No, it’s all about loss of momentum in the middle of a manuscript when the author can’t see their way to the end. Or they see the end, but don’t know how to get there. It’s easy to lose all enthusiasm for a work in progress when you lose your direction or find you’re facing a gaping chasm – one too wide to cross.
This fall, when I began my fourth book, I resolved that I’d beat sagging middle syndrome this time. I’d turn off my internal editor, stop trying to polish as I went (a pernicious habit of mine) and just WRITE. Get the story sketched out from beginning to end and create a framework to be filled in and smoothed out further along in the process.
Following that plan, I got 20,000 words written in a month – great progress! But then, as I tried to move into the crucial stage of the story where the conflict heightens to a crisis, the words slowed to a trickle. Another sagging middle threatened, and I didn’t want to go there again. The writing just wasn’t happening.
I couldn’t figure out how to deal constructively with a mid-book crisis when I depended on my characters to tell me what was going to happen next. They weren’t talking at all.
The hero of my work in progress is a secondary character from my September 2011 release, SHATTERED. Carl O’Neill is a veteran of World War 1, just returned from the front, and along with all the emotional baggage of his experience overseas, he’s dealing with a dysfunctional family. He’s on the verge of alcoholism, suffers from blackouts and rages, and has no idea how to relate to others in a normal, healthy way. I know him well, but when I started reading through my MS from the beginning, I discovered that in my determination to sketch out the story, I hadn’t put enough of his character on the page. I assumed it was there. The same was true for Carl’s heroine. I needed to revisit my first four or five chapters and add more layers, more conflict, before I could move on. When I did this the middle was easier. So the answer to my novel’s sagging middle came from what I’d already written…from behind – what I’d written, not what I had yet to write. I realized. The middle hadn’t been holding me back; it was the beginning, the foundation that needed to be expanded for a larger and stronger structure to rest upon it.
Last year, at a workshop for Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada, Julianne MacLean talked about her writing process. Her words resonated with me then, but meant even more a year later. I realized that we both start our daily writing by reading over the previous day’s work, fixing niggling awkward spots and refreshing our memories. As she said, going back is like the ‘backwash of the creative wave.’
Backwash. More than a metaphor for me a year later, it perfectly describes what I needed to do as a writer – consciously.
I needed to have a recursive eye to the characters and plot, rather than push both. I’ve learned I can figure out what will come – by looking back, at what has already happened, where the characters have been, and by making obvious the conflicts and scars of their lives. This approach is allowing me to beat mid-story sag this time.

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