The Middle Muddle

The Beginning
The Beginning

Every writer has his or her way of doing things.  Some writers write only one book at a time, beginning at the beginning and writing in an orderly fashion until the end. Other writers write one book at a time, but in pieces, writing a scene here and scene there and then weaving them all together.

Not me. I write several books at a time. I love, absolutely love, starting a book. The blank page is so full of possibility. Every book might be fabulous, might be a best seller. Every book has the potential to be written in an orderly fashion until I’m done.

Alas, every single book I write fails to meet that potential. Every. Single. One.

When I get to the middle–known by many writers as The Dreaded Middle–I come to a screeching halt. I have no idea where to go next. I am consumed by doubts:  This book is boring. This book is TERRIBLE. I suck at this. I’ll never write another book. 

So I fret. I try to plot a bit more, to think of situations to toss my characters into so they can get out of the mess they’re in. I re-read the outline, the synopsis, or the beat sheet I’ve prepared to get myself back on track. I stare at the last sentence I’ve written and type nothing else. I read writing books.

Then I get another idea for a book, so I plot that. I write a synopsis. I tell myself–and my writer friends, who are probably tired of hearing it–that THIS time, I will avoid the Middle Muddle. I will storm right through and take no prisoners. It will be AWESOME.

But of course it’s not. I get stuck in the middle, and the cycle starts again.

The EndWith every book, though, there comes a moment when the words flow again, where I get past the middle in a flurry of activity that sometimes causes me physical injury. I pound out the last 20 or 30 thousand words in half the time it takes to write the first 30,000.

Yesterday was such a moment. I went to a NEORWA meeting in the morning, learned about a great new writing center in the Cuyahoga County Public Library, then went to lunch with some of my chapter sisters. I bitched about the middle muddle, and when I got home, I pulled out the manuscript that’s been idle for 5 or 6 months, and started typing. I wrote 1400 words before dinner, and another 300 words before bed. I got past the middle. It felt amazing.

I have no idea why this happens. I don’t have any epiphanies, or sudden realizations about the characters or the plot that take me past it. I just start writing again.

Last night I realized that this is okay. It’s simply the way I write. Although I will continue to read writing books and talk to writer friends and plot and try to avoid the Middle Muddle, I have made my peace with it. I’m never going to write fast, never going to be like this prolific writer or that super organized one. I am my own writer, and I do things my way, even if that way is weird and confusing and occasionally demoralizing. Anyone who knows me is probably not at all surprised.

So, writer friends. How do you write? Orderly, piecemeal? One book at a time or several? Middle muddle or not?

31 Replies to “The Middle Muddle”

  1. I feel your Dreaded Middle pain. Your symptoms are all too familiar. I’m a one-at-a-time linear writer, and I hate giving up. So when I hit the middle muddle I’m at a complete standstill. I also read writing craft books, every writing related blog I can find, and complain to my critique partners. Sometimes brainstorming helps, but quite often those brilliant ideas just don’t resonate with me – nothing is good enough to get me started. And then something miraculous and mysterious happens amongst my grey cells and I know where my story needs to go and I can race to the end. I just wish I knew what the mysterious/miraculous something was so I could skip all the angst!

    1. Hi Luanna! It’s nice to know I’m not alone. 🙂 I do think it’s something miraculous and mysterious, and I also wish I knew what it was. Maybe one day I’ll figure it out!

  2. I am a panster. I never plan but let the characters tell me the story, which means I often up at a dead end. My WIP is going slower than chilled molasses. I’m not even to the middle and I’m flagging in the stretch. Glad you found your own stride.

    1. Hi Linda! I tried pantsing–it just didn’t work for me, although I wish it did–I’m not a fan of plotting, but it’s the only way I can write a coherent story. Hoping your molasses warms up and your words start flowing again!

  3. Hi Marin, Glad we helped you get by your middle phobia. You never know when inspiration will hit, so do what you need to do. Write straight through or jump around. It’ll all come together at the end. I’m a pantser, and don’t know myself where it will end. But, that’s just me.

    1. An excellent analogy, Madeleine! I hate giving up as well, and I seldom do give up on a story–I keep dragging it until it’s done, even if it sits for six months.

  4. Maybe you need time to process and think about the story you want to tell. Perhaps while you’re doing other stuff, an unconscious corner of your brain is figuring out how to finish your story.

    I do something similar. I have several books going at once right now, all in various stages of incompleteness. I work on one at a time, but when I get stuck on one, I turn to another. I’m hoping 2016 is the year I finish some, if not all of my works in progress!

    1. Hi Jana! I think that’s a excellent point. I think my stories do need time to percolate, and to be looked at with a fresh eye. I just wish it didn’t take so darn long. 🙂

      Good luck with all your works in progress–I am sure you’ll get them done!

  5. I enjoyed talking to you yesterday and reading about the dreaded middle today. Since I’ve only written one book all the way through, I’m not sure exactly what it’s like for me. I’ll let you know when I get through the next manuscript! Two observations though. Usually when I get stuck it’s because I haven’t plotted enough. Also, I read commentary by one of my favorite historical romance authors Mary Balough who says writers block is a myth–that it’s actually lack of discipline on the part of a writer.

    I tend to agree with her. Since most of us have day jobs, families and countless other responsibilities, one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a writer is how to make it a daily routine. I treat it just like exercise. I don’t love to exercise but always feel so great afterwards. Wow…I obviously had a lot to say about the topic. I may have to blog about it…haha:)

    1. Hi Amanda! It was great to chat with you yesterday as well. I do love Mary Balogh too, and I think lack of discipline is part of it–certainly in my case–but there’s more to it, something indefinable that keeps me from writing that particular story no matter how much I plot or how long I sit there and set my fingers on the keys. So I start something else and wait for the muse to come back. Fortunately, so far she always has. 🙂

  6. I find I always know the beginning and the end of the book and somehow I manage to get from A to Z with the characters telling me their story. Yes, I’m a died in the wool pantser. It’s in re-writes where you can get the middle right so I don’t worry about it. Complications, extra scenes and so on will hit me in the face so the middle hopefully doesn’t sag. I did say HOPEFULLY didn’t I?

    1. LOL, Andrea–hope is key to any writer. 🙂 For my first book I sort of skipped over some of the middle when I got stuck, but then I found it took me forever to rewrite–the middle must be dealt with at some point!

  7. Interesting post. I am one of those who write chapter out of order, write more than on book at a time and am definitely a panster. Muddle thought the middle in each one. Somehow it will all finally come together. I agree the last 30,000 words are easier than the first 40,000, sometimes. Today though, I wrote the ending first, then back to thee middle.

    Thanks for sharing! Makes me feel better not to be the only one.

    1. Hi Tena! I can’t write things out of order since I get confused enough as it is, but I am always impressed by those who do. 😉 You’re definitely not the only muddler, though!

  8. Marin! I enjoyed talking with you yesterday too 🙂 As you know, I’m also a pantser trying to learn to plot, but not too much because I love the idea of allowing flexibility in the story and the freedom to let it go where it wants to. But, I find I also get stuck at times (now being one of those times lol). I also plotted a completely new book in a different genre in the middle of another book. I think my problem might be I can’t get the story out fast enough before it’s done in my mind. Because I have it in my head, but getting it on the page takes too long…at least that is what I think is going on now. Then I find new inspiration and then I’m off again and finally get it done. Great post and timely, btw

    1. Hi IreAnne! Good to see you too. I have been known to plot another book while writing another, partly because if I get a great idea, I want to write down as much of it as I can before I forget it, without taking too much time away from the other book. Hope you get past your muddle soon!

  9. What an excellent post, Marin! I have a love-hate relationship with my MS from beginning to end. Sometimes I think it’s the best ever and other times, the exact opposite. But when it flows, as it did for you, it’s an incomparably wonderful feeling! Thanks for sharing!

  10. I feel your pain! For me the first 30k words fly onto the pages. Then I come to a dead halt. Total paralysis. I’ve found the only way for me to get past it is to go to the very end and write the last scene in the book and start working my way backwards until I suddenly figure out how to join the two. Sometimes it happens quickly – 2 chapters and bam, I’m back to the middle and writing again. Sometimes I back my all the way to that original stopping point. First drafts are torture. I enjoy the second draft so much more! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. Interesting approach, Abigail! I’m not sure I can write backwards, but I think I’ll give it a try the next time I get stuck! I do agree with you, though–second drafts are ever so much easier. 🙂

  11. I write lots of beginnings and lots of endings, and very few middles. It is definitely frustrating! I, too, jump between projects, but all the while I’m beating myself up about it. Maybe I should just let that guilt go, and it will help my Middle Muddle!

    1. Oh, I know that guilt all too well, Susabelle! Wishing you luck in finding your way through your middles. 🙂

  12. I have a similar approach – I love writing the beginnings and usually have several going at once. Ask me about my new YA that I’m starting instead of getting past the middle on Book 2 of my Belle Terre series 🙂 Yeah….I have a dozen first chapters done right now.

    Sometimes I find doing the piecemeal works – I’ll have a scene in my head and while I can’t get past the middle, I can write this one scene. I just used a construction crane in a devilish way against St. Nick 🙂 But I still don’t know how I’m getting my characters from where they are NOW, to that scene.

    1. Hi Kathleen! A new YA, eh? Fun! Quite a departure for you! 😉 I’m enjoying imagining that construction crane!

      The only time I tried writing piecemeal was in my first book, and I had the hardest time going back to fill in the bits I skipped. I think that’s part of my middle problem–I don’t want to skip because I know how difficult it will be for me to go back, so I don’t write anything at all. Hmm…

  13. I think the only people who don’t struggle with middles are the writers who plot everything out. They at least have a roadmap to get them through the morass in the middle. But it doesn’t work for me to try to plot, at least not in enough detail to know for certain what happens in the middle. And even if I tried, my characters would probably wonder off the path and start trouble.

    I have several techniques I use when I get stuck. One of the main ones is to use the pre-dream and after-dream states. This is right before you go to sleep and when you first wake up. I think about the book and try to figure out what happens next. It almost always comes to me. Sometimes I actually wake up knowing what to do. Other times I discover the answer right after waking up. It’s like my unconscious keeps working on it while I sleep. It also helps to think about the story while I do mindless, physical things. Somehow that also frees my unconscious to work on the problem.

    I’m not usually stuck very long, a few days at most. But then, I only work on one book at a time. Having the book “in my head” is a crucial part of the creative process and I don’t think it would work for me to try to write two at a time. Although I can edit another book while writing one. They seem to be different processes.

    Thanks for a very productive and meaningful discussion, Marin!

    1. Hey, plotters! Anyone want to weigh in? I suspect you’re right, though, Mary. I do try to plot, but I never go into enough detail to keep myself out of trouble. I like the dreaming approach to getting past the middle–I should look at my story right before bed and see if it works. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and sharing, Mary!

  14. Wow, reading your blog and the comments give such relief. I thought I was alone in my middle’s! I’m stuck there right now. It’s tough when you write one book at a time and you would think I’d have some incentive since an editor is waiting for this manuscript…I’m giving George R. R. Martin a run for his money on how long it takes to write a novel, except just in time not in length. You’ve encouraged me to keep at it.

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