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Do Your Middles Hang Low? Do They Wobble To and Fro? Can You Tie Them In a Knot? Can You Tie 'Em In a Bow?

Can you throw 'em over your shoulder like a regimental soldier? Do your ears hang low?

Surely you learnt that song as a kid.

Well, maybe with ears. So, if you guessed, today we're going to talk about saggy middles. Don't worry, there shall be no Tyler Durden scouring the trash for your novel's fat arse tonight (just to sell it back to you in a bar of soap).

But firstly: maybe you noticed that you didn't hear from me all of last week? Maybe you didn't. It's cool. I didn't notice either, until I sat down to write this week's post. I had a seminar to create over last weekend for Extension English, so on a procrastination front, I was either going to write a post or waste hours of my life being moody and adolescent on Tumblr. I know, excuses, excuses, "why have thou forsaken me?" and all that jazz. Well, I apologise - hey! I might even write another post tomorrow.

So, I'm going to begin (for the second time) by telling you that there will be no sit-ups involved with this post and turning all your thinking caps off via the fuse box. Now, you're all readers. I want you to imagine a book you read recently, or not recently, where there's been this breath-taking beginning with unbelievable characters and plots and themes and setting and then you get about two-thirds of the way through and you start to notice how you lug this damned book everywhere, reading a page or a paragraph here and there, making the book itself look loved but not loving your ride so much to an overwhelming degree. Yeah, you get that? I sure as hell do. And now that you can imagine other books where you've encountered this, can you imagine your own novel, whether it be present or past, and honestly tell me that your middle is a bad-ass motherchucker? If you can...Really?

I find saggy middles insufferable to read through, and so embarrassing to encounter in my own writing. I've been reconstructing and rebuilding RETURN almost in its entirety because of the overwhelming weaknesses in my early drafts, especially in the middle.

I notice, particularly in YA, that authors will sometimes treat the middle as more of a transition from Point A to Point C (Particularly in the paranormals: you begin with a girl who is without a boyfriend and you end with a girl dating her soulmate-of-another-dimension). No, sweetheart, no. Well-developed conflict is what drives a story, not the untamed beast in your heroine's panties.

(Before I begin: if you're still writing your first draft, then don't look back. Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. Don't second-guess yourself! You'll never finish if you edit as you write, so go away and write your novel!)

It's been a while since I gave you an analogy, so let's roll with that. Think of your novel as a domino line of something (be it smart phones, pens, iPods, books, staplers or, God forbid, dominoes) and that as you pass each checkpoint, one domino falls. Now, if one of those dominoes don't fall properly, or just don't fall, your novel is lacking. Once you introduce that conflict at the beginning, you've set the cause-effect chain off. And your middle is important because it bridges the initial finger-flick of the first domino to the final domino torpedoing off the tabletop.

Strong middles also allow you to interweave side plots and effective twists, introduce backstory to characters, setting and the conflict itself. OK, so I want you to visualise the major plot points of HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE as dominoes. Got it? Good. This instalment is far from my favourite of the series, but you have to admit that the plotting is absolutely beautiful. But if you took any of the small scenes within the middle out, or weakened them, the final twist-execution wouldn't have been half as effective, right? If you hadn't showed Cedric as nice, or dropped those Barty Crouch Jr. hints. Exactly. I think this is one of the beauties to Rowling's writing - She isn't afraid of her middles, she embraces them and allows them to craft her world and her secondary cast into something magical and tangible.

But at the same time, you can see how both of my points here could result in something unruly and ineffective. Too many dominoes means too many chances for error. Too many subplots and side characters equate confusion and a whole lot of "WTF? Who the sodding hell is that and why does he want to kill Harry?"

Remember: you need to build this story up so that your reader actually cares when it comes to climax time. Depending on how into the book they've been through the middle (not the beginning), your reader can find your climax intense. And you want them to find it intense because then they'll tell their friends to read it because "it is intense" (or, I.I.I - It Is Intense).

But how do we get to III?

Your middle should develop the characters, relationships and your world. It should also evolve those pesky problems that drive your plot like that bloke in The Transporter and build to the "III" climax.

Now, sagginess occurs when you begin to describe the layout of a house or the mini-mini-miniscule details of a street, or when you have four dialogue scenes purely based around wit and enforcing one particular nervous trait for your MC. Yeah, saggy. This sort of middle results in Tyler Durden getting a whole lot of soap out of your novel's fat arse.

You should be aware of plots that are thin and weak. Earlier, when I told you to imagine your plot as a line of dominoes? Well, now it's getting a little more complicated. The kind of plot I'm speaking ill of now is where you have a series of action scenes, each merely relating one event and leading into a scene that relates the next. Sort of like a really long rope with knots in it that are spaced really far apart. So on the domino front, I want you to colour all the dominoes that relate to the main plot red, and for each subplot, a different colour. I want you to have the strangest, most colourful line of dominoes.

Opposing this approach is the daydream of a pothead with Japanese synth music pounding in the background. You know the type: there's deliberation before an action scene, an action scene, then a scene reacting to the action scene. It goes around and around and around and you're so busy flipping the pages for the next important point that you miss things altogether and end up throwing the damned thing across the room.

On a structure level, you need to think on a ten-year-old level. So I'm going to tell you that when you write a story, you put a man up a tree, throw sticks at him, then get him down. You have already put the poor sod up there, and he wants to get down. But you need to make it complicated. You need to ask: "What can go wrong for the protagonist?" Maybe he's afraid of heights, or he meets a nice tree-hugger that misunderstood and climbed the wrong tree to prevent it getting cut down or he has a ten-metre drop to the ground with no branches. If it doesn't have to do with your characters, the tree, or getting him down, then it doesn't matter.

I used to look at writers who said that the time that they ever really wrote was when they were revising with a look of derision (Sheldon Cooper style). Now, I call myself one of them. I wrote the first draft of RETURN when I was thirteen/fourteen-ish. I am currently revising it for the seventh time, this being the first thorough time. I will tell you right now: it sucked. It sucked so bad that I couldn't even hold it up beside some of the crap that I've read (and I have read some crap). Its middle sagged more than Julia Gilliard's earlobes (Aussie side-joke, apologies) and I cannot believe that no one told me.


Once I started revising, I realised that these weaknesses were dragging the whole novel down into Dante's INFERNO. Plots and itty-bitty but vital pieces of information where getting lost in ohsoclever but pointless spouts of dialogue, my characters' traits were tedious and their personalities were beginning to blend into one, my antagonist had no definable motivation and my plot was just getting bad.

You need to be aware. Chances are if you're having a lot of trouble editing your middle, your readers are going to have a lot of trouble reading it (to a certain extent, of course). If your side plot is nothing but an amusing distraction, then maybe you don't need it? Next time you sit down to revise, you should prepare yourself, tell yourself that you ought to be open to hacking away at your subplots and side-characters.

In closing: in no way whatsoever am I giving you permission to neglect your beginnings and ends. Do you hear me? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Now, to help you recover from that blathering of ridiculousness and incoherent stupidity, I'll just give a couple other bits.

Diana Wynne Jones died! I felt like crying when I heard this, and I immediately grabbed my copy of HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE and hugged it. This woman allowed nine-year-old me to wish that I was an old woman so I could run off with a wizard and his talking fire demon. And to make my mourning more official, I rented the Hayao Miyazaki film and watched Billy Crystal insult Christian Bale as a ball of fire. But that aside: she died! I don't think it'll kick in until I go to the library and find her books on the shelf.

And reviews. Reviews. Something I haven't done in ages. Ah, well, you see, writing up reviews takes a lot of time for me and so I figured that (seeing as I have one more week until my three week school holiday - which I am pumped for, I assure you) once I'm liberated from school-related obligations, I can throw out ten-ish reviews over a couple days. So, I've accumulated: EMMA, THE COLOR PURPLE, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, NEVER LET ME GO, CLOCKWORK ANGEL, SHIVER and FALLEN; and I have in a pile beside my bed to be read: LOOKING FOR ALASKA, VAMPIRE ACADEMY, THE EYRE AFFAIR and BEHEMOTH. So, you are permitted to dread me burdening you all with my opinions a whole sodding lot.

Is that it? Yes. That's it. Dismissed.

Comments

  1. o.O ahhh
    The middle of a manuscript syndrome.
    I've been there all of February and March, with my Middle Grade manuscript, and finally I can say I like it way much better. It doesn't mean it's over but I like to celebrate little steps.

    Thanks for sharing. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. This post addresses exactly something that nagged me as I did my (just completed) first edit of a novel. I wasn't quite able to articulate what it was, but had decided I was going to do a brief outline of what's happening in each chapter. After that, I meant to reorganize the parts and create something that's got both direction and complexity. I think that's likely still what I'll do, but I'll probably also refer to this for a reminder about my end objective of having a middle of the book that's more than an invitation to naptime!

    ReplyDelete
  3. "This sort of middle results in Tyler Durden getting a whole lot of soap out of your novel's fat arse." HAHAH!! I LOL'd at that line.

    Great post. :D

    ReplyDelete
  4. Awesome post! I always find my friend singing this song, and now it's stuck in my head. One of my WIP's has been hard for me to continue writing. I wonder if *le gasp* it's a saggy middle. You're a genius.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Liposuction for novels sounds as painful as it is in real life.

    ReplyDelete

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