Defeating the Sagging Middle (Especially if you’re not a plotter, but even if you are)
We’ve all been there: the first third of the book has gone gangbusters, the story is fresh, you couldn’t get it down fast enough. And you know—oh, you know!—exactly how the book is going to end, and it’s going to be awe. Some.
But at around page 243, things are rather…meh. Maybe Prince Charming and his reluctant Princess are wandering around in the woods. Or stuck on a boat. Or in jail. Oftentimes I find it’s when my characters are waiting for whatever comes next in the story that things tend to slow down, and a panicked little voice starts whispering in my head, “We’re losing them! The reader! They’re bored!”
And to be honest, so is the writer. But how to get your characters from Here to There, while getting in some quality page counts and you have no outline for what is happening right now?
You could default to the old standby of character introspection (boring).
Or describing—in minute detail—their surroundings or clothing (even worse).
Your characters could just have a lot of sex. (Just kidding, it’s me writing this after all.)
You could sit there staring at the screen, eating potato chips and swilling Diet Coke and feeling sorry for yourself until it’s time to make dinner. (Whoops! Me again.)
None of those are effective tools, although they can appear very tempting when the clock is ticking and your WIP isn’t getting any fatter. So here is my number one weapon for fighting the sagging middle and winning. Prepare yourself for the crazy.
Write as fast as you possibly can.
Really. Sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard and start typing as fast as your fingers will go. It’s kind of like one of those free-writing journal exercises, but in your characters’ skins and their world. If you have one hour to write, you must be doing the clickity-clack for that whole hour. Write.
Writewritewrite. Write whatever comes into your—or your character’s—head. Crazy things, shocking things—the thing maybe your character is least expecting. Just. Keep. Going.
I can hear you now: But if I do that, it will be rambling, nonsensical drivel. I’ll just have to cut it all later and I’ll have wasted my work time.
That certainly is possible. But! Sitting there staring at the screen is a worse waste of your skills than writing content that might have to be edited out later. And, here is what might surprise you:
90% of the time, I keep what I write.
In ADRIAN, once our hero made the perilous (and hilarious, if I do say so myself) journey with Maisie to Wyldonna and arrived semi-safely at the castle, I found myself sitting there, blinking at the screen.
Maisie had just dismissed him from her chambers, and so he was to go off and find his own room, I guessed. But…then what? I couldn’t just have him wander around, describing things in his mind as he went (boring). I needed to up the stakes for him. And I needed to have some action happening before the next big showdown I knew was coming, but couldn’t happen quite so soon after their arrival.
And I needed to write at least 10 pages that day.
So…I started typing, as fast as I could possibly type.
Here’s how it played out in the book:
“Go!” [Maisie] demanded.
“Go where?” [Adrian] said in vexation, his fantasy dissolving with her brusque command. “Am I to sleep on the floor at your feet?”
“Go with Reid,” she said as she turned back to the fire.
“Go with Reid? Is that some strange Wyldonian equivalent to ‘Go with God’?” Adrian held his palms out from his sides, waiting for a response, but none came.
A muffled pounding fairly shook the wooden door of the chamber then, as if someone was attempting to gain entrance to the queen’s residence with a quilted battering ram. Assuming the visitor could only be for him—which made him feel a bit better about being forced to answer the door as if he was a servant—Adrian dropped his hands and turned on his heel to cross the floor. He pulled the door open and found himself staring into his own dull reflection in a huge, brass buckle.
Adrian’s eyes traveled up, up, up a wide expanse of rough brown cloth, until he was forced to tilt his head back. And still he had to lean into the corridor to look past the lintel of the doorframe.
A sallow-skinned face, as large as a bushel basket, with thick, glossy black hair looked down at him.
“Good evening, Man,” the thing said in an accent that was distinctly Rhine. “I’m Reid.”
Adrian tried to swallow, but the awkward angle of his head forced him to tilt his chin down first in order to accomplish that necessary task. He reluctantly looked back up, and was dismayed to see little dots dancing in his vision. He threw a hand up to brace himself on the doorframe. Then Adrian suddenly shut the door.
He leaned his forehead against the frame for a moment, his hand still on the latch, his eyes closed.
In, one, two; out, three, four.
Adrian was taking a moment here because I, the author, had to take a moment.
OMG, was there a giant in the hallway?
I can’t put a giant in the hallway. He’s got to be hallucinating or something.
My editor is going to kill me.
Have him open the door again. Maybe it’s just some sort of charm.
He opened the door again, and once more, the brass buckle reflected his slack face. Adrian looked up again.
“Man?” the giant inquired.
Adrian attempted to respond, but nothing came out except a wheeze. This…creature would make Roman Berg seem a child. Adrian cleared his throat. “Yes?” His voice was still little more than a squeak.
“This way, if you please.” He turned to Adrian’s right and began walking slowly down the corridor. The wooden boards of the passage bowed like unfastened planks under the giant’s feet.
And that is how one of my favorite characters from ADRIAN showed up. In just a few pages, Reid’s conversation with Adrian revealed an entirely new layer to not only to the world of Wyldonna, but the hero’s own character, and Reid ended up playing a key part in the story.
It’s not new advice (Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard?). And like most pieces of sage wisdom, it’s been repeated so much because it works (You Can’t Fix a Blank Page?). My tweak is that I not only have to write the entire time, I have to write as fast as I possibly can. This not only advances my plot 90% of the time, it increases the pacing exponentially which is key in warding off a sagging middle. There is little time for your characters to navel-gaze when your subconscious is throwing giants or tigers or medieval-style retired tourists at them.
So next time you reach page 243, caffeine up, strap in, and write as fast as you can. I bet you’ll surprise yourself.
You can always blame me if you wind up with a giant.