Friday, February 5, 2010

Ask the Inkpot

[The following question came through the comments of Ron's last post, and because it's late and I am too giddy from seeing Project Runway to sleep, I've decided to make it the inaugural edition of an exciting new feature, ASK THE INKPOT. Hey, we need an email address. Administrator? Oh, Administrator????]]

Dear Inkpot,

I'd love to hear something about lumpy middles. Any advice for rewriting, rewriting, rewriting those sections?

Muddled in the Middle

Dear Muddled,

I think a muddy middle is the most intimidating thing to deal with. I have trouble with revision--I can scorch the earth and begin again, and I can tinker with what's there, but the sort that lies in the middle is hard for me. I try to think about distilling a book down to all the narrative arcs it contains and making sure every scene has a place in one of these arcs and somehow propels it forward. I think about all the small stories that play out in between the characters and if they have any shape. And I think about the ideas in the book and how the scenes serve those ideas.

Sometimes the answer for me is that the book needs more of a backbone, some kind of tension or structure or idea that gives it shape. It can be as simple as sharpening the desire of the protagonist (or antagonist) or tightening the conflict or... What moves us forward? What keeps us turning the page?

But I don't know. I'd love other people's thoughts on the matter.

What say you, Inkpotters?


  1. This post must be headed under the blind leading the blind...

    I found a new idea that helps me in 20 MASTER PLOTS (AND HOW TO BUILD THEM) by Ronald Tobias: "Plot is diffusive ... It can't be deboned ... It is a force that saturates every page, paragraph and word. Perhaps a ... metaphor for plot would be electromagnetism--the force that draws atoms of the story together."

    I like the new blog feature, Anne!

    Fellow Muddled Writer

  2. Could "Ask the Inkpot" also include household hints? My daughter is desperate to know how to get road salt off UGGs. :)

  3. Anne,
    Thank you for charging ahead with this question. Conflict seems especially powerful. And Danette's metaphor of electromagnestism is electrifying. Now I will go and get into my muddling middle. Any more thoughts are truly useful. For instance Ron talks about writing chapters in the beginning that he then cuts. I guess the advice is the same. Write and then make it better.

  4. Here's a little hint from somebody whose books get shorter and shorter, so maybe take it with a grain of Christine's daughter's road salt: make a copy -- of course -- of the ms. that you can tinker at will with. Then cut every page by half. Every page.

    Working with hard copy is easier for me, but I've done it on the screen. You'll be surprised how much crap there is in there. People talking and saying nothing. Description that, well, defies description. Much marching in place and atoms (from Danette's post) all over the place.

    What happens to me is I end up with a 75 page ms. But I can also see very clearly where new stuff needs to go. Where I need to add trees to see a forest.


  5. Ron, Would this be something you do after if you've muscled through the first draft and know where the story is heading? or is this something you suggest while in the process of the first draft?

    This is all new to me since I've never written longer work.

  6. Molly, the cut-by-half gambit Ron-the-draconian describes suggests needn't be reserved for when you have a full draft. That kind of stern hand is a wonderful antidote to the lumpy middles that prevent you from getting to the completed draft.

  7. You people know so much about writing. But the UGGs are still ruined--ruined! (sound of daughter shrieking and sobbing while I yell at her to gain some perspective)

  8. Christine: UGGS are a fashion boot, not a winter boot. They are truly not made to accomodate road salt. ;)

    This Muddy/lumpy middle discussion has really got me thinking about books that I can't/haven't finished (rare, as I have a mental block about not finishing them). But I think about two GREAT works of literature, where I can see them on my shelf, with book marks hanging out about half way, and I think, "What went wrong there? Why didn't I finish them?" It must be Muddy Middle Syndrome(MMS).

    The Books:
    "Guns of the South" Harry Turtledove and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" by Michael Chabon.

    I am a terrible person I know. Maybe I can get them on audio... :(

  9. I agree, Jason. Many times I love books but the MMS interrupts the flow. Rarely do I give up on books, but often I skim the middles. I think that's why I'm so intrigued by this topic. I appreciate Marcia Q. advice about cutting during the entire process...not just the second draft. I think that works well for the way I write. It doesn't need to be perfect to carry on, but it helps in moving the narrative forward to have certain elements in place.

  10. Martha Alderson likes to say that the middle is the territory of the antagonist and that by the end of the murky middle the main character has faced her great flaw and needs to choose if she is going to do anything about it.

  11. Sorry I haven't jumped into the middle of this discussion til now (I've actually been devouring a new YA galley for an entire day--The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson--and was thoroughly engaged in its middle right til the last page!)

    Everyone is good at beginnings, since we all have had at least one in our personal experience. How many great go-nowhere beginnings do we all have in our drawer? Endings generally have to be fabricated, since our experience is limited (this is where imagination comes in handy). But both beginnings and endings are very quick. Important, yes, but the gut of the story is what happens in between.

    Look at picture books, for example. One page beginning (never more than three). One, at tops two pages, of closure. That leaves at least twenty-six pages of "middle." The middle IS the STORY. It's where the events occur and are logically arranged to bring us to a satisfying and hopeful conclusion.

    As Ron says, the beginning is often cut anyway, and the end doesn't reveal itself until a draft is complete, so the gut is where it all takes place. Right?

    Maybe we should stop thinking in terms of Beginning, Middle, End. Those terms can limit us. Think of your story as a journey from one point to another--we always start and stop in the middle (unless we are writing the story from birth to death, which is rare).

  12. Thanks, Lisa. I tried one of those birth to death stories, or at least one covering five years. Don't recommend it. Maybe later I'll have the chops for it.

  13. I'm mulling all this great advice for MMS. I'm revsing chapter 9 now, and feeling stalled out in the process. Cutting by 1/2--that's so scary! I just find that it's really hard to keep the whole story in mind all the time. Interesting, Claire, that you bring up the antagonist. I'm working on bringing him more to the forefront in this part. Danette, electromagnetism is too deep for me. Can't even get my brain around that concept.