Friday, November 25, 2011

NaNoWriMo--The Sagging Middle

The day after Thanksgiving seems like an appropriate time to talk about the sagging middle. While we’re all sagging in the middle from profligate turkey consumption, is your story sagging in the middle for lack of attention to plot?

Okay, that was kind of a dumb metaphor. But the sagging middle is a problem many people encounter. Since the word count goal for NaNoWriMo is 50,000, many of you are probably hitting the middle portion of your book about now, or, if your story is longer, you might actually hit these problems toward the end of the month. Those who will complete their story in 50K might have already plowed through this difficult juncture.

What Is the Sagging Middle?

The sagging middle usually occurs somewhere toward the middle of the book (thus the name). You find yourself struggling to make the story move along, or struggling to get it to make sense, or struggling to get your characters to do anything other than sit there and stare at you like you’re the answer to all their problems. I personally usually hit this wall at the two-thirds or three-quarters mark. I find myself staring at a blank screen or a blank notebook page unable to summon any words to get the story going again. It’s as if the tank has emptied of fuel, and nothing about the story makes sense anymore.

The good news is that it’s possible to get through the sagging middle to head on toward the last sections of your story. I’ve done it with every story I’ve ever written, and if I can do it, so can you.

Causes of the Sagging Middle

There are several things that can cause the sagging middle. I’m going to break them down into two major categories: Structural and emotional.

Structural Sagging. With structural sagging, there’s a definite sense that the story has gone off the rails. You find yourself writing scenes that feel draggy and uninspired, and that don’t contribute anything solid to the story. You’re not sure how this section of the story slots into the next section of the story, or how you’re ever going to regain the momentum that your initial plot incidents set into motion.

People who swear by outlining insist that a thorough, well thought out outline will prevent you from ever encountering this kind of sagging middle again. My personal experience has not borne this out. Even when I have a pretty thorough outline to work from, I still hit that creative wall. This is partly related to what I’m going to discuss under emotional sagging, but it always seems to also involve something missing from my outline. Whether it’s a scene, or a subtlety of character motivation, I can’t go on with the story until I work out that snag.

There are numerous ways to work through this kind of snag. Some that work for me are listed below. Numbers one and four will probably appeal more to plotters, while number two and three work fantastically for me but might make more structured, logical souls snort and/or roll their eyes.

  1. Brainstorming. Just freeform jotting down everything I can think of about the scene, the characters, the rest of the story, and how the plot needs to progress.
  2. Showering. No, seriously. I’ve read that running water creates negative ions or something that help your brain work better. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s definitely true that standing in the shower staring at the wall makes my brain work overtime. I can’t count the number of story epiphanies I’ve had while I’m in the shower. The good news? I’m usually really, really clean and minty fresh through the last third or so of a rough draft.
  3. Sleep on it. A good way to get your subconscious mind on the job. Think about the story problem before you go to bed. The answer might just float into your brain the next morning as you’re waking up.
  4. Reevaluate your outline. Poke it, mutilate it, reorder scenes, fold it into paper airplanes—whatever works. If you go backward through the outline and compare it to what you’ve written, you might find that you forgot about an important element, or an important aspect of your character, or you might find a place where an added scene will get things underway again.

Emotional Sagging. This type of sagging is a bit harder to pin down. If you’re sagging emotionally, it’s probably because you’ve been working really hard at writing and your brain is tired. It can also happen because you’ve just realized you’re heading toward the final lap, and at the end of that lap your story will be done and you won’t spend the same kind of quality time with your characters anymore. If you feel like your outline and the overall momentum of your story is fine, but you just can’t bring yourself to put words on the page, try one of these approaches:

  1. Take a break. This is difficult if you’re on a tight deadline or in the middle of an intensive project like NaNoWriMo, but it might be just what you need to get back on track. Something as simple as taking a walk, or a nap, or just spending a day reading instead of writing can get your brain rested and refreshed and ready to get back on the job again.
  2. Work on something else. Pull up another WIP and jot down a scene or two. When I do this, I find that my brain starts cranking on the problems with the stalled story in the background while I’m writing a different piece. Or I just start to miss the other story enough to get past my fear of finishing it.
  3. Talk to someone about the story. A lot of people say never to chat about your story with anyone else while it’s underway. If that works for you, fine. I like to talk to my BFF to work through plot issues. I’ll also enlist my daughter, my mother, or random people at the mall. (Okay, just kidding about that last one. Maybe.) Talking through the story can help you find plot holes that are bogging you down. It can also rekindle that enthusiasm, especially if you’re talking to someone who hasn’t heard about your story before and who responds with some enthusiasm. (Protip: If you want them to be extra enthusiastic, buy them lunch.)

There are plenty of articles online about avoiding and/or plowing through the sagging middle. Much of this advice strikes me as a little too much like—follow my method and you’ll never, ever have this problem again. I’m never comfortable with that statement. As mentioned before, even knowing where my story is going, and even haven written over thirty published pieces, I run into a wall Every Single Time. It’s always at about the same place, but it doesn’t always take the same technique or even the same amount of time to overcome. So, my most important takeaway of all—don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself facing this obstacle time after time. I’ve talked to other creative folks, and many if not most of them find the same wall facing them on every individual project. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It doesn’t mean you won’t finish the project. It just means your creative mind, for whatever reason, needs that bit of reevaluation, downtime, or whatever it turns out to be, before it can move on to the rest of the story. Let it do what it needs to do. In my experience, fighting it or beating myself up about it generally just makes things worse.

I hope these tidbits have been helpful, and best of luck in the last week of NaNoWriMo! Drop a comment below to let me now how you're doing.