In my past blog posts for Eastern Penn Points, I’ve talked about fear as an obstacle to writing, and while this struggle is still high on the list of creative troubles, it isn’t the only concern. After attending the recent SCBWI EPA Pocono Retreat, I found that the talented group of writers I spoke with had no trouble writing and creating; what they—and I—predominantly struggle with is getting through the troublesome middle of our projects.
Whether you’re writing a first draft or editing your work, it’s easy to get stuck in the middle. The initial steam that propelled you forward has burned out, and that’s exactly how you feel—burned out. You have an idea, but you don’t know where it’s going, why it’s going, or how to get your characters moving. The finished product seems very far away, indeed.
As I’m struggling with this myself, slogging through the first edits to my work-in-progress, I feel as if I’m staring at the pages, accomplishing nothing. There are problems I need to fix, and yet it’s like I’m stuck in mud, half-heartedly struggling to get out, but growing more tired and disinterested in freeing myself. Simultaneously, I feel the weight of the ticking clock and the pressure I put on myself to finish something I’m proud of. If you’ve been where I am, then you know it’s a terrible feeling!
So, what’s the solution?
Since I’m living this right now, I want to share my plan of attack:
Take a break: This one is self-explanatory. Step away from the work to gain perspective, but use that time wisely. See below…
Interview yourself: When I’m not sure of the reason I feel stuck with a story, I ask myself why and then try to answer honestly. During this Q & A, you might find that your story bores you, or the scene where you’re stuck bores you, or your characters aren’t interesting. Perhaps this project isn’t true to you—it’s writing to a trend you don’t really care about, or it’s just that you’ve wandered into a storyline you don’t want to explore. This interview might happen on paper, within your own mind, or with a writer friend, but don’t skip the investigative work. There’s a reason you’re stuck—diagnose the problem as best you can.
Return to craft: It’s time to hit the books! Like doing research on how to treat an illness, find craft books that address the issue you’re having with your WIP. Reading up on plot structure may guide you toward an element that’s missing in your draft, such as action, drama, or twists. If boredom is an issue, read up on how to build dynamic characters, or punch up the amount of evil in your villain. Regardless of your issue, there are tons of resources out there to help.
Read: Now that you’ve researched, look at real world examples. Pick up a book that has a similar plot to your own, or re-read a book in your same genre that inspired you to write in the first place. If dialogue is your sticking point, choose a book that zips along with feisty exchanges. If your characters feel flat, look at fiction with an ensemble cast of stand-outs. Make notes, mark pages, underline passages (if it doesn’t pain you to write in books!)—just begin stockpiling examples that SHOW you how to fix the issue.
Make a plan: Now that you’re armed with information, from both craft books and fiction, make a plan for how to treat the problem you’ve diagnosed. A simple way to do this is to bullet a list, but any method will work as long as you clearly define your next steps.
Go back to the middle and TRY: The only way out is through, so return to your WIP and see it anew. Try out some of the things you’ve learned and return to your examples. Be willing to scrap some boring scenes or characters, or add new characters. Keep trying until you find the spark again that gets you over the middle and toward the finish line.
This is my plan of attack, and I hope it works for you too!