All the characters are well established, there’s plenty of conflict, and there seems no way out. Perfect. The reader will be begging to know what happens next.
Snag is, so am I. Though the end may be planned, getting there suddenly looks much trickier. The original plan has turned clunky and there’s a character or two left behind about a hundred pages back. I review what I’ve written and try to force the characters in various directions to get them to work, moving scenes, and snipping bits here and there. It begins to bulge ominously.
I add a couple of explanatory paragraphs, but I know it’s doomed. Nobody wants rationalizations and revelations.
That’s when it falls to pieces, messy stuff oozing all over the place, ruining everything. And suddenly I don’t feel like writing this book anymore. I just want to go wailing to Mummy or Daddy and have the jam wiped off my chin and my T-shirt changed.
Lee Child, Kate Atkinson, and the like have no doubt evolved a way of dealing with the sticky middle. Anyone who regularly consumes jam doughnuts must have this problem licked (sorry).
For those who are more at the novice end of the scale, or regularly write other things like textbooks and business plans, long-form fiction is more of a challenge and the sticky middle can get very gooey.
How do I know?
Because I also eat Krispy Kremes. A KK doughnut is uniformly round, perfectly delicious, and has a hole in the middle. No jam at all! It’s so easy to eat. Nothing plops in your lap as you work your way through. With the smooth glazed kind, the worst that can happen is that a few sugar flakes fall off the surface. No biggie.
Jam doughnuts, in other words, aren’t my only fare. Alongside a novel about the lives and loves of a group of Londoners, I’m also co-authoring a medical textbook, and I regularly write for The Sun newspaper.
Sometimes it’s hard to match the voice and pace to the work. I find it all subsides into a kind of journalese: ‘Tears well up as she admits she doesn’t know how long she can take the pain.’ That happens to be the textbook, in case you’re wondering.
While there are no quick fixes for the middle muddle, here are some suggestions for perking the writing up, and hopefully finding a solution:
- Spend more time in bed, bath or bus. Back in 1934, the writer Dorothea Brande noted that inspiration was most likely to strike when you least expected it, often in the bath, on the bus, or in bed.
- Try some free writing. This exercise beloved of creative writing tutors hardly needs explaining. The crucial thing is to keep going, no matter what you write, without crossing anything out or revising. Do this for 10-15 minutes, maybe several times a day, not necessarily in the same location.
- Map all the possibilities for the characters in your novel, based on their peculiarities. You could use a large piece of paper, or else a floor and a pack of index cards. The resultant scrawls may be promising enough to get you going in the right direction.
- Go for a long walk or two. It’s amazing how fresh air can clear the head.
- Listen to music. This would be a very lengthy piece if I tried to list all the benefits of music. I’ll just stick to de-stressing, boosting mood, improving memory, helping concentration, and activating some parts of the brain. For self-expression, music without lyrics is said to work best.
- Do something with your hands. Using both hands stimulates both hemispheres of the brain. Baking, perhaps? You might even rustle up some doughnuts.
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