Welcome to the Inspiration Diaries! Last year we had six writers – three published, three on their way – checking in each month as a sort of ‘year in the writing life’. (You can catch up here.) This year we’re doing things a little differently. Three new Inspiration Project graduates will give us a monthly insight into their writing lives, but first Catherine, Carmel and Hazel will be taking it in turns to share some of their favourite writing advice in our new series, 5 Steps To…
5 Steps To… Navigating the Muddy Middle
Back when I was writing the first draft of the book that would become Distress Signals, I spent about 18 months stuck on 30,000 words. No matter what I did, no matter how many times I sat down at my desk and opened the document, I just couldn’t write any further. In hindsight, this was partly because it was nicer to live in the place where all my dreams might just come true than it was to finish the book, start submitting it to agents and find out that they definitely never would. But it was also because I was about to step into the worst part of writing a book: the muddy middle.
Beginnings and ends are, relatively speaking, easy. The beginning is the bit we know from the get-go – the beginning is usually what we mean when we say, ‘I have an idea.’ And you don’t have to worry about the end just yet, because by the time you get there, the resolution to your story will probably have written itself based on what you’ve produced thus far. It’s the bit between those two points that causes the issue. So how do you navigate the Dreaded Middle? Here are a few suggestions…
- Plot a course. Some writers baulk at plotting their books in advance, groaning that it makes writing the book boring or suffocates their creativity. Each to their own, but I find the opposite to be true. Plotting in advance frees me up to focus on writing the best book I possibly can, safe in the knowledge that the underlying structure is already sound. Writing becomes the interior design of a house that’s already built. Personally I can’t lay brick and hang wallpaper at the same time. Take some time to make a list of major events throughout your novel before you sit down to write it. This will give you some handy goalposts to write towards along the way.
- Sticky note shenanigans. This method has saved me time and time again. If you’re stuck in your draft, give yourself a day away from the desk. Find a blank wall and a stack of sticky notes. Now, write down every idea you have for your book, one idea per note. I mean literally every idea. It might be a plot point, something a character says, a place they go – anything and everything to do with your book. Write it down, stick it up. When you’re done, arrange the sticky notes on the wall in the order in which you think you’ll use them – as in, in the order of the story. Guess what? You’ve just painlessly plotted some book! (And had to go stationery shopping. Win-win.)
- Do away with the middle entirely. Last year I took a screenwriting course here in Dublin where we were introduced to the concept of sequences in storytelling. Take the horror movie The Strangers, which is ostensibly a very bare story of a couple spending a night in an isolated house where they are terrorised by – yes you’ve guessed it – strangers. But actually, re-watching it recently, I could see that the movie is made up of very defined sequences or sections where the narrative is driven forward by one focus or force. For instance, one is all about what happens to her when he goes to get cigarettes. Another is about them trying to find a gun and the consequences of using it. Another centres on them trying to get to a shed nearby where there’s a radio and what happens when they do. If you constructed your entire plot this way – in sequences; the magic number is 8 – you wouldn’t have to worry about the middle at all, but the 4 sequences that make up that section of the book. And you wouldn’t have to worry about writing 100,000 words, but the 8 sequences or stories that make up your novel. Doesn’t that just sound so much better?
- Move the ending. There’s something I like to say in workshops that, without fail, gets the same reaction every time: absolute confusion, followed by a look of “Oh – OH.” What if – and I do just mean what if, this is but a thought experiment – the ending of your book was actually the middle? No, seriously. Just consider it for a second. What if the ending of your book was actually the middle? First of all, you know now what happens in the middle and you actually have to squeeze up a load of stuff to get there by half way through. So that problem is solved. And if you have to come up with another ending – if you have to carry on the story past what you thought was going to be THE END – doesn’t that mean the reader will get an unexpected ending too? Might it be better? Might this actually improve the story as a whole? Thinking about it doesn’t commit you to anything, so: have a think!
- Just do it. When all else fails… Grip the wheel, close your eyes and floor it. Write as fast as you possibly can. It’s a first draft – you can fix everything later! Sometimes the only way is through.
How have you got through the Dreaded Middle? Let us know in the comments below!
How is it possible that year after year my life goes from calm and peaceful to crazy and chaotic with the simple flip of a calendar page? I’ll tell you why…because I haven’t quite mastered the art of saying NO. And because I still say yes, more than no, I usually find myself with a full plate come September. This my friends, is exactly the spot I find myself in at the moment.
I’ve spent the last few weeks working on an event, originally scheduled for last April, but moved to September, due to the pandemic. As the plans moved forward we always knew another postponement or cancelation was possible should social distancing rules change or if the number of cases increased substantially. Thankfully things have remained stable and we’ve been given the green light. In fact the event is scheduled for this week. What I wasn’t prepared for though, was something else coming along and threatening it’s occurrence, and yet that’s exactly what has happened. A few days ago, a hurricane hit the coast of Alabama and while it has been downgraded to a tropical storm, it’s still packing a punch with heavy rains and gale force winds…oh and it’s heading towards South Carolina. Not very conducive for an outdoor event.
So what about my writing. The simple and honest answer is .. it’s been almost nonexistent the last two weeks. Why? See the above paragraph. I tried to sit down and write a few times but found I wasn’t able to concentrate. It’s as if the left side of my brain didn’t want to shut down and let the creative/artistic side have a turn. Recently I listened to a short talk on my ‘Insight Timer’ App about the power of being present. The speaker stated the act of being present is a big factor in happiness, and one way to stay in the moment is by mono-tasking (do one thing at a time and choose to be there), instead of multitasking (which he believes is ineffective). I’m no expert on this topic but I do believe, when it comes to writing, it’s important to be present in the moment, with your mind fully focused on the task at hand. Since this seemed impossible to do while I was working on the event, I chose not to stress about not writing.
Hopefully the event will go on as planned, but regardless, I know one thing for certain…I’ll be back at my desk this weekend!
September for me has always been a time of knuckling down, getting back into routines and despite the strange times we are living in, this September is no different. The kids are back at school and I have started a writing course so Tuesday nights are now reserved for writing. In fact my new writing instructor; Cat Hogan has encouraged us to start a daily writing habit. I must confess however though that I have not written every day so far. That is something that needs to change. I know the steps I have to take and the first one, is putting my writing higher up on the to-do list. That seems like an easy change to make. However, a bit like self-care it’s often easier to put yourself and your needs last. Asking your family for the time you need, can feel selfish but we are entitled to have something for ourselves, even us mums. In fact especially us mums.
So I’m determined to get into a writing routine and to get a second draft of my novel done. I really want to write every day and to achieve something with my writing. I want to stop thinking about doing it, stop talking about doing it and actually write. I get such joy from creating stories but I know what’s ahead of me will be hard work, it’s hard work I’m prepared to do. It’s hard work I want to do. I know I may never be able to achieve a daily writing habit, but I at least want to set and meet targets and make my writing as important to me as my work and my family. Besides which I have a second novel and several other ideas that keep knocking on my brain and shouting “let me in” so I have to finish the first novel before I can give them the attention they need.
How are you all? I hope you’re all healthy and safe and somewhat sane. I’m baffled by how we’re in September already. Usually September brings a sense of contentment, routine is back, the days are growing shorter and there will be nights curled up by the fire, but this year it’s different. This September I’m champing at the bit to get writing. Maybe this sensation has been brought about because I feel as if my summer was stolen, that time was swallowed up; now I feel the need to do something, to move in any way that makes me feel that progress is happening. With that in mind I’ve taken some huge steps.
I’ve scouted for an editor with a mind to self-publish. This is something that I’ve battled with for quite a while – to self-publish or not to. Working with Kildare Art Collective on our Covid-19 Collaboration piece gave me a few things to mull over (side note: our collaboration will be live-launched on Culture night at 6pm and will be displayed in the Riverbank Arts Centre until October 24th). A number of the artists involved have found avenues to sell their work, and why not indeed, I wondered. I didn’t witness any judgements or hear any mutterings about it. The community are supportive and proactive in promoting each other’s work to points of sale throughout the world. I wondered why I was scared of selling my work.
The term ‘vanity publishing’ seared my brain from the moment I first heard about it. I get it – it’s actually a very simple and quick process to pop your book up on Amazon. But the very term ‘vanity publishing’ made me stop and think. It made the act of self-publishing such a selfish act, a silly act, a thoughtless act. I argued that Yeats self-published. Walt Whitman self-published. Allan Ginsberg too. (And Catherine and Hazel too!!! – But you already knew this). I’m not comparing myself to these writers but I’m learning from them every step of the way, and what I’ve learned is to not press publish on that Amazon e-publish platform too soon. Take a breath and get your work edited by a professional.
The first step was identifying people that I would be comfortable working with and this is where my writing friends have been invaluable. Word of mouth led me to a number of professional editors, and after I checked them out I sent out query emails and sample chapters to see what was offered by each one. This served me a tough and essential lesson: there’s very little room for vanity when you receive back an edited copy of your work.
The first sample of edits that I received landed me in a huge panic. I opened the document and saw the amount of suggestions marked and immediately felt two things: one was ‘hah, my work doesn’t need that amount of rewriting (it does) and the second was pure and unadulterated panic where I actually said aloud: Maybe this writing thing isn’t for me – I should just stop now if I’m this bad (I’m not that bad). I scrolled through the comments and cringed and squinted and didn’t understand anything because the fear made the words jumble around and mean nothing to me. I shut the document down and ignored it for two weeks. I ignored the emails I should have written in reply to the editors who so kindly, and without charge, advised me.
I was terrified.
Then I took a breath and emailed them back. I asked a few questions and they patiently and promptly replied to me with tips on how to read the edits. I went back to the sample edits and guess what? They made sense. Now I’m 100% sure that everyone needs an editor. Everyone. And my self-publishing journey has slowed its gallop because of this lesson learned. The process so far reminds me of the saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression, so I’m going to try make this first impression as good as I possibly can, and I’ll share this journey with whoever wants to know about it.
Join us next month and each month for the rest of the year for more writing advice from Catherine, Carmel and Hazel, and to check in with our scribes. In the meantime, we hope you and yours are safe and well.