Middle-itis — the soggy middle. Ir’s when you’re writing a story and you get bogged down in the middle. Or you lose interest. Or you just doubt yourself and stop. Your guiding star vanishes behind the clouds, leaving to wander in a dark forest that is your story, with no direction.
Fear not. There is a way to get out of the swamp of despond, the dark woods of despair.
Personally, I’m driven by knowing that, here in five years, I should be able to support myself with my writing. So right now I’m getting all my stories out there – I can fine-tune them as I learn new things. Once this juggernaut really gets rolling, most everything should be in order, and then the fun will really start. All of this I can make happen. I’m looking forward to it.
Part of writing the story is just making an irrevocable commitment to it, to stay with it no matter what, hell high water earthquakes typhoons tornadoes smog. That comes with wanting to enough. I was in high school and was reading a book on writing craft by Phyllis Whitney, and she said, “You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like.”
But then sometime you want to enough but you can’t. And that was the last couple of years for me. I don’t care who you are or how good you are, 20 years of agents and editors saying “you’re a very good writer, you have a excellent grasp of craft, but I just don’t feel that spark …” And in the meantime there are all those kids who were born when I was in college saying, “I just wrote this story and the first agent who read it snapped it up” (generally this would be a superstar agent I’d been querying again and again without success) “and I’m not even sure how to write a story” etc. So all these whippersnappers are zipping past me in their little red sports cars with their agents. People say that publishing is a meritocracy. It ain’t.
So a huge part of the whole equation, and I mean a huge part, is feeling like the world is willing to receive your work. (Or, that you feel you’re good enough for the world to receive you – a perfectionistic trait. Perfectionism is good, but don’t let it run the whole show.)
Often, the story starts out as being something you really want to write, but then the drive starts to fade, as it does with many writers. And there are as many reasons for this as there are stories.
Gabe’s story – I was going in so many different directions at once, and there were so many threads to follow, that I got confused with what I had going on and I stalled out.
The lawn book – I am bored as hell by lawns! But I just kept coming back and dragging myself through the thing because I needed to get it done!
A number of novels in high school – I just got bored with where the story was (everybody started standing around and talking) so I switched over to some pretty new story idea that was capturing my fancy.
Now writing something as a way to understand yourself, or explore something that happened in the past, is a great jumping-off place. But there’s a point where the story has to become its own reason for existence.
Part of the what the story does is help figure out what’s going on in your mind and heart, but the other thing it does is to create a world, a universe, out of that’s going on in there. Where it’s not an end unto self-discovery but an end unto itself, a self-contained world. A world that exists for its own sake. Which is hellaciously cool, when you think about it.
But in the end, when you get that story finished, you end up discovering more about yourself, and sometimes it’s a surprise. Stories are a good way to sneak up on something you don’t know is there.
Going where you don’t want to go
At Hamline, we often say, “Write what scares you,” because as fiction writers, that’s where the energy is. When you put your hands on the third rail, metaphorically speaking, you are going to get all the power and so will the reader. But there’s a bargain to be struck, because you’re writing about all the worst things about yourself – or things you don’t want the reader to know. A lot of that power comes from fear, and it comes out under pressure, so yeah, it’s lightning. And some authors avoid this lightning – and so the book doesn’t have that energy driving it, and it grinds to a halt.
(I will add that there are other sources of energy – delight is also cool. A lot of big writers say “Kill your darlings,” but the hell with that, I’m keeping my darlings. If, in the end, they don’t help move the story forward, I’ll kick ‘em out but I’ll invite ‘em back to some other story. Be nice to the good stuff and it’ll keep coming back.)
Every word is gold and can never be changed
It isn’t. The world is too filled with good material! You’ll never run out!
The story can be written only in one way
In the industry, it’s said that if you give one story to six different editors, you’ll get six different stories. This is true. So there’s really no One True Way to tell your story. But the multiplicity of choices can also be confusing as hell. Choose one path to follow for a while.
Write the good stuff first
Josh Whedon, who turned out to be trash unfortunately, did have a method for getting through stories in a relatively pleasant way. Instead of writing a story chronologically, beginning to end, write all the cool scenes first. Actually it occurs to me that I did this with Silverlady’s story. I just wrote the cool scenes that I wanted to write as they came to me. Later I strung them together in a coherent order, and it was pretty cool. I had an agent who was flabbergasted that I did this, and even more floored that it worked. Like this wasn’t something that was supposed to work.
Sometimes it’s just BIC until you get to the end. You know, it’s nice to sit down and have roses flow out of your pen like some writers I know, but sometimes you just have to slog through it and keep going. If giving up on a story is a habit, then you’re just going to have to face the thing and make yourself stick with it to the bitter end. And actually, you’ll have a lot of stuff that looks better once you reach the sunny uplands and turn around and look back at where you’ve been. But you have just got to do the work and put in the time.