Writing a novel is like a car trip with a whiney inner child demanding, “When are we going to get there?” For me, the beginnings are easy. The trip is planned, the car is packed and the excitement about a new experience is growing. My planning usually involves a lot of “think time” imagining the story in my head. After I have the concept, I write a synopsis long-hand to give me a sense of where the story is going. Now I’m set.
Except, like a journey to places unknown, often the road isn’t quite clear. For years I’ve struggled with the middle part of the book. Tina de Bellegarde, a Level Best author, put it so well in a recent podcast when she called it “the messy middle.” It’s those chapters that drive the reader to the climax of the story. They need to be vivid enough to keep the reader drawn in and have the details and clues to make the story real. For me, a good middle is like the difference between traveling for miles and miles over flat, boring prairie, or driving the curving highway through the mountains. One will put you to sleep and the other will keep you anticipating the next bend in the road.
Recently, I’ve been stuck in the middle. The first chapters of the newest Cabin by the Lake mystery moved quickly. I had my death (was it an accident or was it murder?), my main character pursuing it and the momentum growing. Somewhere mid-manuscript, my writing car drove straight into the ditch and got stuck in the mud. It felt like I was trying to move the story in one direction and the story itself wanted to go somewhere else—somewhere way too complicated for my writing skills.
How to get unstuck? In my case, the first thing I did was try writing through it. I kept on the same track with scenes I’d conceived at the beginning of the book. After several days of getting myself mired deeper and deeper into a place that whiney little voice in my head didn’t want to go, I stopped and let it sit. I worked on revising a short story instead.
Next, I sat down with my original written synopsis and wrote out a new one. By this time, the story had changed and new characters had popped in. I needed to decide to keep the changes and the new characters or stick to the old road map.
With a new synopsis and a better sense of where the story might go, I deleted the most recent chapters. Oh, I admit, it was painful but necessary. Didn’t someone once talk about the need to kill your darlings? Well, I sent them off a cliff.
Was I renewed? Was the car out of the ditch and on its way again, the kid in the back happily occupied with the new landscape? Not exactly. The story still felt flat and a little lifeless. As I told my husband on one of our daily walks, “It’s blah, blah, blah. I’m bored with it.”
Perhaps the admission out loud to someone else was the key for me. When we returned from our walk, I realized I needed action to get it going again. I wrote several chapters that included another murder, a wildfire and a daring rescue. The kid in the backseat cheered me on.
I’ve reconciled myself that on writing journeys, the middle will often be messy. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned:
Despite my best efforts, I know the car might still go in circles, get lost or hit the ditch once again. Fortunately, as a mystery writer I can always add another body, another cliff or maybe a wildfire to get it back on the road.
Linda Norlander is the author of A Cabin by the Lake mystery series set in Northern Minnesota. Books in the series include Death of an Editor, Death of a Starling, Death of a Snow Ghost, and Death of a Fox. Norlander has published award-winning short stories, op-ed pieces, and short humor featured in regional and national publications. Before taking up the pen to write murder mysteries, she worked in public health and end-of-life care. Norlander resides in Tacoma, Washington, with her spouse.
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