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Pushing Through The Middle: Tips for the NaNoWriMo Crowd and Other First Drafters

by Lori DeBoer

DeBoerIf you are hitting your daily word count (about 1,666) for National Novel Writing Month, by the time this post is published you’ll be nearly about halfway through your 50,000-word goal and sailing into the middle stretch of your novel.

This is where the story gets complicated. The middle passage is the longest section of your novel. The plot should thicken, the stakes should increase and your protagonist(s) should be thwarted at every turn.  Your narrative arc should be more mountainous than curvy, and climbing steeply.

This is also the point where your story is most likely to stall. If you’ve been “pansting,” the honeymoon with your big idea and great beginning may be over.  Even plotters can lose their confidence and momentum in the middle passages.

If you find yourself bogged down or stalled altogether, here’s a few tricks to get you going:

Look How Far You’ve Come
Instead of contemplating how far you have to go, look at how much you’ve already written. Print out your manuscript to give it some heft.

Don’t Start Revising
There’s nothing more tempting than revising when the path ahead is murky.  After all, rewriting is an important part of writing, right?  Yes, but not when you are drafting.  You’ll have plenty of time to revisit those first few chapters after you plot a course through your first draft.

Create Some Go-Getters
One of the biggest story stalls is characters who are merely responding to events in the story.  If your characters don’t have desires, they don’t have goals and a plan of action is out of the question. The easiest way to figure out what happens next is by giving your character some volition. The hero’s journey only begins by answering the call to action, not by hitting the snooze button.

Raise the Stakes
Now that your characters have a plan, ask yourself what happens if they fail.  If there are no stakes—personal and public—then there’s no reason for your character to keep going.  Until your characters have a real reason to pursue their goals, your writing is going to feel like rolling a boulder up a mountain.

Set Incremental Goals
The end game may be clear to you, but how is your character going to get there? Consider the smaller steps that need to be taken before the story’s climax can occur.  Frodo and Sam don’t just go waltzing to Mount Doom with the Ring; first they need to escape from Orcs, traitors, spiders and other dark creatures and trek through some terrible terrain with a sketchy guide.

Arm the Opposition
If your characters are not thwarted at every turn, if their incremental goals are attained without much effort and everybody in your story world is getting along swimmingly, then you don’t have a novel, you have a really long, typed daydream.  Examine your scenes to see if they are conflict-free or conflict-riddled.  Is your main character only fighting internal demons, or is there some external opposition, a worthwhile antagonist?  Once your characters have someone messing with them, the story will pick up steam. In the Sookie Stackhouse world created by Charlaine Harris, even lovers aren’t a girl’s best friend and bosom buddies can be out for blood.

Get Your Characters Out of the House
If your character is the literary equivalent of a shut-in, get him or her out and about in the world. Or, bring the world busting into the house.  The Harry Potter series would have fell flat had our young wizard sequestered himself in his closet under the stairs.

Give Your Characters a Project
If your conflict is all about the internal world, give your characters a project to externalize the problem. If you are writing in certain genres, you might call this project a quest. Either way, giving your characters something larger to do, something to obsess over, makes the writing less episodic. In The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Pankhurst, the main character is a linguist who spends the book trying to teach his dog–the only witness to his wife’s death–to talk.

Stop While You Still Have Steam
Your writing sessions should end while you still have some steam, not when you are stalled out. That way, getting back to work will seem like less of a chore. As Ernest Hemingway said:  “I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

What other strategies do those seasoned authors among use to push through the middle passages of their novel?

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Lori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.