The Muddle

One of my favorite writing quotes is, “Every book has a beginning, an end and a muddle.” It’s been true of every one of my books. The first few chapters flow. My characters are vivid and alive. There’s conflict and motivation galore. I can see all the plot points lining up. Everything is moving along nicely. And then I descend into quicksand and my story starts to flounder and flail and slowly sink.

My plot derails. My characters’ motivation stops making sense or feeling right. I can’t figure out the next scene. Or the one after that. My characters refuse to say their lines. Seemingly because they don’t know what to say. It doesn’t matter if I know how the book is going to end. Or even if I'm clear on what will happen in the last third of the book. I’m stranded in the no-man’s land of the middle.

I thought it would be different this time. After all, I’m not writing this book from scratch. I’m rewriting a story for which I have two complete manuscripts and a detailed synopsis for a third version. In theory, I’ve already made it through the “muddle” of this story—twice. But it doesn’t seem to matter. I get stuck. Horribly, wretchedly stuck. I write paragraphs and delete them. I start in a different spot and write some more. And delete that, too. I get discouraged. Maybe I should shelve this project for now. Write on something else for awhile. But superstitious dread won’t let me. The fear that if I quit now, I’ll never get unstuck and figure out the story. I’ll never get past the middle and finish the book.

So, I do what I’ve always done. I think about the story. At night, before I go to bed. In the morning when I wake up. During the day when I’m doing things that don’t require much focus. I contemplate jumping ahead and writing a scene later on. But I’m not sure that will work. If I don’t know where the story goes next, how will I tie everything together and have it make sense?

This time it is a “snowday” from work that rescues me. I finally have a chunk of hours when a dozen other tasks aren’t insisting on my attention. I do what a lot of experts advise: put my butt in the chair and stay there, working at it until the immovable plot starts to move. Once it does, it is like a logjam getting unfree. Everything flows. Clear river ahead.

I think that taking the time to work through the tangle in one sitting is part of the secret. And thinking about the story and letting it foam and fester in your sub-conscious for a few days also helps. But I still don’t understand the actual process that brought about the breakthrough. I can’t remember any of the details. It’s like giving birth; your mind blocks it out. Not because the process is so painful (Not quite !), but because when it’s happening, you’re so focused that there are no circuits in your brain available to imprint the memory.

Which is a darn shame. I’d really like to remember my thought process at the time, the exact steps I took to free my story from the dreaded muddle. Because I know I’m going to have to do it again…and again.

Mary Gillgannon
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Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.

She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

10 thoughts on “The Muddle

  1. I’m nodding and smiling, Mary. Smiling because I’m not currently in the muddle, LOL. So glad you broke free!
    🙂 Janet

    • I’m glad it helped. No matter how many books I write, it seems like I encounter the same issues and then have to figure out what to do all over again.

  2. I love this part about calling it “muddle.” I’m muddling through a book I’m writing now. Everything around the muddle looks good. But I do believe in stepping away and letting my brain work. It does help a lot.

    • It’s crazy how your subconscious eventually solves things. Almost magical sometimes. But it’s tough when you’re waiting for that to happen and struggling.

  3. Hard to be patient and not get frustrated. And to trust in the process. Even though it’s always worked before, there’s a part of me that worries it won’t this time.

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