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December 2012
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Notes from 2007 Readercon: Filling in the Middle

From the Readercon program, here’s the description (bracketed text in the description is verbatim from the Readercon program schedule):

Stories are often conceived of with a beginning and an ending and nothing in between. The writer's challenge is to figure out how to get from the start to the end, to figure out what could possibly happen to bring about the ending given the initial conditions. [Some more stuff here . . . eventually say:] A look at the nature of the middle of stories and at some of the techniques for filling them in. Panelists: Chris Dolley, Kay Kenyon, Rosemary Kirstein, Shariann Lewitt, James D. Macdonald, Rick Wilber (Leader).

I'd also like to mention two posts from Jim Macdonald's thread "Learn Writing From Uncle Jim" on the discussion forums at Absolute Write, one by Jim Macdonald and one from the AW poster HapiSofi.

Eight ideas about writing the mid-book:

1) The middle is not filler. This is often a mental shift that authors have to make before they can write a good middle.

2) You need to know certain things before writing the middle; no one but you knows which things they are. Some writers need an outline of the major events of the book. Some writers need a strong familiarity with their characters and their worlds; beyond that, they just put them in interesting, character-coherent situations and see what happens. Some writers need to know the first and last scenes in their book. (Writers who know the last scene often acknowledge that the last scene may change while they're writing the rest of the book, but they need something to aim for.)

3) How you write the mid-book should relate to your strengths and weaknesses in revision. Consider whether you're the sort of author who can fix major problems with the mid-book later. Lewitt says that she usually overwrites during the initial draft and is able to revise out the parts that turn out to be unimportant. Wilber says that he often has to flesh out the middle in later drafts.

Kenyon says that, while she can "fiddle with the middle," she can’t fix one that’s too boring.

(Based on the two panelists, Kenyon and Dolley, who said that they had scrapped entire books to cannibalize later, I have to wonder if it's more important for planner-type writers to get the structure of the story correct during the first draft. If you're more of an organic writer who starts with characters or worlds with potential energy, but without a plot, you might be able to revise your way out of bigger problems. Just a theory.)

4) Focus on steady progress while you write the mid-book. Mid-books can be tedious, for the writer as well as the reader. It’s the place where most would-be novelists quit, because it lacks the energy of the opening and the satisfaction of the ending.

The sheer scope of the mid-book can be intimidating. Jim Macdonald compares it to trekking across a desert. Kenyon says that, having already outlined the major events of the book, she tries to focus on writing one scene at a time. Try to balance your mental big picture with just what you need to do today, so that you aren't overwhelmed.

Lewitt talks about extending the energy of the opening and the ending into the middle of the book. I don't really understand how to do this. I sense that Lewitt herself may be able to do this, but that she is still working out her own thoughts on it and was thinking out loud about it during the panel. If you have any ideas about how to do this, I'd love to hear them.

5) Think about reader (and writer) enjoyment in the mid-book. Mid-books can be fun and mind-blowing. The mid-book should move the plot forward, but there are many ways to do this. I'd like to quote HapiSofi's entire AW post about mid-books, written in response to Jim Macdonald's post about "the dreaded mid-book."

James D. Macdonald, I want to argue with you about midbooks.

Midbooks are great. They're my favorite part of the novel. The expository burdens of setting up the world and the story are fully paid up to date, and the flensing-away and hard choices of the ending aren't yet upon you. Everybody in the book knows what they're supposed to be doing by now, and so does the reader.

Midbooks are the happy middle age of the book. They're the proper territory of grand set pieces, embedded short stories, ornamentally weird subplots, significant episodes starring non-major characters, masques, battles, and all that jazz. (Jazz is good.) If you need to make a change in a major character, this is where it should happen. Midbooks are also the right place for that underrated event, the index-episode of perfect happiness, wherein everything works out just right, and everyone behaves characteristically.

The only requirement is that it all has to move-toward in terms of the overall book. That isn't all that hard. You can maintain balance by keeping the novel stripped down to the bone, but you can also do it by having enough odd-sized and odd-shaped objects hanging off it.

So say I. Your mileage may vary.


(Take a while to let that sink in. I still am.)

So, if you've been saving up grand set-pieces (the pie-throwing scene in the starship's mess hall, or the jousting contest where someone finally puts an eye out with that thing), now's the time for them. The mid-book may be the best place for the scene that causes people to describe your novel as "the book where the [fill in the blank] happens."

6) The mid-book is the time for surprises and misdirection. Those sorts of moment might occur here or in the ending, but they need to be set up here. Chris Dolley, who writes SF and mysteries, goes so far as to create a second outline for the book (after the outline of major events), specifically for misdirections throughout the book. For a scene or a chapter, you might look at which things your characters and readers could conceivably be misdirected toward (e.g., the butler did it) and make notes about it. You can go back later and revise previous chapters to include further evidence of it.

7) The mid-book often depends on good subplots, and good subplots depend on good casting. Think about who your minor characters are, and how they can be used to comment on the main plot and the theme of the book.
From Jim Macdonald's AW post:

Now you do the variations on your theme. You do counterpoints. You do mirror-images. If your theme is Honor, now you show Disgrace.

Who does these things? Your minor characters! Each with his own story-arc, each with his own climax, all the while you're building toward your main story's main climax.


(Read Jim Macdonald's entire post on mid-books.)

The mid-book is not only the time to develop the protagonist, by showing them taking ever riskier actions toward their goal. Kenyon talks about the importance of developing your antagonist into a worthy opponent. The mid-book is the place for that.

8) When in doubt in the mid-book, consider forcing an escalation. Lewitt says that, when she doesn't know what to do in the mid-book, she blows something up. The explosion may not stay in the book, but she learns enough about what the characters want that she can keep writing.

Jim Macdonald say that, when he's stuck in the mid-book, he writes, "Suddenly, a naked woman screamed," and makes the story proceed. His co-writer and beloved wife removes the naked women in a later draft.

There's also the famous advice from Raymond Chandler, to have two guys burst through the doors with guns drawn. These are all ways to force an escalation. You might try one of these, or create your own, as long as you think you can learn from it.

Do you have any techniques for writing the middle of a novel? Is it your favorite part of the novel, or your least favorite?

Comments

Middles ARE the novel. What is a beginning? What is an ending? Those are the the bread to a literary sandwich. Without them, there is no sandwich--but neither can you have one without the innards of choice. That is exactly what a middle of the novel is--the innards, the workings, the stuff that makes it delicious. A bit more mayo in this bite, a bit of hot pepper in that one--it's everything.
Now I'm hungry...sandwich...mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Good analogy. Now I'm hungry too.

Thanks for the write up. I ended up skipping the mid-book discussion, in part because I figured the discussion would mean more after I'd written a novel (or were in the midst of one). It's not that middles of short stories are easy. (If they were, I think I'd be published.) It's more that most short stories are so short, by the time you're done with the opening, you have to start setting up the ending.

This is not to say that I haven't done the "guys burst through the doors with guns drawn" thing in a short story. Usually, I can take the guys, the guns, and sometimes, the door out of the story still makes perfect sense.

As for organic writers being able to revise their way out of bigger problems, my opinion would be more interesting if I'd sold anything. However, I think this is possible as long as you're not wedded to the idea of telling the story you'd originally meant to tell. However, at the end of the process, you're still left with pieces of unused text which you may be able to cannibalize. So, the end result may be the same as abandoning a book and writing a different one from the shards of a previous book.
(I view the whole "writing lots of words which you end up not using" as part of the cost of doing business. It's sort of like Jay Lake's imperative of a story a week. The notion that I'll end up with something usable every week is laughable. It's still worth doing though. Right now, I'm taking to heart Elizabeth Bear's words that when I break my best ideas, at least I can go back in ten years and rewrite them.)

Along those lines, I started re-reading Nancy Kress's "Beginnings, Middles and Ends" a few days ago. I think I may have to re-read the book at regular intervals.

>> revising your way out of problems

Well, not to talk "inside baseball," but outtayourshell and I have a long-running discussion about a writer we respect who would say that the forced escalation (or any case of writing something you don't have confidence in, in hopes of fixing the problem later) is wrong, wrong, wrong, and that the writers he knows don't do it.

However, he's definitely an organic writer (outlining before writing is wrong, too), and he believes strongly in revising, but probably more for character, style, and other things, rather than the overall plot of the piece.

It all works for him, but he isn't a novelist. He writes short stories, poems, and essays.

Well, if it reads like a forced escalation, of course it's wrong, wrong, wrong. This is why if an escalation is the right thing to do, you can take the men, the guns and the door out of the story and no one will ever notice. You put them in to figure out what's supposed to happen. Then you write it all over again without those extra elements.

In any case, I leave what's right or wrong to far better and accomplished writers than I. I'm willing to try almost anything to see what sort of results they generate. There are lots of ways to write. I figure at least part of my job is to figure out what mine is.

I've never written a short story with an ending that turned out right the first time. I'm not sure if this will be easier or harder with a novel.

Do you have an ending in mind, whether you keep it or not, while you're writing the middle?

Read this on a link from matociquala and was fascinated. I think a lot of your articles will be of help to me, so I immediately friended you.

For me, the middle of the book is where you reach the fork in the road that decides the ultimate destination. I often have two endings for a book in mind when I write and the mid-point is where the characters make decisions that force them to one end or the other (or the other or the other). These words, however are all great points for chewing over the matter further. Thnx!

Glad you're here!

I think James Patrick Kelly has used the analogy of having one-way doors in a story, points at which the character can no longer back out or undo what they've done. I haven't really decided whether these belong soundly in the middle, or if they mark the thresholds between beginning and middle, and between middle and ending. Maybe it depends on the genre or plot structure.

I think those one way doors have to happen right up front, and then you can still use them in the middle as part of that escalation. Thresholds for sure. Necessary for the middle, no.

I agree that although beginnings bear energy and endings provide satisfaction, the middle is the story. As for somebody's Uncle Jim's comparing reading/writing the middle to trekking across the desert, apart from the ultimate sterility of the driest portion of the Sahara, most deserts offer organisms of exceeding delicacy and unexpected beauty, and should be trekked with the anticipation of experiencing something thought-provoking and beautiful (or, the aforementioned odd-sized and odd-shaped objects)

You seemed surprisingly chipper when you were writing the middle of your first novel. For those of us watching from a distance, it seemed like the hardest thing for you to do was to decide you could go from writing short stories to writing both short stories and novels.

Well I've always like hiking. Maybe I had to plunge into the trek to help myself discover I could complete that much longer (and deeper) of an excursion.

Well, I'm a week late, but I put that down to scribbling rather than reading ;)

You're currently my procrastination-of-choice (thanks to matociquala, since I am bumbling my way through the end-of-the-middle. Of course, as there's two timelines in this book, there's another middle to come, so I need all the help I can get.

And this has been a lot of help. Thank you :)

I've added you to my friends list too. I hope that's okay.

Glad you're here. Hope you find many of the entries here useful.

Thank you for the welcome. I foresee many happy hours browsing ;)