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29: How do you deal with the murky middle?

This week, authors J. Thorn and Crys Cain discuss how they navigate the “murky middle” of writing a novel, and how that has changed through experience.

Transcription

Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost, J Thorn.  

J: Hello, Chris, how are you?  

Crys: I’m good. We are batch recording, so not a ton of updates since 20 minutes ago. But I would like to say cause I feel like this will be pertinent to our listeners… that I have not written for two weeks. 

J: Wow.  

Crys: And that’s weird for me. But it’s also been really good. I also want to throw this book recommendation out there that I happened to be listening to in this time period. And it’s just one of those weird correlations of things happening at the same time and it’s called Do Nothing

I forget the subtitle is exactly, but it’s like how to stop overworking, over committing, and under living. And it’s really interesting. The part that I really liked that might drive other people nuts, cause it’s just too much information, is the history of how the cult of productivity, which she never calls it that, but that’s how we’ve referred to it. 

The cult of productivity was created in the U S particularly, and I just found it fascinating. And for any of you rebels out there who really just like rebelling against expectations and being manipulated, it might really foster you to give a very appropriate middle finger to the expectation of overwork and the value of our time. 

J: Nice.  

Crys: So our question this week slide right into it is how do you deal with the murky middle blues? 

J: Often call the soggy middle. If I’m interpreting the question correctly, this is how do you first draft through the middle of the book when you are beyond the initial excitement for the project and the end of it seems like it’s impossibly far away. You think that’s a proper interpretation of it? 

Crys: Absolutely accurate interpretation.  

J: All right. So what do you do?  

Crys: Most of the time I throw a hissy screaming fit inside my head.  

With the romance, this is, what’s been interesting to me as I’ve contemplated this question, with the romance where it’s very much, I have to get it done because it puts, a roof over my head and I don’t have time to throw too big of a hissy fit.  

One, it’s plotted beforehand. So I basically know what’s going to happen there. And two, we lean into emotional moments that don’t necessarily have to have anything to do with the direct plot. They are often relational moments between characters that are not the main characters. 

We sometimes call it fluffing. ” This is just a fluff chapter.” Because romance readers love fluffed chapters in our particular potato chip kind of romance. I wouldn’t be content with fluff chapters in my science fiction and fantasy. So that’s where I turned into a giant child and have a hissy fit. 

J: Do you think the experience of that middle is different for plotters versus pantsers? 

Crys: Yes. In that, I think pantsers expect that to come along and they will throw a hissy fit as well, but often they will recognize “yeah, this happens because I’m pantsing.”  

Plotters, don’t expect that to come along because they’re like, I created a plot. I know what’s supposed to happen. And sometimes it can throw them completely off track because it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do for them. 

It can stop both types of writers completely in their tracks, but the kind of anger that happens is a little different.  

J: Well, I mean, I think there’s, realistically, like there isn’t any single solution to this question. There’s not like a pill or a procedure or anything. It’s all about mindset, right? 

Like it’s all about how you approach the situation that you’re in. And I was listening to a podcast today, it’s a science podcast, and it’s about testosterone and its impact in stress and like how stress affects us.  

The basic point of the conversation was that there isn’t anything inherently bad or good about stress, it’s our perception of that stress. You can be in physical pain and under stress. And that could be a good thing depending on the context, or that could be a bad thing. And so it all comes down to, the mindset.  

I think that for a lot of these issues that creatives have that artists deal with, it’s also framed in, in mindset and it doesn’t mean you won’t experience it.  

The real world example that I’ll use is when I first started running at age 49, having the last time I ran was from the cops at like age 19. Running was basically new to me and what I had to do… I couldn’t say, “Okay. I want to run a mile or I’m eventually want to run five miles a day.”  

That just felt completely impossible. I couldn’t even think about it. So instead I would, when I would go for my run and be like, okay, I’m just going to make it to that stop sign. That’s all I’m gonna do. 

If I can just run to that stop sign, and then once I got to the stop sign I’d be like, okay, I made it. If I can just get to that mailbox, that’s all I’m going to do is I’m going to get to that mailbox and so on.  

And at some point you look up and you’re like, oh I ran today. Like I ran my, whatever it is, my mile, my five miles.  

I think writing long form is fiction is the same way. I think if you like pick your head up and you look up, get the horizon, it’s easy to get overwhelmed or disappointed or bored or disinterested. Whereas if you just look at the next marker, what’s the next mile post? The next scene, the next chapter, just be like, okay.  

Almost pretend like this chapter I’m in it’s like the next to last one. Cause as soon as I get to that that next one. That’s it. And you’re you’re playing a little mind games with yourself.  

But I feel like that works. Like at an intellectual level, there’s more to come, but I think if you just keep your eyes lower and you’re just focusing on the next milestone, I think the effects of that soggy middle are going to be far less than if you’re looking all the way out to the end. 

And it just seems so far away.  

Crys: I think that’s a great way of putting it because I know that when I suffer the most frustration, it’s I’m looking at where my character is and where they need to be. And I get so frustrated trying to figure out all the little points they need between them, I can’t see all of the little points.  

I can see the end and I need to be focusing just on the next point, because otherwise I rushed my character development and then have a very unsatisfying story. And I just skip the murky middle, which should be for me, the way that I really want to pursue writing, the fun part. The just goofing off with the characters part and getting them in trouble and seeing where that takes them. 

That could, and that’s more of like a pantsing mindset, but you can do that as a plotter as well. And just think what is the funniest thing I could do to my characters right now?  

For me, I really like writing humor. So for you, it might be like, what’s the most terrifying situation I could put my characters in? Like what would scare the pants off of me? What would be a really cool description that I, you know, or scene that I really want to work in? And just finding things like that you just want to throw in. 

I think often, writers want to save the good stuff for future books too. And sometimes if you have a really clear vision of what needs to happen later on, you do have to save the good stuff for later book, but sometimes you, maybe it’s better just to throw it in now and then see if it fits when you hit the end. 

Cause editing is where the story really shines, in my opinion.  

J: Don’t you think too, that there’s a certain… there’s a certain curve that goes along with experience? I don’t know about you, but fighting through that soggy middle is it’s much less intense for me now than it was 10 or 15 novels ago. 

I think the more you do it, you just, I don’t know if it’s any easier, but you just know it, it’s there, you know what it is, you just write through it. And I think that’s easier to do when you’ve been through it a few times. Yeah.  

Crys: It’s a familiar path. It’s like trucking through mud barefoot. The first time you do it, you’re completely overwhelmed by the experience of things squishing against your feet. But the 15th time doesn’t make it any more pleasant, but you know what the feeling is.  

I have that with romance. I do not have that with my science fiction and fantasy. And I think that the reason it’s that way for me is that romance is such a strictly defined expectation of a journey that I have that path internalized, but when it comes to genres that are less strict, I am a bit overwhelmed by choice.  

And in this way, the romance actually works against me because I’m so used to there being, a quote unquote, right choice, as far as what emotional choice you make. And there is not when you are outside of romance or say you’re writing a cozy mystery. Those have pretty defined emotional arcs that readers expect to be happy. 

That’s not true in all other genres. And so I get overwhelmed and that’s why I think I need to, or I hope to lean into more of the exploratory having fun emotion as I’m starting back into the world of just having fun with my writing. Because I don’t know the path yet, so I need to explore it. 

J: That’s a great point. And I’ve had that experience in the. The only fiction I’m writing right now is a serialized story, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it yet. I was originally going to publish it to Vella, but I’m not sure I’m going to go that route. But the point is like I’m starting to think about the second installment or season or novella, whatever you want to call it. 

And I’m really resisting the urge to, to map that out perfectly. Like almost… I just want to… I threw some things in the last chapter of the last segment and I’m like, I don’t know where I’m going to go with that. I think maybe that’s going to be my approach. Like you said, it’s really fun because I don’t know exactly where I’m going to go. 

But I’ve been doing this enough that I feel like I have the story structure in me now that I don’t have to be as explicit about planning it out the way I did when I had less experience.  

Crys: And an interesting element of the serial fiction that is a bit different from when we’re writing novels or novellas, is that the rhythm of storytelling and the rhythm of emotional intensity is very different, can be very different. 

It doesn’t have to be, this ramp up to the middle, a dip, and then a ramp up. There’s just going to be a lot of ramps and dips in there. Generally less of a rigidity to what that path is going to be.  

J: Agreed. Good point.  

Crys: So that murky middle is a long and murky and very much leaning into the exploration. 

Well, sir, what question would you like to ask our listeners?  

J: I think I’d like to know if they hit a murky middle and if you do, how do you get through it?  

Crys: Excellent.

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