Saturday, October 26, 2013

The dreaded saggy middle

I tried to pay close attention to the "how" of my writing during the last WIP I drafted. I even jotted the occasional note so I would remember where I stalled, and my thoughts on why I may have stalled.

Here's what I found:

I usually have a lot of enthusiasm when I start a project. I'm busy researching, fleshing out the characters, considering plot points, developing the setting. I'm printing out maps, and photographs, and research info to paste into the WIP notebook. I always keep a notebook chock full of the Stuff of the book, including my jottings, my ideas, my snippets. That's the first month, what I call the Kickoff Month.

My enthusiasm wanes in the middle of a project. This is the Sagging Middle people talk about, and it's not just for the book but I think it happens for the author, too. That's usually Month Two of a project. Here's an Interesting Point I discovered:

This is where craft comes into play. You have to learn the craft in order to write, and it's when creativity is waning the craft comes into play. This is where I relied on my knowledge of how to craft a good scene to tide me over until the creativity reared its head again. I made sure each scene had GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict). I made sure each chapter moved the character and the plot forward. I allowed the characters some freedom to shift the plot, but I kept a close rein on them, too.

Month three is where the creativity picks up again. I once again hear those character voices in my head. This is where I go back and start to add in tidbits to the Sagging Middle. I tweak and I fix and I shift things around until it no longer sags. And I have enough momentum by this time to gallop to the finish line with little effort. This is what I think of as the Finale Month because it's when everything wraps up. I am NEVER sorry to see a project end. I think this ebb & flow of creativity helps keep everything fresh.

Once I finish a book, I go through it once for consistency checks (did her eyes stay green for the whole book?) and go through it again for what I think of as Manual Labor: checking for overused words (I have my list next to my computer), making sure the plot hangs together, making sure my motivations were firm for each character and especially the bad guy.

Then I let it sit while I start considering my next project. This may be editing an older book, it may be starting a new one, it may be edits from my editor. I let it sit for at least 3 or 4 months. Then I read it again and I'm always surprised that, wow, I wrote this and it's not so bad. It could use some tweaks, but overall -- it's good.

Then it's off to my critique partner and ... well, you know the rest. More edits, more sitting, more edits, then done.

I never realized how I go through distinct phases during the construction of a WIP. Now that I know it's there, I'm going to keep a closer eye on it, so when I get to that Sagging Middle I can remind myself:

It's just a phase. Persevere. The Finale isn't far away!


Jannine Gallant said...

The dreaded sagging middle is right! Like wading through quicksand sometimes. If I don't have an outline to keep me moving, this is where I run into trouble. Great post, JL.

Leah St. James said...

Sounds like a great technique! I'm like Jannine. I need an outline. Otherwise I go off course and never find my way back to the story.

Margo Hoornstra said...

You sound like someone who writes exactly like me, JL. Great insight. Nice to know we aren't alone, right?

Barbara Edwards said...

Interesting post. I never stopped to consider the ebb and flow but it makes sense. I'll keep this in mind when I hit that time in my process.

Alicia Dean said...

It's a great process, and it certainly works well for you, because you produce some GREAT books. Thanks for giving us a glimpse as to how that evolves.

Diane Burton said...

This pattern sounds very familiar--'cause it happens to me, too. I never really examined it the way you did, JL. Good post.