So. You’ve decided to write a novel. You were super excited about that fabulous idea you had and you squeed with delight as you raced to capture the glow of the beginning of the story. You set forth on your first draft with all of the enthusiasm of youth and possibility.
And then you hit the middle.
Today we continue this three-part series on how to survive writing the first draft of a novel. First drafts are hard. They’re the hardest part of writing. What once seemed so obvious has turned into something too real and challenging once you decide to do it. Sure, it’s all fun and games in the beginning. You’re in love with your story and you think the two of you will last forever. But the honeymoon doesn’t last forever.
As far as I’m concerned, the middle of a novel is the hardest part to write.
The middle is where the plot percolates. You’ve set up the characters and the story in the beginning and you’re going to bring it all together and wrap it all up at the end, but the middle is where it all happens. The middle can be a dark, confusing place. And you’re going to have to get through it. Many a brave wannabe novelist has stumbled and fallen in the middle, losing all hope of ever completing their book.
In order to prevent yourself from being one of those eternally aspiring writers with a novel that you’re always working on but never finishing, you’re going to have to be disciplined. There’s no way around it. Trust me, I know. You can have the most brilliant story idea ever and you can have attended master classes in writing, but unless you’ve got the discipline to see your story through the middle, you’re not going to finish it.
I know I’ve reached the middle when I stop, fingers poised over the keyboard, and have no idea where I’m going. I know I’ve reached the middle when I freeze and start to panic and think to myself “What am I doing? This is a terrible idea! This story sucks and there’s no way out!” Fortunately, that’s a pretty good sign that you are where you want to be. The only way out is forward.
The middle is where all the craft I’ve learned comes in handy. This is where I have to consciously remind myself of rising action, of action and reaction, where I constantly review the hero, heroine, and antagonist’s goals, motivations, and conflicts, and where I have to think hard about what just happened, what I’m about to write, and what it will lead to.
I mentioned that I write story notes with a pen and paper before I start writing. I get out that pen and paper again when I hit the middle. Frequently. I recap what I’ve just written as if it were a clip at the beginning of a new episode of a tv show. “Last time on Current Novel, our heroine tried to run away was almost mugged in an alley. The hero saved her and made her promise that she wouldn’t try to run again.” I then go on to remind myself of what I am about to write. I go into detail of what it will make each of the characters feel. I use a lot of “maybes” and play with different ideas of how it could all turn out. I write it all down instead of just thinking about it.
Sounds like homework, doesn’t it. Well, sometimes homework is necessary if you’re going to move forward. The worst part of the middle is that you have to move forward bit by bit. You don’t have the advantage of introducing the characters and explaining how they got where they are, nor do you have the luxury of bringing all the threads together. The middle is where you make the threads.
The only way I am ever able to finish a first draft is by setting myself a word count goal. Setting it and meeting it every day, no exceptions. My standard word count goal is 2000 words. Those words can be brilliant, but more often they suck. Half the time I groan as I write them and think to myself that this bit is going to be cut even as I write. Doesn’t matter. Meet that goal. Write those words. It’s the only way.
The fact is that yes, it probably will be sub-par. Remember FDSS, First Draft Suckage Syndrome. It’s a real thing. But you can use it. You can use every one of those less than perfect words that you’ve written. Through those words, as long as you keep writing them, you will discover the story you’re really writing.
Take the novel I’m working on right now, for example. When I started Fool for Love all I knew was the premise: Pregnant heroine in disgrace is saved by the hero who offers to take her back to Montana so she can start a new life. They fall in love, but she doesn’t think she’s worthy of him and plans to leave. He has to stop her. Sounds like I’ve got it all together, right? Nope. It took me 82,000 words before I figured out who the heroine was. Oh, sure, I knew her name was Amelia and her background, but I didn’t know her until then.
Sometimes you have to write a lot of words before your characters reveal themselves for who they really are. It might feel like you’re writing a bunch of nonsense in the meantime. And yeah, you are. But none of those words are wasted. They may be cut, they may be altered or revised in later drafts, but they are not a waste.
I repeat: first drafts are not a waste! They are the proving ground for the story that you are actually writing. But you’re not going to find that story unless you do the work.
A lot of writers – and readers – complain about the “saggy middle”. Middles sag when nothing important or meaningful happens, when the action is at a minimum and the plot doesn’t advance. Saggy middles are scary when you’re writing a first draft. They’re also pretty much inevitable. Embrace the saggy middle! Let it sag. Write long, boring passages about what your hero and heroine are doing for lunch or about what they see on their drive into town. Do whatever it takes to make your word count. Just be prepared to cut it all later.
Middles only sag because something that should have been cut or revised wasn’t. But unless you take a chance on something that might prove futile, you’re never going to find the hidden gem that could bring your entire story together. You’re never going to get your characters to speak to you and tell you who they are and where they’re going unless you let them talk. A lot. So don’t be afraid to write crap. Just be sure you write a lot of it.
So how do you get through the middle, the most difficult part of any first draft? Discipline. Set a word count goal and make it every day, no matter what. Set up a system of reward or punishment if you have to. Write drivel if you need to, just make that goal. Because once you get past the middle, you’ve reached the end. And the end is fun again!