Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The dreaded middle

Barbara here. So we are two weeks into the new year, or more specifically, two weeks past the overindulgence of December. Overwhelmed by a feeling of sloth, we are frantically making promises – to exercise more, to eat less, to drink less, to cleanse and purify and meditate our way back to balance. And if you're a writer like me, to dig out that long-neglected work in progress and get back into the groove. For me, the deadline for my next novel, once blissfully away, is creeping inexorably closer. During December I laughed off the small niggles of pressure and the sheer blankness of my mind and the paper before me. I assured myself I had all the time in the world to figure out where the novel was going and to pull a brilliant plot out of a hat.

I don't plot ahead of time, nor do I outline. I provide the publisher with a vague synopsis of "this is what I think the novel is about, these are the characters that will probably be in it, these are a few things that might happen, and somehow it will all work out in the end, even though I don't yet know how." And then I pick up my pen and pad of paper, and I jump into the first scene. This 'by the seat of my pants' approach has served me adequately over the past eleven books, and is as entertaining as it is terrifying. I like not knowing what is coming next. I like the suspense, and the delicious surprises that my subconscious springs on me mid-book.

I guess I like the terror too. Like an actor about to go on stage, a doctoral student facing her thesis defence, a courtroom lawyer about to address the jury, there is a thrill in that adrenaline rush that makes all my senses come alive and my neurons go into overdrive. Some of us do our best creating when we are perched on the edge of the abyss. I was a crammer all through school, and I guess the habit dies hard.

As always, however, there can be too much pressure and too little preparation. A courtroom lawyer who hasn't even read the brief will face disaster, an actor who hasn't memorized her lines will fall on her face. An author who has only a hundred pages written one month before deadline is in big trouble. No amount of brilliantly firing neurons and flooding adrenaline can pull a perfect novel out of a hat in that time. Now I am not one month from my deadline, but I am staring at a very saggy, dismally out of shape novel. The myth of the dreaded middle is very real. Usually at the halfway mark of a first draft, the writer hits a wall. She's no longer sure how the novel will end, or how she's going to get there. She needs a new direction and a new sense of drama. Characters have to make unexpected changes or move in surprising ways. They need to stand on their heads.

Cliches abound about midway twists. Throw in another body, have someone confess, threaten the main character's nearest and dearest... The only thing worse than a flabby middle is a predictable twist. So when you're staring at that blank page and trying to brainstorm that EXCITING NEW TURN, you have to reject the numerous cliches that crowd helpfully into your mind and wait until that little gem pops up. You will know it when it comes to you– that ureka moment that cries out 'brilliant!'.

My flabby middle problem in this novel has some peculiar qualities. First of all, I'm only one third of the way through the book, not halfway. This is disconcerting. Will there be another flabby middle moment at the two-thirds mark? Or God forbid, more than one? Secondly, not all the plots in the novel are flabby. My work in progress is a braided story with three POVs; although Amanda Doucette is my main character, she has two sidekicks who have their own stories to unfurl. I have a lot of ideas about what those two sidekicks will be doing for the next hundred or so pages. They will be digging into the story, uncovering evidence, and pushing the intrigue forward.

Amanda, however, is stuck. Not only is she the main agent of the story, she's also physically right at the centre of the intrigue. She's a passionate, resourceful, independent woman who would jump in at the first sign of trouble or injustice, but right now in the story, I can't think what she should be doing. She, like me, is stalled. I have spent hours daydreaming about it while driving on the 401 and walking the dogs, so far without that ureka moment. I know she and I will eventually figure out what she should do. Maybe during that four-day winter camping excursion I am taking next week. Amanda is winter camping, too; perhaps she will speak to me.

So stay tuned!

1 comment:

Vicki Delany said...

Good luck!