Thursday, January 24, 2008

Help for the Sagging Middle

All the contests I’ve entered have asked for the first chapter of a manuscript, or between ten and thirty-five pages. This makes perfect sense since those are he critical beginning pages an editor reads right off the bat when the story is finally submitted. However, once the contest judges have commented and I’ve incorporated their suggestions, all I have now is a polished beginning. Good so far, but one chapter doesn’t make an entire book.

Then I face the middle—inevitably the sagging middle where I really need the assistance of helpful and knowledgeable judges. Except for my fabulous critique partners, I’m on my own from this point. I wander through the bewildering forest of plot, verging down the wrong path, following rabbit trails that lead nowhere except rabbit holes that are hard to dig out of. Or delete. Well sometimes they lead to brilliant ideas, but usually for another story, not my wip. Often these fresh, new ideas hook my attention and hurl me down another path until I’m utterly lost. I put my old wip aside. This is how I end up with a computer clogged with false starts full of promise, but left unfinished.

Sometimes my hero, heroine and their entourage gallop through the woods before coming to an abrupt halt at a hurdle too high to jump. While they pause and I try to solve their dilemma, secondary characters arrive at the scene. Inevitably they’re more colorful and more intriguing than the main group, so I follow their stories until I’m racing down rabbit trails and falling into rabbit holes again.

Critique partners may rescue me from myself, or not. They may think I have a plan and know where I’m going even though I don’t have a clue. Often I discover I have two main plots where only one is needed. And I love them both.

What I need is a contest to help me stay on the road that leads to the end of the main story, the one with the original hero and heroine. It might be difficult to have a contest involving the middle section of a manuscript, but that’s exactly what I’d like to see. This is my problem area -- where the plot thins and the padding thickens.

Does anyone know of a contest to help prop up a sagging middle?



Melanie Dickerson said...

Hmmm. I don't know of a contest for that, but I would say, spend some time plotting in your head once you get those first couple of chapters polished. Figure out the perfect ending of your book before you write any more. Then you will have a goal: Get those two main characters to that ending.

Anyhow, I'm just the opposite. I can't stand to start something new until I finish what I've started. I got HORRIBLE writers block this past fall when I tried to start a new book when I was only halfway through my WIP. Icky, icky feeling, writer's block. I'd never experienced that black hole before.

But I think it's great you have so many wonderful, intriguing ideas. You just need to throw a lasso around them and put them in the corral until you finish breaking that first mustang. ;-)

Missy Tippens said...

Cara, the "contest" you're looking for is a request from an editor for a full manuscript! :)

I stopped in the middle of a book once to start another one (based on a secondary character who was taking over the first book), and I ended up regretting that I'd sidetracked myself. So I've vowed not to do that again. I'll jot down the idea in a file and then make myself go back to the first book. Like Melanie said, I'll have to throw the lasso around the first story until I've broken that mustang. :)


Janet Dean said...

Ah, Cara, great post on those sagging middles. I hate when that happens ... and it always does for me. I'm a plotter so I don't veer off course. Instead, I plod along, boring myself to death, wondering what I'd been thinking when I started the story.

This is when I have to stop and read the book from the beginning. Doing that helps me fall in love with the story again and gives me insight and energy to figure out what must happen to raise the stakes. External conflict is slower to come for me. If I'm still struggling, brainstorming really helps. Eventually the solution comes and I regain my confidence and my footing and forge ahead.

I love that you get all those ideas for new stories, Cara. I never know what I'm going to write about next. I get one idea at a time, giving me doubts that I'm really a writer. But I'm starting to see we all do it differently. So I try hard not to analyze the process, even if I sometimes have to drag myself off that couch. ;-)

Tina M. Russo said...

I am visual, so no matter how many writing books I insist on buying there are really very few that I actually get through.

I know there are a bunch of Breakout Novel follower here but I can't use the book. Now the live workshop really helped.

But the visual thing that really helped my failure to plot was The Hero's Two Journey's by Michael Hague and Christopher Vogler.

It really forces me to do the work ahead of time or as I go.

You can get it online at

Of course what works for me may not work for you.

So since Cara brought it up I am curious the plotting techniques or lack there of, used by others

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Tina, I'm interested in how others arc their plots as well.

Cara, great post, girlfriend. I see sagging middles as space fillers, the talking heads phenomenon, the meals that take the story nowhere, the time-killers that leave us yawning.

And even some published books come through with sagging middles, so it's not uncommon.

I think (don't shoot me, it's not nice to threaten friends) the middle is the most fun, the most imaginative part of the book by far. You already know the beginning and you generally know the end in your head, how you want the H/H to end up together...

Getting them there?

Well that comes back to Mary's smokin' gun ideas, Janet's weather blasts, etc. Toss in the unexpected, the half-crazed (people or situations, either will work), a long-lost relative or a long-lost letter, a dead body, etc.

As long as it works toward the final weave, exciting stuff can shore up that sagging middle (would that it work for mine, LOL) and make the book that much more concrete.

And concrete don't often sag, girl!


Let's hear from you guys out there? Sagging middles a problem? Tell us about it.

Then I'll make fun of you...

But not really.


Melanie Dickerson said...

Like Ruthy said, the middle can be the best part. That's when you take those secondary characters who don't seem to be doing anything anyway, and you have them fall in love with each other, make trouble for the Hero and/or Heroine, get themselves killed, or whatever other havoc you can think of. Or you have someone get sick, a snowstorm, a fire, any disaster will do, as long as it makes things harder for everyone. :-)

I plot in my head. I don't like to write things down. Don't know why. But I have to have a general idea, or a lot of ideas, about what will happen throughout the book, especially a general theme or "feel" for the book. And I like to get ideas for the plot from my research. I do all that before I start writing. I'm sort of a plotter and sort of not.

Mary Connealy said...

Something that has helped me is a synopsis. It's not exactly chapter by chapter but it's fairly well formed, just a string of sentences saying the steps of the book.
This isn't written in stone, but it helps me remember where I'm going.
I keep this snyopsis at the end of my manuscript document file and as I write the scene that corresponds to that next step, I erase those lines, so I've always got, just one quick scroll down, a single sentence telling me where I'm going and why and when I've erased the last sentence, the book is done.
At the beginning of the document I make notes to myself.
Ex. Deal with the reward money.
Deal with Josh's amnesia
Red rides a bucksking gelding named Buck.
Silas rides a sorrel, no name.

Bad guys, Sid, Boog, Paddy, Harv and (to have a quick reminder of their names since they don't ALL appear in that many scens and it keeps me from fumbling for that info.

But that doesn't deal with the sagging middle, does it, it's just a device I use to keep track of stuff.

Mary Connealy said...

ANd I will insert here that one time I knew I'd gone completely wrong in a book when I found my h/h chatting about nothign that important while folding laundry.
Okay, stop, stop, stop. Boring.
I just couldn't find my way past that and someone told me, when you hit a wall like that, back up about a chapter and take a different turn. You've made a choice that solved way too much of the conflict. So go back and mess that up.
I believe it was Ruthy who suggested I liven the Laundry Folding Scene up by leaving the front door open and allowing a toddler to run out into traffic.
that worked perfectly, thanks my sinister friend.

Mary Connealy said...

And one more point. My steadfast solution to a sagging middle is to start shooting at someone. Never fails. And yeah, that could be tricky in say a sweet romance about working in a apple orchard, or maybe in a Amish character driven romance...but really, try harder.

Tina M. Russo said...

I knew she'd shoot someone.

Mary Connealy said...

You'll notice I didn't post any comments until late in the day. That's becaue I was reading
HER UNLIKELY FAMILY by our very own Missy Tippens.
Missy it was so good, so funny adn sweet and you're just an artist with words. I kept wanting to stop and email you just to say, I LOVE THAT LINE. But I couldn't quit reading.
Such nice work. I'm proud to know you.

Gina Welborn said...

I have to say I LOVE Mary's shooting someone idea. Sometimes a good death is all you need to get the ball rolling again.

Of course, I don't think a death has to be a person. Although I really like killing people. I spent last night and this morning mulling over how to do in my heroine's father. The guy's a jerk so...well, let's face it, he deserves a good literary death. But I couldn't do it.


Nothing's worse than wanting to kill someone and you can't do it. Not that I didn't have the guts. It's just...well, that was the easy solution.

Anyhoo, back to someone dying.

I figure if the middle is sagging then you need to go back an evaluate what your leads' story goals are. While I wish I could be a plotter like Janet or one of the Breakout Novel workbook-obsessives, I'm not. Too much thought required.

Plus, I'm a simple gal so I gotta keep things simple.

1. What is the ONE thing the heroine wants because she thinks obtaining it will bring her happiness?

2. What is the ONE thing the hero wants because he thinks obtaining it will bring him happiness?

3. How does the heroine's obtaining her goal conflict with the hero's obtainging of his?

4. How do both of those goals conflict with the blooming romantic relationship?

5. What is the worst or most absurd thing that could happen at this moment to hinder either/both lead's obtaining his/her goal?

I figure if the middle is sagging, it's probably because the leads are merely REACTING to what's happening around them instead of their choices CAUSING something (usually more conflict and obstacles) to happen. Secondary characters are great, but they can't carry a story, nor should they.

Oh, and when you think of goals, think external and internal.

Heroine wants a red porshe becuase to her it signifies she's achieved enough financial success in life that she can splurge on a overly priced car.

Hero is the town's mayor and wants to convert the town to an environmentally friendly zone, so he working to convince the city council to give massive tax cuts to people who drive hybrids and massive tax penalties to anyone driving a vehicle that doesn't get at least 30 miles per gallon and/or isn't a hybrid. Why? He started a forest fire when he was a kid which cost millions in damages and this is one of his many attempt to redeem his mistake.

Once their external story goals are in conflict, then as long as you keep those goals in conflict while increasng the sexual tension and romantic thread, then your middle shouldn't sag too much. Unless they're sitting around a table folding laundry. Please send in the twaddler. Might even need a streaker too.

Julie Lessman said...

Cara, just got home, so a little late on my comment, but I have actually found more sagging ends in books then middles, and nothing ticks me off more! You are sooo right about the first chapters shining like a new penny, hooking you in, but then the middle sags and the ends sometimes drop off a cliff. Kind of makes you wish there were contests that remedied sagging middles and flat ends. Mmmm ... kind of sounds like my Baby-Boomer body!!! :)

Mary Connealy said...

GINA!!! That should have been a post that got it's own day.
It's beautifully put.
And it can be EMOTIONAL gunfire you know. I mean real gunfire is better, but metaphorical gunfire works in a pinch

Tina M. Russo said...

I agree, Mary.

Bravo Gina.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Gina if you're going to be that kind of smart, please stop back often.


Just don't be showin' me up, girlfriend, 'cause I know a gal out there in Nebraska and she's got a gun.

Emotional guns, metallic guns, imaginary guns...

Not that I'm threatening you, Cupcake. Wouldn't dream of it.

But your very well thought out post shows the heart of a writer. Good job.

Now I need to go kick your butt in some contest so I don't get depressed. E-mail me and tell me what you've entered so I can enter something too.

And if I don't final, I'll just pretend I didn't really enter, that this is all a joke.

Ha, ha.



Pamela J said...

The main question is "Sagging middles a problem?" (I can see where it could be)
Gina says "...their choices CAUSING something (usually more conflict and obstacles) to happen."
Well, I have two very big things to be thankful for when these problems could come... That is, first, what I have been working on writing is devotionals and they are short enough it is the end before you realize it is the middle! Second, the next thing is that I live in such a small town, there are plenty of activities going on all around me that can have scriptural applications for a lesson that I never run out of ideas. (awhile back a town person said "For such a small town, we sure have a lot of drama around here"). I'm thankful for all your discussions because if my stories ever get longer, I will be more prepared. Thanks.
cepjwms at yahoo dot com

Melanie said...


I'm with you on the external conflict. Mine's a redemption/mystery sort of novel, and the heroine's work to solve the mystery leads her past her own pain and restores her relationship with Christ. I've got all that down pat. My problem is, I started off with a kidnapping without even deciding who the kidnapper is.

Not a wise move. Then again, at the time I thought I was just doing it because the words were in my head and I had to get them out.

No saggy middle because the kidnapper's constantly sending messages to my heroine to keep it going, forcing her to relive her trauma each step of the way. Oh, it's difficult to explain.

I've figured out how to resolve the internal conflict, but there's no novel without resolving the external.

And since I already have kidnapping, stalking and a serial rapist, I don't think shooting anyone is a good plan.

Missy Tippens said...

Tina, I agree. I love the the DVD's you mentioned. But when I tried to plot using just their method, I found I had trouble (a rejection, actually). So I went back to my tried and true methods: Carolyn Greene's Plotting Notebook and Alicia Rasley's The Story Within workbook. I love those two!! I guess we'll see if it sells this time. :)

Missy Tippens said...

Okay, Mary. We see how come you always have dead bodies in the books. You have to keep a LIST of the BAD GUYS! You have so many you can't keep them straight! ;)

I love your idea about keeping the synop at the end and of erasing lines as you go. Gotta try that!!


Missy Tippens said...

Mary!! I'm so excited that your read my book! :) The Seekers know I've been worried about having my friends read my work. Made me soooo nervous!! LOL

I'm glad you liked it. You made my day! :)


Missy Tippens said...

Gina, I love how you summarized how to find the topic of conflict! You should teach a workshop sometime.


Gina Welborn said...

First, Mary, you liked my post because of all the killing talk.

Girls, pay attention: the key to Mary's heart is dead bodies. Freaky in a kinky kinda way.

Second, Ruthy, I'm really not that smart. I just fake it good. And if I weren't so B-R-O-K-E, I'd consider entering a contest or few to give you a chance to whip my hide. I am, however, considering entering the Genesis. My only drawback is it's only 15 pages and my H/H don't meet face-to-face in the first 15 pages.

Third, Missy, since you mentioned Alicia Rasley, lemme give a plug for her beause I think Alicia (even though I've yet to meet her) is THE premier craft of writing teacher. Her archived articles are worth ten of the best hardcopy CoW books. The article that I love the most is the one "How to Outline Your Novel in 30 Minutes."

Now while I've never been able to limit myself to 30 minutes, filling out the outline after I've done a first draft really helps. And actually, I don't stress out too much if I fill one out pre-first-draft. Well, now that I think about it, I've only filled one our pre-first-draft and that story hasn't made it past page 22.

And I didn't fill one out with the ms I'm working on now, so I've only done it twice. Once with my medieval and once with that stalled contemporary which is only stalled because I kept thinking of more plot twists and figured if I added everything coming to mind, I'd never keep it under Barbour's page limit. I just don't think my brain thinks in terms of less than 90k word plots.

Anyway, I've enjoyed this post and the comments becuause hearing how other's overcome their saggy drawers...umm, middles is intersting.

Pam Hillman said...

Half-crazed people or situations, Ruthy? Hmmm, you really have a great idea there.

I'll think I'll add a crazy Aunt Ruthy, a little wild-haired and bossy...she could burn the house down, or call the hero's boss and spread all kinds of well-intentioned, but grossly misleading information...

Ah...the possibilities!

Pam Hillman said...

Mary posted, "My steadfast solution to a sagging middle is to start shooting at someone."

Just to clarify, Mary means shooting at characters in her wip, not real LIVE people. Or at least that's what she always TELLS us.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Awww..sagging middles.

I've heard conflict is key.

Love all your posts on how you plot.

I get to know my characters first. Part of that is knowing their worst fear or thinking of the one thing they think they couldn't give up...then facing them with their worst fear or losing that one thing.

External conflict is the HARDEST thing for me to come up with.

And unfortunately I'm pretty sure that's what helps to shore up a sagging middle. LOL!


Lori said...

Wow, you guys! What a great blog. Even the comments section is a must-read. :) Nothing to add. Keep it up!

Patricia W. said...

Shoot someone. Wow, didn't know it was that simple.

Seriously, the middles are hard. I struggled through and kept junking my ms to start anew. I finally figured out that I need a synopsis to help me get through the middle. It helps to rein me in when I get lost and gives me juice when I feel like I'm running out of steam.

For those who are fans of Alicia Rasley's writing advice, you might want to check out the blog she recently started with one of her editor colleagues, Editorrent. It's my number one read these days.

bigguysmama said...

I get so many ideas for plots and story lines, tho I've never written a story in my life. Guess where I get these great ideas? In the shower. I have ADD and by the time I get out of my 10 min shower, it's left my brain never to be seen again. I did start a story, but life gets in the way and I'm not sure how to make it a priority.

I would be chasing rabbits left and right. How anyone manages to complete an entire book without starting 5 more in the process is beyond me!

Blessings on your sagging middles!