Thursday, April 17, 2008

Working the Muddle Out of Your Middle

Cheryl St.John is the author of thirty Harlequin and Silhouette books. Her first book, RAIN SHADOW was nominated for RWA’s RITA for Best First Book, by Romantic Times for Best Western Historical, and by Affaire de Coeur readers as Best American Historical Romance. Her 2005 HH, HIS SECONDHAND WIFE, earned another RITA nod. HH LAND OF DREAMS, SSE THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and HH PRAIRIE WIFE each won RT’s Reviewers Choice Awards.

Cheryl has one of the liveliest blogs around. Jokes, videos, books she loves, recipes. She's a master at making a quick stop at worth while. She also lets me be involved with all the other western authors at Petticoats and Pistols, where we just kicked off our new Stetson and Spurs contest. My book gets to hang around with Cheryl's Rita nominated book!!! There's a picture of the goodies we're giving away at the end of this post.

Working the Muddle Out of Your Middle
Cheryl St.John
Have you ever reached the middle of a book and:
Lost energy and drive?
Didn’t have enough story?
Had too much story?
Realized someone has done this before?

It’s normal to feel some frustration at this stage. Don’t feel helpless or that you’ve lost your talent. Your talent doesn’t up and desert you because a certain scene or chapter or even an entire book is difficult to write.

The middle follows from the beginning -- the part where your characters’ motivations were established, their goals were set in place, and where your character decided to go after what he wanted or to fight for something he believed in or to reach a destination or to prevent something from happening. You’ve been busy juggling backstory with characterization and conflict, getting it all just so. You’ve done all that and now you feel like you’re floundering.

Stop. Take a deep breath. The middle is simply a series of events, scenes and sequels that get your character from the beginning of the book to the end. Sound simple? It is, really. But it can also be intimidating. Daunting if you let yourself get caught up in the muddle.

I’ve forgotten What It Was About This Story That Excited Me
You’ve just figured out who these people are! You might need to go back to the beginning and adjust for that. But don’t go back and get bogged down in rewriting the beginning because you can’t seem to go forward from the middle. Yes, you can. Stop whining.

How many people do you know who have never moved past the beginning of their first book? What is stopping them? Lack of confidence. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Laziness. Writing a book is hard work. Maybe they didn’t plan the book well enough in advance and there really is nowhere to go now. They wrote a great first meet and everything was downhill from there.

Sure, go back and reread the beginning to recapture the initial excitement. Read the synopsis. Read over the notes you made and the character sketches, if any. Read all the way to where you’ve stalled, but then keep moving forward.

Finish the rough draft, if you don’t think it’s perfect; you can always go back and fix it.
You can fix junk, but you can’t fix nothing.

Be Convincing
Convince the reader to care about your story and your characters. Convince yourself. Use all the tools you’ve been given in the workshops you’ve attended and apply The Techniques of The Selling Writer. I always recommend Dwight Swain’s book. After thirty-some books, I still read it to refresh myself in the middle of the current WIP.

Trust Your Intuition
The more original the idea, the less self-doubt you will have and the more excitement you will retain. There was some wonderfully tantalizing tidbit that got you started on this story in the first place. Get back to that first love. Remember what that glimmer of excitement was and recreate it. You had a good enough idea to provoke you to write this story; don’t abandon it now.

If the story’s going flat--if it really has problems--now is the time to recognize them and inject some zing. Wherever your plot points are, you have something you’re springing from, and something you’re working toward. Keep those in mind. If you plot in thirds, then the middle is just past your first plot point, so you’ve got something to work from. Make sure that plot point was strong enough. If you plot in fourths, then this is time for a major change or new information to be revealed.

Time For A Change!
The halfway point is the place to change your character’s goals. Whatever they started out wanting should have changed direction by now--or they’ve come up with a new plan to get what they want.

Add a complication; make it look like your character won’t ever get what he/she wants. If the complication comes from an external source, make sure it feeds into the internal conflict.

Make the situation more critical. And remember your goal is conflict, not just delay. What can happen to turn things around? Well….
If your character is bluffing, call his bluff.
Have him make a wrong assumption.
Bring in new information that changes things.
Block a route of escape or set a plan awry.
Have someone befriend your character.
Have a friend turn against your character.
Make your character choose between two things he wants
or make choice between the lesser of two evils.
Someone thought to be missing or dead can show up.
Move forward with a plan that will hurt someone else.
A lie can be discovered.
Have something that would have helped your character reach his goal stolen.

Sluggish? Jump Start Your Story!
The middle has lost its shape? Jazzercise it!
Here are ideas to help when you’re stumped for where to go or how to add new life and energy:
Most useful for me: Make a list of 25 things that could happen. Don’t stop until all 25 lines are filled. Something about knowing you have to fill them all, sets your brain free.

If that didn’t spur you on, resort to any or all of these:
Write a short biography of the characters.
Write a monologue.
Write a scene with another character.
Write a dialogue “secret” told by a character.
Jump ahead and write a scene that you know.
Watch a movie. Note plot points and figure out why it worked for you.

Keep the Tension Strong
Keep the outcome in doubt.
Use a time limitation.
Give reader flashes of hope.
Change POV and leave a character’s fate hanging. (a suspense technique)

Middle Check-List
Double-check your story time-line.
Make sure your character’s opponent, whether it’s time or a villain or a situation is strong enough to be worthy of your focal character.
Is the conflict escalating through this section--things should be worse than they were to start with.
Make sure all complications feed into the main conflict
When looking for a complication, don’t think small! The more devastating for your character, the better the conflict. Say “No” to your character and say it big. The reader has to wonder how this situation will ever be resolved. Make every situation demand action, and see to it that your focal character reacts to every stimulus. The more dangerous the situation, the more likely the character is to take action. Don’t miss any reactions. Check whether or not there is a reaction for every event. If there isn’t, you probably don’t need the event.

A story is feelings. If your character doesn’t feel something about what was said or done, who will care? The reader identifies with the character, so the character must care, must feel, and must react. Everything that happens should be moving the story forward.

Remember external events have no meaning in themselves. They aid story development only if someone has feelings about them and reacts to them.

Did you leave a question or a decision at the end of each scene? At the end of each chapter? Did you leave the reader hanging? To keep the reader interested, you must show the uncertainty of the outcome.

Look at the point of view character in each middle scene and scrutinize whether or not the story would be more vivid from another viewpoint. Who has more to lose or gain? Is a fresh perspective needed?

Ask yourself why your character can’t just quit now. If he can, give him a reason to dig in and fight.
Play with Murphy’s Law.
Don’t confuse delay with complication/conflict.
Have you paid attention to pacing?
Is the tension high with adequate time to reflect? If not, punch it up.
Ask yourself in each scene, “What’s really the issue here? What’s at stake?”
Have enough at stake for each character that they have to fight.
Force continuing adjustments: move/counter move.
Keep boxing your character in, narrowing his radius of action, until he’s forced to make a choice between two specific concrete alternatives.

Grow Up!
It’s important to show character growth through this section of the book. Your character can’t simply have a last minute unmotivated come-to-realize in the last chapter and suddenly realize the error of his ways and recognize that he’s in love and solve a mystery and propose. You need to show him coming to this place of realization in increments. Create scenes that show your character making progress toward these changes.

Think Smaller
If the middle of the book intimidates you, think “smaller”. We’re conditioned to think big, but this is one time when thinking smaller can be beneficial. Focus on just this scene, just this chapter--concentrate on the immediate story, and don’t look to the rest of the book looming ahead of you. You’ll get there eventually; looking ahead at the size of the project can unnerve you.

Have you ever had a long way to drive or walk or carry something and looking ahead made it look like you’d never get there? Writing a book is like walking a long distance. You can do it if you place one foot in front of the other and focus on the here and now. Looking ahead at the goal in the distance can make it seem like you’ll never get there.

Self-doubt comes into play here, probably more than at any time during the duration of your story. Why did I ever think I could do this? How will I ever have enough story to fill 300 pages? How will I ever fit everything on these cards into 300 pages? I’ve forgotten what it was about this story that excited me.

You can see why a narrow focus can be useful at this stage. So stay focused and remember to incorporate change. Don’t stand still--keep moving, and one page at a time, you’ll move through the middle toward the end.

Start thinking about the loose threads you’re going to tie up. Plan toward the end, weaving your plot threads, preparing for which ones you’ll tie off first. Make a list and check them off to watch your progress.

And here’s something to think about: Just because a technique worked for you last time, doesn’t mean it will work every time. Be flexible. Don’t be hard on yourself. Allow yourself to change and grow. And just because a technique works for someone else, doesn’t mean it will work for you. We’re as different in our writing methods as we are in dress and beliefs and personalities. Allow yourself to find the methods that work for you and then allow yourself to deviate from them to keep yourself fresh.

Keep helpful notes at hand to look over. Share your frustration with a writer friend. But then move on. Doggedly. Tenaciously. One page at a time will get you to The End.
I promise.


  1. Hi, Cheryl. Welcome to Seekerville.

    Fellow Seekers, Cheryl is like my ... first siting of land.

    Or maybe the ship that came for Tom Hanks in Castaway.

    She's the first person, I read an article about her in the paper, I ever FOUND who was a writer. I'd never heard of RWA when I first read the article about the romance writer's group she attended in Omaha.
    She started me on my path to publication. If I'd paid closer attention to her I might have found a short cut...something less than ten years...but noooooo.

  2. Thanks, Mary! I'm tickled to be here! Thanks for the invitation.

  3. Welcome Cheryl,
    Im one of the readers who likes to be reeled in.
    The more i read about being a writer the more im happy to be a reader. I do admire all writers go through.

  4. Hi Cheryl, Mary and Jenny!

    Cheryl, what a great and timely blog. I'm bookmarking it for future reference.

    Thanks Seekerville for always having such great info!

  5. Hey Carla,
    good to see you here. The book you sent me was a great read its in my top 10 of the year so far

  6. ruthaxtell@morren.usApril 18, 2008 at 6:23 AM

    Hi Cher,
    Great topic, seeing as I'm deep in the middle of a manuscript right now. If it hasn't exactly lost its zing, it is feeling more and more like an uphill climb as reaching my daily page quota is taking longer and longer.
    Great looking blog, Mary!

  7. Wow, Cheryl, I just feel like I took a crash course at an ivy-league college!! This is a lot of GREAT info that I fully intend to print off and keep forever. Thank you for such a valuable post ... and welcome to Seekerville!

  8. Cheryl!!!!! What a fabulous topic. Did I ever tell you I'm a craft junkie. ANYTHING to make this writing thing easier. HA!

    Seriously, loved your blog. Thank you!!!!!!!

    (P.S. I can't seem to stop using exclamation marks this morning!!!!!!)

  9. What a wonderful article Cheryl! I'm definitely saving it for future reference.

    BTW, Julie B. helped me through this...I had no idea what was going on and she said, "Relax, you've reached the murky middle."

    You guys are awesome :)

  10. Talk about a timely arrival. You are it. I was standing at the edge of a one thousand foot dropoff, because my story was stalled. Behind me, all sorts of exciting settings and challenges and questions, but for some reason, before me -- nothing. I really was about to abandon this story, because I felt too stupid to make anything out of it. Thank you for a thousand and one ideas for moving on. Thank you for sharing yourself and your knowledge. It's why I read this blog every day.

  11. What a wonderful post, Cheryl! I'm so happy I have my computer on track again so I can read your blogs!!

    I'm printing this one off because I think all the ideas you've given will really help me get back on track with my stories.

    Thanks again!

  12. Hi Cher! Welcome to Seekerville. Awesome post! Thanks for this wonderful list of solutions for the muddled middle. I'll print it off and use it to help me with my wip. Yep, I'm in the middle. Thrashing around for a lifeline. And you're it. :-)

    Middles make me feel like the task is beyond me. I start questioning the story, my talent, my calling. But I have too much invested in the story to quit. Or maybe I'm just too stubborn. I've learned that when I stop being emotional and start getting logical, I'll find the solution. Thanks for the great ideas for jump starting my rational side.


  13. I'm feeling a bit of a slacker today. All this company and I am still in my jammies.

    First, welcome to Cheryl. I cannot tell you what an awesome post this is. Okay I CAN tell you. My sister and I were just talking last night about this. I said I was having PERFORMANCE ANXIETY with a current WIP and had stopped in the middle..gee um, three months ago.

    This is a timely, and jam packed helpful post.

    Many thanks.


  14. Once again, inspiring. And your thoughts work not just for that murky middle. They're very helpful in morphing a novella into a full fledged novel!


  15. What a lot of visitors this morning. It's great to see all of you. I broke down and put my coffee pot in the dishwasher, so I'm waiting for it to finish running! LOL

    Isn't it helpful to know we're not working in a void, and that there are others who go through the same frustrations we do?

    I am so appreciative of the networking opportunities available. Many of us can remember when there was no Internet (I know,::gasp:::) and we writers were pretty isolated. I think I reinvented the wheel a couple dozen times before I found other writers to connect with.

    But I did rely heavily on Dwight Swain and Nancy Kress, not bad partners when learning the craft. Studying was a good thing. I'm a firm believer that you must know all the rules and why they are important, and then you should break them to give your writing interest and a unique voice.

    I'm delighted that this was a timely topic for so many. The middle does come around every book. LOL Right now I'm putting together two new ideas and preparing to hunker down for a new deadline on my LIH.

    have a great Friday!

  16. Hi Cher,
    Love your words of wisdom! Waving to Mary too!
    I find in longer books, I need more middle substance. I do the 25 things to happen in the story, trick and it works. Luckily, I have no trouble with middle in my Desires because the whole dang thing is only 200 pages and I'm usually trying to get all my plot/emotion in without going over my page count.
    Great advice!

  17. This is great advice, all of it Cheryl. So much better than what I tell people to do if you get bogged down in the middle.

    Shoot someone.

    Okay, not long enough for a blog post.

  18. Hi, Charlene.

    Charlene said: I do the 25 things to happen in the story, trick and it works.

    Mary Again-I don't know this trick. You want your own blog day????

  19. Wow it is a MISERABLE day here in Nebraska. Cold and rainy.

    I forgot to set my alarm. I started the day behind and am losing ground by the minute.

    Ever have one of those days. Usually they're called MONDAY because I can handle it so much better if I know the weekend is coming.

    Cheryl and Charlene are both on Petticoats and Pistols with me.

    I will now use my nifty live links skills. I just learn something new so RARELY(in fact I have a firm policy against it), I can't help showing off.

    Petticoats & Pistols

    Today Stacey Kayne is talking about Brenda Novak's Online Auction to benefit juvenile diabetes. We've talked about that here, too.

  20. Hi, Cheryl! Welcome to Seekerville and congratulations on being a Rita finalist!

    I'm with so many others who have already said they need to print out this post, study it, and refer to it often. Planning to do just that!

    One thing your post made me realize is that in my current WIP, my heroine starts out passive rather than proactive (a bad habit of mine, I'm discovering). I need to make her more decisive up front, and that, I'm sure, will lead to a more riveting middle.

  21. Hi Cheryl! Welcome to Seekerville! Thanks for the great inspirational and educational post. I'm at that dreaded middle in my current LIS. Must admit I've been dragging my feet and ignoring my Alpha even though the next scene needs to be written. You've given me the energy and desire to forge ahead. Thanks for helping all of us to keep on movin'!

  22. Cheryl, I'm with Julie. I feel like I've just sat at the feet of a master and learned so much. I've already printed and saved the post.

    Now, if taking care of sagging middles of the body kind were as easy.

    Mary,I had to laugh when you said you tell people to shoot someone. The last time I got stuck, I had to kill someone. Of couse, I had to remove the whole part, but it did get me going again.

    Cheryl, congrats on being a Rita finalist!

  23. Hi Cheryl, my sister Filly. What a great, concise post about a difficult problem I think every writer faces at some time or another. When your middle is flat and boring it kills the book. We have to keep the tension racheted up whatever it takes.

    A writer frind once remarked that when she has a sagging middle she either shoots someone or kills off a character. lol Now, that would certainly move the book along!

    Excellent post and subject. Hope you have a great day!

  24. Hi Cheryl,
    Fabulous advice on middles! I usually hit the doldrums at Chapter Five and have to reset the compass.

  25. Thanks for all the RITA congrats! It has been very exciting. I got orchids from my agent and champagne from my publisher. (I added the bottle to last year's because we're such big drinkers, ya know.) But I promised my critique group champagne, srawberries and chocolate out of the deal. They're the ones who brainstorm stories and problem areas with me.

    If you're planning on beng in San Francisco this July, practice your WHOO HOOS for when my name is called, okay?

    And you're all quite kind and encouragng, thank you.

  26. Mary -


    Make yourself tea or coffee and find a comfy spot to sit.

    Number 1 through 25 on a piece of paper.

    I actually have a template I've made for this and print one out when I'm ready to plot.

    I obsessivly use pretty-colored pens because it makes it more interesting. *g*

    Do not stop until you have that list finished. Even if you have to add "Heroine is abducted by aliens" keep going. There is something about knowing you have to keep going that sets your creativity free. And pushing on means you're thinking harder as you get to about number fifteen.

    I always always without fail end up with several things that I use in the book.

    And when I'm stuck - I flip to that list and use an item.

    Try it! It's fun, too!

  27. I knew, knew, knew Mary would say to drop in a dead body to liven things up. :)

    Cheryl, what an amazing post!! I always seem to get stuck at Ch. 5, too, Victoria.

    One of the things Donal Maas says to do is similar to the 25 things. He says to list them, then use the last ones you think of, not the first. The longer you list things, the more creative they get. :)

  28. Okay, I'm on a different keyboard. His name is Donald Maass.

    Kind of like strawberries. :)

  29. Okay, I get it. The 25 things are mine, just a private brainstorming session written down. I like that.

    I need that. I'm trying to tidy up a proposal for the next book and I know the big story but the details are elusive. This will help.

  30. Hi Cheryl!

    Congratulations on the RITA nod! I wish I was going to San Fran to whoop it up when they call your name but it isn't in the cards this year.

    I have to share this. Back more years than I care to admit to you nice folks, Cheryl happened to judge a contest I entered my very first manuscript, a western historical, in. That manuscript ended up placing first and Cheryl sent me a wonderfully detailed critique with her encouragement to keep writing. Later when I joined our local RWA chapter I was thrilled to find Cheryl was also a member. She gives wonderful programs, by the way.

    I never did go on to sell that book, but have done pretty well with my 'contemporary cowgirl' Calamity Jayne. :)

    I also wanted to add that the post on that 'muddled middle' came at the right time. I'm nearing the half way point of my latest work in progress (a cross-over into the suspense genre) and your middle checklist was helpful in getting my story firmly back on the rails and moving forward.

    Best of luck in the RITA finals, Cheryl! Hope to see you soon!

    ~Kathy Bacus~

  31. Lots of good stuff there.

    Do you ever get about half-way through the 25 things that could happen list and then AH, HA! Find a solution ...?

  32. Wow! Thanks for this post Cheryl. I'm studying plot points right now, so this is very helpful.

  33. Lorna, you only printed and saved the Cher's blog post ONCE?

    Man, I've got it on two computers, printed twice, stored in a remote location, on my jump drive, and got Seekerville bookmarked.

    The scary part...I'm NOT kidding!

  34. Hi, Kathy! It's very rewarding to see authors I've known along the way go on to publish multiple books. Then, you see, if I was the type to say "I told you so," that would be the time to do it. *g*

    So I'll just say, "I knew you had the gift within you."

    Yes, Ann! The 25 Things also works as a great jump start if you do it in the middle of the book. And I often get the perfect nugget.

    I am laughing at all the places you saved the blog, Pam. Funny thing is I'm crazy like that, too. Even though I can save something in a file or a wiki, I still have to print it out!

  35. I have a lovely sister who lurks here in Seekerville, (Hi, Anne Marie) she called me to tell how much she loved Cheryl's post and that actually there was so much information she was overwhelmed. In a good way.

    So she is printing it out to absorb.

    Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge, Cheryl.

  36. Thanks for visiting us today, Cheryl! This was a great post!

  37. Hi Cheryl,
    Thanks for taking the time to blog. Also wanted to give a Shoutout/Thanks to all the Seekers. I got my prize a few days ago from one of your drawings-Brandilyn Collins's book.
    Thank you all for your generosity. Ya'll are awesome!

  38. Missy i thought Mary may suggest blowing something up but when she said shoot someone I could see her do that also.

    I do enjoy reading these posts. Livens up my morning.

  39. Jenny, blowing something up is ALWAYS an option. There is no muddled middle that cannot be solved by a stick of dynamite.

  40. Thank you, Tina! Did you tell your lovely sister we go way back?

    It was a great day in Seekerville! You were all generous with your thanks and appreciation. I enjoyed my time here a lot. Thanks for inviting me.

  41. Mary I think if I look up explosion in the dictionary I see a picture of you and the explaination blowing something up in a book solves all problems
    (or is it a good book needs and explosion)

  42. Girls, sorry I'm late to the party, but Cheryl, I just had to say what a wonderful, chock-full, action-packed piece of work this was, woman.

    Ideas for everyone, for every type of writer, for every possible bog down they might feel. And who likes a book with a boring middle...

    No one.

    And I love stopping in at Pistols and Petticoats, because you guys are a riot.

    Thanks for being here, and sorry I missed the mid-day fun.


  43. What a great article to inspire everyone to just keep going!

  44. Ruthy,

    So glad to know you enjoy Petticoats and Pistols! If you get the vapors at the sight of a hunky cowboy, be sure to bring your smelling salts this weekend!

  45. Cheryl, I told my sister about when you came to Denver and you and Jan Edgar and I ate at the Brown Palace.

    Good, good memories.


  46. Tina, I missed Janet again just the other day. Do you know how her family is doing?

  47. Cheryl advice is so helpful to me right now as I'm bogged down in the middle of a WIP. How fortunate to find this info here for me. Thank you, Cheryl, and congrats.

  48. My husband ate at the Brown Palace last January, he was out there for the Midwest Livestock Show.

    We were trying to rememeber the name of it just the other day and all he could think of was the Brown Derby. We knew that was wrong.