Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
November 2008

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

A lot of writers come to me to ask me how to get through the miserable middles of their novels. I think they wish that there was a simple answer like -- here is a plot generator and all its variables, add salt. Or possibly they want me to tell them that middles are difficult, but they should just plug on through them. This is certainly the advice that I was given when I was first learning how to write novels: you just have to keep writing, get a full draft, and then you will be able to edit it and make it into something that an editor will want to publish and a reader will want to buy. Twenty novels later I began to see that this was exactly the wrong advice. So, given that when I started writing this column, I admitted that any advice I give is really advice that only applies to writers like me, I'm speaking to those of you once more and speaking plainly.

If you can't figure out what happens next, if you are stuck in the middle of your novel, if you feel like you have nothing left to say and you can't figure out how to get from where you are to the ending you had planned -- Stop! And go back to the beginning. There is a problem somewhere and your smart, subconscious writing brain, the one that has learned a lot about writing novels from reading hundreds or perhaps thousands of them in the past twenty or thirty or fifty years, is trying to tell you something when you get that feeling of dread. It is telling you that you have made a serious mistake. No amount of forging ahead will help with this problem. Any word that you write from now on will be a word that you will end up having to delete later on because it will never end up in this novel or any other one that you write. In fact, the most likely and sad reality is that you have probably already written at least twenty and perhaps as many as two hundred pages worth of crap.

I know, saying go back to the beginning of the novel sounds depressing. Reading that you will have to delete a lot of what you have already written may feel disheartening. If you experience any of these sensations, Stop! Remember in high school when you took that really boring class on personal finances and Ponzi schemes? Investing further time on a dead end is not going to help your writing get better. It will also not help you to produce a novel that will be sold. It will not help you to produce a novel that you want to show off to your friends and family. It is only going to waste your time. And time is money, right? I'm saving you millions of dollars here, and I'm not even asking for a percentage.

Be happy that you have figured out what to do next. Dance around your computer because you know what to do and you aren't going to be wasting any more of your time. Writing is not about getting words down. It's about getting the right words down. More than that, it's about telling a story, and a story is a series of events that make sense, that offer meaning to the reader. You need to figure out what more of those events are. You can only do this by going back to the beginning of your story and reminding yourself what it is about and what you want it to mean.

So, now you are back at page one. If you can't help it, go ahead and tinker with the details. Find sentences that need some polishing. I bet it won't make any difference in the end, but somehow this makes writers feel better because they are writing instead of just staring at a blank page. You can make notes for yourself if you want. I sometimes open a separate document and make lists of things I have brought up that go nowhere, characters who morph out of their introduction and into something else, unintentional changes in names and hair colors. Whatever makes you feel better. If you like, you can go read a book about editing. It will use a lot of big words like structure and foreshadowing and intention. But the truth is that writer of that editing book is not reading your manuscript. You are, and you have already trained yourself to be the perfect reader of your book. You will know when you reach the place that things begin to go wrong in your manuscript. You really will, I promise you. And when you find that place, rejoice. Throw a party! Take yourself out to dinner. And then press the delete button. It all goes. If you like, save it. But you won't go back to it. Everything you wrote there exists in an alternate universe where your novel is a lot worse than the one you are now going to be writing. You may not know what happens next in your book, but you now know at least one set of things that does not happen next.

Now, go back to the beginning again. Reread. This time do it quickly, like a reader would. And when you get to the place where you don't know what will happen again, you may already find that you are unstuck and that, free of the baggage of the bad draft, you will be able to start on the good draft. I cannot promise you, unfortunately, that you will not have to go through this process again. You probably will, several times, possibly on every novel you ever write. (After all, why should you get it easier than I do?)

If you still do not know what should happen next, however, make a list of ten things that might happen next. Choose the least likely one of them. Or sleep on it, and maybe the answer will come to you in a dream. Or reread the beginning again. And realize that this is not the beginning of your novel. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened to me. The old phrase, in medias res, is often taken to an extreme and writers begin their stories far too late. My first published novel, The Monster In Me, was finally published when I realized that the beginning I had written was actually the ending of the novel, and that the character I had imagined starting the novel was actually the one I had to write towards. I had to show her developing into that character.

I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have made this exact same mistake. It happened in Mira, Mirror, when I had to figure out who the witch was who stole the mirror away from the girl, and figured out everything about the whole novel around it. In fact, the beginning I had written up until then was actually the middle of the book. Once I realized it, it was nearly all finished for me -- I only had to do the beginning and the ending. In The Princess and the Hound, I originally started the book on about page 120, where the prince and princess first meet (some readers might complain that this is still where I should have started; obviously, I disagree). I had to figure out all the details of the magic and who George was and why this one woman was going to be the only one he could love, but that all happened in the beginning. In The Princess and the Bear, my upcoming sequel to The Princess and the Hound, my major mistake was in having the hero and heroine in love from the beginning. What kind of tension can you have in a romance novel when that's your beginning? Of course, that has to be the ending.

Please believe me that you will feel an enormous sense of relief when you figure out what your real beginning is. Most likely you will also figure out the ending at the same moment, and you have a good map of how to get there by making points along the way of what your character needs to experience to be at the end the person s/he was in your old beginning. Character development that is realistic will take a long time, not just the kind of time where you say -- "Ten years passed," but time that feels real to your reader, so that they experience the same change in him/herself. Small scenes that show tiny increments of change, or hopes of change, are the stuff of the novel. You may think that it is the big scenes, but you only need one really big climactic scene per book. The rest is the stuff of characters and relationships.

So now when people come to me and tell me they are having trouble with their middles, I tell them I don't much believe in middles anymore. I think a novel is mostly about the right beginning, and then the right ending, and where the one ends and the other begins, I don't know. But don't muddle through there. Your readers won't.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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