Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Curse of the Sagging Middle

Confession: My middle sags.

What is it about the middle? Whether you’re on a diet or writing a book, the curse seems to be the same. It’s as if the middle is a dumping ground, a place for things to go that have no real purpose.

How is this problem solved? I’m writing an outline for my next book right now, and I realize I have a tendency to gloss over the middle. I start with the end In mind, according to my favorite writing paradigm from Dan Wells. Easy. I do the beginning, which is opposite from the end. Also easy. Midpoint, not too hard, it’s just a turning point somewhere in the middle—a mini-disaster so to speak.

But the other half of the book. Everything after the midpoint and before the end. The place where you feel like you have to put a bunch of filler and fluff so you can call it a real book. In my outline, I wrote: “She needs to go through some sort of training.” Glossed over, indeed.

So, how do you build the muscle of the middle so that it not only performs but looks good, too?

To carry its weight, I feel the answer is to treat the middle as a story within the story. I have even heard it said that after the midpoint is when the real story starts. Yikes.

For example, in Percy Jackson, the midpoint was when he was called to go on the quest to find the lightning bolt. The middle, therefore, consisted of the adventures he had in finding it. In Harry Potter, the midpoint was discovering there was a sorcerer’s stone, and everything after was focused on their efforts to obtain it. In both instances, these represented the bulk of the story.

Yeesh, I guess the middle is important—it’s where we tell what we really want to tell. So why is it so hard?

“Yesterday brought the beginning, tomorrow brings the end but somewhere in the middle we've become the best of friends.” -Unknown

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Confession: I often overcomplicate things.

The thing I need to learn is that simpler really is better. (P.S. I had to rewrite that sentence three times. The first thing I said was that I needed to more fully integrate the maxim: the simpler, the better. Yikes.)

I admit wholeheartedly that my fear is simple equals stupid. When the actual deal is, if you try too hard, sometimes that’s when you look stupid. I think Stephen King said it best: “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”

This is also relevant for larger scale things, like plot. Sometimes, when I write an outline, I think it sounds way too cheesy. Yet, when it comes to outlines, cheesy is good. An example of this is when I went recently to watch Tangled in the theaters. ****Spoiler alert: Skip to next paragraph if you haven’t seen Tangled yet and don’t want me to mess it up for you****** At the end, when all seems hopeless and she begins to cry, my first thought was that the magic would be in her tears. My next thought was, no, that would be stupid. Then, when it actually happened, I was very excited. It worked! How did it work? Just a second ago I thought it would be stupid. It was a message to me. What at first may seem cheesy in theory can be made to work well. The simpler the better.

The irony: It’s actually harder to boil down the complex into something simple than to take something simple and make it more complex. Have you ever tried writing a one-line summary of your entire novel? If you haven’t already, try to do so now. Do it in 15 words or less. And make it sound compelling. And really try to get across the main plot point of your book. If you could do it easily, you’re probably a simplicity genius and you don’t need this blog.

My favorite quotes on simplicity, because I love quotes!

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Persistence is Key

Confession: Sometimes reading books about how to write makes me feel like I am strapped to an iron chair in a locked closet that is full of darkness and spiders, with nothing to eat but dust. And those spiders, I guess.

What I'm trying, but not really succeeding, to say is: too much help is sometimes no help at all.

Since I often turn to writing books the way a person who is making dinner might turn to a cookbook, I often fail to use inspiration. As with anything, there is a balance. Writing books can be helpful, but applied too rigidly, will hurt you.

Probably the best advice I’ve received from the array of writing books I’ve read over the years is some form of “just keep writing”. There is also “You have to be persistent”, or even “butt in chair time”. A close companion to this that I hear less often is, “believe in yourself”. I went to a writer’s conference once where James Dashner was asked how he did it and he kind of shrugged, feeling a little silly perhaps, and said, “I don’t know how I do it, I just go by instinct.” This is the answer that really helps us open the door, after all is said and done. This is what calls to inspiration, even if inspiration only graces us with her presence occasionally. Though she might not come every time we open the door, we have to open the door so that when she does come, we will be ready.

And inspiration likes doors that are open wide.

Shakti Gawain said, “We will discover the nature of our own particular genius when we stop trying to conform to our own or other peoples’ models, learn to be ourselves, and allow our natural channel to open.” Real help is anything that encourages you to be creative, even and especially if that creativity requires you to break rules.

We all have an inner compass. We must learn to trust it. Writing is an act of faith, and when you act in faith, you set things in motion. Don’t fall into the temptation to overthink it. Easy really does do it, eventually—if you are persistent.

“We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way.” John Holt