I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Getting through the Mushy Middle

Codexwriters.com is currently having a novelwriting contest. One of the cool elements of the contest is that the writers earn "badges" as they make progress. They get a badge for writing more than 2000 words in a day, for instance, or if they make it 3 weeks in a row completing a chapter a week. I'm not taking part in the contest, but looking over the rules, I got badge envy! And the badge that really resonated with me was one for pushing on through the "Mushy Middle."

The Mushy Middle is something almost all novelists have faced. I've been involved with critique groups and networking with other writers since the mid-nineties, and the experience seems to be a familiar one. It's easy to start a novel, and get three or five or seven chapters into it. Then, frequently, the whole thing bogs down. The initial enthusiasm for the project wanes as some of the realities of writing a book begin to hit home. The first reality is, books don't write themselves. If you're a beginning novelist, this frequently comes as a shock. I was like many novice novelists years ago, writing mainly when I was inspired to write. Inspiration can carry you through early chapters. But, inspiration as an intellectual state is fleeting. If you can hold on to the feeling for more than a few hours you're lucky. Some folks can hold onto inspiration for weeks, perhaps. But, it seldom lasts the duration of a full scale novel, which can't be written in weeks, but is instead a project lasting months, even years. At some point, enthusiasm fades on any project, and this is where many beginning writers falter. I, personally, can't count how many novels I started in the 1990's only to abandon them in the quicksands of the Mushy Middles.

Yet, I eventually learned to get past them. I haven't quite yet reached the point of learning to revel in the Mushy Middles, but perhaps that day will come. In the meantime, I have two primary tools that carry me through.

The main thing that helps me get through the mushy middle is a deadline. The mushy middle is why my first three novels were all multi-year projects. I'd start them, then lose interest. Then, a few months later, I'd get an idea on what to do next in the abandoned novel, and return to the project, write a few more chapters, then lose interest again. I consider myself very fortunate to have completed one book, let alone three, using this start and stop method. On my fourth novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, I set myself a very firm 45 day deadline to write the first draft of whole book. I was active with the Odyssey critique group back then, so I set it up as a challenge with a few other participants, then posted almost daily updates of my progress. (The challenge came in early November 2000 that we would all complete a fresh novel before the "real" new millinium of January 1, 2001.) Since I had put out the challenge, and since a score or more people were following my progress, I felt like I had no choice but to slog on when I hit the sections where I was completely lost. And I discovered something interesting: Even though I felt like I was writing meandering, disjointed crap at the time, when I finally read the book a year later I discovered that some of my most random chapters were actually pretty good. (I wrote with the motto "never look back," so I never reread the chapters as I produced them.) There's a chapter five or six chapters into the book where I remember being completely stuck. I'm writing a superhero novel, with all these plot twists and hidden revelations and high stakes battles, and suddenly my mental batteries were all drained and I had no clue what these people and all their fantastic powers were supposed to do next. So, I had them go to the mall to go shopping. Only, instead of actually shopping, one of them uses her superpowers to steal stuff, trivial things like cinimon buns. When I wrote it, I was pretty positive my novel had run completely off the tracks. Now, I look at it as a great character building scene.

Dragonforge went the same way. All the teen chapters were written in the complete absense of inspiration. I spent months certain that my writing career was over, because unlike Nobody, this book was already slated for publication on a set date. I worried thousands of readers would read hit those chapters and just abandon the book, and never read me again. After the first draft, I still wasn't fully happy with those chapters... but, luckily, I had a second draft! A do-over. So I did a lot of them over. Then, after my wise-readers, I got to do them over again, and by draft three I was happy with the middle of my book.

So far my experience has been that plowing on even when my imagination is empty and my clever meter is sitting on zero always produces fruitful results. One of two things always happens:

1: I write something good while thinking I'm writing drivel.There's a scene in Dragonforge where Graxen and Nadala, two young dragons who are attracted to each other, meet in secret because the plot required them to meet each other again and fall in love at this point in the book. I had no clue what they were supposed to say to each other. In my outline, I had imagined I'd have Graxen spout romantic dialogue worthy of Romeo and Juliet, but instead when I reached the scene, all that came out was awkward, choppy dialogue. I slogged through, certain I'd throw it out later and write something better. But, when I went back on draft two, the awkward, choppy dialogue between the two characters felt exactly right, conveying thier true feelings better than the flowery, Hallmark card dialogue I thought I needed to make the scene come to life. Sometimes, writing when I'm not feeling clever manages to produce some of my most honest and heartfelt writing.

2. I write drivel while I think I'm writing drivel. Fortunately, drivel on the page is much, much better than nothing on the page. I can edit drivel. I can twist and tweak it, I can chop it out completely and write what I should have written, or I can discover that, while the scene I wrote might not be great literature, with a little polish and elbow grease it becomes perfectly functional prose. It moves the characters from point A to point B, or it has them pick up a plot key they need to put into a plot lock. While the dream is for every page in one of my novels to be brilliant prose that must have secretly flowed from an angel's pen, the reality is that sometimes good enough is good enough. As long as the story moves forward, I'm confident the reader will stay with me.

So, my two secrets for getting through are deadlines, even arbitrary ones, and experience. I've learned after completing seven novels that the Mushy Middles can be overcome just by sitting down and typing, and sitting down and typing, and sitting down and typing again, until you've finally slogged through them.


Loren Eaton said...

I can thoroughly relate to this.

James Maxey said...

Yeah, it seems to be a fairly common complaint. Elaine Issaac over on Codex gave me a quote she'd heard elsewhere, that all books have a "beginning, a muddle, and an end."