Monday, February 10, 2014

Gutting the Sagging Middle

I was up late last night and wondering why this manuscript has taken the longest to write and revise-- because it's frustrating, right? It's like hellooo, I can totally write this book, watch me. 

It takes time to write a story, and sometimes it just takes a lot of time to learn how to write the story you're writing. Most of my problem with this can be summed up as the Sagging Middle. Which yes, sounds mad gross and makes my manuscript seem like a forty-something-year-old man, but it's true. 

The Sagging Middle is when starts strong out of the gate-- you open on the day that it's different, you're roaring for the first four chapters, and then you're like yeah and here we're gonna steer off into some happy green pasture while I Subtly Prepare these other important conflicts. And sure, it picks back up by the end, but what's the guarantee that a reader's going to get to the end if they snooze out in chapter eight?

Granted, not every single book ever has to be the most action! packed! piece of literature out there ever, but the stakes have got to keep getting higher on some level, preferably multiple levels, or it won't be compelling enough to continue. 

Most times my CPs will catch scenes that seem to be lacking something, but when you're anxiously tapping your keyboard waiting for their brilliance to be made manifest, here's a few things that have worked for me that might also help you out. 

Look at it in a new format. 
Change the font, read it out loud, print it out. Do something to the manuscript that forces you to engage with it in a manner that's not your usual. If you're as hilariously bad at reading out loud as I am (I wish I were kidding--I read aloud with music on in the background so humans within earshot don't make fun of me), then concentrating on not stumbling over all the words is going to be your first priority and you forget about how you wrote the words to sound and focus on how they sound now. Then it's easier to see where the dissonance between sounds picks up or the language feels blockier, or you'll realize that yes, you are totally having this poor character push her sunglasses on top of her head and two lines later try to look over them. *contorts* 

Two birds, one stone? More like one flock, one scene.
You don't have a lot of scenes or a lot of words to make everything happen that's got to happen-- and much like words in your query letter (oh no), each scene is most effective when it's moving multiple conflicts forward. Is it possible for you to mash scenes together? Can your hilarious coffee-on-pants scene be mashed up with the so-and-so-likes-protag hint scene and protag-meditates-on-life scene? Basically, look for ways that a single scene can heighten conflict in multiple areas-- most immediate is how the scene advances the main character's conflict, but how are things changing for the minor characters, or the environment? It's layering in conflicts, and ultimately it will make your story more full even though it's a pain in the butt revising to make it happen. 

Say it the best way, once.
Sometimes in my dialogue I notice that I do all this build-up to an Epic Line and then two replies later I say the same thing but More Epically later. Consider cutting the stuff that's not doing it for you and making the thing you lead up to be the most epic thing. There are some situations (as with any writing advice, lol) that you'll want to flagrantly disregard this for style purposes, but do it sparingly--as a reader, how boring is it to read the same thing over and over again? 

Read through from the perspective of a minor character. 
Pretend you're a different character than your protagonist for one read-through and go through your draft, keeping their conflicts in mind. Sometimes when I read subs, I come across minor characters that feel more like vehicles for conflict than human beings. Are your minor characters saying things that you would expect a real human to say (or humanoid creature, depending on your setting)? Are they too understanding (because maybe you need your protag to get off easy this scene)? Ask the tough questions. Sure, maybe your protagonist will still sashay away from a conflict scott-free, but at least the reader will know that that was a hard-won victory.

So what about you guys? I also like finding new music for a scene and getting inspired that way, but I wasn't sure how to tie that in to any specific strategy. What are your favorite tricks for keeping your stories moving in the middle?

When Alex Yuschik isn't writing her next YA novel, she's working on someone else's as an intern at Entangled Publishing. She writes about lock picks, ghosts, the abandoned places in cities, and how not to strike bargains with stars. Between sneaking in time to game and rocking out to indie music, Alex spends the rest of her free time working towards her PhD in mathematics. You know, as one does.

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