Writing a novel is a long, twisted journey to and through the middle. I know this because I’ve published two books, and while the beginnings and endings of each were clear to me, writing the middle felt like I’d booked passage to a country where the language and customs were foreign to me — a journey from which I wasn’t sure I’d return. Writing the middle was so paralyzing that I wrote both of my books — a memoir published in 2008 and a novel nearly a decade after — out of order. Novel writing became an assemblage of puzzle pieces; I’d spent years arranging and rearranging chapters to see where things fit.
My reasoning was that I’d somehow back my way into the middle, even though I felt like I was forever smashing tail lights and running people over. And I don’t even have a driver’s license.
When it comes to writing, I’m fiercely pragmatic. I don’t have copious amounts of time to work on my book because I’m busy working on my income. Who has time to sit around and “awaken the muse” (I don’t think I’ve ever used that expression in 35 years of writing, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything) when you have to pay rent, student loan debt, and manage a laundry list of other financial obligations that creep into your mailbox uninvited? While I live for the art and architecture of crafting characters, plotlines, and sentences, I treat the act of writing a novel like a business. And this collision of art and rigor has enabled me to work on my third book with relative ease.
I no longer have to back my in; I wade through.
The middle of a novel can be the greatest mess of your making if you allow it. You can hemorrhage years of your life working on The Big Thing if you don’t deploy an element of discipline. The middle creates the highest stakes because it’s the through-line that connects the first act to the finale. It’s what sustains your interest while charting the path for a successful third-act payoff. The middle has to do a lot of work for the book, and this can be daunting for even the most seasoned authors. I know this because it took me four years to write and publish my novel — and I consider that fast when compared with my first book, which I often refer to as The Epic Bloodletting. And what was I doing during those four years?
You guessed it — working on the middle.
What is that old cliché about the third time being a charm? It’s more like me realizing the way I’ve been working isn’t going to produce a different result (by the way, the moment when you finally understand the definition of insanity is a glorious time, my friends). If I keep backing into my novel instead of writing through it, I’m going to spend another five to 10 years on unnecessary editing and assembly work. Forget that nonsense; I have a new story to tell, and I want this book to move.
The middle is fat, delicious, and unwieldy compared with the other two acts, and this can cause rapid paralysis and a novel’s death in a matter of moments.
I realized it was time for an outline, a plan. Believe when I say I eschewed the outline for years. I even have a fancy-pants MFA that I regret where I learned to craft said outlines. (That story, my MFA regret and a life of crippling debt, is for another time.) Don’t be me. Don’t be the sad, stupid person who opts to take the long tumbling road where one falls into ditches, gets swallowed by quicksand while fighting off rattlesnakes, and ultimately gets attacked and devoured by a pack of hyenas when you could’ve taken the goddamn scenic route.
The Justifiable Homicide of the Second Act
In an outline, I want you to torch the three-act structure. Set it on fire, stomp on its ashes, etc. Why? Because the first and third acts tend to be small in shape and length. The first act gets the story moving, and the third act brings it to its close. The mandates for both are clear, and its success is predicated on being swift and powerful. No one wants a Proustian beginning where you’re wondering if someone will eat a cookie for 55 pages, and no one wants an end that drags without the satisfying payoff. Save the bloat for the middle. But the middle is fat, delicious, and unwieldy compared with the other two acts, and this can cause rapid paralysis and a novel’s death in a matter of moments. Instead of regarding the second act as the blob one has to conquer, I get medieval on the middle and chop it up into smaller, manageable pieces. I create two or three mini acts with the second.
Think of it this way: The opening sets the stage and story; you get to know the characters and the world they inhabit. The ending brings that world to its conclusion. They’re neat and tidy in the way they bookend a journey, and the middle has to be that journey. On that journey, there is a degree of a deliberate and beautiful mess. You encounter people who may or may not mean something to the overall plot but move the character and story along in a meaningful way, or they shine a needed point-of-view light that will yield a greater context. These characters could be deliberate plants; they could tell you things about the character that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise.
Also in that journey, like in life, you may go off book. You may veer off the road, but the story (and character) benefits from the wandering because it re-routes them, GPS style, to the end. Running off the reservation makes the story less predictable and more real. Who wants to read a book when you don’t need binoculars to see how it’ll end up? The wandering could be the identification and resolution of a character conflict, or it could be a warranted time-out from life so that your character can figure shit out. You’ve probably played the “what if” game yourself and wondered how the choices you’ve made or not made would’ve affected your life differently — the job not taken, the love not pursued, the plane ride abandoned. Allow your character to make those meandering choices, but don’t wander too far off where you can’t find your way back.
Remember that, at one point, you have to come back — unless you’re writing an experimental novel, which is a whole other kettle of proverbial fish.
Sometimes it’s important that your characters not go where you need them to go in an effort to write a tight and tidy book. While you have to consider a novel’s pacing (how quickly and efficiently the story moves), the direct route on a map may be the most logical but least satisfying. Let your characters make mistakes if the missteps have a larger point. Let them take a side trip or a break as long as that meandering is tailored in a way that will ultimately guide them, albeit in an indirect route, to your ending.
Maybe on that journey, you need to go back to before the beginning, or maybe the past (or interweaving of past and present) is a critical element to the story and reveals plot and character elements that are essential for the grand finale. It’s also a terrific way to create narrative tension because you’re holding some of the cards close to your chest and mapping out the slow and deliberate reveal — the great striptease if you’ll entertain the metaphor. For example, in chapter six, Mike arrives home early from work one day to find his family brutally murdered on the front lawn. A shaking hand fumbles with a phone. Sirens blare in the distance. Mike collapses to his knees on the wet grass and holds his child’s head in his hands. Chapters seven and eight could be focused on the murderer (intent, planning, and preparation), or they could highlight unresolved tension between Mike and his wife to make the ending in chapter six that much more devastating. Flashbacks can impart clues and context into the current narrative as well as provide breathing room for the reader before they dive into the crime’s aftermath in chapter nine and Mike’s pursuit of the killer to the end.
Remember, while your characters are going through a journey, so is your reader, and you want to make sure they experience a multitude of emotions without exhausting or boring them.
A recap: Cut the second act into two or three bite-sized parts that may include these:
- Introduction of a new character or side plot
- The story of character’s journey off the reservation
- Time travel to the past to bring a richer meaning to the present
These are just a few simple examples of how to break up the second act. But remember, the middle isn’t all go go go. A great book is about balance — how you juxtapose emotional tension and physical movement. Velocity can have greater meaning when jutting up against a pause. The trick is to not linger too far on one end of the spectrum for too long. Remember, while your characters are going through a journey, so is your reader, and you want to make sure they experience a multitude of emotions without exhausting or boring them. I’ve had to put down books where so much is happening in such a short space that I’m having palpitations, and I’ve had to discard books that mediate on madeleines for days. Leave the heart-stopping action to poetry, where you have to move a great deal in such a small space and no one has time to be bored.
Here’s a concrete example of my butchered second act from the outline of my third book:
— Overview: The Only Possible is the story of a friendship between two women who lean on one another to overcome their fractured familial history. Murphy hasn’t recovered from her twin sister’s suicide over two decades ago while Darlene struggles with survivor guilt after having lost her family in a tragic car fire when she was 10 years old. Murphy and Darlene couldn’t be more different in terms of temperament and background (Murphy is a reclusive, acerbic introvert while Darlene is a closeted-wealthy, faux-smoking, free spirit), but they’re bound by their broken pasts and their desire to forge a family where there is none. What happens when cancer threatens their fragile binds of a family?
— Opening: We meet the characters after Murphy’s comedic failed suicide attempt and Darlene at her bedside. We learn about their respective pasts and their life in the present day (they’re in their forties — think of them as characters out of Grey Gardens with cellphones and not nearly as creepy).
— OMG, that middle: I’ve created three mini acts before I hurtle, headfirst, into that dramatic and weepy yet optimistic ending.
- Murphy and Darlene time travel: A deeper look into Murphy’s past reveals that she and her twin sister, Mallory, were adopted, and we dwell on Mallory’s long history of depression and schizophrenia and how that affects Murphy and her identity. Flashing back to Darlene’s life, we learn that her picture-perfect family was fraying at the seams by a controlling mother, a suicidal father, and brothers who have taken an unusual interest in Darlene. Much of the flashbacks for both characters are in their critical child and teenage years. I do this deliberately to show why they make the decisions they do as adults and the hurdles they invariably have to overcome by the end (Murphy has to confront her estranged parents; Darlene has to make peace with her family’s death).
- Murphy has an affair with her married neighbor while Darlene gets diagnosed with cancer: I like creating complicated, flawed characters. Darlene and Murphy earn a great deal of our empathy, but they make terrible decisions — one of which is Murphy’s affair with her neighbor after the failed suicide attempt. I haven’t worked out this part of the plot in detail, but their dramatic breakup finally gets them on the road.
- Murphy and Darlene do “Thelma and Louise” without the murder and double suicide although there’s mayhem: I planted the road trip seeds early in the book, and Murphy’s breakup and Darlene’s cancer diagnosis set the trip in motion.
— Ending: When Darlene discovers she has breast cancer, they embark on the road trip they’ve always talked about, taking the exact route Darlene’s family did during that summer vacation she was 10 and everyone died. The trip forces them to confront why they haven’t let their pasts go and how, through the specter of death, they can love and appreciate life. Darlene’s death empowers Murphy to live.
As you can tell, I’ve got a lot going on in the middle, but I’m aiming to do three things:
- Show how the past for these two characters is inextricably tied to the present: In some ways, the past is a chokehold. In other ways, they use it as an excuse to be bound to the pain of it instead of making the leap to break free and create their own story. The past for them is both crippling and a crutch.
- Demonstrate how the binds of blood are tenuous: Blood doesn’t make a family, and Darlene and Murphy go through a lot together. They couldn’t be more different, but they don’t love anyone else as much as they love (and lean on) each other.
- Create a massive moment that will drive character change: If they had the choice, Murphy and Darlene would live in their self-created bubbles indefinitely. They’re comfortably uncomfortable until a confluence of events makes them examine their life and determine if they’re really living it.
As you can see, the middle (in its very loose and nascent form) is the connective tissue between the acts.
Throw Some Meat on That Bone (Read: Outline)
I’ve been writing since I was seven, professionally since I was 24. The first time I ever created an outline was for my second book, and it was more of a timeline because the book was experimental in nature and far from linear. I needed some sort of map to orient myself, the characters, and where the plot (and plot twist) were headed.
Since I’m no longer a devoted student to the school of insanity, after two books and countless short stories, essays, and poems, I decided to get strategic for my third novel. The story is vivid, dark, and funny, and it came to me in a rush. Instead of writing the parts that were easiest and playing Jenga, I decided to plot out the book using a detailed outline.
If you’ve read my essays on my writing process and how I write while balancing a demanding full-time job, you’ll know that I am principally a character-driven writer. Everyone has their own path into a story — mine just happens to be the people who are driving it. Once I know my characters inside and out, their actions come naturally to me. So instead of a traditional plot outline (chapter 1: X happens, chapter 2: Y happens, and so on), I developed a detailed three-part developmental outline.
Remember, your outline is a working outline; a successful one is one to which you consistently return and revise.
I started with a comprehensive character sketch. You don’t need to do this for every single character in the book — in fact, I’d recommend against it because I like a little surprise and fluidity when I write — but I created one for the principal characters. The character sketch includes these elements:
- What they look like: I need to visualize each of my characters, and that’s easiest when you imagine them as a living, breathing person. I described their appearance and physical features in detail, even so much as clipping out pictures from magazines for visual direction. Call it a character mood board.
- Any special physical characteristics or tics: Do they limp? Do they blink manically when they’re nervous? We all have specific physical tics and habits that make us unique and memorable, and I think of these things to add dimension to my characters on the page. For example, actor Anthony Perkins, in developing his Norman Bates character, decided to nibble on candy corn throughout the film, making him appear like a bird eating seeds. Actors bring their characters to life through physical details and motor actions, and people on the page are no different. Does your character have physical habits, and when do they tend to surface? Do they have an accent or speech impediment? In my book, Darlene is a fake smoker, and when she’s nervous and anxious, she’ll pinch an unlit cigarette between her lips.
- Their socio-economic, cultural, and racial background: Map out the geography of their world before you even get into their head and how they think. These demographic details lend a degree of context and can be used as simple tools of tension in your work.
- Define their worldview and how they think: Every character, like a person, has a unique worldview or perspective that’s often colored by nature and nurture dynamic. Your characters don’t have to be morally just or politically correct people; they just need to complex people. Some of the greatest characters in fiction (and among my favorites to write) are villains — people who are morally complex or flawed. It’s not enough to talk about who they are; explore how and why they are to a degree that gives context and relevance to the story. You don’t have to play your whole hand and drag the story by explaining everything. Much of how they think and feel will be revealed in their actions and the people they collect in their world and how they treat them and themselves. For example, Darlene comes from wealth, but her tastes are deliberately cheap and her home is dirty. There are a lot of ways I can go with that tension. I chose the route of showing a succession of events and behaviors that reveal her complicated relationships with money.
- Their specific journey within the frame of the book: This is going to loosely combine elements of plot and character, but you can start at a simplistic level and develop the outline as you work on the book. Remember, your outline is a working outline; a successful one is one to which you consistently return and revise. I started out with the following: Darlene’s death will finally force Murphy to live her life. Darlene will find in Murphy everything she ever wanted in a family that she never had. Her sickness won’t necessarily alter her, but it’ll make her turn up the volume in every aspect of her life. I start there, and as I’m writing the book, I go back and revise and develop the outline. For me, the outline and the book work symbiotically.
Once I’ve wrapped on a preliminary sketch — I do this using a Word document, but you can do this by hand or with visual outlines, etc. — I move to the multi-act outline, where I use the characters to advance a plot schematic. I define the varying acts and the top-level actions so I have a sense of the story’s trajectory. I may tie this to a timeline or geography if they’re key to the story.
The next part for me is honestly the hardest because it requires a level of commitment and discipline to which I haven’t previously been accustomed. For my first two books, I did freewriting with what came to me, and that’s why they took forever to write. For this book, I loosely defined what would happen in each chapter. Years ago, I remember reading Sylvia Plath’s take on a novel, which was that a character does 12 things over 12 chapters. Clearly, a novel is complicated, but I like the simplicity of this. It creates constraints, and within that bondage there’s freedom. My chapter outlines define what happens in one to two paragraphs, but more importantly, I need to know how each chapter ends.
Children’s books are among the hardest to write because they rely on so few words to achieve maximum effect, and there’s always the question of what happens next. I think about that when I write chapter outlines because the next chapter has to, in some way, leap from the previous ones in a succession of “and this happens and then this happens.” Don’t get too caught up in the details or think that this has to be a linear progression of events. Instead, consider it a guide to how and where your book is moving. It’s helpful for me to know that my book has velocity, and the path — however circuitous — will lead me to a satisfying conclusion. You’ll often find you have to revise chapter outlines because a plot angle or character that you initially thought was compelling and relevant falls flat.
Know that you will not know every minute detail about your book from the onset. If you did, you’d be Vladimir Nabokov with his obsessively detailed notecards. The majority of us aren’t Nabokov, and that is perfectly okay. In fact, the most exciting parts of writing a novel are the surprises and discoveries along the way. As long as you end up where you need to be, the path there can be of your own making.
Once I’ve got my three outlines prepared — character sketch, act outline, and chapter outline — I get to work. And then, perhaps the most fascinating part of writing a book (or bloodcurdling, depending on your view and amount of time spent in the revision process) is the retrospective.
Once I’ve tackled the middle, the novel’s flaws rise to the surface.
Your Novel: A Retrospective
Remember when we talked about the middle having to do the heavy lifting of your book? You might find, as most writers do, that problems with a novel tend to relate to a disconnect between the acts. You’ve spent the majority of the time “stuck in the middle with you” (I couldn’t resist the staid song reference), and when you finally come up for air and read through the draft, you might discover that the first and final acts are problematic. Writing and revision are rarely a completely linear process, so revising chunks of a section will be the result of that section not flowing with the rest. My revision tends to come in three stages:
- Line edits: I do this when I’m biding time, stressed out, or can’t deal with the reality that a bulk of chapters aren’t working. Listen, you’re human. Sometimes it’s okay to lose a day or two tinkering with paragraphs. I’ve done it and have survived. However, line edits typically happen when the story is pretty tight. You’re going back to make sure that the rhythm is on point, the language is clear and compelling, and you’re resolving all the fun grammar and syntax issues. You’re literally working line by line. I’m at the point in my novel-writing where I try to make the line as lean and as compelling as possible, which means I sit around evaluating whether this word or that phrase works on one level or three.
- Section (or act) edits: Traditionally, this is where I start. It’s about looking at the big picture of the book. I compare the book with my various outlines to validate that I ended up where I said I would. And if I didn’t, I have to map out the reasoning for any shifts and determine if any deviations are successful. Did the plot go where I wanted it to? Did my characters go through their emotional trajectory? Does the middle act as a solid conduit guiding readers seamlessly from the beginning to the end, or did I lose my reader somewhere along the way? Often, I will read through the entire draft, compare it with the outlines, determine what’s not working, and then work in sections (or acts), which means revising a bulk of chapters for a character, structural, or story issues. If your story isn’t working on the section level, I promise that your story, no matter how beautifully you’ve written it, will not work at all. Ever read a book and thought, “That was some great writing, but that plot. And that ending was a disappointment. The book didn’t even start until page 50, and oh my dear god did the middle draggggggg.”
- Chapter edits: Once your section/act edits are tight and your story is cohesive, fluid, and compelling — and before you tinker with grammar — conquer the chapters. This is the time when I work on dialogue, narrative, and pacing. Even though I got to where I wanted to go on a grand scale, I ask if I can be more effective on the chapter level. Can the dialogue reveal more about the character and story? Can I breathe more life into this time and place? Is my research right, and does it give texture to the story or slow it down with exposition?
Once I’ve tackled the middle, the novel’s flaws rise to the surface. The revision process is just as important, if not more so, as the creation process. The middle brings me back to the beginning, the end, and the middle all over again until all loops have been tightly threaded.