7 ways to navigate the middle of your novel (and maybe your life)
I’m in the muck and murk of my novel, otherwise known as “the middle”.
The middle is a difficult place. It’s hard to sustain tension. It’s easy to get lost.
And I got lost – which manifests itself, for me, in writer’s block, like a big hand rising out of my subconscious to smack me on the forehead and stop me in my tracks. After some frustration and a hell of a lot of procrastination, I let my boyfriend drag me to a yoga retreat in Big Sur (“Will there be chanting?” I asked him. “I don’t do chanting.” There was chanting.) I spent two days doing downward dog and looking out at the coastline and reminding myself, Hey, this is what nature looks like! It’s pretty!
Amid the meditative calm of the weekend, some ideas came together for me and allowed me to find my way forward in my novel – and quite possibly my life.
1. Find beauty in the process of being lost.
This isn’t my line; I stole it from a blog post by Penelope Trunk. It got me thinking. I’ve been writing posts about interestingness and creativity in general and one thing that emerges in my research again and again is this: There is no clear way forward. The act of creating – whether you’re creating a novel, or even a future – is the act of making something from nothing. You are forging your own path. Ambiguity, mystery and paradox are the orders of the day: forces clash, wrestle with each other, throw off sparks, transform. The sparks light up just enough for us to see by. And so we move forward and make adjustments as we go. This is known, I believe, as “the creative process”. Let’s face it: it’s a bit of a bitch. But it also means we’re engaged with something honest and authentic: we are, in a way, going deep into our souls instead of letting ‘busyness’ sweep us along. The act of creation is the act of making meaning out of your world, your experiences, your life.
As a society, we’re not comfortable with this kind of process. We like answers and formulas and plans and proposals and seven steps to this and ten ways to do that. It’s the nature of the human mind to try to hack the creative by seeking out patterns and depending on them so it doesn’t have to actually think. (Turns out a lot of the time we think we’re thinking, we’re on a kind of automatic pilot.) Part of being creative is accepting the struggle: the descent into the muck and the murk. An artist is someone who can stay with the process — and even learn to trust it. An artist knows that, eventually, through trial and experimentation and many many errors (some of which will throw off beauty and solutions of their own), this particular mystery will resolve itself.
And then on to the next.
Leo Babauta of Zen Habits keeps emphasizing this in his blog and his books about the power of less: when you do creative work, for god’s (and goddess’s) sake, unplug yourself from the freaking Internet. (I didn’t listen to you before, Leo, but now I see the light. And I don’t mean the recharging light on my Mac.) The brain is such a monkey to begin with, leaping after the happy bananas of distraction. Let it hush for a bit and hold nothing except your creative work. Let the waters of your little world turn calm, so you can dive beneath.
3. Go back to the beginning.
I wrote a post a while ago about how sometimes the best way to figure out your ending is to go back to your beginning and pay close attention to the seeds you planted there, whether or not you were aware of those seeds at the time. When I was asking for a feedback on a piece I posted on my Livejournal, a blog reader gave me the same advice. Lo and behold, it worked. Through a close rereading of the opening paragraphs, I was able to connect with the emerging theme and central image of the piece. I was able to pick up on hints and foreshadowings and carry them through to a conclusion that emerged naturally from the story, instead of something I slapped on in order to lift my head and yell, “Finished!”
The first act is your novel’s set-up. Everything you need to move forward is in there – maybe in a fuzzy and flickering kind of way, but if you pay attention to the characters, the emerging conflicts, the use of detail, the mood, the subtext, you’ll find the sparks you need to light your way forward.
Remember, it’s a process. Outlines are all very well – I’m fond of them myself – but sometimes adhering too closely to an outline will take you in the wrong direction. You’ll feel in your core that the book just isn’t working. Something happens in the actual act of writing, that translation from outline to creation, that can change your plan in ways you didn’t expect, allowing the real story to surface bit by bit. Pay attention to the bits. The future of your novel is often in the details.
4. Refresh or reset your “purpose-idea”.
And by this I mean: why are you writing this book in the first place? At the heart of every big project is a purpose-idea, a specific point of view. We usually call it ‘theme’ but theme is such a fuzzy word that I prefer ‘purpose-idea’ (I literally just decided this). It is the core of your novel’s identity. It is the idea at the heart of your story, and every element of your story manifests some aspect of this idea. It might take some work, some writing, for you to figure out what that idea is; or you might start off thinking it’s one thing and then discover it’s something else. But when you’re lost in the middle, the purpose-idea can be like your breath in yoga: the place to come back to in order to center and realign yourself. If you’re straining, something’s wrong. You need to breathe.
How can you recognize your purpose-idea? It should hit you in your emotional sweetspot. It should light you up.
5. Simplify. Discard the excess.
When you know what your purpose-idea is, you have a framework through which to view your novel. You refine your sense of what belongs in the novel – and what doesn’t.
There’s something very comforting about clutter, whether it’s a cluttered closet or a cluttered first draft. It’s easy to stuff your story with too many ideas (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone), too much backstory, too many characters. There’s the feeling that, if we throw enough stuff at the wall, something will stick – and even if it doesn’t, we’ll have it if we need it. The impulse is to add when the true power is in subtraction.
When you declutter, you are forced to evaluate (ie: you actually have to think). You have to ask yourself tough questions about what the story is, and what the book stands for, and what you stand for. You have to clarify your point of view. What emerges is a definite shape: something sleek, simple and bold. Something powerful.
Someone once told me that true style is not about having one hundred things in your closet and wearing only twenty of them. True style is having forty things in your closet that you wear all the time. When you know your style, you know the story of who you are, and that frees you up to reject everything that you aren’t.
So it is with novels. Don’t pack in one hundred things and fail to carry through on all but one or two of them. That only dilutes the power of your tale. Your novel has its own identity, and whatever doesn’t reflect and manifest that identity should get the hose.
6. Drill deep.
When you reduce your story to the essentials, you have the time and space to drill deep. To explore your ideas and take them all the way through to their logical conclusion. The middle is about revelations, complications and reversals. This is the time to identify each conflict and build it out to the extreme, to move your characters toward the very edge of whatever scares them, and reveal to us the fullness of who they truly are.
We tend, even in our writing, to shy away from the extreme. We don’t like conflict or suffering. We want things to be pleasant. Be aware of that part of yourself, so you can kill it (don’t worry, it will pop up again, like the monster in a slasher movie that never dies). Ask yourself, how can I go deeper, how can I go beyond, how can I find what’s next? Confronting these questions is a way of confronting yourself. When you break through to a place that’s raw and vulnerable, you know you’re on the right path — and more importantly, so will the reader.
7. Identify the subtext.
This turned out to be my problem: confusing the ‘surface story’ with the ‘underneath story’, or the subtext. Once I could separate these two threads, I could identify the point at which the subtext becomes the main text and see my way forward.
The ‘surface’ story is the initial problem that the protagonist must confront and resolve. As he or she goes about this, however, a deeper story starts to come together that I like to think of as the hidden life of the novel: the characters’ secrets that must get flushed into the open, the fears and inner demons that must be overcome (….or not), the relationships that must be healed or torn apart. The movie CHINATOWN is one of my favorite examples of this: the surface story has to do with the water scandal, while the ‘underneath’ story involves incest. Both stories have to do with corruption and exploitation; they reflect and inform each other.
Sometimes a “false climax” happens when the surface story is resolved, and the story seems to be over; but then the subtext breaks through to the surface, becomes the main story, and reveals the real peril and what is truly at stake.
When you know your purpose-idea and drill deep into your characters, the subtext is like an underground river running parallel to your more obvious storyline. It’s told through shadow, innuendo, and implication, and then finally it erupts. Again, it’s a good idea to go back through your novel and note these shadows, these signs and hints and unexpected details — where and how they fall — in order to further develop them. A novel’s psychology can be as mysterious – and unpredictable — as your own, so it’s good to pay close attention, and run with whatever you find.