You’ve written your first few chapters, and you even have your killer ending planned.
Then you hit the middle of your book manuscript, and all of a sudden it’s as if you’re running in sand.
Most who fail at finishing their books tell me they lost their writing motivation somewhere in what I like to call the “Marathon of the Middle.”
If your opener takes up approximately the first quarter of your manuscript and your ending the last quarter, the marathon comprises the middle half.
Yes, it’s hard. It still is for me—every time—and I’ve been doing this for 50 years. If it were easy, anyone could do it.
But don’t panic, and whatever you do, don’t quit. In fact, I want you to do more than merely survive the middle. I want to see you thrive there.
If you don’t, your reader won’t thrive there either. And as you know, it’s a sin to bore your reader.
So, embrace the challenge! Making the middle work is crucial to making your novel one that readers say they couldn’t put down.
Problems in the Middle and How to Solve Them
1. You’re questioning your original idea
When you first came up with your great story concept, getting to the keyboard wasn’t just easy, but it was also exciting.
Yet now the novelty stage has passed. You’ve been over and over your opening chapters, and they seem sameish, stale, even boring.
Your excitement has waned and you wonder if your idea was ever that great to begin with.
Get another pair of eyes on your work. You’ll likely be surprised at the response of your significant other or a friend.
They don’t even have to be in the business. Everything about your story will be new to them, so they’ll see it more like a normal reader would.
Stephen King’s wife Tabitha found a manuscript of his in the trash and, in essence, told him he’d be a fool to discard it. Carrie became his first published novel, and it’s still in print!
More than 40 novels and hundreds of millions of dollars later, I’d say she was right.
Don’t quit before you get a fresh perspective.
While it’s crucial to have a strict schedule when writing your book (which I’ll discuss later), it’s also important to schedule yourself a break.
There was a reason this idea fired you up in the first place. You just need to rediscover it.
2. Another idea has distracted you
Frankly, this should be seen as good news. Oh, I don’t want you to chuck what you’re working on and jump to the new shiny object or the grass that looks greener on the other side of the fence.
But take heart. New ideas while we’re working means only that we are indeed creatives. We have more ideas than we can manage at one time.
Resist the temptation to dump what you’re doing. Just make a note of the new idea, stick it in a file, and get back to work. It’s not uncommon for us to want to scratch that itch of starting something new.
Just remember that the same thing will happen while you’re writing it, and you might very well wind up with a half dozen unfinished manuscripts.
Finish what you’re doing, and there’ll be plenty of time to prioritize your new ideas and start fresh later.
The Marathon of the Middle requires endurance and dedication. Stay at the task.
3. You’re overly eager to get to your ending
If you envision your stories the way I do—generally as three-act plays—you know Point A and can’t wait to get to Point C. But how do you get there?
The problem is Point B, which as I have intimated, comprises roughly half of your manuscript. It’s a marathon to write, but if it becomes a marathon to read, few readers will stay with you.
This is not the place to simply fill space and pad the word count so you can get to the climax and resolution.
Whether you’re a Pantser (who writes by the seat of your pants, like I do) or an Outliner, you’re not just filling space in the middle.
So, what are you doing?
Your job is to force readers to keep reading. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and every page should push, pull, or drag them to the next.
Well, it’s simple, but it’s not easy. (Sorry.)
It’s all about setups and payoffs.
Just as in the best binge-worthy TV shows, where the writers build in a season-long setup that will be paid off in the last episode, an episode-long setup that will be paid off at the end of the episode, and minutes-long setups that are paid off just before or just after the next commercial, you need similar constructs in your novel.
Very early on, the reader needs to learn the problem, the quest, the journey, the question—what it is your main character needs or wants, what stands in the way of their getting it, and what they plan to do about it.
That’s your book-length setup that demands a payoff in the end.
Then you need a chapter-length setup that demands a payoff by the end of every chapter or, at the very least, a payoff by the start of the next chapter.
Then you need some sort of setup on nearly every page that demands both a payoff and a resulting new setup that will have to be paid off.
THAT is the secret to maintaining your pace and tension throughout the entire book. As I’ve implied, that might come easy in the opening fourth and also in the closing fourth.
But accomplishing this in the Marathon of the Middle as well will separate you from the majority of your competition.
The books you talk about and recommend, the ones that keep you reading until the wee hours of the morning, are the ones that include compelling setups throughout that keep you turning the pages for the payoffs.
When the marathon seems to stretch on and the finish line appears to fade farther into the distance, make sure you’re asking yourself the right questions:
- Assuming you have plunged your character into terrible trouble, what are they doing to get out of it?
- Does everything they try seem to make their trouble worse? (It should!)
- How will you get them to their bleakest moment when all appears hopeless?
- And what muscles will they build through all this turmoil to make them heroic and win the day in the end? That’s the very definition of character arc.
Keep setting up scenarios that have to be paid off, and you’ll find your middle as riveting as your opening and closing.
Managing Writer’s Fear
We all face this—yes, even those who have proved they can succeed as authors. The fear arises with each new project and must be dealt with.
We fear our writing won’t be good enough.
We fear we don’t know enough.
We fear the competition is too great.
We fear no one will like what we’ve written.
We fear that if we’ve lost interest in our story, readers will too. (And we’re right!)
So, don’t lose interest. Commit to establishing more setups, more obstacles to throw in your protagonist’s way, and more reasons for the reader to keep reading.
Feeling stuck can result in the kind of anxiety that threatens your ability to keep going.
But I say Writer’s Block is a myth, despite that you may feel you’re suffering from it right now.
I don’t mean that writers don’t get stuck.
I’m saying there’s always a reason you feel stuck, and there’s always a solution.
No other profession accommodates block as an excuse to quit working, so we writers shouldn’t either.
I say embrace the fear, accept that it’s valid. Maybe you AREN’T good enough or DON’T know enough, and maybe the competition IS too great.
If that’s all it takes to make you quit, you’ve chosen the wrong dream.
Rather, channel that legitimate fear and turn it into writing motivation to do your best work every time.
Someone’s getting published every day. Why not you?
Practical Tips for Dealing With Writer’s Fear and Regaining Your Motivation
1. Stick to your writing routine
Don’t assume motivation always results in action. Often the opposite is true.
Doing something creates momentum.
That’s why maintaining a writing routine is crucial.
Determine the number of words or pages you must finish per writing day, and be sure it’s within your capacity to accomplish. Also, don’t worry about speed. Quality is the key, not quantity.
Whatever you’ve learned is a manageable goal, establish the target on your calendar, and stick to it.
The legendary William Faulkner said: “I write only when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
2. Take care of your health
I actually schedule time to procrastinate, because I’ve learned it’s inevitable anyway. Work before you play, but play every day. Take the time to relax.
Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy food, and exercise regularly.
3. Write at your own pace, and give yourself grace
“If you write 10,000 words a day, you will end up with a book. If you write 1,000 a day, you will end up with a book. If you write 500 words every Tuesday, you will end up with a book. If you write 100 words before bed, or 50 whenever you can, you will end up with a book.” — V.E. Schwab, New York Times bestselling author
Frankly, writing is rarely exciting or intuitive. It’s my only gift, yet I still find it grueling. I’m trying to create something from nothing, getting words on the page that I’ll fix later.
Writing and editing happen to be completely different tasks.
So keep them separate.
When you’re writing, take off your perfectionist hat.
Rather than fretting over every word, focus on getting your story down.
Then throw on your editor’s cap and become as critical as your heart desires.
Try doing these both at once, and your production will slow to a crawl along with your motivation to write.
Don’t compare yourself to others. I know many writers who seem to effortlessly accomplish what I find grueling.
Good for them. I allow myself grace. I can do only what I can do.
The writing that seems to come easy for me often results in much more needed editing and revising. And vice-versa. If it has come in agonizing bits and spurts, the revising might be easier.
4. Remember why you wanted to be a writer
Writer’s fear can make you forget why you wanted to be a writer in the first place.
Revisit the books that inspired you to write. List the stories that seemed to change your life.
Hopefully, your motivation to write is more than that you simply want to be an author. You have something to say. You want to reach others with your message.
That makes you write from your passions, and that can make all the difference.
5. Know you’re not in this alone
“The wonderful thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting. The terrifying thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting.” — J.K. Rowling
Yes, the world-renowned author of the Harry Potter series, also struggles.
Every “name” author hits the same roadblocks, myself included.
Push Through and Create Your Writing Motivation
Winning the Marathon of the Middle isn’t easy, but it’s vital to your success.
Instead of avoiding writer’s fear and allowing it to paralyze you, allow it to become your writing motivation.
Fear humbles me and motivates me to do my best, making me a better self-editor.
You can do this.
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