How many times have you read a novel that seems to drag in the middle? If you’re like me, plenty of times. As readers, we reach a point where we ask ourselves if it’s worth pushing through with reading the book, in the hope of finding a bit more excitement in the second half of the story.
Trust me, this problem is even worse when you’re writing a novel that drags in the middle and it looks like it’s never going to go anywhere. Except that, as writers, we can do something to fix it before any reader has to worry about it.
I’ve been working on this novel for almost three years now and I still haven’t been able to move beyond the midpoint. The problems started because I decided to do NaNoWriMo in 2016. I had finished writing my synopsis, worked out my character and setting sketches, plotted my outline (my chapter breakdown), and was ready to begin writing on the first day of November that year.
About two weeks into the writing of this novel, I realised that one of my plot devices – having a secret passage under the house – might be a little too similar to a previous novel. I didn’t want to lose momentum so I did a quick bit of research and since this novel was set in England, I came up with the marvelous idea of having a priest hole hidden within the house, instead of a secret tunnel.
That was my First Big Mistake! I should have known that when I have a new bit to research, I need to stop writing and research it properly before moving on. But I was in a hurry…
The direction of my story changed slightly, but I didn’t have time to work it through properly. I had a deadline of about 1700 words a day and couldn’t afford the time to stop and do more work on fixing the plot holes before carrying on with the writing.
This was my Second Big Mistake! I should have known that when I have a problem, I need to stop and sort it out before moving on. But I was still in a hurry…
By the end of the third week I had realised that my novel was going to be much longer than the required 50,000 words for the competition, so I just carried on spewing words at the project, knowing I would edit it down once the competition was over.
That was my Third Big Mistake! I should have known that when I have become too wordy, I need to stop and edit it down so it doesn’t become an even bigger problem later, before moving on. I was sure I could do it when I was no longer in a hurry…
Sometimes we just don’t learn, do we? I ruined my first draft for the sake of a competition. Who was I competing against? Myself, and the desire to write 50,000 words in one month. I managed to write just over 51,000 words. Where did it get me? Nowhere. Three years later the manuscript is only 56,000 words long. It has taken me three years to add another 5,000 words to an already wordy, unwieldy, rambling text that can’t seem to decide if it wants a secret passage or a priest hole to hide in. Or both.
For nearly three years I have been taking stabs at bits of it, and getting nowhere fast. The action has moved from Blenheim Palace to Buckinghamshire, and back again. I have been trying to rework the text from an outdated synopsis, a slightly more updated chapter outline that accurately reflects only the first half of the plot and goes haywire in the second half, a timeline that has been tweaked to the point where I have had to completely rewrite it, a story plan checklist where nothing is getting checked off in the right places, and a beat sheet where the beats are all out of sync and I have no idea where the climax is going to be because the third quarter of the novel is different in every single one of these.
I feel like a pantser, but I know that I am a full-blooded plotter and can only work on the text when the plot finally makes sense.
So the other week I decided it was time for some old-fashioned cut-and-paste. Not on the computer, but in the original way. I printed out copies of my synopsis, chapter outline, story plan checklist and beat sheet. I then cut each of them into their various scene segments that make up the third quarter of the novel. I spread these across my whiteboard and arranged them in the right order with the help of some fridge magnets.
Then I began joining the bits that matched, and finding the correct connectors between each scene – the inner conflicts of each character, which leads to their goals evolving into new motivations, and so on. It took me two days of working in this way to make sense of the third quarter of the plot, and to transfer that finished section into one massive document, back on my computer.
It’s all starting to make sense now, and with a few more tweaks I’ll be satisfied enough to set it aside and do the same with the last quarter of the novel. I’m not as worried about this final quarter, because in most of my novels the characters move away from my outline and bring their own inspiration to the climax and finale – but only if the third quarter works properly and at a good pace. I will deal with the actual finale when I get there. In the meantime I have a lot of writing to do…