Special Guest Grant Faulkner: Getting through the Muddle of the Muddy Middle
I was recently asked whether it’s more difficult to write the beginning or the ending of a novel. My answer? Neither. The most difficult part of a novel to write is the middle—popularly known as the “muddy middle,” or just the “muddle.”
When you’re writing the beginning of your novel, your words tend to flow to the glowing enchantment of your novel idea—a momentum sparked by the excitement of pursuing a shiny new idea and exploring new worlds. Then, one day, you’re likely to hit a slow patch, and then another slow patch, and then… you might find yourself stuck—and perhaps even sinking.
Every novel is full of such perilous moors. When you feel your words enter such swampy territory, it’s easy to concede victory to those naysaying voices in your head pulling you ever deeper into the mud. And sometimes defeat can seem strangely comforting. You drop onto those fluffy pillows of complacency where you expect little of yourself, and perhaps little of life.
But don’t sink! Don’t let your novel die! Here are seven different approaches to keep your words moving.
1.) Let go.
Turn off your computer for a spell. Sink into Netflix. Do some jumping jacks. Maybe even clean your house (the houses of NaNoWriMo writers tend to need cleaning at this point of the month). Do whatever it takes to feel a sense of lightness and not think about your novel. It’s easy to think that the answer is to keep forging ahead, but sometimes letting go is the way to open the next door of your imagination.
2.) Stay positive (even if you don’t feel like it).
Part of what creates the mud of the muddy middle is self-doubt. It’s easy to not only question your novel idea, but to question yourself as a writer (and perhaps even yourself as a human being). Remember this: Every writer hits patches like this—even your favorite writer—so you’re not alone. You have to give yourself a pep talk and write your way through the muddy middle to discover the amazing gift that your novel promises to be.
3.) Shake things up.
Introduce a character. Kill a character. Exacerbate character flaws. Your main character has a hidden dark side, and it’s your job to go deep into it—as in spelunking. The middle of a novel begs for escalating drama, and your pen is begging for it as well. If you feel like being kind to your characters, practice being mean to them.
4.) Shake up things even more.
Go crazy. Introduce a time machine, a dragon, a space alien. Every novel needs a ghost or two. A poltergeist. A cute animal that turns into a murdering menace. A lovable zombie who likes to knit. Find ways to make the world around your characters mysterious, questionable, and beguiling.
Author Erin Morgenstern wrote, "I like to think of NaNo-ing as excavating… Things that felt like desperate, random nonsense on page 72 (the broken pocket watch, a partially obscured tattoo, that taxidermied marmot on the mantelpiece) are suddenly important and meaningful on page 187. Everything could hinge on the fate of that marmot. Or the marmot may be a red herring. Or perhaps the marmot is just a marmot. You have to keep writing to find out."
5.) Writing prompts.
When in doubt, turn to a writing prompt and do a word sprint. I once planned an entire novel by choosing one writing prompt for each chapter. You can do a sprint with a prompt in several different ways during NaNoWriMo: 1.) check out @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter; 2.) go to a NaNoWriMo write-in in your local region; 3.) Give yourself a prompt and do a word sprint on the NaNoWriMo site.
6.) Skip ahead.
Films aren’t made chronologically, and there’s no rule that a novel has to be written in a linear fashion either. Having trouble with Chapter 7? Then skip to Chapter 11, that chapter you’ve been wanting to get to because that’s where all of the exciting stuff happens. Once you write a few scenes, you’ll replenish yourself enough to go back to Chapter 7.
7.) Just skip.
If you’re still having trouble with that devilish Chapter 7, then give yourself permission to skip it altogether. Move on and just try to reach the end of your novel. Sometimes it takes a while to solve the bedeviling questions of a novel—sometimes it even takes several drafts. So just sketch some notes in Chapter 7 and move on.
When you’re in the muddy middle, it’s difficult to remember that your mind is actually an acrobat. Your imagination can take you anywhere. So remember that writing one sentence will likely lead you to another sentence. Simply put one word in front of another, and you’ll begin to sense this great gift waiting for you. The gift of your novel.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He's published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo; Fissures, a collection of 100-word stories; and Nothing Short of 100: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review, as well as in anthologies such as Best Small Fictions and Norton's New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He also co-hosts Write-minded, a weekly podcast on writing and publishing.