Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Guest Blogger - Carolyn J. Rose

How to Escape the
Muddle in the Middle

by Carolyn J. Rose

Writers get lots of advice—solicited and unsolicited—from family, friends, and other writers. (Okay, on the days my skin is particularly thin it seems more like criticism or fault-finding, but to steer away from that tangent, I’ll call it advice.)

After a while, we learn how to accept those comments without cringing, crying, or clawing out the eyes of the person offering. Eventually we learn how to weed out comments that are irrelevant, mean-spirited, or just not helpful. Then we consider what might be valid, what bits of advice to take.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever took was, “Know how your story ends before you begin.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

If you know where you’re going, if you’ve figured out the ultimate goal, then all you have to do is blaze a trail from plot point to plot point, from immediate goal to immediate goal, and you’ll arrive at your destination. Right?



Well, in theory.

My problem is that once I leave the inciting incident behind and enter the valley of plot twists, character quirks, and literary re-visioning, it’s easy to lose sight of the path to the ultimate goal and the mountaintop of story resolution. Without that landmark in view, it’s far too easy to wander off into shadowy and uncharted of What-If Woods.

Legend has it that some writers have been lost forever in this forest. They wander in circles, following plot points dropped by other writers, ignoring signal flares sent up by members of their critique groups, huddling at nightfall around a campfire of first drafts, wrapped in a blanket of discarded adjectives and adverbs.

I’ve been deep in that forest, surrounded by ideas sprouting like jungle vines and characters clamoring for larger roles, wishing there was such a thing as a literary GPS.

But while I floundered, I learned some ways to find my way again:

Forget about progress. Stay in one place and think.
Review the immediate goals.
Let your characters lead you
Cast off in a number of directions and compare results
Set a new final destination

Let’s look at the perks, pitfalls, and perils of each method.

Forget about progress. Stay in one place and think.
While taking a few days off from writing to reassess can be healthy for both writer and story, I’ve found that a few days can too quickly become a few weeks. Once I stop keeping that daily appointment with my keyboard, I start making other appointments—with books, bon-bons, friends, fruity drinks, and TV series I’ve cached.

Thinking is good. Overthinking to the point of the paralysis that leads to procrastination is not so good.

Set a time limit on how long you’ll allow your unconscious to work on the problem. Then try another method.

Review the immediate goals.
I call these the IGs to distinguish them from the UGs, the ultimate goals.
There are a lot of IGs on the road to the UGs, IGs created to generate conflict, tension, and suspense. But sometimes the conflict over those IGs can become mundane, irrelevant, and even distracting. A trip into a literary cul de sac isn’t bad, but a full-fledged detour might be catastrophic. So make sure most of your IGs are pointing, if not at the UGs, then in their general direction.

Let your characters lead you.
I might hesitate to admit to a psychologist that I let my characters take the lead, but writers will understand this isn’t a sign of mental imbalance. There comes a point in every book where my fictional friends start to act out their roles on the stage of my dreams. “If you want to take a curtain call in a sequel,” I tell them, “then you’d better come up with some ideas for act two of this drama.”

Usually, they do. The problem is that I have to know who to listen to. Trusting the killer to lead me will result in a far different ending than trusting the detective. And trusting too many of them could take me to a whole new level of lost. So, consider the source(s) before you write more.

Cast off in a number of directions and compare the results.
The strategy here is the same one you employ when you get off a clogged freeway and go miles out of your way just to keep moving.

I put aside my original outline (and, for the record, it’s more of a collection of spotty notes than an outline) and set off on a plot-twist trail to the left, roughing out the possibilities for two or three chapters, possibilities that include the emotions and actions of my characters. Returning to my jumping off point, I then bushwhack to the right.

Sometimes this casting about makes the problems with the first path clear and I race back along it to repair logic holes or add character reaction and thought to make the trail more evident and get the momentum I need to get out of the woods. Sometimes, however, I strike a new trail that’s more promising than the one I first plotted, a trail that will lead to a more satisfying ending.

Being a Virgo, I’m always reluctant to abandon previous plotting or to kill off characters I’d thought would go the distance. But I remind myself that this is fiction—and a first draft at that. I take a deep breath and go for the ultimate solution.

Set a new final destination.
Yes, it’s a last-ditch method, a new ultimate goal, with a new kind of climax, and new resolution for the ending.

In mystery, this usually means deciding that someone else is the killer and/or that a few other someones might be shot, stabbed, strangled, poisoned, pummeled, or pushed off a cliff along the road to resolution.

Have I mentioned that I’m a Virgo? Yes, I see I have. Then you know that the degree of difficulty on this is up there with landing a quadruple axel on the ice rink.

First, this involves admitting (if only to myself) that I didn’t know how the story would end, that I hadn’t really taken that piece of advice I mentioned earlier. Talk about embarrassment and humiliation.

Second, I have to rearrange all those index cards and sticky notes. Worse, I may have to toss some of them—or at least put them in a box (neatly) for future reference.

But, if I’ve been stuck long enough, the choice is to do all of the above or to shelve the whole book. So, I close the door to my office, throw a small-scale fit, and then get on with it.

What are the ways you get out of What-If Woods when you’re stuck in the middle of a book? Drop by and leave a comment. I’d love to add to my list of possibilities.

For the record, when I began writing Hemlock Lake, a solo project, I had a clear idea of how and where it would end and was able to bushwhack steadily toward that landmark through a series of arsons and murders in a remote community in the Catskill Mountains. When my husband Mike Nettleton and I wrote The Big Grabowski, however, our concept of the ending was, to say the least, vague. We knew only that the killer was one of the many suspects we’d planted in a quirky town on the Oregon Coast. It was only when we were about two-thirds of the way through that we decided for sure that the killer had to be …

Sorry. I’d love to tell you, but my publisher won’t let me.

Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She teaches novel-writing in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking. Visit her at Deadly Duos Mysteries.


Vicki Lane said...

Funny post! I've spent many a black night, huddled around that campfire in the dark forest of Muddle-in-the Middle. Your suggestions are all terrific!

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Thanks. I've come to think that getting muddled is part of the adventure.

N. R. Williams said...

When I am so stuck I think I'll lose my shoes in the quick sand I brain storm with my critique group.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Peg Brantley said...

Terrific post. I've printed it out because as much as I hope I'll never be lost in the wilderness muddle again, I know better.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Me, too, that's why I always have snacks at hand. LOL

Suedenym said...

Excellent advice. In my opinion, first chapters that "wow" are always fun to read but well crafted "middles" are where the true rewards are for me as a reader. Susan Skipwith :)