Stuck in the Murky Middle (January Stuck Series Part 3 of 4)

The middle is that dangerous place for a writer of a novel-length work. There are just so many words needed to get you from your inciting incident to your climax and protagonist’s ultimate change.

For many writers, the beginning is easy. You have a shiny idea that invigorates your creative energy. Scenes may be pouring out of you as you set up your character’s world and all the things that mess it up in the beginning to set them out on an epic journey. But halfway there, you and your characters may be asking if we’re there yet like cranky kids on a car trip.

If you feel your energy lacking in the middle of writing you may be stuck in the murky middle.

Stuck in the middle can also look like distraction. Are you suddenly enamored with a new idea? A new character? A premise that just won’t let you go?

Shiny object syndrome is real and often shows up when the writing feels hard. If you have a stack of started manuscripts but none finished, you may be chronically getting stuck in the middle.

Stuck in the middle can also look like losing your way.

Sometimes we get to the middle and we simply don’t know what comes next (I’m looking at us pantsers). The scene feels forced because we are trying to simply make our characters get from point A to point X in some manner of logical fashion but we don’t have a map and our GPS is on the fritz.

I recently wrote about how to get unstuck from the murky middle for DIYMFA. I write about going back to the basics and building blocks of your story. These tips are designed to keep you moving on the path of your story, even when it’s dark and you can only see the next sentence in front of you.

If you’ve tried all the big, structurally-minded tricks I mention in the article and still feel stuck, maybe you need to bring back a little play to your writing. The beginning is so fun because you’re discovering new things along the way, just like when we meet someone new. Try taking a step back from your manuscript and return to what you loved about the story.

Here are a few of the things that I try when I need to reignite that creative spark in the middle of a manuscript draft (or revision):

  • Writing a letter. I was big time stuck in the middle of a previous manuscript. I knew where the story needed to end up, but I had followed a few threads my characters left for me and then had no idea how to weave them back all together. Because my characters were all in a setting far away from home, I decided to try writing letters from each of my primary characters to someone back home. I was amazed at how much interesting insight came from these letters. Especially when my antagonist wrote to his mother. He was still a horrible, horrible person, but boy, did I learn a few things about what might have made him that way. As a result, I was able to add some nuance to his character on the page even though I never explicitly shared that new backstory discovery with the reader. The letter my protagonist wrote home also clued me in to what her next action should be by clarifying the importance of her motivation. Apparently she didn’t want to share that with me, just her parents back home. Try taking a character and having them write a letter to someone. You may be surprised at who they choose to write to and why. The contents of the letter may (and probably will) never show up in your manuscript, but what you learn from this exercise may open a new door for what comes next or what isn’t working that’s keeping you stuck.
  • Go on an Artist Date. I mentioned journaling similar to what Julia Cameron outlines in her morning pages exercise from The Artist’s Way*. The concept of Artist’s Dates are also in her brilliant book. I love Artist’s Dates. When writers get stuck, it is often because we’ve let our creative wells run dry. We need to refill before we can pour any thing else out. An Artist’s Date is a great way to refill that well. Some of my favorite places to go on such an outing are airports, cemeteries, and museums. Anything that allows me to people watch or wonder about a person’s backstory. Perhaps you can brainstorm some places your protagonist might visit on a similar outing and go there. See the place or the painting or the vista from their perspective. What new things are you seeing/feeling/smelling/tasting that you might not have noticed by yourself? Be sure to bring a journal and jot these observations or snippets of overheard conversation down. My favorite writing anecdote comes from Tayari Jones as she was writing what would later become An American Marriage*. She’d been researching race and incarceration at Harvard as part of a fellowship and trying to synthesize all this information into her new book. But she was stuck. So while she was home visiting her family in Atlanta she went to the mall and heard a snippet of conversation that completely unlocked the book for her. I heard her discuss this at an author reading, but she touches on it here. Artist’s Dates are like creative playgrounds–follow your inner creative muse and see where she leads. I bet you’ll be surprised what returns to the page with you.
  • Do some Method Acting. What would your character order at a restaurant? Buy at a bookstore? Try on at a boutique? Maybe dip into your character as you go about a Saturday afternoon and see what new insights you have. Perhaps you suddenly realize she turns her nose up at Wal-Mart. Explore that. Why? Does she think it’s “below her” or could it be that her father ran a small bicycle store that went under when the big box chain moved in down the block and sold bikes for a fraction of what he did, but provided none of the ongoing service or specialized fitting? What does being the child of a small business owner who ended up down on his luck mean to her current journey? Is that why she works at a small non-profit fighting for the little guy or, conversely, did she internalize that the big companies always win and now she works for a corporate goliath and is faced with a sell her soul kind of choice to get ahead? And does that mean it’s time for a bicycle to somehow enter the story and remind her of the consequences? And who is riding that bicycle? And how will that person influence our protagonist here in her murky middle?
  • Go for a walk. Stuck on the page? Get moving in real life. Often, when I’m stuck, I set out for the woods. This walk is not like my other walks where I may pop in my earbuds and catch up on my favorite podcasts. No. A stuck walk requires a few extra steps, pun very much intended. First, I set an intention. This requires me to determine what I think I am stuck on: I can’t seem to figure out what comes next? I don’t know why this character is doing what they are doing? What does my protagonist need next? What is keeping my protagonist from getting what she wants internally? I keep this general idea of the problem in my head as I take to the path. Maybe my brain actively noodles on it while I’m walking, but most of the time, it’s in the background as I walk. Next, I keep my ears and eyes open. No music, no podcast, no catch-up call with my sister. I pay attention outside of myself and breathe. The combination of simultaneously focusing on and ignoring a problem can sometimes shake loose a new idea from my subconscious. Sometimes an idea comes to me and sometimes not. But the act of movement itself keeps my creative flow going and it will be easier to return to the page than if I had stayed sitting in my seat staring at the blinking cursor.
  • Look inside. For me, anyway, when I’m stuck it’s often because I’m resistant to something. Either I need to take a look at what came before the point I’m at and really analyze if it’s leading me and my protagonist down the correct path–sometimes it’s necessary to kill a darling at this point to free yourself up to new ideas–or I need to take a look at myself and see what’s holding me back from going all in on this manuscript. I spent a lot of time stuck in my story because I kept trying to make my protagonist NOT like me. It took a friend pointing out that we were fighting the same emotional battle (although in entirely different circumstances) for me to finally realize what the story (and I) needed. Whenever you feel stuck in your writing–whether it’s the process or the specific story–take a moment to look inside and see what might be holding you back from the page. It may something as common as imposter syndrome or fear of being judged when the book is finished. Acknowledging these feelings might be enough for you to keep going. I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s letter to fear in Big Magic*. Fear can come along for the writing journey, but it better keep its hands off the steering wheel.

What else do you try when you’re stuck in the middle of your manuscript?

* This is an affiliate link and I do receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase.

Featured photo by Tomas Tuma on Unsplash

Published by Monica Cox

Monica is a writer and book coach who helps writers get unstuck so they can reach their writing goals.

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