Monday, April 10, 2023

Seven Cool Tricks for Beating Your Novel’s Maddening Middle

Holly Lisle

If you’re like most writers (including some of us who do this for a living) the first pages of your novel flew. The characters leapt to life, they did interesting, wonderful things, and you fell in love — with them, with the world, and with the adventure of following them as they came to life.

Driven by passion, excitement, and your gripping story idea, you got maybe a quarter of the way into your book… maaaaybe thirty percent…

And all of a sudden, things got squidgy. Iffish. Awkward.

Your characters started:

• Sitting around drinking coffee (or whiskey shots)
• Talking about the weather
• Arguing because you knew the story needed conflict (but BIG TIP — the Dreaded Conflict Argument isn’t it)

And the words stopped coming.

First, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Most writers most of the time run out of Pure Adrenaline about a quarter to a third of the way into the book.

That’s the point where, for a lot of us, we realize that we have written a lot of words… and we still have another sixty to seventy-percent of this THING to get through before we’re done with the first draft.

NOTE: At the point where the writing stops being just pure fun and starts hinting that work is going to be required, the thing you’re working on also frequently stops being your beloved novel, it tends to get shoved aside (with some variation on the phrase “I’ll work on it later, when I figure out what happens next”) and metamorphoses into a ghost in your dreams, haunting you, demanding completion.


First, DO NOT shove the printout of the manuscript under the bed, promising you’ll get back to it when inspiration strikes.

WHY? Because if you’re not actively working on this project, workable, usable inspiration won’t strike. You figure out what happens next by working on the story, by thinking through what you already have, and by figuring out how you can use what you have to make more story.

Second, DO NOT go back through what you already have and start “fixing” words and sentences, moving paragraphs around, and replacing good SHORT words and phrases with painful long ones — like changing “chatty” to “loquacious” or “angry” to “utterly and unforgivingly furious”. Using longer words, and using ten words when one would do, this is called PADDING.

A lot of early-career writers tried padding. (Ask me how I know…)

The thinking here goes, “Surely using longer words will make me look like a smarter, better writer to editors looking to buy my work. It worked on term papers, after all.”

Painful truth? Your final term paper was the last time padding ever worked. Six-syllable words and precious phrasing just make reading what you’ve written a painful chore, and commercial editors who get hit with the Long Words Stunt in the first paragraph are not likely to read the second.

Editors can smell padding the way flies can smell horse sh- manure.

See? Horse shit would have been perfect. Meanwhile, horse manure is pretentious.

Here’s STEP ONE:

Your raw words — the ones before you do any revision at all — are going to be your most honest words. They’re the words that came from you when you were right IN the story with your characters, where you were watching your plot unfold, where your creativity was flowing, and your imagination was going full steam. Your first words hold the real voices of your characters… and they hold your real voice.

Your real voice is what you use when talking to friends, hanging out in coffee shops, or paddling a kayak down a wild river (including both the WHEEEE!!! and the Oh, SHIT! moments).

Your real voice — you being yourself — is comfortable and warm and engaging.

You being someone who’s trying to prove how many words you know and how smart you are — however… That version of you is the one who gets Editor-read-the-first-sentence-and-fled rejections.

Again… this is the voice of experience. An early rejection I still remember, word for word, is “You write very well, but nothing happens.”

The instant you stop writing the story to start piddling with fancier words and “fixing” what you already have, you’ve lost. You’re now busy killing the best part of your story’s feel

— its integrity and its freshness.

INSTEAD, commit this one sentence to memory:

You have a secret, and I will find it and USE it.

At the point where you stall, you pick one of your characters, and you say this to that character.

“You have a secret, Bob Bland… And I will find it. And USE it.”

And your character Bob shudders, and a little ice runs down his spine.

STEP TWO: Do a tiny biography of one character.

Bob Bland is a used car salesman, has a sweet wife and three small kids at home, and is considering finding a second job just to get the family a little ahead on bills, and he has a hobby — he fly-fishes.

Right there, he’s a small-town lower-middle-class Everyman, and you want to read a novel (or even a short story) about him just about as much as you want to pick cat hair out of the carpet with a pair of tweezers.

STEP THREE: Brainstorm the elements of the secret.

Bob Bland has a secret… and it’s a doozy. You don’t know what it is yet (and neither do I) but let’s find out.

You can give your character a Positive Secret. You can give your character a Negative Secret.

You can give your character one of each… and if you go with a superpower, you need a negative secret to balance the positive one — otherwise you end up writing Mary Sue fiction. (https://

But let’s not go with a superpower. Those change the nature of the fiction you’re writing.

Let’s go with a Mundane Mortal secret, and let’s brainstorm possibilities:


• Family-related
• Work-related
• PIHO (play-interest-hobby-obsession) -related


• Tied to the past
• Tied to the present
• Tied to the future


• Positive
• Negative
• Neutral

Pick one from each category.

Random poke of the finger on each of the three categories gives me:

• PIHO-related
• Tied to the past
• Positive



Bob Bland has always liked to go fly fishing, likes to tie flies (to make his own fishing lures using bare fishhooks and feathers and string and a little bit of clear nail polish to hold everything together), and he likes to walk the stream behind and uphill from the house where he lives with his family. Aside from the six-bucks-per-year local fishing license, this is a practically free hobby that also lets him put fresh food on the table.

TIED TO THE PAST: So while he’s working his way down the stream and toward home to an undercut he likes — one that occasionally yields up a bass (a kind of fish) or two — he spots something shiny in the stream.

He has his hip waders on, so he wades into the water, and reaches down, and finds…

BRAINSTORM HERE: What does he find

• A gold doubloon
• An ancient artifact that shimmers when touched
• A hand wearing a big diamond ring (but JUST the hand)

And on that third one, my brain goes WHEEEEEE!!! Cold, bloated, severed hand in the river wearing a BIG diamond (that nevertheless was not kept by the person severing the hand).


So the first and most obvious question is this: Why would someone cut off a hand that has a huge, glittering, magnificent diamond set in a gorgeous gold ring (this thing just keeps getting more awesome in my mind as I imagine it)… and then THROW THE HAND AND RING AWAY?

And my brain horrifies me with the answer.

The owner of the hand cut his or her own hand off…

To get rid of the ring.

And there’s the thing that starts to fuel the middle of the story.

What in the world is wrong with that ring?

If you don’t get something great from the first question you ask, ask more questions.

These are all going to be Who-What-When-Where-Why-How questions. If your question doesn’t start with one of those words, re-write it until it does. And then work down your list answering questions. You may need to write multiple answers for each question until you clear the obvious stuff out of the way.

The obvious answer in my WHO question above was “Some criminal cut off the hand.” That answer is too easy. You have a bad guy after a fancy ring. It’s what bad guys do, so there’s simply not much story there.

Something that would make a person cut off his or her own hand, though? THAT’S something worth writing about.

At the point where your brain says, “Oh, there it is!

That’s the thing that makes me need to find out what happens next,” you move on to Step Six.


And we’re back to Who. What. When. Where. Why. How.

• Who made the ring?
• What does it do for the wearer?
• What does it do TO the wearer?
• What does it do to anyone near the wearer?
• Why was it made?
• And so on…

I’m not going to build out the answers to those questions, because I’m in the middle of writing Book Three in a five-book series right now, and I do not need another project… and this thing is starting to try to finagle its way into a world that does not need it. So, we’ll move on…

Write your questions down, and start answering them, listening for your Right-Brain (Muse) to throw weird and interesting answers at you. And when you have some good answers, go to STEP SEVEN.

STEP SEVEN: (The single most effective and evil* piece of advertising in the world.)


Every time you get stuck on your story, just go back through these steps until you’ve written yourself to the end.*Why is “Wash. Rinse. Repeat.” not product instructions, but actually advertising? Because it causes you to go through shampoo twice as fast. If the stuff is any good at all, it works on the first wash. It’s not evil advice in writing simply because you need more than one thing to happen in your story.

So now… go kick ass on your middle. You can do this.

ABOUT HOLLY LISLE: Holly has been writing since 1985. She started selling her fiction in 1991 with her fantasy novel Fire In The Mist (which won the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel), and with a couple of sonnets she sold to the SF magazine Aboriginal. Learn about her fiction and get a free story, or check out her official site and writing courses at Read her blog/weblog HERE.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like those ideas, which are all new to me. I'm going to ask Bob Bland that question next time.

Natalie Aguirre said...

These ideas are new to me too. Thanks for the suggestions.

Mirka Breen said...

Middles are definetly the most maddening. Good post^

diedre Knight said...

This was the closest thing to finding a shiny lucky penny I've seen in a long time. I've already committed two tricks to memory - thanks so much!