Halfway through Nanowrimo – getting unstuck

It’s November 16, and Nanowrimo (National Novel Writer’s Month) is in full swing. Across the world, people are scribbling away, desperately trying to make their daily word counts.

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Then suddenly, it happens. The idea fountain runs dry. The characters come to a standstill. What happens next? you cry. Nothing comes to mind, and yet that Nano chart sits there, demanding words, or you’ll fall behind par.

Fear not! Here is some useful advice about how to get unstuck.

Joss Whedon, of Avengers and other blockbusters, had this advice on being prolific.

The last piece of advice on that level is fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks. Constantly watch things and things you don’t [normally watch]. Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing then it’ll show.”

For example?

“The last piece of advice on that level is fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks. Constantly watch things and things you don’t [normally watch]. Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing then it’ll show.”

For example?

“I read The Killer Angels. It’s a very detailed, extraordinarily compelling account of the Battle of Gettysburg from the point of view of various people in it and it’s historical. It’s historically completely accurate, and the moment I put it down I created Firefly, because I was like, ‘I need to tell this story. I need to feel this immediacy. I so connect with that era, the Western and how tactile everything is and how every decision is life or death, and how hard it is and how just rich it is, and how all the characters are just so fascinating.’ But so I should be on the Millennium Falcon. Now, if I only watched sci-fi I would have just had the Millennium Falcon part, which has already been done, but finding that historical texture, it literally, I put the book down and started writing Firefly. And that was my vacation from Buffy, which was two weeks. I got two weeks every year, and in that vacation I read, in 14 days, 10 books. My wife and I saw like nine plays, and that’s all we did. We just filled the tanks.”

Speaking of prolific, here’s another hard-working author, Jim Butcher, and his advice about the Great Swampy Middle:

The middle of books is HARD, especially for beginning writers. Why? Because the middle of a book gives you the most flexibility in terms of telling your story. The beginnings and ends of stories share many similar demands, craftwise, but the MIDDLE is where your personal style has room to play. IE, there are a berjillion-and-one different things you can do in the middle of a story, and since you’re a beginning writer, about a berjillion of them are probably the wrong things to do.

It’s like a swamp. There are apparent paths all around you–but sometimes the ground that looks solid actually sucks you under and paralyzes you and strangles you. Sometimes the water that looks deep and unpleasant is actually shallow and safe. Sometimes apparent paths aren’t paths at all–they just wander all over and wind up at a dead end. Sometimes the safe-looking waters are teeming with alligators and poisonous snakes just below the surface.

Man. The middle of a book is dangerous.

It’s when an author starts getting lost that the book’s middle becomes the Great Swampy Middle. Once you’ve taken a wrong turn in the GSM, you’ve got to be smart about which way you move, because if you just keep wandering around, you (and by “you” I mean “your story”) is just going to keep bumbling around in circles and never get out of the GSM.

The problem with GSMs is that most writers don’t have a very good idea of exactly where they want to go. I mean sure, they want to get “to the other side of the swamp,” but that’s sort of like saying “I want to get to the other side of the continent.” It’s a good plan, as stated, but it lacks clarity, specificity, definition. Instead of saying “the other side of the continent” it might be more helpful to say something like “I’m taking I-70 out through the midwest to Denver, then hopping on Highway Suchandsuch southwest through the Rockies before taking Route Whatever across California to the Pacific.”

Same thing applies in the story. If you have a good idea of your next landmark, waypoint, stepping stone, what have you, it’s a lot easier not to fall off the path and get sucked down into the mud. SO. One way to help yourself do that is to create something to help you keep on track–a structure specifically designed to keep the pace of your book strong throughout the middle. My favorite such construct is called THE BIG MIDDLE.

Here’s the nutshell concept: Plan a great big freaking event for the end of the middle. You want it to be a big dramatic confrontation of whatever kind is appropriate to your genre. The fallout from your big bad Big Middle event should be what boots the book down the homestretch to reach the story’s climax. Really lay out the fireworks. Hit the reader with everything you can. PLAN THE BIG MIDDLE EVENT. Then, as you work through the middle, WORK TO BUILD UP TO IT. Drop in the little hints, establish the proper props and motivations and such. Make sure that everything you do in the middle of the book is helping you build up to the BIG MIDDLE.

(I’ve used the Big Middle concept in EVERY book I’ve ever published. It works. It ain’t broke. It ain’t the only way to do the middle, either, but it’s one way.)

Example: The Dresden Files, Dead Beat. The Big Middle event in this book is the zombie attack on Harry’s apartment. Corpsetaker and Grevane show up in the same place, at the same time, and kick off a full blown Necrobattle. There are zombies and ghosts, tons of magic, Harry’s wards frying everything in sight, Butters gets captured, Harry and Thomas have to save him, plenty of special effects and a narrow escape.

(That’s the drama part.)

In the course of the Big Middle, Harry gets information he needs to continue his pursuit, the bad guys blow out the city’s power, Butters picks up a new mantra about courage, and we segue into the next day, with Halloween and the Darkhallow charging down from the horizon.

(that’s the set things in motion part)

Big Middle is a good counter to the GSM. It helps you stay focused and gets you through the chapters more smoothly.

(More tips at the article!)

Hopefully these couple of tips will help get the juice flowing again.

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