Michelle Barker's books on Goodreads
Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii
ratings: 1 (avg rating 5.00)

The Beggar King The Beggar King
reviews: 8
ratings: 21 (avg rating 4.00)

Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories
reviews: 4
ratings: 15 (avg rating 4.07)

Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales
reviews: 4
ratings: 14 (avg rating 3.79)

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The Muck in the Middle Part 2: Climbing Out

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Last week I was kind of smart-alecky about the swampy middle of a novel, and the sum total of my advice was: rethink your outline, start again, too bad.


But then so many people admitted to being stuck in their novel-swamp that I realized I had not been diligent. My blog needed a part 2: practical suggestions for getting out. Questions to ask yourself. Things to try.


They might not work for you. But I’ve used them all at one point or another.


So, if you’re stuck in the muck…


  • Ask yourself ‘What If?’ Allow some major riffing time. Do not be limited by ideas you deem silly or unrealistic. Let your mind wander. Try using pen and paper for this one. Give yourself permission to make a mess.


  • Ask: are you avoiding conflict? Things should always be getting worse for your characters. Because I believe Tolkien generally has the answer to everything, I refer you to the Mines of Moria Principle. Remember that part, when Gimli suggests going through the mines, and Gandalf tells him no, that’s the worst idea ever, it’s the one thing we can’t do. And then they have to do it. In the mines, Gandalf says, above all don’t make any noise. And then Pippin makes noise. The Mines of Moria rule is: whatever is the worst thing that could happen to your characters – that’s what should happen.


  • Tolkien again: Gollum is leading Frodo and Sam through the Dead Marshes and he warns them: don’t follow the lights. Good advice, as it turns out. The lights in our case being: the sudden appearance of a new character, the addition of unnecessary plot business (if you’re writing fantasy this may include: a map, a key, a prophecy, or a new bit of magic). There’s a very good chance that the answers to your mucky middle are already contained in the opening chapters. Have you searched them yet for clues?


  • Your novel might be floundering for want of a subplot. Keep in mind that a subplot needs to resonate with the plot. Consider your theme. Consider secondary characters and how they might reflect the main action. Make sure you’re not repeating the same conflicts over and over.


  • Have you lost focus? Try writing a logline for your novel. Write out an elevator pitch. Go back to the bare-bone essentials of the story and make sure you haven’t taken a wrong turn.


  • How well do you know your protagonist? Sometimes a book sinks in the mud because you have not yet mined your character for all the gold she’s hiding in her backstory: what she’s afraid of, what happened to her when she was a child, what big secret she’s hiding. Before you start throwing new characters into the mix, make sure you have taken the time to fully befriend your protagonist and see what she might show you.


  • Try this: write out a list of the plot points so far. Are they causally linked? Are they logical? Where should the story go next?


If you find yourself in total despair, it’s not a bad thing to set the novel aside, as long as you make a solemn promise to return to it. Novels are more like roasts than fried chicken. They need time. Chances are you will see where the story needs to go once you come back to it. But I warn you: this is risky. Momentum is so important when it comes to writing a novel. Step away for two months and it’s possible you won’t go back.


Why not enlist Trusted Reader to read the work you have to date? We all know who is, and who is not, Trusted Reader, right? Mom: no. Husband or wife: up to you, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Writer friend: yes. Friend who reads obsessively: yes. Writer/reader friend who is willing to tell you what you actually did when you were drunk: double yes.


Or: talk it out. This is a recent discovery for me and it’s huge. Make yourself say the whole thing out loud to Trusted Reader – even the parts you think might be dumb. Especially those parts. Because maybe they are dumb and you know it. When you force yourself to speak your story out loud you find out in a hurry where it’s working and where you’ve been fudging it and can fudge no longer.


If all else fails, go for a walk. I mean it. A long walk, by yourself, without an IPod. Bring a pen and a small notebook just in case. Walk for at least an hour. If nothing comes of it, go again the next day. And the day after that.


Go through the mines. Don’t follow the lights. You’ll find your way sooner or later.