Anyone who embarks upon writing a novel has probably heard of the swamp that awaits you in the middle section. You’ve been warned, you know all about what to expect. But no matter if this is your first novel or your fifth, you are probably thinking one of two things: this time it won’t happen, or it won’t happen to you.
Forget it. It will. Every time.
Outline or no outline, forewarned or not. You will hit the swamp. And you will feel, as writing guru Chuck Wendig puts it so perfectly, like an old man lost at the mall. You’ll sit at the food fair for days. You won’t remember where you parked your car, or if you even have a car.
See, unless you’re one of those writers who outlines every scene in advance, chances are you’ve left some bits TFOL (To Figure Out Later). Except that when later arrives, you discover you still haven’t figured them out. And that beautiful house of cards that is your novel comes crashing down.
Or, you figure the thinnish story you started out with is bound to gain weight sooner or later. Except it doesn’t. And by the time you hit the middle you realize your thin story has turned into no story at all. Possibly because you don’t have a subplot.
But, say you do have a subplot. Foolproof, right? Not necessarily. Because sometimes you wander down that long and winding subplot and it leads you to an unexpected (and obviously brilliant) tangent, and then to another tangent, which introduces you to new characters who have WAY better stories than that poor dull protagonist you started out with. And suddenly your novel seems so much better. Except it’s also a mess.
Beware the weird intrusions of business in your story: the map that seems like such a good idea, the arrival of a new character, or – wait – your protagonist CAN speak Chinese. Next thing you know…yup, there’s the food fair.
But it might not be the subplot. You might have wandered down the darkened hallway known as backstory which, oddly enough, turns out to be way more interesting than the story you thought you were telling. Until you realize that the whole novel is being told in flashback, and you’ve put your underwear on over your pants, and what are you doing at the food fair again?
It’s going to happen. I don’t know how to prepare you, other than to say: take a deep breath. Rethink your outline. Start again. You almost always have to start again anyway, and it will be a lot easier if you don’t fight it.