Category Archives: Rewriting

Wading Through the Muddy Middles

Even with a fantastic opening hook and an explosive inciting incident, many stories spend time slogging through the “muddy middles.” As the name suggests, the middles are the time part way through act two where the story no longer benefits from the momentum of the inciting incident, but also hasn’t reached the point where it is drawn forward by the climax. This sag in tension is a dangerous time for any story as it allows the reader to put the book down. Therefore, deciding how to draw your audience through the middles is an essential part of any plotting.

If you ask a dozen authors how to best navigate the middles, you will often get fourteen answers. In truth, the “best” method depends on what sort of story you are trying to tell and what are the strongest emotional draws for your audience. Rather than listing all the possibilities, I’ll focus my discussion on four techniques that I think can be used in a variety of different stories.

Many thrillers and action/adventure stories will bridge the middles with a series of explosive scenes. By doing so, the author simplifies their task to propelling the reader from scene to scene rather than from initiating event to climax. As the reader progresses through the story, the duration between action sequences should shrink. This gives the illusion of accelerating right up into the climax.

Consider as an example the action/adventure film John Wick. The introduction and inciting incident occur in the first fifteen minutes of the movie and the climax occurs at roughly one hour and fifteen minutes. Taken at a very high level, what happens during the hour between those two points? First, there is a period of milieu and character work to establish the character of John Wick and the rest of the world. Then there is a beating delivered by the big bad and the big bad’s first try/fail cycle to resolve the issue without violence. This is followed by a gun fight, a short period of world exploration, a gun fight, a brief pause for recovery, a fist fight, a briefer pause for a few wise cracks, a gun fight, a yet briefer pause in which John Wick sets some stuff on fire, and once again a gun fight that ends in a capture sequence. John then escapes captivity and dives straight into the climax of the movie. The tension is not allowed to slacken for a moment because John is near constantly either in danger and/or kicking some ass.

Though the thriller model is effective, it won’t work universally. After all, mystery audiences won’t be satisfied by explosions and flying fists. Instead, they are looking for intellectual stimulation. However, it isn’t enough to simply give them a puzzle. As the story continues, they need to feel as if they are coming closer to the solution. The key here is to ensure that each new answer they find along the way complicates the puzzle by being either incomplete, misleading, or raising yet more questions. The best, recent example I can think of to illustrate this style of plotting is the movie Arrival. Don’t worry about spoilers. Unlike John Wick (2014), Arrival (2016) is still new enough that I will only speak in broad strokes.

I believe that the story of Arrival works as well as it does because everyone goes into a first contact story expecting an overt conflict between humanity and the aliens. However, twists this trope on its head, which is intriguing in and of itself. The main story is a mystery driven by the question, “What do the aliens want?” Along the way, we the audience are given pieces of the puzzle in such a way that they don’t all come together until the very end. This plotting structure latches onto our fundamental human curiosity and pulls us forward with the illusion of progress towards getting an ultimate answer.

Where action/adventure plots seek to satisfy a sense of physicality and mysteries work to stimulate intellectual curiosity, romances play on the human need for connection. Will our point of view character be able to woo their paramour? Can our protagonist choose between two appealing, yet opposing romantic interests? How will our two (or more) romantic leads be able to overcome whatever forces hold them apart and end the story together? No matter the details, the drive is still the same. Will our protagonist(s) be able to achieve their need for connection? As such, we writers need to maintain tension by repeatedly denying our characters, and by proxy the readers, the connection they desire. We can do this in two major ways.

First is by introducing conflict internal to the relationship. By giving the romantic interests compelling personal conflicts and reservations, you allow them to stand in the way of their own happiness. It’s important to note that the reasons holding your characters apart need to be fundamental to their character, something substantial enough that it can withstand several try/fail cycles and significant enough that it poses a legitimate threat to the relationship. An example of this technique can be found in the early relationship between Eve Dallas and Roarke in Naked in Death by JD Robb. During her investigation of a sensitive homicide, Lieutenant Dallas meets Roarke and sparks fly. She feels conflicted because she can’t eliminate him as a suspect in her case, but also increasingly can’t deny her developing feelings for him. Her gut tells her that Roarke is innocent, but she can’t prove it. Robb draws us through the romantic arc by having Dallas’ blooming feelings clash with her sense of duty.

The second option is to introduce some element of external conflict, where your romantic interests strive together to try to overcome a barrier from outside the relationship. Again whatever the threat is, it needs to be big enough to possibly end the relationship. Twenty three books later in Innocent in Death, Robb introduces one of Roarke’s old girlfriends into the storyline to give Eve an extra emotional complication on top of her homicide investigation. The ex-girlfriend’s presence causes friction between Eve and Roarke and in so doing threatens their, by then well established, relationship. In both cases, the emotional distance between the characters drives our readers forward; they want to make sure that Eve and Roarke end up together.

It is important to note that though all the techniques I have described are different, they all appeal to the readers’ emotional draws. Ultimately, we need to ensure that our readers are always having fun, even when the momentum slows. Lucky for us, writers start their careers as fans of their genre. We know what fun is for the genre and our own enjoyment can serve as a metric for how well we are achieving that goal. Granted, this doesn’t hold true for the twenty seventh edit where you brains are leaking out of your ears. Rather, how much fun are you having in the moment of drafting? How much do you enjoy reading your story after letting it rest for a time? If you as the writer aren’t having fun, chances are that your readers will feel much the same way.

So if you ever find yourself drafting your manuscript and just slogging through a slow section, take a moment to step back and reevaluate. Why aren’t you having fun? Is there something about this scene you can change to make it more appealing? Does this scene really need to be here or in the book at all? You don’t always have the luxury of changing or dropping a scene. Sometimes you just need to power through it and fix the problem in editing. However, writing should be a joy. If you aren’t having a good time, it’s okay to take a step back and find ways to make your story more awesome.

Cleansing With Fire

I hear from other authors or prospective authors that nothing is quite as intimidating as a blank page.

I won’t speak for everyone, but this simply isn’t the case for me. I love a blank page. A blank page represents the infinitely possible. A blank page represents freedom. When I have a blank page, I can fill the thing with whatever I want. It’s hope, it’s potential beauty, it’s raw creative space. I love a blank page.

For me, there’s nothing quite as intimidating as a page filled with a terrible story that I have written.

You see, sitting down and drafting is easy. It’s the thing we all love to do. It’s the funnest part of writing a thing. It’s what makes NaNoWriMo so popular (and so problematic for some) Throwing down raw, fat word counts is, without a doubt, simply a joy.

Fixing a broken story? That’s hard.

So, let me take you back to the fall of 2015. I’m writing this story for a little anthology called Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and Magic. I’m not going to lie–the call for this thing was weird. My task was to write a story wherein “close is good enough.” That’s a really esoteric theme, and I know I’m not the only author that struggled with it.

See, I got this idea in my head. A thief breaks into a vault and then has to use the enchanted items therein to get back out, only he has no clue what those items do. Sounds like a fun little story, right?

Nope. Nightmare.

I ended up with about four thousand words of me repeating the same joke over and over again as told from the persepective of a main character that, by virtue of this joke, had almost no agency. It. Was. Terrible. I haven’t drafted a story this bad since high school. I gave it a day, read the thing, and cringed.

My wife, who usually takes the second pass on our stories, tried to calm me down. She’s a lovely woman, and her initial reaction was “Frog, you say everything is terrible when you write it.” And she’s right, but I tried to impress on her how much I really meant it, this time. Still, she insisted that she should read it and take the second pass, as is our normal wont.

I don’t actually think she finished that first read. Very, very quickly she returned, and this time with a different attitude.

“Okay, this time you’re right,” she said. “It sucks.”

Now, we’re all going to have off days. We’re all going to muff it a time or two. Nobody hits a home run every time they step up the the plate. Insert failure platitude of choice here.

But I want you to learn from my mistake. Screwing up the initial draft was bad, but not unforgivable. It’s what I did next that really sets this baby apart in the annals of Frog’s terrible mistakes. It’s my response to writing this malformed chunk of text that marks this experience as being just slightly worse than trying to shave my beard with a cheese grater.

I tried to fix it.

I spent a month. An entire month’s worth of writing time. An entire month during which I could have been working on a novel, or churning out four other short stories. No, I threw good time after bad, and I tried to polish this turd until it shone. I tweaked the language, I moved paragraphs about, I tried everything I could think of to make the story readable, but nothing I tried worked. You know why? Because it was a bad story. It wasn’t bad writing, it wasn’t bad grammar or bad structure. It was a bad story. No matter how I told it, it was going to suck. But I latched onto the thing like a weight and let it drag all of my writing goals down with me for a month.

It was my wife that saved me. After a month went by, you know what she did? She handed me a blank page. She sat me down and told me to stop thinking about the way I had written the story, and to start completely over from my original concept.

Two days later, the story was written, revised, and sent to the editor. It’s still got the same core concept as the original version, but this time it also has a story. You know, a whole plot arc, with dialogue and motivations and all that jazz that we put into stories that make them not suck. This second version is good; I’m actually pretty proud of it.

But mostly, when I did a reading of it at the last convention I appeared at, it made me think of that full month of pain in the fall of 2015 where I refused to cleanse a bad story with fire. Learn from my mistake, oh ye reader of writing blogs. Learn that sometimes, when you just can’t find a way to fix what you’ve done, the best thing to do is burn it to the ground and get yourself one of those blank pages everyone keeps talking about.

Trashing Your Novel Might be the Only Way to Save It

PhoenixHappy New Year!

As we discuss new beginnings this month, I’m talking about those times when you must begin at the beginning – again – when to decide to throw away your novel and start over.

It’s a scary idea to consider for any writer, no matter how experienced. We slave over our work, sometimes for years, pouring our heart and soul into our new creation. It’s like our baby, a precious part of our identity.

So when do we kill it?

The answer to that question is kind of a sliding scale. As new authors, it can be a shock to realize that revisions are necessary, that we have to cut and chop and operate and rebuild our story, perhaps several times. At a minimum, some of those precious little nuggets we’ve worked into our story might have to get chopped as we refine and perfect the story. Other times, we have to cut and change more, making some fundamental shifts in our plot, characters, setting, etc.

And occasionally, we have to throw it all away and start over. In these cases, it’s usually because the story we thought we were telling was the wrong story. Or our skills as developing writers just wasn’t up to par with the story we were trying to tell, and there are such critical flaws in the story that it’s simply not going to work.

In those cases, to save the story, we must kill it. Like a phoenix, the story might only live to be amazing only through the ashes of its previous life.

I know what I’m talking about. I’m arguably the king of the phoenix. My first novel – the four-year, three-hundred-thousand-word monstrosity that I was convinced was going to take the world by storm – wasn’t. I cut my teeth as a writer on that story, and I still love it. A big, fat, epic fantasy that had some amazing elements, but was not a professional-level product. It simply was not going to work.

The day I realized that was a dark day. I faced a choice, as we always do when facing revisions of every kind. Either cling to my pride and embrace that parental impulse to protect this precious story I had worked so very hard for so very long to produce. It’s understandable, but that approach would have guaranteed the story never succeeded.

Or – kill the story and start over. That’s what I did. I threw it away (really should have held a solemn ceremony with a huge bonfire in the back yard). Then I started over. Page One.

I took the elements that had been good – some of the worldbuilding, some of the characters, etc. And I redesigned an entirely new story. It was a painful process, but it was also amazing and awesome because the resulting story was ten times better. I will likely release it this year.

You’d think after all of that, I’d know how to write a first draft that was mostly good and only needed minor revisions.

Nope. Not me.

Set in StoneMy second book – Set in Stone – book one of my popular YA fantasy series – suffered its own issues. I actually outlined this story to the Nth degree in the hopes of a near-perfect first draft. Problem was, I was outlining the wrong story. By the third draft, I realized there were fundamental flaws with it.

So I chopped about 80% of that novel and rewrote it again. The result was amazing. I added the humor, which is such a big part of the series. And I plunged deep into the unique magic system and added several new characters, which are some of the most popular characters in the series. If I had clung to the original draft, the story would have tanked and I would have wasted an entire world and years of effort.

So shredding that story and rebuilding it again was the only way to save it. Phoenix number Two a success.

Just about every other novel I’ve written has also required massive rewrites. Maybe you’re smarter than me or better skilled and your stories don’t require such overhauls. But don’t hold back. The story is what matters, and first drafts are sometimes a process of discovering what your story’s heart really is. Rewrites are when you get to polish the story and craft it to perfection to make that heart really shine.

This week, I’m enjoying a rare writing retreat where I’ll be diving into edits on my next Facetakers time travel thriller. I’m not expecting to need such in-depth rewrites, but as I get into the revision process, I’ll do what it takes to make the story shine.

The story deserves it. My fans deserve it. So I do the work.

I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
No Stone UnturnedFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers sci-fi time travel thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Writing Ideas for 2017

Welcome to 2017! Hopefully it will be a much better one than 2016.

The start of a new year brings up plenty of resolutions that normally last a few weeks. This is useful for folks who want to pick up discounted exercise equipment on Craigslist, but it’s not as good for authors. If only one could pick up dozens of first drafts for a few cents a pound!

For 2017, let’s see what we can do to kickstart your writing goals.

Finish Your NaNoWriMo Novel

Instead of ignoring that disjointed first draft hidden away on your hard drive, why not go through the manuscript and map out what is needed to make it a can’t-put-it-down book. Add in plenty of notes [I like to use square brackets] to help give you some direction. Because I write using Notepad++ so I don’t get distracted by formatting, I like to pull out chunks of my prose and place it in Scrivener. This helps me to organize it, especially if I’m using a template that has either beats or outline recommendations.

Yes, your inner editor will be screaming in horror, but now is the time to let her loose to sort out that manuscript. There’s no rush! Focus on what is missing and what you have. With any luck, you’re halfway towards a viable novel. Don’t waste your efforts from pounding the keyboard all through November.

Dig Out Your Trunk Manuscripts

You know those short stories, novellas, and even novels that are sitting in a (possibly virtual) box, gathering bits of dust? Why not go through them and see if you can spot why they didn’t sell. After all, you have plenty of experience under your belt from 2016, so you’re further along in your writing development. Try either tweaking them or, if needed, doing a complete rewrite if the foundational ideas were solid. You already put a lot of work into it, so try to make that time count for something.

Learn To Play the “What If?” Game

One of the most-asked questions I get when I’m on panels at conventions is “How do you come up with ideas for a story?” The answer I give is to play the “What If?” game.

If you’re watching the news, wasting your time on Facebook, or even driving down the street, you can find plenty of ideas for stories. All you have to do is to ask some questions about what you’re observing. Most of my short stories come from playing this game. For example, I saw a school bus in front of me with a bunch of rowdy kids. I asked “What if…the driver was a homicidal maniac who has had enough of these brats?” The answer was my flash fiction story, Steaks, which has been published and reprinted six times.

Another example is a short story I co-wrote with Kevin J. Anderson, which was published in the Unidentified Funny Objects 3 anthology. My “what if?” question came about because I was looking through some classic literature on Project Gutenberg’s website. I asked, “What if all of the recognized classics were written by one person?” After some further thought, that person would have to be immortal, so I went with Dracula as the story concept. After discussing it with Kevin, we came up with the story outline and wrote the project together. “The Fate Worse than Death” was picked as a notable short story in Tangent Online’s 2014 Recommended Reading List.

It Still Comes Down to BICHOK

I’ve given you three possible ideas to start something new (even if it’s on the bones of some earlier work), but it still requires you to focus on BICHOK — Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. No matter what, you’re going to have to write (or dictate, which I’m switching to.) If you decide to write just 200 words, which is less than a quarter of this Fictorians post, at the end of 2017 you’ll have a full-sized novel. You are the one that has to decide how you want 2017 to end…either wishing you wrote a novel, or working on editing and publishing your new book.

I hope it’s the latter.



About the Author:
DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.