Justine: Getting Back on the Writing Horse

sagging middle, writing again, eight ladies writing, justine covingtonIn the month of May (and continuing here on into June), I sort of fell off the ‘ol Writing Horse. It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t want to not write. But with kids finishing school, a trip to England, and a serious sagging middle in my book, it didn’t happen.

Okay, the sagging middle was probably the biggest reason for me not writing. I was stuck. My story had gotten boring. And I needed to fix it.

So what IS a sagging middle? Besides the paunch on that hairy guy at the beach. Eew…

The sagging middle is the unexciting connection between the exciting beginning and exciting end. You start of writing a story and you go like gangbusters. You’re enthused. You have great ideas. There’s conflict. You know how the story is going to end, too. That’s also super-exciting.

But somewhere between the beginning and end, something happens. Or, more appropriately, something doesn’t happen. That’s the sagging middle.

I’m going to use a little first aid analogy to describe it better. The sagging middle is the surgery that gets us from the point at which your arm is cut off until it is sewn back on again in a remarkable feat of laser surgery. So, in an exciting opening event in our book, your arm is cut off! Blood gushing! Losing consciousness! You may die! Then along comes a surgeon. He puts you under, tinkers with your blood vessels, muscles, and bones, then reattaches the old arm using fantastic, eye-popping laser surgery! Done. And BORING.

What we want before the surgeon are aliens out to clone the human race using YOUR ARM as their cloning tool! After all, you’re the space scientist who discovered them. You have to stay conscious and fight off the aliens. One-armed! What you didn’t know is the aliens were in a pact with a band of flesh-eating zombies, so after eradicating the aliens, the zombies come after you (and the surgeon) on your way to the hospital. You must fight your way through them, then use newly found powers of telepathy (which you got from the aliens before you got rid of them), to keep the  zombies out of the O.R. The surgeon performs the eye-popping laser surgery, terrified of the zombies and ready to dash out of there, but your telepathy has him trapped, which results in a super-arm that eradicates the zombies and saves the world.

Okay. So maybe that was a bad example. But what did I do between the arm coming off and it being reattached? I added conflict.

Sometimes, as writers, we’re inclined to remove conflict where we have a sagging middle, but that’s actually the last thing you should do. The middle is where you have to up the stakes. To create more tension. To make success even sweeter and failure even more grave.

This was the problem with the middle of my story. Susannah leaves London, heading for Dover, to go to France and claim her inheritance. Nate catches up with her, they give each other a hard time, then Nate gets her to agree to a pretend marriage. Yippy skippy. There’s nothing threatening about that, except Susannah being discovered by her uncle, and even that didn’t seem so dire. So I had to up the stakes a bit:

  • Susannah, who has already turned down Nate’s real offer of marriage, wants to change her answer, so she goes to his house only to find…
  • He’s off with his mistress. She’s pissed, and so is Juliana, Nate’s sister, who convinces her to spend the night with her (instead of an inn) to spite Nate. The next morning, Susannah takes off for Dover to get to France, where she can access her money when she turns 21, but…
  • She realizes a man is following her, and fearing he’s been sent by her uncle, she abandons her things in one carriage and jumps into another, headed for Rye, where…
  • She proposes to marry in name only the son of the man who leads one of the largest, most powerful smuggling rings in England, giving him half her fortune in exchange for transportation to Paris, but…
  • Nate has spies planted throughout Kent, who discover what she’s doing, and before she can marry and leave England, she’s taken under cover of night by one of Nate’s men, right under the nose of the smuggling king, after which…
  • Nate reveals himself and the real reason he’s been courting Susannah (no mistress! he’s a spy!), and gets her to agree to marry him for pretend until he finds the evidence against her uncle and she turns 21, but…
  • The smuggling king wants his money one way or another and is going to come after Nate and Susannah (not sure on the details yet…maybe he collaborates with her uncle), and…
  • Her uncle is still after her, too.

Once I get the smuggling king part worked out, the rest of what I have should fall into place. It’s not long after Nate and Susannah return to London that her uncle goes on the offensive and accuses Nate of treason and of compromising his niece, getting him arrested.

I’ll admit that the trip to England was a huge inspiration for the smuggling part. To keep it lively and not sagging, I have to keep everyone moving, making decisions to help them achieve their goals, while throwing roadblocks at the other characters. You know…conflict.

So what sorts of roadblocks (or rocks or boulders) have you thrown at your characters lately to eradicate the sagging middle?

8 thoughts on “Justine: Getting Back on the Writing Horse

  1. Ooh, Smuggling King, Justine! The only problem I see there is that I like the sound of him already. If he’s interesting, I’m going to want him to have a book of his own, and you already have lots of other books planned out. Unless you make him a black-toothed, pox-faced nightmare, I suppose. Can’t wait to find out!

    • Or he could be a recurring character, and have a very long, slow character (and even secondary romantic) arc throughout the course of several books, tying the series together. This is the approach I’m taking with my Dowager Duchess, although she will get a novella to wrap up her own story at the end of the series (or so goes the plan :-)).

    • Wow, I hadn’t thought of him as being even remotely nice, or being a recurring character. I’ll have to chew on that. I had intended to model him after the Hawkhurst Gang, which was busy in the 1730s-40s. I should add “notorious” before their name, too. They were not nice people. I was inspired (probably the wrong word) after reading this account of some of their exploits. http://www.smuggling.co.uk/gazetteer_se_19.html#barbarous_usage

      That doesn’t mean I don’t change him. But right now, he’s pretty nasty.

  2. Sounds fun and, just as important, it’s in line with the other stuff you have going on. As far as middles–I’m still trying to work out the beginning of my next book.

  3. I’m working on upping my word count from 40,000 to 100,000. My middle isn’t there yet, mainly because I haven’t figured out how Sarah and Finch are going to get from point A to point B. Must figure out! I like the sound of yours. I look forward to reading it.

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