The Muddle in the Middle: Finishing Your Novel or Memoir (A Cautionary Tale, With Tips)

Stuck in the middle. Photo by Yann Allegre on Unsplash

Last night, I had the lovely opportunity to hear Jacqueline Woodson speak at Portland Arts and lectures. She was fabulous, for me the best of a stellar series that included Tara Westover, Tayari Jones, Jill Lepore, and Jennifer Egan.

Woodson spoke of her life and her writing and recited from memory the openings of a couple of her books. (Astounding!)

But what captured my attention was when she talked about one aspect of the writing process. Specifically, how there comes a point in the middle of every book when she gives up. When she doesn’t think she can do it. When she’s stuck. She says this happens to every writer with every book every time. I shrank in my seat a bit. Because she might as well have been pointing the finger of shame at me.

I’m approaching the halfway point on my current novel, eleven chapters in. And for the past week, I’ve been stuck. Just…stuck. I know what the next scene is to write, but I’ve not been able to do it. I’ve been floundering.

Just like Woodson said.

But here’s the funny part. A year ago in March I went on a writing retreat in France for a month. (Yes, you can be jealous. It was amazing.) During that time, I wrote, you guessed it, eleven chapters of a novel. And then I got stuck. Just…stuck. I decided I hated that novel and set it aside.

So this year when I’m stuck on Chapter Eleven, what do I decide to do? The only logical thing, of course — go back to the novel from last year that’s sitting half-finished. I’m going on a retreat next week, and I’d almost one hundred percent convinced myself to do that.

And then I heard Woodson speak. There’s nothing to do but gut it out and finish the book, she said. (I’m paraphrasing.) Because if you don’t, you’ll be a person with a bunch of half-finished novels in the drawer. (Emphasis mine.)

Boo-yah. Got me.

I am not going to go back to the half-finished novel from last year until I am finished with the current one. For real. I’m not. This morning I actually pushed forward and was able to write.

So, what can you do if you are stuck in the muddle in the middle and ready to abandon ship? Below are several tried and true ways to carry on. (As a long-time writing teacher and coach, I know these things. I do. But I am not always able to do them for myself.)

Go back through the chapters you have written so far. Make a scene outline to remind yourself what has happened so far. Include characters, location, time. Also make notes on seeds you can carry through. Next week on my writing retreat, this is what I’m going to do first, to help me move forward.

Write the end. It doesn’t have to be written perfectly. It doesn’t even have to be a fully realized scene, unless you want it to be. Write it in sketchy synopsis form. But knowing the end will help you point towards it from the middle. You’ll know what threads and throughlines you need to resolve and those should give you ideas for scenes.

Write badly. Make it terrible. Make it awful. Just get words on the page to carry you over the hump. As mentioned above, write a sketchy synopsis if you need to. Just write something.

Free write. Take the last line you wrote and use it as a prompt. Set a timer and write for 15–20 minutes without stopping. You can write about the next scene, or you can actually start writing the scene, whatever your hand leads you to do. Or use a character’s name or desire as a prompt. Or a setting. Or theme.

Review your prep work. Look over the pieces you wrote that aren’t part of the actual narrative. I’m talking about character dossiers, setting descriptions, and so on — anything you wrote to help yourself understand the world of the book. This can often give you ideas to move forward.

So those are my hints and I hope they help you. One more thing. Jacqueline Woodson has written and published thirty books. I’d say she’s conquered the muddle in the middle.

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Novelist, writing teacher, coach. Workshops in France, Portland, and virtually. Sign up for weekly love letters and get a free Ebook:

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