Julie Artz | author, editor, book coach, dragon

[Wyrd Words Weekly] Four techniques for navigating the messy middle

Published about 2 months ago • 5 min read

Hello Reader,

When I dig into a new story, I always go through a honeymoon period where I'm so excited about the idea that I've forgotten just how tricky writing that zero draft can be. During this honeymoon phase, the ideas come at me faster than I can type them up and sometimes I even get what my family calls "story brain," when I get caught staring at the wall thinking about my story when I'm supposed to be talking to them or getting myself ready or really doing any number of other things besides obsessing about my story.

But, in writing as in life, the honeymoon has to end at some point. Then I venture from the joy of that initial phase into the dreaded murky middle. I arrived at the murky middle of my novel last week, after sending Act 1 off to some first readers and getting the kind of feedback that I literally printed out and taped to my wall. It's almost like my subconscious knew I was headed for murky waters.

Now the story's real, partially on the page. I know how great the characters are while at the same time understanding how tricky it's going to be to fulfill the big promise I made in the opening of the book. And I'm desperate to finish this zero draft so that I can get back into my comfort zone, which is revision.

Part of the reason I often try to fast draft (either during NaNoWriMo or, as I'm doing now, just giving myself a deadline in Scrivener that calculates a daily word count for me) is because I know this about myself--that I'll get bogged down in the murky middle, whining that I'd rather just revise something I haven't even managed to draft yet.

I tell you all this embarrassing stuff about my process because I suspect I'm not alone in getting bogged down in the murky middle. And as much as I'm doing a little healthy procrastinating (color-coding my Scrivener Corkboard, if you must know), I know I can get through to the other side because I've done it...*checks memory banks* seven times before.

But what if this is your first novel?
Or if you've been stuck for a while now and feel like you're never going to get to the other side?

Although I'm not going to encourage you to give up, I'm also not the type to encourage you to "just push through" and suffer when things aren't working. That's capitalism's hustle culture for you, and it's the opposite of a joy-inducing creative process.

So instead, here are four tips that have helped me get through the messy middle in the past. I hope they help you as well.

Get Out of Your Head for a While

Give yourself permission to do a little of that healthy procrastinating while you percolate on what comes next...Sometimes the reason your forward progress has slowed is not because of a fatal flaw in your story, but because you've learned new information about your characters.

While I was drafting Act 1 of my story, I added two new POV characters, several unexpected side characters, and the arcs of two of the important side characters changed dramatically. That changed the trajectory of my story in a very real way and it took some time for me to integrate that into my vision for the story.

So read a book. Knit a scarf. Binge-watch a show (I binged Severance this week--isn't it delightfully trippy?). Take a walk. Do all of those things. And then come back with fresh eyes.

Craft Your Messy Synopsis

I've written about how I use my messy synopsis for novel planning over on Substack, but that messy synopsis doesn't go in a drawer as soon as I start drafting. In fact, it's a living document that I revisit when I hit every major turning point in my story. First, I update the part of the story I've already written so that the synopsis matches the actuals.

As I mentioned above, this week that involved adding some new characters and changing some others. Then of course I had to carry that change through my remaining synopsis. I don't have every single question answered, but I have enough now that I've got a plan for Act 2 and can start drafting.

Get Some Fresh Eyes

If you're plugging away on your messy synopsis and still feeling stuck, it may be time to take it to your critique group or a trusted writing pal. My critique group was full of helpful advice, questions, and suggestions that got my creative juices flowing again so I feel well-prepared to tackle Act 2 now.

Don't have one? Well, you're in luck because I'm running a special March edition of CP Meet Cute, my free critique partner matching service. There's nothing in the rules that says your ten page swap with your cohort can't be a messy synopsis.

Try a New Craft Technique

When I get stuck in the murky middle, sometimes trying a new craft technique helps me think about my story in a new way. If you're anything like me, you probably have an unread craft book or two laying around your house. Check out Jane Friedman's blog for a new way of thinking of whatever aspect of story is blocking you in this moment. Even if it feels outlandish, even if you've tried it in the past, give it a whirl and see if it gets the synapses firing again.

Of course, I'll be walking you through three new techniques in next month's Craft Magic Webinar as well...

Revision Revolution: the Reverse Outline, is March 18. It's all about Reverse Outlining, which is an outline you create after you've written a first draft (or a partial draft, as the case may be).

Register for this affordable $25 webinar, which will be recorded for those who can't attend live on March 18 at 4pm Pacific:

Hope to see you there!

What I'm Reading

If you DON'T have a pile of unread craft books on your bookshelf already, check out this little gem from Ursula K Le Guin, Steering the Craft. I love Ursula K Le Guin not only for her imaginative world-building, but for her prolific career at a time when speculative fiction was, like so many things, mostly the realm of the Patriarchy.

While you won't need her line-level advice until the later stages of revisions, there are some great exercises sprinkled throughout this book that might help you get unstuck simply because they are working on line-level form. So distract yourself from the big picture for a while, dig in at the line level, and pay homage to one of the great rebel leaders of our time.

If you try all of these things and are still slogging through the murky middle alone and in despair, maybe it's time to consider working with a book coach. Writing can be a lonely journey, but you don't have to take it alone! Reach out today.



Julie Artz | author, editor, book coach, dragon

Julie Artz helps writers who dream of a life spent telling stories that matter slay their doubt demons so they can send their work out into the world with confidence. An active member of the writing community, she has volunteered for SCBWI, TeenPit, and Pitch Wars and is a member of EFA, the Authors Guild, and AWP. A social and environmental justice minded story geek, Julie lives in an enchanted forest outside of Seattle, Washington, with her husband, two strong-willed teenagers, and a couple of naughty furry familiars. Check out her weekly newsletter, Wyrd Words Weekly, and subscribe today.

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