Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Exercises to Reduce the Sagging Middle

You have a great idea for a story. You know how you’ll grab the attention of your readers and you have an idea how the story will end. Good for you! Now you have to write everything in between.

The “in between” is where a lot of writers run out of steam. I’ve talked with many would-be writers who gave up in the middle of the story because they became bored with it. What happened to that great ending? It, too, got lost in the “sagging middle.” Trust me. If you got bored writing it, your readers will get bored reading it.

Better to write a shorter story than one that drags on and on. No need to worry. With a little exercise, you can eliminate that sagging middle.

Photo Credit: Nancy Lininger
Here are five tips to get rid of that sagging middle:

1.       Flex your literary muscle. Write. The more you write, the better you will write. Read. The more you read, the more in tune you will become with techniques other writers use to keep the story moving. The middle is a great place to develop characters and subplots. It is a wonderful place to ramp up the tension you hope to resolve in your spectacular ending.

      Build on your core strength. What is central to your story? Don’t lose sight of your purpose. One way to do this is to write a single sentence that captures the essence of your story. If you start to wander off target, read that sentence. Remind yourself what this story is all about. Then ask yourself how you can get the story back on the right road.

Cut to the lean. Edit. Look long and hard at the story. Evaluate each section. Are you padding the story to get a word count? Is the story meandering or staying focused and on track? Is it moving? Edit. Cut. You don’t have to dispose of all those precious words you wrote. Put them in a file. Use them elsewhere. But don’t let them add fat to your already sagging middle here.

Avoid empty calories …uh…that is ….empty words. Make every word count. Read each paragraph. If you wrote ten sentences to say what you could say in three, you may need to join OverWriters Anonymous.

Okay, I made that up. There is no OverWriters Anonymous. If it existed, I would be president. I love words. I love descriptions of people and places. When I’m writing, I think about all the details. I ask questions like, “How could my character do that? She works.” Then I launch into explaining how my character was able to get the day off. Who cares? Say “Since she had the day off…”

Add a little weight and increase the tension. Keep your story interesting by ramping up the tension. Your characters disagree on an issue. Your protagonist receives bad news of impending doom. Your antagonist can rear his ugly head. The point is this: make sure the tension is going to make a satisfactory solution seem questionable and elusive yet all the more needed. You want your reader to feel what your characters feel and root for them.

I’m working on my own sagging the book, that is.  If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know this book is about a woman juggling the role of wife and mother while working as an assistant principal at an elementary school. When her aging mother begins to show signs of dementia, Karen struggles with what to do.

About 15,000 words in, I realized I was beginning to wander. I didn’t even know where I would go next. So I stopped writing for three days. I put the manuscript away. I read two novels. As I read them, I realized where I had gone awry.

I got bogged down with the details of Karen’s work. It was easy to do. I worked in an elementary school for twenty years. I had stories. But they don’t all need to wind up here.

I revisited my one sentence summary. I took it apart piece by piece. These are the details I need. Everything else is superfluous.

Karen is successful as a wife, mother, and assistant principal at Northbridge Elementary, so why is she indecisive and unsure about what steps she and her siblings should take to care for their aging mother?

I can explore the inner conflict Karen faces: selfishness vs. selflessness. I can explore the conflict she has with her older sister and younger brother. I can explore the progression of dementia and the steps available to caregivers. I need to look at the scenes in the middle. If they don’t feed those areas, they probably don’t need to be in the book.

After my three day hiatus, I read through my manuscript with fresh eyes. I began cutting the fat and adding to those places where the tension provided hints of events to come. I tightened and recast sentences to make the story more powerful. I don’t want to sound cliché and I don’t want to ramble. I want my words to count.

What do you do to avoid the sagging middle?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Writers are Like Cows

I recently joined two online writing groups. I liked the idea of accountability. The groups have the same goal: get writers writing. Both groups are set up for a one month stint.

The first group (I’ll call it Group A) is designed so that each member announces his or her word count goal at the beginning of the month. Each evening participants report via email how many words were written that day. Someone in some office somewhere compiles those emails and sends them to me as a single document the next day.

Thank you Jeff Goins for the art.
The second group (Group B) started on the premise that each person would shoot for 500 words per day. The creator of the group, Jeff Goins, set up a Facebook page for the group. Over 1600 people signed up. Jeff offers writing prompts for those who aren’t currently working on a project. Writers from all over the world check in daily.

The results?

Group A gets a daily word count and an occasional comment from participants. It feels distant and non-supportive.

Group B functions differently. People report their word count and offer what they’ve written. They supply links to their blogs. They tell their stories. They share their lives. People are making connections. They offer words of encouragement and prayer. They share experiences and advice.

And what are they writing? Well, they’re not all writing novels. Oh, a few of us are, but there are a number who are authoring blogs or writing their memoirs. Some are using writing as a therapeutic tool. Others are using it to preserve their family history. A few are into non-fiction writing. Some write short stories. We have writers of fantasy and sci-fi working beside writers of romance and devotionals.

Are they all “hitting the mark?” Yes. And no. Some are falling short of writing 500 words. They say it up front. “I didn’t meet my goal today.” That’s when positive comments from fellow writers rain down on them and assurances that they should “hang in there” leap off the page. Everyone knows it isn’t really about the number of words. It’s about actually writing. About turning the computer on or picking up the pen. It’s about getting started.

But many of us are typing away, getting caught up in our written world and at the end of the day realizing we exceeded the requisite 500 word count. I’m seeing new writers and experienced ones alike finding new energy in their writing. But I don’t think it is simply a matter of getting the words down that creates the energy. I think it is something bigger.

I’m going to use an illustration here. Don’t hit me. Don’t take offense. I grew up on a farm. My dad always told me that cows will eat better if they have another cow with them. They’ll feed out faster and produce more milk. Cows need community.

So I guess I’m saying writers are not the stereotypical “hole up in a lonely place for a year” people . Writers are like cows. We feed off of each other.

We need community.

And if the writer next to us is chomping through 1000 words a day, we start to see how we could maybe write 700.

Where do you find “community?” What watering hole gives you renewed energy? A writing group? An online group? Friends? Family? Let me know.

AND...Be sure to stay tuned…My first novel, Breathing on Her Own is due out in March. It will be available on I am planning a few special things to launch it and YOU will be the first to know.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Who is Karen?

Karen is the main character in my latest novel. The story is written from her point of view. Since this blog is intended to encourage others to write, I thought it might be helpful to share with you the process I used to come to “know” Karen.

I wanted Karen to be of an age where she would have a mother old enough to be going through the kind of dementia I intend to take her through in the story. Don’t misunderstand. I know dementia has no age boundaries and can happen to people who are younger than Karen’s mother, but statistics reveal (yep, they’re out there) that the aging process brings with it more likelihood of dementia.

I decided Karen’s mother was seventy-four. Initially I had her at sixty-nine –too young to have to go through this but old enough for it to be possible. When I gave Karen siblings, I bumped Granny’s age up a bit, and then to make her next birthday (which takes place during the story) a big deal, I decided on seventy-four. I haven’t told the rest of my characters yet, but I think they’re planning a big celebration for her seventy-fifth.

After considerable thought, I made Karen the middle child. That will be helpful I’ll be able to help my readers understand her through some of the interactions she has with her siblings.

I placed Karen at fifty. I have a few things in mind for her now that she’s reached the big 5-0. I also knew I wanted Karen and her hubby, Bill, to have a son who still lives at home. They only have the one child. Sorry, Karen. I know you wanted more, but this turns out to be a good thing for me since I can’t handle too many family members on the page at the same time.

How old was she when she had her son? How old is her son? He could be young and full of energy or perhaps he’s a teenager with plans of his own. I’ve lived through those years. Is there a story here? She could have had a previous marriage with no children. She and Bill could have married later or put off having children until their careers were in place.

Mrs. Davis
 Assistant Principal
After much thought, I made her son eighteen-years-old. She was thirty-two when he was born. And yes, there is a story. Karen and Bill tried for three years to have a child. After several emotionally draining miscarriages, they gave up. Then six years later, Matthew William Davis, their miracle child was born.

I already know Karen is going to wrestle with issues surrounding care for her mother. It’s the crux of my story. Initially, I gave Karen a job as the administrative assistant at a local elementary school. The benefits were pretty good, but it was a job she could take or leave without much thought. So I promoted her. I decided instead, she had been a teacher and is now an assistant principal. She has ideas. Plans. She loves her work. A couple of principals in her school district are retiring this next year. Karen has high hopes to be named as Northbridge’s building Principal for the forthcoming year.

I know quite a bit about Karen. I know where she went to college, how she met her husband, her favorite foods, what she likes to do in her free time, and where she goes to church. Is all of this in the story? No. But it could show up. I put all of it on the excel spreadsheet so I can keep my facts straight. Can I change it? Of course. 

How do you create your characters? What do you need to keep in mind as you write your own story?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Start Writing!

This is where I left off last week:

I’m starting work on my third book.

It’s the story of Karen, who finds herself in the middle –middle age, middle child, and now in the middle of dealing with her aging mother. Dementia? Couldn’t be. But Mimi, as she’s known to her family, is not herself lately. She makes Karen promise to never let anyone put her in a nursing home. Can Karen keep that promise as Mimi becomes more and more disoriented?

The idea has been taking shape for a while. I know people who deal with these issues. My daughter and I had some interesting discussions about Alzheimer’s following a research project she completed.

But what, exactly, is Karen’s story? I started by laying down a story line. I wanted more than a description of day-to-day living. True, everyday life with someone who has dementia is fraught with tension, but I need something more.

I began talking with people in the “sandwich” generation –those who care for a parent while still raising a child. More tension. I gave Karen a nineteen-year-old son who still lives at home.

Family disagreements and stress seem to also be common factors for people finding themselves in this dilemma. I could see from the start, this project would have a family of characters to develop and weave into Karen’s story.

Finally, I decided, Karen’s story is bound with her mother’s story. It is a story of faith and determination. It is a story of core strength, love, and commitment. It is a story of how one woman finds her passion and dreams fulfilled by becoming the woman God intended.

I started writing. That seems to be the hardest part for writers. Starting. I gave myself interim assignments.

·      Write at least 500 words the first day then draft eight to ten scenes to carry my story through to the end.
·      Write at least 500 words and create a spreadsheet of the characters I think I need on the second.
·      Write at least 500 more words the third day of writing then make a list of the ten worst things that could happen to my character.

By the time I finished the first three days of writing, I figured I would have 1500 words and a strong sense of direction for the book.

Wrong. But in a good way.

The First Days of Writing
Photo by Ingrid Sunberg
By the end of three days, I had eight scenes drafted on story cards.  This will help me stay on track as I write. I can actually draft the scenes, and although they may change, I know where I am heading and write from one scene to the next.

I created a spreadsheet with my characters, their ages, jobs, relationships, and a few quirks. I know I’ll add to that as I bring other people into the Karen’s life. By the way, to decide on names for these characters, I searched the internet for the most popular names for the years I determined they were born.

I have eleven “worst case scenarios” for Karen. I may or may not use all of these, but I like having them available for those times when my story starts to drag. A little tension may put stress on my characters, but it will keep me and my readers happy.

The outcome? I became so engaged in the story, in the first three days I wrote 8747 words toward its completion.

I now have 11, 973 words down and Karen’s story is beginning to take on a life of its own.


So how is your writing going? What projects do you have in the wings? What tools do you use to kick start your writing? Let’s share ideas and help each other in the process.

Next week I'll tell you a bit more about Karen. Invite your friends to join the journey. If you have ever thought about writing a book, or ever wondered how a novel comes about…join me here. Be sure to sign up for email notifications. Your email is not shared with anyone (even I don't see them) but each week when I post, you will be notified.