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Middle of the book: Keep energy up!

I’ve read books that start so well I think contentedly, Ah, this one I’m going to like; but fifty or seventy-five pages in the prose goes flat, the plot grows confusing or boring, and I close the book in disappointment.

Yet as a writer I understand: it’s easy to bog down in the midst of a long project. With each of my books, mindful of the adage, “Editors decide by page two whether they want to keep reading,” I’ve worked tirelessly on the first pages, rewriting them again and again until the first chapter shines like a newly polished gem. But who can keep up that intense revision for three hundred pages?

We start writing a story, book, or essay with excitement, inspired by an idea and eager to go. Yet once we’ve introduced the theme, or the characters, conflict, and setting, how do we stay on track? As the fourteenth century poet Dante lamented in his epic poem The Inferno, “In the middle of the journey of life, I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” What is to keep us, as writers, with the clarity of vision that launched our journey? Especially when our thoughts take shape as we write them; most of us don’t set out with everything mapped out, or if we do, we typically find that the piece of work takes off on its own, veers from the map. As Robert Frost observed, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

I started my novel Mama’s Child with a clear opening scene and an end in mind. Yet it took ten years to write, because I could only figure out during the writing process, over and over, the shape of the journey from beginning to end. Then I had some sense of which middle scenes to include, which to delete, to understand what was missing and add it, so the middle had as much integrity as the two end points.

It’s not surprising that most of any book is the middle part, a bridge which must emerge organically from the opening. And that bridge is the sturdy underpinning of the entire project. Everyone writes about openings and endings, and yes, they are significant, but it’s the middles that do the work of developing the plot or characters, setting up the climax so that it seems both surprising and inevitable.

Clarity of intention is required to build that sturdy bridge. You may know where you’re headed, but how will you get there and keep readers interested in the ride?

Once you have your overall vision firmly in mind—and you may want to post it near your computer—how can you dramatize it? What scenes are essential, and how is your dialogue either developing characters or moving the plot forward? (If not, out they go.) I recently read Lorna Landvik’s new novel, Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, which did a wonderful job of holding my interest throughout the middle section of the book. She constantly introduced fascinating subplots: a grandmother’s teenage romance, sabotaged by her best friend’s betrayal, flaming up again in her late 70s; the unexpected pregnancy, with triplets, resulting from her granddaughter Nora’s one-night stand in a campground; Nora’s father Thor sliding on the ice one winter, hitting his head, and being imprisoned, incommunicado, for fourteen years by an eccentric woman who’d witnessed the accident and hauled him home on a sled. Gripped by each story as it emerged, I couldn’t wait to return to the book, even climbing out of bed at midnight to read a chapter or two. What happened next, and how will it affect the family?

This author succeeded at keeping the tension and forward movement high, skillfully varying her pacing, through the entire two hundred middle pages.
Unfortunately, she slipped at the end: the last twenty-five pages devolved into rushed updates on all the characters, covering nearly a decade of their lives. It read like a boring, elongated Christmas letter. But until she lost her touch at the end (perhaps fatigue?), she created in-depth, fascinating scenes, showing how fine a good middle can be.

We all need to put as much time and effort into that long middle as we do our brilliant first sentences and effective endings. It takes clarity, but also elbow grease, to create a successful book, one that will not disappoint readers fifty pages in.

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