Don’t Be the Artax: Writing Through the Squishy Middle

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a total pantser, and usually I like that because it lets me explore my characters and forge the plot from what feels right as opposed to what I’d originally planned should happen. Usually this works out great for the first part of the book.

Then I hit what I like to call the squishy middle.

The squishy middle is that point in the novel when I’ve gotten over the new WIP excitement and have exhausted all my initial ideas for where things might be going, but I’m not deep enough into it to see how everything comes together. I know my characters, but I’m not sure exactly how they’re going to get where they need to be and how long it’ll take for them to get there. I start to worry about the story overall and if it’s boring or worth the time/effort and if anyone will ever actually care about these characters. It kind of feels like being Artax in the Swamp of Sadness*:

Right now I’m in the squishy middle of my current WIP and trying to keep everything in perspective so I don’t go all Artax and burn my manuscript. If you’re in the squishy middle too, here are some things that I’m trying to keep in mind as I plow my way through.

1. Just Get It Done
The squishy middle sucks, but avoiding it just means you’re stuck in the squishy middle forever. It’s way better to finish and go back and revise than to never leave the swamp.

2. Trust Your Critique Partners
One thing that’s helped me so far has been to share regular updates with my critique group. First of all, it forces me to have new material. Second, they remind me of what things are working and help me brainstorm where things might be going. I end up leaving group excited about the WIP instead of exhausted, which is how I’d feel on my own.

3. Don’t Get Distracted by Shiny Things
When I’m in the squishy middle, I start thinking of new WIPs. You know, those bright shiny projects that don’t have any squishiness yet? Yeah, those are distracting and will end up having squish middles of their own, too.

4. Hey, You Still Like This, Remember?
In the squishy middle, it can be easy to forget why you’re writing the damn thing in the first place. Try to remind yourself of the reasons why you love this story. For me, it’s been helpful to return to my WIP playlist (Franz Ferdinand! Gogol Bordello! Bowie!) and to match the characters with their celebrity counterparts (my current main character casting is Maisie Williams).

5. You’ve Gotten Through It Before
The Chance You Won’t Return totally had a squishy middle when I was in the first draft phase. I kept thinking “Oh my gosh, this is the worst, just burn it, burn it all,” but eventually I got through it. And then I went back and revised and revised and revised some more. And soon it’ll be out in the world as a real book, which couldn’t have happened without powering through in that first draft.

6. Powering Through Means You’re a Writer
Starting a project is easy. Lots of people start novels, get a few chapters in, lose steam and never return. Powering through the hard parts and putting in the time and effort is what writers do. We don’t write when just when it’s fun and exciting–we write when it’s hard and there’s a whole swamp around us.

The squishy middle is a rough place to be, but it’s worth it to get through. Because by the end of the manuscript, we can all feel a little less than Artax in the swamp and a little more like Falcor.

Share your tips about getting through the squishy middle (or any other squishy part of your draft) in the comments.

*Seriously, guys, this scene will mess you up. I remember watching The NeverEnding Story and being afraid to step on the ground that night in case the Swamp of Sadess was going to get me, too.

Don’t Mention the Mess and Other Polite Ways of Dealing with Authors

In case you were wondering how to interact with an authoress, this etiquette book from 1839 has some helpful suggestions, including accepting the state of an authoress’s writing desk:

At least I’m not the only authoress with an untidy desk. Make sure to click through for more helpful suggestions.

(via Paul Collins, H/T The Paris Review)

NESCBWI: A Gif Interpretation, Part I

Ways you can tell it’s spring in New England–the trees are in bloom; you’ve sent your wool coat to the back of your closet; and you’re headed to Springfield, MA for the annual NESCBWI conference!

Last year was my first NESCBWI conference, and it went super well. I listened to awesome speeches, took part in cool workshops, and (best of all) met my amazing critique group. I’m excited to go back this year, knowing a bunch more people from real life and the online kidlit universe.

I’ve done some “conference advice” posts before, so instead of rehashing that advice, let’s go through the emotional scope of NESCBWI via my favorite method of communication–the gif.

How you feel as a newbie:

How you also feel as a newbie:

How you feel going your second/third/forty-fifth year:

Trying to figure out which room you need to be in for your first session:

When a totally famous author makes eye contact with you during the keynote:

When someone asks a question that is only related to their very specific experience and benefits no one else:

When someone asks a good, thoughtful question that will benefit everyone:

Getting retweeted by other conference attendees:

Your attitude towards coffee:

During a query/manuscript critique with your dream agent:

Meeting a someone you know from #kidlit/#yalit in person:

When you see an illustrator’s business card:

When someone gives a really moving and inspiring keynote/workshop/panel:

When we all talk about how wonderful and important it is to create books for children and teens:

More conference gif fun continues with Part II tomorrow!

Links Galore

A few links for today:

The #14me Contest is Open! What Would You Tell Your Fourteen-Year-Old Self?

Me at fourteen:

  • Clunky shoes, carpenter jeans, wacky t-shirts, a different nail polish color on every finger
  • Fangirl for The Outsiders and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • New school–losing old friends, finding new ones
  • Writing a couple of really bad novels That Will Never See the Light of Day
  • Collages and quotes all over my walls
  • Not sure about this whole high school thing. Or growing up.

Sometimes I wish I could sit down with my fourteen-year-old self and let her know that it’s all going to work out (for the most part). To keep reading, to keep writing, to keep finding kindred spirits. That it’s okay she doesn’t really care about going to the cool parties. That she can maybe speak up more in class (in general) and not be afraid of her own voice. That she’s got some great stuff coming in a few years, so power through the stress and insecurity.

Wish you could talk to yourself at fourteen? The Fourteenery (a fabulous group of 2014 debut YA authors) is hosting a contest in which you’re invited to share a little advice to your four-year-old self. Share your funny/sweet/thoughtful/dramatic advice by reblogging on our Tumblr or tweeting with the #14me hastag. And you can win some seriously awesome (signed!!!) books.

Check out all the details on the Fourteenery and get brainstorming. The contest runs through midnight on Sunday, April 14. Spike’s excited:

So get reblogging/tweeting!

Becoming an Artist

A touching video in which children’s book author/illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka talks about how he became an artist.

“He liked making this book” might be the best line in any author bio I’ve ever seen. I also love how he talks about the support he got from his grandparents and his teachers. Even though writing/illustrating requires a lot of work and you have to power through a lot of challenges, as Krosoczka details, but having a wonderful support system can make all the difference. And I love that Krosoczka set up a scholarship in his grandparents’ honor. What a beautiful way to keep the support going.

(via SCBWI: The Blog)

Epiphanies Don’t Last

At the Atlantic, author Jim Shepard looks at Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and what it tells us about character epiphanies. As much as we may want characters to have epiphanies that change their lives for the better, these moments of clarity don’t always last–just like in real life. You tackle a pile of Valentine’s Day candy, get sick and vow to give up chocolate forever, and soon you’re back on the chocolate horse. (Mmm…anyone want chocolate now?) Humans are used to running into the same problem again and again.

But that doesn’t mean epiphanies aren’t worthwhile in fiction As Shepard says:

“But you still don’t want to write them off. The fact that there’s a brevity to human connection and human empathy—the fact that it goes away—might make you feel that we should not make a big deal that it was there at all. But of course we can’t do that. We have to value the moments when a person is everything we’d hope this person would be, or became briefly something even better than she normally is. We need to give those moments the credit they’re due. The glimpse of this capacity is part of what allows you to write characters who are so deeply flawed. Given that so much great literature is about staggering transgression, knowing that that capability of striving for something better is crucial for keeping you reading.”

Epiphanies aren’t so much about change as they are about hope. The possibility of being better. Striving to overcome our flaws. It’s a nice balance to those deep flaws that make so many characters so interesting.

So what does that mean for YA fiction? One thing I like about YA is that it’s essentially a coming-of-age genre. How can characters make choices and have realizations that define their lives while acknowledging that epiphanies aren’t necessarily life-changing? As with any fiction, it’s about the hope. And a lot of times, I think YA provides a greater capacity for hope. It’s okay if your characters aren’t perfect, changed people by the end of the book. They’re still going to run into problem and resort to old behaviors. They haven’t figured everything out yet–and that’s okay. But they’re learning and they’re growing. Even if this story encapsulates the most important moments of their lives, they’re still going to spend the rest of their lives making mistakes and learning from them. YA provides an opportunity to look at lots of first epiphanies as teen narrators navigate the world and their own challenges and strengths for the first time.

In general, I like fiction with complicated characters who don’t always get the easy out. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get a satisfying ending, either. It’s all about the hope that we can be better.

The Voice Necessitates the Story

In this post, Beth Revis, author of Across the Universe, looks at Mark Zusaks’s The Book Thief and what makes it a compelling novel and how we can apply these tools to our own writing. Revis says:

“In your own writing, write the story from the point of view of a character who can tell that specific story. Your story cannot be so vague that just anyone could narrate it – your narrator must be the one person who can tell the story in this way.”

I love this suggestion. It’s not enough to come up with a cool plot or character. Your narrator has to be the only person in the world who can tell this story. They need to tell this story. This is the story that ultimately changes and defines their life. Granted, things can get a little more complicated if you have multiple perspectives, but I think the sense immediacy is still relevant.

Make sure to check out the whole post, which includes more of Revis’s suggestions for what makes a compelling YA novel.

How to Take a Great Author Photo–With or Without Cats

Since I’m married to a playwright, I know a bunch of actors and have gotten to see lots of lovely headshots in my time. But most actors are used to being in front of a camera. Authors aren’t quite as prepared for their author photos. Why can’t we

Fortunately, Scribner has some suggestions for making your author photo work:

Get your laser beam eyes ready, everyone. And don’t forget that crucial index finger!

(image: Scribner Books)

The Work of Writing, the Joy of Writing

As everyone in the reading world probably knows at this point, Philip Roth is retiring from writing. When he made this announcement, I wondered if it was like the Rolling Stones saying, “No, guys, seriously, last tour.” It’s hard for artists to pull away from their craft, even if they’re getting tired. But it sounds like Roth is done with the work of writing. He recently told a young writer: “But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

My reaction:

Fortunately, Elizabeth Gilbert also takes major issue with this advice and can craft a way better argument than my gif. (Scratch that, gifs are the best argument.) She argues that while writing is difficult and it requires real work, it’s also one of the best freaking jobs you can have:

“Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it’s f*cking great. I say this as somebody who spent years earning exactly zero dollars for my writing (while waiting tables, like Mr. Tepper) and who now makes many dollars at it. But zero dollars or many dollars, I can honestly say it’s the best life there is, because you get to live within the realm of your own mind, and that is a profoundly rare human privilege.”

As someone who does not make many dollars at writing, I can still say that even when it’s hard, it’s great work. It’s fulfilling even when it just amounts to a Word document on my computer that will never be seen by human eyes. Maybe some people don’t realize what kind of effort and time are involved in writing and probably shouldn’t get into the business. But if you love the act of creation and letting your mind make connections and maybe seeing readers make those connections, then write.

Make sure to read the whole article, because I think we need more writers who give validation to all that a writing career can be.

(H/T Jennifer Malone)