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.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Be the Artax: Writing Through the Squishy Middle

  1. I actually find three things help me through squishy middles: 1. Venturing off to shiny things – space gives me time to think and figure out why the middle is so squishy, 2. Going back and revising parts of the beginning, building a stronger foundation before the squishiness begins, and 3. Writing ahead, out of sequence, a sketch of the end-point/goal point that will get me out of the squishiness too.

    I also want to mention this part of the movie always made my two older sisters cry.

    • Great tips! I especially like the idea of writing ahead/out of sequence–I never do that and it might be a good boost.

      Also, feel free to send along the video if you want your sisters to cry again. 😉

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