Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Long Middle

You've worked hard on your novel. The opening is a block buster. You know how the story will be resolved, but now you're faced with the long slog through the middle. It's been my experience gleaned from reviewing books, that this is where many stories fade.

There's lots of advice on how to attack the middle. Have a minor climax so you build up to a plot point before the slide into the ending and the major climax. This is good advice, but how do you get there. Some authors view the middle as a place for long conversations between the characters. The search for answers, particularly in a mystery, becomes a leisurely stroll. The investigators revisit old hypotheses and discuss them at length in an effort to decide what to do next. At some point, readers start turning pages wondering when something is going to happen.

On the other hand, some novels get so caught up in action that you almost have another story building up in the middle. I read one recently where the initial chapters focused was on horse racing, then action veered to drug smuggling, and finally ended with murder and a psychotic love triangle. I'm exaggerating a bit, but too much action can move the story away from the plot line, introduce new characters, and give the book a chaotic feel.

How do you handle this? In the first place, I recommend forgetting about word count. Sometimes I think the author gets carried away trying to get to the magical sixty thousand words so the book is a novel. (Anything less is a novella or short story.) If you understand your characters and their story, the length is a function of the interaction between their goals and the endgame. You don't have to, and shouldn't, pad the text with description, too much off topic conversation, and attention to subplots.

Readers like to get into the groove. They want to be presented with solutions to the plot puzzles as you go along. No one wants to wander around in an unfocused middle trying to figure out what happened to the driving force in the story.

It may not be easy to solve your problems with the middle. Sometimes there really isn't enough action to carry the story through the doldrums, but careful attention to character and an outline of plot points and the scenes that lead up to them should solve some of the problems.  

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Pitfalls of a Great Opening

A great opening is supposed to hook the reader, snag the editor, and send writers on their way to fame and fortune. It's good advice, but what about the rest of the book?

I'm a book reviewer. In some ways it's like being an editor. You get the chance to see a lot of books and sometimes you're able to select the books to review on the basis of the first few pages. When I open the book, I'm on the lookout for interesting characters and a plot with lots of tension and conflict. Setting is important, but it's the icing on the cake.

So I open the book, read the first few pages. I love it. It has everything I'm looking for including an unusual setting that I'd like to know more about. I read about the first third of the book, if I'm lucky, and things start to fall apart. The characters engage in more reflection than action, the plot begins to drift, and now it's a chore to pick up the book and read the rest. The ending is often worse. There is a plot resolution, but no twist to make it interesting. Even worse a character crawls out of the woodwork to solve the problem.

Of course, all books are not this way, but too many are. I wonder if as writers we're taking the advice of editors and writing teachers too much to heart. Yes, you need a terrific opening, but if the opening is the best thing about the novel, you run the risk of leaving the reader, or worse the reviewer, disappointed. I am hopeful that with self-publishing authors will begin to look beyond the great opening to have a complete novel that doesn't disappoint.