The Flabby Middle
So, we’ve covered how to begin a book without making it boring – if there’s anything you need to know about THAT topic, feel free to ask in comments, but for now let’s move on to the next topic.
Does your book suffer from a flabby middle? Well, then it’s time to take it to the gym. Make it do some stretches and lose that extra fat – can you tell what my New Year’s resolution is? Yeah.
Most of the time, the flab in the middle of the book is like the flab in your middle – stuff you don’t need but are storing because your body thinks it should be a certain weight. If you know you’re contracted to deliver eighty thousand words and you find yourself suffering from premature ending (hey, it happens to the best of us) it might suddenly seem very tempting to just start describing everything ad nauseum and with relish. You may suddenly feel a need to explain the fashions of your world or give us a lecture on alien textiles.
Do try to resist it. Unless strictly needed for your story, that kind of intrusion becomes really old really fast. Again, your readers might find your textiles fascinating, AFTER they read and love the novel, the world and the characters. If you bore them in the middle of the first novel, this is unlikely.
One cure for this type of flab, of course, is to make your book shorter. With indie publishing, and if you’re not contracted to anyone, ask yourself if the novel REALLY needs to be eighty thousand words. Would it be a better novel at fifty thousand words? The whole point is, after all, to make your readers happy. It’s better to leave them wanting more than to make them throw their kindle against the wall.
On the other hand, perhaps you are indent– Er… contracted to a traditional publisher already. And maybe it’s not the kind of publisher you can call up and say “that goat gagger at 229 thousand words just isn’t jelling. Can it be eighty thousand words instead?” So, what do you do? Well, if you have a goat gagger to write, I suggest you leave the country and tell the publisher you died. At least it’s what I’d do, since I’ve never managed to write one of those. Okay, I’ve never managed to write a PUBLISHABLE one of those.
But if it’s a matter of going from fifty thousand to eighty thousand words… That I can advise on, having done it. Instead of loving descriptions of your character’s socks, consider going back to the beginning and reading it again. Would a subplot help you tell this story? Say, if the character’s favorite sister has a romance that parallel’s the main character’s and shows the main character something? Or if the sister ship to the ship whose captain your space opera is following has a problem and is lost, perhaps it will show us the possibility for disaster of your own trip.
If you can’t add a subplot, then consider what questions your beginning asks. Do you answer them all? If you do, then perhaps there is a flaw in your character that you can exaggerate and which has to be fixed before you can go on?
When all else fails, of course, just get your character in real, serious trouble. Go back to the beginning and introduce another problem. Make the thing your character fears the most happen. Go back to the beginning to seed details, of course, and make sure that this is not a mountain you dropped on him, but something plausible and terrible you can make happen to the poor critter. Say give him a fear of rats, and then have him drop into a rat’s nest in the third chapter. The panic that will induce can then cause other problems… You see the point, right?
There are other, more genre-specific cures. If you have a mystery, introduce another murder. The murderer things someone knows something, say. Or, you know, the red-herring character? Yeah, have him be found dead and introduce two more red-herring characters. For an adventure story, introduce a complication. Have your character get lost, or be captured by the aliens. Or introduce another puzzle that must be solved before you can get to the end.
Beware of loop-de-loop syndrome, though. And walls falling on character syndrome. You must go back to the beginning and make sure these proceed from the beginning, otherwise you’re trapping your reader in a roundabout. Having taken a trip to Europe this summer, let me tel you that while roundabouts might slow down traffic, getting trapped in them isn’t fun.
The cure for that will be explained in tomorrow’s riveting installment.