May You Write Interesting Books — 4

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.

12 thoughts on “May You Write Interesting Books — 4

  1. Going back and inserting foreshadowing. “It’s always been that way, since this morning.” Not that I have the quote right, nor can remember where I read something of the sort.

    Excellent post, good ideas.

  2. “When all else fails, of course, just get your character in real, serious trouble” — I forget which author it was who said “Whenever I can’t figure out what the characters should do next, I have the door fly open and bad guys enter with guns blazing”.

    Or perhaps “When all else fails — C4” [Jamie Hyneman]

  3. I dunno – there’s something about detailed descriptions of every character’s socks that just fascinates me — especially if they’re wearing argyles. Just can’t get enough argyles. Throw in a sweater vest or two and you’ve got one heck of a good read!

    Of course, I recognize that I am a limited market and not the one the publishers are targeting (I can tell that from how many books are published — and appear on best-seller lists — that are of no interest to me. So, if you’re really needing an extra several thousand words and want your publisher happy, why, just throw in a few graphic sex scenes (battle scenes if you’re writing for Baen) and the best part is: you don’t even have to worry about accuracy or practicality; I swear, some of those sex scenes couldn’t even be performed by double-jointed marathoners.

    ‘Course, I’m the kinda person who, when imagining a call into one of those 1-800-talk-dirty phone lines envisions a boiler-room filled with grannies in curlers, robes and fluffy slippers, and that breathy voice is on account granny’s on a respirator.

  4. I can comment on openings, and to a certain extent on endings.

    Middles? No. I’m grinding one out at the moment. It’s a matter of think a bit, put in some punctuation, and think some more. Not the fun part.


  5. As Ric says. This should be pointed right at me, because middle is where I am. But for the nonce, I couldn’t care. My middle is fleshing out quite well, thank you. I just need to write faster.


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