Unsticking the Sticky Middle of Your Book

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Actual photo of Cait Reynolds emerging from the Sticky Middle. Photo by Nathalie SPEHNER on Unsplash

We’re two weeks into NaNoWriMo, and I’d wager that a bunch of us are stuck in the morass that I like to call the ‘Sticky Middle.’ We have made it through the first heady 5,000 words. Maybe even 15,000 or 20,000 words. But, now?

The words are coming slower.

The ideas are coming even slower than that.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

We are in the vast wasteland between the OOH of the beginning and the AHH of the end, where it’s mostly…

MEH

EH

BLAH

ARGH

In other words…the Sticky Middle.

Why do we get stuck?

The Sticky Middle is mushy, amorphous mass of words that unfortunately form the bulk of a book. For a body of words that is so unwieldy and difficult to structure, the Sticky Middle unfortunately carries the weight of providing order to the plot while keeping the reader deeply engaged.

In a three-act plot structure, the Sticky Middle is Act II. Therein lies the problem.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Most of us can take a wisp of an idea and fake it ’til we make it with Act I. Beginnings are relatively easy to set up and rough draft (yes, yes, I know that according to Dune, beginnings are a delicate time, but Irrulan never tried writing genre fiction, so she can suck it).

Even Act III isn’t a complete mystery to us when we start, no matter whether we are plotting or pantsing. The final product might change, but most of us have at least a sense of how we want to dole out the happy endings, prison sentences, and golden apples of immortality.

But, Act II?

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

It’s easy.

Well, that is to say, I’ve figured out a fairly simple technique that helps me, and I’m going to share it with you.

Training ourselves to walk through quicksand

I promise we are going to get to Act II and the Sticky Middle technique, but I need to take a moment and set things up.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

First, I’d suggest checking out my blog post about how to structure a chapter and figure out your sweet spot word count pace. In a nutshell, though, I basically recommend a couple things:

  • Practice timed writing so you get a sense of the average word count you can achieve in 30 minutes, an hour, etc. You’ll also get a feel for what your most comfortable span of concentration is and your peak quality output. For example:
    • I know that I can write about 500 words in 30 minutes;
    • I am most focused and productive in 30-40 minute segments;
    • I can produce 2,500 words of solid writing per day, but anything more than that and the quality of my rough draft writing goes down drastically.
  • Learn the discipline of chapter structure now in order to improvise later;
    • A scene/chapter has four parts to it: the Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat (read the post for descriptions of each of these);
    • Each of these four sections should be about 250 words each, or doubled to 500 words;
    • That means that a 1,000-word chapter is made up of 1 scene with four sections, and a 2,000-word chapter is made up of 2 scenes of 1k words each.

For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to use my personal sweet spot of a 2,000-word chapter.

Greasing the skids with Act I

The logic behind the structure and mechanics of Act I is another book-like blog post for another time, but for our purposes, let’s compare Act I to the stages of grief.

Why?

Because we are about to massacre the characters’ everyday existence…all in the name of setting them on the road to adventure. And, like with any death, our characters need to react to and grieve for what they are losing/have lost.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

I use the following stages (yes, I know there are five stages, but I only use four—whatever! Grief is a personal thing! LOL):

  • Denial: The curtain rises on our characters, and we get a glimpse of their day-to-day life. It’s not perfect. In fact, they’re probably in denial about all the things that are wrong and should change/be different.
  • Anger: This is the first thing that happens that simply cannot ignore that will set them on a collision course with the quest. It’s startling. Different. Disturbing. They don’t like it and try to go back to denial.
  • Bargaining: The characters are having second thoughts about ignoring the signal that change is coming. Or, maybe they can’t stop thinking about it. Whichever it is, they are now teetering on the edge of trying to cling to denial while acknowledging anger and bargaining to see if there’s a compromise.
  • Acceptance: Yeah, no help for it now. The quest is real. It’s in-your-face, beating-you-over-the-head-with-a-2×4, and the characters have no choice but to go down this new, uncertain, and possibly dangerous road.

While it is fun to play around with cute categorizations, we are still faced with the same question for Act I that I posed earlier with regards to Act II:

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

Nowwwww, we’re getting somewhere.

We really are. Trust me. I’m like a human GPS. I know where we’re going.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

At least to start with, I plan for:

  • Denial: 1-2 chapters
  • Anger: 1-2 chapters
  • Bargaining: 1-2 chapters
  • Acceptance: 1-2 chapters
  • Each chapter will be 2 scenes of 1,000 words each or 1 scene of 2,000 words;
  • All scenes will follow the pattern of Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat.

Therefore, I know that:

Act I will have 4-8 chapters and be 8k-16k in length.

BOOM.

Now, all we have to do is take this and apply it to the Sticky Middle.

Piece of cake. Right?

RIGHT?

Unsticking the Middle

Remember those two questions? Yes, you’re going to come to hate those questions…almost as much as you hate the fact you can hear my voice in the back of your mind whispering, “Is it really relevant?”

And, if you didn’t have my voice in the back of your head, you do now.

You’re welcome.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Anyway. The questions.

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

Let’s tackle the first part. How do we figure out everything that has to happen?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that it’s completely up to us so long as we follow one rule. The bad news…is that it’s completely up to us so long as we follow one rule.

That rule is super easy to remember: ALWAYS MAKE IT WORSE.

Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: physiological (food/water/sleep), safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Now, create plot points, clues, and twists that strip all of these away from your characters.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

No matter what, never give your characters a break, coincidence, relief, or opportunity. Happiness is boring. Cheerful coincidence could create the dreaded bookmark moment, or worse, condemn our book to the DNF (did not finish) pile.

The whole point of Act II is to take the protagonist to the moment when all is lost, everything has gone wrong, and leave them pretty much completely unprepared to face the climax…because that’s fun (at least for the reader).

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Act II

As you might have guessed by now, I’m going to break this down even further into structured segments.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

So, in Act II, we need the following:

  • Weird Shit & Things Get Worse
    • This is the chunk of the book where we start stripping the protagonist of her Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs under the guise of plot points, clues, betrayals, etc.;
    • This is where the bulk of the clues are going to come into play;
    • Decide how many facts the protagonist is going to need in order solve the problem and then set up an increasingly difficult obstacle course for each clue – this will help you figure out how many scenes and chapters you need…
    • …also, it helps keep a lid on irrelevant side-trips like the Mary Sue Shopping Spree;
    • Try to create a crescendo of severity of the risks and consequences of learning each piece of crucial information;
    • This naturally build to…the TWIST!
  • Twist and Shout!
    • The protagonist thinks she might have everything figured out, but surprise!
    • She doesn’t!
    • She could be totally wrong, blindsided by her own biases, have dismissed a key fact as unimportant, or trusted the wrong person for the right reasons;
    • WARNING: the twist MUST follow logically from all the clues we have been doling out. The twist cannot come out of left-field. It should be the fruit of our own hard work at thinking about the story and sacrificing our chance to enjoy guessing whodunit in real-time as we write. We have to know who the murderer is from the beginning so we can work backwards on how to hide the clues. It takes practice, but it’s far better than deciding that the twist will be…uh…she’s a werewolf! when what we’re really writing is a contemporary YA romance but haven’t thought far enough ahead about what is going to be the twist…
  • Sharknado! And, Sharknado II!
    • Or, rather…DISASTER!
    • As a result of the protagonist being ignorant of and unprepared for the twist, the consequences of the twist are the worst possible scenario come-to-life;
    • This is our chance to strip away that last shred of the Maslow Hierarchy that the protagonist has desperately been hanging onto;
    • It’s okay to do this. We apologize to our characters, let them know that we’re going to get them out of the hole, and then proceed to smash their world to pieces;
    • Remember, the disaster part of Act II is like Sharknado and Jaws had a love child who then dated Snakes on a Plane.
  • All is Lost
    • This is an optional section. That’s right. I’m giving you a choice. Booyah!
    • Basically, this is that quiet lull the comes right before the protagonist figures out the one thing that can change the course of everything and allow him/her to take up the mantle of the hero;
    • You know this moment…every Disney move has it…when Belle weeps over the dead body of the Beast and the last rose petal falls; Elsa and Kristoff are too late to keep Anna from turning completely to ice; in Disney’s Hercules, it’s the moment when Meg dies, and a mortal Hercules is not only helpless to save her, but has also failed to protect Thebes and the rest of humanity;
    • The purpose of an all-is-lost moment is to show the protagonist at her truest and most raw. There is no more pretense, excuses, illusions/delusions, false idols. She stripped to her foundations, forced to face her faults and fallacies, and in that moment, decide whether she will give into them or make one more attempt to put things right and become better than she was;
    • Again, this is optional because it doesn’t work for every story. It can depend on pacing, character arc, whether it’s a part of a series, genre, etc.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Now, ready for the magic formula? Remember, I’m working based on every chapter being 2,000 words and 1-or-2 scenes, and all scenes will follow the pattern of Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat.

  • Weird Shit & Things Get Worse: 6-8 chapters
  • Twist and Shout!: 1-2 chapters
  • Sharknado! And, Sharknado II!: 1-2 chapters
  • All is Lost: 1-2 chapters

Therefore, I know that:

Act II will have 9-14 chapters and be 18k-28k in length.

BOOM.

Consider the Sticky Middle UNSTUCK.

A slick finale

All of this is not meant to regiment our writing in the equivalent of literary whalebone corsets.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

(Yes, I will cover Act III, but that’s another book blog post!)

But, if you—like me—struggle with the Sticky Middle, then this can be a map for making your way through the morass. The ‘Sticky Middle’ is that moment that determines whether we are going to make through November, NaNoWriMo, or throughout the year with every book we try to write…or that we finish.

Oh, and by the way, I’ve got an AWESOME new class this Friday!

BAD BOYS: DANGEROUS LOVE FROM REJECTION TO REDEMPTION

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Some Bad Boys have tattoos and motorcycles. Others wear three-piece suits and eat mergers & acquisitions for breakfast.

Whatever Bad Boy flavor you like, there are key characteristics they all share…and there are some common mistakes writers make that will turn his sexy, wolfish grin into the simper of an anxious bichon frise faster than you can say, “How you doin’?”

This class will cover:

  • How to leverage all the classic Bad Boy traits while making your character unique.
  • Keeping the Bad Boy on the tightrope between attractively arrogant and annoying a$$hole.
  • From macho to marshmallow: how to avoid the traps that turn your man soft mid-plot.
  • Write like a man (because no Bad Boy should ever come across like a soccer mom with an attitude problem).
  • Redemption vs. realistic redemption: creating the arc for a Bad Boy we can live with.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

 

The 327th Re-Reading of “Make Way for Lucia”

I have long wanted to write about one of my greatest literary influences. Figuring out just how to do it, however, has been tricky.

I wanted to introduce everyone to E.F. Benson’s “Lucia” series, but then, part of me worried that 1920’s-1930’s English county life satire might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I might even get strange looks or *shudder* side eye.

But then, I reasoned, if anyone has read Evelyn Waugh and enjoyed his works, he or she would enjoy the less bitter but equally mordant wit of Benson in “Lucia.” Or, if anyone has read P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves or Blandings Castle works, they would appreciate the slightly sharper edge to Benson’s wit.

Yet, another obstacle to sharing my soul-deep devotion to these books popped up. It was a paradox worthy of Zeno (damn you, freshman year Philosophy 101 with Mr. McCarthy at Vassar!). It is that the apotheosis of Benson’s brilliance is reached with “Mapp and Lucia,” but that it is the fourth book in the series. Certainly, you can read “Mapp and Lucia” cold and appreciate it at face value, but without reading the first three books, you are left out of the sly inside jokes about Italian, the Moonlight Sonata, baby talk, and dueling.

On the other hand, if you put your hand to the plow and work through the first three books (and short story), you receive a tremendous education as a writer, in addition to the pleasure of getting the inside scoop about Lucia, Georgie, Miss Mapp, Major Benjy, Diva Plaistow (‘christened Godiva, such a handicap’), and Mrs. Wyse and her sables.

LUCIA IN TRAINING

I have come to truly appreciate the process that Benson went through in evolving as a writer when he tackled the Lucia series. He had achieved a modicum of renown for his ghost stories and other gentle social comedies. He also wrote a curious work on figure skating (oh, the hidden depths of the one-term Mayor of Rye!). But, with Lucia, he decided to create a protagonist that we would absolutely detest, yet couldn’t resist rooting for.

Lucia is a pretender and a snob. She is the original mean girl who is ironically without a truly mean bone in her body. She is petty, though, and keeps score. She fibs and dominates her way to the top of the social life in the small, sleepy English village of Riseholme. No matter the mutinies the supporting cast might stage, Lucia always emerges serenely, graciously victorious, bestowing her particular brand of vindictive forgiveness on the vanquished.

At least, that is the Lucia we know and love by the end of “Mapp and Lucia.” Benson is uneven and, at times, unkind in his portrayal of her in the first two books. You almost get a sense that he was frustrated with his various attempts to sketch her just right (like Georgie and his eternal attempts to capture the Landgate in his art). He begins to hit his stride at the end of “Lucia in London,” but then, it’s as if this final burst of virtuosity wears him out, and he seeks refuge in the picturesque town of Tilling.

Tilling is based on the actual town of Rye in England. Benson lived there for many years in Lamb House, which is the basis for the famous Mallards. He even served as mayor. He was a scholar of ancient Greece and came from a family deeply immersed in the Anglican church.  There is a theory that he based the character of Lucia on a female novelist acquaintance, and he himself finds a way to vent his spleen as the delightfully, righteously malicious Miss Mapp.

Miss Mapp is to Tilling what Lucia is to Riseholme. But, with Tilling, Benson fine-tuned his supporting cast to perfection, as well as giving the reader shops and landmarks that Riseholme lacked. With the book “Miss Mapp,” we see Benson testing his blade and finding that it is just right and ready for a return to Lucia. But all of Riseholme’s dramas put together lack the ‘spleen and savagery’ of a single game of bridge in Tilling.

Therefore, Benson must move Lucia to Tilling, which he does in “Mapp and Lucia.” The results are…cosmic. The rivalry of Miss Mapp and Lucia is epic. Nelson and Napoleon come to mind, as does Rome and Carthage. The battles are bloody, and the strategies cold and steely. It is human nature at its absolutely most entertaining.

LUCIA THE MAGNIFICENT

It’s also human nature at its most identifiable. Strip away the stage dressing of the 1920’s and 1930’s with their telegrams, marketing baskets, and custom of dressing for dinner, and you have a trenchant but kindly portrait of the faults, foibles, and fierceness of character. We can all identify with Lucia in the moment she is about to be found out in a little white lie or exaggeration. We can all identify with the baffled fury of Miss Mapp at a snub. We share Diva’s excitement over a new dress, or Georgie’s pleasure in the comforts of home. Their emotions are as human and timeless as our own.

There are few authors that I will read more than one book from. There are even fewer that I will re-read. I read the complete “Make Way for Lucia” series at least two or three times a year. There is always something new to discover in his magnificent, masterful manipulation of language. Every time I read these books, I gain new insights about pacing, dialogue tagging, restraint, and description. I luxuriate in his unabashedly rich use of vocabulary. I am obsessed with cracking the code to what keeps the humor fresh.

LUCIAPHILS

In “Lucia in London,” while the titular character is busy clawing her way to the top of the smart set in the metropolis, a clique of devotees dub themselves ‘Luciaphils’ because they find her brazen antics utterly captivating and entertaining.

Legion are those who, in the decades since the first printing, have sworn allegiance to the society of Luciaphils. There have been attempts to capture the cheeky charm and bloody wit for the small screen. Unfortunately, these have been as successful as Lucia’s attempts at a ‘morsel of Stravinski.’ Some things simply cannot be translated from the written word.

Speaking of the written word, though, the English novelist Tom Holt (another one of my favorites) managed to capture Benson’s voice and wit perfectly in two novels and a short story. It’s kind of the ultimate fan fiction, and yet, it’s more than that. It’s a true homage to a master. Therefore, I recommend after completing “Make Way for Lucia,” you should try “Lucia Triumphant,” “Lucia in Wartime,” and “The Diplomatic Incident” (in that order, despite their publication dates).

I would love to initiate more people into the wonderful world of Lucia, and Luciaphils are always welcome here for Lobster a la Riseholme and Isabelle Poppit’s red currant fool…