News, commentary, and fiction by Barb Hendee, co-author of the Noble Dead saga (; author of the Mist-Torn Witches series, the Vampire Memories series, and more.

The Wednesday Writer’s Corner: Avoiding the Muddle in the Middle

Next week, I may need to put the Writer’s Corner on hiatus again for a month or so.  I’m in the “obsessive” part of drafting the first Mist-Torn Witches novel where I’m writing all day to get a first draft done while the ideas are rushing around inside my head.  Late autumn and the winter months are when I get a lot of drafting done so we have the material to work with in other regards for the remainder of the year.

But I promised a nuts-and-bolts post this week, and I think this topic is important, so I wanted to throw a few ideas out there.

I talk to other writers a lot, and when most writers begin actively working on a novel, they tend to have about the first fifty pages and the last fifty pages mentally laid out in near concrete clarity.  This seems fairly typical.  I know it describes me.  I sometimes have the ending clear in my mind even before the beginning.  But before I start working on a project, things have come together to the point that I know how the story will be set up, and I know how it will end.

So, let’s say you’re got the first fifty pages outlined, and the last fifty pages outlined.  You’re writing a short novel, maybe 320 pages.  This means you have 220 pages left to outline . . . getting from that awesome beginning you’ve planned to the exciting ending.

I’m sure everyone reading this post has read at least one novel where you got the feeling that the writer had a fabulous idea for a beginning and ending, and no idea what to do with the middle of the book.  I’ve certainly read a number of murder mysteries like that—and a few romance novels.

With the Noble Dead books, I’ve never had this problem for one reason: there are two of us.  JC is the “cool idea guy” on the team.  He comes up with snippets of scenes and weapons and languages and ideas for things like how our vampires might differ from traditionally accepted tropes.  He also has lots and lots of scenes in his head, but he has no sense for putting them into a chronological plot down on paper.  I’m the “linear girl.”  I think about all those cool ideas he’s come up with, and I start putting them into a point-by-point story, and then I come up with ideas for story connections where one thing leads logically into another.  I normally outline four or five chapters, and then turn the outline over it him, and he starts revising my ideas . . . which tend to give him more ideas.  Once he’s done, I outline four or five more chapters and turn them over to him, and over a period of about two or three months, we create a one-hundred-page, chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene outline.  It’s certainly not easy, but before we start writing, we really do have the entire novel carefully plotted.

However . . . when I started working on the Vampire Memories books, I felt somewhat adrift attempting the same process by myself.  As mentioned above, for Hunting Memories, I had the first fifty pages and the last fifty pages clearly laid out in my mind, but what about the 220 pages in-between?  I felt both a sense of freedom not working with JC, and a great sense of loss.  I loved the idea of writing absolutely anything I wanted, but I didn’t have him to my bounce ideas off. It felt rather foreign.

So, I started the project with the full belief that I would need to have a completed, concrete outline before I began drafting—just as we did for the Noble Dead books. 

This only led to frustration and worry.  I easily outlined the first three chapters, and the last four chapters.  I knew in a sense how the middle of the book would play out, leading up to the explosive ending, but I didn’t have the point-by-point chronological scenes yet, and for some reason, it felt very cold and clinical trying to get them down in outline form at that point.  The ideas just weren’t coming.

Finally, I gave up, and I began drafting.  As I neared the end of chapter three, I went to bed and suddenly the perfect order for chapters four through seven came to me, and the next morning, I sat down and outlined them.  Around the time I was nearing the end of about chapter six, while I was cooking dinner, the next major sections solidified in my mind, and that night, I stopped drafting, and I outlined chapters eight through twelve.  As I neared the end of . . .

Well, you get the idea (smiles).

Great joy was mine the day I finally connected to those last four chapters.

I found that I’ve followed this same process for every independent novel I’ve written, and I think it’s a common strategy for many writers.

I guess my point is that although an outline is extremely important (for both sanity and the flow of the plot), it doesn’t always happen at once, and it doesn’t always happen before you start drafting.  That whole “middle” of the book will probably come in stages . . . and that’s okay.