Blog followers: our website was hacked and crashed. We apologize for the inconvenience. Here’s the blog post none of you got to read earlier this week.

A lot of blank space in this outline after eight days to work on it.

A lot of blank space in this outline after eight days to work on it.

One of the focal points of the writing retreat I hosted August 7-9 was how to get past the dreaded sagging middle. The first few novels I wrote fell apart in the middle. I write mysteries, and the tension fell off and the plot wandered and the books fizzled out. When I asked the retreat attendees what they wanted to talk about, three out of five wanted to know how to finish a book, follow through on the plot, and get past the dreaded middle. Boy could I relate.

On my third novel, I brainstormed plot with my husband then wrote a short synopsis in my protagonist’s POV, then a longer synopsis, then edited the synopsis as I wrote the book. I went back and rewrote my first novel, dividing it into two books that I brainstormed, synopsized, and outlined. I had discovered that I had some tools in my toolbox: brainstorming (hammer), protagonist synopsis (wrench), and outline (screwdriver). I did the same for my fourth.

By the time I wrote my fifth mystery, my husband and I had talked about the story (and the sixth and seventh to follow in the same series) for a year. I felt like I knew it well so I went straight to a chapter by chapter outline and quit about halfway through when the excitement to write took over, and got down to it. I did an even more abbreviated version of this method for number sixth.

And then came number seven. Oh, my, number seven. I am sitting here two weeks into “outlining” number seven. I put together a wonderful outline format that incorporated structure and story elements, but when it came time to fill it in with actual story, I just kept fizzling out. For two weeks I pounded away at that outline, somewhat chagrined because I had lectured on outlining for three days at the writers retreat, expounding on the virtues of prepping your story before you write it, of my hammer, wrench, and screwdriver methodology.

I really wanted to use the screwdriver/outline this time. But it wasn’t working, and none of my other tools felt right either. I even tried writing a protagonist POV synopsis longhand, but that didn’t help.

I got so frustrated and confused with trying to outline the mystery in my protagonist’s POV that I just told myself to tell the story chronologically–all of it, even the things my protagonist would never know. In other words, from an omniscient POV. Cramped into a tiny American Airlines regional jet seat last weekend, I typed using this new method as fast as I could. For three flights and layovers over eight hours, I typed and typed and typed and typed and typed. Then I verbalized it all to my plot partner, and realized that it clicked.

Finally, I understood my mystery, my plot, my subplot, my character arcs, my theme. Finally, I had a good enough grip on it that I could re-visualize it from my protagonist’s POV. Finally, I could sit down and write this *#%()&*() book.

Phew. Lucky for me, there was a pair of pliers in my toolbox.

If I had started writing two weeks ago, I would have wandered in circles with thirty thousand words which I would have inevitably found hard to delete when the time came that I recognized my story wandered off into oblivion. I’ve done that before. It wasn’t fun, and the result was no good. Instead, now I have a flexible story synopsis and outline that I know hangs together and I can write like the wind to catch up with my ideas.

I believe in the pre-write, but even there I encourage you to be flexible and dig deep in that tool box until you discover what works for you. Long hand character studies? Typed short stories about side plots? Spreadsheet plotting? Verbal brainstorming with a story group or partner? Long days thinking while you drink wine and dream up your story? All of these count as pre-writing prep, and they may be just the tool you need.

Yes, Steven King wings it. I applaud him. I just don’t meet many career writers (or fledgling writers) of full-length novels that use his method (or lack thereof) successfully. Especially those that want to write efficiently, and then get on to their next book.

What tools work for you?


Pamela Fagan Hutchins writes overly long e-mails, award-winning and best-10006025_10152294921092604_1598429323_oselling mysteries, and hilarious nonfiction, chairs the board of the Houston Writers Guild, and dabbles in employment practices resources investigations from time to time. She is passionate about great writing, smart authorpreneurship, and her two household hunks, husband Eric and one-eyed Boston terrier Petey. She blogs on writing, publishing and promotion at Skip the Jack and on her beleaguered family, and much-too-personal life at Road to Joy. She also leaps medium-tall buildings in a single bound (if she gets a good running start). Check out her USA Best Book Award winning novel, Going for Kona, her permafree mystery (and series lead), Saving Grace, her writing/publishing/promotion Bible, What Kind of Loser Indie Publishes, and How Can I Be One, Too?, her newest mystery, Earth to Emily (Emily #2).

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2 Responses to Writing Prep: A Hammer Works Until You Need a Wrench

  1. This post relieved me, Pamela. I hate that you struggled so much with novel #7, but I SO STRUGGLE with outlining my entire novel beforehand. I know the beginning and the end, but there’s still that other 250 pages that I don’t always know. I don’t “SEE” my story until start typing. I’m trying to improve on the plotting beforehand, but I definitely not there.

    Glad you had pliers in your toolbox.

    • Pamela says:

      Each book is different for me. With Bombshell #9, I outlined some, but I kept getting twisted around, so finally I just started in the middle (the first scene in NYC, at the studio). After I’d written about 30 pages, I “felt” the beginning and returned to the outline. After I’d written another 30 pages, I “felt” the details of the plot line emerge and returned to the outline. The biggest thing, I find, is not to let being blocked stop you. Start something else or somewhere else, choose another tool, and return to what you need to use later, when it feels right. I am finishing up some pacing issues with Bombshell today then “calling it George” (as they say in the Caribbean). And moving on to #10, soon. I enjoyed your novella a lot and look forward to the next novel!!

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