Dec 21, 2010

Dodging the Dreaded Saggy Middle

The Dreaded Saggy Middle. It can happen to any writer at any time. There you are, happily writing along, when suddenly you realize your novel has run aground. Maybe you’re out of story, or maybe what you’re writing is so lifeless even you aren’t interested anymore. Worse, you can’t end the book for another 100 pages.
How did this happen, and what can you do about it?
One- or two-sided characters are one of the reasons a book may wilt in the middle. The nice heroine is always nice, the thoughtful hero is always thoughtful, the quirky best friend is always quirky, and the villain is always evil. Once we’ve introduced the character, we have nothing new to show the reader. We’re left writing scenes in which that one trait repeats over and over again.
Our spunky heroine shows up on page and exhibits spunk when her car breaks down. When she finds out she’s going to be running the family business with the hero, she has a properly spunky reaction. Later, she’s spunky with her friends, with her father, her ex-boyfriend, and the cop who pulls her over for speeding. No matter what comes her way, she’s spunky. Even a good character trait can get old after a while.
Try making that heroine spunky in her public life, but quiet and introspective in private. Or make her fearless in the business world and insecure in her romantic life. Create a villain who hates children and loves dogs. Just make sure the character’s contradictions are well-motivated and that you remain consistent when you’re in her head. She can’t love being in control here and hate it there, but she can love being in control here and long to be in control there. Multi-faceted personalities not only make a character more interesting and realistic, they can also provide keys to subplots that will keep readers eagerly turning pages.
Next, take a look at the scenes in your novel. How many highlight some of the other aspect of the characters’ personalities while still moving the story along? Are the different aspects of your characters’ personalities key to the plot or a subplot, or do they seem incidental or accidental?  Your opera-singing trash collector might be quirky, but if his love of opera doesn’t directly impact the story you may not be using those quirks to your fullest advantage.
If you feel that your character is dry and lifeless, try looking for something your character would never willingly do, and then make her do that. If my heroine would never lie, I’ll look for a reason she has to lie, and I’ll make that reason bigger than she is so her decision doesn’t feel forced or unrealistic. She won’t lie to avoid embarrassment, but she might lie to save her son’s life, to keep the antagonist from taking over her family business, or to make her grandmother’s last days happy.
If you’re writing about people who lack passion for what they’re doing, you might run into a saggy middle in your story. The real world may be filled with people who aren’t driven to support a cause or make the world better, but nobody wants to read about those people. We read to renew our faith in the human spirit, and to do that, we want to read about people who are passionate about what they do, and who will take risks to accomplish their goals.
Once you’ve given the character something he cares deeply about, make sure he has a plan of action for accomplishing the task. If we’re going to ask readers to invest time and money in our story, our characters can’t be the kind of people who talk big but fail to follow through unless that weakness is part of the character’s growth arc.
Likewise, characters must have something at stake driving that passion—a reason for them to keep going when the going gets tough. A real person searching for her birth mother out of simple curiosity won’t keep looking when people and circumstances turn against her, or when the search drags on for a long time. Forcing a character to do something unrealistic may cause readers to stop identifying with her. Once the reader disconnects, your story begins to sag, even if your scenes seem action-packed on the surface.
Again, that “Something at Stake” must be bigger than the character to keep the story moving when the opposition ramps up. It must be bigger and stronger than any inconvenience or danger that gets in the way. That spunky heroine who’s searching for her birth mother out of curiosity about her origin might give up temporarily after several doors are closed on her. If she’s searching for her birth mother to save her son’s life, nothing will derail her.
Another characterization problem that can cause Saggy Middle Syndrome is moving too quickly or slowly through the character arc. Let’s say we start out with a heroine who is timid and afraid of fires, but who will be called upon to save someone from a house fire later in the book. Rather than showing her gaining courage subtly, through small, almost unnoticeable steps as the story progresses, we rush through the pivotal moments in her development so that she’s ready to face her ultimate challenge far too early. Or maybe we delay showing those small steps for too long, making the middle of the book long and dull and the end feel rushed.
If you establish the heroine as someone who is absolutely frozen in fear by the sight of fire because her mother was killed in a house fire when the heroine was a little girl, and she barely escaped with her own life, you having nothing new to share with the reader until the heroine’s ready to begin changing later in the book. You can solve that problem by letting her begin as someone who shows a strange reaction to fire in chapter one. Slowly reveal that she’s terrified of fire, that she was nearly trapped by a fire when she was young and, finally, that her mother was killed in that fire trying to rescue her. That final piece of information may not come until late in the book, and that’s okay.
Every story we write—every story we write—is a mystery. Readers pick up our stories to learn the answers to a handful of key questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Authors use the answers to those questions to create the mystery that will keep readers turning pages.
In genre fiction, such as romance, some of those questions are answered for us before the story begins. A romance reader knows the answer to “what” since she knows that the hero and heroine will end up together by the end of the book. Except in books containing an element of suspense, the reader knows “who”—the hero and heroine. She knows “why” they end up together—they’re deeply, madly, truly in love. After the first few lines of the book, she also knows “when” and “where.”  So “how” becomes the key question in a romance novel. It’s smart, then, to hold back some “what” and “why” answers to such things as the character’s past or the motivation pushing him to achieve a particular goal to reveal in the middle of the book.
With only one real burning question to carry a book through the saggy middle, a romance novelist has to be very careful not to reveal too much too soon. We are told again and again to make our characters sympathetic, so often we share too much information too soon, hoping to explain our characters so clearly that readers can’t help but identify. Instead, those information dumps often kill perfectly good romance novels before their time.
Keeping secrets from the reader is vital to bridging the saggy middle. Choose which secrets to keep, and which to reveal in each scene you write. Give the reader only the information she needs to move forward for now. There will be time to reveal more later. Choose which pieces of information will create natural turning points in your story and use them to do exactly that.
In Laura Abbott’s October 2003 Superromance, My Name Is Nell, the author holds back a key piece of information and uses it to create the book’s first turning point. She could have easily revealed the information in the heroine’s first scene but she chose not to—and the effect of learning it for the first time after the hero’s back story has been established, after the initial attraction between the two characters is firmly established, and after they’ve even developed a fledgling relationship is chilling.
Abbott couldn’t have chosen a better place to reveal the heroine’s secret. She was able to use her book’s middle to reveal the heroine’s back story little by little and firmly establish what kind of woman she is now. In doing so, Abbott was able to create a sympathetic heroine out of a character that may not have felt sympathetic to many readers. The result is a very satisfying read, and every part of the story was necessary.
What if the characters aren’t the problem? Sometimes a saggy middle means that we simply don’t have enough story to see us to the end. That wonderful plot that got you writing in the first place suddenly seems to dry up, leaving you with 100 or 200 pages left to write, but nothing to say.
One of the reasons this happens is that we haven’t included enough subplots.  In a romance, the plot is very simple—boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. What makes the story complicated is how you get them there and the way in which you choose and then weave in various subplots.
The beginning one-third of your book is devoted to setting up the situation by establishing your characters’ ordinary world(s), unveiling the problems they’ll face, and issuing the call to adventure. The last act of your book is devoted to the actual resolution of conflict, the black moment and the climactic ending. It helps to remember that the middle also has a definite role to play. The middle serves to pit the character against conflict in the form of people, places, or things. It exists to establish enemies and allies for your main character(s) and to move the characters relentlessly toward the black moment, when the character nearly loses all.
It’s when we forget that the middle serves a distinct and important function that we write ourselves into corners and find ourselves in an endless loop, showing the same things happening in different ways. The hero and heroine have met and a spark has ignited between them. Now we write scene after scene in which they feel and think about that attraction and all the reasons they can’t act upon it. The story isn’t moving forward, it’s sliding sideways and that makes it begin to feel stale.
We can use subplots at this stage to make things worse for the people in our stories. Sometimes those things will be obvious, sometimes not so obvious. This entire conglomeration of plot, subplots, conflicts, motivation, and increasing trouble is also called plot by most people in this industry—but I think that for many of us, , especially when we’re writing our first few books, thinking of this huge multi-layered thing as “the plot” can be overwhelming. Very often, this is what sends us into panic attacks, creates blocks in our writing, and keeps us from sitting down to actually write in the first place.
For our purposes here, “plot” is the main thread of my story—the romance between man and woman, the investigation into murder, the relationship between mother and daughter—whichever I’m focusing on, depending on the genre I’m writing.
“Subplots” are all of the other smaller stories, related or seemingly unrelated, that create conflicts or provide motivation, but which always affect the main plot in some crucial way—the rebellious daughter who hates mom’s new man, trouble on the job that throws a kink into their relationship, renovations on the house that prevent the sleuth from following leads, the ex-husband that mom blames the daughter for losing, and so on.
I also consider slowly unveiling the characters’ pasts to be a story line separate from the main plot even though it impacts the main plot directly and may be the catalyst for moving from one stage of the main plot to the next. Revealing that the hero is kind, loves children, but hates dogs may convince the heroine to fall in love with him. Revealing later in the book that he never sees his own child since his divorce may cause her to rethink her feelings and even leave him.
Once you’ve decided on plot and subplots, identify the turning points in each story thread, and then stagger them so that something is always changing. Maybe your hero and heroine are in that “We’ve established our attraction and now we’re just getting to know each other better” stage, but you can keep their scenes from feeling stale and repetitive by including a turning point from one of your story’s subplots.
That way, we get to watch the hero and heroine sip wine and listen to a Michael BublĂ© CD together as their relationship deepens, but we’re kept from becoming complacent by choosing that moment to send the story in a new direction by letting the dog run away, learning that the heroine’s mom has walked out on her dad, or letting the hero get a phone call telling him his business is on fire. Using this method is a great way to deepen characterization, add conflict, and underscore motivation, while keeping your story moving forward all the time. 
Instead of a plot that looks like this: 
INCITING INCIDENT. . . . . .TURNING POINT. . . . . . . [S-A-G-G-Y M-I-D-D-L-E]. . . . . . TURNING POINT. . . . . . END
You might have a plot that looks like this: 
INCITING INCIDENT. . . .TP. . . TP. . . .TP. . .TP. . .TURNING POINT. . . .TP. . . .TP. . .TP. . . .TP. . . . .END
I can’t end without mentioning conflict. A good, solid conflict or two can keep your story moving relentlessly forward. Weak conflict, anticipated conflict and remembered conflict are all causes of the saggy middle. Remember that conflict isn’t just a woman who was once in an abused relationship or a man left standing at the altar. Those are statements of fact, not conflict. They only become conflict if something equally strong is at work in your character’s life, pulling her in a different direction at the same time. She wants A and she wants B, and she can’t have both.
The abused woman who still has strong feelings for her abuser is in conflict. The man left standing at the altar who must be married by Christmas is in conflict. The woman who doesn’t believe in lying but must lie to save her child is in conflict. If the push and the pull aren’t equally strong, your conflict suffers and so does your book.
Be careful not to let your characters spend too much time thinking about the possibility of conflict, or your scenes may drag. Ditto if your characters frequently think about past conflict or if you create a current conflict that’s too easily resolved.
Strong characters with rich lives, backgrounds revealed one piece at a time, subplots with staggered turning points and strong realistic conflict are your best bets for avoiding the saggy middle—not just in your current work-in-progress, but in every book you write.
This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Romance Writers of America’s Romance Writers Report.

Dec 18, 2010

In and Out: Putting Characters in Conflict -- Available Now!

An intermediate workshop designed to help you create strong, believable, realistic conflict for your characters in every book you write. 

We’ll focus on the art and craft of conflict, both internal and external, and on weaving those conflicts together in ways that are fresh, exciting, and powerful enough to catch an editor’s eye. 
In this booklet, you’ll learn to understand how a character’s core beliefs create conflict, how internal and external conflicts work together, when to hang onto a character’s past and when to let it go, and much more! 

Go to and click on "Booklets for Download." 

Dancing on Coals Online Workshops

Dec 17, 2010

We Have a Winner!

Congratulations to Sandy Rowland, who just won a free copy of "In and Out: Putting Characters in Conflict." 

The booklet is now available on our website. Just follow the link below and click on the booklets tab at the top of your screen to get your own copy! 

20 "Rules" for Writers

1.    Believe in your talent.  Your desire to write is no accident. 

2.    Dare to imagine.

3.    Don’t think about publication while you’re creating. Your muse probably works well under certain types of pressure, but may shut down under the pressure of trying to make your book fit a publisher’s guidelines. Making it fit is a job for your internal editor. So create with joy and abandon. Write as if no one will ever read what you’ve written. You can always worry about “fixing” it later. 

4. Don’t undervalue your internal editor. She has a specific job to do, so when the time is right, move your creative self out of the way and let your editor get to work.

5.    Remember the reader’s journey.  Give her what she came for. Never make choices in your writing based on what’s easiest for you to do. It’s always about the reader.

6.    Don’t try to sound like a writer. It will kill your work.

7.    Leave your ego at the door. 

8.    Try something new every day. 

9.    Leave the page once in a while.  Get outside and live! 

10.  If what you’ve been doing isn’t bringing you the success you’re looking for, try something else.

11.  Writer’s block may just mean that you’re approaching your work from the wrong perspective. The muse often shuts down when we try to force the wrong thing onto the page. 

12.  Accept change. 

13.  Don’t expect approval for telling the truth. 

14.  Every experience in your life has purpose -- both the good and the bad.  Embrace them all.  They’re here to give you something to say. 

15.  Remember that novel writers are, by nature, risk-takers. Take risks. 

16.  Forget about critics. Reviews, both good and bad, can impact your creativity negatively. If the review is bad, you’ll begin to doubt yourself and your talent. If the review is good, you’ll either worry about whether you can do it again, or you’ll begin to believe your own press and lose the hunger that gave you that edge.

17.  Forget your parents, your siblings, your children and your neighbors when you sit down to write. 

18.  Tell your truth and the truth of your characters.  Don’t worry about anyone else’s. 

19.  What you don’t write does not exist in your characters’ world. 

20.  There are no rules

Dancing on Coals Online Workshops

Dec 16, 2010

Act, Don't React

It may sound like simple advice, but "Act, don't react" is one of the most powerful things I know about writing.

Characters who are motivated by a negative desire are very difficult to motivate and move through a book as you write it.  When I say a "negative desire," I mean that the character wants an absence of something in their life. He wants to not accomplish something, or he wants to avoid something.  Maybe the character wants to avoid being fired. Maybe she wants to avoid a divorce. Maybe he wants to not get behind in paying his bills. She wants to not argue with her mother. He wants to not go back to his home town. She doesn’t want to work with her ex-husband on the big case. He wants to not have problems with the remodeling job he’s just contracted.  She wants to not fall in love ever again. 

So what's wrong with that?

Simply this: These people are reactors, not actors. Even though they’re very much like a great many real people, it’s extremely difficult to build reader identification with these people because they are not in control of their lives, and they are not really making any attempt to be in control. 

The fact is that if my hero really and truly wants to not return to his home town, it’s extremely difficult to make him go and still convince the reader that I’m telling the truth. If he really doesn’t want to go, he won’t go.  Period.  End of question.  It won't matter what reason I throw at him. So if I toss a reason at him and he caves in, all the pages I spent blathering about how he didn’t want to go now feel dishonest to the reader.

And that breaks the one and only real rule I have when it comes to writing. Never lie. Never ever lie.

I have found, through much struggle and hours of bashing my head against brick walls, that the best way to build reader identification is to give your character a goal that she is actively working toward. To make her sympathetic, regardless of what that goal is, she must have a plan for reaching it. It’s not enough to want. It’s not enough to hope. It’s not enough to dream. The character must have a plan and be brave enough to take the steps required to achieve it.

To tell the reader that the heroine desperately wants to keep her book store open, but then allow her to be buffeted by the winds of change, making her someone who reacts to people and events around her instead of someone who acts, is to be dishonest with your readers. If she is truly desperate, she will be the one to take action, and each time she runs into a setback, she’ll change course and try again.

People whose motivation is to avoid something will avoid it. If they don't want to go to the company Christmas party, they won't go. If they specifically (and honestly) want not to fall in love again, they will go to any lengths to avoid anyone who might make them change their minds.

Sometimes we mistake this struggle for conflict -- but it's a "conflict" on the surface only, and it’s not one that works well over the course of a novel because it's one-sided.  Conflict isn't conflict without two sides of equal strength.  The guy who honestly doesn't want to meet women will not start up a conversation with the flame-haired beauty by the punch-bowl. It’s just not going to happen. If you try to force him to do it, the scene you write will ring false to the reader. Either the character is being dishonest with the reader about what he wants or you are being dishonest in what you tell the reader. Either way, once the reader feels that you have veered from the truth, you’re in trouble.

Now turn that guy into the last bachelor in his group, someone who longs for love and commitment as much as he fears it or believes himself incapable of sustaining it, and you have real internal conflict. Both sides of the question have an equal pull on him, and the ensuing internal struggle is real and honest. This guy will step up to the punch-bowl and have a conversation with that stunning red-head, even though he argues silently with himself after every word he speaks aloud.

When we give our characters negative motivations and then force them to act against their will, we make victims of our characters. No person who is really made into a victim can feel strong and sympathetic to the reader. Maybe the Woman In Jeopardy is victimized for a few minutes, but what makes us like her and keep reading is the way she fights back.

Think about which of these two people you identify with most, and which you feel most sympathetic toward:

Deirdre is a 32-year-old woman who has been beleaguered by debt since her mother’s funeral. She has tried everything to get a loan, but no one will help her. After a particular harsh weekend during which she dodged bill collectors and process servers, Deirdre closes up her apartment and drives across three states to move in with a friend. If she’s lucky, she’ll find a job and maybe earn money before the bill collectors catch up to her.

Belle is a 32-year old woman who has been beleaguered by debt since her mother’s funeral. Belle has tried everything to get a loan, but no one will help her. After a particular harsh weekend during which she dodged bill collectors and process servers, Belle becomes desperate and takes a part-time job as a belly dancer in the evenings. She’s embarrassed and she doesn’t want anyone to know--especially not the members of her church group--but if she keeps her nose to the grindstone for six months, she’ll be debt free and able to concentrate entirely on her law career.

I think most of us like to believe that we’re the take-charge type who act instead of react, who move forward instead of stepping back when challenges arise. Because we want to believe that about ourselves, we are more likely to identify with and cheer for the character who takes charge, even if we don’t agree with the decisions she makes.

Before THE CHRISTMAS WIFE (Harlequin Superromance, November 2003) became an actual book, I struggled with the story for a year or more -- not with the actual writing of it, but with the conceiving of it. It's a reunion story, and the seed germinated when I was listening to the Toby Keith song, "How Do You Like Me Now?" There’s a book in that song, I said to myself, and I decided right then and there to write it -- but not the story Toby Keith told, and not until I could find an honest plot and people who felt real to me.

For months, I toyed with having the hero leave town shortly after graduation and stay away for years because of some incident. The hero was, of course, in love with the heroine all through school, but he never told her. Sound familiar? Well, it should. There have only been about a million romances written with that identical plot. And while there's nothing wrong with that, those of us trying to write the tried-and-true plots today had better include something that makes it different. 

I spent months (on and off) searching for the one thing that would make my story different. I tried to stay away from the tried-and-true story where the hero was a bad boy who got in trouble with the law. That’s been done. Besides, my own personal past just won’t allow me to find a convicted felon attractive no matter how tight his jeans are, or to believe that the kid who was in serious trouble all through high school has turned out to be a productive member of society. Could happen, but not in my personal experience, and I wasn't interested in hanging around any hero who fits that bill long enough to find out.

My personal truth is that bad boys are a whole lot of trouble with very little redeeming social value. I can’t write something I personally believe to be untrue and make a reader believe that it is true, so that particular plot was out for me.

I took the hero through many different incarnations during the months I struggled with the story's concept. He was a boy raised by loving parents, a boy raised by foster parents who were mean to him, a boy raised by foster parents who were nice to him, a boy raised by a loving aunt, a boy raised by grandparents. In every incarnation, I searched for the Inciting Incident that drove my hero away from Serenity, Wyoming in the first place (not so tough) and kept him away for 15 long years (big, big trouble!)

In every incarnation, my hero felt selfish and childish for refusing to set foot back in the town where he was raised -- and in every incarnation, every word I wrote felt like a lie because Beau/Nick/Jonah/Mark/Wyatt was actually not a surly vagabond who avoided Serenity like the plague. In reality, he was a friendly sort of guy who likes people and is well-liked in return. He proved that to me every time he came on stage, and each time I tried to force him to be something he wasn’t, I was being dishonest -- with him, with myself, with my readers.

After much gnashing of teeth, I decided to let the hero be what he is anyway, and to send the heroine away instead. (I wish I could come to these brilliant conclusions much faster than I do, but if wishes were fishes . . .) Anyway, I worked on that idea for at least a month, writing and re-writing scenes in which Emily/Kate/Annie/Libby/Molly comes back to town for some reason. I created an abusive ex-husband to keep her away, but that didn't work. She was too jumpy, and (again from my own experience) women who are too recently out of an abusive relationship are not heroine material. I created an abusive step-father to keep her away, but that just made her even more determined to not come back to Serenity where he was living. So weeks passed and I kept running up against a huge brick wall and getting nowhere.

Finally, I resolved once again to start over. I spent most of one day re-plotting the book with yet another scenario in mind, yet another set of circumstances, yet another motivating emotion. And then it finally occurred to me for the first time what my mistake was. I'd been trying to work with a heroine who was reacting rather than acting,  She didn't want to come back to Serenity, but I was turning her into a victim over and over again by coming up with ideas that would force her to return. 

But let’s say I made her come back -- why would she attend the homecoming parade? The game? Why would she go to the dance? The truth is, she wouldn't. Either she's lying about not wanting to be there, or I was lying when I said she did all these things. But I needed her to do all those things. I needed her to walk with the hero and spend time with his kids. If she didn't, how could I convince the reader that they would all be emotionally safe together by the end of the book?

The only way my story would work is if Molly wanted to be in Serenity and wanted to take part in every activity that came along. Anything else would have been dishonest, and the reader will always feel when you’re being dishonest with her. Always. You simply can’t hide a lie when you write one. It’s impossible.

Once I discovered the true reason Molly left town, I didn't have to force her back home again because she went willingly. She went because she was curious to know what happened to her old friends. She went because her recent divorce left her feeling adrift and she was searching for a place to belong. She went because in the process of being unhappily married, she forgot who she was. She’d lost her dreams, and she wanted to find them again. And most of all, she went back to Serenity to find out what really happened the night her mother died.

My advice to you is to look at the people in your current work in progress. Are they working actively toward something, or are they just busy trying to avoid something? Do they begin each scene with a specific goal in mind? Something they can accomplish in this moment? Or do they begin each scene with the same old desire to avoid the same old thing? Are they strong active characters, or are they victims of their own circumstances? 

After you study your own work, take a look at some of your favorite books written by other authors. I think you'll discover that the people you've enjoyed reading about most are those who are taking active steps to accomplish something specific rather than those who muddle through trying to avoid something -- those who act rather than react.