Muddling through the Murky Middle

Although this is my first post for the Mixed-Up Files, I decided to write about middles. What better place than a blog devoted to middle grade books to examine the middles of stories, and specifically, how to muddle through them. I admit, this is a challenge for me, and I think (I hope) for other authors, too. It’s like rowing a boat across a really murky lake. I can see both shores clearly. I know my beginning, and I can completely visualize the end, but then there’s that whole lake to get across. That whole muddy lake, with floating tree branches, weird looking fish, deep water, icky brown stuff, and who knows what else lurking beneath the surface? How do I get from here to there without straying off course, or worse, sinking?

Working on my second middle grade novel, it seemed I was over-thinking everything — from characters to plot to pacing to…okay…the whole point of the story. Actually, I was stuck. In the middle of the lake. Not sure how to paddle ahead. My inner critic was working overtime, and I was getting worn out.

So I did what most writers need to do at some point. I put the novel aside and gave myself a mental break. During this time, I decided to find out: who navigates middles really well? What do they know that I don’t?

I took four of my all-time favorite middle grade books: Holes by Louis Sachar; So B. It by Sarah Weeks; Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles; and Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, curled up in my favorite chair, and did a “middle experiment.” I placed my thumb smack dab in the middle of each of these terrific books to attempt to solve this whole middle mystery. And here’s what I discovered.

In the middle of Holes, Stanley finds out Zero’s real name, plus in the historical part of the story, Sam is shot. Then there are these three amazing sentences. “Since then, not one drop of rain has fallen on Green Lake. You make the decision. Whom did God punish?”

In the middle of So B. It, Heidi meets Georgia Sweet on her bus ride and muses: “I had begun to think that certain things that seem to happen by accident don’t really happen by accident at all.”

In the middle of Love, Ruby Lavender, the Town Operetta is announced and the chicks are peeping and ready to hatch. And, in Esperanza Rising‘s middle, Esperanza, adjusting to her new life, takes a bath for the first time without her servant helping her bathe and dress.

Ta da! All of these “middles,” I realized, have a few elements in common:

1. The reader finds out something important (no rain fell on Green Lake), or gets a clue to a puzzle in the story (Zero’s real name is Hector Zeroni).

2. Something happens that will connect to the ending (the chicks are peeping).

3. The main character has a moment of insight (things don’t happen by accident).

4. There is a turning point (Esperanza finds out she can do something she never did before).

I jotted these words down: important, clue, connect, insight, turning point. But then I realized something else. In the middles of these books, the characters are also lost. On their journeys, searching for answers. Not sure how to forge ahead.

Just like I was, in the middle of my murky lake.

And I thought, gasp, what if being stuck in the middle is a good thing? Maybe it’s okay to be lost for a while. In fact, maybe I need to be stuck in order to figure out how to get to the end. What if not being sure where to head could prompt me to think outside of the box, or, um, water? Are the tree branches, weird fish, deep water, and icky brown stuff supposed to be there; all part of the grand plan? They’re just rough patches to navigate around, bumps along the way, places I need to row a little harder…each one bringing me closer to the opposite shore. When I pictured them like that, they seemed less like obstacles and more like challenges. After all, what would writing — or anything in life — be without challenges?

Now I have a different way of thinking about middles. I’ve decided it’s the perfect place to stop, let go of the oars, rest, look around, and listen to the stillness. And have faith that at some point, the right path will come floating my way, like a lily pad that was there all along.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House 2011). She’s happy to report that after floating around for a while, she recently completed draft #1 of book #2. Yay! Visit her at www.micheleweberhurwitz.com.

 

19 Responses to Muddling through the Murky Middle

  1. Sheila Brodhead

    very helpful and inspiring information! great article– thanks

  2. Your post makes me feel so much better! Now I know I’m not alone. I’m currently in the middle of my third book and floundering a bit, but now I know it will all eventually work out.

  3. Congratulations Michele on getting through the middle and onto a first draft of your second story. I liked your suggestion of getting away from the story for awhile. It has certainly helped me to go out and exercise my own middle before coming back to reduce the too large one I had in my story. Sometimes the lake needs to be smaller.

  4. Love how you analyzed books you like, and your helpful insights. Thanks!