National Novel Writing Month Prep with Tracey Kathryn
November is a special month for writers. It’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and its goal is to get as many words written for a new novel as possible. It’s a fantastic thirty-day challenge that is exhilarating and draining at the same time. In honor of the event, I’m offering tips about tackling the “messy middle” for both the September and October blog posts.
According to Larry Brooks, genre fiction has a specific structure that includes the set-up, response, attack, and resolution. Each block is set up as a rough quartile. So, the messy middle is fifty percent of the book, and it includes the protagonist’s response and attack to events.
This month, I suggest preparing for the November writing month by jotting ideas for a novel, if you’re inclined to begin a new one. Or, perhaps you’re revising an old one. (Read more about prep season here.) Select a genre, a protagonist, an antagonist, and an inciting incident. With that knowledge, consider how the middle will unfold. The protagonist’s response and attack are what you’ll focus on. To do this, I suggest tips including seeing scenes (chapters, essentially) as a series of lights on a string; being flexible with endings of scenes; and being open to rearranging scenes after most of the middle has been written.
See the Scenes as a Series of Lights on a String
The first block of the middle of a novel is the protagonist’s response to the inciting incident, which occurred during the set-up. If you know what that incident is and have it outlined but don’t want to write it, tackle the response. Jump in without completing the set-up.
I say that because with my first-year Composition students, I suggest they write the body paragraphs of a five-paragraph essay first. They must have a thesis statement, of course, but if they know the key claims of their three-point thesis, there’s no better way to understand the material than to compose the body paragraphs. Writing those paragraphs sparks ideas and starts the flow of words from their minds to their fingers to the keyboard.
Composing the middle section of a novel, the response and attack, does something similar. You’re researching and learning about characters while writing scenes (or chapters) that include them. You’ll discover more about the protagonist, antagonist, and supporting players as you create conflict within their lives. Each light of the scene is the conflict. Write to it. Keep the conflict in mind as you build the scene. After several chapters, the light string will become apparent, as will the pace. Longer chapters will contrast with the shorter ones. The longer the string between the lights, the slower the pace. As you build scenes, the pace will emerge. It can be adjusted later, when or if you decide to rearrange scenes.
You Don’t Need the Perfect Ending to a Scene
If you see scenes as a series of lights on a string, write each scene to its light, or conflict point. Then, if the words aren’t coming to transition your protagonist to his next conflict, write a few sentences as reminders of what needs to happen, then move on. Many times, I’ve gone back after a few days and the scene ending came easily. It flowed directly onto the page. I’d been overthinking it. Time away allowed me to see what was needed. Also, I was fresh-eyed when I re-read the chapter. There is a benefit to leaving a section of your novel behind, then reviewing it after a few days. Time away from a scene offers a new perspective. Trust that the words will come after you’ve written further into your novel.
Rearrange the Scenes, Then Have Fun Spicing Them Up
The scenes you’re writing for the response and attack likely will remain in their respective quadrant, but scenes can be rearranged within those quadrants on an author’s god-like whim. The beauty of writing is that the author controls the timeline. If Cousin Louella needs to discover the clown-nose clue earlier in the mystery story, then so be it. It will be done. The clown-nose scene can be inserted where it best fits. Especially after a substantial section of the middle has been written. References to the clown-nose clue can be built in, as well. Once the scenes of the messy middle are created, the fun begins. That’s when the finer details of the story can be added. If a red clown nose is a key clue to finding the killer, then by golly, I’m going to insert subtle references to red colors, red noses, and clowns to offer crumbs for my reader.
November is a great time to tackle a novel. The goal of the month-long writing exercise is to get as many words on the page as possible. To do this, I suggest focusing on the middle of a novel, as long as there’s an idea of genre, inciting incident, and main players. Seeing the scenes, or chapters, as lights on a string provides a guide to quickly moving through the response and attack quadrants. While writing to the light, or conflict, you’ll learn about the characters and discover the pace of your novel. Leave scenes behind if you don’t have the perfect ending. As you become more familiar with your characters, abandoned scene endings will become easier to write. Finally, writing the scenes of the messy middle can be overwhelming. Writing to the conflict of each scene along with a focus on speed can be stressful. It can diminish the fun of writing. But controlling the timeline, rearranging scenes, and “decorating” them with the breadcrumbs of clues helps put the joy back into novel writing.
Happy fall, writers. Stay safe. ~ Tracey Kathryn