INSIDE THE ART, CRAFT AND BUSINESS OF WRITING for Film, TV, Books, Stage, Print or Digital Media (with Particular Attention to Comedy)
I was a guest on Kelly Carlin’s podcast this week and we were discussing the dreaded middle of a writing project – you know, that stretch where you run out of momentum and feel like you’ve come to a complete standstill? To elaborate on our conversation, I’m posting this relevant excerpt from my book:
“Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.” – Mickey Spillane
When, in the course of human events, you experience a profound loss of momentum in the middle of your rough draft, don’t panic. (It often happens at the turn from the 1st to the 2nd Act and / or the turn from the 2nd Act into the 3rd Act. This is perfectly normal and natural. It happens to (almost) everyone with (almost) every project. The middle of the rough draft can be rough.
WRITERS ADVISORY: If your writing is still flowing, and has NOT ground to a halt, skip this—I don’t want to give you any bad ideas.
1. Step by Step—Keep your head down. Don’t think about how much more work there is to do in the whole project. Don’t think about the big picture. Just keep writing one scene, one beat, one chunk, one idea, one sentence at a time. This is your practice. This is what you do. You write. Word by word. Chunk by chunk. Step by step.
2. Review your Outline—Hollywood screenwriter & indie filmmaker Julie Talen says to pay attention to where you stall out: If you lose momentum around the turn into the 2nd act it may be because you have a premise or a situation but not a story. Does your story really have a beginning, middle and end? Do the characters evolve? Do you know what you’re writing towards? If you stall out around the mid-point, Talen says it’s because you haven’t committed to, or have lost interest in, your story.
3. Make an Outline (or Revise the One You Already Have)—Sometimes the stall-out happens because you skipped Phase 2 and haven’t been working from an Outline. If that’s the case, don’t waste time beating yourself up, just make an Outline now. If you can sell yourself the Outline as a viable template for the project, get back to drafting. If not, go back to Phase 2 and try another method of outlining until you have a viable plan.
4. Pitch Your Project—Try telling your story, ideally to at least 2 people: one who has heard it before and one who hasn’t. If you get lost in the pitch or things get vague or boring, see if that happens in the same place both times. If that happens to be where you lost momentum in the writing process too, you’ve found your problem area. Revisit the major set-ups that lay the groundwork for that story point (character motivations, plot twists, etc.). Then make a new outline and proceed to draft that content. If the project continues to pitch well, then there’s no objective ‘problem’ with the project and you just have to renew your commitment.
5. Renew Your Commitment—You have now officially lost perspective and have to rely on the work you did in Phase 1 & 2, and the green-lights you got from others, to bolster your motivation. Try to re-kindle your initial enthusiasm for the project, and remember your original vision. Revisit, reaffirm and / or update the original goals you set out at the beginning of Phase 1. Listen to the music or look at the inspirational images you gathered and reconnect to that original spirit. If you can’t get back to your seminal motivation(s), maybe your motivation for the project has changed. That’s fine too.
Either way, now you have a new set of motivations to finish the draft:
a) The thrill of actually creating something, however flawed
b) The satisfaction of following through on a commitment (and you don’t want to be a quitter)
c) You now finally believe me when I say you can’t really know if it’s any good until you finish a draft and step back from it anyway, and you’re pretty curious to see if you can really pull it off.
d) OMG, what if it really is a brilliant work of genius that will bring you wealth, fame and accolades—but someone else gets there first!? Stop gloating. Time is of the essence!
6. Assemble Your Draft So-Far (Digital)—If you’ve been writing in one big file, double-check the sequence of material to make sure it’s in the right order—and make sure you insert a header. If you’ve been writing in multiple small files, keep those, but now is a good time to copy the content of all the small files and paste it into one big file in roughly the order you think it goes. Make sure to add a header.
You can keep generating material in small individual files if you like. The single unified file may now be getting so big that it’s physically challenging to work with, but it makes searching and printing a lot easier. Speaking of printing out . . .
7. Assemble Your Draft So-Far (Paper)—If you’ve been printing out small files of material as you go, you may already have accumulated a decent stack of paper by now. I hope you already included headers in each individual small file. If you didn’t, go ahead and write the date on the latest drafts of each section now by hand, then put all pieces into roughly the order you think they’ll go in and number the pages manually. If you haven’t been printing out small pieces as you write them, go ahead and digitally assemble all the pieces, with a header, and print out the whole thing now. Put as much of your draft as you have in a 3-ring or manuscript binder.
The middle is usually an exciting, often scary and sometimes overwhelming stage of the writing process. If you’ve been generating material for a while, by now you’re dealing with tens and hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words—and most of them aren’t even right yet. Sometimes it can get confusing, especially when you start re-ordering printed pages, so take it slow.
The act of printing out and / or assembling the first half (or third or quarter) of the rough draft (even though it’s the roughest patchwork version of your project) is often an important tipping point when your project transforms from an idea of something-that-could-exist into a material embodiment of something that is.
It’s common to feel a subconscious (or conscious) hesitancy to print out because that’s the moment when your dream takes the first step into the material world. That usually gives way to an exhilaration which, if you play your cards right and use the momentum, can propel you to the end of the draft. Because now you realize that your project actually exists in the material world: You can hold it. Leaf through it. Make notes on it. Build on it. Now your project is real.
8. Add Something New—Maybe you’re stalled because you’re bored. Maybe your story is too flat and there isn’t enough happening. If you can’t keep yourself interested, how will you hold a reader / audience? Try adding a story twist, reverse or radical escalation in the second act. But try hard to make sure the new thing doesn’t change everything you’ve already done, which will require that you rewrite everything and set you back to the beginning of the drafting process.
9. Cut Something Out—Maybe your project is too complicated; you’ve planned for too much material, too many subplots or too many characters. It’s always OK to simplify as you go. Trim the sails. Maybe that whole character and / or subplot can leave this project and become the beginning of a whole new project. If you get to a beat in the outline that doesn’t seem right, you can skip it and move on. You can come back and draft it later, or you may realize that it really is un-necessary.
10. Get Some Gentle Feedback—Consider carefully who can . . .
a) Reassure you that you’re on track
b) Warn you if you’re off-track and / or
c) Help you get back on track
WRITERS ADVISORY: You are at a very delicate point in the process. Be very careful whom you’re asking for feedback. The wrong input from the wrong person at this point can undermine your confidence and stop progress indefinitely.
11. Make a List of Potential Readers—Don’t contact any of them yet, just start brainstorming a list of anyone who could possibly read the rough draft when you’re done. This will . . .
a) Make the project more real
b) Make the completion of the draft more tangible
c) Make you think about specific readers as you write
d) Create a sense of obligation to deliver something to someone
12. Take a Break—This could mean working on another project or doing something else all together. If you’re in the middle of a draft and there’s no fatal flaw, it’s way better to complete the draft—especially if you’re a Serial Starter.
WRITERS ADVISORY: Taking a break is a last resort, but if all else fails you may have to step away from the project (temporarily).
You don’t have to be stuck to benefit from one or more of these tactics either. The middle of your first time through the material is like the middle of the ocean: you’ve left one shore far behind, but can’t yet see the other. You’re in uncharted waters. The seas can get stormy. Rogue waves can capsize you. You start to question your course or doubt the project all together. You’re hungry / tired / cranky / lonely.
You’ve already put so much work into this, but there’s still so much more to do. There’s no end in sight. You feel demoralized, exhausted and / or overwhelmed.
Remember that these feelings are just feelings. Nothing has changed since last week when you had confidence in the project and momentum in your drafting—except maybe your story and / or prose have drifted from the plan or you’re working through a section of the plan that might be imperfect.
It doesn’t matter what you feel if you can keep writing. Remember the goal: get to the end of the draft.
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This material is excerpted from “How To Be A Writer Who Writes: Strategies and Tactics to Start and Finish Your Book or Script” by Greg Miller. Get the book for Kindle or any other e-book formats.
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Brilliant art is by Marco Puccini