One of the things that drew me to writing in the first place and has kept me at it so long, is the gratification I get from finding the right word. It’s what the French call le mot juste – that word that exactly fits the meaning I’m after, while maintaining the rhythm or “music” embedded in the sentences, phrases and syllables. Sometimes that word remains elusive no matter how hard I search. But when I do find it, I’m rewarded with a frisson of pleasure.
I know not all fiction writers are drawn to the craft for the same reason, so I wouldn’t want to assume that other writers get off on the same thing. But I do suspect most experience a deep satisfaction when they find a way to achieve an effect they’re striving for.
Occasionally the right word comes to me quickly and easily, but more often it takes a long time. It usually requires “trying on” several different words and often running it by a friend or fellow writer to get an idea of its impact on another person.
The time this search takes doesn’t pay off in any kind of rational or economic way. Nor does it have the effect on all readers that I’m striving for. Many people read mostly for story and don’t pay much attention to word choice. As long as it’s clear what’s happening, they’re happy. Others read quickly – almost skimming – and don’t weigh the impact of specific words. But I search anyway. It’s a quiet but deeply addictive pleasure that makes me look forward to my writing time.
It struck me the other day how much this hunt for the right word contrasts with our hurry-up, time-and-efficiency-obsessed culture. Spending so much time over something so small as a word drastically reduces my “output” and slows down the whole process of writing a novel or a poem.
Oddly, that’s what makes it worthwhile. When I’m determined to get the word right and willing to employ the patience and perseverance to find it, then I feel whole. I’m living from the inside out. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Novelists know how important beginnings and endings are. Writing advice books spend many pages emphasizing their importance. It’s easy to get the impression that your novel’s success hinges entirely on the first couple of pages. Or that if your ending doesn’t give the reader a frisson of satisfaction, you’ve failed. Books and articles offer thoughtful advice along with tips and tricks to help. That a lot of this advice has proved useful is reflected in the current crop of novels. They usually have riveting beginnings and solid endings. But sometimes they sag in the middle.
The middle is the longest part of the novel and takes the longest time to write. It’s easy for the writer to get bogged down and feel stuck writing the middle. At least that happens to me. I often feels as if I’m sloggiing through a foggy swamp without being able to see where I’m heading. Like the 1970’s rock song, “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel, “I’m “wondering what it is I should do . . . losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place, Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”
It’s frustrating and hard to be stuck in the middle with my characters – and with myself. But over time I’ve learned to pay attention to one thing is particular – my own level of interest. Frustration and confusion are to be expected – they’re part of the deal when it comes to writing. But boredom isn’t. When I start to feel bored with the story or the scene because it seems predictable or monotonous, then I know I’ve gone off-track and I need to introduce some element that will increase the tension and stimulate my interest.
There are many ways to do this, from introducing a new character complication to jumping ahead in time. The biggest obstacle to making these anti-boredom changes is your own idea of where the novel’s going. If you’re one of those writers who maps out all the plot points in advance – or even if you have only a vague sense of where you’re headed but you know you need to get from point A to point B – you can easily get in your own way. Amping up the tension is crucial to keeping you – and the reader – interested.
So when you feel “stuck in the middle,” remember that it may be time to throw away the map and go exploring.