Posted On August 23, 2013 by Print This Post

Beating the Sloggy, Saggy, Soggy Middle with Heather Webb

RU contributor and editor Heather Webb returns with fantastic advice on tackling the muddling middle of a story. 

Hello, Heather!

Something horrible happens when I hit the middle of a first draft. The middle is just…the middle…the long, rambling second act. As soon as I arrive at that no-man’s land midpoint, it suddenly feels like I’m wading in mud waist-deep. All I can see are characters that sound the same, weak plot points, and I get STUCK and SUCK wind with a capital “S”. I start questioning myself. Should I scrap these pathetic pages? Is this novel complete tripe? For camaraderie and a kick in the pants, I bang on the chat room door of a writer friend. Invariably the conversation goes something like this:

Me: Do you feel like a hack when you’re writing the first draft?

Her: Yes. Are you in the middle?

Me: How did you know?

Her: I always feel like a phony when I hit the middle. Then I worry that the novel won’t sell—

Me: And then you won’t be able to pay your bills.

Her: And then you’ll lose your house.

Me: And your dreams.

Her: Yep. But the middle is the worst. Keep going. You’ll figure out the REAL problem. And remember, there’s always editing.

Me: Thank God for editing.

No matter how many novels you’ve written, these nasty feelings pop up and fairly often. So how do we combat these negative vibes, Heather Webb Smilingand more importantly, how do you FIX the problem? Because let’s face it. If the writing seems that terrible, it probably means something isn’t quite right. Let’s take a look at some sure-fire steps to shake the funk and the doubt, and hunt down the REAL problem. We’ll break it down into three levels.

The first is the…


Are there big picture problems with the draft?

1.  Reorganize  If you’re really stuck, chances are, something is out of whack and needs to be moved or cut. Look at your outline. If you’re a pantser and don’t have one, try to draft an outline, at the very least, of the scenes you’ve already written. This will give you a feel for the pacing as well as the direction your arc is taking. It may also help you ascertain any issues you’re having with raising the stakes.

2.  Research  Perhaps the problem is that you don’t have enough information about a character, an event, or even a prop needed to carry the scene. Spend some time digging for more information. Again, look at your outline. Weave these new-found tidbits into the scenes. Research can unlock the deadlock you’re experiencing. 

3.  Remember that it’s just your first draft. They’ll be plenty of time to revise.


Now take out a magnifying class and look at each individual scene as you progress forward.

Ask yourself a series of questions:

1.  Is there conflict in this scene? Is it external or internal? Be sure there’s not just conflict, but tension. Without drama or the hint of impending drama of some sort, you don’t have a story. Certainly not an interesting one.

2.  What’s the point of this scene? Does it move the plot forward? If you don’t know the point, then FIND one and weave it in, or delete the scene altogether.

3.  Is it a transition scene that’s soggy and draggy? Find a way to make it funny, or unique, or inject more tension, even if its naval gazing tension. 


10 Minute Warm-Up: Pull out a pad of paper before your “real” writing begins. Scribble down a few notes about what you’d like to accomplish in your manuscript that day. Now think about what you’d like this next scene to convey. These notes are a great way to stretch and jog your brain before you dive in. You may even find the words flowing right away on the page.

Small Goals: After a rough day or a slew of crummy days, writing-related or otherwise, a very small goal can get you going. Aim for a lowly one hundred words on the page—even if they’re terrible. Just get them down! Often a miraculous thing happens. Not only do you meet this tiny little goal, but you exceed it.

Work with Sprint Partners: This is one of my favorite ways to get motivated. Hook up with a writing partner or friend, or even a friendly acquaintance on Facebook or Twitter. Set a short chunk of time, say thirty minutes or an hour. (It’s important to keep the time a shortish period so that you don’t meander on the web or decide to clean your toilets in the middle of your sprint. It helps keep the pressure high.) Next, there are two ways to go about your sprints: 1.) race against your partner for the highest word count, or 2.) you and your partner each set your own goal. At the end of the allotted time, report back to your partner. Peer pressure is a beautiful thing. It works. I promise. You don’t want to be the jerk who doesn’t meet their goal.

Above all, keep going!: Many of these issues work themselves out in editing, so don’t give up! Push on until THE END.


How do you write your way out when you’re hip-deep in No Man’s Land? 


RU co-founder, Kelsey Browning, joins us on Monday, August 26th.


Bio: As a freelance editor, Heather spends oodles of time helping writers find their voice and hone their skills–something she adores. She may often be found twittering helpful links, sharing writing advice and author interviews on her blog Between the Sheets, or teaching novel writing in her community. Her favorite haunts are right here at the fabulous Romance and the award-winning where she poses as Twitter mistress. She may also be found at The Debutante Ball, a site about the journey to publication for debut novelists.

Her first women’s historical, BECOMING JOSEPHINE: A NOVEL, has already been featured in The Wall Street Journal and releases as a lead title from Plume/Penguin December 31, 2013.

Visit her blog: or find her on Twitter @msheatherwebb



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12 Responses to “Beating the Sloggy, Saggy, Soggy Middle with Heather Webb”

  1. Hi Heather,

    I’m currently stuck in the middle with my WIP. I start a list of people, places, and things I want them to encounter. Then insert them in the story. Right now, they are heading to the zoo.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | August 23, 2013, 7:10 am
  2. Excellent tips. Thanks, Heather!

    Posted by Lydia Sharp | August 23, 2013, 7:14 am
  3. I had a teacher tell me to finish the novel you’re working on no matter how much you hate it for 2 reasons: 1) it’s probably better than you think and 2) you need to practice writing endings.

    Posted by Jessica Flory | August 23, 2013, 10:56 am
  4. Hello, Heather!

    Great tips! I’ve done sprints in the past and it’s amazing how many words pop onto the page. I’ve learned that outlines help a lot. I try to conceptualize the story from beginning to end and jot down a lot of notes. I can’t start writing unless I know how the story ends, but that’s not to say the end won’t change as the story develops. I’ll also write a scene later in the story if I’m stuck on previous scenes and then backtrack. Weird, but it works for me!

    Thanks for another terrific post!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 23, 2013, 12:38 pm
  5. Great post, Heather! This is so helpful.

    Sometimes, when I’m stuck in the middle, I ask myself “what’s the worst possible thing that could happen to these characters right now…” and I write it in. I know I can always cut it or revise it later, but sometimes that “worst case scenario” ends up jump-starting the narrative in awesome ways. (In fact, one of those jump-starts ended up staying IN – and my second novel is stronger for it!)

    Posted by Susan SPann | August 23, 2013, 2:02 pm
  6. Evening Heather!

    This is a great list! I get stuck all the time, and it’s generally me taking a wrong turn somewhere and writing myself into the figurative corner. If I backtrack, I can generally find where I’ve wandered off.

    And I love doing sprints. =) They’re a great way to force yourself to write and stick with it – even if it’s only 15 min or more!

    Great post, thanks so much!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 23, 2013, 10:34 pm
  7. Heather,

    Great tips, and perfect timing! I’m doing a structural edit and I’m in the middle right now. Literal words to crit partner went something like this: I hate my middle, it drags, it’s crap writing, I’m going to delete the whole thing!

    But, once I went through it I discovered I had addressed much of this concern on previous edit rounds and was able to focus on the braid of weaving in tension, upping stakes, tweaking dialogue and as a result increasing pacing. The braided middle is in much better shape and this article helped. Thank you!


    Posted by G. Donald Cribbs | August 24, 2013, 8:09 am
  8. Great blog. Thanks! I’ll be sharing this with my writing class.

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | August 30, 2013, 7:26 pm

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