In the NaNoWriMo community, the “muddy middle” has a twofold definition: it can refer to the middle of the month, when the challenge can feel at its toughest: somewhere around the two-week mark, you might begin to feel burnt out, uninspired, and just plain tired of your project. Not everyone experiences the muddy middle, but it is an effect of NaNoWriMo that happens often enough to earn this name!
The “muddy middle” is also a term used for the middle of the first draft of a novel (much like the one you might be writing now), which can get bogged down in confused plot points, forgotten characters, new developments, and any number of other aspects that end up here as you are writing along. Compared to the beginning, which can feel freeing and exciting, and the ending, which comes with relief and a sense of satisfaction, the middle of your manuscript is the Wednesday of the week: a hump we all must get over.
If you’re currently stuck in the muddy middle, we’re here to offer some advice.
Remind yourself that this is only the first draft – as writers are often perfectionists, it can be difficult to quiet your inner editor and focus on writing first, editing later, especially when you reach the muddy middle. But one of the best ways to get through this part of the writing process is to consistently remind yourself that this is only a first draft. A first draft is a place for mistakes, messy prose, and pointless plot points! Allow yourself the freedom to write a “bad” section of the book – you’ll be stepping in to fix it later anyway.
Find a plot thread and follow it – if following the plot or eking out more plot points is the real problem, again, quiet that inner editor: focus instead on finding one strong thread in your story and following it through. Even if this means ignoring other aspects of your plot, do it! Following that thread will help you get through this difficult part of the writing process and emerge on the other side ready to continue your tale.
Ideally, at this point, you can follow a main plot point rather than a minute one. Focus on main characters and their interactions and positions in the story, even if minor characters get momentarily forgotten. As always, remember that this is a first draft! Missing story elements can always be added, updated, and changed later. Right now, you just need to write now!
Make notes in the margins – making notes in the margins (perhaps utilizing a comments feature, which is available on most word processors and writing software) can help you get through the muddy middle. If you have an idea, jot it down in the margins and move on. Focus on getting through this section with the intent of returning later to visit those ideas.
While branching out into another plot point or bringing in a new or previously introduced character, for example, might help you regain that spark of inspiration needed for this section, it can also make the middle muddier! Instead, as mentioned, find a clearer focus: follow a plot thread, home in on a main character’s arc, whatever it takes to keep your attention on moving the main story forward. Later, revisit those notes and thank yourself for not making this muddy middle even messier.
Keep writing – and, of course, sometimes the simplest advice is the best: just keep writing! If you feel as if you’ve slowed down and your momentum has waned, write whatever comes to mind. If none of the previous advice works for you, ignore it and, you guessed it, keep writing. Set up a writing sprint, sit down with some writerly friends, whatever it takes – just keep writing!
The only way out of the muddy middle is through.
And trust us – you can do it! You will find clearer waters on the other side, we promise – you might even find yourself cascading toward the end, ready to make a huge splash into your story’s finale.
Want some more advice and author support? Check out NaNoWriMo’s own pep talk archive.
And, of course, listen to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for more insights and inspiration as well.
As always, happy writing and best of luck from us at Kobo Writing Life!