NaNoWriMo Tips: Take a Mini-Vacation from Your Muddy Middle Mess

We are on day 22 of 30 in this year’s NaNoWriMo. Thanksgiving is this week, a great interrupter to the writing process and habit you should have formed by now. Stay focused and stay writing, but give yourself a little break during this crazy holiday time, too. Then get back to writing. Only eight days left. You can do it.

Painting - Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life, 1842, National Gallery of Art.

In the latest pep talk letter from NaNoWriMo, author Grant Faulkner offered excellent advice for all writers, participating or not.

When I was a boy, I watched a lot of old movies on TV, especially westerns. In nearly every western, there was a crucial moment when a character would accidentally step into quicksand. They’d try to lift their feet, but each time they did so, they’d sink deeper. They’d start to panic and flail all about, but the more they’d try to escape, the deeper they would sink.

I grew up thinking that the world was filled with random patches of quicksand. Fortunately, my worldview was inaccurate. Quicksand is a rarity in the world, and I never stepped into it… until I wrote a novel, that is.

I personally ran into quicksand last week, realizing that I was in what Faulkner called the “muddy middle,” the place where novels die. I knew the beginning, I knew the main plot points, and I have a fairly good vision of the end of my novel, but now I’m swimming with no sign of the shore, unsure of where to go next.

As he predicted, the ghosts and demons started peaking out from under the carpet, behind the curtains, under my desk, slowly moving to sit out where I could see them, cross-legged on the lamp over the desk, posing in the mirror above the sink, dancing across the floor with high-pitched giggles of delight that I’d invited them in with my self-doubt and loss of momentum.

I swatted one and another bit my big toe. I kicked it, but more of them started coming out of the woodwork, telling me that I’m wasting my time, I’ll never get this done, I’m not good enough, I can’t do it, and my favorite, “Who do you think you are to even consider taking on a novel?”

Traveling for work and a little pleasure, I turned my back on them all, put on my bathing suit, and hit the hotel pool. I splashed around until my arms and legs hurt, then sat in the Jacuzzi recovering, putting all thought of my book out of my head. I let the water soothe me, and found some restoration in the process.

After a quick shower and bite to eat, I sat down at the computer again. The room was brighter even though most of the shades were drawn against the 90 degree sun outside. The room was quiet, save for the combined hums of the refrigerator and air conditioner. No demons or ghosts in sight.

I didn’t know what I would write next, but I put my fingers on the keyboard and gave up control to my imagination. Two hours later, I’d banged out some of the best words I’d written in days, taking my story in a fresh direction it so needed, learning more about my main character and the world she occupied, testing her, challenging her, and making the journey through the muddy middle fascinating. I added 2,600 words to my NaNoWriMo count with a smile, already looking forward to a fresh start tomorrow morning, and returned back to my regular work, much happier than I’d been when the day had started.

I’d done as Faulkner recommended. Take a break. Reward yourself. Do whatever it takes to “feel a sense of lightness.” “Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.” Give your imagination a mini-vacation, and it will reward you.

In the process, I added another tool to my writer’s toolbox. By letting it go, giving up with a deadline, you can return recharged and ready for more rounds in the battle of words and novel.

Keep writing.

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