When I started writing my first novel, I knew it was going to be awesome (see Jeanette’s previous post). I knew what I wanted to write about, I had my characters, I made a plot outline, and started typing. Over time, that draft grew into an almost shamefully bad novel that slowly turned better. Even the better version somehow didn’t “click” as a whole, though. Was it conflict, motivation, or character arc? Yeah, pretty much all of the above. So I worked on those things, polished it up, and polished again. I worked on it until the polishing turned into obsessive tweaking, and it still didn’t work. While the writing was (pretty) good, the characters were (sort of) likable, the dialog and settings were (all) right, the sum total felt about as structurally sound as a house made out of a couple of old single-wides shoved together with vinyl siding tacked over the seam. And yes—where I live, this is an actual thing. Sure, it keeps out the rain, but it’s not Architectural Digest….and its novel version certainly won’t get me published.
After banging my head against this shoddy wall for eons, I finally realized that as it stood, that story would never get past the permitting stage. Blame it on pacing, the dreaded Sagging Middle, or the subplot that was really more of a tangent that read like filler rather than legitimate GMC stuff. Its structure just wasn’t up to code, even if a lot of the building materials were of good quality. I’d written a tear-down! Someday, I might salvage the good parts, but I know I’ll have to incorporate them into new construction.
These days, it’s taking more time to crank out a novel than it used to, but I’m spending more time on the blueprint stage. I’m keeping close to GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict, not the pickup truck), and paying much more attention to something I didn’t even realize was important: a timeline. This is the actual chronology of the story. Does the action take place over years, or one season? Or just a few days that change the course of your character’s life?
The Sagging Middle is often blamed on pacing. If your writing flows and your scenes are paced well, but your story still feels off, your pacing issue might be a timing issue. You might have the wrong timeline for the story you are telling. A sexy romance might have more fizzle than sizzle if it takes several years. A coming of age story might be rushed if it all takes place in a weekend. And if your manuscript is like my first one where the main action is over a few days and then streeeeeetches out over the next year to finish, the whole thing is off-balance.
A tight time frame gives a sense of urgency, or can build intensity if there is a deadline for the characters to meet. A longer time lends itself more to a family saga. A season-long story works well for coming of age stories and romance. It’s up to you which time frame you choose, but I urge you to stick to it, just like a good building contractor should. It might end up being the key to the construction of your next great novel!