(Mud)dle in the Middle - Guest Post by Elizabeth Schonhorst

While Veronica is enjoying BEA, I have the pleasure of introducing today's guest, Elizabeth Schonhorst. I've been working with Elizabeth on my WIP and she is AWESOME: Insightful, talented, nice (but firm). She gets the big picture, yet no typo slips through. Basically, everything a writer can ask for in an editor. So whip out those notepads and get ready to hear her take on Muddle in the Middle:   

Hello YA Musers! I’m so pleased to be adding my two cents about this week’s theme, The Muddle in the Middle. Normally I’m writing editorial letters or manuscript critiques, so I will try my best to keep up the very high standard of clever and insightful writing the YA Muses have established.

After leaving New York and my job as an editor, I spent a few years working for an education nonprofit as a sort of filing and paperwork Goddess. It was very glamorous work. During this time I actually read books purely for pleasure, and not for a paycheck. It was a relief not to have a stack of manuscripts on my nightstand, or to be composing marketing copy in the shower. Publishing an author’s work of art is a serious business, and it consumed nearly my every waking thought.

Which is why my current work as a freelance editor is so rewarding and fun. I get to work with talented new authors and read fabulous manuscripts.  I get to do all the fun parts of being an editor without all the stressful and difficult parts--like presenting to the sales team (gulp). The process of editing a manuscript and helping an author create that saleable story is tricky, and exciting, and confusing and exhilarating. There are a bazillion elements that need to line up just right, and at just the right time.  So when I get to the middle of a manuscript and suddenly say to myself, “Oh goodness! Where am I?” I know the author’s gotten muddled.

There are two things that cause a muddled middle, and unfortunately one can sometimes lead to the other. The first is a sound structure (or the lack thereof). I’m talking about the world you build, the plot you meticulously outline, and the characters you’ve fully fleshed out. Just like a house, a strong frame and foundation are important, so you want to take your time when building them. Make sure you are doing the structural work equivalent of a professional contractor, rather than a teenager in woodshop class. How strong your structure truly is becomes most obvious in the middle. If you haven’t built a strong structure, the readers lose focus, and the story becomes a series of scenes with nothing perceptible tying them together.

Which leads to the other cause of a muddled middle – the disappearing main plot. In the best books the main plot acts like rocket thrusters, blasting the reader through the story, and always giving them a solid idea of where they are headed. Even if we’re reading a chapter heavy on backstory, or a sudden flashback, we can always see how these tie into the main plot because it is always present. When the main plot starts to recede, the readers become unsteady. Events continue to happen but we no longer have a sense of what we’re building toward. We don’t know where we’re going, and we’re totally stuck in the mud(dle).

I think this is really the most important thing to remember when writing a story – a relentless and never-wavering eye on the main plotline. There may be some really cool subplots you’ve written, or some fascinating exposition about the setting, but they can never make up for a lack of focus on why the story is being told in the first place. Not only does it keep your middle un-muddled, it can really help with another elusive but oh-so-important element of writing: the pace. A rocket-blaster plot is going to yank that reader through the story. It’s cheesy and clich√© to say it, but I am a complete sucker for a “pacey” novel, and I happen to think most teenagers are as well.
  
Elizabeth Schonhorst is a freelance editor, as well as a query reader for a children’s books agent. She previously edited books for Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. She lives in the Washington, D.C. suburbs with her family. You can contact her at manuscriptkungfu@gmail.com.

7 comments

Thank you for your words of wisdom, Elizabeth! I'm heading into the middle of my WIP and will definitely keep these things in mind...

I've said it before. I'll say it again: Elizabeth, you ROCK! Thanks for posting for us today.

The best thing about these posts is that even though I don't really have the time to write at the moment, I feel like I'm working at writing...if that makes sense?

So thank you, Elizabeth, for the fantastic advice!

Wonderful advice that I wish I'd heard sooner in my writing career. Thanks Elizabeth!

I've made a note on my stickies on my desk and in the margins that when I finally get to the middle, I need to come back to this week on the YA Muses and find out how to get out of the muck of the messy middle. I appreciate these posts especially from your editor Bret, since your remedy was a little pricey (*grins*).
I think I need to put a big "WHY" on every page of my WIP!

Thanks for the guest post Elizabeth!

Heather

Thanks, Liz. This is a great post for me. I'm definitely struggling with the MUDDLE in the middle of the dreaded book two right now! Thanks for posting with the MUSES.

Liz, thank you for guest posting with us! This is going on wall. Awesome!

"In the best books the main plot acts like rocket thrusters, blasting the reader through the story, and always giving them a solid idea of where they are headed."

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