The Problem with Middles by Eliza Graham

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Dante, translated by Dorothy L Sayers.

Middles can be hard. When I start a novel the writing process has the freshness of a holiday trip: new characters, a sense of an untrodden path that could take me anywhere. I have an outline but it doesn’t bind me too strongly to a particular route. I hurl myself into the first twenty or thirty thousand words. This is easy! If I keep writing two thousand words a day I’ll have a rough first draft in no time at all.  There are some little niggles to sort out but there’s still plenty of time.

It grows harder. The springy turf on the original footpath turns to clay that binds itself to my writing boots. Moving forward even half a chapter takes so much out of me I almost have to lie down in a darkened room afterwards. I distract myself by bouncing from one website to another, skim-reading articles that don’t really interest me at all.

I really should turn off the wireless connection on the laptop. Or just write freehand in notepad, as I sometimes do on holidays. Sometimes this seems to free up my subconscious.

I know I should do these things, but I’m in a deep woods and I can’t seem to move at all.

This is the eighth novel I’ve written. I should be past this. Panic grabs me, making it hard for me to even open the file on my laptop.   The characters who seemed to propel themselves forward feel clunky, their words leaden. I place them into what I think are intriguing and dramatic scenes and they respond by suggesting that everyone should sit down and have some coffee.

I respond by burying myself in research. I need to know about village life in late seventeenth century England (not much coffee-drinking then out in the countryside, but they can sit by the fire and smoke pipes). I visit museums and order up books. I like museums and books and it’s easier than actually having to write myself. Just a few more notes and I’ll be ready to get back to my ms. Honest.

It strikes me that I’m not only midway in a novel but, at 49, I’m somewhere midway in my life. The old youthful certainties have gone. I used to think that I could always pick up freelance writing or editing work if I needed. The recession has disabused me of that one. Clients stop ringing. They’ve lost jobs themselves. New work is harder to find.

My children are older, not really little any more and more complicated in their needs and demands. Parents and in-laws are older and need help. We spend more time on the telephone enquiring about blood tests and doctors’ appointments. I still have my roadmap for my life but it’s looking less relevant now. I need to get on with this novel. The sooner it’s written the sooner it can be (hopefully) sold.

‘You’re having problems because there isn’t enough conflict in your novel,’ a writing friend tells me. I look at the last chapters I’ve worked on and think he’s on to something. ‘And you need to throw in a surprise,’ the friend suggests. ‘You’re writing safe, like someone who wants to please their agent and publisher. Write the book the way you would if you didn’t give a damn. Shock yourself.’

At this stage in my book’s development the electric kettle not working would probably rank as a huge shock. I mean, how would they make all the coffee?

I look at my outline again to remind myself what I told my agent this book was about. Ah yes. I see there was another character who was supposed to enter at this point. Fifth business, I think, remembering Robertson Davies: the person who turns everything upside down. I resist the temptation to reread all my Robertson Davies novels as ‘research’. Could this proposed new character cause havoc? It might be fun to make her upset everything. Is one of the characters perhaps more interesting than I have allowed her to be? Is she, in fact, a she at all?

It might be an idea to make this middle writing more fun. Writing used to be something I did because I enjoyed it.

Middle age itself can sometimes be not as fun as I’d like.

I think of the outline again, of the notebook I keep with ideas for books. These are the points I write down fearing they’re not quite strong enough to make it into the book itself but shouldn’t be lost: half flashes of dialogue and scenes, notes about the feel and smell of places I visit. My notebook might open up this book again and propel me out of the forest.

It’s been a fortnight since I’ve looked at my novel. I’m starting to itch to get back to the middle of that book and sort it out. Let me at it!

 

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Novelist Eliza Graham lives with her family in Oxfordshire. When she’s not writing novels she works as a freelance copy-editor.

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