Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 17

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Writing After Time Off

This chapter took a little longer than usual because of my Covid vacation, which mostly involved sleeping and being unproductive. This particular break was outside my control, but I’ve taken plenty of writing breaks in the past. I’ve never been a very consistent writer, so I’m no stranger to taking time off, but this blog has been slowly helping me get better at that.

The challenge for me with time off from writing is almost always just the mental block on getting started again. It’s not exactly writer’s block. Getting myself to write that first sentence is like pulling my own teeth, but once I’m a paragraph or two in, I can usually set my writing cruise-control for a while. It helps a lot to have a project like Razor Mountain, because I can write from a detailed outline. Most of the plot problems are small and easy to solve.

Mixed Feelings in the Middle

Looking at chapters, we are dead center in the middle of the book. We’ll have to wait and see how it shakes out in terms of wordcount. For me, this is always the most nebulous part of the story. That may be because I rarely feel comfortable working on a story unless I already have a detailed understanding of the beginning and the end. It just doesn’t feel like a proper story until I have those elements.

The beginning is all about introducing characters and problems and settings. It’s busy. The ending is the most exciting part, because it’s full of problems being resolved and characters making important decisions and mysteries finally revealed.

The middle is more trouble. The middle is the glue. It’s the throughline that gets you from the beginning to the end. The middle is the most flexible part. It’s also usually the part with the most difficult decisions and problems to figure out. As a result, the middle is where I do most of my second-guessing and wondering whether I’m going in the right direction.

The issue I have right now with the middle of Razor Mountain is that it feels like a lot is going on—there are new characters in every chapter, new time-jumping narrative for God-Speaker, and a lot of shifting mysteries where some things are revealed while bringing up new questions. That all sounds pretty good on paper, but I have some doubts over whether all of these things will feel like a logical sequence of events or more like distracting degressions.

All of this is further exacerbated by putting each chapter up online for the world to see, as I write it. I have to accept that I may be writing imperfect story beats (and let’s be real, they’re never perfect), and that people will actually see them before I finish the thing and edit and polish as much as I would like.

The advantage of experience is that I know I always feel this way to some extent in the middle of the story. I can keep writing through it and come out on the other side with a more informed perspective. Looking back from the end of the book, I may choose to pull some plot points or change what happens. And the advantage of putting the story out there in this state is that I hopefully get a little less precious about my stories and get a little better at pushing forward and writing the thing.

A Lack of Agency

The other issue that I’ve been thinking about here in the middle of the book is how much agency Christopher has over the story. God-Speaker will be doing a lot for the next few chapters, but Christopher is at the mercy of other characters for a while. In these parts, his agency has to come from his thoughts and reactions, and how he chooses to react to the lack of control over his external situation.

My goal is to use these scenes to further develop Christopher’s character and set him up for the challenges and choices that will happen in later chapters.

Next Time

Chapter 18 continues Christopher’s forced march with the kidnapping brothers as they make their way toward Razor Mountain.

Five Ways to Fight Through the Middle

I recently finished Act I of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. That means I’m officially done with the beginning of the book, and I’m starting on the middle. Admittedly, these ideas of three-act structure or beginning, middle, and end are all just scaffolding designed to help us talk about the structure of stories, but I think it’s fair to say that many authors run into similar roadblocks in specific parts of the process. One of the most common problems is a certain…malaise when getting into the middle of a novel.

There’s a lot to be excited about at the beginning of a book: introducing the main characters and setting, and all the big ideas that the book is about. Likewise, the ending has to pull all those desperate ideas and characters into a big exciting finale. But the middle, the middle has to find a way to connect the beginning plot to the end plot in a way that makes sense. It can take many different shapes.

So, as I embark on the middle of my book, I thought it would be fitting to put together a list of ways to fight through a difficult middle.

1. New Characters

Usually the main cast of characters is introduced in the beginning (although not always). They’ve had some time to form their relationships and perhaps develop some interpersonal conflicts to spice things up.

The middle is the perfect time to introduce some new characters into the mix. These don’t have to be part of the main cast. In fact, characters may only come in for a scene or a few chapters, as they’re needed. While main characters can often feel like a lot of work, these characters that only briefly touch the story can be an opportunity to try something new. You might hate a quirky or obnoxious character if you have to keep them around for the entire story, but those same traits may make a short-lived character more memorable.

2. New Information

Coming out of the beginning of the story, the main characters probably have some open conflicts to deal with and some goals they’re trying to achieve. However, it may not be clear to them (or to you) how exactly they’re going to do that.

Going into the middle of the book is a perfect time to start laying down breadcrumbs that lead them in certain directions. They might learn something about the villain that can be useful when they face off again. They could find out about people, items, or other macguffins that can help them in their quests.

This mid-book info doesn’t always have to set up future plot points. They can also find out why things have happened. A whirlwind beginning can leave a protagonist lost and confused, in a situation they never wanted to be in. Understanding what happened and why can help them come to grips with all of that.

3. New Obstacles

For some authors, dishing out pain to their characters comes naturally. Others tend to fall in love with their characters and have to fight the urge to give them what they want.

If you come into the middle of the book and things seem to be going a little too well for your characters, it’s time to introduce new challenges and roadblocks. Life is full of ups and downs, and stories are no different. As an added bonus, as soon as a new conflict is introduced, it provides some instant direction to the plot. Characters faced with a problem are going to want to find a way to overcome that problem.

4. New Disasters

Sometimes, a mere obstacle isn’t enough. A disaster can change the whole landscape of the story. And often, the best time for a disaster is just when the characters think everything is going their way.

This might take the form of a villain-behind-the-villain reveal. Friends could turn out to be enemies in a cruel twist. Maybe the characters’ original goals no longer apply, and they’re cast adrift, trying to figure out what to do next.

Disasters can serve as a sort of “reset” button to take the story in a whole new direction.

5. A Victory

A story where the characters just get beaten down continuously can feel exhausting. If the characters never succeed, then it feels like the story isn’t theirs—they have no agency.

If the beginning has left the story feeling bleak and the characters really need a win, give it to them. It doesn’t have to be something big. It may be as simple as earning a breather in the midst of larger battles. The characters have likely been through some things at this point. Now is a great opportunity to let them get to know each other a little better, and deepen relationships.

Don’t Fear the Middle

Getting into the middle of a book can feel daunting. For many of us it’s the hardest part to write. If you’re an exploratory writer, you might wonder if you will even be able to find a way through to a satisfying ending.

It’s not all bad though! Middles are opportunities to really dig into the parts of your beginning that really excited you. Get to know your characters. Find the interesting nooks and crannies of your setting. Remind yourself what made you want to write the book in the first place, and double-down on that in every way you can think of.