The Swampy Middle

Two NaNoWriMos ago, I generated the first draft of a story. I was so impressed with myself and the complexity of my story. It was the best thing I’d ever written. Now, after more than a year of fighting with the revision, I’m not sure I’ve made it structurally any better, but the quality of writing in the chapters I have edited is much, much, better.

In general, I’m stuck. Something sucks and I don’t know how to massage the text into a workable piece of art. Forcing myself to work on the book ends on Facebook or Netflix. I’ve complained to my closest confidants, receiving little sympathy in return because we all know writing is hard and perseverance is the key to finishing that book. “Butt in chair” should be the only advice required, but it hasn’t broken through my block.

My search for resolution, for answers, turned to educational resources. The first idea that resonated with me and it took a couple weeks to understand it, came from the DIY MFA author. She was discussing writer’s voice. She stated that she doesn’t revise sections, but rewrites them when incorporating her changes. In doing this, you avoid editing your voice out of the writing.

Take what you wrote before, set it aside, and start again with a blank page.

In the story “Martian Strain” that I’d published in Voices From the Dark anthology, I now feel confident that I edited all voice out of that horror story. It’s got horror and suspense, but the “voice”, the words I string together uniquely in a way no one else would, became something flat. Publishing the story was worth the experience toward learning the process, but should it have been published? I don’t know.

My current novel, the one I can’t quite make myself edit, doesn’t have the over edited voice problem yet. I’ve been revising and making things cleaner, but still not clean enough to send out for feedback. The want of feedback might be my second problem, however. Lately, I’ve been asking questions of other writers and finding that I already know the answers. All the words I’ve been rearranging, polishing and crafting have been so that I could send it to someone else for answers. Writers need input from others to improve and grow, but the kind of answers I’m looking for are really the meat of what it is to craft a novel.

Writers need input from others to improve and grow, but the kind of answers I’m looking for are really the meat of what it is to craft a novel. It’s my job to provide those answers and I’ve been fighting with myself.

Until I talked to my mother. She is not a writer, nor has it ever been her passion. She cut through all of my whinings with a clarity only a parent can provide.

“Rewrite it. Stop revising and editing. It’s all in your head. You already know the story. The words might come out different, but it will be better.”

And she’s right.  I’ve been stuck in the Swampy Middle for too long with this story, trying to fix it, trying to make the words better.

When I put the DIY MFA author’s advice together with my mother’s, it’s so straightforward. I know the middle doesn’t work. I know something needs to change, but massaging the text hasn’t been bringing forward the ideas. The blank page spurs my imagination better than a framework of existing words. The fix is in the creativity. The beginning isn’t horrible, the end is usable, but the Swampy Middle is like a giant game of connect the dots. Right now, I have a collection of dots that don’t form a usable picture, so by setting them aside, I open up my options to take my three-legged dog and turn it into a stallion.

I’ll keep working on my purple prose problem.

NaNo Prep Workshop: Visualize Your Novel – 2015-10-10


  • Sam McAdams
  • Have been NaNo’ing for ten years; first year as an ML
  • National Novel Writing Month started by Chris Baty in 1999
  • Goal: 50,000+ words in 30 days (1667 words per day)
  • Finish your story in the month if at all possible (when you are surrounded by your support system)
  • Sign up at (there will be some e-mail pep)
  • Donate and buy NaNoWriMo swag (everything is free but NaNoWriMo need funds to keep the website going and to fund the Young Writers Program)
  • Track your progress on Make sure you update your wordcount every day.
  • Don’t forget to validate and submit your word count to be eligible for the sponsor prizes. Must be validated by Nov 30.
  • You can estimate if you are hand writing.
  • Q: If you submit early but keep writing, can you resubmit? Yes.
  • Regional forum
  • Make sure you set up USA :: Illinois :: Naperville as your home
  • Regional site:
  • The (Writing) Journey (
    • Cafeteria style–join in whatever interests you
    • workshops, writing exercises
    • social get togethers
    • Shakespeare Reader’s Theatre
    • short story anthologies
    • writing retreats
  • NaNo Hipster PDA
  • Why do NaNo? Big support system in November, deadlines of NaNoWriMo
  • Write-ins (lots of them, some as part of our Library Crawl)
    • You can get a card from each write-in
    • You can turn these in for raffle tickets
  • Parties
    • kick-off party Saturday, October 24, 11:45 am – 2:45 pm, please RSVP
    • TGIO party, Saturday, December 5th (there will also be an RSVP sign)
  • mid-month meetup at Pal Joey’s
  • All-day write-in, 9 AM-9 PM, Friday, November 13th
  • Prizes from NaNo sponsors
    • hardcover and paperback books

Visualize Your Novel: Creating an Outline for Your Story

Presented by Sam Brown (aka Basil Cliffside) – see the Powerpoint slides

  • Started NaNo in 2011, have participated in five, won three
  • Did a Camp NaNoWriMo
  • Was a pantser the first time she did it (2011) – didn’t want to look up any rules or advice, just to get a feel for it. Perfectly viable option for a first time.
  • Second time worked on the same thing: 150K words, not all the way done
  • Third time: Fall, 2012, doing it by the book (new idea), planned it out, outlined it, had 32 index cards – roughly one card per day. Had a better handle on things, more freedom to play around. Cool experience.
  • Plotting made a lot more sense to me.
  • Useful to explore preparing: Back cover blurb to detailed summary.


  • Sam is an artist, has a 3D visualization company
  • You have a story idea, might be a little nervous but excited.
  • Writing is the best; adults need more opportunities to exercise their imagination and creativity–writing is a great way to do that.

Writing 50,000 words

  • Flying high on the writing buzz
  • Many resources in the NaperWriMo group, in the websites. You’re imagining yourself in coffee shops. Muse whispering constantly in your ear.
  • Blank page can be a scary thing.
  • Easy to forget that you have to do it.
  • Writing an outline can help eliminate that deer-in-the-headlights feeling every day.

Plotting vs. Pantsing

  • Pantsing feeds off of NaNo energy
  • Energy is great for first timers, letting loose and getting rid of the inner editor, get a feel for what 50K words feels like.
  • Some people don’t want to publish and just want to write–that’s perfectly viable.

Plotting is a slightly calmer ride. Gives you a better chance at publishing–you’ll solve some problems ahead of time.

  • Plotting gives you the steering wheel.
  • Can be a brief summary to an in-depth roadmap.
  • Excellent for pacing.
  • Good for spotting problems, connections between people, sets up your story for its brightest future.

Know Thyself

  • Socrates or Plato said this. Be honest with yourself. Figure out what kind of person you are. What do you like?

Road trip analogy

  • Imagine you are planning a trip. How much would you plan out?
  • Most people will want an idea of where you’re going.
  • Are you the kind of person who plans out budget, weather forecast, things to do, plan B, contingencies?
  • Or are you the kind of person who picks out certain landmarks and bullet points of things to see?
  • Or do you say, I have gas in my tank and am set to go!


  1. You’re off to the grocery store: what do you bring with you?
    1. A detailed list of everything you need and coupons you’ve clipped the day before
  2. It’s Saturday night, what do you wear?
  3. Amongst your friends you can always be counted to
    1. be on time and know exactly where the group is going
  4. You finally have a free weekend afternoon, what do you do with it?
    1. Catch up on sleep and old movies
  5. It’s your birthday, what do you want to do?
    1. You’ll be going on that fabulous vacation you’ve planned

mostly A’s: you’re a plotter

  • mostly B’s: you’re a bit of both; enjoy the best of both worlds. Foresight is good, but don’t plan the life out of your story
  • mostly C’s: You are a pantser, a ball of creative energy

Many ways to outline your novel

  • summary
  • skeletal outline
  • visual map
  • expanding snowflake
  • contextual prep
  • go tech


  • Start iwth a sentence or paragraph (back cover blurb)
  • Elaborate
  • Elaborate some more (a page to a couple pages)
  • Write the whole story (but without the dialogue, sensory descriptions, exposition, etc) — what will happen in each phase of your story
  • Keep it loose; if you don’t like something, cross it out.

Skeletal Outline

  • Like research papers in school–breaking things down into bullet points; organizing it
  • Looking at a huge block of text is intimidating, so sectioning it out into short bullet points with different headings will make it less intimidating, easier to say what has to be done in week 1, week 2 or day by day
  • Separate events into scenes, scenes into chapters, …
  • Visualize how much of your story is spent on beginning, middle and end
  • You can use a spreadsheet:
    • when (date, time)
    • activity
    • location
  • Avoid consistency issues (through time and location)
  • Index cards on a bulletin board
    • you can do a scene for each one
    • easy to rearrange things
    • divide total by 30 to finish your whole story in November
    • bird’s eye or God’s eye view of your world (zoomed out for a good perspective)

Visual Map

  • Visual learners are rare (16% of people are visual learners)
  • Mind mapping
  • Great way to organize things: you can start with a core idea and work out from there
  • Diagram how characters are connected to each other
  • Collect pictures and make sketches
  • You can use index cards (e.g., with characters)
  • Seeing everything in front of you can illuminate plot holes and weak spots
  • Expanding snowflake method is similar — look it up; very good for initial planning
  • Floor plan, map of surrounding town, inspirational, evocative images

  • Spread things out, solve the problems, put cards in order; when writing, stayed on track; be sure to number the cards
  • Google keep to keep track of scenes, then archive the note
  • There is an app for ipad called index cards (by the same company that does Scrivener)

Contextual Preparation

  • Takes the most amount of time
  • World building — taking care of the minutiae so that when you’re writing you don’t have to do research
    • you could also make markers and placeholders to replace later
  • Character bios, character sheets
    • secondary and tertiary characters too: gives you something to draw on
  • Floor plans and world maps
  • Geography
  • Historical information
    • helps set the mood
  • Political, cultural, or religious info
  • Clothing and hairstyles of all your different characters, to give your story life through descriptions
  • etc.

Go tech

  • Many apps and software
  • Excel
  • Google docs (folders, multimedia)
  • Google keep
  • ywriter (word processor that tracks chapters, scenes, characters, locations, etc)
    • rate the tension by scene to avoid having too many successive scenes with high tension
  • Aeon Timeline (~$40) – tracks chronology and a lot more
  • Scrivener ($) – word processor and outliner designed for authors
    • 50% coupon through NaNo
  • Scapple ($) – streamlined mind mapping
  • Trello (project organizer, good for collaboration)
  • WorkFlowy – an online notebook for lists

Exercise 1

Group 3: Visual map

  • Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to give her poor dog a bone. When she came there, the cupboard was bare and so the poor dog had none.
  • Historical mystery: where did the bone go?
  • The dog killed Mr. Hubbard
  • Mr. Hubbard #3? #4? Those are his bones in the cupboard
  • Mrs. Hubbard stole children and used them to commit crimes
  • The children, tired of crime and poverty, left when they grew up but are now sniffing around, sure that Old Mother Hubbard is wealthier than she is letting on.
  • A new Mr. Hubbard is being sought by Mrs. Hubbard, who is not nearly as old and dumpy as she usually disguises herself to be. She seeks him at the Moulin Rouge
  • Her children discover the cupboard of bones and decide to try to blackmail Old Mother Hubbard. Twist: the kids are all adopted, though they didn’t know it.
  • The dog is found starved to death.
  • Old Mother Hubbard feeds new bones to the new puppy (the new bones are from her kids!).

Group 1: Humpty Dumpty (summary)

  • expanded each sentence
  • while running a marathon, HD becomes exhausted (last of the noble egg people)
  • sits on city wall where the marathon was taking place
  • he falls (literal and metaphorical)
  • goes on a murderous rampage
  • taken into custody, last of his kind so he receives best medical care from best doctors and psychiatrists
  • they are unable to put him back together
  • zooms out from softly padded cell

Group 2: Jack and Jill (skeletal outline)

  • the Journey: Jack has car trouble in the badlands; picks up hitchiker Jill
  • he goes to relieve himself, she uses the water to wash up
  • they needed the water for the radiator
  • walks up to the top of the hill (part II)
  • they fill up the pail
  • they realize the water is gone (splashed out)
  • Jack accuses her of wasting water
  • Jack falls down, Jill falls too and they die in each other’s arm
  • There is a website: Does the dog die?

Group 4: Contextual preparation: Three Blind Mice

  • Poor three mice are orphaned mice (Huey, Dewey, Louie)
  • crazed farmer’s wife used chemicals (killed mice parents and left them blind)
  • sparrow Angela watches out for the mice (surrogate mother)
  • Angela has made a nest outside
  • Farmer’s wife knocks down the nest and break her eggs
  • mice decide to chase the woman
  • they chase her out of the house
  • she has armed herself with a carving knife
  • she ends the mouse’s tale
  • she kills the second one
  • the third is by the well, she goes to kill it, Angela pushes her into the well
  • all three mice die but Angela lives

Additional information

  • Favorite writing resources
    • podcast: writing excuses (authors talking about the craft of writing)
    • storyfix – e-mailed newsletter (weekly)
      • breaks down writing into a formula
      • nice to get that perspective: it is easy to have an idea and not realize that you don’t have the premise, concept, idea.
      • lots of data on the website
      • paid story doctor analyses available
      • useful when you have a draft to get beta readers to spot things (people who aren’t writers)
      • alpha readers (writers) are super helpful too (you can get this at critique circle)
      • you submit your novel chapter by chapter
      • you have to do other people’s works to get credits (give and take)
      • search by genre
    • writing groups
      • super helpful
      • love NaNoWriMo and the Journey
      • nice to be around people who like to write
      • even if just accountability
    • talks and workshops
      • there are free programs at libraries
      • there are paid workshops you can attend
      • ChiWriMo events as well
    • google
      • just research

Outlining experiences

  • XMind (free, multiplatform) mindmapping
    • build and decompose the novel
    • you can load the information into your mind
    • export it to a text file for easy searching through and reference during November
  • Mind mapping helps
  • characters who interact; each character has their own story arc
    • each scene from beginning to end
    • meshing the scenes and story arcs (you can put them into index cards)
  • Scenes throughout the story
    • Omnioutliner (fairly expensive)
    • You can assemble the outline, attach pictures to your outline, web links, video clips
    • You can collect pictures
    • you can pin things into Evernote like with pinterest
    • you can search for words in the documents, tag things you’ve saved
    • there are apps for your phone

Powerpoint and pictures from the 2015-10-08 prep workshop: NaNoWriMo in a Nutshell

Catherine Brennan and Tim Yao led this highly interactive workshop at the beautiful, new Santori Library (Aurora Public Library system), facilitated by Cassie.

Ref: Powerpoint slides

This interactive workshop covered many topics, including:

  • why you might want to write your novel in November
  • how you can develop a framework for your novel
  • why you want to finish in November
  • tools you might want to consider
  • strategies for succeeding
  • how to avoid getting derailed by
    • writer’s block
    • plot bunnies
    • mid-month slump
    • not finishing in November

There were three writing exercises:

  • try out a word war (writing to one of three pictures)
  • visualization exercise (describe a place using all five senses but leaving out people)
  • add a person to the mix