Muddy Middle

Recently, I bragged about having completed the first draft of my Mass Effect fanfiction novel seven years after starting to write it, and boldly stated that I wouldn’t mind spending another seven years polishing it. But several months into it, I’m ready to go nuts.

(There will be no spoilers. This is about craft and whining. Your suspense is safe with me.)

The beginning is solid. I always knew what I want to achieve there and in what order, and this hasn’t changed much from the original, seven-years-old version even though at least half the words have been replaced (and as many new ones added). The ending is solid too. I wrote that recently, at a time my writing confidence had just entered its full swing, and it’s some of my best work so far. I have rewritten much of that too–hardly a day passes when I don’t fiddle with it–but what structural changes it needed to begin with were easy to implement and now I just polish it. The middle has two distinct parts, of which the later one is also solid, with a mix of things from the original that were good enough to survive the revisions and new stuff that I generally feel good about.

And then there’s the earlier one. It consists of four chapters. In the original, these were a hodge-podge of contemplation and action, with a bit of everything in each. They all happened at the same location, but contained numerous mood and context switches. They had (and still have) some heavy lifting to do, in terms of all the events necessary to move the plot to that other, solid part I mentioned above, and despite the flaws, the originals did achieve most of that. The only serious problem was a thematic one, where the motivation of a character for a rather extreme action was poor.

I decided early on to take them apart and reassemble them. The first order of business was to make them happen at different locations, and to separate the contemplation from the action. Now the first two chapters happen at one location and are largely contemplative (as in, mostly dialog and interiority), and the other two happen in motion and have quite a bit of fast-paced, physical action. That’s all good. In fact, the first two chapters I consider done and they aren’t a part of the trouble.

The trouble is, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to make the other two chapters do all that needs to be done. In figuring out how to correct the thematic problem I had before, I eliminated an event that’s crucial for one of the topmost subplots, and I can’t figure out how to plug it back in. Together with it, several developments of lesser importance have gone missing too. The most difficult to reinvent is the currently undefined gimmick one character needs to do. There was a rather lame gimmick in the original, but now I can’t think of any, lame or not.

I’ve been struggling with this in episodes since last summer. The big structural changes I made allowed me to move on and get to the end. And then I went through everything from the top, and rewrote the muddy middle again, and propagated the changes to the end, and then did another round. Each time, the two problem chapters were reinvented. I recently pulled up some previous versions from the repository and they read like something someone else has written, because I discarded them so fast I forgot all about them. And to make everything even more difficult, some of the stuff in there is fucking great.

I have journaled about this in many thousands of words. I’ve made to-do lists and outlines. I’ve become numb to cutting shit and I’ve grown used to writing copious amounts of new shit on demand. These are all good things. On some level, I’m glad to have a problem worthy of all this huffing and puffing, because each failed attempt teaches me something. But all the changes are constantly screwing up my continuity. I now have artifacts from different revisions plaguing every subsequent chapter, and I no longer know what’s true, because it hasn’t been settled yet. Plus, it’s a logistic nightmare. I’m juggling with half a dozen complete, rejected versions, and every one contains some bits I want to keep, but even if I were to stitch them all together, they still wouldn’t accomplish everything they need to.

The only cure for this is probably to take a step back. Leave it lie a while, come back to it after a few weeks with a fresh pair of eyes. Or do some listing exercises. Listing helped me clean up the finale, but for some reason, I can’t make myself apply it here. In the finale, I had only one problem. Here, I have four or five, all competing for my attention and screen-time alike.

On the bright side, once I get through this, the whole thing will be only some beta-reading (and post-beta-revising) and final touches away from being officially done.

(It won’t take seven years.)

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