Thursday, February 20, 2014

Writing, Beware the Thirds

While waiting for my betas to finish Screwing Up Alexandria, I’m editing another book. It was going really well, and then I hit a brick wall. After eight chapters, the book stopped dead. The story was there, but something was very wrong. I pushed ahead to the next chapter. It sucked too.

I got a terrible sinking feeling. I told myself that maybe I was too tired or too spent or maybe my blood sugar was too low. So I came back to it the next day. Both chapters were still bad. Very bad. And I wasn’t sure why. I could taste panic like a metallic flavor on my tongue.

So I put the book aside for a couple of days. On the second day, I realized what was wrong. The voice died. It was completely missing in chapters eight and nine. But I didn’t know why. Did the bad chapters need to be thrown out and completely rewritten? Or had the plot taken a wrong turn in the earlier chapters?

I thought about the plot structure and then I knew what was wrong.

Two weeks before, I’d talked a writing friend down from the same ledge. She was panicking over her novel, trying to decide whether to toss the whole thing. I asked her, “Where are you in the novel? Are you between the first and second third of the novel or the second and final third of the novel?” She said, “Between the second and final third.” I said, “No worries. Your novel is likely just fine. You’re just stuck between thirds.”

That’s where I was stuck too. My two chapters were the transition between the first third of the novel and the second third.

Years ago, I read a book about novels that discussed novels as three act plays. I scoffed. Surely, something as complex as a novel, especially those crafted by seat-of-the-pants novelists, couldn’t be deconstructed into three acts. Then, I got more experience writing. And I saw it in my own work. I saw it in other peoples’ work. I saw it in the novels that I read.

The transitions between thirds of the novels are difficult. Usually, the many of the elements of the story (plot/characters/setting/pace/etc.) take a turn at the thirds. Those turns are complex, interconnected, and very difficult to manage. Just getting them on the page is a huge effort. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in the first editing pass I found a mess. Of course, the voice died—you can’t do everything at once. I should have been thankful that I got the elements transitioned without having to rip things apart and start over.

Once I realized what the problem was, I rolled up my sleeves and dug into the text, adding in the texture and rhythms that make up the voice in the novel. And then I moved on to the next chapters and found the voice was there waiting for me.

Now I’m pondering making a placard and putting it on the wall of my office. It will read “Beware the Thirds.” I need to remember this because in the next month or so, I’ll be hitting the transition between the second and final thirds. And I’m likely to find that the voice died, the characters are stilted actors, and panic is making my eyelids twitch.


  1. Great advice. Having written some for theater, I loved it when someone told me to build a book in a three act structure. That I got. All the rest? Well, there are so many subtle nuances and aspect to keep track of... I think sometimes that transition point is just a place you have to push through and the crap will get resolved at some point. Like the next draft. =)

  2. Great points! I have this problem, too.

  3. This is really great to keep in mind. I like the sign idea. :)