Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.36: The Soggy Middle Pays the Rent (or, “Stand Alone With Series Potential”)

How do you write the middle of a book? How do you end your book? How do you know what to write next? This week, our hosts —who all work as a writers and publishers (and are sometimes teachers and puppeteers and many other things)— talk through how they have written the middle of their books.

The middle is where most of the story takes place. How do you keep track of your characters and plot? How do you bring it toward an end, and stick the landing? Well, we’ve got some ideas. And some advice to help you write the middle of your novel. Or short story. Or play. Or really… anything. 


Identify the point of the middle where you are delaying because you feel like your character needs to “earn” the cool thing. Where can you cut and where can you turn it into an escalation?

Also! Make sure to catch up on Schlock Mercenary if you haven’t already. Our next 3 episodes will dive into the details, and include some spoilers. 

Thing of the Week: 

The October Daye Series by Seanan McGuire

Liner Notes: 

Mass Effect 2

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: The soggy middle is actually where the bulk of the story happens, but writers often feel it is a slog. The final chunk often grows. Shifting modes from setting up to closing can be hard! Like mile 19 in a marathon. Watch for the three-quarter effect. Don’t think about how much is left to do, focus on what you can do now. At the three-quarter mark, change yes-but, no-and to yes-and, no-but. Don’t open parentheses in Act 3! Middles need their own sentence. Structure each book as a standalone, even within a long arc. Consider building explicit on-ramps. 

[Season 18, Episode 36]

[1:30 minutes of largely inaudible advertising — Hello Fresh?]

[About 1:51]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, The Soggy Middle Pays the Rent.

[DongWon] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] Because you’re in a hurry.


[Howard] And we’re stuck in the soggy middle of our day. Apparently.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Howard] I’m grateful for an audio engineer who has made all of this sounds seamless for you instead of so goofy for us. We’re a little punchy. This is our fourth episode recording in a row.

[Howard] We’re talking about the middles of things.

[Mary Robinette] I want to actually jump in because we just have a really good metaphor here. One of the reasons that I think… I have issues always with the term soggy middle. My issue is that what that is referring to is the writer’s experience…

[Howard] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Of the middle. Because the writer is tired, they’re… They want to be done, but also, they feel like there are certain things that they have to do with the characters in order to get to this really cool set piece. Most of the time, like, the bulk of the story is actually spent in the middle. The bulk of the story is not soggy. The bulk of it is the middle. So I think that if we stop thinking about it is this thing that we have to slog through, and if we start thinking about it as the place where all of the cool stuff really happens, that it is a more useful framework for us as we are proceeding into it.

[Howard] You’re absolutely right. When I wrote the title to the episode, I was tongue very firmly in cheek. Because there is no soggy middle in something that is successfully presented to the reader. When it is successfully presented to the reader, every page, every screen minute, every whatever is justifying itself and was worth doing. With Schlock Mercenary, as I mentioned in the first episode of this series, on around book 10, I figured I could finish by book 15. Spoiler alert, I went all the way to book 20. Does that mean that I waffled and rambled and lost my way for five books before wrapping things up? The answer is no. No, I found fun interesting things that I wanted to explore. The more of those things I explored, the more I realized there were characters I cared about who hadn’t yet had their moment in the sun, and as I wrote them further into the story, I began to see where that sunshine would be coming in, and I knew that they needed, because of the way I was structuring the books, they were going to need their own book in which they are introduced in the first section and they get their big moments in the resolution of the story.

[Mary Robinette] So, along those lines, one of the things that I joke about when I’m writing, and it happens to, I think, most of the writers that I know, is that I’ll hit a point where I’m like six chapters from the end and I will be in the six chapters from the end for six chapters. Which means I’m actually 12 chapters…


[Mary Robinette] From the end. Because there are all of these things that I’m realizing that I need to actually unpack and fold up. This happens to me in short form, but it’s less noticeable in short form. So I… When we’re talking about the soggy part, I think that it’s not the middle which implies that you’re halfway. I think that it’s actually the two thirds, three-quarter mark. Because… I think the reason it happens is because you are shifting modes from setting things up to closing things. You’ve been so much in the mode of “And then it escalates, and then it escalates more,” that you don’t know how to switch to the “And now, I have to start solving things.” That’s when it will drag on a little bit too long sometimes.

[DongWon] I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been on the phone with a writer who is just in complete despair. “The project is terrible, I don’t know how to write, my career is over,” like, all these things. I will have to stop and be like, “You’re 70,000 words out of 100,000 words. You’re three quarters of the way through this. This happens every time. Every book you’ve written, we’ve had this conversation.” Every author I know, I’ve had this conversation. It’s such a natural part to be trying to make that pivot, you been working on this for months, it’s… You’re in the middle of that marathon, it’s mile 19, then you just have that last bit to go. It feels eternal. It feels forever. You’re… I think you’re exactly right, pinpointing that it’s at two thirds mark where you have to shift from building, building, building, to starting to close parentheses and the idea of like figuring out how to start to tie things off, how to shift your momentum from expansion to contraction is really difficult. Because now you have to solve all the problems you’ve created for your characters. I think that can feel really overwhelming. But, the thing to remember, going back to the core of this, is that the reader’s experience is a very different thing. Where they have been feasting, this entire time, you’ve been giving them delicious things to chew on, to work through, to think about. Now, you’re going to start giving them the satisfying conclusions to all the things you set up before.

[Erin] I love that you use… I was just thinking about marathon as an example, and then you said it. I’ve run a marathon before and it… They always say people hit the wall around mile 20. Part of the reason is that you feel like you’re close, but not close enough. It’s like, I just have to… I’ve already run all this way, but it’s still…  my leg hurts. Like, I’m so out of breath, and I still have to go up this big hill. One of the things that I found is to anticipate that feeling and set yourself up some fun things at that moment. So in… When you’re running a marathon, one of the things I did was I picked one of the songs that I felt would be most epic, and I was like the minute I start to feel like I’m so far, even though I’ve come all this way, and I just want to stop, I will put on this most epic of songs and this will somehow get my lizard brain to push through. I think that it sometimes what’s a really fun thing that you can be writing, whether it’s within the story you’re doing, maybe this is the time to write a quick flash fiction piece of some fun thing in your world, that will just get your excitement back.

[DongWon] I love that.

[Erin] Make you feel the way that you did right at the beginning at that moment, because a lot of it is in your head, but you still have to be… It’s your head. You still have to push through it by making yourself excited again. Or telling somebody about the story. This can be a good time, even if you’re complaining to your agent about how bad it is, as you’re talking through it, they might get excited about something that you’ve now discounted because you’re used to it, but for them, it’s still something exciting. That can help you push on.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] There’s actually a term for this. It’s called the three-quarter effect. It affects people in every discipline. The way I learned about it was from a researcher who was researching people who did mime simulations. That about three quarters of the way in, they’re like, “I can’t possibly finish this.” This would happen to people on tour with puppet theater, when you’re doing the run of a show. If it is a nine-month run, then about month six, you’re like, “I cannot finish this.” But it also, if it’s a two week run, you’re like, day 10, you’re like, “How can we possibly continue doing this show?” Part of what happens with this three-quarter effect is that your brain looks at the amount of effort that you have put in to get to that point and assumes you have to put in that much effort to get to the end.

[DongWon] I haven’t written a novel, but I’ve also run a marathon. The thing that I do, and trust me when I balked, it was one of the darkest moments of my life’s. It was on the lower level of a very cold bridge from Queens back into the Bronx, and I was like, “I’m going to die on this bridge. I’m never getting across it.” But, going back to what you’re saying about the three quarters mark, the thing that I’ve learned to do when I’m on runs is I forbid myself from looking at my watch, once I hit that three quarters mark, I will no longer look at how much left I have to go because it then becomes this, like, asymptotic Zeno’s finish line thing where every time I get another point one mile, my brain says you cannot do the rest. Because it was that hard to do this point one mile. It’s going to be so much harder to do that last bit. So what I worked very hard to do is to stay incredibly present in the moment. So, a lot of times what I remind my clients when they’re having that similar feeling is focus on… Don’t think about how much you have left to right, don’t think about 30,000 words, think about what you can do today, what plot bit that you want to solve next, and see where that takes you. Yeah, sometimes that means that the five volumes you have left turn into 10 volumes you have left. Sometimes it means that things double and grow in size. But that’s not necessarily bad. The story’s going to be what it wants to be. I think giving yourself permission to be in the very specific moment that you’re in and keep taking that next step is the thing that will get you to that finish line when you’re feeling that sogginess.

[Howard] Are we halfway through this episode? Can we subdivide it with Zeno’s Paradox…


[Howard] Via blank blank. All the way down a million times, so that I have no idea. We’ll find out after the break.

[Mary Robinette] We’ve been talking about long-running series. I am the narrator for Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series. As we are recording this, I am also separately in the middle of narrating book 17 in this series. So if you’re looking for an example of something that has an extremely long arc, I know for a fact that Seanan is proceeding towards an ending. I know that because as her narrator, I have to get spoilers so that I don’t voice characters wrong. These books… I enjoy them so much. October is a private detective who is half fairy, half mortal. She’s a changeling in San Francisco. So she then has to go and solve mysteries at the beginning. As we get deeper into the books, she’s doing a lot more of solving major problems within the world of fairy. They’re interesting. Each book reinvents themselves. There are books and novellas that are not part of… That are not October’s POV. Just to let you know how much I like these, I go read them. Even though I’m not getting paid to narrate them. So… I also don’t earn extra money, by the way, for books that I have narrated when you go listen to them. So when I tell you that you should go listen to the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire, it is a series that I think is worth the 17 book investment.

[Mary Robinette] Okay. As we are coming back, DongWon, you started talking about some tools that writers can use to get themselves out of this. So I want to talk about the tools that I figured out, and why it was happening to me. Because it does happen to me. Every time, it’s like, “Oh, this book is terrible and it’s going to be a disaster, I’m going to have to completely rewrite it.” What I realized was that… Long time listeners will have heard me talk about something called yes-but, no-and. Which is the idea that when your character is aiming for a goal, are they going to succeed? Yes, that means a step towards the goal, but means a reversal. Means you move away from the goal. Or, actually, but means a reversal. No means that you took a step away from the goal. And is a continuation. So at that two third, three-quarter mark, when I have something go wrong, when I’m writing by instinct and a theme, I will often have the instinct, because I’ve been doing it for 70,000 word, to have something go wrong for the character, and then to have it get worse. So what I’ve begun doing is looking at it and saying, yes-and. So that it’s a continuation in the direction that they’re going. It’s like they get some success, and they get a bonus action. Or, I’ll give them a no, they move away from that, but they get a bonus action. So I start to look for places where I can give them little bits of success if I’m heading towards a happy ending, or, if I’m heading towards an unhappy ending, where I can start like really doubling down on those failure points. But realizing that I need to look at my momentum towards the end and break the rhythm of what I’ve been doing to that point has made a huge difference in my ability to move past that.

[Howard] There were… That is one of the pieces that I used with books 18, 19, and 20. I consciously told myself for little plot things for that book, yes-but, no-and. To about the two thirds mark, and then yes-and, no-but. But for the whole book, I cannot have a yes-but. I cannot have a no-and. Because the series is now 18 books old, 19 books old. I am now coming up on a big finish. So I can’t have giant resets… That’s not to say that there are not giant disasters in books 18 and 19 and 20. But I can’t have any that are so big that they introduce something new. That was the second piece. DongWon, when you talked about parentheses, my rule is I’m not allowed to open parentheses in Act III. I’m just not allowed to. So… That was one of the reasons for me that I ran five books longer than I originally thought I needed to. Because I kept finding places where I wanted to open parentheses, and the moment I opened one, I was like, “Nope. I have to close that. I need to give that time to bake before I can close it.” Big major plot level parentheses. So those two tools. The one that Mary Robinette mentioned, yes-but, no-and turns into yes-and, no-but, and no open parentheses in the third act. Those are my go-to’s.

[Erin] Well, I don’t write long things. I read them. I will say that one of the things that… Thinking about the parentheses, it’s like when middles don’t work for me… So, maybe the middle book of a series, for example, is when it feels like the entire thing is happening within nested parentheses. Like, it’s like there’s too much context required. Like, all the cool stuff happened in book 1, and it will be resolved in a cool way in book 3, but book 2 is just like giving me all the details that make that work. So, I love when middles have their own sentence that they’re trying to start and finish. That, in itself, is really interesting. One of my favorite middle things of all time, which is not a book, is Mass Effect 2, which is an amazing middle game that I think is probably the most well-regarded of the Mass Effect series. One of the great things is that it’s basically a heist at the end. So there’s this long like set up for a big set piece that tells you a lot about the world and sets up things for later, but because that’s its own sentence, it manages to keep really good momentum. That part of it is something that I can pay attention to even if I’ve forgotten what happened in game one or may never pick up game three because it’s three years away.

[DongWon] One of my favorite structures… I know we’re talking about long series, but I’m going to shift to something slightly shorter. One of my favorite structures is what we call the standalone with series potential. Right? You hear that all the time in current publishing. There are very strong business reasons to that, I’m not going to touch on right now. But I also really like it as a narrative structure. Because it lets you tell a complete story as book 1 that has all the cool stuff that you can think of in it, and then what you’re kind of doing is then telling a duology for books 2 and three. Book 2 will often have more of a cliffhanger ending that leads into book 3. Going back to Star Wars. This is how that’s structured. Star Wars is a standalone story, has a beginning, middle, and end. Empire Strikes Back has an open ended cliffhanger leading into the third movie. We just saw this happen with the second Spiderverse movie, it has a very cliffhanger ending. I’m not going to spoil anything about it, but it’s very much the middle movie of a trilogy, and it does what Erin’s talking about, where it introduces new verbs, introduces new sentences, introduces new ideas. So that is building towards this big satisfying conclusion that’s going to be movie three… Hopefully satisfying, fingers crossed. I have ultimate confidence in that team. But letting yourself tell a complete story, and then using the tools of that, using the reader’s satisfaction from that, let you have the trust now to tell something slightly more open-ended, to open a lot of questions that you’re going to end in that third book. It’s a way to think about middles. You have an arc, and then the rhythm of it is now you get to tell a bigger arc. So that middle is you getting to set up a ton of stuff, and then figure out how to start closing those things off in your third story.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think the failure mode of that is where people are doing there’s this really cool thing and I have to save it…

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] So I will find myself doing this in my work where I’m waiting, like, because I feel like my characters have to earn it. I’m like just montage your way through that or move it forward. Find a different way to escalate it. It’s the… That sense of… I think that people will have this false sense of what that arc looks like. One of the other tools that I’ve realized is that whatever problem… There’s two. One is that whatever problem that they solved in the first one, that they’re just going to have to solve a different iteration of it. So if they’re like, “Oh, I don’t have the confidence to do that,” it’s like, “Well, okay. Congratulations, you are an orphan farmboy, now you’re the king of the kingdom.” It’s like, “Oh, but now I’m a fraud, and everyone will know because I was an orphan farmboy.” It’s like, well, you’re still dealing with imposter syndrome. It’s just a very different form of it. You’re not hitting exactly the same hurdles, but you’re still dealing with the same character-based thing.

[DongWon] We see this failing a lot in superhero movies where it feels like we already solved that character beat, why are we repeating it again? Right? Iron Man is a good example of this, where that arc was very much closed out, and then it just got reopened again all of a sudden when they decided, no, Iron Man three can’t be the end of this, we need more Iron Man, and therefore he’s going to continue to do the same thing, even though we had a character arc conclude in that mood.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. There are ways to have people move forward while still dealing with the same basic core thing, but if you’re hitting the same beats, that’s where it’s like, no, this is a little bit dull. The other piece is something that Howard had mentioned in a previous episode where… That he realized that each season needed to work as a standalone. That’s something that I do is not just that first book which is a standalone with series potential, but that I try to structure each of them as a standalone. So that you have beginning, middle, end, while there is this very long arc that is happening.

[Howard] Well, when there’s… When it is part of a series, but you are crafting it so it will function as a standalone, what you are saying is standalone with potential for you, fair reader, to get so excited about it you want to pick up the whole series. That… I mean, that mindset for crafting a thing will always be useful.

[DongWon] From a publishing perspective, one really strongly recommend if you’re doing a very long series, it’s good to have them operate as standalones, but sometimes you can build an explicit on-ramp book. Right? So, we’re in the middle right now of closing out Max Gladstone’s Craft sequence, which is, when we’re done, going to be a 10 book series. Speaking of things expanding. We originally planned it, the ending of the Craft sequence, to be a duology. It is now four books, because that’s what happens when you dig into something. But we designed the first book of what’s now called the Craft Wars, which is the ending of the series, to be an explicit on-ramp. It’s like, okay, you’ve read these six books, but we’re starting you fresh. A character that you know from the previous series, but reintroducing her, giving her new problems, giving her new situations. That is a way for us to bring on a whole new readership as we publish these books that are going to close out the series in a much more serialized way than he’s done up until this point. So, thinking about moments where you can strategically bring on new readers as you continue to build your series can be really helpful and keep you out of a situation where you’re only getting a subset of the previous readers of the previous books as you continue to publish.

[Mary Robinette] I’m just going to mention one other thing that Howard had said in the first episode in this… In our series. I’m sure you were foreshadowing this…


[Mary Robinette] But you were talking about how something… So that whatever solution that they had come up with would propagate to a disaster. That’s one thing that you can do when you’re looking for ways to keep that soggy middle from being soggy is that whatever solution your characters have just come up with is the catalyst for the next problem.

[DongWon] This is the yes-but on a macro scale. You can use the yes-but, no-and on the meta-scale of your series in addition to at a micro scale of a character solving an individual scene.

[Erin] Yes. Like, instead of it being yes comma but, it’s like YES! The end. Then next book, But…

[Mary Robinette, DongWon chorus] [But…]


[Mary Robinette] If it’s a cliffhanger, then it’s Yes! But… Then you’re like, “Well, now I have to have the next book.” Speaking of cliffhangers, we’re going to move on to our homework.

[Howard] Actually, before we move on to the homework, I want to make one final point. Because the next three episodes are going to be the actual drill down into those last three books. 18, 19, 20. I wanted to mention that the titles of Schlock Mercenary books often came from some quote or something that happened in the middle of the book and I realized, “Oh, that’s so cool, I have to use it.” At one point, somebody says, “Gosh, with the spare parts there, I could turn that into the longshoreman of the apocalypse.” I realized, “Oh. That’s a book title. Longshoreman of the Apocalypse.” For the last three books, I decided not only could I not afford to do that, but the titles had to come from the 70 maxims. I needed to have those written in advance. Mandatory Failure comes from maxim 70. Failure is not an option, it’s mandatory. The option is whether or not you let failure be the last thing you do. The second one was A Function of Firepower. The quote was, “Rank is a function of firepower.” The third and final one was Sergeant in Motion. Which, as I’ve alluded to before, I wanted to call all the way back to Schlock’s arc, Schlock needed to be part of the solution. There’s a maxim that says, “A sergeant in motion outranks a lieutenant who doesn’t know what’s going on.” By tying these to the maxims, I was doing that thing where I’m not opening any more parentheses. This book title is itself a closing paren, on a piece of information you’ve already been given. On that note, I think we’re ready to hand out homework.

[Mary Robinette] Great. So I have a homework assignment for you. I want you to look at your work in progress and see where things are soggy because you’re waiting for the big set piece. Look at places where you are escalating when you could actually provide a solution. Look at places where you should be escalating instead of just having them in a holding pattern. Look at why your character isn’t doing the next cool thing and see if you can move them to that just a tiny bit faster.

[Howard] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Mary Robinette] To stay up-to-date with new releases, upcoming in person events like our annual writing retreat, and Patreon live streams, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Or subscribe to our newsletter.