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Do this to avoid the messy middle
OK, so there's actually no avoiding the messy middle, but this could alleviate the pain.
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I’m Blake Atwood, a nonfiction editor, author, and ghostwriter. My literary claim to nominal fame is as an early developmental editor on Atomic Habits, but I’ve worked on more than 60 books, including a few of my own. If this was forwarded to you and you’d like to subscribe, please do so below.
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🚀 Time travel and the messy middle
I’ve lately been working with a client on a nonfiction book proposal.
During our first discussion about his book, I mentioned the menace of the messy middle, that point in any book-writing project where you’ve lost the forest for the trees, you’re not sure which way is up, and you fear ever getting back to humanity.
Every book project I’ve worked on falls into this abyss. (Maybe it’s me? Possibly, but I’m not sold.)
It’s just the nature of the beast when trying to write something of substance and length that, any author hopes, compels a reader to keep reading.
So, while the messy middle is always going to slow your stride at 63 percent of the way through your first draft, the following tip from Christopher Nolan may help.
Unfortunately, it’s most useful before you’re in the mess.
That said, if you’re currently stuck, this approach could still help you zoom back out and get unstuck.
Disclosure: I don’t do this as often as I should. I will now.
Before starting work on the script for Interstellar, Nolan dusted off his typewriter, the one his father had given him for his twentieth birthday, and typed out a one-page précis summarizing his vision for the film.
He does this with all his films.
"I'll bang out a page or a paragraph of what I think the film needs, like the bigger picture, what is the thing that I am trying to do, and then I put that away and I come back to it every now and again—for instance, when I finish the first draft, or when I am in preproduction just to remind myself, because you just get lost in things as you start to figure out the mechanics of how a story can work. How can it achieve what you set out to do?
Even more so when you get into preproduction, because you hire people to start designing, building, and scouting locations and everything has to adapt. Because nothing is exactly the way you want it to be. It never is. Budget, location, set, all that.
So you start making all those decisions, I won't say compromises, because they're not necessarily; sometimes you are finding something great and going, Oh, I can do this with it and that with it.
It's difficult once you're fully engaged in that mechanism. It can be very hard to remember what it is you were trying to do, in a bigger sense."
—Tom Shone, The Nolan Variations
❓3 questions for you
Do you write such one-pagers to assist in your writing? If not, why not?
If your projects have suffered from a messy middle, how did you get out of it?
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