Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Climb To The Super Important Twenty Thousand And One Word


The beginning of 2013 has kicked my arse. I started out with a week in New York, returned, then was sick for almost another week. That put me so far behind, I was despairing.

Listening To:

ANNA DAY by Walk The Moon

Last week my author Marie Lu came to Boulder, Colorado for the Breathless Reads tour — rather apropos given the event was on Valentine’s Day…

There were four authors featured: Marie, Andrea Cremer, Jessica Khoury, and Brenna Yovanoff. They did short reads from a breathless scene from each of their novels. They were smart though, they switched scenes so they didn’t have to read their own. It just works better that way! When the audience got a chance to ask questions, one attendee asked what advice would the four of them give to young aspiring writers.

This one stuck out the most in my mind. Ms. Cremer said that all writers need to remember this (and I’m going to paraphrase here): when she starts a project, she’s just so in-love with it, she can’t wait to sit down and write it. She’s excited. The words fly onto the page. Every idea, every bit of dialogue she writes is a gem. Then she hits word 20,001. Bam. The wall. And it happens every time. Then she has to force herself to sit down to write each day, none of the scenes come easily, she ends up deleting half the dialogue. In other words, she has to slog through the next 20,000 words until she breaks through to the ending section.

It happens to her with every manuscript she writes. And even more astonishing? Every other author on the panel agreed with her. They had never thought of it that way but it was so true!

Now why am I bringing this up? Because I think any number of authors hit that 20,001 word and either give up on the idea or polish the heck out of those first chapters and then NEVER GO ANY FURTHER and finish the novel.

I also see any number of sample pages that have an incredibly strong beginning, I’m excited, and then the middle sags like nobody’s biz. As an agent, I haven’t got time to slog through that part to get to what might be a great ending. I stop reading. On to the next author who has mastered the saggy middle, the art of gritting your teeth through the hard work revision.

Those are the authors we agents want to work with! So ask yourself, do you have what it takes to suffer through the middle abyss?


43 Responses

  1. skipperZ said:

    Hey, just ended up over here from your old blog. Was looking for an RSS feed for this one and couldn’t find it quickly. Is there one for this site?

  2. Morgan York said:

    This is great advice! This is also exactly why, when I get a really good idea with great characters and messages and everything, I force myself not to write it right away. I let it stew for a while. This is usually because 1) I’m working on something else at the time and want to finish that first, and 2) I noticed that, with the pieces I started when I was younger, I would immediately start writing something I was excited about and run out of steam fast. If I sit down to write it when the story has been stewing so long it’s practically bursting out of me, BAM! Inspiration for months, maybe years (depending on what I’m writing).

  3. Stephanie S. Bittner said:

    I think this is definitely true, although I’ve found it depends on the book. The last manuscript I finished flew without a hitch until I reached the end, and then it was like pulling teeth! But the manuscript before that certainly had 20,000 word syndrome. I just had to buckle down and get through it.

  4. Sylvie Fox said:

    This is so true. I always take a few days break at 20K. This year it was in the middle of NaNoWriMo and I got a lot of flack from author friends. But at that point, I had to recommit.

    But I’m back in the in love phase with a new manuscript.

  5. Sandy Williams said:

    Yes! That is so true! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who has to slog through my books. For me, though, it happens at 37,001. 🙂

    Love the new look of the blog!

  6. Gill Avila said:

    So when we click on Pubrants will we be automatically shunted here, or like your links to Jennifer Jackson, Lucienne Diver, and Nephele Tempest have to go through a literary alimentary canal to find you? (I’m grinning as I type this) ;-D

  7. Her Grace said:

    My wall is usually at 30K. When I find that I’m dragging, that’s a sign to me that I haven’t put enough thought into that particular spot of the plot.

    But instead of mothballing the project for a few days/weeks/months/years, I’ll leave a note to myself to come back later, and then I’ll jump ahead to what might be the 35K or 40K spot and keep writing.

    I can do this, because I usually have the whole novel plotted out scene-for-scene before I write word one. I can’t start writing a novel unless I’ve plotted out the roadmap of where it’s going.

  8. Kristi said:

    SkipperZ, just throw the main Blog URL into your RSS reader and it will find it automatically. I just did that with Google reader and it works great. She just needs to put the actual orange button up and/or subscribe to FeedBurner to make it easy.

  9. May Myers said:

    “Because I think any number of authors hit that 20,001 word and either give up on the idea or polish the heck out of those first chapters and then NEVER GO ANY FURTHER and finish the novel.”

    Agreed. I spent a long time polishing and rewriting the first half of my first novel. Even today, having outlines and knowing exactly where I’m going, I often have to remind myself that it’s just a first draft and all the wreckage can be cleared away next round — as long as there’s something to clear away in the first place.

  10. Ted Cross said:

    I’m so sad that you moved over here. Without the Followers add-in, I can no longer get you in my blog feed. I don’t like subscriptions or anything that sends messages to my email. Wish you’d reconsider…

  11. jeffo said:

    I don’t find this to be the case for me, in that I don’t hit the wall while drafting. I’m usually pretty enthused all the way through. The tough part for me comes when I sit down to read my first draft. Ugh! The revision part is much harder for me, though I don’t give up.

  12. A M Perkins said:

    I have a foolproof way to keep myself going – teen beta readers who see each chapter as I finish it 🙂

    Since I’m an outliner, I have the book completely in my head before I begin. Sure, there are rough spots along the way where the details of a scene just aren’t coming, but my ever-hungry-for-more teen readers will DEFINITELY remind me if I’m taking too long to get the next installment to them.

  13. Tiana Smith said:

    LOVE the new site. So classy and yet modern. It gives a professional vibe while still being approachable.

    I definitely agree, the middle part of the novel is always the hardest.

  14. Katie L said:

    Absolutely true. Typically I hit that wall at 27,000 words, but this WIP, I hit it at exactly 20,000. I think it’s a matter of slogging through (Malinda Lo said this happens to her and once you teach yourself to slog through once, you know you can do it so it’s easier to convince yourself to do the slog) and then being brutal and honest with yourself in revisions. (or, in my case, having the guts to do the revisions!)
    Love the new website!

  15. Paula said:

    Boy am I glad to read this post!

    Sometimes I worry that I’m the one writer who, super-excited about the end & beginning of a great idea, writes like there’s no tomorrow and then has a migraine of a time making her way through the middle.

    Glad I’m not the only one who has difficulty with this!

  16. Victoria said:

    I have yet to meet an author who likes “The Miserable Middle” the part that begins with the 20,001st word. That’s about the time I start thinking about the next book in the series and how to plot it. Good for long term planning, bad for getting the current novel finished.

  17. Michelle Ziegler said:

    Ugh the middle. Evil thing it is. I am starting to be able to conquer the middles finally. I think something finally clicked for me and I finally found what was missing. Something that helped me was writing short stories so I have something and then building from there.

    Love the new site! WordPress has a lot of options but can take a bit of getting used to.

  18. Kristin Nelson Post author said:

    Ted – don’t give up on checking in. I’ve got the website master working on these things.

    I had forgotten all the handy feeds and follower stuff. I’m positive WordPress has an equivalent.

    1. Ted Cross said:

      Well, you are my top dream agent, so I’ll find a way to keep coming back. I hope you like sci-fi thriller, because that’s what I’m doing now!

  19. 150 said:

    Every year in NaNoWriMo I tell everyone on earth that the most common quitting point is in the 20-30k range, and every year I watch people drop out like flies at exactly that point.

  20. Karen Kelley said:

    You start the story with conflict and that’s what makes it exciting and fun. Then you fix the conflict and it’s not as much fun. Try increasing the conflict and see what happens

  21. Kate said:

    Thank you! I’m going through this now, writing my first novel. Every sentence since 20k has been like moving through waist-high water, and I’ve been beating myself up about it. It’s such a relief to hear this. I’ll just keep going, and try to remind myself that I’m building up muscle this way.

  22. Mary said:

    This is so me. I’ve had that happen with my last two WIP. That’s why they’re still WIP’s, 😉

  23. Wm. Luke Everest said:

    For me it’s been a process of calming down and acting professional. I’ve re-written the start of my novel many times (note: I’ve written the middle and end many times, too) discovering a layer to the plot each time, and it’s partly because, out of enthusiasm, I pulled the trigger before I aimed.

    Slogging through the middle without re-writing the start, in my case, was refusing to re-think matters, rushing to the end. I’m very, very productive. I can do 20,000 words in a week easily if I’m not careful. It won’t be badly written, either. It’ll just be piffle. It takes patience to get to the heart of a story’s drama, and professionalism to focus your gusto on the ideas you truly love. The first thing my agent drummed into my head was the strength to slow down. And letting go of some self-inflicted deadline has been heaven.

    I have to find the ways in which the story wants to write itself. If it feels like I’m trying to get to the end, I’m doing it wrong. My malaise has been a little quirky, by the sound of it, but it seems related. It felt good reading your post. It reminded me of the truths I’ve been bashing myself in the head with for the past several months. It’s hard for a long-striving, desperate aspirant to start thinking like a writer.

  24. Elizabeth W. said:

    I have a question for you, Kristin. Recently I read an article about literary agents e-publishing directly and not going through a publishing house at all for this digital media. What is your opinion on this? Is it wrong for agents to take over part of the publishers’ job?

  25. Greg Pattridge said:

    The middle of my first manuscript ended up way too big. I had spent so much time on the perfect beginning and end that the middle reconstruction was left to last. By the time I realized my mistake of not considering the whole, all the time sitting and writing had caused my own middle to expand. I exercised both, trimmed the fat, and made both much easier on the eyes. Thanks for the reminder.

  26. V.N. said:

    I’ve been having trouble with the ending (I guess you can say I am stuck at 90,001 lol). I have too much middle! And I have a tendency to want to rush into the ends, so that my endings usually suck. I’ve been taking my time on my current WIP. I am no less impatient, but I think taking my time is helping me make a better ending (I hope, still not there yet…). I keep telling myself to just write. I can cut things later. Nice to know every writer gets stuck somewhere. 😀

  27. Courtney said:

    The best advice I’ve ever read from writers I admire who’ve achieved both critical and commercial success is to write every day, and write most of all when the words do not leap onto the page. There are many days when I write sentences and full chapters and I know that those words will not be the final product, but as the great Nora Roberts once said, “it’s easier to fix a [crappy] page than a blank page.”

  28. Lucy said:

    Hi, Kristin! Glad to see you’re blogging on your site now–and thanks so very much for keeping the blog, since so many of us aren’t Facebook-type people.

    I hope you get caught up and comfortable with your work load again. Being sick–meh.

    Best wishes for the new year! 🙂

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