The Mushy Middle / Kathleen Delaney

Oh the mushy middle. It’s something that we have all had to deal with. Sometimes working through it can be a daunting task. Failure to solidify the mushy middle can result in your book being left half finished and back on the shelf. This week’s guest blogger, Kathleen Delaney, shares her insight on how to keep your book interesting from cover-to-cover!

Happy reading!
Clay Stafford
Clay Stafford
Founder Killer Nashville
Publisher / Editorial Director Killer Nashville Magazine

The first time I heard that phrase was during a writing class I took at UCLA given by three romance/ romantic suspense writers. I’m not sure why I took it, I don’t write romance, but I’m glad I did. It was the first class I’d taken that talked about how a writer got from point A, the awesome beginning, to point Z, the zinger that ends the book in a way that causes you to snap it shut, smile and become a fan for life. But they issued a warning which they empathized pertains to all genres, especially mysteries. Beware the mushy middle. The what?

Someplace between page thirty and fifty you need to take a break from all that dead body finding you’ve used to get the book up and running and slow the pace. Slow it, not bring it to a complete stop.

How do you avoid that trap? By making sure everything that happens in your story leads to something else. Even in the middle. Especially in the middle.

Your heroine may be at home, making a cup of tea, or drinking something a bit more fortifying, doing nothing, tired from finding the latest body. The phone rings. The call can’t be a reminder that the PTA meeting is next Thursday. Something in that call has to remind your heroine of something, or someone. It needs to set off a train of thought that propels her to take the next action. And, of course, in so doing she learns something important or walks right into the middle of a situation she could have done without, but which leads her one step closer to that zinger ending.

Middles can be filled with all kinds of mundane activities. In real life, most of our days are full of them. Cleaning the bathtub usually has little meaning other than you get a clean tub. In a story, that’s not enough. Her shampoo bottle is not where she always leaves it. The medicine cupboard door is slightly ajar, but she knows she closed it that morning. Or did she? She hears a door close just as she turns off the water but she’s alone in the house, or so she thought. Maybe none of the above happens, it depends on the story, but cleaning the tub needs some meaning if nothing more happens than we follow her thought process while she works on her suspect list as well as the tub. 

Stories, especially mysteries, are built on tension. They start out with a bang, getting the attention of the reader while you build that sense of suspense, of danger. We have to let that die down a little so everyone, including the author, can take a deep breath before we start tightening things up again, then back off once more before we build to the final crescendo. Only, sometimes the mushy middle traps us with meaningless action, events that do nothing but stop the story cold. So, if you think you are caught in the maze of the middle and can’t find your way out, go back and take a second look at some of the things you’re people are doing. Does that conversation she has with the butcher do anything besides provide her with fresh ground round for dinner? If not, maybe you don’t need it. If she’s not figuring out how to prove her best friend innocent of murder while she’s ironing that shirt, let it stay in the basket. It’s not doing one thing toward solving the murder.

This was particularly hard when I was writing my first Ellen McKenzie real estate mystery, Dying for a Change. I wasn’t sure how to make the mundane events in Ellen’s life matter to the story. Then I sent Ellen on her first listing appointment. The significance of a casual statement from a ditzy seller didn’t sink in at first, with either of us, but it did later, and suddenly I understood. Later in the book another remark from another seller gives Ellen the last piece of the puzzle and we move rapidly from that to the zinger ending.

In Purebred Dead, Mary McGill attends a committee meeting. A chance comment sends her looking for someone who isn’t where he’s supposed to be. That starts a chain of events that leads Mary to find a murderer and adopt a dog.

Read your work in progress again. Don’t let that middle stay mushy, don’t let the reader plow through it, wondering what just happened has to do with the story, only to find out later, absolutely nothing. Make each event count, propel your story forward and don’t let your reader go until you get to that zinger ending.

Kathleen Delaney came to the writing life a little late. Instead, she raised five children, heaven alone knows how many cats and dogs, more than a few horses, and assorted 4 H animals. She also enjoyed a career as a real estate broker in the small California town of Paso Robles. Somewhere in there she found she wanted to write as well as read, and her first book, Dying for a Change, was a finalist in St. Martin’s Malice Domestic contest. Since then she has written six more books that have received praise from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. The first in her new Mary McGill canine mysteries, Purebred Dead, is available in both hard cover and ebook form, and has recently been released in soft cover, just in time to greet the release of the second in the series, Curtains for Miss Plym. The third in this series, Blood Red White and Blue is scheduled for release in the U.S. on July 1. Perfect timing for a 4th of July book. Kathleen resides in Woodstock, Ga., with an exuberant dog and a grouchy cat. She has recently moved from a fairly large four-bed home into a small two-bed home and loves it. As she brought along her sofa which has been taken over by the dog, and her reading chair which has been claimed by the cat, they are content as well. Learn more at

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Thanks to Tom Wood, Arthur Jackson, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog.

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And be sure to check out our new book, Killer Nashville Noir: Cold-Blooded, an anthology of original short stories by New York Times bestselling authors and newbies alike.

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