The Narrative: Break It to Fix It

So the story is struggling along like a winged pigeon. It’s limping here, stopping to investigate this pile of birdseed, fleeing for its life with halting, awkward steps, trying occasionally to fly and only crashing back to the earth.

Something’s wrong with it, but you can’t put your finger on what it is. You like your premise. Your plot is fine. Characters are not bad either. But when you put it all together, it’s sort of like trying to reassemble the bits of a broken vase. In theory they add up to one complete thing, but in practice it just isn’t happening, and never will, because whatever broke the thing in the first place warped it before it broke.

Still, all the writing advice in the world tells you to keep writing even when the writing sucks, so you keep writing dutifully, pounding your face against the keys in the vain hopes that it won’t suck so bad the next time you come back to it, but each time it’s like you slip a little further down the well, you take another step into the unlit basement, you drift a little closer to the waterfall. Meanwhile you’re doubting yourself. The things you’re writing just don’t feel right, even above and beyond the standard-issue writerly self-doubt that affects all who practice the pen. If you’re writing crap, maybe you are crap, and maybe you should stop writing this really crappy crap and get back to the crap you could be doing that might not be total crap by the time you’re finished with it.

But then, a thought occurs to you, like a lone ray of sunshine piercing through a veil of clouds, or like a ping on the sonar detector you thought was dead when you crash-landed on the alien planet. The story isn’t broken, struggling toward its inevitable awful ending on legs that can barely carry it under the weight of its own suckitude. The story isn’t diseased, shambling forward with shaky, poxy steps while a fever of words burns it from the inside out. The story hasn’t died already, drawing flies to feast on its inkblood oozing out through the plot holes left by your incompetence.

It’s nothing so all-encompassing, so fatal as all that. No, there’s just that one thing wrong with it.

And that one thing is poisoning your entire story.

Maybe your protagonist rescued a bunny from hungry wolves in the first act, and that bunny has turned out to be a real pain in the narrative neck since your hero now has to haul it around to meetings and clean up after it. (I read that rabbit pee can actually corrode aluminum. What a jerk of an animal.) Maybe the plot twist you planted for later in the book is about as unexpected as a jab in the opening round of a boxing match, or a hot day in a Georgia summer.

Problem is, you’ve written the story so far with this one thing in mind, and now you see the thing for the insidious venom that it is, you see it scarring the veins of your precious story, burning the heart out with its slow acid drip. To press on, allowing the poison to remain, is madness; it’ll keep corroding the work, no matter how much you’re now aware of it. To double back, try to excise the poison and correct the damage is just as unthinkable: you can’t throw away the work you’ve done, the time you’ve spent, to begin the Sisyphean task of a massive edit before you’ve even finished a draft. What to do?

Cut off the diseased limb.

Writing the first draft is a combat landing. You parachute in with guns blazing, find a bit of cover and pray to god you can make the rendezvous before your head gets taken off by the shrapnel of an exploding real life obligation. You don’t get to go back and say, no, sorry, I borked the landing, let me get back on the plane and try again. The only way out is through. Got a problematic element? Damn the cannons and ditch the damn thing, then pick up your rifle and wade back into combat. Agonizing over the decision will get you shot, or worse, get you killed: you’ll bog down in the existential doubt over your work, and before you know it you just can’t make yourself pick up the pen today, or tomorrow for that matter, and gosh golly the weekend is coming up, and then you’re dead in the ditch with the thousands upon thousands of other would-be writers who just couldn’t do it because of this or that or the other.

The good news is that if you can survive the incursion — if you can finish a draft — you get as many chances as you like to go back and fix it. Make it less crappy. Take out the bits about boring business meetings and toss in more unicorn deathmatches instead. But you’ll never make it through the draft if your heart isn’t in it. Sure, when you get to the end, your draft might look like a civil war armory after a heavy shelling. It might be dripping with blood and bits of brain, it might be hanging together with the flimsiest of threads, it might be written on chicken bones rattling around in a voodoo medicine bag. But if you can finish it, you can fix it later. You have to pull a rotten tooth to put in an implant. You have to break the fractured bone again to set it properly. You have to break your story to fix it, shatter it into a million pieces and then start looking for the super glue when it’s all said and done.

So, what’s it going to be? Suck it up, tie a tourniquet around the poisoned arm and hack it off at the elbow so you can keep slaughtering zombies with your machete hand (Yeah, I’m mixing my metaphors pretty badly, but THERE’S NO STOPPING NOW)? Or throw your hands up, sit back and die while the poison eats you alive?

Tonight I made the decision to erase one of my three main characters from the story completely. Gone like he never existed. He was dead weight, slowing the story down instead of catapulting it forward, and he’s been poisoning the story since the first day I wrote his name down.

What’s poisoning your story? And how are you going to fix it?


Why I Write

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From the time I wake up in the morning until the time I lose consciousness at night, my brain is like a leaky roof. Everything gets in. Too much traffic around this area. These people not getting the recognition they deserve. Those people just generally being inconsiderate asses to everybody else in the world. These little things seep in, like so much rain through old, patched-up shingles, and they soak the rafters in my old brain and start festering.

From the seeds of those spores (okay, seeds aren’t spores, whatever, I don’t science) I turn from observation to questioning. Why does traffic suck? What aren’t these people doing to get their recognition? What makes those people act like jerks?

From there, it’s conjecture. Maybe the traffic sucks because on the day the city planner designed this intersection, he’d just come in from a bad row with his wife over some unseemly texts on his cell phone, and he created a turn lane where what he really meant to do was bury the area underground with a few well-placed sticks of dynamite. Maybe these people aren’t getting recognition because deep down they don’t really need it, and they do the things they do not for fame and glory, but because it’s right and necessaryMaybe those jerks are jerks because they really don’t understand how society works, because nobody bothered to teach them, or because they haven’t actually taken off the blinders and have been staring hypnotized at the same clutter on their desks and the same general area around their television for the last EVERY YEAR OF THEIR LIVES.

Then, a strange alchemy occurs. Most of the thoughts I entertain throughout the day flow through the mind like water cycling through the toilets in your house before it returns to the sewer, but every now and then, a spark happens. I don’t know what causes the spark. If I did, I’d be making millions selling self-help books to writers (there’s a market for that, right?). But the spark reaches like the finger of a lackadaisical God down to one of these nonsensical musings and breathes life into it. Like an angry hornet trapped in the back windshield of a hot car on family vacation, that idea starts buzzing like a demon, throwing itself against the walls, crashing into the face of every innocent bystander it encounters. It makes itself unignorable, it demands to be heard, and whatever else I had in mind clears the fargo out of the way for fear of getting stung by this possessed seedling of a story.

I write to let the goldfingered hornets out of the car.

Until I put virtual pen to virtual paper, the car just fills up with those things until all I can hear all the time is a dull buzz behind everything, like the world is a radio station that’s tuned off the dial just a hair. Problem is, I didn’t realize until recently that that’s what was happening. I just thought that’s how the world was; a droning buzz filtered through the unholy cacophony of a car full of bees. And there was nothing wrong with that. But when I finally got off my donk and started writing regularly, it felt a little like those people putting in cochlear implants and hearing their own voice for the first time.

And it’s not just stories. Sure, writing is about giving the leash over to that angry hornet for a while and seeing what it has to say. But writing also allows me to focus my thinking, to bring under the microscope my meandering, jumbled thoughts on whatever issue is buzzing up my head on a given day. It gives me a productive way to process all the funny/weird/sad/infuriating/touching/puzzling/amazing things that happen in this life.

The point is that we’re all going to die one day. The only difference between a me who writes and a me who doesn’t is that the me who doesn’t write might be remembered by family for a few generations, while a me who writes might stick around in a general consciousness a little bit longer. In that way, I guess, my writing is motivated by a fear of being forgotten, by a selfish desire to make an impact on the world, no matter how small.

Writing, then, is a daily release, a self-guided meditation, a barbaric yawp into the void.

Writing is a way for me to envision a better world and ponder about how it might be brought forth.

And writing is, of course, about telling stories. I don’t think the human machine will ever satisfy its appetite for good stories, and if you can tell a good story, well, that’s your ticket to a kind of immortality.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: Visionary

So the prompt for the week is the root: vis.

Now, I could interpret it in any number of ways, not least of which might be a fanfic about Elvis, but I just can’t kick this one impression from my mind: the word visionary. A lot of things get that label these days, probably because we no longer have any use for any modifier that is less than the superlative. (Things can’t, and shouldn’t, just be good. They have to be legendary, or epic, or un-fargoing-believable. We have built up a tolerance, through internet extravagance and the squabble for views and clicks, for anything short of eleven.)

What’s a visionary? It’s more than just a person who sees something where everybody else sees nothing. The visionary sees the world as it is and forces the rest of us to see it as it could be. Which is tied in to the reasons I write, actually: see my next post for more on that.

Photo by mind_scratch at Flickr.

Photo by mind_scratch at Flickr.

Make no mistake, the world is amazing, and our position in it is even more amazing still. The fact that we exist in this universe alone is nothing short of astonishing, but the fact that we lead existences where we can relax and have hobbies and find love and get fat and sleep in as opposed to, you know, living or dying based on luck and the migratory patterns of predators transcends that. Life is awesome.

But it could always be better, couldn’t it?

That’s the domain of the visionary. Looking at a world that is already filled with good things and saying “let’s make it even better with flying cars and automated computer systems and remote controls so that you don’t even have to get up off the couch. Think about that. When television was first thought of, there was no remote. The mere idea of moving pictures, dancing and warbling in your living room, was so earth-shattering that nobody’s first thought was, yeah, it’s nice, BUT… But then, fast forward a few years, and somebody thinks to himself, I love television, but I hate getting up to change the channel. What if there was a way to switch the magical moving pictures without getting my donk out of this chair? And within a few years, WE HAVE IT. Not only do we have it, but now, it’s so much a part of the television-watching experience that my wife and I will wander around the house for hours on end looking for the remote, because you can’t even watch TV without it any more. Seriously. The newest set-top boxes have no buttons on their frontsides  for changing channels; if you lose the remote, you’re hosed.

And I was planning to write about how the line between a visionary and a lunatic is a thin one, thinner perhaps than the shoes that angels use for dancing on the heads of pins. I think, however, it’s a lot more productive to dwell on the visionary who takes the imaginary pictures in his head and uses them to change the world rather than the lunatic who sees the visions and mistakes them for the world which exists. Except that it’s hard to argue that all the great minds, all the visionaries who have changed the world for better or for worse, were also probably a little bit crazy. But being crazy is easy. Becoming a visionary takes work.

I mean, that’s what we’re all doing, isn’t it? On some level? Taking the visions we have for our futures and working to make them a little bit more real?

I’m particularly fascinated with the idea because, as you may have noticed if this isn’t your first foray to my midden-heap of writerly self-doubt and strife, I’m working on a science fiction novel that necessitates a world fundamentally different from the one we inhabit. Day in and day out I’m struggling with the vision for this different world, figuring out how to monkey-wrestle it into something that will be palatable to a critical audience. Without getting my face bitten off.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


To Describe, or Not

I haven’t written or shared a ton about my current project, but if you’re a regular reader, you know it’s sci-fi.

Which I love.

Two of my top five movies of all time are science fiction (The Matrix and Back to the Future, in no particular order), so writing in the same genre, even if it were never to come to the light of day, sends thrills up the spine of my nerdy secret (yeah, not so secret) self. But film sci-fi and novel sci-fi are two different beasts, aren’t they? Because with the one you get to see everything as a director envisions it, but in the other you must create the images yourself based on what the author describes.

And there are pros and cons. Star Wars is what it is because of the dramatic and impressive visuals that linger forever in the minds of its devotees. (I’m talking about a starship that seems to go on forever, a space station the size of a moon, a battle with swords made out of fargoing light). And I’ve read a Star Wars novel or two, and they’re good, but they’re different. They don’t have to describe a lightsaber because we know what it looks like.

So, in my novel, there’s time travel. And there are robots. And there is other vaguely sciencey stuff floating around in the background.

And at every turn, I find myself wondering: how much do I need to describe this thing?

I picture the story unfolding in my own mind, and I see the characters and the places a certain way, but part of the magic of a book is that you get to decide for yourself to an extent what everything looks like. You get a sense of the whole, for example, in a book like Harry Potter: you can picture Hogwarts and its main features, but you don’t get into the grainy bits of detail. You don’t see the scorch marks on the brick from thousands of misfired spells, but you can imagine them. You don’t smell the faint musty funk on the community brooms in flying class, but you can make it up for yourself.

So as I’m writing my book, I keep crashing into this problem. Because description slows down storytelling, my usual tendency is to eschew it as much as possible. (See any of my Flash Fiction offerings.) But I also know how powerful it can be, and how much a good description helps to ground the reader in time and place. So, when the protagonist is picking through the long-abandoned house of the deranged and vanished eccentric who lived on the edge of town, how much do I need to describe the cobwebs on the walls, the countless volumes on physics and quantum theory scattered in all rooms of the house, the closets full of discarded, half-fused mechanical bits, the strange humming structure on the roof? Is it enough to say that the robot looks like half a tractor with a head like the front of a 1978 Buick, or do you want to see its feet like cinder blocks, its clumsy crab-claws-in-oven-mitt hands, its sparkling unstainable not-exactly-chrome finish? Do you want me to tell you about the faint whiff of burning hair that trails in its wake, or the fact that the ground trembles ever so slightly at its every plodding step?

And, given that it’s sci-fi and some funky pseudo-science-ish things are happening, how much should I try to describe that not-actually-science? Have the inventor hit my protagonists with a stream of technobabble and invented vaguely scientific terminology to give the concepts more depth or believability? Or just skim over the explanations of how any of this stuff works, throw any grounding in plausibility to the wind and, Sharknado-like, just expect my readers to get over it and get on for the ride?

Where’s the freaking line, in other words? How much description does a reader really need? How much is too much?


Outline, Schmoutline: A Cautionary Tale for Pantsers

I’ve kvelled for most of the summer about my difficulties with my current writing project. Those difficulties are made all the worse by the fact that I’ve been languishing in the mushy middle of the book; that part where the beginning has happened and ended, and we’re working toward an ending that will take up the last quarter of the book. Meanwhile, however, things seem not to be happening with much urgency or importance. I mean, parts are moving that have to move, but much like a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific, there’s some drift happening, and it’s hard to be sure moment-to-moment whether it’s good drift or bad drift. There’s nothing but deep blue sea out here. It all looks the same.

This, to be sure, is where my general go-to strategy for writing hits the wall like a midget riding a crazed pygmy bull. I’m a pantser, not a plotter, because I just can’t be bothered to make outlines. I tell myself and people who ask me (woe betide them) it’s because I write organically, whatever the fargo that means. In my head, it means that I craft the characters and the general situation and sort of “listen” to the characters as they “feel” their way through the situation and find their way through it. In practice, that means I’m basically making it up as I go along. The problem there is that Rome doesn’t get built in a day, and a novel is not written in a week. I’ve been working now for about three, four months on this project, head down, churning out the word count like a good penmonkey, but each day it’s the same. I know generally what has to happen next, I write it, I leave some notes to myself about tomorrow, I repeat. Which is fine for making my word count goals, but maybe not so fine for the story as a whole.

And making the word count goal has been difficult lately, not just because I’m in the doldrums of summer, but because I feel down to my bones the “lostness” of the project right now. It’s hard to make myself write 1000 words a day when I’m not sure where those words are leading me. This feeling would be very easy to mistake for Writer’s Block. In fact, Past Me would have gladly called it Writer’s Block and used it as an excuse to take a seven year sabbatical from the project. It looks like Writer’s Block, it smells like Writer’s Block. But it’s not Writer’s Block. I’m just lost.

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Because there’s nobody really steering the ship. It’s impossible to have the oversight I need to make sure the project is on track while also pushing out about 1000 words a day on this thing. All I can really do is watch the road directly in front of me and make sure I’m not driving into the ditch.

But that’s a problem, because I’m missing the road signs along the way, I’m missing landmarks, I’m not getting much feel for the arc of the story as a whole. I know where it needs to go generally, but it’s been a long time since I bothered to check the map and see whether I’m on course.

And what’s a map to a writer? Unfortunately for pantsers like me, it’s an outline.

And for a month now, I’ve felt that the narrative is adrift, that I don’t know where I’m going, that I’m getting a little lost. Time for a map check.

So tonight, instead of sitting down to pound out 1000 words of narrative, I resolved to do some outlining. I skimmed through what I’ve written so far and summed up the main points of each chapter. Which taught me that, some boring exposition aside, a few less-than-meaningful interactions aside, a few unnecessary characters who will be pruned in future drafts aside, the narrative actually clips along pretty well. Once I get the thing sanded down, it’s gonna hum, baby. Outlining also taught me that I’ve forgotten several details — even some key and important things I planted early in the draft which need to play major roles in the end of the book. They’d just slipped my mind, which is not surprising, because drafting a full-length novel and making it up as you go along is a little bit like juggling the entire contents of your kitchen at once, and then somebody hands you a baby.

So, with outline of everything I’ve written in hand, I’m ready for tomorrow’s session, which is going to be roughly outlining the back half of the book. It won’t be even a quarter as detailed as the outline of what I’ve already written, but what it will do is tell me the plot points I need to steer for when I get adrift again in the coming months of drafting. I’ve already seen, just from retracing my steps over the past couple chapters, what I need to do with the next three or four chapters. Which makes going back to work on the draft that much easier, because I don’t have to make it all up on the spot. I don’t have to find my way across the Pacific just by glancing at the night sky.

I’m here to tell you that I felt silly spending an hour and a half writing out an outline for a book I’ve already written half of. It’s going to be arduous work completing the outline for the prospective ending, especially knowing (as I already do) that that ending will change in some way, shape, or form by the end. But I’m also here to tell you that I see more clearly than I have in months the path that the book has been on and the path it needs to take. Foreign as it felt, the outline has reinvigorated me at a time when I desperately needed it.

So, my advice to my future self is:

  1. Write.
  2. Write some more.
  3. Outline what you’ve written.
  4. Write some more.
  5. Throw the outline out the window.
  6. Make a new outline.
  7. Repeat.

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