See These Bones
Status: 87k words / ~130k projected length
This update is coming in a little bit later than expected, mainly because the first of those two numbers up there was supposed to be a lot bigger than it is. In fact, it was supposed to be somewhere in the range of 90+k words. Three days ago, it actually was in that range. Unfortunately, there comes a time in every author’s life when, upon reading the pages that you feverishly typed up in a fit of so-called inspiration… you realize exactly how badly those pages suck.
I’m almost never happy with the first draft of any chapter or scene. Whenever my wife receives new material for review, it comes accompanied by dire warnings on how very, very terrible those new pages are. But there’s a difference between knowing a scene could use some work and realizing that same scene is entirely unsalvageable. In the former case, improvement is often just a matter of making some slight adjustments; changing the tone of a conversation slightly, or even slightly tweaking the order of events.
That was not the case this week. The more I tried to fix those pages, the worse the chapter got. It was only when I stepped back from the whole thing that I realized the chapter just didn’t fit where I was trying to squeeze it into the narrative. So, 90+k words became 87k, and I was forced to go back to the drawing board. Or, in this case, the blank screen and blinking cursor which silently mocked my failure.
In the grand scheme of things, one scrapped chapter is nothing. In The Italian Screwjob, I wrote the first two-hundred-and-fifty pages at least four (4!!!) times. It reached a point where, whenever people asked how far along I was in the book, I would tell them both the actual page count and a total that included all the pages I’d thrown away. By my estimate, I wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of sixteen hundred pages to end up with a seven-hundred-page book. That’s the sort of percentage that’s only considered acceptable in sports.
Nine lost pages? I can live with that.
The question, however, was whether those nine pages were the real problem or a symptom of something larger.
I take a very loose, big-picture approach to plotting; I know where I’m starting, I know where I want to end, and I have at least a few milestone events that need to happen along the way, but the connective tissue between those moments is at best vaguely determined. Basically, it’s like riding the train from one coast to the other; you know where you got on the train; you know where you’re getting off the train; and you know that you’re probably going through Chicago at some point in the journey1, but you’re not entirely sure what other stops there will be along the way, or what exactly you’ll do at those stops.
This approach (which has either never been equated to a train ride… or has always been equated to one) has some real benefits. For starters, it makes the actual writing part more fun. If I know everything that is going to happen to the tiniest detail, I find that the writing process feels more like a chore than something creative, as if I’m building a piece of Ikea furniture–multiple pages of instructions and something called an Allen wrench despite the fact that it’s just an l-shaped bar of metal–instead of a story. Structure and organization have definite value, but there needs to be some room for fun too. Loose plotting builds in space and freedom for the story to go in unanticipated directions–and on brief and entertaining tangents–while still adhering to the overall structure of the book.
Why is that freedom important? Because things don’t always work on the page the way they do in our brains.
Authors talk all the time about their characters taking control of the story. She wouldn’t let me move on from writing her! -or- Every time I tried to tear them apart, they both looked right back at me and told me no. It sounds kind of dumb2, but it’s also kind of true. The more you write a character, the better developed they become, and as they move from being a two-dimensional collection of traits into what passes for a fictional individual, certain plotted actions may no longer make sense.
In See These Bones, I have several dozen characters–driving both myself and my beta readers crazy–and the vast majority of them started as simple spreadsheet line-entries of physical attributes, dominant personality traits, and power sets.3 The roles those characters were intended to play have changed dramatically as the story progressed, as I found dynamics that worked better on the page than expected (and vice versa). My two favorite characters so far are great examples of that; one didn’t exist at all in my initial outline, and the other was simply one name in a list of names that the protagonist rattled off in the first handful of pages. Meanwhile, a character who was originally supposed to play a pivotal role has faded into the background to make way for more interesting creations. A loose outline means I can feel free to work those moments of inspiration into the storyline without worrying that doing so will destroy the overall arc of the book.
That all sounds fantastic, right? All you need to write a book is a beginning and an ending! The rest will magically come to you as you sit in front of your computer!4 Unfortunately, there’s a real down-side to creative liberty, and it involves going too far off the rails.5 There’s a place for post-modern streams of consciousness in fiction, but that’s not the sort of fiction I write. My books need to have some semblance of structure for the reader to follow. The freedom to change anything and everything on the fly can quickly lead to a chaotic mess barely constrained by space, time, and your writing program of choice.
As an author, realizing that you’ve gone off the rails can be harder than you might think. For me, it’s often something I only recognize well after the fact. If I find myself suddenly struggling with new pages, it’s probably because I took a wrong turn some chapters back and somewhere deep down, some part of me realizes it.6
That’s what happened with The Italian Screwjob; there were some logistical issues with the events of the first quarter of the book which undercut every subsequent scene I tried to write. It happened with Investigation, Mediation, Vindication too… although in this case, it was the problematic way I introduced one of the main characters that secretly continued to bother me even as I was working on the sequel. (One definite advantage of not having published my books yet; I’m able to go back and change/fix things without pissing off my readers!)
I’ve learned the hard way over the past five years that you have to listen to that little voice that says something isn’t right. Stubbornly plowing ahead in direct defiance of reality may work well for literary characters, but it’s a poor strategy for authors.
Which brings us back to those ill-fated pages I mentioned earlier. They didn’t actually suck; there was some reasonably good character development for a minor character and I was even able to seed some plot hooks in the background that would pay off in another half-dozen chapters or so. The problem, as I noted at the beginning, was that the scene didn’t fit the narrative. But the bigger problem–and one I realized only after taking a step away from the whole thing–was that my narrative itself had gotten muddled because of a decision I’d made several chapters earlier, in one of those moments of creativity that my process allows and encourages. It’s like building a house.. if your foundation sucks, your walls are eventually going to collapse. I guess I should just be grateful that it only took a few chapters for that to happen this time!7
So what do I do now? First, I’ll cry a lot. When I run out of tissues, I’ll take another step back, think seriously about what my goals are for this portion of the book8, and then I’ll review the past 50-100 pages and remove anything that isn’t serving those goals. I’m hoping the process will be fairly minor–I’m off the rails, but I’m not in the water, to continue torturing this already painful train metaphor–but even if it’s not, it’s something that must be done before I can continue on.
When I write June’s update, I fully expect to be back on track and forging ahead. I should also have a better idea as to whether or not I’ll be able to hit my (self-imposed) deadline of the first week of July. Based on my word count estimates, and the fact that I somehow only managed 8k words last month, it’s looking unlikely. On the other hand, the last 15-20% of the book should come very quickly, and I’ll have a full week of vacation to hopefully finish everything up. (In other words, I have no idea. I guess we’ll see what happens!)
After that, it’ll be time to turn back to The Many Travails of John Smith series, and all the necessary remaining steps to get those books edited and ready for publication!
- Because every train ride has to somehow go through Chicago
- Unless your characters really do literally talk to you, in which case you might be a wizard.
- This is a post-apocalyptic world where people have superpowers, after all.
- Wouldn’t that be nice?
- I call it the Tim Burton effect. Creative genius, but I think his best work has been whenever that creativity was forced to work within imposed constraints.
- Other times, it’s just because I’m tired. Sleep matters!
- Yes, I’ve now compared writing to trains, wizardry, and house-building. Stay tuned for a future blog post; Writing: It’s rocket science and astronomy and heart surgery, more or less!
- Basically the 60%-80% chunk, which is almost always the hardest section for me to write