Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Guest Author Juliette Wade: The Structural Rewrite of Death
Juliette blogs about language and culture and how that applies to writing over at TalkToYoUniverse, a must for anyone writing about science fiction or fantasy cultures. Her short stories have appeared in Analog Magazine, and I've no doubts that once she finishes this book, you'll see it on the shelves before too long.
Take it away Juliette...
I knew this would be a perfect post for The Other Side of the Story, particularly after I read Janice's post on outlining. I'd like to talk about this novel that I'm rewriting from scratch.
Let me explain what I mean.
Okay, so I wrote this novel. Or, I started to write it. For a long while it was going really great, and then it lost momentum halfway through, and I was never able to finish it. One reason why I never finished it was that even though the scenes were exciting, my readers kept telling me they didn't know where it was going. It was involving, yet somehow lacked a sense of forward drive. I think this was because I only vaguely knew where it was going myself–I knew where the end was supposed to be but I didn't know how to get there. My chapter outline was getting on to sixty-five chapters, and down that road lies insanity.
I don't necessarily have anything against long stories. But tell me if you recognize this: you write a story, it's too long, you go through agonizing over how long it is and try to cut, but the word count creeps downward only a tiny bit at a time until you don't think you can squeeze another word out of the text as it stands.
I've been through this more than once, and what it means for me is that the text as it stands is wrong. Once you've fixed all problems with verbosity and redundancy, and you've gotten down to something as concise and constantly original as possible, you still may not have enough drive to make the story sing. At that point, there's only one way to go any lower:
Structural rewrite of death.
I had tried other ways of increasing the sense of drive. I'd added fights, a death, other stuff. But these were all tangential things, like arrows that pointed outward from the main thrust of the story, arriving out of nowhere to carry it forward just a little, but not really solving the fundamental problem.
What I needed to do was back off and start over.
It's a scary idea. How can you start over? How can you abandon everything you've done?
Well, you are, and you aren't.
In a sense, you are, and it's critical that you do. I personally find that if I go back and look at any of the text I've written, one thing leads to another so naturally that I can't drag myself off of it to consider alternatives. I have to start with an entirely blank page, or the old story sucks me in like quicksand.
In another sense, though, you aren't. Don't open a file, and don't look at your old outline. Now ask yourself what you remember. What parts of the story did you love? Which parts haunt you? Which parts stay in your head when the text itself is gone?
Those are the pieces that are important–they have to be. You remember them precisely because of their importance. So take those pieces and write them down in a blank file. A phrase here or there, in no particular order. "The Eminence dies." "This character gets sick." "A tea party with an influential Cabinet player."
Take those scenes and let them float free of the moorings they had in the last draft of the story. Let them bounce around a little, and see if any of them stick together. "Oh," you may realize, "this scene has to happen before that one." Or, "these two scenes really would work well in immediate sequence." Maybe, "this event changes the entire nature of the story," or, "wouldn't this scene work well as a sort of reply to that one."
The scene that starts the main conflict should probably be your first scene, and the more story arcs it gets started, the better. In my book, it's a scene where the main character goes to a concert and someone drops dead on stage, causing a panic. It actively demonstrates the world; it actively shows the reason behind the atmosphere of fear constantly surrounding the main character; it also gives the main character's parents a reason to come back from a trip to protect him. In the same scene, the main character meets a girl that he'll pursue later, ends up getting entangled in personal tension with his best friend, and has a fight with his brother over what happened that night.
Once you have a scene like that, see if you can keep the arcs moving forward in your head. What kind of immediate consequences could each piece have? Do any of them fit with scenes that you've previously written? I realized, for my book, that there would be an investigation into the death in the first scene that I could use as motivation for another scene I'd written in the previous draft. A scene which, in that draft, had a motivation that seemed quite arbitrary.
The order of the old scenes won't matter. Of course you have to keep logically connected events in order, but you can make the old scenes serve the needs of the new arcs, and create a new outline. You can say to yourself, "this is the scene where everything changes, so it needs to occur just at the point when everyone is least ready for it." I discovered I had a scene where one of my characters had just signed a contract that got him in way over his head, and was wallowing in fear and praying that nothing bad would happen. So, logically, the thing that everyone fears the most, which will make the character's life infinitely more difficult, should happen immediately in answer to his plea. (A very Janice sort of move, in fact!)
I won't say that you need a complete, end-to-end outline before you start writing again. I will say, though, that I want one for myself before I start into this again–so I know that this time I'll make it all the way to the end. The changes I've made to the outline will mean drastic changes to the text. I expect not to retain much of what I'd written before–I'll be using my old draft less like a previous draft than like a dictionary, to look up phrases that I liked, or see how I did one thing or another. When I get finished, it will be the same book–same story, same characters, same main events. But I know it will be shorter, because I won't get lost in tangential and unmotivated stuff I included last time. And I feel in my gut that it will be better, because rather than taking existing text and trying to inject drive into it, I'm making the scenes I have serve the new drive I've envisioned.
I hope some of you may find this technique useful. Thanks very much to Janice for inviting me to post.