The Story Thus Far, Part 5: End of Line

The other night, I was in bed, half asleep (sans frog pajamas), when I solved the biggest problem the plot of my book had: the ending. Up until then, I had only a vague sort of general idea what would happen in the end. This was problematic for a variety of reasons. The most obvious being, if you don’t know how your story ends, then how do you know when to stop? At various points, I was adding subplots tot he story and had swelled the projected length to more than 150,000 words. That’s a rather svelt book for Stephen King but for me, that suggests kitchen sink writing.[1] You could kill someone by dropping such a book on their head. Not wanting to write a weapon of mass destruction, this became a problem.

It was also slowign me down. If I don’t know where I’m going with the story, I can go anywhere. That makes it hard to follow through on themes and damn near impossible to write. If I get stuck in chapter 12, I can’t just jump down the line and pick up a later scene because what happens if, when I get back to chapter 12, it changes things that happen later? I’ve just wasted days writing scenes that need to either be rewritten or thrown out entirely. This starts us down the road to second guessing and muttering to yourself and eventually drinking a whole bottle of Ouzo in one sitting.

So having a solid, clear end point is a necessity. At least for me.[2] And for a while, I didn’t have one and this made things complicated. And by complicated, I mean frustrating. But! while in the hypnogogic reverie, floating like a leaf on a pond, I figured it out. The End. and everything was made transparent. Themes became solid. Motifs fell into place. The story–wobbly and jellylike before–became a walking breathing thing, apparent and mobile under its own momentum. Within two days, I had not only a complete plot outline but had written nearly 3000 words.

Getting to this point was a lot of work.[4] Moving on from here to the end will still be a lot of work, though not quite as frustrating. I can now pay attention to the writing and not have to spend sleepless hours figuring out the plot. If I get stuck in a scene, I can jump ahead to any scene that catches my fancy (or picked at random) from the outline and start writing, confident that it will fit into place, because it now has a place designed to fit it, in whatever shape it ends up. Because, while I have an outline, there’s still plenty of wiggle room to surprise myself with turns of phrase and character moments I didn’t anticipate. The muscle and meat of the plot outline can be adjusted to meet those minor changes, now that I have the skeleton in place.

From here on out, it’s just a matter of putting words on the page. That is the fun part, but also the biggest challenge, as it means finding time every day to meet my daily word count. And what should that daily word count be? That’s a very good question.

1.Don’t have an idea what your story is about but plenty of wacky ideas? Throw it in! It worked for Lost. If by worked you mean, made an endless muddled mess of a story with so many chaarcters and subplots and sub-sub plots and smoke monsters and polar bears in the tropics and ooh, time travel! but no resolution that could ever make sense. Yeah sure, that’s something you could do. But it won’t tell a satisfying story.

2. Some authors are confident in their craft to just let the story unwind and wouldn’t dream of writing a plot outline, as it would kill their creative flow and they’d loose interrest in the story. Neil Gaiman apparently writes this way but then he’s not too teribly worried about his story structure, since every novel and story he writes is basically the heroes journey. [3] At the othe rend of the cale we have Tom Robbins, whose legendary writing style is the stuff of legend: he perfectly crafts a single sentence with no thought as to the one that came before or that will come after. No plot. No character sheet. No idea where anythign will go. He’s perfected the absolute zen art of writing. At least, according to his own mythology. It’s not possible to start writing a book that begins “The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami,” without knowing at least a little something about who the magician is and what their underwear is doing in that suitcase.

3. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The hero’s journey is a tried and true tale, as old as humanity and has enough room for infinite variation and Mr. Gaiman does it better than just about anybody. It’s just not the story I want to tell, necessarily.

4. And there’s no easy way to get from point A to point B except by trudging ahead until you build up that momentum. I wish there were some easy program or solution to this problem but it’s really just a matter of perseverance. You have to be confident enough in your craft to get through that hard slog. Not everybody can and more than one great American (or Canadian or Tasmanian or Chechnyan) novel has died in this valley between the cool idea and the point where it takes on enough mass and heat to burst to life like a little star. But once you get to that ignition point, that’s where writing becomes the most fun and fulfilling.

All You Need is Hate

Over at the Onion Av club, they have an interesting discussion of movies, TV shows and music that people have fallen out of love with. As much as I’m loathe to admit it, Sam Adams has a point about Tim Burton. I still think Beatlejuice is a great movie and enjoy Sweeny Todd but I have to admit, Burton is a hit or miss director. Even if we exclude Mars Attacks!, He’s hitting about a 50/50 average, with most of the good stuff falling into his early career. I’m still looking forward to Alice in Wonderland though.

But, alas, I have fallen out of love with a few filmmakers and musicians. Once upon a time, I used to love Bjork, swan dress and all. But only recently, I’ve found that I can’t stand to listen to any of her music, even Vespertine. I’m not sure if her Mathew Barney-inspired last album has retroactively tainted her music or what but Bjork has lost me.

I’ve already documented (possibly in a bit too much detail) my falling out with George Lucus. Let’s just let that one go. The Star Wars trilogy was completed in 1983 and as far as I’m concerned, he’s done nothing since but fiddle with speakers.

I’ve also come to realize that David Lynch is just not a good director. None of his movies even attempt to be satisfying films, or psychological pictures of the inner workings of a character or even just a decent story. I couldn’t even make it more than half way through Inland Empire before I was just bored. He just makes weird art filmic things that invovle actors and ocasionally there’s even something that apes the basic outline of a plot but in the rare event that shows up, it’s quickly ushered out back and beaten to death with a tire iron.

There is hope though: for years I was pretty much bored with Star Trek but the new movie reminded me what I saw in the first place and managed to reinvigorate my love for the older movies as well, even ones I had previously written off as sentimental and week stories.* It’s possible Bjork’s next album will remind me of what I saw in her music or that the rumored live-Action Star Wars TV show said to be starting up filming in Australia will remind me of the Star Wars of my youth. I wouldn’t count on it though.

*Except Nemesis. That one still sucks.

The Story Thus Far, Part 4

So, where was I? Right! Chapter 9.

Chapter 9 was giving me some trouble. We’re already about 8 pages into the story. We’ve met two of our main characters and established a premise and shown a bit of the world. Time to get into the guts of the story and have some fun. But I still have to take care of some business, namely, getting us to a stable plot point form where to progress. Remember, our hero,Major To has traveled through time and is in a world that looks similar tot he one he left but just enough is different to throw him off. he’s got to get his legs about him before we can just throw him into the wilderness again. This is the point of chapter 9 and at first, chapter 10 as well. That was my problem. I had given myself way too much space to do what is essentially the novel-equivalent of an establishing shot. Where is Tom living and how is he coping? That doesn’t need 5000 words. In my attempt to fill up the alloted space, i was spinign out a web of cliches. Tom gets a cell phone! Tom meets his wacky gay neighbors! Tom has an epiphane about the tragic nature of the future… Well, so what? That’s not the point. Noone wants to see Major Tom sit in his livign room, trying to figure out how to order a pizza with his brand new iPhone.

So, I took the parts of chapter 9 that worked and the parts of chapter 10 that worked and smooshed them together (well, edited them together).

This seems like a trivial thing but it’s not. I have the whole rest of the book to show how Tom is or is not adapting to this crazy wacky futuristic world in which he finds himself. no need to dump it all out on the table at once. Our goal is, whenever possible, to do at least two things at once. We can both move the plot forward and establish that Tom finds this world confusing and strange. Idelaly, we would do more than just those two things but for th epurpose of our illustattion, the take-home lesson is this: Don’t waste your reader’s time. If you, the writer are bored by the idea of doing that scene, skip it. If it doesn’t interest you, it sure as hell isn’t going to interrest your reader, who will never know it’s missing. And if it turns out later you need to add that scene back in, well, that’s what the second draft is for.

This cleared the way to jump into the complication, or Act 2, where things start to get really interesting.