The hardest part

Brian John Spencer - Ernest Hemingway

There’s always debate: which part of the novel is hardest to write. Some say beginning, some argue passionately that no, it’s the end where the problems doth dwell. For me I think it’ll always be the bits in the middle. Specifically the bits between the inciting incident (at around 15-25% through) and the mid-novel climax.

Beginnings are easy: find a good cinematically happy starting point and start writing. No doubt you’ll change your mind half a dozen times before you’re satisfied, and maybe it’ll be a headache in the revision process, but for first drafting I’ve never found it too much of a problem.

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As for endings – well, it can be complex to tie up all your threads in a way that’s concise and satisfying, but at least by that point you know what all your threads are. After a certain point you’re writing downhill anyway: you’ve released all your pigeons and now they’re coming home to roost. I find that endings tend to come more or less naturally after all the hard work you’ve put in to the set-up.

No, it’s middles that stymie me. Especially early middles where you’re still unspooling the wires and making big decisions.

Let me illustrate this by giving a few of the major determinations I’ve made in just this section of my current WIP:

  • Having a major character be abducted (my inciting incident)
  • Deciding how much faffing around my characters should do before she’s found
  • Wondering how insane to make major character #2
  • Having the ‘court intrigue’ subplot result in major character #3 being exiled from the castle
  • Working out how minor character #1 can assist in the search for major character #1
  • Working out a location for the character to be held in
  • Working out if my characters can go straight there or if there should be a misstep along the way
  • Working out the location/details of this misstep
  • Working out how this misstep is carried out, with specific reference to French policing techniques and equipment
  • Deciding what monster my characters must face at the mid-novel climax – the MNC itself being a whole subset of big doomladen decisions

Every single one of these steps was complicated and involved a lot of deep thought. I’m still setting up the framework for the adventure to come; trying to anticipate my needs for later in the story and giving enough clues, enough evidence to set me on the way to a resolution that convinces and has enough emotional wallop.

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I’ve crawled through this section. Writing has been attritional, chip after single chip as I attempt to hew the novel from the great mass of Possibility. And it seems to me that it’s always been like this: this section of the novel contains so many choices, so many set-ups that the rest is almost easy in comparison.

This is, of course, rubbish. Every single bit of a novel is difficult. Everything is the hardest part. That’s just the nature of the beast, kid.

But this is my hardest part. And it probably reflects my lack of outlining or planning to any great degree. Which is ironic, given that I had considered this to be my most planned novel yet attempted. Just goes to show what I know.

Yeah, come to me for advice, folks. I really know what I’m doing.

Stick with me for another month and I’ll be going on about how hard the third quarter of the novel is to wrote.

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The mystery of the missing corpse

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I am missing a corpse.

There is a piece of advice that I’m sure you know already, and that’s to make your first act as short as possible. Don’t waste time with introductions and preliminaries bar the essentials but get to your inciting incident as soon as possible.

That means, if writing a murder mystery, you should cut to the corpse. The novel doesn’t really begin until you have your dead body. No matter what interest you have, what civil unrest, what interesting character dynamics you create, without that central pillar your novel will feel like it’s missing something.

My corpse has gone AWOL. It should have been here – right here – but someone’s snuck off with it whilst my back was turned.

I should explain: I’m talking about New Gods, the third book in my Antarctic trilogy. I wrote this years ago and, unlike Night Shift and Human Resources, it hasn’t really been looked at since. So far I’ve been pleasantly surprised; fixing continuity caused by my tinkerisations with the previous books has been the greatest problem.

But I’m 100 pages in now; that’s nearly a third of the way through.

There hasn’t been a single murder yet. Not one.

There’s a lot of good things. There’s the suggestion of a historical massacre. There’s political intrigue. There’s the reintroduction of an old character and just enough about him to cause the reader doubt. New characters seem realistic and intriguing.

But there’s no body. And this is a problem. Nearly a third of the way through and the novel hasn’t yet begun.

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This is odd, if you think about it. Why should it be so important that there’s a death when there’s so much else going on? It’s not as if other genres make such simple, bare demands. All that matters is a conflict, a course irrevocably decided upon. I have that in spades.

But this is a murder mystery. People need a body – or, at the very least, something with the same emotional heft. I don’t have that here. Will what I do have be enough to keep people reading? Well maybe; as I said, there’s plenty going on. But why leave it to chance?

It’s time to dust off my scissors. The (first) murder needs to be brought forwards. It needs to be front and centre. It needs to be my primary focus. If that pushes some other strands into the background then so be it.

Hell, that might make those threads stronger; a little messiness can frazzle my lead-character, can distract and disorientate so as to mask (from character and reader) what really matters. This could become a boon.

But I’m not going to start cutting just yet. First I’m going to read through the rest of the novel. It’s worth remembering what I’m trying to achieve before trying to achieve it.

Besides, it should be fun.


 

UPDATE: I found it! That pesky corpse was hiding on page 138. Now I just need to rearrange the whole novel to bring it front and centre.

Also, I can’t wait to the end of the novel. It’s time to start snipping!

The big board of truth

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I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.

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A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:

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I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.

The problem with McGuffins

Editing is a bugger. Over the whole life of a manuscript – from inception to release – the actual writing will take only a fraction of your time. The thinking is what takes the hours, closely followed by time procrastinating or spent staring blankly at the screen.

It wouldn’t be so bad if you were sure that your reworking was improving the work. Unfortunately it takes another person – or at least a fair bit of time (making yourself the other person) – to really tell you if your changes have worked or not. It’s easy to get yourself out of one narrative-hole by creating others, or by subtly undermining your own edifice by removing one ill-fitting, rotten old plank without properly shoring up the area.

After my last draft of Night Shift I went away and looked at the outline of the novel as a whole, cross-referenced with my reader’s comments. I spent time ironing out the problems she’d highlighted – a lot of time, and a lot of caffeine. There was a point in the plot where a body is found. Great – no problem with that. But as I thought on I realised that certain characters needed to know where the body was in the first place. I’d had a vague idea of this, but I saw that I really needed to know what my characters had been doing behind my back.

So I created a McGuffin. A trail for them to follow. A logical and sensible progression that led from a character’s room to the Antarctic wilderness.

And that’s great, but now I have the McGuffin to deal with. I’d created a tablet (the electronic kind), upon which a message, ostensibly from the protagonist, had been left to draw the victim to his death. Having created this I’ve realised that this evidence could be used repeatedly ‘downstream’ and could be a useful prop upon which to hang more tension.

I can see that this idea has potential – but to add a thing like this into the 9th draft of a novel is problematic. I’m having to constantly add references to it, to explain it away, to make it both significant and magnificently unimportant – whilst it’s not quite a red-herring, it’s not integral to the wider plot so I don’t want to overstate its importance.

Perhaps more of a problem is that I’m wracked with self-doubt. As I’ve said before, this draft consists of a major structural re-working. I’ve been adding, deleting and moving scenes. The only way is onwards, but I’m losing track of my own novel. I’m struggling to keep faith with my changes. I’m determined not to be lazy, not just to do the minimum effort to please this reader; I want to strengthen even scenes that had been praised previously.

But am I going too far? Am I ultimately undermining the novel as a whole, making it awkward and unwieldy?

I’ve already determined that I need a ‘draft 9a’ where I got through the text again and try and see the damn thing from an objective perspective.

But it never gets any easier. Each draft, each layer of repointing, is a confusion and a doubt. Which is where beta-readers come in; it sure helps when you’ve someone else to reassure you that what you’ve done is okay. Preferably before it goes out into the wider commercial world.