One at a time

Stepping

A quiet week here in quarantine. The paid work is dispatched and out of the door. The novel advances one scene at a time, with only limited awareness of where I’m going or where I’ve been. Which isn’t great, really; an idea of where we’re ending up has always seemed to me to be an essential part of writing a novel. For though it may change hugely from the original vision, some idea of our final destination is key to ensuring we move forwards to a killer ending and don’t spend an age just wandering around.

With all my other projects I’ve had my set-piece finale in mind from the start. This time I have too many threads and piecing them all together is my major challenge. My ideas for a great last battle are hazy; there’s so much I want to say that getting it all in in an aesthetically pleasing fashion is going to be difficult.

Which is one reason I’m taking things scene by scene. I’ve created a situation where my characters are under almost constant stress, and if I get stuck I’m trying to imagine just what they’d be doing in this situation: what their individual aims are and how they’d go about it. It’s taken the novel in a direction I hadn’t imagined (three new POV characters have appeared), and is fun and satisfying to write. I’m not exactly sure it will be the same to read, but that’s what editing is for.

Domino question

Writing like this, in piecemeal fashion, has also helped take the pressure off me. We live in interesting times and life is giving us new challenges – not the least of which is staying sane, all cooped up as we are. Writing for the moment feels a lot less intense than trying to corral everyone into a set formation for some set-piece climax. I still have to do this, mind; but I’m letting the characters take me forwards in their own sweet time. The more I write, the more I collapse phase space into certain directions, the more ‘real’ my future options feel. The story coalesces and focus tightens.

Forward motion both limits and creates possibilities: by writing like this, one scene at a time, I am allowing myself to work out just what I need to write next. Each scene shapes a future, and that future inevitably leads to a climax.

That’s the theory, at least. For now I’m just trying to discover that I still enjoy writing.

And I do that one scene, one page, one word at a time.

Cutting the great scene of doom

film-photo-eisenstein-editing.jpg

Sergei Eisenstein in a photograph appropriate to a post on editing

This is a little story about problems, about editing, and about idée fixe. There may be a moral. I make no promises.

I had been planning Oneiromancer for years before I set metaphorical pen to paper. When I did actually start to write it was because I had an idea: a vision, almost, which involved two entirely new, off-the-cuff characters watching one of my old heroes – term loosely used – fighting a monster. This became the novel’s first scene: it seems I always begin at the beginning, when a scene is so strong in my mind that it burns onto the page.

In this case it’s proved to be a problem. Through four drafts I’ve laboured (and you can an early effort here and a rewrite here) and tinkered and hammered it around the steel anvil of dogged determination. But I’ve never been quite satisfied. So after a first-ten-pages feedback, which suggested the novel started in the wrong place, I decided to cut the damn thing altogether.

Except I didn’t. What I decided to do was to move it. Because it wasn’t at all bad, and also contained useful information. It served to

  • Give character, both in background and in personality
  • Set out some info about the world and the rules thereof, and thus…
  • …helped tell the reader what sort of book they were reading
  • Set up some causality: two characters now knew of a third

All valuable stuff. So I lifted it wholesale, did some rather painful abbreviation and set it down later on.

Except that didn’t work either. The only place I could find to place it – to maintain cause-and-effect and internal logic – was as a memory within a dream. This isn’t as odd as it perhaps sounds, because dreams are central to the story (you know what the title means, right?). But placing it here was much difficulter. I now had problems with tense (one past within another past – I’m sure there are proper terms for these, but I don’t know them) and with the same character watching ‘herself’. It also slowed down the story.

But the scene had to stay, right? It contained important information. It added depth. It set up future events. And it had to be in that place…

Wait.

Hang on a second.

Let’s just think. What’s actually important? The only things that matter are character and that thread of consequence. So the question should not be ‘how can I crowbar this scene into my novel?’ but ‘what’s the best way to give the reader this information?’

Cut the scene. Cut the whole damn thing. It’s not working. Rewrite around the problem, and suddenly everything flows again.

Sometimes working on words helps: you can always make something read better, always polish, hone and sharpen. But sometimes you’re just scratching at the margins. The whole situation needs to change. Step back. Think. Everything you want to achieve can be achieved in a variety of ways. If what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe you’re not trying the right approach.

Here endeth the lesson.

The Frankenstein pass

What the hell are scenes for anyway? To move the story along, natch. But reality moves in tiny, tiny movements: you can’t tell the audience every little single thing. You can’t have the protagonist wondering whether she should put the bins out now or wait until morning. Not unless that’s crucial to the story. ‘Showing not telling’ is great. But sometimes you have to cover things in absentia. Otherwise you’re cast immediately into snoozeville.

When you’re first-drafting you’re finding your way. You’re marking the path. Sometimes you need to write scenes of blather just so you know what your characters are thinking: to work the background, the backstory. Second draft is, in large part, getting rid of these sections and condensing the novel to make it grip and flow and to carry the readers along on a tide of thrill.

But knowing which scenes to lose and which to keep is a bugger. You wrote those sections because things are happening. Boring things, maybe, but things that, to some extent at least, matter. That foreshadow later events. That explain things. That get inside your character’s heads. How do you know what matters and what doesn’t?

Last session I cut a scene that I decided was better shown offscreen: the arrest of a minor character. But later on I need to have him interviewed by the police. It’s a bit of a jump to have a previously free character suddenly appear in a cell. I can’t quite square it. Should I put the scene back in? I also want to trim down the interrogation itself. But all these cuts threaten to destroy rationality: how much of a leap will my audience be prepared to swallow? How much explanation will ruin the flow?

A novel is not a static thing. It grows, it shrinks, it grows again. At the moment – partly because I have this artificial idea of how long I want the damn thing to be – I’m working on trimming away the fat. I envisaged the novel at around 115k; the first draft weighed in over 140k. So the scissors are out. But I have a feeling that my next draft, as yet unimagined, will be mostly addition. Story comes first. Description – of both location and emotion – is most likely going to be the next big thing for me. Eventually I’ll find my happy place: a lean, taut core with enough depth to raise the damn thing above the pulp potboilers and the penny dreadfuls that give genre a bad name.

Anyway, word count is artificial. A story should to be as long as it needs to be. I worry that by fighting to get down to an acceptable level (and what does that mean anyway?) I’m sacrificing quality.

Writing is a balancing act. It’s about choices – hard, painful choices, just like the ones your characters are making. The answer, of course, is to find a proper critique group and you let your word-baby be tamed by wider perceptions. You need to have the opinions of those who haven’t lived through your anxieties, who are seeing the work fresh and can spot waffle at a hundred paces. The best thing you can do as a writer is to allow yourself to get it wrong and to accept that you’re never going to produce a work of genius without these angels in human form. Of course what you’ve done is precious to you, but you can’t allow yourself to hold it too tightly. Otherwise you’ll smother your work and it’ll never grow hale and healthy.

In the meantime I struggle with notes and knives, with complexity and continuity. I will not produce a polished, publishable product on this draft. But I’m getting closer. This is my Frankenstein pass. With a little surgery my corpse may yet become an Adonis.