Thursday, July 16, 2015

Yes, I know how it ends: Story building without getting stuck.

The first thing people ask when you tell them you're writing fiction, especially a series, is usually: Do you know how it ends? This is often followed by: Do you have it all written down, or is it all in your mind? How do you keep up with it all?

The answers, respectively, are YES and HAHAHAHAHA. As Zadie Smith so beautifully illustrates in one of my favorite author pep talks, story building can be as organized or haphazard as one needs it to be to move forward. My story building method often involves listening to lots of embarrassing music while exercising, staring into space at length, starting outlines that mean nothing by the time I finish them, and finding completely obsolete notes to myself tucked away in every drawer, notebook, and text file I touch. If my apartment strikes you as neat, know that I am compensating for the tangled heap of fantasy parts that occupies the better part of my brain at all times. Weirdly, and I'm sure many an author will agree, I know where it's all going. I swear I do. Yes, I inevitably have to rip up and re-lay more than half the tracks, but the big picture--as well as all the juicy bits--motors right along in a never-ending playback reel in my head. Strange cargo faithfully appears when I get stuck, story manna, magically making jagged bits fall into place and sending the book along its way again. Characters and scenes that once seemed vitally important to me get booted. Brilliant solutions that wake me in the night get misplaced, and occasionally I do have to pull the brakes and organize things, but in general, I don't worry about forgetting key elements. The ideas that show up and stick are the ones that don't get left in the dust. Sounds reckless, but that's how it is. That's how I write. Your mileage may vary. But if you find yourself stranded in the middle of your own novel, here are three things I'd tell anyone to remember when checking under the hood. 

1. Kill, kill, kill . . .
Given 15 years to brew in my head, Vessel has certainly changed, in leaps and bounds, over time. The entire series morphed from one end to another, ten times over, before I was truly ready to write and publish it as it exists today. Characters, names, vital scenes, entire story arcs, so many beloved components are forever falling by the wayside, for any number of reasons. The importance doesn't translate to the reader, the rest of the story changed and this character or that revelation no longer fits, or it just looks plain stupid once it's written down. Put simply, don't just kill your darlings. Slaughter them by the truckload. If the work you finish today in no way relates to what you wrote two years ago, your story is probably better for it. You've dropped unnecessary baggage and transformed it into something lean and delicious. It's impossible not to get attached to your words, but whip out that scalpel anyway. If a line feels cheesy, lose it--no matter how much you love it. If a scene feels more like a speed bump, dump it into a scrap file. Trust me: you'll find those words a few years down the road and be glad they didn't make the cut. If you have to fight the rest of your novel just to accommodate them, then they aren't worth keeping. Conversely . . . 

2. Give in.
. . . Occasionally the ideas you feel like ignoring at first are the ones who belong. I have no clue how this happens, but it does. Sometimes an idea comes along unbidden, an idea that would require huge efforts to incorporate. A new setting presents itself--and will entail lots of wardrobe and equipment changes. A character insists on evolving in a direction you never anticipated. A new twist occurs to you, one that doesn't quite jive with what's already published, something nearly impossible to knit in within what remains of the series. And yet it simply must be so, and there you are, eating Lucky Charms dry out of a coffee mug at 3am and wondering how you're going to make Character A completely unaware of Character B's existence, even though they conversed in Book I. You might even loathe the idea, but if it keeps nagging at you in juuuust the right way, you'll know. Find some way to work the idea in, and your story will benefit. (Warning, Vessel Book I spoiler ahead.) Jordan's amputation is a prime example. I thought it too dark and dramatic for the kind of series I wanted Vessel to be, and yet . . . once the idea came to me, her fate was as good as sealed. I fought it. I battled with that decision throughout the writing of Advent. "But Tom!" you say, "The book starts with the line My name is Jordan Murphy and I'm the fastest one-armed bartender in the world." Yes it does, my pretties, but the writing certainly didn't start there. Which brings me to . . .  

3. Jump around.
Your story will break down at times. You'll find yourself sitting there with no way to move it forward. Get out. Stretch. Walk away. Jump ahead and write another part, something you're excited about. Hell, write the ending. Write three endings. This is how the bulk of Vessel gets written, by the way. Don't worry about how you'll fill in the gaps or get your characters from point A to point B. You will. You might even encounter some means of jump-starting the earlier part while working out the details of the newer part. Or you might write something that will render the earlier part useless, and have to do away with it entirely. Either way, you'll get un-stuck, and getting un-stuck is half the battle of writing.

The other half? Probably back pain. Or remembering not to talk to yourself on the elliptical. Whatever form your battles take, trust your story and you'll make it to the end, I promise!

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