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Progress and egress

January 17, 2010

Why is it that when I’m making great progress on a story, I somehow find the irresistible urge to take a break to tell people I’m making great progress?  That’s what’s going on now, a brief exit from my work to brag about how well I’m working. Self inflicted irony.

To be honest, the act of stringing well-turned phrases together is exhausting.  Some good character development through a beat of action followed by a surgically placed infodump while the character stews followed by a brief laugh and into some significant foreshadowing, more revealing dialog, and a plot milestone all while fitting a little sex into the scene break.  Of course none of that happens while I write.  Okay, very little of it.  That’s the fruit of revision.  Brilliant as Heinlein was, I can’t work with his revise-only-to-editor-request method.  I’m more like a cake decorator, globbing the story on there in one big hunk then going back with the spatula to smooth it out (and later with the frosting gun or flowers or doilies or whatever).

It often happens to me with a story that I get 40-70% of the way through and just stall out because the story lost its inertia.  I have two fixes for that.  One, cut the last page or two out and try again with focus on building up speed.  I use that tactic playing RollerCoaster Tycoon, too.

The second thing I try is going back to the beginning with that spatula and trying to make the story flow as smoothly as possible for as long as possible.  That was my approach tonight.  The characters weren’t developed, the subplots (we’re talking novella or at least novelette) weren’t connecting, and I was getting a whole “who cares” vibe about my main character.  I know he’s the right character, but I was making the action center around someone else.

I started by changing the very first scene.  Same people, same plot points, but the staging was different.  Instead of waiting outside the front door the character was asleep in a bed.  I streamlined the story-pushing infodump in favor of more setting information.  That changed the transition to the next scene and poured a whole lot more emotion (and less melodrama) into scene two.  It also helped roll into scene three without stopping the action and starting again, a very good thing considering how brief that scene is.  In fact I think I managed to remove three or four line breaks (the blank line or # or ***) from my story’s first couple thousand words.  Nothing wrong with a hard break like that, they just seem like a crosswalk in the middle of the story.  Too many and you can hardly drive for fear of running someone over.  (Worst thing about Gatlinburg.)

This process, for me, involves a lot of cut-and-paste, usually out of the story and into a blank document.  I highlight a section that’s working, paste it in, then trim it like a bonsai sculptor to make it what I want it to be.  Then I find another section that was working and figure out how to string them together better than I had the first time.  Often it’s a matter of replacing creative language with straightforward explanations.  Other times it’s changing the angle of approach: an angry character becomes scared instead, an empty street becomes a bustling marketplace, a nameless pawn’s words come out of an important character’s mouth.  Alton Brown (my Food Network hero) refuses to buy a kitchen tool that will only do one job.  I try to do that with story elements, exchange unitaskers for multitaskers.  Sometimes this means combining elements into one, others it’s changing where the story was going to flow more naturally from one important element.  The same ring that turned Frodo invisible also attracted the Nazgul, weakened his resolve, turned allies against him, lured his guide, gave reason to distrust that guide, and was the ultimate goal of his trek.  It got him in trouble and out of trouble (more in, really).  That’s what I want out of inanimate objects in my stories, too.  They seldom (never) go that far.

Well, a quarter after midnight and I’m off to frost more story.  And no, the first draft isn’t done yet.  I think this one’s at 40%.  Shameful, I know.  And a lot of my frosting job will actually be removing unnecessary portions of the cake I’ve already made.  And yes, I’ll just have to write more cake that I’ll have to frost later.  But this process works for me better than forcing the cake into the oven and hoping I can frost it all at once.  There are likely better systems, but this one has me happy for now.  That’s all I can really ask.

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