When the plot goes out of control

Writing this article is a way for me to procrastinate yet another major revision to my current manuscript. But it’s a learning moment for me, that’s worth sharing.

Being able to write without editing is hard for most folks to do, and pushing through that barrier makes writing… not effortless, but at least doable. There’s more creative energy available to move the plot forward.

The downside to writing first and editing later (there are many upsides) is that one can veer off the intended path. sometimes it’s a character tugging at my hand saying “check this out; I can do this, too!” Or it’s a place with gravitas sufficient to move more action to it, or from it, or because of it.

My first tear-down in this manuscript was after creating a mass casualty event. A natural progression of the actions of some characters, actually. But this is a murder-mystery, not a Bruce Willis flick. And I ended up with the chaos that typically happens after a disaster of the “dozens dead, hundreds injured” variety. And while I got about eleven thousand possibly reusable words from it, ultimately I pulled it, and the six or seven new characters introduced at about the 60k mark, out of the manuscript.

I’m now past the 70k mark. this is where things should be coming together. The number of threads decreasing, the tension focusing on who did it, and what’s the protagonist going to do about it.

Now’s also the time I’m realizing I’ve got an extra suspect. He’s threaded throughout the story, Hinted at, a cause of trauma, of mystery… I’d already edited him out of the beginning, because even I couldn’t figure out what his motives were for his actions, cool as they looked when the protagonist came across them. To me he felt like Richard Kiel in Moonraker. Interesting, glitterly, but almost a one trick pony in terms of evil. I could have made him more evil, more important. But I kept butting into the fact that he wasn’t fitting in with a smooth narrative. Other detectives kept tripping over him. He added a complexity to the search for the murderers that I had to divert time and words to explaining.

So goodbye, Evan Stone. May you appear in another novel, in a different guise. And perhaps in a nicer role; I really didn’t like this version of you.

On Pantsing, Characters, and “Writer’s Block”

Isaac Asimov, at his “best” (we can critique his literary skills elsewhere) could sit down and pound out a novel as fast as he could type on his clunky electric typewriter[1]. With the kind of throughput he had, he had to be pantsing it, but I’ve found no references either way (but at 5k/day every day, I can’t imagine that he had time to plan).

I pants it (write without a clear outline), depending on my characters to pull me through the process because I know who they are, and what they want, and where they’re going. Doesn’t work for everyone, but at the last Armadillo Con writing workshop there was a panel of published authors. They went down the line: six authors and an increasingly bemused moderator. “Pantser,” “pantser,” “pantser…” You get the drift. Last was most surprising: an author with dozens of published murder mystery novels to his 90+ year credit. “I don’t know who did it,” he said. “Sometimes not until it’s all revealed.”

What he did know was his dramatis personae. See above, character, motivations, etc. Given that start it’s possible to “run with it.”

D&D dungeon masters (DMs) do something very similar (except, of course, for humans manipulating the player characters). And the DM has to handle any and all non-player characters (NPCs) that appear in the game. This is very close to the kind of pantsing I know. And there are some awesome dungeons with frantic DMs trying to keep one plot twist ahead of the characters.

For about a week I couldn’t get more than 1k words on a page. Some days under 100. And it brought me up short, because I knew the main characters pretty well. After coming through and then removing several scenes because they were flat and lifeless, I went back to my characters. Like solving an electrical problem in a car (before computers did most of the heavy lifting), I went and looked at every character and their interaction with others.

The “NPC” ones: the (first) victim, the mysterious stranger, the new characters on the block: they were all mysteries to mo. Why were they doing what they did? Why did they care about a better-defined character, or their actions?

So I took a step back (sans computer) and doodled on one of my writing notebooks for several hours. What were their names? Why were they in the story? What were they trying to get out of it? A few paragraphs of backstory, a clear physical and psychological description of each, and I was back in the driver’s seat, as it were.

At least, the seat by the keyboard that kept the words flowing.

The Next ONE

I’m seeing life through late middle age, post-first marriage, eyes, wondering about the ifs and whens of my next. And, as a compulsive observer, I’m seeing the primal pursuit of happiness in a different light.

For those seeking trust, BDSM has its attractions. For those looking for love, sex is a reliable, if saccharine, stand-in. And those looking for a partner, friends with interlocking technical needs (e.g., shopping, assistance with living, a shoulder to reliably cry on), with or without benefits, fit the bill. And for the hunters, pursuit is their way of feeling their oats. Loners run the gamut of belonging, sitting in the corner of the ballroom of life and watch the dancing and mating games. From musicians to aesthetes, surface gregarians to profound hobbyists, they are present, if not true participants, living their lives in their heads to the expense of investing in the fickle chance of another.

What does this have to do with writing? Observations such as these are key, to me, in finding less-traveled ways to develop characters. In Consent (available at Amazon here for a mere pittance) my central character is cold and removed from her society, a sufferer of PTSD. Her re-entry into the “normal” society was, for me, the core of the story, not the technology or situation, however interesting they are.

How do your characters fit into the society around them? Are they stable in their milieu? What are they striving for? Who is their next ONE?

“Hunger Games,” Transitions from Book to Screen and ScriptFrenzy

While I disagree with the YA genre for the Hunger Games, on the basis of graphic violence rather than the usual idiocy about what kids know about sex and relationships by their early teens, it is a great series. The first novel stands firmly by itself, albeit a bit of a teaser at the end. What gave the book depth and the main characters power, at least for me, was the backstory: why the hunger, how cutting the deprivation, how evil the Pan Em Capital really was.

Give costuming its due: the frippery of the capital residents, their gaudy couture , awkward, vain hair & makeup

Translating this book to a movie reminded me how the movie industry has come to see these movies. Parse out all the plot lines, keeping all but the vivid or book-memorable ones. Discard extraneous characters, scenes. Seeing the movie last night gave me a hollowed-out visual to go with the book in my mind. Casting did a great job on the visuals for the lead actors, but, had I not read the book, I doubt I’d have caught the Depression Era costuming of the Districts. Aside from a one-line homage to Katniss’ backstory with her mother, or one nightmare glimpse of a mine explosion, entire sources of power that give Katniss her survival power and personal integrity disappear. As a result she appears much more the contrary teen than an empowered, angry, focused young woman.

I give it a 7/10 on the “fun at the movies” scale. I’m sure the sequels will be as beautiful. But hopefully better informing us of their inner strengths and motivations, and less of the jiggly camera stuff.