Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Confronting dull as dust

More thoughts on Sybil's and Aline's posts, both of which resonate so vividly with us all. It's so nice to feel we writers are not alone in our madness.

I have a twist to add to Aline's seven stages of writing. In my case, the desperation stage usually hits when I realize not only do I not have enough plot thrills and twists to fill 300+ pages, but the 64 pages I have written are as dull as dust.

I write two different types of books – my Rapid Reads novellas which are about 20,000 words, and my regular mystery novels, typically 90,000. The Rapid Reads have several constraints, including a linear storyline with no flashbacks or subplots, and a limited number of characters. I suspect we all cheat a bit on the subplot bit; they are, after all, often an integral part of the main plot.

Writing my full-length mysteries, I used to be a pure pantser writer, putting pen to paper as soon as I had the opening scene in mind and moving forward as each next scene came to me. Hence I never had an idea where I was going, how long it would take, and where I would land up. Everyone who writes this way knows how terrifying it can be. Periods of desperation, inspiration, and elation oscillate throughout the whole first draft. As I've evolved into more complex plots with several points of view, intersecting storylines and flashbacks, however, I've discovered that flying purely by the seat of my pants doesn't work too well; I need to keep track of where things are going and make sure the different storylines mesh. So I have developed a hybrid pantser/plotter style. I still don't know where the whole thing is going nor where it will end up, but I can see a half dozen scenes ahead and know what needs to come next.

I credit this change to my Rapid Reads experience. Because in the beginning, the publisher required a detailed chapter outline before sending the contract, I learned to think the story through from beginning to end, with each step along the way. I didn't enjoy it, but I discovered with a linear, 20,000 story, it was fairly easy to do. And it does make writing that first draft a much smoother, less terrifying process.

This is where the "desperation because this story is dull as dust" problem rears its head, however. What looked in the outline to be enough story to fill 20,000 pages turned out to be plodding and flat. Outlines do not give you the sense of drama that is needed to sustain interest. "And then he talked to the police and learned..." looks as if it should fill a chapter, but much more conflict is needed. Not just obvious, simple conflicts, like the cop doesn't want to talk to him, or the cop is dating his ex-wife, but an unexpected twist that adds a new dimension to the story and often takes it on another path entirely. Which is why I never liked outlines in the first place. Inspiration comes to me when I am deep in the scene, when a character says or does something, and I think "ahah! that's a way cooler idea!"

I am at that stage in my current Rapid Reads project. Halfway through, and aware that I need something to spice it up. The joke among crime writers is this is where you drop another body down the chimney, or send a woman through the door with a gun. But merely adding random twists will not always make a book more intriguing – we've all read books where we rolled our eyes and said "oh not another car chase, or explosion, or even dead body." The truly great twists come out of the story that came before and affect the characters on a powerful personal level. They need to deepen the tension, raise the suspense, and confound the characters as well as the readers.

A neat trick. Finding that perfect twist is the challenge of this "dull as dust" stage. I fret and argue and reread and ask "What if? What else? What is the worst that can happen?" And sometimes I just carry on, hoping the inspiration will fall into my lap somewhere down the line. Sometimes it only comes during the rewrites. All I can do is hope that eventually it does. Stay tuned.


Sybil Johnson said...

I'm a combination plotter/pantser myself. Sometimes that means unexpected things happening, sometimes it means being absolutely terrified of how to get from point C to point D or wrap it all up in the end, especially with a deadline looming. I think I've finally figured out my issues with my WIP. I think...

Donis Casey said...

I tend to be a panther, but on occasion I get lost and end up plotting in the middle of the book! I do think that doing a little plotting before you begin is useful, but only if you give yourself permission to go off-script if the story calls for it. Do the easy read people let you do that, Barbara, or do you really have to stick to the outline?

Barbara Fradkin said...

I never stick rigidly to the outline, and I don't think they care as long as the story I ultimately submit is good. yes, we all have to go off the tail. It's where the magic happens.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Always proofread before pressing send. Sigh. Trail.