Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Games writers play

Barbara here. And unlike Rick, I am not writing about setting a mystery in a school, although there are college-aged students in my current work in progress, THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY, and some of the action does in fact take place at the college. But I'm not here to write about that.

I am currently nearing the completion of this WIP, and over the past few months, I have devoted a couple of blogs to my writing process, which I have described using various game analogies. In fact, authors are fond of comparing their writing to one sport or another. We're coming down the home stretch, we've knocked it out of the park, we've struck out, we've got too many balls up in the air, and so on. It's actually surprising how many expressions in general have a sports or game origin. Sports are ready metaphors for struggle, loss, and triumph, and lend themselves easily to describing life's travails.

I am a "modified fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants" writer. I used to be a full member of the club but have discovered, since writing more layered plots with multiple points of view and colliding story lines, that I have to have some idea what's coming next. I still don't know where the overall story is going or how it will end, but I try to plan a few scenes ahead so they will fit together. One might call this "the-stop-and-go-by-the-seat-of-my-pants" approach.

When I first start writing a book, I liken the process to tossing balls up into the air, to get ideas and story lines activated and evolving. It can be a random and rather chaotic process, in that it's difficult to predict where balls will fly and where and when they will land. When I am in the saggy, unwieldy middle of the book, the plotting process seems more like a chess game. Plot points, clues, and character secrets evolve step by step. Every move follows from the move that came before and affects what move will happen next. I find myself asking questions like "What would this character do next?", "What would logically happen next?", or "What would be the most unexpected thing to happen?"

The final climax is usually the most difficult part of the process for me. I know I have to end the book somehow, tie all the loose ends together, and solve the mystery in a fresh, compelling, unexpected scene. By this point I have many balls up in the air, many dangling threads to be knitted together, and a great many questions to answer. I always struggle with this task, and yesterday a new analogy came to me. Writing the climax is like clearing a logjam. Living in Ottawa, I've learned a lot about the logging industry that used to be the main source of jobs and income in the region a hundred years ago. Logs were cut in the forests, floated down the river, and funnelled through onto barges or into chutes at the mills. Like any free-floating body, logs tended to have a mind of their own, and often got jammed up together trying to get through narrow sections. Skilled drivers would walk across the logs in the water, prod them apart and guide them into line until all the logs had cleared the narrows one at a time.

At the end of the writing process, all the questions should be answered, the big ideas and small ones fitted into their proper place, and the story has surged to its conclusion. Sometimes I feel like that driver, balancing on the pack of logs and struggling to contain and keep track of all the competing plot points, separating them out and deciding which should go when. Hoping than none are forgotten and that characters all clear the jam.

I'm delighted that as of today, I have a very roughly cleared logjam. Unlike the driver in the logging industry, however, I can go back and replay the game, nudging the logs into an even better and tighter pattern in rewrites. Who knows, maybe the rewrite process will inspire me with yet another game or sport analogy. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, which does your process resemble most? Tossing balls, playing chess, or driving logs?


Patricia Filteau said...

The finale of the July 1 fireworks when the reader can exclaim, 'holy shit.'

Barbara Fradkin said...

Ah, yes! We writers hope for that!