Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Guiding the string

Aline's Monday post made me smile, especially the "pounds, shillings, and ounces" in Winnie the Pooh's poem. But she poses a serious question; how long is the book you're writing at the moment going to be? Do you know?

This has always been a source of wonderment for me. As I am writing a book, I don't know where it's going, how long it will take to get there, or indeed, most terrifying of all, will it get there at all? As a modified "pantser", I set off on the book's journey with only a few guideposts and a blind trust that others will come into view as I draw nearer to them. I travel this unknown, uncharted road with the thrill of adventure and discovery, as well as the terror that I might never get to the end of it.

And yet, I always do get there, and in my case, almost always within roughly 90,000 to 100,000 words, coincidentally the word count specified on my contracts. How do I do it? What magic guides me? I don't know, nor do I want to put my creativity under a microscope, because I'm afraid it would fly the coop. But I do keep in mind a few crucial guidelines while I'm writing, and one of them is to keep the ounces out of the pounds and shillings. We want complications in our stories. They are the heart of tension. Without throwing obstacles in the protagonist's path, the story would be over in thirty pages. But an irrelevancy is not a complication; it's a distraction, and as Aline says, it pulls the reader away rather than pulling them forward. Sometimes a cool sidetrack pops into my head as I'm writing, and I feel like exploring it, but all the while I am trying to see if I can fit it into the main storyline. If it can add tension or intrigue to the overall question of the book, then I keep it. Otherwise, sadly, I kill it.

There are a few other guidelines that I use to keep my story moving forward and on track. I call myself a modified pantser because as I am writing, I try to see at least three or four scenes ahead. Since in my current Amanda Doucette series I have three main point-of-view characters each pursuing their own story lines, which have to be braided together into one story with proper pacing, tension, and timelines, I have discovered I need to plan ahead a bit.

Usually the idea for the next scene comes out the scene I am writing. I ask myself one or two of the following questions: "What would logically happen next?" Or "What would this character do next?" And in some cases, "What is the worst thing that could happen?" The first question helps to keep the plot on track, the second keeps the story character-driven, so that characters are not doing things they'd never do just for the sake of the plot. And the third - it's where the spice of the story comes from. It creates the twists, which are often as much a surprise to me as they are to the reader. In FIRE IN THE STARS, for example, I had Amanda's dog running up the path ahead of her, on their way to visit a hermit with some information. I hadn't figured out what Amanda would discover, so I asked myself "What will the dog find?" Followed by "What's the worst thing she could find?" And presto ...

But use the spice sparingly. Otherwise it will lose its punch. I once read a book which had a car chase or fire or explosion in every chapter. After awhile I thought, Oh yawn, not another explosion.

I agree with Aline. Life is too short to spend time on a 500-page novel that meanders and rambles. Some long novels are spell-binding and draw the reader deep into a fascinating world that we never want to leave. But the more I read and write, the less patience I have for padded verbiage and precious literary devices that leaves me feeling as if I'm spinning off-kilter. As writers we have to be ruthless with ourselves and our prose. That's what rewrites (and rewrites and rewrites) are for – to ask ourselves Do I really need this? Does it add to the story? Is it predictable? Boring? Irrelevant? Sometimes ounces are useful in a mystery novel, as red herrings that lead the reader down the garden path, but they need to do that in a way that is tied to the resolution of the story.

I don't need the story to be all neatly tied up in a bow at the end. Life is not tidy. I like ambiguity and even loose ends, especially in a series, where some questions remain to be answered in the next book. But the central question of the book has to be answered somehow, and I would find a tangle of irrelevancies and loose ends utterly unsatisfying. So the final job for a pantser is to hunt down all the loose threads and make sure you've tied them off.

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