Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Ahah! moments

After the last echoes of New Years parties, family visits, and southern get-aways have faded away, the beginning of January feels like turning the page. A time to say "All right, then, what's next? Where was I?" In my case, this is often accompanied by considerable panic as I realize the hard work that lies ahead. The work I've been neglecting. The commitments and deadlines that seemed far away in December but are suddenly looming. I'm behind schedule on my novel, and I've forgotten where I was going in it. Time is wasted while I find all my notes and read over the draft to figure out what to do. And in the not-so-distant future, I can hear the ominous whisper of taxes, which entails long days of hunting down receipts, tabulating, and organizing so that my accountant can make sense of the mess.

My usual writing routine went out the window during the holidays. For one thing, there was a one-year old in the house, along with out-of-town adult children, and for another, there was this constant thing with food. Buying it, preparing and cooking it, washing up after it, and thinking about what's next. But when January 2 arrived, it was back to just me, my dogs, and my to-do list. I've knocked off most of the easier tasks on the list, so now it's just me, the dogs, and my shitty first draft. It feels like standing at the foot of a mountain, looking up, and thinking, "Oh God, I want to go to the beach."

I am nearly halfway through the shitty first draft of THE ANCIENT DEAD, my fourth Amanda Doucette novel. First drafts are always shitty, so I'm not worried about that part. But after refreshing my memory about the story, I suddenly realized "I'm bored." Translated, this means that the story lacks energy and that the reader will almost certainly be bored as well. Bored readers are not good for business.

The halfway mark is usually the point at which most – dare I say all? – authors experience this malaise. It's been called the floppy middle or mushy middle, the point when you've breezed through all the high points and major twists that you had planned and realize you still have at least 100 pages to fill before you can start to wind the sucker down. Some writers have it all planned out, so perhaps this crisis doesn't occur, but for a modified pantser like myself, I don't even know how the story will end, let alone how I'm going to get there. I need something more to happen here!

The conventional wisdom is that you add an unexpected twist to add more complications or conflict. "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand" (Chandler's Law)  or "Drop a body down the chimney" (which I believe comes from Christie although I can't find the reference). But sometimes all that does is give the reader whiplash. Too many twists and turns, too many explosions, shootings, car chases, and dead bodies merely dilute the effect. I will need more moments of peril, and probably at least one more body, in the next 150 pages, but I know that's not the issue here. The issue is passion. The story needs to be energized by greater passion, and what this almost always means is that the protagonist needs to be more personally committed to the hunt. I thought I had her motivation figured out, but at some point in the re-reading, I thought "Why should she care?" She was going to a lot of trouble to solve something, including putting off her real work, for a motivation that didn't seem to warrant it.

As I tried to answer that question - why should she care? - a thought drifted across my mind. What if...? Is it possible that...? I rejected the thought. It was not actually a major change but it would have a ripple effect. It would mean changing the parts already written and alter the course of the backstory quite a bit. It would seriously mess up timelines too. But as I toyed with alternatives, the thought kept circling back through my mind, until I finally decided to at least give it a shot. To see what happened if I altered the backstory and rewrote the parts in question. I have not yet tackled that, but instead have been thinking ahead with that alteration in mind. So I'm not sure whether the whole thing will work, if indeed it is enough of an answer to why she should care. But it's always an exciting moment when an idea drifts in from left field to potentially shift the course of a story. It usually means the story will be deeper, richer, and hopefully better.

Stay tuned!


Eileen Goudge said...

I know what you mean about shitty first drafts. The craft is in turning crap into creative genius, or something close to it. I'm coming down the home stretch on my own novel after upteem drafts. It's time to walk away.

Thomas Kies said...

Well written. Boy, can I relate to this!!