NaNoWriMo for Awesome

So, I’ve got most of my NaNoWriMo novel plotted/sketched out. So far just up to chapter 12 or so, I need to spend some time focusing on the final action and wrap-up, but I think I’ll be able to get there pretty quickly. Then, I’ll just need to spend some time before go-time filling out a few scene descriptions, and fiddling with characters.

Uh, Dave

Yes?

I did read your sketches

And what do you think?

That story is going to suck.

WHAT!? Come on, they don’t go into characters or any detail, and it’s just the loose sketch, how could you know it’s going to suck?

First off, I’m in your head, so I know. Second, that story may have started with a strong cast, but the plot has no soul. 

What do you mean it has no soul?

I can tell just looking through your meandering scribblings that this book is going to wander around lost in the woods until you get near the end, where there will be a big battle, maybe a chase, then it’s over -happliy ever after and all that. To top that off, it’s so full of cliches and over-used ideas that I don’t even WANT to like it – See SUCK.

Alright then, smarty pants, what should I do with it?

Go back to the first chapter you wrote up and have a chat with the characters. Maybe pantster it a little bit. I mean it’s fine to apply over-used ideas, but they’d better be interesting ones that are well executed, your original sketch has absolutely no hint of compelling story telling.

So, I’ve got to start over? 

No. Keep some of your characters, dump a few others, make the story about the main character and her problems, not about the adventuring. To paraphrase Yoda: Focus on where she is, what she is doing. Nobody gives a rip about a queen in a tower somewhere, and you know what? your MC probably doesn’t care either.

So what if it’s not very good? This is just NaNoWriMo, it’s just like a super-challenging practice session right?

NO – you are doing this to challenge yourself and get better at your craft. You’re not going to get better by churning out crap that a 3rd grader could do in an afternoon.

You’re a real jerk, you know that?

I’m not a jerk, I’m you. Now, get your rear back to work, you’ve only got a few weeks to re-imagine this story into something that isn’t awful.

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Fast Forward

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If for some reason you’ve made the very poor judgment call to actually read this blog with any regularity, then I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Holy crap Dave you’ve written two blogs in almost as many days! (I say almost because they were each posted at opposite fringes of two consecutive days). Now, if you’ve made the even bigger judgment error of continuing to read, here’s what’s on my mind:

I’m working on Wine Bottles and Broomsticks – all the way out in chapter 9, if you can believe that. So far, it’s been fun, possibly the most fun writing project I’ve had to date. However, I’m now staring at a problem. It’s not a major problem, like a terrible character or gaping plot hole or a plot that just isn’t going anywhere. Nope. That’s not it at all.

I just reached a stopping point.

Dave?

Yes?

You’re just a little over 30K in and you haven’t even gotten to the main point of action you’re building up to.

You can see why this is a problem for me.

Okay fine, it feels like a stopping point, make 9 a short chapter and move on.

Well, that’s the sticking point.

I really don’t see how – are you making this a bigger problem than it is?

No-no, it’s not like that, what I want to do is fast-forward a few weeks. To this point in the story, things have more or less gone day by day. There haven’t been any major breaks in time, however, I’d like to skip ahead to avoid some rather tedious and unnecessary repetition. I want to jump to a scene just before the action really starts to pick up again. In order to make that work, I’m going to have to recap the previous few weeks of time. I don’t see an awful lot going on in that span of time, and I need some depth of time to pass in order for later elements to really be believable.

I think you may have already made a decision Dave.

No. I haven’t, actually. By skipping ahead, I’m cutting out a lot of time in which I can develop plot and characters, it’s just that outline-wise, I don’t have a hell of a lot to actually drop in there. Not only that, I run the risk of throwing off the pacing and making the end of the story feel rushed. No proper build up.

Okay, you know what, you’re clearly not going to take my advice, perhaps you need to get a second opinion.

That’s a great idea. Any takers?

Thinking about withholding information

Proof_reading

I’ve been cracking away, almost half-heartedly, on at least one blog for the week to no avail. There were several long days at work and a traffic-jam this week, which combined with pi-day party preparations, have conspired against my ability to focus. It’s not just the blog I’m struggling to write-up, it’s also the chapter I’m working on. After having gotten a first version drafted last Sunday, I really thought that it would make the re-write easier. So far, no luck. Last night, I got down about 700 words to open, which is the 3rd or 4th time this week that I’ve re-written that part. I think it works okay, but I’m still not satisfied. The only way to get through this is likely to be a bit of rubber-ducking, and so here it goes.

Here’s the situation: The chapter opens up after the main character has managed to seize a small fleet of ships by boarding the lead ship which happens to have the rival lord aboard. After some ‘negotiation’ the other lord has agreed to join forces the main character. Whether or not the defection is a true change of allegiance is an open question. So, the main character, unable to sleep, is standing on the poop deck*, considering the next steps in his plan, which is to first re-claim his own lands, before pushing south, and taking over other islands, eventually leading to the capture of the entire kingdom. He’s essentially doing this on a shoe-string. To this point, the reader has been led to believe one thing about how he’s going to do it, but it’s really only part of the picture. This chapter contains the big reveal about the way he’s really going to achieve his goals with apparently so few resources. I want this to be a shock, and also become a major point of contention between the main character and the rival.

The questions from the stumped writer (me):
I can’t work out why this isn’t sitting well with me. Do you think I’m being overly critical of myself? Can I just go with the intro I’ve written? What do you think is wrong with it?

The answer from the reviewer (me):
It’s possible you’re being somewhat overly critical, but it’s true the voice of this chapter doesn’t match the previous chapters, and as a result it doesn’t read quite as well. The sub-plot you’re working on now is arguably the best written part of the book, even this early on in the revision process. This is largely the result of strong characters, backed by clearly defined goals, solid dialogue and setting to tie it together. You don’t have that going for you at the beginning of this chapter. The objective of the chapter isn’t clear at the outset, you only have a single character involved and he’s not doing much. It also happens that the chapter follows a reasonably intense fight scene. Given that the strength of the sub-plot comes from it’s solid characters, you need to try and stick to that, it works well. If you could bring another character into the opening scene, you could use those character dynamics found in previous chapters to improve the flow of the story. Keep in mind as you open this chapter that you want to establish the goal of the characters as quickly as possible, it should help things remain focused as the plot progresses. This doesn’t mean that the end of the chapter needs to be obvious at the beginning, just that your character has a goal. Whether or not he reaches it depends on where you’re headed. The other piece of the problem, and this requires more in-depth discussion, is that your holding back essential information. It’s one of the things that weakens your characters in the main plot of the story.

The problem of holding back is what happens at the far end of the information dump spectrum. At one end, you’re supplying too much information up front at the cost of good story telling. Holding back falls at the other end, where you’ve held back too much information at the cost of good story telling. If you’re holding back too much information from the reader, you’re likely to have a Scooby-Doo** moment somewhere in the end. This, I think, is true even for a mystery novel. There is an art to knowing when and how much information to give. The only viable general advice is that you do what works for your story, however it’s not always clear what makes for plausible situations and good reading. Before making those very specific decisions though, the starting point should be that you only hold back information that isn’t or can’t be known by the character***. I’m not talking about information that isn’t relevant to a scene, would come out better later on, could be left out altogether, or needs to be explained to the perspective character, but a piece of information that is a key driving force in character motivation or plot. There are more circumstances than you could count on how this bit of advice is wrong, but thinking about the situation in question, this is a matter of holding back information in a way that makes natural and plausible character actions difficult. It’s too central to character motivation and plot. Looking backward at the sub-plot it’s clear you haven’t done enough to set this chapter up, and so it doesn’t flow from the previous one. Yes, the outcome of the previous chapter is an unexpected twist, but that works. It may seem like a difficult task to set up unexpected circumstances ahead of time, but in this case it’s a matter of character motivation. They should be acting in a manner consistent with their previous actions and motivation. Very little will need to be done in order to make it right, a few strategic sentences here and there. It doesn’t have to fully give away the bit of information you wanted to hold back. In fact, if done carefully, and kept to a minimum, you can keep this key bit of information obscure. The reason to do this is, in part, to prevent out of place information dumping and ensure that early scenes remained focused. If this is the right direction for the story, the way to achieve the desired effect is through the use of creative dialogue, and slight mis-direction. The context might lead the reader to either gloss over the hint, or assume it relates to something else. Then, later in the story, as that little bit of held-back information comes to light for the reader, the context for those little hints should come into focus. To make it work, a lot of subtlety is involved, and not all readers are likely to catch it, which is probably fine.

With my question to myself answered, here’s my solution: I’m going to start again, bring in a character who would be interested in the ‘what next’ of the plan, and write it as though the held-back information had not been not held back. It means I’ll need to go back to previous chapters and work it in, but I don’t think that’s going to be a huge challenge, just a bit of work.



*The level above and behind the quarter-deck. The quarter deck is the place where the ships wheel is and operations are generally commanded from.
** Scooby-doo moment is the moment where the villain is finally captured and unmasked, and it’s a complete surprise that no one expected Mister ….. they all exclaim, and insert the scooby version of wha?.
*** This is true for first person, and third person limited, but I think it’s a bit more flexible in third-person omniscient, where some of the suspense is going to come from the reader seeing what’s coming, but the characters do not.

photo credit: Proof reading the thesis – this IS gonna take long via photopin (license)