|The Writing Life: When the Story Stalls
||[Apr. 21st, 2015|01:17 am]
Sometimes a book stalls because the writer's done something that derailed it, or didn't do something to keep it going. I experience stall-effect in the middle of almost every book, so now I expect it (hope it won't appear, but am not panicky when it does.) Doesn't mean I've lost my talent, can't write again, have utterly failed, etc, etc. It's a part of the way my brain interacts with Story-space, and it means some serious work (not wishful thinking) to figure out what I did or did not do *this* time.
Well, this time what I did was go blasting ahead where I knew things were going, trailing a cloud of necessary secondary characters for whom I'd produced some minimal background. They were holding me back, when I started the book, so I wrote ahead of my understanding of them. I start books in a rush--need to get into them quickly, well in, before coming up for air and thought. And then came to the point where all these secondary characters basically sat there, a row of plastic dolls, for me to move around in Story-space. Only that's not acceptable. Secondaries are not puppets; they need to be seen and felt to be acting out of their own reasonable motivations. "Why won't you DO things?" I asked. Little glass eyes stared back.
When I first started writing, a character turning from live to plastic scared me a lot. I hadn't developed any tools to do anything but toss out that one and make up another. Experience is a big help, if and only if I don't let the fear take hold ("I'm getting old now...maybe it's all going away, the ability to make up characters that come alive..." ) One useful tactic starts by picking two or three at a time and getting them to argue with each other. These are not conversations for the book; I'd be surprised if more than a few of them ended up there. They're group psychotherapy for plastic doll-itis. From their brief bios, I pick a situation in which they'd disagree, and then shove in a battery (authorial fingers on the keyboard) and see if they start moving on their own. And they began to. Better backstories on them gradually softened their plastic and made it more like flesh. Faces had expression--changing expression. I already knew some of their triggers and hot buttons--now to push hard on those. The printout of the Character Bios file acquired scribbled notations in the margins and running around the back, as more and more characters woke up.
The whole book began to inch forward, a bit stickily. Still not moving smoothly, though moving. Hmmm. When my friend Karen was visiting, we talked about the book, of course, and I mentioned a branch point I was still not certain of. She asked exactly the right question to make me look harder at someone who--I thought--had already been very well defined in the first pages, and was OK to roll on...but wasn't. What, she asked, was J's value to protagonist and to someone else who cannot be specified yet? The question stabbed the inside of my brain like a searchlight, pointing out what wasn't there. This secondary has a crucial part at the point where the book is now (and it's hard to write *about* this without letting spoilers out of the bag...so if it seems a big vague, that's why) and without more internal reality, that would not work.
So I focused on J. Not just J's planet of origin, culture of origin, personal history, personal relationship with a major character...that was already down on the Characters reference file. But took more time to think about--to test hypotheses about--the implications of the culture of origin and J's innate personality and J's specific personal history as mediated by both the innate stuff and the culture stuff. Running J (both writing out conversations and--as J came more alive, mentally) through various simulations, some of which had nothing to do with the actual book. And then it happened. J popped the plastic shell completely, emerging as a much better character, very stubbornlly J-self. Whee, yay, and some bouncing in the chair occurred.
But fixing one cause-of-stall doesn't mean everything's now fine, because every change propagates by effect through everything else. I realized the entire first section of the book had to be rewritten NOW--from page one--to make J's behavior up to and beyond where the book is presently organic. That's...a lot of pages. Hundreds, in fact: every appearance of J, every reaction to J by other characters, every thought about J by Main Character #1 (MC1) needed correction to account for the increased complexity and "aliveness" of J. Inevitably, the aliveness of one character will show up the any plastic on the others, and fixing the next will show up another and...thus the need for a complete front to back (or middle, since that's where it was stalled) revision. Usually I don't attempt a big rewrite like that until the rough draft's done, but this time--because of what the book is, and the larger-than-usual cast of close-secondaries (that may not make sense but I know what I mean), what I had done had constricted a section where more degrees of freedom were needed. I could not go on and write the rest without fixing what came before.
Could I have figured all that out earlier? No, not this time. One of the constraints of a book that's a proposal for a contract is the proposal requirement itself. Fine if you're one kind of writer, not helpful if you're hte other. You're supposed to know and show more about the whole structure than may be possible (it's not possible for me, at the depth I want to work.) The other constraint was the content of the book (very loosely, the 'idea' of the book) which required the main character to meet a group of strangers very soon after the book starts, and then in another very short time they're all in a crisis.situation together. Usually I manage to introduce secondaries--who have to have depth--in a more sequential way, individually or in small groups. I knew when I started this might be tricky, but there was that urge to dive in and go as far as possible before slowing down to think. (It's an approach that's worked for me in multiple endeavors and caused quite striking fails in others.) If you're wired for that kind of approach, then anticipate the need to pause and regroup and redirect partway through--be flexible--and above all do not give in to the fear that you're out in the ocean without paddle or sail. Writers create their own paddles and sails and there are many tricks available (and more you can make up) to get your story-ship moving again.
So, anyway, the rewrite of J's stuff is going well, but of course that requires a complete reconsideration of every other scene. MC-1 is still MC-1--no worries that J will usurp the book--but some scenes are going to be way, way different. Better. I can feel it in my bones. Now we're cookin', says the Plot Daemon (the engineer responsible for keeping up steam.)
Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa...a reference some of you will get instantly with all it implies.