Monday, January 31, 2011


It always comes down to this, the nubbins of the project where the parts are scattered about as you try to fix what's wrong and realize that you've screwed it up so bad that it will never be put together right again.

Let's jump back a step. I decided that the metastory should be continuous, with illuminating backstory thrown in as needed. I pulled out the one third of the narrative that contained the crucial scenes and rewrote/edited them as a single story. That went well. It was when i tried to stick the backstory parts into this framework that the trouble began. Parts no longer fit where they were before, the chronology suddenly turned wonky, and, and, and, . . . I despair of ever getting this together again, it is so screwed up. This has happened before and is probably a consequence of something my mind is working on but has not yet resolved.

The first thing I tried was putting everything back into a simple chronological sequence which failed again because all the important action comes at the end of a LOT of backstory. FAIL!

The next effort was to cull the story, a difficult task since I have an insane loyalty to my WAW (Words-already-written). Nevertheless I began the process of carving away any WAW that didn't support the main thesis. The result was a pretty bland story but lots of action and hardly any backstory at all. FAIL!

Frustrated I restored the full draft and once again turned to my faithful copy of Tobias's Twenty Master Plots to see if there is some approach that would stand a chance of success. As usual, I learned only that I had missed no opportunity insofar as plot points, but the story still lacked a pleasing structure. What to do next? What haven't I thought of?

Rather than beat my brains against this wall of blocks I decided to go back to work on a hard SF novella with the hope that working on something completely different would clarify my mind. As these things happen, a new approach popped into my head no sooner than I got into the rhythm of the new piece. Resisting the impulse to jump back I simply made a few notes, put them aside, and continued working on the novella.

It is so nice to think you are in control of the process.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Not Quite Stage Ten

So here it is at last, the final pages of this tale done and, to be perfectly honest, I haven't a clue on what to do next.  Sure, I have the final scenes written, the pretty words all laid out in reasonable prose, the situations all tied up in a nice bow, the actors at the end of the journey that started out in the first sentence of paragraph one in the first scene.  I've done what I set out to do and, although it took me considerably longer than I planned, nevertheless followed the ten stages like clockwork. Not bad for a month's work. I think this is what the editor ordered, or at least would find acceptable.

But for me, it ain't a story, not yet.

There, I've said it plain as can be.  What I've written just doesn't work for me.  I've gone over the scenes one by one and confirmed that each tells its part of the tale, each has the characters acting in accordance with their roles, and each setting is consistent with the environment described in all of the other scenes.  Further, the scenes are in the proper order, revealing what the reader needs to understand as we move forward to the climax.  I even plotted the high dramatic points to energize the narrative where it might otherwise have dragged.  I wrote the high and low emotional points next to humor or pathos to heighten the tension.  I ran out detailed descriptions to provide verisimilitude and make the reader believe the tale is real.

So why isn't this thirty-odd thousand pile of words working for me? 

To my mind, a story should be more than an assemblage of words in reasonable order, more that a description of events, actual or fanciful, and certainly more than something simply readable or enjoyable.  A story associated with my name should be worth the telling and, more importantly, tell people something about themselves that they might not have otherwise realized.  A facet of our inner selves should be illuminated by any story, legend, joke, or speech worth the telling, even if it's a tiny hidden facet that helps us more fully understand what we are or what we could be.

That's what a real story should do.
My next steps are clear.  I need to chip away at this block of text to reveal the story that I know lies inside.  I am not going to abandon this.  Not yet. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I've somewhat violated my own process by converging Stages Six and Seven of my ten-step process of story writing (see my earlier post) - doing some serious editing and, when I discover a piece that should go elsewhere, I move it and smooth the surrounding text to fit.  At places I've discovered some fact needs inserting, or I mention something referring to events that have not yet occurred in the narrative that needs fixing, which leads to further rearrangement.

Make no mistake, this is tedious, repetitive work that requires careful attention to detail and for which I am ill-suited by disposition and ADD.  Since all of the research is done I have little to excuse excursions from the task of finishing this piece.  Onward I slog, trying to focus on the goal which now seems within reach.  Just a few more days, I think and . . .

OMG! The original proposed ending no longer fits the thousands of words I've invested.  The last three scenes have to be rethought or the entire effort falls apart like a house of cards.  Three little scenes, less than five thousand words stand between me and the next bit of fiddling.

Of all the stories that I've written the ones that made the most impact were those where I had to change my original ending.  This story, despite my high hopes and expectations, is proving no different.

So it goes.  The writing continues.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Slogging Along at Stage Five

Let's pause for a moment of reflection. I started this process in the final days of December, when I assembled all of my reference material and began learning what I needed to build the proposal from 950 words to around twelve thousand words - novelette length.  That objective was easily surpassed so that the story now stands around twenty-six thousand words!  I am astounded by the ease with which it has been produced and attribute that facility to the methodology I have been following.

According to my earlier Ten Stages of Story Development blog post I am through the Stage 4 Arrangement business and finally starting Stage 5 Production.

This will be the tedious part; the parsing of sentences, the word-choosing, the subtle alterations of meaning or implication, the pesky decisions regarding em-dashes, semi-colons, commas, and other anal considerations.  This is where one looks at the work not as a whole but as discrete pieces related only to themselves. It is analogous to examining the Grand Canyon a rock at a time.

At the same time I must remain aware of the overall architecture - the placement of those rocks and where they fit in the overall scheme of things.  Because of the care taken earlier, the continual shifting around of this or that plot element, the sequencing of action and drama, and the development of the characters' through writing, I now know the material intimately and can immediately spot the wrong notes, the anomaly, or the misplaced line.  At this point I have no fear of getting something wrong.

This is also the slowest and least interesting part of the work. There's a little creativity remaining, but  mostly it's copy-editing pure and simple.  Occasionally I might be able to polish a rock into a jewel, but mostly it's simply chipping away the overlay of crap or moving it a fraction right or left.  This is going to take days!

I'm going to start work now so nothing to see here, folks.  Move along.  Move along.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Necessary Rearrangements

At scene seventeen the story began to crystallize into full form, the result of taking a weekend away from the computer to reflect on the issues facing the protagonist.  I wanted to think hard about how he would choose to overcome his difficulties.  At this point I had become very familiar with my character and understood the influences that would affect any decision he had to make.  This had to be his story, told from his point of view.  Just the same, it had to be told in a way that would interest a reader.

To make the story more dynamic yet shorten the time horizon I decided to highlight the key time period in which his most critical decision would be forced on him and how/why he would react to form the epiphany.  With this in mind I sketched out seven blocks of a meta-story arc describing this critical block of time and identified what actions, facts, and problems each should contain. Only three of these were "new" material while the rest were repurposed from what I'd already done.  For each of the new ones I quickly wrote a brief outline, determined their sequence, and wrote an opening line. 

When I returned to the computer I added the new blocks to my corkboard of scenes and began deciding where they should fit into the flow of what I'd already written.  My idea at this point was to have each meta-story arc followed by a related flashback. These latter pieces might or might not be chronologically disbursed as the story evolves for the reader, but that is a decision I chose not to make at this time.

My new concept is to have the meta-arc progress by hours, while the flashbacks would cover years, weeks, or days at a time.  I began the necessary rearrangement, which indicated where I would need brief transitory material, I also combined the new material into previously written drafts, split some existing scenes, and rearranged the overall order to give me a rough arc-sub-arc structure to work with. If this sound confusing that it because it is a messy process that requires one to know the material intimately and work with crossed fingers so you don't accidentally misplace something more than a few times.

To break the intense concentration the rearrangement required I am drafting some of the unfinished scenes, tagging others for later inclusions, and making notes on some details I realize are missing.  With each part completed I feel more confident that I can pull this off.

Once I finish writing and editing all of the scenes to an acceptable level, fill in the things I made notes on, and add missing material I thought of too late to include in the first draft, I will atomize the draft into little bits of action or dialogue that could stand apart from their original placement.  This will give me about forty small chunks of narrative and dialogue to play with.  That done, I will begin the arduous process of weaving these disparate elements into the tapestry of the story and complete my first draft.   That done, the next step will be to smooth out the rough spots, identify discrepancies, and produce something I can turn into a complete second draft.

There is considerable work ahead but at this point I can finally see the end of this project.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Three Quarters There (Or maybe halfway)

I've managed to get the fifteenth of the original twenty scenes into first draft form and still feel that I am on the course I originally set. The work proceeds apace and with surprisingly little difficulty, which makes me think that I have been using the wrong writing method for the past too-many years.

What is surprising at this point in the story's development is that I am finally starting to see the real story and that is changing subsequent scenes in an unexpected fashion.

Building a story is more than the process of putting down words that describe the characters, scenery, and actions.  Each phrase or sentence is a proposition that lays the groundwork for what follows.  After a while everything you have written restricts and informs the writing that follows.  That's a mechanical description of what takes place, but if you ask me of the wellspring from which the writing flows I'd be hard pressed to answer.

Call it my Muse and, when she decides to take over, the writing seems to take on a life of its own.  It is no longer me telling a story so much as the story making itself known to me.

Thus far I've been writing a running narrative that proceeds more or less chronologically from where I thought the story should start.  At this point I can see that the real action occurs in the latter part of that timeline.  This means that telling the tale as intended would delay giving the reader the kick that they need to continue reading.  From an architectural point of view the story cannot be told as it stands.  Therefore, when I finally get all the words down in the first draft I'll have to once again restructure the scenes so that the pace is more even.

The need to do this was not  unexpected since I knew at the outset that some rearrangement of scenes would be required.  Of course, that will probably mean another draft.

Or two.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Halfway There (maybe)

At the second dramatic point I realized that I need to condense and collapse the three subsequent scenes into one long scene in order to heighten the drama and introduce some new ones.  This effort expanded, and then reduced, the number of scenes back to the twenty I'd started with, although they are no longer the twenty in their original form.

To get a quick appraisal of the first quarter, I lightly edited it for my forthcoming writers' group meeting where the other professionals will probably rip it to shreds (at least, that is my hope.)  Their observations have never failed to improve my writing with their sometimes pointed observations and occasionally inadvertent prompting a of anew thought.

This morning, after a sudden flurry of furious word-smithing, I managed to reach the projected halfway point, wordcount-wise.  A quick review of the second quarter indicates that I am writing a somewhat different story than I set out to accomplish, that is, the same tale but one that needs to be told differently.

If this piece follows my usual writing pattern I'll break down the completed first draft into smaller scenes (which is easy with the Scivener tools) and then begin the arduous process of rearranging theses into a coherent whole. Of course that will only set the stage for the second draft.

Thus far I seem to be on track with the original plan and hope that it continues to proceed smoothly.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Progress (or not)

Now that I'm nailing words to the wall a strange process of discovery is taking place.  After investing so much effort into research and the seemingly endless chore of moving scenes and plot points around to where I thought best I imagined that putting the words into the rather complete outline would be a simple matter, more of getting the phrasing and pace right than figuring out what to say.

The first scene went well, as did the second.  During the third scene I realized that there was something I should have explained earlier in the first, which meant adding a line or two in the second.  That reminded me of a research extract I wanted to use, but further on.  At some points I wondered whether to inform the reader through exposition or let them figure it out themselves?  Explaining too much would burden the story and probably bore the reader.  Too little and the density of facts would make the tale incomprehensible.  Should I assume that most readers already know this or that? I put the question aside for the moment.

The next scene went pretty much the same, with infrequent trips back to make some adjustment or other, links for continuity, or correct something I'd said that would no longer work out and inserting brief exposition where a fact was not clear from the context.  The narrative was rolling along so well that I just went with the flow, merrily throwing sentences out and getting more into the protagonist's head.

Five scenes in and panic stuck:  I had ten thousand words and had fifteen more scenes to go.  At this rate the story was going to go well beyond the plan and no longer the short story I'd originally set out to write.  Would the longer form mean that starting the story close in time to the epiphany might no longer work?  Should I rearrange the outline, recast the dramatic points, and in general, rethink the entire architecture I'd established?

I reviewed my assets, the things I'd written so far and realized that those scenes already written were composed of small vignettes that might be independent of their current placement.  If I separated them from their current locations I might be able to inject them into some as yet undesigned narrative as backstory, flashback, or dialogue.  This would eliminate the need for a continuous time flow of back story in the early part.

Perhaps, but that decision will come later.  For now I will continue to plow along to put words into the original scene outlines, see how the narrative develops, and whether the same rate of words-per-scene continues to the end.  I am going to reassess everything when I get to scene eight, the imagined half-way point.

Stay tuned for further news of this experiment.