You’ve heard the saying about what those construction workers use to smooth out the blacktop between Yourtown and Hell. Good intentions. In my mind’s eye, I picture it looking like pyrite, fool’s gold, polished and smooth and false.
In spite of that, sometimes nuggets of the real thing get lumped in with the dross. Since I’ve been talking a lot about goals and dreams and sugar plums lately, I thought it might be a nice moment to draw a nice line between the pyrite and the gold when it comes to those paving stones.
Working on my Camp NaNoWriMo novel has diverged almost completely from the process I wrote with for my first two and a half novels. I’ve always been a solid “pantser,” making it all up as I went along, draft after draft, hoping to find at least a couple agates among all the rubble. But I realized when I had to scream a war cry and murder some darlings this spring that that process can work, but it’s ultimately like chucking a bunch of hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen in a Dyson canister and hoping it gives birth to new life.
I started my beloved trilogy with the best of intentions — I wanted to write a sweeping epic urban fantasy trilogy. I wanted self-actualized vampires who were dangerous and predatory, cognizant and diverse. I wanted magic woven from the earth itself. I wanted characters who got messy, had dirt under their fingernails, got knocked on their arses, and then got up swinging their fists into the evil noses of their antagonistic counterparts. I wanted antagonists who gave you chills, made you pity them, and stuck their greasy fingers into every pure, lovely bit of my story.
Road to hell, right?
As a beginning writer (of novels, I ought to clarify), there is very little out there in the way of a comprehensive “how to” when it comes to your manuscript as a whole. Sure, there are seminars and conferences with sessions on writing effective scenes and how to make your characters do the macarena, but how story works? How you make a story that adheres to the only accepted form of structure that sells? Not much.
It took me seven years to finally get my paws on three books that finally break it down and show writers what fundamental aspects make stories and how they really (I mean REALLY) have to work in tandem to create a serviceable manuscript, let alone one that soars to the top of the bestseller list.
Starting this new book has been an exercise in ditching the Fuzz Factor. For the first time I’m writing after I sit down and think critically about the development of my characters. After writing a logline for my book. After coming up with a concept, and after digging into not just what might be a fun scene, but what would be effective and logical progressions of plot based on my characters’ backstories and multiple dimensions of being.
This is that line I mentioned.
Good intentions are one thing. Without a plan, they’re just pyrite and cheap tricks. Intent is something else entirely. Intent is what makes you from a writer into an alchemist. It’s what takes that pyrite and changes it to real gold. Intent has a plan. Intent has focus. It’s a fine line, but it’s a necessary one. You can have all the good intentions in the world without being intent on doing something.
I’m finding that being deliberate in my writing process has improved the pacing of my novel. It’s made me ask myself hard questions about where things are going and the relevance of each and every scene and character. It’s made me ask myself over and over how I can show things instead of telling them, how I can slip in backstory instead of chunks of exposition. And I think all of this will result in a more cohesive first draft. I will likely still have to write a few drafts to get it right, but my goal for this is better. It’s to grasp structure, character, concept, and theme in order to play the right chords.
Between 2006 and now, I have spent almost 500,000 words just paving the road to hell. I dived in and pantsed my way to two and a half novels that will need to be completely overhauled if they’re ever to be publishable. And that’s half a million words that some people might call wasted. I’ve learned many expensive lessons in my life, but this one is a biggie. Being a pantser works for some big names — but let’s not forget that they’ve learned those fundamentals through often decades of trial and error. If intent and focus can help me master them sooner, I’ll take that straight to the bank. And you should too.
It’s been uncomfortable in many ways. There are some aspects of story structure that I can intuit, and others that I need forced down my throat with a syringe. I have had to admit to myself that, much like building a car, there are certain elements that must be in the right place if I ever expect to go anywhere.
Thus the intent.
Even though I’m still aiming for speed with this first draft (Camp NaNoWriMo is a harsh taskmaster), I’m using any spare time I have to learn how to better my craft and write with intention. I can fly by the seat of my pants another time — those last two books just resulted in a massive wedgie. It’s time to try something different and look for nuggets of the real thing.
How are you trying to maximize your goals by utilizing intent rather than good intentions?
And in case you are wondering which three books have so revolutionized my way of thinking about my novels, here they are:
Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell
Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks
And for extra credit:
Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass
Day 10 winds its way to a close with some fabulous news.
Elemental is finished.
During my many hours at Panera today for my Corridor Writers write-in, my word count for the novel hit 111,000, and as tomorrow is 11/11/11, I decided it was done. Just kidding. That wasn’t my reasoning, but I found that the story didn’t need another 10,000 words. More might happen in the rewrite, but for now it’s finished.
You know what that means?
That means I have written TWO WHOLE BOOKS!!!!!!!
Yeah, sorry for the spaz attack. I felt it was merited. Two whole books, and a quarter million words. Geez oh Pete’s, that sounds like a lot of words. Probably because it is.
I am now about 2,500 words into book three, going way back in time and into some nitty gritty historical urban fantasy for the prologue, which is interesting but exhausting — and torturing a character is never that fun for me. I feel bad for her. She’s a little shaky, but she will evolve. And we’ll get to see that happen.
We will also learn the back story of one of the trilogy’s major antagonists, one of the superbad baddies. And that is worth it, for sure. He will grow a sympathetic side for a time — although that time is four hundred years ago.
So here we go. Book three of three. Wish me luck.
Well, to me it is. I seldom see this side of noon excepting when I sneak up on it from behind, or if I have to be at work at 10. And even then, I repress any morning experiences for the first two hours — by then it’s afternoon, and all is right with the world.
I am not a morning person.
I used to be sort of passive about it. “Yeah, I don’t like mornings, la dee dah…” and then I got a job where I regularly had to be at work by 7:30 and still could never sleep until 3 or later, and it stressed me out to the point that the mere sound of my alarm triggered a stream of expletives and near-panic attacks. Sleep. I value it. It’s one of the reasons I don’t have a “real” job right now.
But lo, it’s 9:41, and I’ve been awake for about an hour and a half. Strange miracle, but here we are, with the opportunity to blog today when I thought I wouldn’t have the time. Once I go to work in 45 minutes, I won’t be home till almost 11.
Gentle viewers! We are almost done with The 25! In fact, we are on…
The perils of subjectivity arise largely from overidentifying with a subject, narrator or character in a narrative, and making it (or him or her) the vehicle for a thematic point in which the author himself is overly invested. The antidote is at least as old as the New Testament, specifically Matthew 5:43–48, where Christ instructs his followers to love their enemies. If what I have to say seems old hat, therefore, I’ll be neither disappointed nor surprised.
If you find yourself overidentifying with a topic or character, try to identify within the sympathetic subject, narrator or even oneself a trait or belief or habit that is repellent or inexcusable or just plain odd. In doing so, you’ll enhance the psychological or moral distance between yourself and the object of familiarity
Another possible strategy is to rewrite the scene or section from the point of view of someone other than the object of sympathy. This forced disconnect can achieve a similar effect.
I find it rather appropriate that this is today’s. In my frantic writing sprint (or spring, as Twitter would have it) last night before bed, I wrote a scene that bothered me immensely. The protagonist from my first book becomes….sort of an anti-hero if not a downright antagonist in the second. Basically, she starts acting like a massive twit. It drives me nuts, and I want to smack her. I found myself last night trying to put words in her mouth, make her more sympathetic in a scene where she is downright cruel. And I knew that as I was trying to do that, it wasn’t true to her behavior. She has a lot of reasons for acting the way she does — some of them more valid than others — but the bottom line is that she’ll get over it eventually, and until she does, I have to let her be a bitch. I find the whole concept exhausting. It’s like putting up with a temper tantrum because you know your child will eventually grow out of them.
It’s one reason I like different POVs in fiction. I love seeing a story told from different angles and getting inside different heads. I also enjoy a good first person POV, but there’s something to be said for different POVs. Sometimes a big story just needs to be told that way.
It all boils down to one little sentence, in my opinion: tell the truth. Listen to your story and your characters, and let them drive your story forward. If you want to give it a shot, find a scene in your story where things fall a little flat and subjective and rewrite it from the viewpoint of an antagonist, or even someone who just doesn’t like your main character very much. See what happens. If you’re NaNoing, just keep plugging along at your word count. 🙂
I was going to post a picture of a pretty morning to enhance the objectivity of this post, but then I changed my mind. Google gives mornings some damn good PR. So instead, I give you Garfield.