Thinking While Writing

Although I finished the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month, I am still writing, though I’m back to my usual snail pace and my habit of thinking while I write. It’s not so much that I’m reverting to my old ways, but that I’ve written all the easy parts. Now, besides figuring out how to put the book together, I have to write any missing scenes, write the connective tissue that turns isolated scenes into a cohesive story, and write descriptions, which has always been hard for me. I am not fond of long descriptive passages, but I understand the need to anchor a reader to the story with visuals, so I try to describe a scene in as few words as possible. Generally I do this by finding a significant detail — the one thing that will make a scene come alive, such as a green lizard on the ceiling of a hotel room in Thailand or a razor-wire-topped fence hidden in the trees.

All those parts of the story take thought, which means no more writing at break-finger speed. Still, I’ve come away from the experience with a better appreciation for the writing process (though, drat it! It was supposed to be a vision quest, and I had nary a vision.)

The most important lesson I’ve learned from this experience is that by jumping around and writing scenes as I think of them rather than trying to write them chronologically, I can see what I need to include. For example, in my other WIP, the apocalyptic allegory that’s been paused for the past three years while I dealt with life, I need to have my hero preparing for the future. I couldn’t think of all that he would need, but after writing a scene where he assisted at the birth of a baby, I could see he needed something with which to cut the cord. I already had him sharpening a bit of flint, but since these end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-survivors have no clothes but loincloths, which traditionally do not come equipped with pockets, he pulled the flint out of a pouch. Aha! So now I not only have to have him make the flint, I have to have him carrying it around. He started out working on it in secret and hiding it before returning to the group, no he will have to make a pouch (out of what? and how?) and start carrying the makeshift knife. But why would he go through all that trouble? Perhaps too many people have shown an interest in his activities. Perhaps someone went searching for the knife. Perhaps he just likes knowing it is available if he should need it.

Answering why is a vital part of keeping our writing cohesive. Without character motivation, we end up with a series of happenings that aren’t connected, which means no story. Knowing what the story needs, such as the flint in the pouch, I can go back and figure out why he’d have it, otherwise it seems too coincidental. And to keep from things being coincidental, I have to think, which means writing at a slower pace. At least for a while.

A Reason For Now. A Reason For Later.

During the past few months, I was privileged to read the first chapters of many unpublished novels and the critiques other readers left. One thing that interested me was how often readers would mention that a certain episode didn’t fit and should be taken out, and the writer would counter that it was necessary to the story. Can’t argue with that, I suppose, since only the writer knows what he or she intended. But it made me wonder why readers don’t see the same thing in published books. Do we just assume because it’s been published that everything fits? Do we have a different set of rules for published and non-published works?

Last night the answer came to me. It’s not so much that we’re looking for things to pick at in a work we’re critiquing. (Is that even a word? I’ve used it so much that I no longer know.) It’s that good authors know how make every episode in their novel do double duty. If has to be in there to set up a later episode or scene, it must also have a reason for being in there now. If a character places a gun in an unlocked desk drawer to make it available for a murder in a later scene, for example, the character must be a reason for putting the gun in the drawer and not locking it. Perhaps he’s a cop and was cleaning it. So what could have been so terrible that he would forget his training and toss it in an unlocked drawer? Maybe one of his kids is trying to drown the other in the bathtub. A skilled author can make the gun in the unlocked drawer seem so reasonable and natural that readers forget it’s there until someone finds it and shoots it. The reverse is also true. If there is a gun in an unlocked drawer at the beginning, someone must use it in the end.

So, to make your novel tight and keep from jarring your readers out of the story because something doesn’t fit, make certain that everything has two reasons for being there: a reason for now and a reason for later.

Storytelling and Storytellers

My previous post about goals (my 100th post, by the way) made me consider my goals and how they pertain to my work-in-progress.

I haven’t been adding many new pages to the novel. I realized Chip my hero believed the accounts of the world coming to an end, yet when he came home from work to find his mother gone, he didn’t think anything of it, just assumed she finally went back to her place. I’ve been spending the past few days reworking the first chapters so that he stops believing the accounts long enough to make his blasé attitude believable.

I could have waited until I finished the first draft to do the rewrite, but I need a solid foundation on which to build my story, or I lose my focus. As I get deeper into the story, I will be making other changes, but for the moment I am satisfied that Chip, at least, no longer believes the world is ending. Now when readers get to the place where Chip comes home to find his mother gone, they won’t roll their eyes at his stupidity, or worse: slam the book on my stupidity.

Although we constantly change our minds or act on a whim, we cannot allow our characters the same leeway. Everything they do must be motivated, or else the story falls apart. Because I have a silly premise, I have to be particularly vigilant.

Yesterday I started to read a book where the main character got fired first thing. Besides that beginning being as much of a cliché as a dream or a weather report, it wasn’t believable. Well, the firing was believable, perhaps even the boss suggesting that the woman find herself a rich husband by attending funerals was believable. What wasn’t believable was the fired woman saying no way and then, for no apparent reason, deciding to do it. It wouldn’t have taken much to motivate her; looking for a job and not finding one would have done it for me. But the author, who should have known better, had her acting on a whim. That’s when he lost me, which was okay since it meant I didn’t have to waste any more time plowing through his self-conscious prose.

Many writers today, especially new writers trying to get published, think they don’t have to follow the rules of storytelling. Perhaps not. In the end, who am I to say? All I know is that to keep from jerking their readers out of the reality they are creating, writers must make sure their plots are interesting, characters real, actions motivated.

Even more than being a good writer, I want to be a good storyteller. If I follow those simple rules, maybe someday I will achieve my goal.