I’m still reeling over slapping 40,000 words from my novel into the Trunk of Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth. It’s may be all ‘part of the writing process’, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating or painful. After months of agonizing re-writes, I came to a simple, brutal decision. Trunk the prose and start again with a better method of writing.
I pulled the trigger a month ago. However, it took me two years writing in my spare time to produce a nearly complete rough draft. Yet here I was tossing it all away. I may have done what I was supposed to do, which is bleed on the page as Ernest Hemingway so loftily put it, but it was all for naught. It gutted me like a Hollywood horror victim.
What triggered this decision? The major catalyst began when I took my first five pages to a writer’s conference for critique. This involved sitting around a table with my trembling imaginary child, several other writers with their invisible offspring, and a veteran novelist leading the critique. What followed was enlightening as much as it was agonizing.
What was my verdict? There was absolutely no tension. No one cared about the characters or what they were doing. No one had any reason to. You have to give readers stakes in the story, at least in the first five pages, or they will stop reading. Faulkner told me to kill my darlings, but the writing group already had. They did what I could not.
At the time, I took the drubbing, which is what it was, somewhat well. But it left me stunned nonetheless. I had characters, I had setting, I had action. How did I not have a story? But the critiques were honest and unanimous. No tension existed in those first five pages. That was a major problem, at least if I wanted my audience to keep reading any further.
But this didn’t mean tossing the whole 40,000 precious jewels out the window like a sack of rotten potatoes! The first five pages needed help, surely, but the rest of the story would come about in the re-write. A glimmer of hope lingered in me yet.
Where to go from here? I needed better tools. I needed research. But I also resolved not to write the story any further until I figured out how to solve the issue of tension. Without it, I may very well be furthering my mistakes. Deep down, I shivered at the thought of editing what I had so far, incomplete as it was. Little did I know.
Time To Take Off The Pants
Confession time: I’m what the writing community calls a pantser. That means I sit down and just start writing. No outline, no planning, no research. I write what comes to mind. That’s fine when you’re writing a blog post or a short story. However, I’ve personally come to the conclusion there are very few people who can pants a novel well (and live to tell about it). This means I need some tools to help me write long form fiction. Thankfully I found them.
Before I go into that, let’s go back to what inspired me to write in the first place. I’m a fan of giant robots that blow stuff up. Robotech, Macross, Gundam, Voltron, Mighty Gobots, I could list off dozens of shows that inspired me as a child (and that I never outgrew). I cobbled together several sprawling day dreams I’d accumulated over the years into what I will loosely call a ‘story’.
As I wrote, a deep sense of foreboding kept creeping up the back of my neck. I didn’t care if I had the tools to write a good story or not, I thought. I need to write this and get it out of my head and onto the page. I kept saying to myself: I’ll fix it all in the rewrite. Very famous last words.
I delved into craft immediately. I purchased and read several informative, teachable texts on craft, characters, plotting, and scene structure. I learned from the likes of Orson Scott Card (Character & Viewpoint), Donald Mass (The Emotional Craft of Fiction), and Jack M. Bickham (Scene & Structure). These books were a good start. However, I would not recommend them as a starting point for researching craft. Think of them as extra credit courses, but they’re not in your major.
I worked on my characters and plotting, and overall I felt an improvement. But tension continued to elude me. I delved further. I had to find what kept my story from being as interesting as it ought to be, needed to be.
I switched focus from characters and plotting to actual writing basics. Better to be humble and learn than stumble and fall again, I thought. I came across James Scott Bell’s “Write Your Novel From The Middle” and devoured it in two days of study. Finally, I thought, I’m making some headway. Bell makes some good points. However, this still ended up being a book I’d save for a little later if I had to do over again.
A Hybrid Snowflake
Flummoxed I still wasn’t finding what I needed, I hit up Randy Ingermanson’s webpage for the “Snowflake Method”. I couldn’t stomach the schlocky advertising for the book, but I did want to see what he had to say. Ironically, it was when I came across his blog post “How To Write The Perfect Scene” that I stumbled upon, for the first time, a decent way to write. A way to write I could understand and use.
Randy is an Outliner, the opposite of a pantser. His book, the Snowflake Method, is one holy grail method for a lot of outliners. I can’t outline my way out of a paper bag, but Randy does have some good advice for pantsers looking for a hybrid method that may work for them.
Buried in the first few paragraphs, Randy mentioned another author’s book on craft, Dwight Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer“. Wait a minute, I thought, James Scott Bell referred to Dwight Swain in his book. If two writing authors refer to the same guy they learned from, I ought to pay attention.
It turns out, Dwight Swain is to authors what the Ramones are to rock bands. No one knows who they are, but members of both professions respectively worship the ground each broke in their fields. Also, both are dead, but that only enhances their notoriety.
In my opinion, Dwight Swain’s career ended as a paradox. Despite writing more than 50 novels and being published in Fantastic Adventures, he found more fame in writing instruction. Although prolific, he wound up as professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma. His works, although numerous, didn’t strike me as very popular; I hadn’t heard of a single story he’d written. Not an auspicious sign.
However, if both Randy and James worshipped the words this guy wrote, I ought to persist. I bought the kindle version of Techniques of the Selling Writer, popped it onto my phone, and began reading. Two days later, I had documented 26 pages of notes. I’ll repost the Cliff Notes in my next missive.