Thursday, May 31, 2007

Let's Try That Again

In response to my last post Simon commented on how he sometimes has to write the wrong story before he can write the one he needs to be writing, peeling away the inital story until the real story emerges.

I remember doing this years ago with 'Spirits of Darkness and Light.' Originally it was a SF story but after completing the first draft I wasn't happy with it so I stuck it in a drawer and started work on something else. A looong time passed before I remembered the story was still stuck in the drawer. But when I finally dragged it out I realised that what I thought should be a SF story should in fact be a ghost story. Much more fitting for the tone and setting. Plus this change also allowed me to bring in an emotional undercurrent that had been entirely lacking in the story's first incarnation.

In theory outlining allows me to get this part of the process out of the way a lot quicker. I'm just bouncing ideas around, the plot is still fluid, malleable; I can add or subtract as I wish. Entire subplots can live and die in a space of seconds. Even if I end up mulling over them for longer periods at least I'm not distracted by the need to write beguiling prose at the same time as I'm trying to figure out the story's plot.

In Mask I realised that a plot development I was toying with wouldn't fit into the word count so I collapsed the whole thing into a couple of lines whilst still in the planning stages. Saved me having to write out a half dozen or so pages of story and then trying to shoehorn it into the rest of the plot; shedding dialogue here, descriptive passages there, all the time cursing the need for this gutting of my muse.

Other times the outlining hasn't worked so well. I've added in subplots that have absolutely no place in the story I'm writing but I don't realise until after I've finished the first draft. I then have the problem of working out how far this soon to be deceased subplot has entwined itself around the main plot, the story's heart. If small but telling details of the subplot have wormed their way into the main body of the story then continuity errors probably fill every page. So as well as the fun of cutting out all the stuff I don't want to keep I also have to rewrite all the stuff I do want to keep. This is never fun.

It doesn't help that lately I seem to have totally lost the ability to judge the intended length of a story. Scenes that are only supposed to last a couple of hundred words drag on past the thousand word mark, rapid fire exchanges of dialogue turn into bloated discussions. All of which means I not only waste time writing this rubbish but I also have to trim it all down again afterwards.

Unfortunately there's no one best method to write a story. There's only the best method to write the story you're currently working on. Sometimes you find that method first time, sometimes you have to scream and shout and pull out a few clumps of your hair first.


nomis said...

Some stories are like freeways — it's a straight line from start to finish, and all one needs to do it get on and race to the end. Other stories are like meandering country roads, full of twists and turns and fork, so many that while you're travelling you don't always know if you're going the right way, regardless of how good or bad your map is (hint: it's always poorly drawn).

The experience I hate most is realizing, despite your intricate outline before hand, that your story is going off the rails and becoming a different story. Invariably this happens halfway through, and you're left with the decision to start again properly, or to continue from where you are in the new direction and trust you can go back after the draft is finished to rewrite the first half to match.

How can you write an ending that ties all the threads together if you haven't written those threads yet? Goddamn muse ...

Anonymous said...

The latter part of those comments just applied to me when I started my latest story. A third in and I realise that the protagonist is not going where I believed I was sending her, so it was off into a new direction - so much more research for the new ideas, a little bit of floundering on the high seas, a little rewriting of the beginning and now hopefully, a new and exciting ending. Bloody pirates!

Anonymous said...

Hey Stu - I really enjoyed The Mask Behind the Face. How many words did it pan out at eventually and from what initially?
The last post was by me also.

Stuart Young said...

Ally, Mask was supposed to be 20,000 words and ended up as 20,100.

I actually did have it at 20,000 when I submitted it but then added a bit when I did the "last chance to get rid of any mistakes before publication" polish.

One of those rare occasions where I pretty much nailed the story first time. Offhand, I think initial rewrites consisted of adding a scene near the beginning, shortening another scene and a little bit of polisihng. Then, as I said above, I added about 100 words as there was a plot point I felt neeeded clarifying.

nomis said...

I could have done it in 19,956

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