The Battle of the Book
This is sort of a companion piece to last week’s piece on “Arriving.” It wasn’t meant to be, but the main feature of this week was my discovering in many ways I’m still a beginner.
I wish I could tell you I rationally and calmly plot my books, and then sit down to emphasize this and pull that together, and…
To be sure, for many years I did plot carefully ahead, to the point that a 400 page novel had a 100 page outline.
Those books often read both less plotted and far more shallow than the books since I gave up and started pantsying (Working without a plot, aka, working without a net) about five years ago.
There is a reason for this. You see, even when I was carefully plotting ahead, my best work was subconscious. To put it another way, when you plot a novel ahead of time, as I did, before you really have gotten in there and lived with the characters for a while, your characters are going to be simpler than if you “know” them as real people. For instance, if you mean a character to reflect “pride” that’s all he’ll do. He’ll be proud in the morning, and proud in the evening, and proud under the noonday sun.
That’s not how real people work. The proudest person in the world will have something about which they’re unexpectedly humble or easy-going.
But if I have a plot, kind of like if I have a contract, I’m going to stick to it come hell or high water, and not allow those grace notes to sound.
Note, I’m not saying you should pantse. Writing is such a personal thing, that I would never presume to tell another writer whether they should be plotters or pantsers (from “flying by the seat of the pants.”) I can’t. Some authors I read – Pratchett – whom I assumed to be meticulous plotters, are in fact pantsers. So, do it the way you have to do it.
For me, as I said, I pull greatly from the subconscious, and if I try to curtail that, the writing loses all depth. Which was a problem as of course, the old system of proposals meant I had to outline. I soon learned to “do a dance” and give general impressions with no actual outline.
Fortunately now my publisher doesn’t even ask “What is the high idea for this book” and the contracts read something like “Next book in the Darkship Thieves series.”
This is well and good and I’m used to it. I’m also used to the nagging feeling that “this is a very bad book.” Look, at this point no, it’s not beating myself up. Oh, sure, by the time I finish any book, unless I wrote it really fast, like A Few Good Men, I loathe the thing, in the sense that I’ve lived too long with it, and can’t stand to read even a page. Takes me ten years or so to get over that and be able to read the books for reference for the series.
But this is a different feeling. It’s the feeling the book would be a slog for anyone, and that something is seriously wrong.
For those – hi, my publisher! – who wonder why I kept saying Through Fire was almost finished but never delivering? Yeah. I had the nagging, overwhelming feeling that it was a Very Bad Book.
This week, I started trying to figure out why. My first thought was that I hated the main character. I’ve gone through times of not liking my characters very much, but it’s not usually outright hatred.
The main character of Through Fire is Zen Sienna, who is a secondary character in Darkship Renegades. Since I didn’t figure out even while she wanted to live on Earth until two months ago, I thought it was perfectly possible I hated her. But then I could I change her, so I didn’t hate her?
And that’s when I realized – yesterday – the problem was not Zen, but the plot.
I realized I’d written what I’d call a Rincewind plot – a plot built entirely on running away. Oh, sure, she performs feats of cunning and strength, but it’s all in the service of running away.
I don’t like that type of plot even in a comedic style. It robs the book of all force and gives the reader the subconscious wish to run away from it.
Sure, I had her turn and fight in the middle of the book, but by that time, it’s gone too far and so, probably, would the reader have done.
How did I come to make such a rookie mistake?
Well, Through Fire was started when I was very tired and, for reasons external to my head, also very depressed. I think my mind just wanted to run away. (This is why sometimes you can’t force a book.)
And after that, just like with outlines, my mind took this as immovable.
It’s not immovable. I’m now doing the messy and painful work of changing that, which involves completely changing some chapters, but also, suddenly, makes perfect sense out of scenes that seemed not to have any tension.
Anyway – all this to say – at 24 books, I’m still not immune from making a stupid, beginner level mistake and also, if there’s a very strong feeling there’s something VERY wrong with your book, heed it.
I’m not talking about generalized feelings of “My language is not good enough” or “my descriptions such” or whatever. We all have craft issues we’re working on, and we see the mistakes on those way clearer than readers do. No, I mean a specific “there’s something wrong with this book, so I can barely make myself spend time with it.” If you have that feeling, the feeling that the book is somehow twisted or maimed, heed it.
If you have beta readers good enough to catch it, good for you. If not, get up, go for a walk and think it over. Sometimes it takes a month of walks, granted, but it will come to you.
This is not an excuse to give up on a book halfway through. If you find on your walks you’re thinking of what bulbs to plant in the garden, instead, it’s time to come back and tinker with the book some more to see if you can get it to disclose what is wrong. Another thing that can work is try to write a short story with those same characters three years in the future. Sometimes this makes it all plain as day.
On the other hand, no matter how much you need to deliver that book, or whether (Hi, publishers!) it’s grossly overdue, do not force it or rush it out, because chances are you’ll write a very bad book.
And now pardon me, I have to return to my plastic surgery on this book! (Messy, painful, bloody AND detail oriented.)