The narrative of the narrative

I’m participating in the Clarion West write-a-thon this year. If you would like to support me, I suggest donations, as usual, in extremely lucky multiples of thirteen dollars.

Last year, for the write-a-thon, I made my goal "write every single day without exception." I did this in part because I knew my life was going to be crazy all over the place for that six week period, with trips and new jobs and whatnot. So I figured that the discipline of writing NO MATTER WHAT was going to be important, and also all I could do. I figured some days I would get maybe two sentences down, but that’s okay.

I think I missed one or two days, but that’s it. It got me in the habit of always taking my laptop everywhere when I go away for the weekend. And also it got me thinking of writing as a kind of default fallback position. What are you going to do to kill time? Oh, I guess I’ll open up the laptop and do some writing. It forced me to squeeze in writing during conventions and family visits, where I would otherwise have blown it off.

So, I kept most of those habits going in the year since (sweet Zombie Jesus, a whole year, really?), which is cool. So my goal this year is to up the stakes a little and have a minimum time: half an hour every day. Even if all I do is stare at the screen stupidly, I have to stare at the screen for half an hour. Or stare into space with the screen in front of me. The point is, I can’t do anything else. I can’t give up and read Twitter or something. Either I’m typing or I’m trying to think of something to type.

As a special bonus, only work on fiction counts. So this little ditty doesn’t. count.

I’m working on a werewolf novel (another thanks to everybody who played Julie’s Novel Mad Libs) which I started last May so it’s the same novel I was working on during last year’s write-a-thon. Hypothetically the same novel, anyway. It’s a little like the Tin Woodman, all its words have been completely replaced, little by little, so is it really the same novel?

It started life as a short story, but when I got to the end of an already unwieldy 10,000 words and wasn’t quite done, I thought, heck, why don’t I just keep going and see if I can turn it into a novel? So the intended short story became the first chapter. I kept writing on that general plot until the version dated July 6 (79,283 words).

But I didn’t really like the way it was going. I felt like I had ended up in a cul-de-sac, The story kind of meandered. It didn’t feel right. The elements were there but the life had gone out of them.

To me, writing a story always feels a bit like assembling Frankenstein’s monster. I collect all the pieces that seem like they belong, stitch them together, and apply plenty of mad scientist electricity. And sometimes — She’s alive!

Other times, maybe the fingers twitch, and then… nothing.

It’s no good simply continuing to apply electricity at that point. I have to replace some of the parts, rearrange, and then try again.

I dumped about 60,000 words and took a completely different approach to assembling the plot. There was a version from October 1 that got up to about 46,000 words, and then several variations on the same general structure that all got up to about 45,000 words. But each one ended up in another cul-de-sac. I was starting to despair, wonder if I should just give up and work on something else.

On the final example of that version I wrote "ahhhhhh, the story keeps getting strangled by the plot!" up at the top.

That was in December. I tried to go back to the beginning of why I was bothering to tell this story. Why did this seem important, why did that seem important? Why didn’t this character have anything to do, how could I give them something to do, or should I just get rid of them? I realized that there were a lot of instances of lazy plotting, where I had characters other than the protagonist with clear goals that they weren’t acting on just because the protagonist’s story wasn’t ready for them to act yet. And once I started thinking deeply about how the other people would act, given the circumstances, I realized I had to start over completely and dump the original 10,000 words.

I have two months and about twelve different files that are all called "plot" or "timeline" or "notes."

(Thanks again to everyone who played Julie’s novel Mad Libs. )

I got about 20,000 words into three or four different plots. Then, in early April, I decided to start writing a diary from the viewpoint of the chief antagonist. At first I intended for it to be author’s notes only, but it was too much fun for that so I decided I wanted it to show up in the end, after they find the diary, then I decided it was still too much fun, I had to thread it through from closer to the beginning.

Blammo! Suddenly the novel was fun again!

I realized that, because I was writing the protagonist from first person present tense, I kept feeling like I needed to limit the action to what the protagonist could directly observe. Then I realized I didn’t have to do that. I could write different chapters from different people’s points of view.

In fact, I could write different perspectives using different tenses and conventions. So there’s the diary, which has a conversational voice that mixes first person past and present, and there’s two characters who get intimate third person past, and there’s one character who gets third person present with no marks around direct quotations. Whee!

Does it work? I don’t know. Maybe other people will find it strange and confusing. But it worked for me. It worked to get the novel going again. I think maybe I find a single person’s perspective too claustrophobic for an entire novel, which is probably a good thing to know about myself.

I advanced this version of the novel from 20,000 words on April 14 to 106,800 words on June 14 before realizing I had ended up in another dead end, and had to dump about 20,000 words from the end and think deeply about the action in the last bit.

So, another three or four dead ends, and now I have another sketch of the endgame to work on.

Paul thinks I’m insane, self-defeating, and I am, but that’s not why. If I could write a novel without changing the plot twenty or thirty times, including starting over from scratch once or twice, I would do that. I don’t think it’s how I work. With practice I can probably get faster at spotting the dead ends. But I am probably never going to be an orderly, linear, point A to point B sort of writer.

And now I need to go work on that instead of this.

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