Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Murk In The Middle of the Novel

Two years ago at Saints and Sinners, I went to a master class taught by Jim Grimsley titled: The Murk In The Middle Of The Novel. I don't think there's a better word than murk to describe how muddled things get when you're two months and ten chapters into a novel. Or as I'm now visualizing it - the forest for the trees.

Writing is sort of like hiking. For most people, the destination is where they begin mentally. "I want to get to this place. How do I get there?" Next they find the trailhead, the place where the path begins. Then they start to hike. The problems arise along the way when the trees close in. It's easy to loose sight of both the beginning and the end.

Referring to my notes from the class, Jim mentioned that one of the problems of writing a novel is that you can't hold the whole novel in your head the same way you can a short story. Exactly! You have to pay attention to where you are while keeping the destination in mind, but there's no room in the brain for the minute details of the entire path. Jim also reminded us that the only direction is forward. Every sentence has to move the story towards the end. No scenic routes, no interesting but useless asides, no looping back stories - just keep moving towards the end.

So where the hell am I?

I knew the story I wanted to tell, which means I began with a clear destination in mind.

Finding the trailhead was tricky. I wrote (and discarded) at least 7,000 words before I knew the best time frame for the story. But once I stumbled on the right opening, the pacing fell into place.

Everything flowed so well the first several chapters. I was in the zone. My vision of my destination was still clear in my mind, and I knew I'd chosen the best beginning.

After that, things began to bog down. I hit the murk.

I realized that I'd packed too much, and plot was weighing me down. Time to rummage through the story and discard everything that was nice, but not essential. If it didn't focus on the MC, I chucked it. If it didn't move me forward, I deleted it. Painful, yes, but essential. Out in the middle of the wilderness, it's survival of the fittest, baby. Only a streamlined, unencumbered story can go the distance.

There are writers who believe in beginning a story with no exact destination in mind. They simply head out into the wilderness with blind faith that if they wander around long enough they will eventually stumble onto a story. "It's out here," they mumble, "I'm bound to pass it." They call themselves organic writers. I believe that if you have no idea where you're headed, you won't recognize your destination even if you should, by some miracle or sheer dumb luck, run into it 250,000 words later. It seems so inefficient. (This from the person who wrote 7,000 words before she knew where to start.)

Then there's the opposite side of the coin - the outliners. They plan out each step of the journey before the first step. The problem there is the lack of flexibility. If you march along and never deviated from plan, you can miss some cool, unexpected stuff along the way, like themes your subconscious weaves into the story that only jump out at you during the rewrite. It also assumes that you planned everything perfectly from the start, and no surprises will happen (such as having to dump scads of secondary characters and side plots).

Usually, I have a mental outline, but I keep it very flexible. If it isn't on paper, it can't be set in stone. This time, I put down general plot points and pacing notes in chapter order in my working document, sort of as a head's up of where I needed to go next. It wasn't a full outline, but at least it was a decent map that gave me some idea of the terrain I'd be passing.

As I flounder around in the murk, I realize that the sequence of events needs to change so that I have a steady emotional uphill climb to the end, with a few plateaus to give myself and the readers a chance to absorb the view and catch our breath. But no matter what, I'm keeping my eye on the destination. I'm not letting it move to suit the path. I'm forcing the path to stay on target to the destination.

Now all I have to do is find my way out of the murk and move forward. The end is in sight. Only four more chapters to go! At least I know I can get there from here.

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