Sunday, March 31, 2013

Writing This Novel, part V

Now that you’ve let your first draft sit for a while it’s time to turn it into a second draft. Some writers produce such a clean first draft that the second draft goes quickly then all they have to do is copy edit and submit. I am not one of those writers. I wish I were, but it isn’t meant to be. Night Creatures took five drafts, but I had some unique problems that I’ll discuss later. The first draft is the time to throw everything onto the page. The second draft is when you cut excess or add depth and bring the story arc into its final shape. If you see copy edit level problems, of course fix them, but don’t get bogged down in that yet. 

In each scene, if your characters have moved to a different location, have you described where they are early on to anchor your reader? Good! But are you giving me too much detail? Not good. Your imagination might have constructed an amazing coffee house with the quirkiest baristas on the planet and fascinating regulars, but confession time – as a reader, I scan over this kind of stuff if it goes on too long. Give the reader a quick impression, not a blueprint. It’s an amazing trick of the human mind that with only a few details our imaginations can fill in the rest of the scene. Make your words count. Load them with atmosphere. Blonde wood and steel evoke not just décor but also a soundtrack and vibe, and it's different than what you'd imagine if I'd called the place dark and cozy.

Have you used at least three senses to make a scene come alive? Think about the coffee shop. Since your characters are probably talking you already have hearing, but add little touches such as an ambulance going by outside or the clatter of dishes as a table is cleared or that weird swooshy sound the milk steamer makes. If you’ve described the setting, you’ve already evoked seeing. Give it dimension by letting your characters react to what they see. Maybe they feel self-conscious when the teenagers two tables over whisper and giggle, or your characters are self-conscious teenagers who whisper and giggle. Since it’s a coffee shop it probably smells like coffee, but what else? If it's raining outside, coats are probably giving off that damp wool smell. If you're out on a patio, you could smell traffic fumes or the herbal scent of a planter or even the doggy smell of the Golden Lab at the feet of the woman two tables away.    

Read through your draft to make sure your characters are consistent. Yes, they change over the course of the story, but there has to be a progression. In the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is comfortable with slavery at the beginning of the story. His entire world tells him is right and he doesn’t question it. By the end of the story, he’s decided that even if it means he’ll go to hell, he’s not okay with slavery and he believes, strongly, that Jim is a man, a full human being, the same as him. That is a huge change. But from the opening lines to the end of the story, Huck Finn is a consistent character. Every action he takes and bit of dialog is absolutely believable as something Huck Finn would say or do.

Everyone comes from somewhere. They don’t spring to life as full grown adults when your story begins. (Well, yes, they do, since you created them, but to make them seem real, you have to pretend they existed before you started recording their story) They have a past that made them who they are and that’s probably important info to share with your reader. However, beware the dreaded info dump! Cramming all the backstory into the first chapter is a sure way to bore your reader. Insert clues to your character’s past along the path of the story and reveal those things only at the point where they matter. Occasionally this will call for a longer passage, but if you can keep it to a line or two you’re better off, because long passages can drag your story to a standstill and it’s harder to overcome inertia than it is to maintain forward momentum. (Law of physics as applied to storytelling)

Foreplay. I don’t mean with your characters (although that’s fun stuff to read) I mean your readers. Don’t just toss them into a sex scene. Seduce them first. Use your sensory writing to evoke a mood then mercilessly push buttons to get them hot and bothered. Tease them. Manipulate them. Make them feel the warmth of a lover’s breath just under their ear so they’ll shiver. Make them want a lingering touch next. Take your time. Do a thorough job of it. It will leave them with the impression of a great sex scene even if you never describe a sexual act.
While you were writing your first draft, your subconscious was lurking in the background. Occasionally, while you were distracted, it slipped ideas into your work. Sneaky. By the time you finished your first draft, you may have become aware of those ideas. Many works in erotica are voyages of personal discovery. The protagonist chooses to find what they want and seizes control of their sexuality and life. That’s an empowering message. I’ve also read stories that are about forgiveness, loss, faith, love, and despair. You name an aspect of the human condition and it can be addressed in erotica. Think about your work from the high-level view. A literary viewpoint. Do you detect an idea or theme? Think about ways to enhance it in the second draft (if it interests you).

Reflecting on your work will give you a lot to tackle in your second draft, and expanding on the ideas your subconscious seeded in the first draft will add depth to your story.

I knew before I finished the first draft of Night Creatures that I had to move a key scene. Talk about painful. If only it were as simple as cut and paste. But no, of course not. Events happen in sequence. One flows into another. By changing the timeline, I had to go through each scene and ask ‘do they know this yet?’ If not, I had to eliminate the reference. In the first draft, things can be wrong. Typically in the second draft, errors are fixed, but in my second draft, I was creating potential errors all over the place.

As if I hadn’t made things hard enough, I also decided to delete two characters from the story. A cast of thousands may be impressive on a big movie screen but too many characters are confusing as hell on the page. Although I already had a limited cast, by eliminating the additional characters I tightened the focus on the main two. A reader once commented that my stories sometimes make her feel like she'd been shoved into a wardrobe with two people and the air is running out. I take that claustrophobia as a compliment.

Deleting characters can cause huge plot problems. Let me restate that. Deleting characters should cause huge plot problems. Everyone on the page should be there for a specific purpose, like cogs in a machine. If you can remove one and nothing changes, they shouldn't have been there in the first palce. (I'm talking about main and secondary characters here, not the extras in the background)  When I removed the two from mine, a key part of the plot suddenly didn't happen, so I had to transfer their actions to one of the remaining characters. Different characters have different motivations even if they do the same thing. (For example: I eat sashimi because I like it. R will only eat it when it’s served to him and it would be rude to refuse it.)  That meant, yes, exploring the motivations of the character and making sure they made sense. That was a lot of work, and typically the kind of stuff you do as you're writing the first draft. Maybe instead of calling this one my second I should have called it First Draft version B.

Between changing the sequence of events and eliminating characters, the second draft left me with a lot of work to do. (Thus the five drafts.) I wouldn’t have made those changes if I hadn’t strongly felt they were necessary. Unfortunately, I can’t explain to you why I felt they had to be made or how you might sense that your story arc needs that kind of revision. (I hope for your sake that it never does. This is why I often say "This is what I do, but I don't recommend it to anyone.") Readers might feel that the way a story was told was the only way it could have unfolded, but writers know that there were many possibilities. More than one path can lead to the same destination. Part of choosing the path is talent, part of it is craftsmanship, all of it is the mysterious (wonderful) process of creativity.         

What are the areas you concentrate on in a second draft? Do you have bad habits you try to catch?

Next time: editing

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