Everything Old is New Again; or, Remember to Recycle!

I wasn’t planning to start a major new project, but somehow I’ve cranked out 12 pages of a YA novel. I’m still not sure if it will sustain momentum once I get deeper in, but I’m off to a very promising start.

The project in question is not brand-new, more of a fresh approach to an old, old idea. Years ago, as a joke, my friend Tricia (creator of the webcomic Swiftriver) and I re-imagined ourselves and our friends as super-heroes (y’know, like you do…when you’ve had a little too much to drink). These were not at all serious alter-egos (again: drinking), but some of the characters got stuck in my brain.

From time to time I’d mentally revisit the characters and see if I could find a purpose for them, and a few years back I tried them out in a TV series setting, and hey, it worked. Before long I had done something unusual for me: I had crafted remarkably detailed storylines for this imaginary series, including an overall series arc. I wrote up a script in the appropriate format for a one-hour television show — my first time doing so, and getting the pacing down to account for commercial breaks was TOUGH. Maybe that’s why the idea died on the vine and the project, which I’d dubbed Action Figures, went back to purely a thought experiment.

Every so often, I take an old writing project and try to resurrect it, and one of the things I like to try is to re-write an old story in a new format. I have a couple of stories that exist as both prose novel and screenplay, and in those cases I found the new format felt like a better fit for the story in question than the old one.

Since I wrapped work (temporarily) on Bostonia, I’d been wondering what my next project might be, and no ideas were presenting themselves. Then I began reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I was immediately struck by the first-person present tense perspective, and it sparked something. So I decided to bring back Action Figures — conceived as a very adult TV series — as a YA novel, told from the perspective of one of the characters.

So far the novel has come together quickly — 10 pages in one day! — but I foresee a few problems ahead. When you’re dealing with the fixed perspective of single character, the conceit is the reader sees everything he (or she, in this case) sees and nothing more. Other characters either have to have their moments in front of the protagonist/narrator or have them reveal those moments to the P/N later.

It’s entirely possible to simply have the P/N narrate these off-page moments as well and trust that the reader will follow, but for some people that can be jarring; in their minds, they’re wondering how the main character can know about developments he/she wasn’t there to witness first-hand (even though the idea that the character is speaking to them directly is accepted readily and without challenge).

Then there is the method I’ve seen Brad Meltzer use in his novels to split the difference, with the main character providing first-person perspective narration in some chapters and an omniscient third-person perspective narrator assuming control in others. Again, readers can be thrown off by this dual narration technique, but it never bothered me personally.

For me, I think finding the right approach is going to involve a bit of trial and error. I don’t mind the trial part, but I’m hoping to keep the error to a minimum.



Premature Climaxing

Neil Gaiman once remarked that the middle of a story was the hardest part to write for him. With the beginning of a story comes the heady rush of ideas and the thrill of setting up all the elements. With the end, there is the thrill of tying together all the various threads you’ve laid out and the satisfaction of accomplishment. The middle, that is where a lot of the gruntwork lies, and it’s often dull and laborious.

I’ll agree with that assessment, but I find I hate writing endings more than I hate slogging through the middle of a story. An ending can make or break a story; a strong ending can make a weak story good, or at least worthwhile, while a weak — or worse, a cheap cop-out — ending can cause a reader to retroactively hate every preceding page…and a strong ending to a strong story? Then you get something like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which I will forever love for how much the last page kicked my ass (Justin Cronin’s The Passage is a very close second for powerful last pages).

I want to write endings like that: final pages that very literally take your breath away and leave the reader sitting there with an expression of complete awe on his face.

To be honest with myself, I don’t think I’ve achieved that with Bostonia, but I’d like to think that the last few pages (epilogue number two) will tie a satisfying bow around the tale I’ve told.

The preceding final chapter, however…

Remember what I said about the surge of creative energy that propels a writer through the climax? Yeah, there’s a downside to that, and it’s called sloppiness.

Kate (of Time Traveler’s Wardrobe), one of my go-to test-readers, recently finished reading my manuscript, and so far the first batch of critiques is all about the final set piece in the last chapter, and they confirmed what I suspected: I rushed the ending. There were elements that made perfect sense to me that did not make sense to her. Some we traced to plot points revealed earlier in the story that she’d forgotten — some of which were so far in her rear-view mirror it’s not surprising she’d forgotten all about them — and others were flat-out flaws. In either case, I think a strategic line or two here and there would clarify matters greatly without sacrificing the pacing, which I need to keep brisk in order to heighten the sense of urgency in the scene.

This all falls under the umbrella of “that’s what re-writes are for,” so I’m not at all dismayed that draft one has some leaks that need plugging. It’s all part of the process.

The Pros and Cons of an Organic Writing Process

On my way in to my day job this morning, something hit me about my recently finished novel project, an inconsistency that, at the time I wrote a particular chapter, was not an inconsistency.

Here’s the thing: when I began writing Bostonia more than five years ago, I had a very broad road map. I knew what the story was; I knew the general directions I wanted it to go in; I had certain scenes and concepts I wanted to play out. But I’m not the kind of writer who painstakingly details every last bit of plot and characterization, so there were a LOT of pieces of the puzzle that were utter mysteries to me.

I kind of like writing that way. It gives me the thrill I get as a reader when I have maybe an inkling of what’s coming, but ultimately I don’t know where the story will take me (quick aside: Justin Cronin’s The Passage accomplished this marvelously, pick it up).

Besides, when you work on a lengthy project like this, it’s inevitable that new ideas will constantly pop into your head as you progress; you’ll write a line of dialog that reveals a new possibility for a character, or you’ll hit a sticking point in the plot you need to resolve, and the best solution takes you in a totally different direction than you’d planned. You can’t let storytelling be totally driven by these on-the-fly discoveries, because what you end up with is a disjointed mess.

So: when I began Bostonia, the second chapter introduced Sara, a woman born with the power to manipulate magic but who refused to tap that power. I knew from the outset exactly why she denied her abilities, and I had a strong idea of how that would come into play when it came time to build toward the climax — and then, by the time I got there, literally five years later, that vision no longer fit what the story had become. New needs had arisen and I had completely rethink my plans.

What I got, I think is a stronger outcome all around, but because chapter two was now such a distant memory, I completely failed to realize certain things I’d written there were not just irrelevant, they were contradictory. When I next pick up the full manuscript, after my loyal band of test-readers have their wicked way with it, one of the first things I need to do is scour the text for any other moments that contradict Sara’s resolution.

Does this add to my overall workload? Sure, but I think it will be worth it. What I got was much better than what I planned.

I guess the take-away here is that the creative process, at its best, is spontaneous, and that spontaneity needs to be guided but shouldn’t be restrained. I’ve often heard that many writers’ first drafts can be very stream-of-consciousness because the writer is simply trying to get the ideas out of his head so he can sift through them later and build upon the strongest concepts, so don’t treat writing as such a mechanical exercise in simply getting characters from plot point A to plot point B.

Yes, Even My Website is Not Immune From Getting Rebooted

As you read this (assuming you’re reading this very soon after this blog’s launch), I am in the process of killing my old, rather lame, not-at-all-easy-to-update website and converting to a WordPress blog. Considering my needs, it’s a wise move; I need simple.

So, why am I re-launching Innsmouthlook.com? It felt like a good time in light of my recent accomplishment.

See, on Sunday (August 14, 2011) I completed a novel project I had been working on, literally, since January 2005. This was the most ambitious project I’d ever undertaken, and now that it’s (sort of) done and moving on to the next phase — refinement and finding a publisher — I thought it would be a perfect time to bring this online presence back to life.

(The project, by the way, is entitled Bostonia – The Secret History of the City on the Hill. It’s an urban fantasy tale set in and around, obviously, Boston that was inspired by, among other things, my nightmarish adventures in the city during the waning years of the Big Dig, when driving was even more of a clusterfuck than it is today.)

You might ask, Why did it take me so damn long to write this thing? Several reasons, really: day-job work, side projects sapping my time and creative energy, real life (I got married and bought a house somewhere along the line), periods when I had no idea where the story was going or how to keep it moving, and bouts of plain old “I don’t feel like writing” (all of which is perfectly normal for writers, I learned from Neil Gaiman in his infamous — but greatly appreciated — post, “Entitlement Issues“).

I would have preferred to have finished it off MUCH sooner, but I didn’t, and I’m not going to waste time bemoaning the circumstances that led to this moment in time. Rather, I’m going to patiently wait for my intrepid band of test-readers to get back to me with their feedback, make what I hope are a quick and final round of revisions, then start seriously shopping this baby around to agents and publishers.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep busy with other projects, and I’m going to be a lot more diligent in keeping track of my progress via this blog. Really.

I promise.