09 July 2012

One Hundred Pages Done! The Eye of the Storm - Taking a Novel from Plot to Story

Today, the manuscript for The Eye of the Storm reached page 100.  This is not bad at all, given that I only started working on this novel last month.  This is also an entirely new rewrite.  That means that although I have much of the storyline in my head, and the memory of writing a previous draft, as well as a lot of the research, the writing is entirely new.

Yesterday was an especially good writing day, with three scenes being completed, or about sixteen pages.  I had to take nearly two weeks off, to attend to various pressing matters, and finding the thread of the narrative again was not easy.  However, after some poking and prodding, I eventually found some elements that had the right chemical reaction, and I was able to make something fizz.

I'd like to address a couple of issues that recently came up in the writer's blog "Writer Unboxed," which offers some of the most sensible advice to new fiction writers that I've ever seen online.  Usually, these blogs have the following structure:  "You're never going to make it; you're all going to die.  But here's how to write some canned, ultra-preserved, generic fiction."  "Writer Unboxed" presents fiction writing as it really is, and deals in depth (and realistically) with key issues.  The two issues I want to address here are actually related for most fiction writers.  They are:  1) How do you move a book along from the basic plot outline to the actual story?  2) What do you do when you're interrupted?  How do you regain momentum?  This second question I will deal with in a separate post.  The post below deals with moving from plot to story. 

Let's take Eye of the Storm.  In this case, I must admit that I wrote (about five years ago) a complete manuscript that covered much of what is in this book.  I still have this manuscript, but the subsequent revisions I made in the first three books of The Adventures of Henry Innes altered the narrative voice, structure, and characters so much that a lot of the story has to be rewritten from scratch.  That doesn't bother me, but it does mean that I have a very clear idea what happens in this novel.  For the most part, that is.  However, everything I know is distilled into a 2-page outline that originally listed sixty-eight scenes, divided into four-scene chapters, with a descriptive line for each.  The description usually indicates where the scene occurs and / or what the action is.  In many cases, these tags are simply a mnemonic device to trigger my memory of how the scene unfolds.  In other cases, they are a jumping off point for conceptualizing a scene.  Most of all, they put the scenes in order, and they give me a sense of how long the story is.

The list of scenes is essentially the first trimming of the book, too.  I take the story that's in my head and, after writing down all the scenes I can think of, I look for ways to combine and omit scenes.  I know that before the book is finished, some scenes will disappear, new ones will take their place, and scenes will shift from one chapter to another, or melt together, or turn into a very different version than what I initially imagined.  However, I don't concern myself with these things because they are all the result of choices, and, as they say, "Good writing is about making choices" - choices about what to keep, what to cut, and what to change.  At this stage, the primary constraint is the overall length of the book.  Every decision you make about the number of scenes has an impact on the number of words and pages you will end up with.  The rule that guides my structuring of the novel is this:  Use as few scenes as possible, but make sure you have all the scenes necessary to tell the tale, comfortably, within the constraints of the envisioned length.  I set a limit of 120k words for my novels:  they can be shorter, but they can't be longer than this.

Eye of the Storm is another "nautical" Henry Innes novel, and as the title implies, weather is of some importance to the plot.  A couple of years ago, I set up Henry's entire journey to India in real time, employing daily weather reports for every place he visited.  In fact, it went even beyond that:  I checked the weather, in every location, every three hours from September until the beginning of March.  I strongly doubt if I will ever do anything like that again, but I must say it has paid off in terms of streamlining the writing of Over the Line and Eye of the Storm.  From this data, I built a sort of plotting logbook for Henry's ship and his journey, into which I inserted notations about the action, setting, and so forth.  The list of scenes, above, I then derived from this calendar, with the calendar serving now as an initial tier of notes for each scene.  Like many authors, however, I also use note-cards to help plan scenes.  My note-cards mainly contain historical information about people, settings, and events.  I also may include notes on customs, clothing, speech patterns, and anything else that may be relevant.

Now comes the step from outline to story, when you sit down at the keyboard and actually write scenes.

I envision each scene as if it is being filmed, and I am the director, although unlike a movie director, I don't need to set up all the visual elements.  My readers' imaginations will supply most of the visual elements of the story:  the author's task is to set down frameworks to guide the imagination in the right direction.  This is where the author must remember that writing is interactive, and that a lot of story-telling is what happens in your reader's mind and heart when they read your text.  I myself tend not to like books that offer too little description and narrative, but by the same token I dislike books that offer too much - on the one hand, you may find yourself lost; on the other hand, you're locked in a closet, full of bright lights, gagged and wearing a straightjacket.  When I sit down and write a scene, therefore, I try to decide how it will open up - who is the point-of-view character?  It's usually Henry Innes, but not always.  Where are we?  What's going on?

I may not actually know, when I start a scene, how the opening hook is going to tie in with the bare-bones scene description.  However, I believe that if you craft dynamic, believable characters, they will show you the way:  all you need to do is give them some purpose and let them interact.  It could be something as simple and mundane as opening a window, sitting down to tea, or walking down the street.  Or it could be a little more exciting:  being shoved into a dungeon cell, in chains; lashed to a ship's grating to be flogged; or surprised in bed with another man's wife by the jealous husband, who happens to have a loaded, cocked pistol in one hand....  You get the idea.  There are all sorts of ways to start a scene that will hook a reader and make them want to find out whether the scamp jumps out the window in time, and whether or not he has his clothes with him.

In The Adventures of Henry Innes, what determines the content of any scene is usually a combination of two or three factors.  Most scenes will emerge from characterization and setting.  Some scenes - the ones that deal with real historical events - also must take historical information into account.  Characters should all have motivations and goals, even minor characters.  Readers like to follow characters who are working toward the resolution of some problem.  If you have characters who are working at cross-purposes, you probably will not have to look far for points of conflict; just put them in a room together, or at least set them up against each other, let them do what they do, and watch the plot thicken into an actual story.

However, you need to know your characters well enough to know how they would make decisions - in particular, how far they are willing to go, and why, even if this is not specifically stated.  For instance, in both Over the Line and Eye of the Storm, there is an antagonist whose relentless, usually destructive decisions leave the main characters baffled because they cannot fathom his motives.  Everyone has a different theory about why the antagonist is such a jerk, but much of the time it is all they can do to deal with the fallout from the bad guy's behavior, which affects everyone, including the antagonist himself.  I imagine most of us have actually worked with or for people like this, mopping up their mistakes and messes.  However, this particular antagonist is in fact driven and constrained by a few key desires.  First, he is proud and ambitious:  reputation and proof that he is advancing in life are vitally important.  He tends to "lose it" when shamed or stymied in any way.  Since he tends to advance himself by corrupt means, he is especially sensitive to having his shady dealings exposed.  Second, he has a middling position:  there are people beneath him over whom he has power, but he also is answerable to superiors.  He knows he is somewhat valued by his superiors because he's good at what he does, but he also knows that he can't push them too far.  However, he also has a tipping point.  If you corner this character, or bait him, he will flip out, and if that happens, he might do absolutely anything.  Now, set this guy up against someone like Henry Innes, who is bound and guided by complex notions of duty, honor, and loyalty, and you have the potential for some dynamic interactions.  Have Mr. Flip-out threaten the reputation of one of Henry's female friends, and it's only a matter of time before the sparks fly.  Henry avoids conflict:  that's his nature.  But when push comes to shove, Henry can be a formidable adversary.

An essential part of writing any scene is to write the conflict.

However, all conflicts have to be believable.  Have you ever sat down to watch an action movie, only to start yawning fifteen minutes into the film, despite all the squealing tires, ricocheting bullets, growling monsters, helicopters, karate-kicks, and explosions, because you actually don't care who is fighting who, or why?  A writer needs to make sure that his readers care about the conflict.  They will care, of course, because the situation seems real, and because the stakes are compelling.  However, beyond this the decisions made by the protagonist and the antagonist (and by ancillary characters) must be believable and consistent with their characterization.  I find it helpful if my villains, for instance, have at least one motivation that the reader can sympathize with, whether they are fictional or historical.  The antagonist discussed above is an American Loyalist.  It's 1789, America is now independent, and like a lot of former Loyalists, he's beginning to doubt his allegiances because the United States is pulling itself together, and because the British Government has largely ignored Loyalist pleas for help relocating and rebuilding their lives.  He also has been raised in a family of slave-owners, on plantations in South Carolina and Jamaica, and thus inured to tyranny and violence from a young age:  his upbringing has given him a keen sense of entitlement and privilege, and yet because of his colonial origins and accent, most of the British characters literally treat him as a second-class citizen.  In a later Henry Innes novel, Lions and Tigers, we will meet the Sultan of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, who was a real person.  Although vilified by the British, to the point of being depicted as a bloodthirsty mass-murderer, I prefer to dwell on other aspects of Tipu's personality that I find more compelling, such as his mysticism and altruism, his devotion to his family (which for his sons often took the form of very tough love), and his strong notion of personal destiny.  I do not want my readers simply to see Tipu Sultan as a violent ghazi, bent on jihad; they need to relate to him as someone who wants to change the world for the better, as he sees it, but who is willing to do that by any means necessary.

The story is completed by bringing in all the different plot elements.  For instance, perhaps in the story tomorrow's Sunday, so there's a rush by the characters to settle a matter that would be impossible to resolve on a Sunday in the late 18th century.  Or perhaps the sun will set in three hours, after which it will become too dark for a particular activity to be plausible.  In Eye of the Storm, for instance, Henry must send his clothes to be laundered because he has just returned to Cape Town from the bush, and because his ship is about to set sail.  This is a practical detail, but it provides a reason for him to return to the Malay quarter of Bo-Kaap, where the old Javanese shaman he saw when he first arrived will explain the significance of the potion he was given by the Namaqua hunter-gatherers he met, out in the South African desert.  A dispute over the laundry bill serves as a pretext for Henry's sending for someone to interpret for him, and thus a plausible situation is created in which the old shaman can warn Henry about the potion despite the language barrier that separates them.  Henry's turning aside to deal with something as mundane as a disputed laundry bill also serves to break the rising tension in the main conflict of the first part of the novel, and it introduces a plot element that will become important in later Henry Innes novels.

What remains, once all these elements are drawn in, is the transformation of ideas and raw material into narrative, dialogue, and description.  That is another vital aspect of fiction writing, but one that really deserves its own, in-depth treatment in another blog post.

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