Friday, October 12, 2012

The Problem with Plots

Like everyone else, I had no clue what I was doing the first time I wrote a book. I’m a fast learner, though, so I thought that I could learn from the experience. What I primarily learned is this: I write too much.
Machines of Kali finally clocked in at 139K words, but I’m positive I wrote at least twice that. Sadly, it was mostly drivel. I had to go back and hack-and-slash it mercilessly, torturing it into submission before I could take it even halfway seriously. I combined characters, deleted subplots, and eliminated backstories. Some characters’ histories I distilled into a sentence or two - in one case, just a toss-off phrase. Much later, I realized that all this preliminary copy was not only vestigial, but unnecessary. If I had just written draft seven way back instead of draft one, I could have saved myself a year or two.
Jeez, I thought, there has to be a better way. 
I know lots of writers do the chew-and-spew or, as teachers like to call it, “freestyle” writing. It’s got its place, sure, but IMHO, a novel is a tightly wound device. How can precision be served by waste? And length is not a factor; a long book can be extremely tight. No one ever said Mario Puzo’s Godfather meandered, and that covered three generations of family. I loved The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, because it was long, but never loose.
So, for the dual purposes of efficiency and efficacy, I swore that the next book I wrote would be much tighter. I would vividly compose every character, precisely isolate every telling detail, and thoroughly outline every plot point in advance. No detail would be too small to be mapped out beforehand. I wanted there to be no weak spots, no meandering mess, and no missing details.
In the process of subjugating every writing impulse to this greater purpose, I discovered something else: it’s really, really hard. I had to tweak out new characters to carry the story, research new background to fill out the world, and contort the sequencing every which way. In other words, it was a lot like the first book, except that this time, all the preliminary junk was a thought experiment.
I also discovered something else while I was creating what amounted to one big plot. There’s a problem with plots. Eventually, they end. The movie director Christopher Nolan said that when he composes a story, he often begins with the final scene and writes backwards. If I could do that, I’d be much happier, not to mention Mr. Nolan. Of course, who doesn’t want to be Mr. Nolan?
Right now, I’m stuck with a deep beginning and a thrilling middle, but a confused end. How does the hero figure out the villain’s trap? What is the villain’s fate? Who is the romantic focus? Questions like these hardly instill confidence in the rest of the outline, and are hardly the definition of a tight story.
The suffering continues.

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