Evolution of a Discovery Writer’s Story

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Discovery Writer, Gardener, Pantser… Whatever you decide to call us, I fall pretty firmly into the camp of writers who don’t plan their stories before they start writing them.  Sure, there’s some mental “steeping” required before I can jump in the deep end, but that’s pretty mystical, even to me.  And in my quest to better my fiction, I’ve learned to ask certain structural questions early on (at the moment, I’m a fan of Dan Well’s 7-Point Story Structure).  But it’s always a bit of a struggle for me, and I’m much more comfortable imposing structure after I’ve written the bones of the story.  Too much too early generally results in an unfinished story.

Since I don’t think things through beforehand, I end up doing a lot by instinct and only assessing the “why” after the fact.  In the moment, I only know it feels wrong.  That means I have to be willing to change my story, sometimes drastically, based on gut feeling alone.

I know a lot of writers who get very attached to what they have written, to the point that any change is painful.  I’ve always had a bit of trouble understanding that point of view – much more painful, in my experience, to know there’s something wrong without knowing how to fix it.  Changing things is the easy part; deciding what to change and how – that’s where things get dicey.

This week, I experienced a particularly vivid example of this.  I thought I’d share, on the off chance it is helpful or interesting to others.

It all began at a write-in I had with my new California writing buddies.  We were using some of my many (and sadly under-used) story prompt tools.  First up, Story Cubes, and I had to put together three images off the dice and use them to start a story.  I got a padlock, arrows pointing in different directions, and a teepee.  Here’s what I came up with in the following fifteen minutes (please have pity on me and overlook any poor quality in the following samples, I didn’t want spend time editing scenelets I’m not going to use):

They left me, tied to a stake and blindfolded.

I stood there while they packed up the tents and loaded the horses.  There were no words loud enough to hear, only mutters as dry as the approaching winds.  They passed by me as they left, I know by the spittle drying on my body.

I think the heat on my skin is from the sun, but I am afraid it is the warning of the winds.

I twist my body from side to side, work my wrists until they are so raw the pain doesn’t fade.  The wood scrapes across my back, but I think that it moves a little.  Or perhaps I only wish it moves.

My fingers swell.  My sweat rolls off me, it feels like ants crawling on my skin.  It may be ants, climbing me to take of my moisture, to eat of my salt before taking my flesh.

When the air begins to move around me, I know my time has passed.  Even sweat does not stand against such heat, and my skin is dry, dry, dry.  My lips are gritty with the carried dust, and I sag against my bonds.

The winds come.  First eddies of searing air around my feet, blistering.  Then waves beating against me, and then a cyclone, ripping the flesh from my body in hair-thin strips as the infinitesimal motes of dust tear through me.

I have no water in my body with which to weep, so my painful sobs are dry.

When the rope releases and I fall forward, at first I think it is the storm which has worn the rope through.  I am glad to die free, at least.  But I would rather not remove the blindfold, or expose more of myself to the ripping wind.

“Geroff yer arse!” A man screams, and his hand closes around my arm and yanks me upright.

This is not the vocabulary of the wind demons who drag sinners to hell.  And it is definitely not the words of the Sheltering Mother.

I get off my arse.

Not bad, but I have no idea where this is going.  Perhaps I’ll figure that out later.  That’s OK though, because we’re moving on to another prompt.  This one out of a book.  “Start a story with the following line: What I’m saying now is a lie.”

What I’m saying now is a lie.

I was never tied to a stake and left behind to die in a dust storm.  The skin never flew from my bones like moths from an old sweater.  I never breathed air so thick it might have been earth.

And that was certainly not when I met my husband.

No, my husband was given to me by my grandmother, who made the match.  He drank with my father, and painted the barn for my mother.  My husband and I have always lived in a house built of plaster and lathe.

He is certainly not kin of the wind-demons.

But since I am lying to you anyway, I will tell you what I want to tell you.

When I was young, I caught lizards with a boy who had hair the color of the noon sun.  We played in the mesquite roughs, where the branches twist like snakes striking.  We overturned rocks to find the scorpions and tarantulas and centipedes underneath.  We lay and shivered on the bristly stiff grass at dusk and watched the bats flutter overhead.  He fed me leaf-ladles of dust and twigs and told me it was soup.  I scrubbed river mud in his hair and told him it was a potion to make him tall and wise.

I saw the sun-haired boy for the last time the day Mama and Gran brought me into the house to tame my wildness.  They put me into the bedroom and tied my window-shutters closed with strips of muslin.  They put heavy rocks in front of the door, twice as big as I was.

They tell me it took twelve days for me to quiet.  Six days without food and another six days without water (they had been pouring water through a hole in the wall).  And when they finally dared open the door, I was a girl and my hair was antelope-brown.  They will not tell me what color it was before that, but I like to think it was dark like a moonless night.  Or perhaps black like the shiny body of a widow-making spider.

I ate bread soaked with water and let them wash my body with water and lye-soap.  Mama says they washed the mesquite dust away and found me.  Gran says they combed my hair with a dry thistle, and shook loose the demons that had lodged there.  Papa says I was a pretty little girl after I got cleaned up.  Gramps says I was always pretty.

From that day, they kept me inside the house of plaster and lathe, and taught me things I would need to know.

I learned to spin, weave, and sew by making my new clothes with Gran.  When she was not looking, I would skew the weft or knot the thread to create a roughness, and I would run my finger over it to feel the bark again.  My mother taught me to cook, and I remember leaning close to the fire to breathe its heat into my lungs, so like the summer sun in the roughs.  They did not let me help boil the soap or gather the eggs.  They did not take me across town to worship the Sheltering Mother on Firstdays.  But I was allowed to beat the rugs on the stoop if one of them stood with me.

All right!  I like that.  I spent the rest of the night moving this particular story forward.  But later, when I came back to it at home, especially when I started to look at the ending, I realized it still wasn’t right.  I used all sorts of visual details, but it’s still all summary, no scene.  Everything is distant, and the voice just didn’t feel quite right for this particular character.  Plus, the start is gimmicky, and probably needs to be cut.

So, perhaps back to close first person?

I do not remember anything before Gran opened the door to my bedroom.  All was darkness and wind, and then that iron latch rattled.  A little pale light streamed into the room, framing three bodies in the doorway.  Then I could see that it was not dark, that light seeped through the cracks between the closed shutters and through several hand-sized holes in the walls.

Gran shuffled toward me over the uneven wood-slat floor, nudging chunks of plaster and torn strips of lathe out of her way with her silver-fitted cane.  I looked down, the only escape left to me now that my body would not move.

She reached me and cleared the floor in front of me.  Then she knelt, awkward and with many popping joints.  She reached forward and brushed my hair out of my face, dislodging a cloud of plaster dust and a rain of wood sticks.  She lifted my chin with her cool, paper-dry hand and studied my face with a gaze full of intent.  Then she held a tin canteen out to me, and my tongue cracked for want of water.

I reached for it, but stopped.  My fingers were more splinter than skin, prickly like dried cactus.

Gran tsked and lifted the canteen to my lips herself.  I drank as much as she would let me, messily, water sliding out of the corners of my lips and down my throat.  She took the canteen away too soon, and I licked desperately at the moisture my tongue could reach, heedless of the taste of dirt and plaster.

Ugh. No.  I feel like I lost the mood and tone I liked so much in the last iteration.  Plus, this particular point of view is going to make it tough later on, especially since Gran’s intentions are so important to the story.  And the voice still isn’t right.  The girl sounds far too normal.

After a little pondering, I decided to try an omniscient point of view.  Maybe I could have some scenes, recapture a bit of tall tale tone, and depict the girl as properly mysterious.  Maybe.  I usually don’t like reading or writing omniscient, but it can be done.  It’s just a question of whether I can pull it off.

After twelve days, Granny Higby opened the door.  No one can say what was in there before that prairie sage fell to the floor and that iron latch rattled.  But afterward, there was only a girl.

They say the room was so shambled they didn’t see the girl at first among the chunks of lathe and plaster.  They say the floor rolled like the foothills, with some slats bowed upward and some bent down.  They say every surface – walls, floor, ceiling; everything except the door and the closed shutters –  bore deep rents, as if from a panther’s claws.  But even with all that dust, they say it still smelled of hot grass under sun-bleached skies.  Like heat-lightning and dust devils.

Granny Higby went in with no hesitation.  She went slow, using her iron-topped cane to knock the debris out of her path.  Higby Senior watched from the doorway next to his daughter-in-law, who covered her face with her apron rather than see Granny torn apart.

But the girl just sat there on the slatted wood floor in the center of the room, hair gray with plaster dust and hands more splinter than skin.  Like a dead cactus – that bad.  She kept her eyes lowered to the floor, as was proper for a young lady.  But the very first thing Granny did was tilt that girl’s chin up with her chill, papery old hands and look into her eyes.

What Granny saw must have pleased her, because the very next thing she did was pull her tin flask.  “Take it child.  You must be powerful thirsty,” she said.  Ma and Senior didn’t even see the flask change hands, but there it was, sucked empty and dropped on the floor.  The clatter of it shocked Ma back behind her apron.

“Now, now,” Granny said sternly.  “Pick that up for me, dear, and hand it back next time.  My bones are too weathered to be chasing my things about on the floor.”

The gall of that shocked Ma into looking, despite the danger of any manner of blood and guts.  Her knuckles were white to match the fabric she clutched so tightly, but she watched as the girl picked up the flask and handed it back to Granny, meek as anything.  That’s when Ma started to see the potential Granny had been telling her about for twelve days.  She hadn’t been able to hear the truth beyond the hair-prickling screeches and bone-shattering crashes, but she caught an echo of it just then.

So that’s the version I’m working on now, and I’m liking it so far.  We’ll see how it works for the full story and what others think.  Who knows, I might end up back at one of the other versions.  As my first-ever intentional attempt at omniscient, I’m sure I’ll end up going through a pretty hefty revision.  But at the moment, it feels right, and the words are flowing.

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Multiple Personalities and Commonalities

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It’s a funny thing about writing fiction. You have to be able to write from a point of view, personality, and situation other than your own. It would be pretty boring if a fiction writer were constrained to writing only themselves.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, because it is one of the things that makes writing so much fun for me. Imagining weird situations and interesting difficulties and inspiring responses is really cool, and is also why I like to read and watch really good stories.

But more than that, I think discovering the ability to think in a character’s point of view helps me grow as a person. It is really hard to put yourself into another person’s shoes in the real world, to understand why they do and believe things that I would not. Yet writing is the purest exercise in doing just that.

I’ve found that to write a character drastically different than myself, especially villains, I have to find that part of them that is understandable. Something that is, in all truth, part of myself. That way I can have compassion for them, even though what they do is strange or detestable or horrific.

And just to be clear, this has nothing to do with forcing approval or acceptance of those negative things – I do believe in clear right and wrong, and I’m a fan of fiction where people fight for what they believe in even when it is hard or complicated. I’m talking about finding a way to see past the detestable traits that make you want to put distance between yourself and the character, because this results in a very shallow and incomplete view.

Of course this is so much more important to attempt with real life people, otherwise harshness and judgement creep in, often in much more trivial and “gray” situations than occur in fiction.

I think the key to all this is recognizing the commonality between all people – and not always the “amazing beauty of humanity,” though there is some of that as well. We are made in God’s image, beloved and sought-after – that’s enough of a reason to respect one another.

But sometimes it’s more important to recognize the less popular commonality that comes from our fallen nature. We aren’t broken into “good people” and “bad people.” Those are false labels. It’s an easier way out, to point at someone and declare them evil or impossible to understand. I think that is part of the lie we tell ourselves, to help us feel more comfortable and to deny the darkness within.

But if I can get past the denial or pride or horror to find that dark place that identifies with even the worst actions people can take, I gain something precious. That knowledge of shared darkness is what lets me understand. It gives me certainty that no one is beyond saving, and allows me to access (and sometimes use) things like compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness – things that bless me just as much as they bless others.

So, in a weird way, I’m forced to appreciate my own failings and darkness. Otherwise, there would be no reason or ability to practice those skills, and I’d miss out on the blessing.

Pace and Point of View

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Business first: So far no bites on King’s Mark. Whether it is the story, the writing, or just a bad fit with their current lists, I’ve crossed out most of my first round agents.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving up – far from it! I’ve researched and applied to another promising handful who I hope will like my work. There are tons of great agents out there and it would be foolish not to query widely. I believe in the story, and I just need one other person (who happens to have a very specific job) to agree with me.

Moving on… I made it through another chunk of Thieves this week! I’m at 12,000 words! Granted, some of the new material doesn’t progress the story from where I left off. It needs to fit in earlier.

Which brings me to my revelation of the week – I finally figured out what is bothering me about Thieves. It’s the pace. I wanted it to move quickly, and boy howdy does it. Too quickly.

Here’s my theory: I don’t like ‘wasting’ words on unimportant bits of the story. I only want to write interesting parts. So I figured out the first few big events in Thieves and set to work writing them, expecting I’d figure out where to go next along the way. Although that worked great for King’s Mark, this time – not so much. When I reached the end of the short stretch of the story I knew about, I couldn’t move forward. I was missing something.

The problem is that I’m limiting myself to one POV (point of view) for this book. I’m not used to that yet. I think jumping from important scene to important scene worked for King’s Mark because at the beginning I had three plots and four POVs. Because I was introducing new characters, situations, settings, and POVs all the way through Ch. 6, I could stick to the bare essentials without it going too fast (introductions are necessarily slower, so you can immerse the reader without jarring them). Each scene could build off of the knowledge introduced in the previous scene without exposition or summary or even as much character reflection as you usually get.

With one POV, I can’t delay a bit of information that I know will come out naturally through another character’s situation. I can’t jump from big moment to big moment – just like I couldn’t string all of Chay’s scenes together in a vacuum and expect them to work. I don’t need to be boring, but I need to intentionally stretch some things out. The reader is going to gain their footing much faster in this book, I can’t rely on tricks like the structure of the book to slow them down and prevent them from looking down the rabbit holes. In other words… I need to write better!

And I have determined that I’m still a discovery writer. I’ve been struggling to produce an outline for weeks with little progress. But I realized that what helped me get through King’s Mark will also help me get through Thieves – I only have 1 POV, but I still have 3 stories. Each character’s story in King’s Mark was relatively simple, it was together that they gained complexity. By thinking about them separately, I was able to focus on what was important during any given scene. It got more complicated near the end, but by then I had a good grasp of my characters and I could handle thinking about them interacting.

In Thieves, I have one main character, but she has a much more complicated story. This complexity has been daunting, but now I know I can break it up by realizing that she lives in 3 distinct worlds. The people she interacts with know different parts of her, and she acts differently and wants different things with each set. By separating this out, I can see her motives and keep her consistent. Things will start to fall apart, mix, and get messy again, but by then I will be more comfortable with the story.

Anyway, that is the plan! We’re going to give it a try, but I’m already feeling better about this story 🙂