From mess to MS
This is another one of those writer navel-gazing posts about process. If you don’t want to play with these balls of yarn, feel free to walk on by.
I have had two stories so far spring out of my head like Venus from the sea: Double Blind and Nowhere Ranch. Every other story has taken me through at least mild hell, and some of them have seriously taken me to the edges of my sanity. Two to Tango, while not quite the latter, didn’t spring forth fully-formed, either. It is currently a finished draft, but it is also a mess.
What do I mean by mess? I mean that it doesn’t quite work, but the fix is not obvious. It’s one of those Escher drawings where the stairs lead nowhere or invert themselves. Except with Escher it works as art. I suppose fiction could work like that in theory, but this isn’t that. This is just a mess. It contradicts itself in places, and the bones aren’t right. I could polish up the outside, but it would still hunch and wiggle in places that I don’t care for it to. To fix it, I have to get down to the bones.
This is where I think a lot of writers freak out, and to be honest, the few days before approach I’m not exactly joyous either. It’s hard enough to hold a whole story in your head; to pull it apart and analyze it means you might find out there’s nothing there. Or you might know something is there but still not know how to fix it. Scariest for me is knowing that there is only so much managing you can do, that eventually the story has to just be. Oh, you can always go back and rewrite it, but in my experience the bad bones stay in place. The cosmetics just change. This isn’t surgery. This isn’t radical restructuring. This is boiling down and finding the stock and making minor (or major) adjustments to the broth. Every writer, I’m sure, has her own process. This is mine.
First, I read through it. I give it a few days to cook, and then I read through the whole thing again. Often I find that it’s held together better than I think, but if there are problems, I start to feel them. I do some tweaks as I see them, but mostly I just get a feel. I note the issues on my markerboard: themes that fizzle and die, arcs that flatten or vanish, repetitions, etc. I note soft spots and try to diagnose the overall problem. Sometimes I see it right away. Sometimes I don’t. I just keep reading and keep writing things down.
This sounds so calm, doesn’t it. Well, I’m not when I do it. Usually I’m very nervous, and I leave this process very agitated and sometimes depressed. Sometimes I still don’t know what’s wrong. Sometimes I know but don’t know how to fix it. Sometimes I know how to fix it in theory but not practice. It’s a very hard moment, because this is where the glow and high of drafting is gone and now I have to face reality. Very often the story I wanted isn’t there, and now I have to face the story that is.
Though sometimes I find out I wrote the wrong one in a few places, that I got led down the wrong road. That happened this time. There are whole arcs that I bailed on, whole sections that when I wrote them they felt great, but when I reread it, they feel flat. I have to decide if I cut or revise or move things around or expand. This one is feeling a lot like Special Delivery did on the end of the first draft, which was, to be blunt, a big fucking mess. It had no antagonist, no central question. Neither does TTT. Kicker is, this time I don’t know that it’s going to have an antagoinst. The central question is also very, very vague. All the usual tricks won’t apply to this, not without radical rewriting.
You can knot your brain over this stuff. It’s very easy to turn to the bottle of self-doubt and get drunk: the reason this isn’t working is because I’m a fraud, because I’ve finally lost it, because this is a crap story, [insert self-depreciation here]. This is why between finishing the draft and editing I painted a room and cleaned the house. This is why I keep playing Plants vs. Zombies. I have been quietly having my OH SHIT over the task, but now I’m going to work. Because that’s all you can do with this: you have to work. I haven’t lost anything. This is just a snarl. I will sit with it, patiently, until I get it.
Which is why we start with the frame.
By frame I mean, what is the structure of the story? What is it about? This is where the reader comes in. What will a reader engage in with this story? What will they sit down to see? I can say all I want about how this is Laurie’s mental monolith and Ed needs to come to terms with his injury, but nobody’s picking up the story because of that. So that was this morning’s markerboard, writing things down, organizing, peeking under flaps. And in the end I found the frame, and it’s weird, and a little scary, but I think it could be fun, if I can figure out how to make it work.
The frame is that this story is about Laurie and Ed’s dance.
The whole story is about dance, about steps and leading and following and arc and tease and build and resolution. It’s a romance, so it’s about two people dancing together, literally and metaphorically. It’s about the pairing, the conflict, and the communion. The central question is: How do a professional dancer with stage fright and a permanenetly benched football player dance together? What happens when they do? That’s it.
It’s hard because it’s vague. It’s hard because there’s no bad guy to defeat, no organization to defeat. It’s hard because the tension could pancake at any moment because every move must remake it again. There’s nothing to create or destroy, just something to watch, and it has to hold attention. Each move must be precise, but look natural. It must be rehearsed and orchestrated but must look as if it flowed like water. It must be breathtaking and difficult but look easy.
If you want to know why I’ve been drinking wine on twitter a lot lately, this is why.
But I know the way out. And because this is a navel-gazing post, I’ll tell you what I think that way is right now.
- CHARACTER. I always want character-driven stories, but Laurie and Ed need to have their glitter on. The draw will be the boys. They need to bring it from the word go.
- PACING. With no natural push from an antagonist, the pacing cannot lag at all. The subplots will need to move like tiny machines in the background, but I need to keep the throughline moving.
- DANCING. That’s the theme all around. I need to be careful of resolving anything too quickly. It’s tied with pacing, but this is more than just a natural arc. This needs to be a new arc, something unusual but engaging. Something that makes people forget this is a dance. It needs to be choreographed.
- JOY. This is the most dangerous one. If I drop joy, it could be technically perfect but not engage.
I’m well aware that this as a battle plan is still pretty vague. It’s going to be bad enough that I’m saving a new Scrivener document so that I have an easily accessible copy of the old version so I can mess around. This will be the time for killing darlings and making hard calls, about checking ego at the door and finding story and story alone. It’s about sacrificing perfection for beauty and meaning. It’s about listening and moving and… well, about dancing. This is so about dancing that I now have a sticky on my monitor that says DANCE.
I know there are writers who read this and that they struggle too. I know that in those dark moments it’s easy to say it’s impossible, to feel inadequate. To feel overwhelmed by the mess. I hear you. That’s me too. Sometimes I get lucky, but mostly I get a mess. And how I get out of it is that I just keep working at it. How? I show up, I sit down, and I work at the snarl until it’s done or at least useable. And I drink a little wine and kill a few zombies when the occasion calls for it.
I start with a mess, and I make it a manuscript. One word, one arc, one dance step at a time, until it’s done. And now that I’ve given myself this little pep talk, I’m going to go do it.
Right after I swim a few laps and get the last of the jitters out.