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Thursday, January 29, 2009

More of the same

Monday I cheated on my revision and spent the day writing a new short story--only to figure out one scene in that the structure was hopelessly broken and that I needed to take some time to reimagine it. This actually isn't a bad thing; in the past I would have plowed through and written a crappy story. Part of why would have been an inability to see why a story wasn't working. This time I was able to see some of my past writing sins in their infancy, and stop myself before I'd let them take over the story. I'm still excited about the idea, and I think I'm on my way to making a better story out of it.

The experience has also given me a lot of food for thought about how I plot, and the merits and demerits of what I do. This summer I was asked by an agent what my biggest strength as a writer was, and I said plotting. Hah! In my defense, I wasn't lying, just stupid. But I've started to realize that, even as I read this or that guideline on how to plot, I nod my head and say "yep" and then proceed to try to force that paradigm on top of what I do as an afterthought. That doesn't mean there wasn't merit to what I was already doing, but that I wasn't getting any benefit to the tools I was trying, because I wasn't using them honestly.

For instance, one structure I've heard of for a novel is three disasters (of increasing magnitude) followed by a resolution. Now I look back on Vanishing Act and realize that I had the structure I wanted in mind, and just went through it trying to rationalize it into fitting that model, rather than seeing what useful insights, if any, the model could give me. There's nothing wrong with doing your own thing, necessarily, but rationalizing things into being what they ain't is probably just so much wasted time.

Similarly, most short story models I've seen focus on a character's repeated attempts to gain or accomplish something. Three failures plus a resoluiton, say. But I've come to realize that most of my short stories aren't generated by starting with a premise or a character and seeing where it goes, but actually from starting with a conclusion, and making up the story that gets me there. I tend to start with a desired "punchline"--that's what I call it, anyway. The effect I'm trying to achieve at the end of the story. Then I try to generate a story that will get me there. I know there's nothing wrong with that, but now that I realize that, I can look for more fruitful ways to integrate the suggestions I read with my habitual pattern.

As for this chapter I'm revising . . . ugh. The suck continues. So much freaking telling and not showing. The weird thing is that almost every sentence is worthwhile, but almost every one needs to be rewritten. I need a sentence that says pretty much *this*, but that doesn't *suck*.


rebecca said...

It's funny you should say that you usually start with a "punch line" rather than from the beginning to see where your characters take you. I write exactly the same way! One of my professors laughs and tells me that he's never seen anything like it (yet, here you are!). I'm just glad to see I'm not the only one. But I've been learning to write differently and humoring the characters and letting them lead the way (a control thing?). It's been fun and I've come up with some story lines that I would have never imagined and that work quite well. So, yeah, there's some truth to that I guess LOL!

Joe Iriarte said...


I'd like it if I could find a reliable way to integrate the two processes, though, because it's nice to work toward something. But you're right, I'm more likely to surprise myself if I don't start with the end in sight. That could be good too. :)