It’s so Easy: I Hit the Bulls-Eye Every Night

I would like to say that it’s time to get back to it, but I never really stepped away from things this past weekend. We had a writer friend over on Saturday, and one of our favorite things to do as a group is “Word Wars”. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, it seems to come from NaNoWriMo, and it’s just a method wherein several writers set a timer and see who can write the most words during that period. For us, it’s ten minutes, and I usually come in near the top. I blame my typing speed more than anything else, honestly, though this weekend I really was on a tear as it was time to write the grand reveal in Corridors of the Dead. The reveal is now mostly done (along with the climax), and now I have to face down what the reveal means and how it impacts the characters and where they go from here. I mean, I know how it goes for the most part, it’s just interesting to see such a world-shattering revelation revealed to the protagonist and what it means for the falling action of the novel. Not to mention that she will be the only person who knows this secret through the next book.

What I’m trying to say here is that I’ve been keeping up with the writing fairly well, despite the last two weeks being something of a choke-point. I’m almost completely caught up on my word count deficit, and I see the path to the next novel pretty clearly. It’s a good time.

So why am I feeling so muddled and having some trouble getting things together, even to write this entry? My guess is it’s a combination of not feeling very good and losing a cat on Friday night. She had been sick for quite some time, and it wasn’t totally unexpected, but that doesn’t make it a whole lot easier, you know? I’ll definitely miss her. But life goes on, and I know that sometimes the healing process is best served by continuing on with the comfortable rituals that we’ve established. For me, at least, sometimes setting aside that structure can trigger its own downward spiral. So the old adage is the best: just write. No matter what comes out.

Today’s topic comes to courtesy of the Art of War for Writers. The other night I tweeted a particularly salient tip that had never really occurred to me when thinking about writing:

Every scene in your novel should have that moment or exchange that is the focal point, the bull’s-eye, the thing you’re aiming at. If your scene doesn’t have a bull’s-eye, it should be cut or rewritten.

It seems pretty simple, so it flabbergasted me that it never really occurred to me. Most interesting is that, as I read Shoeless Joe, the book that would eventually become Field of Dreams, I’ve found that this concept holds true, even if the plot itself meanders at times. I was especially struck when Ray Kinsella goes to drop off JD Salinger (who would be replaced by the excellent James Earl Jones in the movie), and Salinger reveals that he knew the secret that Kinsella saw at Fenway. It was a great little punch at the end of the chapter and kept me reading for quite some time last night.

The book is full of those moments; the scenes meander from time to time, then hits you square in the gut right before the scene closes, compelling you to find out what happens next. I’m also reading Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Stirling, and while I enjoy it, I realize now that part of the reason I’m struggling to stay engaged is because the scenes don’t really have this kind of punch. The problem, of course, is that it’s a fantasy/sci-fi novel, and I’m currently in the setting/world-building phase of the novel. Those always tend to lose my interest before the novel starts to pick up again.

I suspect that’s part of why my own novels are either based in plays on our own reality or unravel the concept throughout the story. I mean, like the concept of fantasy, but world-building just bores me to tears, especially reading it. I’d much prefer to throw a character into a new world completely clueless, much like the reader, and learn about the world through their eyes. Thinking about it now I wonder why the rules of standard storytelling don’t apply to a fantasy story. I mean, for example, I really enjoyed the first Wheel of Time book, but so many of the world’s rules had to be established up front that it almost lost me. The second book lost me as the cast expanded and continued to expand. I wondered why I should care about all these different characters – what was my incentive when they would likely be killed off or replaced?

I know I’m rambling a bit here, but I guess I’m trying to say is that it seems fantasy novels can get away with a lot more exposition in the name of “world-building”, while I think a lot of them could stand to be more immediate and related to the characters, with the characters so often feeling like interchangeable parts. And that leads all the way back to “hitting the bulls-eye”. If you’re writing scenes that have to hit the bulls-eye, does it leave much room for exposition to build the world? I’m not sure. I’d like to see some examples of this, and will definitely be reading with the concept in mind in the future to see how other writers achieve this effect.

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