Progress Check: The Joy of Writing

As I mentioned yesterday, this is my last post heading into the weekend. I’ll have posts Saturday (another great interview) and Sunday, but tomorrow I’ll be dark while we carry out a site migration. I’m excited about the changes that are coming, and the new features that I’ll be able to offer, some of which I’ve been eyeing since last Summer. More details will come as I roll the features out.

I’ve been puzzling somewhat hard over exactly what I would write about today. What was so important that it would have to hold for two days? I brainstormed. I read around for good blog topics. I racked my brain trying to come up with something great. Then I realized the answer was right in front of my face: write about writing.

That’s it. I mean, yes, I write about writing everyday; I like to give tips and share what I’ve learned, but I haven’t written about my own process in quite some time. One of the things that was most enjoyable about writing The Corridors of the Dead while I had this blog was my ability to track its development every step of the way, sharing the lessons that I learned as I plowed along. I realized that I haven’t done too much of this with Room 3. There’s been mention of it here and there (again, it was then known as Entanglements), but I haven’t really talked about it as much as I did Corridors.

Part of this can be chalked up to having hashed through a lot of the issues that I experienced upfront with Corridors. Part of it, though, is because I’m falling into the trap of judging success by my hit count. I’m trying to draw in a certain number of readers on a daily basis with something that’s more applicable to lots of people. Hell, I’m not downing that approach, either. One of my goals here is to help educate people and make them better writers and readers.

But sometimes I want to talk about what’s going on with my process, even if it’s not a very popular topic. Especially with the process going very, very well. Okay, last week was a little rough, I’ll admit. A combination of health issues (nothing serious, just really getting that I’m gluten intolerant) and trouble sleeping left me off my game, trying to drag the words out bit by bit.

This book began its life as a concept where two coworkers discover a blog written by a woman who has supposedly been kidnapped and has figured out a sneaky way to post this blog, giving out hints on where she’s being held (the blog later became a discovered laptop). She may or may not have been real, and that was sort of the point. I talked about it back in July, but the idea was to create a Videodrome-esque experience, with the guys reading the blog/journal and chasing down the trail of breadcrumbs to find the kidnapped woman, but they’re never quite sure if what they’re reading is real. The deeper they get into it, the more the lines between reality and fiction blur.

I had intended twin narratives: that of the blog, and that of the guys carrying out the chase. Unfortunately, I began to discover more and more problems with the concept as I got deeper into it. Plausibility problems (how could she really be writing this blog?) and timing issues started to drag the story down and render it incoherent. I had to make some insane leaps of logic and offer ridiculous explanations for events. It fell apart in my head, and I realized that wasn’t the way to go.

I decided to split off the two parts; the part with the guys was sliced off and will become another story altogether, and it became about the woman who was being held hostage. In this version, she was kidnapped to write a novel for a shadowy organization, and as she writes, the people in the story come to life. Most of this version centered on her life as a captive. This is also when the book began to take on more of a romance slant.

But again, I ran up against several frustrations; one was getting the characters from her book into the story in a convincing manner. Another was keeping the book from becoming too many talking heads and not enough action. The final, and most important, was that I was just bored stiff with the character. I always narrate in first person, and she was just…boring. She was nice, and I think her version said a lot about what it means to be an overweight woman in America, but it just wasn’t working for me.

So I went back to the drawing board, as described in my entry on handling frustration. I pulled in the woman that she had been talking to through the wall, put them in the same room, and the story became clear.

Now why did I talk about all this? Because some of my recent struggle with words has been due to trying to incorporate the extraneous information left over from previous drafts  into this version. The word count on the novel was 24,000 words, but the truth was that at least 4,000 of those words were going to be excised. Yet I kept putting it off, and so every time I sat down to write I was worried about how the new material would fit in with the material that I was holding on to.

Last weekend I dedicated a few hours to picking through the pieces of the last draft and figuring out exactly what would work in the new context of the story. I moved those into certain sections, and then took my outline and set up chapters based on the outline. Pull the information from those sections into the chapters, and the book opened up to me. Once again, the character of Kelli came right back into my head. I hear her every day, and I see the scenery that needs to go forward. A couple of new subplots have been born in the last few days, as well. I never intended for them to be here, but I think they have potential and will tie into the main plot quite nicely.

All this comes around to is the joy of writing. For me, things become a chore when I feel I have to go from Point A to Point B to Point C and the characters have to be led from point to point by carrots or sticks. I wasn’t taking the free will of characters into account. I fall into this trap again and again, but I suspect a lot of writers have the same problem. Once I freed them up, though, they began to take off, and things have become a lot of fun. It’s like hanging out with friends.

I’m always in awe of how ideas for stories change in this fashion. I don’t know how many other writers have this experience; I have certainly heard it from a few others about how they have to sometimes refine an idea several times (via drafts) before it’s truly ready to go. I’d really like to know if people who have best-sellers have to go through this. Sometimes I wonder if I’m broken because the original concept very rarely works or comes across as too stilted or difficult. Then I have to look at what I can actually work with.

So far, though, the stories that come out of this process are a lot stronger; the cream of the crop of the old material tends to get through, and so it’s somewhat of a survival of the fittest scenario. I just always worry that I will fall flat on my face – the whole time. I just need to remember that the day will come when the story makes perfect sense and it just flows out. I’ve definitely hit that point now.

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  1. Best of luck on the migration/construction.

    Many of my stories go through several drafts and change. I believe it’s part of the process.

  2. It took about 20 pages for me to realize that my original plan for my novel was not going to happen. After that, I flew without a net for a while, but I found that a loose synopsis evolved as I went along. By page 75 or so, I had formulated 3-4 major plot points to act as guideposts to keep me pointed at the desired finish. And I finished, so it must have worked for me 😉

    For my next novel, I’ll try again to map out the plot before I start writing, just because this is a useful crutch to get me started. It also makes me do some research ahead of time. But I won’t be surprised if I tear up the map after 20 pages and do something completely different.

    • Marie, that sounds pretty much exactly how my approach has shaken out. Both times. If I follow that map too long, things just get dry and boring. But it’s good to know where I’m going in general.

  3. Hey Jonathan, good post. I always say, you never write the story, the story writes itself. Personally, I never write a first draft. Totally too much restraint upon my characters & their tale.

  4. I’m doing that now where I started this front story and had to use the material I had put in toward a third of the way in that italic flashback but not exactly thing I do, and it is difficult. I have to make sure I am not saying the same thing twice which I have discovered already. This is too writerly for me. I usually just let it pour out onto the keyboard. It feels stilted to me to cut and paste and organize. But I heard some nice words from my anonymous public today, so I plug away cuz that feels so good.

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