Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Writing the Online Novel - Walking, and Dancing, to the Story

I got off on the wrong foot with Test of Freedom.  I made a couple of small bad decisions with each of the first four episodes, mainly due to distraction.  So I took a week off to get it back in gear.

Walking to the Story

The original draft of this story was written under Nanowrimo-like conditions.  Just sit down and start writing.  One really common problem for the "just sit down and write" process is called walking to the story.  That's where you stall on paper by having your characters walk through all their motions between one scene and another while you think.

It's like when your character gets an urgent phone call that her husband is in the hospital, and you don't just cut from her getting the call to arriving at the hospital: you have her hang up the phone, and then get her coat, and then go down stairs, and then open the door, and then go out, and then close the door, and then walk to the car, and then unlock the car door, and then open it, and then get in, and then....

You get the idea.

But this kind of nothing scene isn't always bad.  It's only bad if it's actually stalling.  It can be a great place for information and character development.  Your character hangs up and races about looking for her keys, which she can't find because she's too worried sick to pay attention to what she's doing.  That could be a powerful scene of it's own.

There are also what I call "bridge scenes" which are usually less powerful -- more summarized -- which you can use for timing and also to set up something to come.  For instance if the character had a frustrating time getting to the hospital and finding where her husband is, that can set up her state of mind for the next scene.  However, you have to be careful about how you use it, how much impact you want.

For instance, full vivid scenes will give you more impact and may actually compete with the next scene.  A summary, on the other hand, will have less impact, but can be more of a quiet set up so that the reader is really ready for the next scene.  You have to decide with any bridge scene how important it is: how visceral, how central to the overall story.

Walking on a Journey

Some stories are about a journey.  Classic road movies and quest fantasies are examples here.  (Or on the literary side, the "picaresque" novel.)  That kind of story is pretty much ALL "walking to the story."  That's what it's about.

It's harder, then, to differentiate between the stalling wasteful bits and the necessary bits.  And that's the trouble I've been having with Test of Freedom -- and why I delayed Episode 5 for a week.  I needed my wits about me to really judge what to keep and what to throw out and how to handle the pacing of the first ten episodes or so of this story.

But there is another thing that complicates this... or perhaps clears it up, because it leaves fewer choices: I'm publishing this as an online novel, and in particular I'm publishing it as a short episode online novel.

If my episode lengths were longer, say 2000 words, I would have space for less important bridge scenes.  The first 600 words of such a chapter could be a whole set up scene that leads into the meat of the chapter. I could also take a couple hundred words for a mini "capper" scene at the end, what Algis Budrys used to call a "validation" scene. (Cappers can also be twists -- a cliffhanger that happens after you resolve the issue of the scene.)

But that that kind of structure presupposes that the reader is reading all those parts as a whole piece. But with a short episode style I'm using, each of those scenes have to stand alone.

So for bridging sequences, I either have to make that bit stand alone with its own importance, or I cut it down to maybe a paragraph or two.  Or... cut it out entirely.  (Or take very short summary paragraphs and turn them into full episodes.)

So the problem is deciding which is which.

Dancing to the Story

In this first section, all the characters are basically walking to their part in the story.

Jackie's journey is easier, because it's pretty much covered in Episode 4. His main story will take off later, but there isn't more to write about him until then.  Mary and Lady Ashton, on the other hand, are on a quest, so they're going to be on the road longer, and for this first part, they have to carry the story alone.

What had me in a dither was this: as with any good journey/buddy story, there's character development and revealations going on in the trivial scenes of the journey.  It's what the story is about, at least in part.  When I look at it one way, whole rafts of story seem unnecessary, and then I look at it another way and I think that's the most important part.

In writing Misplaced Hero, I learned this: every episode is a vignette.  Every episode has a purpose in and of itself, and it's more important for it to work individually and just to move on to the next episode, than it is for it to advance the whole overall arc of the story.  This story is going all winter long.  Hurrying doesn't help.

When I look at things I follow eagerly -- blogs, comic strips, a friend's adventures in parenthood which she relates on a forum I frequent -- I notice one thing about them all.  I get hooked not because they are leading somewhere, but because they're interesting NOW.  Each unit is worth reading, and that makes me look for more units.

And that is the hard part with this story, because I already wrote it, thinking it was a novel.  Some of the interesting bits don't stand alone.  And sometimes the less interesting bits fare better as an episode.

Heres' the irony: I drafted this post before I finally got Episode 5 in the can. At that point, I firmly intended to skip what happens in the episode as useless business, just something the characters do.  And I was going to move straight to a scene with the ladies in their carriage, headed for a port city in Acteron. That traveling scene was a bit of character development, just a little discussion of feelings and moods: Mary's frustrated because while she's sitting in a carriage, she's not DOING anything, and the others try to distract and amuse her and all agree that traveling is all they can do right now.

In other words a scene about the characters not doing anything but talking about how they aren't doing anything.  Still, it was a more fun, more character-filled, more enjoyable scene overall than the scene I posted.

The problem is that the scene failed at its only actual purpose. It missed the one thing that it really needed to do:

In the first book, Mary describes herself as a "Mary-in-the-box."  She has a high capacity for latency.  Sure, she is a coiled spring inside, but when she has no choice but to wait, she can wait like nobody's business.  She doesn't waste time or energy fretting over things she can't help.

But Jackie's arrest, of course, threw her for a loop, and I suppose I wrote that scene -- as a part of a sequence -- to show her getting her equilibrium back.  But like so much about Mary, her equilibrium came back instantly when Lady Ashton offers to fund the expedition.  Heck, she got it back the instant she learned that Lady Ashton knew more about Jackie's transportation.  "What's the name of the ship and when did it sail?" -- that was Mary back to normal.

I realized that one little sentence in the scene about crossing the border actually did a better job of character development than a whole scene: Lady Ashton describes Mary as like a dog who never strains at the leash, but is gone the instant the leash is released.

Showing is better than telling, and a descriptive sentence is not as vivid or visceral as a real scene, but that one did the job better than the scene I had in mind.  So I went with the scene where the characters were actually doing something -- even if it wasn't as clever and entertaining as it could be.

In the end, I'm not sure I danced to the story yet.  I think there are upcoming scenes where that happens, but I don't have to dither over them, because they actually work.  They're intersting and they have a purpose.

If I were writing this story afresh, and not just reworking an existing story, I would make some different choices. When your options are wide open, you can make anything dance.  But when you're editing, you're more about skipping the boring parts.

The next story in this cycle -- League of Freedom -- is much more maleable in this way. It is less goal-driven at least at first. It's the middle of a trilogy and the characters have to adjust to the situation. That's where dancing to the story will really come in handy, and I hope to be more ready for it.

Anyway, I wavered from my original conclusion to this post, but I'll give it to you anyway because I think it's right:

So in the end, it's about skipping the boring parts, but it's also about making the boring parts interesting.  If a story is a journey, the journey matters.  If your actor has to get across the stage, then get him across the stage in an interesting way, whether it's waddling like a duck, or leaping like Najinsky.

The thing that makes it interesting, though, isn't the novelty, but rather that it makes a commentary on the story.  There's a purpose to it.

See you in the funny papers.

 A Round of Words in 80 Days Update

Other folks checking in today, and this segment's progress:

Sunday Day 35 - 150 minutes
Monday Day 36 - 105 minutes
Tuesday Day 37 - To heck with it, it's election night.


Anonymous said...

hehe. "To heck with it, it's election night." Love that. I have a bad habit of including things in my story that don't have a purpose. I have to remember to only tell/show what needs to be there.

The Daring Novelist said...

We always have to watch out for irrational purpose in a scene: is it there just because it's cool? Keep it. Cool is a purpose. Fun is a purpose.

If it's there just because you were blathering to make word count, or typing while you think, pitch it.

Shan Jeniah Burton said...

I love how you share so much of your writing process and ponderings, and i am finding the idea of novel dares very intriguing. There may be one in my future. =D

I chuckled when I read, "to heck with it, it's election night." My kids and I had gotten back early Tuesday morning from an out-of-state trip. We were exhausted, but we voted...and I wrote during the waiting times when PBS had no states to call...

May the words flow from your fingers! =D

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Shan. Do try a novel dare some time!

The trick is finding the right goals to motivate you. Some people need to set easy goals so that they get the "reward" of accomplishment, which drives them on. Others need to set outrageous goals they'll never meet, because they know they'll struggle to meet them anyway.

But low goals can also make you lazy, and high ones can make you feel overwhelmed.