Thursday, January 16, 2014

Here's why you haven't finished writing that novel.

In the illustrious words of Van Halen, "come on, baby, finish what you started."

Let me set the stage for you, and I want you to feel free to chime in and hit the buzzer when it starts to sound familiar.

It's November (National Novel Writing Month), or maybe it's one of the other eleven, equally-important months of the year.  You've come up with a terrific idea for a new novel.  It's never been done before, or at least it's never been done exactly the way you're going to do it.

You're a pretty decent writer.  Yeah, you don't make enough on your writing alone to cover the bills, but if you could just get this novel written, you have a few more ideas tucked away that might earn you enough pocket change to fuel your growing coffee habit.  (Or nicotine.  Or medical marijuana.  Whatever.)

So you take what you learned back in your creative writing class and you sit down and just start writing.  I mean, that's what writers do:  they write.  Right?  Maybe you outline a little bit first, or maybe you've decided you're going to pants the whole thing.  Let the ending romantically sneak up on you and all that.

So you sit and you write.  And write.  And write.

You're ten thousand words in.  Maybe twenty thousand.  Congratulations, you just passed the thirty-three thousand word mark...

...and then it trails off.  Peters out.  Shrivels up and just sort of dies right there on the page.

You don't know what went wrong.  You know the plot forward and backward, you know the characters inside and out, but something just isn't right.  You flip through the manuscript and the writing is better than you'd imagine for a first draft, but something vital is missing.  There's nothing there to make the reader turn the pages.  The pace is too slow, or maybe you're twelve thousand words in but you've eaten roughly 90% of your outline.  Your scenes are too short, or maybe it's your chapters.  "How long should a chapter even be?" you ask the empty living room.  You might choose to throw a few expletives in there for good measure.  It's your call.

You're frustrated.  You toss what has been completed into a desk drawer and promise you'll get back to it some day.  Or maybe that "failure" was the straw that finally broke the proverbial camel's back.  Maybe you start thinking that writing just isn't for you.  You wonder if there's a market just for outlines, because your idea was pretty dang good, wasn't it?

What I stated above, that "hypothetical example"?  I get that.  Five times over.

So what happened?  What really went wrong?

Story physics.

Or, to put it more clearly, Story Physics, by Larry Brooks.

If you have the same struggles I just described, this book might be for you.  Inside, Brooks discusses some of the reasons that good stories go bad, and defines them under his umbrella of "story physics."  Sound like just another silly catch phrase aimed at defenseless writers who are looking for a way to write better stories?  Yeah, maybe, but the book delivers as long as you're ready to put your ideas under the microscope.

Warning:  You may not like what you see.

After I finished Brooks' book, I decided to completely revamp my outline:  the story I wanted to write just wasn't compelling enough for my intended audience.  Hell, if I couldn't even finish getting it down on paper, what made me think a reader was going to stick through to the end?

Brooks looks at a few recent successes, completely breaking down two of the novels using his format so you can see exactly what he's talking about.  (Note:  It helps tremendously if you are already familiar with any of the three books to which he refers:  The DaVinci Code, The Hunger Games, and The Help.  I had only read two, but it was enough for me to understand his logic and examples.)

2013's NaNo outline has been completely revised.  The characters are mostly the same, and a few scenes from the initial outline are still going to work with this new and improved revision, but thanks to Brooks' guidance, I can finally see why and how my hard revisions are going to work.  Chapter 22 explained everything, but don't skip ahead or you won't have any idea what the chapter is really about.

Rewriting the outline was difficult, but following the advice in this book, I now feel like the "grunt work" is out of the way.  I finished chapter one of my manuscript yesterday, and I'm ecstatic at the outcome.

If you decide to pick up a copy, or if you've already read it, weigh in.  I'm always open for discussion.

Happy writing!