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When the going gets tough, step back further

Student of Trinity


So I wrote a 130K-word first draft in a year, and I thought I'd try to finish the second draft in a second year, but that deadline passed four days ago, and I wasn't even close to making it, despite a lot of steady work over all that time. I did manage to hammer out an improved version of the most difficult part. The revised version held together and I thought I was over the hump. But then I asked myself, Why did this take so long?


It took so long because it was hard. I thought that was okay; sometimes writing is just hard, I thought. But now I think that this was hard in a bad way. I was trying to fix an engine with tape. That's hard work, all right, but it's also futile.


In this one part of my story, the engine was broken: there was a basic problem in the plot. Because of timing constraints that I felt I had to respect in order to keep my story's integrity as a realistic fantasy, my secondary protagonist was sitting around for six weeks, waiting for the main protagonist to show up.


This basic problem was concealed in the first draft because I didn't directly describe the six-week waiting period. It was backstory. I introduced the second protagonist at the moment he meets the first one. So in the first draft, the six-week lull came out in reminiscences and background data dumps. I thought it would be harmless this way, but dull and implausible don't really taste any better for being spread thin. I missed seeing the basic problem for what it was, I think, because it hid in the interface between two ideas: "fill in backstory" and "timing constraints". The timing constraints seemed to stick me with this six-week lull in my backstory; of course I had to fill in backstory. So I didn't connect the dots to realize that my writing and re-writing was really all about excusing a bizarre lull in what was supposed to be an urgent plot. The six-week stasis was like a tumor in my story that my scans failed to detect.


Over the past year I moved a lot of backstory into main story, by starting to follow the second protagonist before the two meet. I invented some interesting things that would happen during the six-week lull, and I turned my second protagonist into a vengeful schemer with a suitably nasty scheme. It was all still hard going, however. The episodes that I invented to pass the boring six weeks were interesting but mostly pointless; I tried to present them as parts of the nasty scheme, but they really mostly weren't, because it was nastily simple and didn't really need them.


I believe I have a simple solution to this problem. I'm going to let my second protagonist spend four weeks traveling to the climactic setting. He was always supposed to have traveled there, but his starting point has never been pinned down, so I can easily make his trip take longer. I think I can salvage almost all of the stuff I've invented over the past year, by just transplanting it from the destination castle to a river barge en route.


I think this single trick will really help a lot. Right from the beginning, my guy can be making clear progress towards a clear goal: he's going to the castle. And the interesting episodes that played no genuine role in the nasty revenge scheme itself can now become genuine solutions to problems of the journey. Having the hero solve genuine problems helps a story even more than you'd think it would, I believe. All kinds of nice details seem to fall naturally into place, when the basic plot makes simple sense.


My main concern is that this will end up lengthening the book too much. I think I'll just have to try it and see how it goes. Anyway, I think I've learned something.


When writing gets hard, is it right to just keep on writing? Up to a point, I think it is. By hammering away on my second protagonist, even within his crippling time frame, I improved him a lot and invented some neat parts of the story. But I think I took this too far. There's a level of effort that is too hard, and past this point the difficulty is a signal that something unrecognized is basically wrong. If I had taken this hint a bit sooner, I might have saved myself a lot of time.


And if this trick works, then the next time I find that a story seems to be lacking momentum, I'll try putting in some literal movement. Maybe journeys are the ketchup of fiction, and every one-line plot summary can be improved by adding "... on a road trip."


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