The night was just another one in an endless string of January darkness. Winds howling outside, wind chill at -45F. I was sitting on the futon in the room above our garage metaphorically bashing my head against the manuscript I’ve been “revising” since I returned from Europe in June. I had already tossed out two main characters and half the chapters (see my last State of the Savage), and I was nearing the end of revisions for another character’s storyline. Where there should have been a renewed sense of optimism at my progress there was only a growing unease.
Something was very wrong with my novel.
I had decided to remove the most climactic scene from the book because it felt rushed (spoiler alert: massive battle featuring many people and “countries”). Playing with plot lines like this is really dangerous, kind of like giving my cat Fingal a ball of yarn and asking him not to F it up. Knots appear, the yarn gets pulled into wisps, and if you’re really unlucky you might just shear off the entire tangled mass that was your story. Removing that chapter opened my eyes to a major problem I had been blind to throughout my revision process.
My protagonists were unnecessary to the story.
Oops. You see, my novel developed from a concept not from characters, and so I spent countless hours world-building and a scant few hours devising characters who could be in this world and reflect all its awesomeness. The larger world’s story was evident and rich, but the protagonists themselves had little to do with it. They weren’t driving the plot and doing heroic things. They were mostly bystanders watching the world move around them. I didn’t need Fingal to F up this ball of yarn. Turns out I was more than capable of that myself.
I remember that moment of insight as I sat stone still on the futon, realizing that I hadn’t told a compelling story with my zero draft. All of the ingredients were there, I just hadn’t cooked them up into something delicious. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, really, for while I had plotted out the story at a high level before I started writing, the process of writing that zero draft was largely a seat-of-my-pants exploration. I was still looking for the story I wanted to tell. 200,000 words of exploration and I’d found the right path.
I had to start over.
This gangrenous limb needed to be cut off. Yes, it would hurt, but I would live. My story would live. Going through draft after draft looking for the story is nothing new to “pantser” novelists, I just didn’t want to be one of them.
The next day I picked up the book Story Engineering and dug into a treasure trove of helpful ways to plan a story while skimming over the author’s endless cynicism, browbeating, and unhelpful turds of jaded wisdom. I needed to learn how to tell a story. Perhaps I should feel embarrassed that I hadn’t developed that skill as a creative writing major in college, but it just makes me a little bit angry that not once in all of my classes was the process of telling a story taught. It’s one of those things you’re assumed to know how to do.
The day after that I hung corkboard in my office, loaded up on index cards and push pins, and began to approach my story from the ground up. Idea. Concept. Premise. Protagonists with highly detailed backstories. Then it was on to story architecture: First plot point, second plot point, parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, etc. Countless hours of coffee, pacing, talking to myself, putting up index cards, taking down index cards, throwing cats out of my office, and I’m nearly there. I have just a few more details to work out in Calder’s storyline and I will push forward into identifying scenes and their goals, something I didn’t do in my zero draft. No more wondering what I’ll write today. That’s a telling symptom that you don’t know the story.
I haven’t thrown out the yarn. I am still working in the same world with largely the same characters and events. I just had to comb out the knots, give every strand a much harder look, and start again. When we accomplish something for the first time, I think there’s a lot of pride simply in finishing. Whether it’s writing a novel or brewing beer or building a birdhouse or developing an app, it feels good to have followed through. But that’s not the threshold for success – it might just be the first milestone. Give it time, let the pride fade, and look at it again.
Is it good enough?
Traveling Savage in Southern Scotland!
I’ve got my itinerary mostly nailed down for my upcoming trip to Scotland in April. On the docket are visits to Edinburgh, East Lothian, Dumfries & Galloway, the Scottish Borders, and Fife! This trip clocks in right around three weeks in length, and you can expect the same depth of coverage you’ve come to expect from me. I will be exploring abbeys, castles, distilleries/breweries/cideries, landscapes, food, and accommodations. One relatively recent development is that this trip will yield articles to be published in The Scotsman. In the last couple of months they’ve published articles I’ve written on Kilchoman distillery, traveling in Orkney, and exploring the Cairngorms National Park’s Rothiemurchus Forest (all of which were originally published here).
Head on over and take a look! Why not subscribe to The Scotsman while you’re there?
I hope you’ve enjoyed my series on Scotland Itinerary Ideas. I’ve got more articles in the series lined up for places like Perthshire, Edinburgh, and the Isle of Mull. I’ve packed these posts full of some of my best photographs, and they’ve been getting some love. I was recently included in a photography e-book and a while back I missed a list of the 100 best travel photographers in the world that included me.
I’m currently in the process of buying a new camera for my travels which should only improve the quality of my shots. Right now the top contender is the Sony NEX 6.
Until next time, sláinte!