Last night I typed “finis” at the end of the Afterwar zero draft. It weighs in at 94K words and will only get longer because most of it is so, so lean. Some scenes are full of dialogue that needs trimming and plenty of physical and action tags put in so the reader can see an approximation of the movie in my head.
It may be a horrid, stupid, ungainly mess, but it is no longer a horrid, stupid, ungainly, unfinished mess. True to form, though, I woke up this morning knowing where at least two more scenes need to be shoehorned in. I’ll write those on a 3×5 card and set them aside, because if I have to look at that book ONE MORE TIME right now I will throw something at my desktop, and that’s not good for anyone.
So I have a massive book hangover today. I honestly thought I’d never finish the damn thing, it would be a millstone around my neck for the rest of my short-uncomfortable life. The fact that early March is full of social obligations (birthdays, family visits, and the like) meant I could feel the book itching to be born, swelling like a giant tumor under the surface of my brain, but I was physically unable to get to the bloody keyboard and get as much typing done as it needed. That required a deathgrip on my temper, too. I am downright cranky when prevented from finishing a story-birth.
But yesterday I coughed up a 5K+ chunk, around the daily round of (almost-adult-but-not-quite) child care and a ticklish, complex, mind-numbing project I wanted to get done at my weekly volunteering. It was kind of a relief to just put my earbuds in and concentrate on something that wasn’t the book begging to be born, but when I finished the glow of satisfied accomplishment was marred by the scratchy-itchy-bugs-under-the-skin of NEEEEEEDING to write.
So, I went home and got to work. Dinner was leftover pizza for the Prince (the Princess was at work) and toast for me. I dove back in…and god damn it, but the book would not die. I stabbed and I stabbed, and when it expired…well, I was surprised, to put it mildly.
I typed finis, centered it, and stared at the screen. And then I burst into tears. The sobbing was mostly relief but partly the rubber-band snap of frustrated rage.
So, long story short, I’m pretty useless today. Book hangover is in full swing. A long run in the sunshine might help; it will at least exhaust me enough to make sure I sleep tonight. My dreams will be full of inchoate anxiety, and I now have two projects hanging fire that I should catch up on since I shifted all my resources to finishing this one.
That’s a battle for another day. Today, I rest. I won’t quite call it good, but I’ll certainly call it done.
The zero draft of Harmony is finished! It’s over 100K, easily my longest zero yet. I dislike it, as a book. It’s messy and structurally unsound, and revising it will no doubt be a chore, and I slogged through it for so long I have grown to hate it with the fiery hate of a thousand suns.
All in all, usual for finishing a zero draft. When I go back, I’ll no doubt find passages that maybe aren’t so bad, and ways to fix the structural problems, and and and.
I took yesterday off–for a certain value of “off”, I guess, one that included a doctor’s visit and all the chore backlog from weeks of stabbing the book and hoping it would die. Also as usual: a monstrous headache and the urge to try that tiny bottle of Drambuie I bought to see if I’d like it. Conclusion: It’s not for me, if I want liquorice I’ll go straight for absinthe, thanks.
So today is for a run, and for turning my attention to Afterwar. I meant to use NaNoWriMo to finish the first half of Afterwar, but the last 50K of Harmony intruded. I’ll still aim to use that spur to get me through. My head doesn’t hurt quite as much, and while I’d love to take a week off, I’m already behind and the urgency of writing is poking at my back and pulling my hair.
The funny thing (well, funny-strange, not funny-haha) is, one of the pitches for Afterwar was the simple question: what if Trump won? I’m not sure if my precog ability was working overtime or if it was just the most horrific topical scenario I could come up with to express the alt-historical track I intended the book to take. Of course, now we’re here, and the small hands of the orange demagogue are grasping at corruption riches while his “friends” try to normalize registering people to send them to camps.
The darkest timeline, indeed. And we’re only a few days into the “transition”. Great.
Writing has always been, for me, a scream against the darkness. I suppose now I’ll find out where my courage truly lies, again.
With that ultra-cheerful thought, I’ll sign off. Perhaps I can sweeten the pill by saying this: if you have often wondered, as I have, what you would do in said darkest timeline, well, now’s the chance to find out. Think about it beforehand, so when the bite comes, you’re ready. I have faith (faint and fading, but faith nonetheless) in us.
Story bones are strange and difficult things. Imagine a skeleton, structure for the dips and curves of the whole body, or a scaffolding to hang a three-dimensional tapestry on. Either way, there are weight-bearing supports in your stories, things that have to be strong enough to keep the whole thing from sliding into a pile.
Sometimes they’re character-driven. If you have a particular character who, say, has a volatile temper, your reader will believe them making bad choices in a fit of anger. Or it can be point-of-view based–a character who appears outwardly calm but is boiling inside, so we can believe it when they erupt. Showing either character’s internal state is a fine point of craft, not necessarily a structural choice. The structure is deeper, in whatever purpose that anger serves in the story.
Some bones are pure plot. These are tricky, because you have to make sure your characters are serving themselves and their own wants instead of said plot. A villain in an action movie has to work harder to avoid being a simple mustache-twirling device. At the same time, to sell a farfetched plot you have to do a lot of heavy lifting and scaffolding in other areas. Ideally, a plot should be inevitable, even its twists, from the very first sentence. Every beginning should carry within itself the seeds of its ending.
Notice I say ideally. It’s something to aim for, a moving target that changes shape, direction, speed, and everything else each time you begin a story.
There are other types of bones–emotional, where your character’s reactions and internal states reflect the motion and disturbance in the story. Or worldbuilding, which requires more than you’d think. Shoddy world building makes for a shaky scaffold, even if all other structural elements are in place. It also hikes the threshold of disbelief to chest-high, if not further.
About a quarter of the structural work in every story I write is what I call “excavation”. I’m not really building a narrative, I’m digging around a patch of disturbed dirt and clearing a submerged shape. Sometimes you only find a cellar down there, but other times you stumble across a palace to be dug out with shovel and toothbrush. There comes a certain point in writing–about a third of the way in, just before the long deadly slog–when I have to sit back and think about the shape that’s forming under my fingertips as I type. I’ve grown much better at seeing the whole thing earlier in the game, so to speak, but there’s still the odd book that will refuse to be seen from above. For those, it becomes a swing from one handhold to the next, with attention to how I’m shifting my weight–now there’s a rock-climbing metaphor, but it’s the closest I can come to the sensation.
Knowing where the bones are can save you a lot of time and trouble, and it helps in the other sixty percent of writing a story, which is–are you ready?
Revision is where you see the bones and can wrench them about to make the body take the shape you want. This is not a painless process, for you or for the book/short/novella/whatever. At the same time, it’s so much easier to revise when you have the whole thing on the table and can see both its current shape and the one you want it to take. Sometimes books have a weird butterfly effect going on inside them–one thing changes, and the changes ripple out until all of a sudden the structure clicks into place with a jolt you can almost hear and certainly feel. Other times–let’s be honest, this happens a lot–you’ll be going through and looking at the underpinnings, knowing you have to solve a problem, and the solution will be in a passage you don’t even remember writing, a little gift from the Muse. She anticipates, the bitch; there’s nothing she enjoys more than leading you through the labyrinth and letting you sweat a bit thinking the bull is right behind you and there’s no exit.
I do some revision in my head while zero drafting, of course. I don’t recommend doing much, really, because you can end up grinding the same few chapters over and over instead of finishing the damn thing. This is the seductive trap of mistaking the effort of circling for the effort of writing, which I’ve covered elsewhere. For me, the majority of revision happens between zero draft and the first draft I send to my long-suffering agent. It’s rare that I have to do more than one more pass for an editor after that, but there are exceptions–I think Cormorant Run, in particular, needed more than one revision. After that it’s copyedits, and then proofing.
So how do you know where to set the bones, or where to yank them around? That is a matter of instinct and craft, and you learn as you go along. It helps to be a voracious reader, because you end up absorbing a lot about structure, what works, and what doesn’t, just by the act of reading. There is no magic secret…but if there was one, it would lie in two words: internal consistency.
Characters must be internally consistent. So must the plot, and the worldbuilding. With a story’s beginning, you make choices, and those choices narrow the range of options further and further, all the way down the line to the ending. If you break that chain, you must do it in a way that is consistent with all three: plot, character, world. A deus ex machina at the last minute is lazy storytelling, though there have been geniuses who make an apparent God-in-machine internally consistent, but those are far and few between. If your magic system is built on rocks, all of a sudden having someone use an internal combustion engine for said magic isn’t going to fly. (Wow, that is a weird sentence.) If a character is a rage-filled sociopath, their sudden, unprompted change of heart at the end is likely going to make your reader throw the book across the room.
In revision, one of the hardest questions to ask yourself is about internal consistency. You can fool yourself into thinking it’s just fine because you’re the writer, goddammit, and you are the god of this small world. Sometimes it helps to map a book’s structure out on a roll of butcher paper, or with Post-its or a whiteboard. Sometimes it helps to give it to a beta reader who can pinpoint the weak spots, though you must choose your beta readers with care. When you’re also revising for craft, getting rid of weasel words, layering in more details, and whatnot, adding one more thing to the pile to watch for and manage can be overwhelming. You may even want to break up the revision of a zero draft into two passes: a structural pass, then a detail pass for everything else. And of course the process is never going to be the same twice, each book/story is different and more than likely will demand a different strategy.
And people wonder why writers drink.
I want to say “just pay attention to the bones and everything will work out fine”, but that would be a lie. They are an important, critical component, and not the only one. But that’s (say it with me) a whole ‘nother blog post.