April 7th, 2013

crossed heart

how to write a novel in six months — don’t ever save it for later

Originally published at Cassie Alexander. You can comment here or there.

It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these, but I’m up this morning, and this one is particularly appropriate, seeing as I just turned in edits recently.

I read other people’s stuff on occasion (usually within the context of workshops) and am on a lot of mailing lists and message boards that I dip in and out of as time allows. One of the things that I see a lot and try to call people on is the tendency to save things for later.

The reason I call people on this is because I know exactly how this works. You get a great idea, something that’s really going to blow people’s minds, and you want to sit on it, sometimes for your entire book, and tease people about it along the way.

Most of the time, you shouldn’t — because that’s not how tension works in real life.

You can do the slow-dread thing in movies, because you get the opportunity to show viewers things that happen off screen for the characters in the film. But when you’re writing, readers gain tension from the consequences of things that have already been revealed, since the book only spools out in one direction, you know?

Which isn’t to say that you can’t have surprises, surprises are great! But you can’t withhold a certain level of knowledge without consequences.

I talked about this really briefly once before in the context of a movie review, so let’s go back to that, since that’s safe — there was a part in the film Priest (the not very good yet very pretty vampire western apocalypse film from a few years ago) where it’s revealed that the girl the protagonist is looking for is REALLY HIS DAUGHTER, not his niece, as he’d been previously led to believe.

The filmmakers threw that in because hells yes, family tension, more resonance for his actions, etc etc. But they didn’t reveal it until about 5 minutes before he has the showdown with the bad guys and actually finds her.

If they’d shown us that upfront, how much more meaningful would it have been, and for longer, too? Especially since the implication in the movie was that ‘priests’ were supposed to be celibate, etc etc — he could have been tormented by the knowledge of a child that he left behind, that he’d cuckolded his brother-in-law, that he wasn’t involved in her life, but he (maybe) knows that she’s been better off without him, until she’s kidnapped — when he gets the gut punch of knowing that her being abducted is because the monsters want to personally hurt him? That despite all of his efforts to keep her safely away from Him and His Past, he’s still responsible for her getting hurt?

How much more meaningful is all of that? Layers upon layeeeeersssss more meaningful than what actually happened with the plot as it was shown in the movie.

The consequences of the Cool Thing are what matter, not the revelation of the Cool Thing itself, nine times out of ten, which is why you should put your Cool Thing immediately on the page.

Not doing that is what I see a lot and it frustrates me. What sucks even more is, *drumroll*, when I do it my dang self :P.

My own reason for doing it in Deadshifted was that as I was writing, i didn’t actually know the Cool Thing until I got around to writing it, oh, somewhere near 50k. I just knew that before then I needed reasons for the tension to escalate, and so I created them (because my subconscious knew how the story needed to work, even if I didn’t have great reasons for it yet) — but I wasn’t smart enough to go and backfill my Cool Thing in until my editor pointed it out in her edit letter. And then I was all, “Khhhhhhhaaaaannnnnnnnnnn!” at myself.

Luckily, my editor is wise, and the second I realized I’d done it, I was willing to go in and gut things to make them better.

I’m gonna close this post with a quote from Annie Dillard — I haven’t read the book it came from, The Writing Life, but I’ve had this quote in my notes file for almost ten years, and it so applies –

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.”

Night all! (Or good morning, depending on what it is for you ;))