Lessons from week one

Cracked 15,000 yesterday, which is an acceptable pace. I full thousand less than the 2k per day I set out for, but no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. And so, I thought I’d share the observations I’ve already figured out, now that I’ve had a week of writing like a professional writer.

1. I am not a morning person.

This may not actually help you in your writing all that much, but it bears stating anyway. My plan going into this was to wake up at 6am every day and pound out 2000 words before breakfast. Then I could go about my day, and if opportunities arose to get some extra word count, well, so much the better.

Well, as it turns out, I haven’t done this once. The alarm goes off at 6am every morning, but not once have I sat down and wrote before leaving the house. Sometimes I’ll leave the house and write somewhere else before work while I eat breakfast. Sometimes, too often really, I’ll still be at word zero for the day by the time I settle into my cubicle. And on those days, I’ve had to grind the words out other ways. Surprisingly, to me, anyway, I’ve written very little while actually on the job. I’ve found that I can squeeze in 500-700 words at Chipotle on my lunch break, and I’ve found lots of places to write after work. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve even found that writing can be energizing after work, no matter how tired I might be going into it.

I’m going to give morning writing one more shot before adjusting my schedule to get up later and stay up later, writing at night.

2. You don’t know your characters as well as you think you do.

I assumed going into this that I knew my characters pretty well. I should, given that they’re based on characters I’ve known for 15 years. But as I get into this book, I’m learning that this Jeff Frankel is a very different person than the original, that this Susan Richardson is more interesting and more driven than her counterpart in Between Heaven and Hell, that this Jack Harris, introduced just 12,000 words into Revelation rather than the beginning of Crusade, is a more thoughtful and resourceful guy than I expected, and that yes, even Daniel Cho, the man who changes the world forever, who sets in motion a series of events that changes the Milky Way galaxy forever, is not quite who I thought he was. This Daniel is more somber, more tortured by the failures of his past, and yet stronger and more directed than the original.

In every case, I have stronger, more interesting characters. Characters who have already surprised me as a writer and set the plot moving in a slightly different direction. Which brings me to…

3. The map is not the territory.

I’ve talked before about how I don’t write detailed outlines anymore. And yet, the bare bones bulleted list I started this project with has already changed a lot. I’ve deleted scenes that are no longer necessary. I’ve added new scenes dictated by the actions of the characters. And I’ve also been forced to rip a major set piece out of the middle of the book when I realized that it was what was making me afraid to get past the next few chapters.

In the original book, Daniel and company find out about a big meeting of all the demons and arrange to be there and film it. It was a major turning point and thus was part of the outline for this version. I moved the meeting to Denver instead of D.C., but kept the idea. I wasn’t sure how our characters, hunted by both the demons and the FBI, would make it to Denver, but I was confident the story would tell me. Early on in the week, I felt vindicated by the fact that the characters were telling me things about the story I didn’t know going in.

But one of the things I learned was that the demons are organized like terrorist cells, with a very decentralized and “need to know” structure. In fact, in the book, modern day terrorists got that idea from demons in the first place. (why do you think we keep reporting that we killed the same number 2 al Qaeda guy over and over? because he’s immortal) So it followed from that that they would never have a big demon pow wow. But if they don’t have the meeting, then Daniel can’t go, and if he doesn’t go HOLYCRAPIAMLOSINGMYBOOK

Then I took a step back and thought about it. I went back to the end of the book. What has to happen at the end? Susan goes public with her data proving that immortals exist, that we know them as angels and demons and they’ve been messing with us since before recorded history. Jack leaves the FBI and heads up a new UN organization to root out and destroy the demons, and he recruits Daniel to the cause. This all has to happen to set up the second book, Crusade.

But how I get there is entirely fluid. I don’t have to keep anything from Between Heaven and Hell that no longer makes sense. So in order to have that ending, what do the characters need?

They need videographic proof of an immortal shrugging off and healing a mortal wound, something they can post on YouTube (and yes, Google, blogs and Twitter have already been featured in the book). Susan needs a database of all the known demons, their current identities and all the aliases they’ve used through the centuries. And they need the Lost Gospel, an ancient scroll detailing in ancient Hebrew the war between the angels and demons, including the fall of Lucifer, in much more detail than we’ve ever seen before, including details on how an immortal can be killed permanently.

As I looked over that list, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to stick to the original path, and a new way to get there started forming in my head. I had always thought the database came from the demons themselves, because it did in the original. But now I realized that not only would the demons probably not have such a record at all, but that the angels, with their almost OCD devotion to order, almost certainly would. So the database and the location of the Lost Gospel (currently forgotten under a mosque in Iraq) would probably come from the angels, probably from Uriel, the archangel who has been watching them. And when would he give them this information? After they prove on their own that they’re worthy of it by killing Batarel, the demon that’s stalking Daniel.

And poof! Just like that, the book popped back into place, the outline rewrote itself and just about everything about my act 2 got stronger. And, most importantly, I’m not subconsciously dreading going past the next few chapters, into the void in my original outline that just read “here be monsters”. Now I know that Daniel, Susan and Jeff have to run from both Batarel and Jack until they can turn the tables on Batarel and destroy him, an effort Jack finds himself helping with. After that, Uriel can swoop in (as angels are wont to do) and send them off in a new direction. I can see, in vague, looming shapes, all the way to the end of the book now, and it looks solid. It looks good.

Of course, I realize that any and all of this is subject to change if the characters, yet again, find a better way to get there. But I’m starting off week 2 much more confident in the book as a whole than I was before, and that’s a good feeling.

Outline or fossil?

Okay, I’ve got the character, setting and initial situation. Is that all I need to start writing a novel? What about outlining? What about writing scenes on index cards? Who’s driving this ship, anyway?

And the answer is, of course, the story is driving the ship.

This is different from how I usually work. Historically, I’ve been an outliner, a planner. I’ve been the kind of writer who writes character sketches, outlines the scenes in ever chapter and generally spends so much time researching and “developing” a story that I never get around to actually writing it.

NaNoWriMo makes that mode of storytelling almost impossible. The overriding requirement to get 50,000 words in one month, over 1,667 words a day, every day, makes such planning an impossibly expensive use of my writing time. Because keep in mind, I have a day job and a social life, and will not be putting either on hold for NaNoWriMo.

Fortunately, meticulous planning isn’t the only way to tell a story. My other option is the fossil.

I’ve talked about this before. In his excellent On Writing–and if you’re serious about writing and you haven’t read this, you really should, no matter what you think of King as a writer–Stephen King likens stories to found things, like fossils in the ground. Writers don’t invent stories as much as we uncover the stories that were already there, lying quietly in our minds. The really good writers don’t break very much digging it up.

King starts all of his novels much as I’m starting Sins of the Mothers. He has a situation in mind, a character or two, and sets events in motion. Like a lot of writers, I’m sure he has an intuitive feel for where to start the action, but once it starts, he just keeps asking “and then what?” until the story plays itself out in his word processor. He says that only rarely does he have a definite ending in mind.

I’m doing things a little bit differently. I do know where I’m going to end the story, but only vaguely. I have a sense of supporting characters, both protagonist and antagonist, and what their motivations are. And I have a basic sense of how the story has to start. Here’s my “outline” for lack of a better word.

  • Start with Sophie learning about the end of the Nemesis war and the destruction of Earth.
  • Sophie learns that the Sendeni plan to kill her rather than figure out what to do with her.
  • Sophie goes on the run.
  • Sophie meets up with some male Sendeni, and is able through her telepathic abilities to communicate with them in a rudimentary way. I don’t know yet why they don’t just kill her on sight or why they decide to hide her.
  • A whole bunch of stuff happens, during which Sophie becomes a revolutionary leader for the male Sendeni.
  • Sophie is killed, maybe in battle, maybe assassinated. The story will tell me which.
  • Sophie’s lieutenants pick up where she left off and achieve their independence.

So you can see, I have a pretty clear big picture view of the first act, from the opening to Sophie joining forces with the males. I have a less clear but still relatively solid view of what act three has to contain. I have no gorram idea at all what will comprise act two, the bulk of the novel. Basically, I know where I’m going for my first 10,000 words and my last 20,000, but the 40-50k in the middle is a complete mystery to me.

And that’s as it should be. Between Heaven and Hell was rigorously plotted, down to 3-5 major scenes per chapter, 20 chapters per “book”. In a lot of ways, I wrote it like I was structuring a 3-season run of a TV show, because I was reading a lot of writing advice from Joe Straczynski at the time about how he did Babylon 5 and that’s all I had to go on as far as how to actually do this stuff. Since then, I’ve written “Do Over!”, a novella, and nearly completed two novels: Mistaken Identity, the sequel to Between Heaven and Hell and the start of the Nemesis War, and Homeworld, my Mars novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2006. In writing all of these I’ve learned that my instincts as a storyteller trump plot. The last ten thousand words or so of Between Heaven and Hell veered wildly from my outline because by then the story had me in its grip and I was just racing to write it all down. I got into that zone a lot earlier in Mistaken Identity, veering off track into a much better story than I had planned about 30,000 words in, and slipped into that intuitive mode almost right off the bat with Homeworld, because NaNoWriMo doesn’t give you time to plot.

In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. When I was a little kid, we’re talking maybe six or seven, teachers used to pull me out of class and take me up to the fifth and sixth grade classrooms. I’d stand there in front of a class full of kids over one and half times my age and ad lib fairy tells, complete with morals, right off the top of my head. I was born with a storyteller’s instincts, a fundamental understanding of Plato’s three act structure before I ever knew who the heck Plato was. And story is story, there’s no difference between a five minute oral fairy tale and a 100,000 word novel. Each is a fractal reflection of the other, and that fractal image is etched into my DNA.

Between now and November first, I’m doing everything I can to make sure I have a solid foundation upon which to build. I’m going to know as much about Sophie and the initial conditions of the novel as I can. I’m going to know as much about the Sendeni and their culture and government as I can. I’m going to craft a solid opening line. But no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and no outline surives contact with the manuscript. Once I start writing, all this prep work drops away and it’s on.

All I need to do is get out of the story’s way as I’m writing it down.

Story debt and Lost’s first season

Warning: This contains spoilers for the first 28 episodes of the TV series Lost, originally aired on ABC in 2004-2005. If you haven’t seen these episodes already and do not wish to know about them, you have been warned.

Initially, I’d avoided Lost. I knew from past experience that JJ Abrams, the creator and executive producer on the show, was only good for about a season and half before he jumps the shark. But over time, so many of my friends kept telling me this show was different, that weird stuff was supposed to happen on the island, that it was worth it. So when the first four seasons showed up on Netflix to watch online, I decided to give it a shot.

Three episodes into season two, I stopped. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the first season very much, and it sparked some interesting insights on writing, particularly in driving home that every one of your characters is the protagonist of his or her own story, that they should all have baggage in the background. But I stopped watching because of another observation about the show and how it has been written. It became obvious to me that the writers couldn’t pay their debts.

Every time you pose a story question in fiction, you incur a debt to the reader. Eventually, you have to pay that off by answering it in a satisfactory way or the reader, justifiably, feels cheated. The problem I had with Lost as it started up the second season, is that I didn’t like the answers I was getting, didn’t think they paid off all the teasing suspense.

Consider:

Q: Who are “The Others” Rousseau was so scared of?

A: A bunch of thugs on the other side of the island. This fell well short of the almost magical, invisible, whispering specters we were led to expect.

Q: What is the giant, unseen creature that killed the pilot?

A: A plume of black smoke accompanied by a mechanical, clockwork chattering. This is, again, very disappointing compared to the T-Rex we were all imagining. Hell, even the critter from Abrams’s “Cloverfield” would have been better.

Q: What was under the hatch?

A: A long shaft into an apartment/lab housing an athlete Jack just happened to meet years earlier. This is our introduction to the Dharma Initiative, a group founded 35 years before by a bunch of hippies to do sociological experiments. It’s not only unimpressive, but doesn’t really even have a hint of sinister.

Now, I know from friends that there are a lot more twists and turns in store and that not everything is what it seems. But in a sense, that’s the problem.

Serial storytelling has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. For a long time, TV, comics and other serials were episodic in nature. Episodes were largely self-contained, and it didn’t matter much what order you saw them in. This is because each episode looped back to end where it began. The episode started with a disruption to the status quo, the characters worked to resolve the issue, and the episode—or rare two-parter—ended when the status quo was restored.

In the past two decades here in the US, the trend has been to “novels for television” where we don’t restore the status quo at the end of each episode, but rather follow a longer story arc across an entire season. In some cases, like Babylon 5, the story arc may even span the entire series.

In a lot of cases, this model works just as well. For example, each season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer has a distinctive flavor and tone all its own as each season has a different villain whose ultimate defeat awaits in the season finale. But the catch is this only works if you know where you’re going when you set out.

Lost doesn’t have that. It borrows what little structure it has from a much older form of television: the soap opera. In soaps, produced daily often 52 weeks a year, there isn’t time for the writers to give a lot of thought to how they’re going to pay things off. Instead, they go for whatever plot twists they can get away with to keep people coming back. The lengths the writers inevitably have to go to in order to explain such drastic shifts in the plot while maintaining continuity with the past has become a running gag.

And ultimately, I can see that’s where Lost is headed. Early into its second season, I was already seeing connections between the characters and between the characters and their environment that stretched the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. It was getting out of hand because the writers clearly had no end in sight. They were just writing themselves deeper and deeper into corners they could never possibly find a logical, satisfying way out of. Every time they raise the bar yet higher and posit another plot twist, they are writing a check their story can’t cash.