Saturday, February 23, 2013

Plotting, Pantsing, and the Old Cut-Up Gimmick

Well, I guess I'm going to go back in and change the shape of the highlight in the Colonel's eye to make him seem more friendly, and then the coloring of the lettering on my name should probably be a nice medium-dark blue, and...

So after years of study and contemplation, after consulting with experts at the highest levels of achievement, I seem to have developed the most complicated and arduous method of long-form storytelling possible. I'm writing it down so I don't forget it again -- I could have saved myself a month of mopey obsession if I'd remembered one of the basic rules.

The traditional rift in approaching plot and story in fiction has been between those who like to sit down and write and see what comes, and those who figure it all out ahead of time and then go in and fill in the blanks. Those who fly by the seat of their pants are called 'pantsers' and those who plan in advance are called 'plotters.'

(These are the kinds of things writers call themselves, so you shouldn't be surprised at what they call you.)

The virtues associated with pantsing are originality, an inspirational connection between language and story, and the excitement delivered by an ongoing sense of discovery on the part of the writer. Pantsing fails when it fails to deliver a story, or when the story it delivers is a half-baked cliche unconsciously stolen by the writer from TV or the movies. And so on.

The virtues associated with plotting are coherence, narrative drive, and a sense of control. The failings of plotted fiction are predictability and mundanity, and so on.

The division between the two might be regarded as the difference between art and craft, but my critical perspective holds that there is no great art without great craft, and that craft pursued with sufficient diligence can transform itself to art. So of course I have to combine the most laborious parts of both methods. Because that is the kind of lever monkey the world has made me.

I wrote my first novel this way, swore I would never work in that fashion again, and immediately fell backwards into the same fucking trap with Helping Henry. So here is my magic recipe for instant storytelling.

1. Write a stand-alone story that doesn't quite satisfy.

2. Extend it. Add crap. See how events lead into one another, find out what the characters are doing, where they're going. Get them there. Think in terms of consequences, of thought to action to reaction to response.

3. Look at the pile with dismay. Realize that you're dealing with a novelistic structure, and that you have an obligation to bring it to proper fruition.

4. Panic.

5. Inspect the manuscript until you find a beginning and an end that have a meaningful relationship with one another.

6. At this point, the manuscript is comparable to the block of marble in the old joke about the sculptor. "How do you do it?" "I just knock off everything that doesn't look like a donkey."

At this step, you're looking for the donkey. You cannot regard the current manuscript as anything but raw material. Everything is disposable.

Look at your beginning, and look at your ending. If you are trying to write conventional dramatic narrative -- by which I mean a story where things happen that people can understand, a story that may be read by someone who is not a fiction specialist of some kind -- the beginning and the end have to be connected by an UNBROKEN CHAIN OF CONSEQUENCE, where each event leads to the next.

7. This is the hard part. This hurts. It is also the most important part. This is where the creature lives or dies.

Knock off everything that doesn't look like a donkey.

This is what makes this a terrible method. I wrote easily five or six times as much manuscript as I used for my first novel, and a lot of it I rewrote repeatedly. In Helping Henry, this is less painful, since it's constructed of stories that stand alone to some degree. But I had forgotten I could do this, and I devoted a lot of thought to keeping material I'd written in place. Because it was good material.

This is a dead end. That is how you kill your story.

So take your manuscript, and write down a brief description of each scene on a file card or Post-It note. Get yourself some wall space or a corkboard or  something, and start laying the cards out in order. Put your beginning at one end, your ending at the other, and connect the two. Don't put a scene in unless it fills a specific, necessary function. Ask yourself if any scenes -- or characters -- can be combined to save space. If there is a gap in the chain of consequence, fill it in.

And if there is a string of cards to  one side, and they are full of terrific material, and the plot just doesn't seem to CONNECT? Those cards get left out.

This isn't actually like working with marble, folks. It's more like a lost-wax process, and you're working with wax at this point. It is infinitely malleable, but it will be cast in bronze later.

Then take your cards or Post-It notes, and gather them together in order. I use file cards, and I punch holes in them and bind them with a ring.

The thing is? You'll probably have some file cards left over. And some of those file cards will represent the very best writing you've ever done.

Just grin and cut, my friend. Grin and cut. Going to great labor to keep something that could easily go is fool's work.

8. And then go back over your manuscript, and make it conform to your outline. This is where I am with Helping Henry. Moving conversations around, adding points of connection between sub-plots, all that good stuff. To me, this doesn't feel so much like revision as like the real first draft.

9.  And then you're down to line edits. I'm aiming for next week on this.

I swear, though, next time I'm starting with an outline.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Little Friend of My Little Friend...

This is the bed in our guest room. This is our dog -- my dog -- Laszlo.

And that is Laszlo's little friend.

When I say Laszlo is my dog, I don't mean I went out and selected him. Other way round. Here's what happened. When our Australian shepherd Amanda died, we said it would be a while before we replaced her. But our terrier (rat and Jack Russell mix) Roxxie started getting the crazies within weeks of Amanda's passing. Roxxie is one of those high-pitched individuals who doesn't get along in the world in general, and the loss of her friend really got to her.

So the missus got in touch with some animal rescue people, and Laszlo was the first dog they suggested for us. We drove out to the valley one day and met the rescue worker who was handling Laszlo (unnamed at that juncture) at a park.

According to what she said, Laszlo had been abandoned on the street and then rescued. "He's a dog person, not a people person," we were told, which, given the circumstances, sounded good. When we met him, he wouldn't approach me, wouldn't respond to me when I called him. I am an animal person -- not all animals love me, but if they don't, I wonder what the hell has gone wrong with the world. When this little guy wouldn't meet my gaze or let me near him, I figured something was wrong. Really wrong. This animal had been abused, and as much as I wanted to help, I didn't want a dog who didn't want me. So I started to harden myself to say we wouldn't be going home with the little mooch.

I fell into conversation with the woman who was caring for Laszlo, and while we were talking, she looked past me and smiled. "He sure likes you," she said.

 I followed her gaze, and looked down to my right rear. The young Laszlo was sitting directly behind me. He wasn't touching me, but he was as close as he could get without making contact. His body was curved around my right calf, and he was gazing up at me with an expression on his face that said, "Please. I want this. Please, please, please..."

We took him home.

For the first couple of weeks, he wouldn't approach me from the front or respond to my calls, but he stayed as close to me as he could, and if I let him sneak up behind me, he'd let me pet him. The combination of love and fear was heartbreaking -- but he got over it.

Roxxie the terrier has always slept in our bed. The missus uses her as a sort of hairy hot-water bottle. I'm an insomniac. If I get more than five hours of sleep a night, I'm okay. If I get less, I'm a miserable neurotic wretch. And due to my back pain, there's a limit to how long I can lay down comfortably. So I usually get up for a couple of hours in the early morning. One night after Laszlo had been with us a couple of weeks, I came back to bed and saw him curled up all by himself on our couch. I thought of the missus and Roxxie and myself warm and cozy, and I scooped the little guy up and took him back to bed with me.

It was purely an act of affection influenced by pity, but it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

When I'm laying in bed in the dark, I am at the mercy of my mind. I usually go through three or four fairly serious stress reactions a night in response to compulsive fantasies of violence or other misfortunes. The missus is a lovely person, but I have made it a practice not to roll over and clutch at her, shuddering and hyperventilating, more than three or four times a year. It is not my intention to establish a hostile work environment.

But get this. These days, when it's time to go to bed? Laszlo dances around me as if we're going for a walk or it's time to be fed. So far as he's concerned, keeping me company in bed is his job. Having him next to me is a constant reminder that I am in bed to rest, not to torture myself. And when I start feeling crazy? I get ahold of him, and pet him until I calm down. He likes it, and it helps me, and it is an all-around good thing.

There has been a recent development.

Laszlo is, as the rescue worker said, an animal person. He loves other dogs and shows a keen interest in  birds and other critters. But the missus and I were taken aback a few weeks ago when he started carrying a stuffed toy around. It is a chickadee, one of those disturbingly life-like stuffed animals one runs across from time to time. Laszlo doesn't use it as a chew-toy. Rather, he treats it as though it's a...

Well, a pet. My dog has a pet.

He sets it down and stares at it lovingly. He cuddles with it, and sometimes rests his head on it. And up until the last couple of days, if the missus or I set a finger on it, he'd take on an entirely out-of-character air of grievance, and take the chickadee away into the yard where we couldn't see it.

But a couple of days ago, when it was time for bed? Laszlo was sitting with the chickadee, and when I approached him, he picked up the toy bird and gazed at me winsomely, then set the bird down and looked away, abashed. He then repeated the gesture. It was as if he was saying, "Please, come on.. Oh, man, I'm sorry, I know it's too much, but... Please?"

So I put the goddamned bird on the bed, and Laszlo spent the first half of the night staring at it in rapture. The next night was the same. And last night, the bird showed up in bed without me.

This is fascinating to me. The suggestion of a much richer, more involved inner life makes a lot of sense to me, but what the hell is going on here? If he was a bitch (rather than a bastard, which is what I think we should call male dogs), I'd be able to tell myself it was a pseudo-puppy. What's really weird is the way it brings out a new emotional spectrum in Laszlo; the damned dog is serious about his bird. My best guess at this point is that he's emulating the relationships he knows, the relationships between the missus and I and Laszlo and Roxxie. I suspect he's decided he wants a pet. If that's the case, the genuine tenderness he shows reflects well on our relationship with him. His desire to keep that relationship independent of his relationship with the other organisms in the house, his growing acceptance of my interactions with his 'friend....'

Let's get this straight. I don't sleep with a stuffed animal.

But I sleep with a dog who does. There is no dignity in life, you know?