It’s been a little while since I’ve posted anything like this (and I wonder if I’ve ever really posted anything like this). Anyway, I felt I needed to give an update of what’s been going on lately with Unclean. (This is kind of a “vomit” draft of what’s happening and I hope you can make sense of it. Thought I should get it out there before I spend too much time editing and diluting what I’m trying to say.)
I posted a couple weeks ago a short story that I wrote for a class I took on LitReactor called Restoration. The story originally started out as the usual version of Unclean that I’ve been working on in the past but it quickly turned into something totally different. Needless to say, I wasn’t really sure what to do – everything I’ve spent months – no, years – working on quickly changed into something a lot different.
Sure, the characters were basically the same. In fact, I gained insight into 2 characters that were really just names to me before. Jesse went from this nebulous placeholder in my mind to this flesh and blood snarky guy who quickly stepped up and started telling his take on things. And Ezhno went from the splintered soul part to a spirit animal – a totally different type of character altogether. And then I find out that the two of them had worked together in the past but something had happened and they weren’t speaking to each other for a while. It’s actually pretty funny now that I think about it. Except, it’s sort of left me standing here not sure where to go next.
As I think I’ve explained before, I’m usually a pretty cautious individual. I like to have things planned out. My work background was in systems analysis and I was pretty damned good at it. I could sit in a meeting with a client and listen to them talk about what they wanted new software to do and 2 things would be going on in my head: on one side of my brain, I would actually see the code being written in real time. In another brain compartment, I would be seeing any problems that could possibly show up. As they described requirements or desired features, I could see how things interacted with existing programs and where things might fall apart. And after doing that for years, it’s easy to look at life like that also.
Now, all of a sudden, the carefully planned out story that I thought I was working on just took on a life of it’s own. The person who I thought was the main character got shifted some place else. (Actually, in the grand scheme of things, he suddenly became an antagonist of sorts as he’s creating the problems for everyone else.) And two other characters that were previously supporting actors not only took over this story but also let me know they had plans to go on after Unclean and have a whole set of other adventures together.
Am I upset? Not really. I actually think this is a much better story idea (or interpretation of the one that I started with). Still, it’s somewhat disconcerting and it’s thrown me for a loop in some ways.
You see, I’ve been trying to come up with an outline for this story and now everything has changed. I wrote a while ago that I began doing some work with a story coach named Clark Chamberlain. In August, he pressed me to get an outline to him in order to help overcome my toxic procrastination. We set a deadline to get it done in September – which came and went because the class that created Restoration had just ended and things were in a state of flux. Thus, I set a new date for late October. Well, that’s next week and it looks like it’s not going to happen again.
The thing is, I’ve got reasons – and plenty of good ones. I haven’t been procrastinating – in fact, I’ve been doing just the opposite. For the past 3 weeks now, I’ve been looking at this story from all different angles. Again and again, I’ve pulled out book after book and tried to make sense of things. And there’s been a lot of times, I’ve almost given up on it.
I find myself torn in 2 directions.
On the one hand, I read over and over in craft book after craft book, just follow this formula and everything will be hunky-dory – I’ll end up with a perfectly plotted novel. Hell, I should be able to outline the thing in an afternoon. After all, if I’m going to be a writer, I’m going to have to write 4 -6 books a year in order to make any money doing it. So I would take their advice and try doing what they said. I’d end up with this soulless piece of crap that may hit every plot point perfectly but felt like the literary equivalent of eating flavored styrofoam. Yeah, it might fill you up, but it sure doesn’t nourish you at all.
The other direction was totally different – I wanted to slow down a little bit and dig deeper into these characters and let the story flow from them. Instead of forcing them to jump through the hoops of specific plot points every so often, I wanted to let the characters shape the story instead.
(I’ve got so many thoughts going through my head right now, it’s hard to know what to say next here. Bear with me, ok? I promised I’d let you into my head as I go about this business of writing this story and I’m trying to do that.)
- I found some teachings by this instructor named Daniel David Wallace who does more character-focused plotting. One of his points is the idea that the main character usually is appearing in the “wrong” story for them. (For instance, he uses the example of Macbeth: if Macbeth appeared in the situation found in Hamlet instead of Hamlet the character, Macbeth could have wrapped up everything in about 10 minutes. Instead, it’s because Hamlet is ill-suited to the story that he finds himself in that gives the story it’s depth and meaning. We see Hamlet struggle and grow – and that’s the story’s real purpose.)
- I get these daily emails listing all of these self-published books that are discounted or free and every day I just shake my head at most of them. Just reading the blurbs, I can tell these folks who are writing this stuff are doing what I found myself doing. They pile one thing upon another in hopes that it’s going to create enough excitement and tension to keep someone reading until the end – even if it really doesn’t have anything to do with the story. I saw one that had the main character being chased by spies, corporate security forces, Chinese military troops – and finally vampires. I haven’t read it but I would imagine it’s because they needed something to keep the reader “engaged”. And I’ve got to say, I found myself doing the same thing – hmmm, this method says I need something at this point in the story – what can I come up with? No, that way’s not for me.
- It’s like so many movies these days – they’re just one explosion after another. And you leave the theatre and can’t even name the movie you saw 3 days later because it’s just the same as what you saw the last time you went. I doubt I’ll ever go to another blockbuster again. (And we long ago gave up on super hero movies because it’s just the same thing over and over.)
- Finally, I kept going back to what JS Brukelaar, the instructor of the LitReactor class, said in my final critique: “I love Jesse’s repertoire of one-liners, and I am deeply curious as to what it masks—what will it take for him to be lost for words? He is the greatest mystery of all, you’ve created a darkly disingenuous character who is destined to face the truth about himself. You’ve set up some character traits that you can really mess with as you narrate his undoing and transformation over the course of the novel.” What is it going to take to shut Jesse up? And how is he going to come undone and be put back together in this story? I know one thing – I’m not going to find out by just filling in the blanks of some generic story formula.
Thus, I find myself slowing down a little more and making sure I get this right. This story is becoming bigger than I thought and I’m going to do it right. I may only crank out one a year but I’ll be happy with that if it’s something that really means something to me – and others. Clark, I’m sorry if this means letting you down. I’m going to shoot for the outline next month – we’ll see. No matter what, I’ll know who these people are running around my head – and what it’s going to take for them to grow into better people than they are now.
Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash