Saturday, September 22, 2012

So, sometimes I work on this manuscript

Hey, it's the weekend, which means nobody is paying attention.  So I'm going to talk about something that has nothing to do with anything we usually cover.

When I was a college freshman I wrote a 140 page manuscript in WordPerfect, I believe.  It's since been lost to time, formats and a lack of what we in the digital libraries world refer to as "forward migration".  And, frankly, I'm totally okay with that.  I gave up looking for a copy of it as far back as 2006.

I don't even really remember what the manuscript was about except that when I finished it I didn't really feel like it had actually been about anything at all.  I was just coughing something up.  Sure, it was a sort of novel-like thing, and it featured characters and had a beginning, middle and end.   Characters grew and changed, had conflicts, and resolved them amicably or otherwise.  But even as I wrapped it up, the lead character started echoing my own thoughts about the pointlessness of the narrative itself and the whole thing sort of ate it's own tail, which I'd like to report was a brilliant twist or comment on adolescence in the suburbs - but it was not.

Sure, on some small level, I do care that it disappeared as I did spend time on it, but I think...  Now it'd be like going back and looking at pictures of yourself from an awkward time, and the flood of memories would come back that maybe it's okay to keep the bad writing and things not interfering with my present stored in places needed only for emergency or that I'll be clearing out as I depart this earthly vessel.

After typing "the end" on that thing, I pushed various ideas around for a few years while still an undergrad, and I exorcised some of those ideas through classwork and other projects.*  In most cases, the story ideas just faded, as these things do.  Film school raked me over the coals of narrative structure, narrative management, and the manner in which one tries to find a story enough people are interested in that it might make somebody, somewhere, some money.  And that's an interesting challenge for the aspiring writer.  Because it suddenly means you are absolutely not writing for yourself.**  Except that, until someone pays you or you do the impossible and show someone else your work, you are most absolutely writing for yourself.

Writing for someone else means picking a genre so that folks who don't know you or care about you have the ability to categorize and consider whether your story fits their interest at all.  It seems to me, once you've picked your established genre, the work becomes about executing something very well that the audience finds familiar, or that they can assemble in their mind in a single read or viewing.  You can't ask for investment, and you can't assume anyone actually cares.

So I sort of had a half-baked idea I kicked around as early as 1997.  Genre stuff.  I wrote a first chapter.  I figured out who my protagonist was.  Lovely.  I knew some things about her.  She had a voice, and it was loud.  I built a little world around the character and listened to what she had to say.

It was a her.  I couldn't find an "in" for the story from either of what I considered the other two major characters.  Not when I considered motivations and why this person for this chain of events that could loosely be described as a story.

She talked too much and, as I've gotten to know her, she is an exceedingly difficult person.  If all your characters are an extension of yourself (because, yeah, you can write someone utterly unlike yourself, but it's not what I wanted to do to start), well, I'll leave it to Jamie to tell me some day if she's ever seen this person, or any of the supporting staff that hang around the protagonist, lurking around inside my head.

The problem with an exceedingly difficult person is that it outstrips my own ability to write, which is extremely limited.  I'm not practiced at containing the things I think this verbose person says, or even the order in which the events are shared.  I don't know where you work through what's said and what actually goes in.

this isn't in my story, but you know there's a damn good story there, whatever's happening

I promised myself I'd write six chapters this year, and I'm on target to do that.  I started in 1997, and, honestly, put the thing down for years at a time as all sorts of things were easier to do or were a bit of a fun distraction.  I want to finish by the time I'm 40.  Right now the thing is already at 210 pages, much of which could be cut or re-ordered or deeply edited, and who knows how much would be left...?  I suspect we could lose 30-40% and keep what we've got intact, to some extent.

But I also don't want it to grind to a halt as I think about how to make anything marketable.  Right now, I want to finish it, and then I want to make the thing that it is the best that it could be for what it is, and that doesn't mean chipping away at it until it fits neatly beside 10,000 other books in the same genre.

I've let a few people thumb through the thing, not the least of which is Jamie, who doesn't care for the genre or characters, so I feel like she's aces at providing feedback, and she's been terrifically helpful.  I've given over earlier drafts to others, and been met with wildly different opinions.  And, of course, a few who haven't ever said anything at all, and I've learned: when that happens, do not ask.

Right now the thing is in someone else's hands.  I think it's at the turn from the second act to the third, and before I proceed much further, I am curious what someone with no skin in the game has to provide when it comes to constructive criticism.

Constructive criticism on a creative project, by the way, is a thankless and near impossible task.  When something is obviously not set in concrete, I think the tendency is to say "okay, here's what I would have done", but the problem is:  That's not your project.  It doesn't matter what you would have written.  What matters is if what's written works or not.  And I think that's why so many instructors, when asking students to give one another criticism, ask them to phrase their statement as a question.  As in "why the @$%# did you make that choice?"  Because maybe there's a good reason the reader didn't get or that will be relevant as the project progresses.  But, also, saying "I would have done (fill in the blank)" isn't useful.

I have three more months.  I think I'll have my six chapters done, or I already do, which means I've been moving really fast this year, which is good.

The weird part is trying to write to the plotpoints without feeling like you're checking off an outline.  How do you make it organic without wandering all over the countryside to get to where you need these difficult people who want to do their own thing?  How do you keep everyone on track with their motivations intact and not have them just wander off when the stakes get raised?  And raised again and again?

That's where I'm at.

Anyway, my thanks goes out to the person who accidentally agreed to pick this up a couple weeks ago.  he is a brave, brave soul.

And, no, it is not a dystopian future story about space faring werewolves, loyal service droids and ultra-vampires.

*Some of you may have suffered through my 1998-penned screenplay.  God bless you each and every one for not punching me in the face after looking at it.

**to see a decade's worth of unprofitable "writing for yourself", I invite you to read the 2 volumes of League of Melbotis blogs, including the very blog you're reading right now


The League said...

And, yes, this

Paul Toohey said...

I really enjoyed the screenplay!

The League said...

Thanks, Paul! As one of the privileged few to suffer through, I greatly appreciate the kind words.

J.S. said...

Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

-Neil Gaiman

The League said...

Mr. Gaiman's tumblr is a non-stop fest of good writing advice. Most of it boils down to: sit down and put one word after another. Which, really, makes the most sense.

But I like this bit in particular. It seems very correct.