Friday, February 17, 2017

How Do We Fix You Now?

I watched a NaNoWriMo webcast about editing the other day, and they said that what you want to start with is an overall outline of the finished draft, so you can see the structure of it. Basically, you start with a big picture, get that the way you like it, then move in to fix individual scenes. Because there's no point in perfecting a scene if it's just going to get cut.

Well, it got me all excited about editing, so I decided to outline one of my old drafts, just to see what I had and what I could work with. I picked my 2011 NaNo novel, The Tower.

Yes, all my first draft novels have covers.

I made an outline, chapter by chapter. And boy, it is a mess. It's, for some reason, a mix of Rapunzel, H.P. Lovecraft, and Dante's Inferno. Only one of those things actually makes sense.

See, it starts off pretty good. We meet thief Zel Van Toren, who is occupying a prison cell at the top of the eponymous Tower. We also meet Ciarán MacClellan, her former partner in crime, who has come to rescue her. He has a heist in mind, to steal a gemstone known as the Devil's Heart.

Sounds pretty good, right? But then it gets weird. A lot of things don’t make sense. Ciarán reads Latin for some reason. They meet a lot of misfortune. And then it gets weirder, and then there's nine levels of "hell" under the prison? It was pretty obvious where I started running out of ideas.

Looking at it in this macro view, I can see the progression of weirdness. The first five chapters make a reasonable amount of sense. Chapters 6-33 just go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. By the time they begin their battle against the antagonist in chapter 28, absolutely nothing makes sense. The layout of rooms, even, are nonsensical. I have little notes to myself ranging from "Why" to "What the actual fuck" to "None of this makes any god damn sense."

I think this illustrates my usual point about revision. The conversation usually goes like this.

"Oh, you write novels? Anything published?"

"No, not yet."

"Why not?"

"They're not done. They have problems."

"So fix them and publish them, you silly goose!"

But what I'm always trying to explain is that it's not a few tweaks here and there. It's not just spelling and grammar. It's that 80% of the story is ridiculous and doesn't make any sense. It's not a matter of fixing it. It's a matter of picking out the good parts and writing an entirely new story from them. Imagine the story is a human body. It doesn't just need a kidney transplant. It needs everything from the neck down.

Why do I keep writing such crappy first drafts? Well, because I'm in a hurry, probably. During NaNo, I don’t have time to consider the best direction for the characters. I have to pick something and go with it because I have to write 1,667 words that day.

But rereading The Tower, I really do want to fix it. The characters have an interesting dynamic. There's a long history there, and complicated emotions. It's tragic, but it's also funny. There are some super cool locations, like Hightown, which clings to the side of a mountain like a fungus, accessible only by the train track supported by a massive trestle bridge. There are wacky chapter titles like "Not Recklessly Jumping From High Things." The story has potential.

There's also an interesting question of genre with this one. I started the whole thing with this idea of a "Steampunk Rapunzel" but there's nothing inherently steampunk about it. It's set in… 1898, I think, or thereabouts. It's right before the turn of the century, but I don't think it's ever stated in the story what year it is, and nothing really points to any time period other than the heavy use of rail travel. So in my head, it's a slightly anachronistic old west setting. On paper, it could be any time, any place. So a revision would really need to ground it someone, and bring in elements that would enhance that setting. I could try for proper steampunk. I could go for futuristic dystopia. It just can't be modern because of the level of technology. Breaking out of a modern prison is much too difficult.

Long, long story short, I don't know what I want to do with The Tower. But I'm starting to see the good parts, and it's getting easier to pull the threads apart to pry them out. In the past, I'd be afraid that they would all unravel, that one part couldn't exist without the rest. But this is why I let them for years. If you look at a fresh rough draft, all you can see are your intentions for the piece. You know what you meant, and if it didn't turn out right, you can't find a way around it. Looking at a five year old rough draft, though, you forget a lot of what you were thinking at the time. It's almost like a story you didn't write. It's easier to look at it objectively.

Maybe I'll start the whole thing over with the first five chapters. Maybe it will go somewhere completely different. Maybe it will actually make some god damn sense this time around.

I'll see you Tuesday, when I might be talking about revisions, or that other story with the island, or something else entirely. I'll be as surprised as you.

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