Getting Out of the Way
Taking stock, trying to be honest and not fake-humble: I'm okay with building characters, maybe even good at it. And sure, the characters have plausible feelings about each other. And okay, I'm starting to get the hang of my voice. But I have a major weakness--plot.
At least that's how I feel about it today. The story lacks clarity of conflict and/or quest. Readers like the protag, maybe even love her. But they want to fall in love with the story too.
So here's the experiment--assume the weaknesses of plot are all due to the Grand Design I imposed on the project way back in the planning stages. Let go of the plan. Let go of the Rashomon storytelling conceit. No external maps allowed.
I started out about ten (ach! embarrassing!) years ago, thinking I would write a metaphor-driven novel. Readers' response: "I see it has these sustained/recurring themes. But what's it about?"
Not being a plot person, I then set out to turn it into a character-driven novel. Reader response: "These characters are cool. But what's it about?"
So I go back to the manuscript, thinking maybe if the prose was cleaner, the message would be clearer. Trimmed a lot of fat. Reader response: "Nice prose. What's it about?"
Hmmm. All these comments are flattering and encouraging, but also confusing. What, exactly, does that question mean?
My interpretation-of-the-day: these readers are not looking for morals-of-the-story. They want to go for a ride. The work I've already done will help in this capacity, but it may not be enough. And the new shape has to come from inside the story. Sure, I wrote it, but now it's time for me to shut up and listen. Get out of the way of the story that's already there.
I tire easily of discussions on crafting plot. "Raise the stakes!" "Beginning-middle-end!" "It needs an arc!" "Put your characters in real jeopardy!" Maybe this is why I've resisted the notion of plot itself--it feels too much like a screenwriting class rehash. Parroting mottoes, without questioning the authority we've bestowed upon them. It's too gimmicky. It's too formulaic. It makes me grumpy.
But this new (to me) approach, maybe I'll be able to forget what I'm after and find what readers are after. Get out of the way, don't hide the story with language and fluff, don't try to be clever, and don't blindly conform to the Freitag Triangle master plan either. Ask questions instead. Like: why is this night different from other nights? Why now, this character epiphany? What conflagration triggered it? Then, maybe, the characters will drive the bus, and the readers will be more willing to hop on for the duration.
Plus, it will be way, way shorter. That never hurts, when you're pitching a first novel. The thick ones get read last, I've been told.
Labels: Writing Fiction