The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. -- Sun Tzu
First, thanks for having me back. I really enjoy these opportunities to talk about our work.
About this entry --
If you have a first draft and wonder what to do next, this is the essay for you.
If you don't have a first draft, this is the essay for you because reading it will relieve some of the worry about your first draft not being perfect. (Hint: it probably won't be and that's ok.) It will give you permission to drive on to the end.
I wanted to find a nifty segue between "Thanks" and Deconstructionism but it eluded me. Maybe I’ll find it in the revision of this essay, which leads me to what I want to talk about today.
The End Of Deconstructionism
In the past I have talked about adapting screenplay structure to genre novels -- Hook, Twist, Plot Point One, Midpoint, Plot Point Two, Dénouement. And I talked about the joys of 4" x 6" cards, each of which has something happening.
All of that sounds very mechanical, and in a way it is. It is the craft part of what we do, similar to someone learning to run scales on their way to being a jazz pianist. It is deconstructing the process to produce a better product, or to make producing that product easier for you.
Remember Romancing the Stone? It begins with Kathleen Turner sobbing as she types "The End." The impression given is that she bundles the manuscript up and ships it off to her editor. Ah, don't we all wish! For most of us it's not quite like that. You have come up with interesting people to write about, presented them with problems that they must solve, guided them to an ending of some sort. In other words, you write a book, or at least a first draft. You get to the fabled "The End." Hopefully you love it, love it enough to know that it needs work before being exposed to the public.
First, stop and congratulate yourself. Of the literally millions of people who say they want to write, only half actually start, and less than half of them finish. Really. I can footnote that. Congratulate yourself.
Okay, don't get carried away with congratulations, because you are probably not done, unless you are some kind of mutant genius like Isaac Asimov who, when asked now he could write so many books, reportedly replied, "I type seventy words a minute and I never revise." Most of us revise, some more than others.
One of my problems revising is that I tend to look at a micro view. "Gee, that sentence sounds lame," or "That dialog is flat." That is only part of revising. Another important part is the macro view.
Art . . .
For the first, you're on your own. For the craft part, for the macro view of your work, there are some techniques that might help the deconstruction.
One type of analysis I have found helpful is simply figuring out where all of your characters are in each chapter. Literally. Where they are and what they are doing. All the characters in each and every chapter, whether or not they appear in the chapter. In fact, this is especially important for characters who are not on-scene in the chapter.
It will tell you if you have logical flaws like Betty has to be in the casino in Chapter Three, but she is still in Los Angeles at the end of Chapter Two and there isn't enough time for her to drive to Las Vegas. The easy way to do this is with a chart, with characters' names along the vertical axis and chapter headings along the horizontal.
Do you begin to see how this kind of analysis reveals plot holes, particularly those of the “who knows what when” variety?
From television, a series that shall remain unnamed suffers from so many of these issues that if the actors weren't wonderful it would be a laughingstock. Here's just one. A woman's son is kidnapped; the kidnappers (who are all psycho killer nut bags and the mother knows that) call up and say, in effect, "Meet us secretly, away from the police, and you can see your son." She says, "Why, sure, Mr. Chock-Full-O-Nuts, I believe every word you say," and eludes the FBI by going out the back door of a coffee shop to meet the kidnapper. The agent knows this, he is in the coffee shop when she runs. Later they track her and Mr. CFON down in a warehouse, break in the front way and and . . . Spoiler Alert! They run out the back door! And the FBI agent is surprised! When in the preceding chapter, er, scene, he saw her do the same thing.
Again, the writer has to keep track of who knows what when.
(On the page) T. R. Macdonald is home, standing over the washing machine, folding his girlfriend's underwear.
(On the page) The aforementioned girlfriend is in the living room, working on her dissertation.
(Off the page) The young skateboarder girl T. R. will have to help is at a skate park.
(On the page) The people invading T. R.'s home are on his boat dock.
(Off the page) The real villain is setting up a fake laboratory.
And so on . . .
Since Pennies For Her Eyes is my book, I had a pretty good idea of where all these folks were in Chapter One, but I still learned things about my characters doing this again. I didn't know until I wrote this essay that my bad guy spent that evening making an empty warehouse look like a place where weapons of bioterrorism were cooked up. Creating this list, this mechanical, laborious task, gave me a wider view of the world that exists around the words on the page.
So here's your assignment:
Take one chapter of your current WIP and complete this exercise. You already know what the on-screen characters are doing, so concentrate on those who do not show up in the chapter. I think you will find this allows you to know them better, and makes them more real, with lives beyond that which you show. I also think that, like me, in some cases you will list a character's name and draw a blank. Think about it. Where were they? What were they doing?
Send us a comment. I'd like to hear what you find out, and I think the readers of Writers in the Storm would, too. Good luck!
And this does mark the end, at least for now, of my thoughts on deconstructionism, the mechanical aspects of our art, in other words, the craft. Next time, no more running scales. Next time when to just roll with it or, as Stephen King once said, "Just flail away at the damn thing." Until then.
To connect with James:
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org