As I work on writing a book for the first time in years, I’ve discovered another of my writing pathologies: I hate making decisions.
Several times now, I’ve come to points in the book where I can see that I’ve got a variety of options about how to present a scene or a character or a plot point, and I’ll choose a direction to take… but then, knowing that there was also another promising route, I’ll backtrack and try another tack as well.
For example: In part of my book two characters have the potential for a romantic relationship. They are antagonistic toward each other (one is auditing the other for fiscal mismanagement), and the frisson of sex is something that adds to their conflict. Now, the decisions:
Do they already have previous romantic history together? Or are they meeting for the first time?
If they’ve got history, this opens up all sorts of interesting layers as they duke it out.
But, if they’ve got history, this also means that I need to decide if they parted on good terms or bad.
If it’s on good terms, it means that the auditor has a conflict of interest, which is interesting.
On the other hand, if they parted on bad terms, then the auditor is like a nuclear-tipped cruise missile and the conflict between them can be entertainingly brutal as they duke it out for supremacy. It has the merit of raising the stakes and energizing the conflicts in the plot.
On the other hand, the details of seduction between strangers also has some uses for the story. Then I can have a neutral auditor, who may be swayed by seduction/love, or may not. And I can lead my readers on a merry chase, making them wonder whether the seduction is going to be successful in changing the outcome of the audit, or not. Plus, there’s the fun of watching two antagonistic characters use sex as another weapon in their arsenals.
Or maybe the whole sex/relationship thing just gums up the movement of an already complex plot and needs to be dropped entirely. Let’s stick to business. Just because there are boys and girls in the scene doesn’t mean that they always have to get it on. Most of us don’t boink our auditors. Why should this situation be any different? Keep the characters on task and make this about the number crunching and fiscal deception and keep the body fluids out of it.
I’ve got working scenes with all three assumptions laid out. And they’re all excellent.
In other parts of the book I have similar situations where I’ve mapped out several alternative routes all of which wildly redefine the book. These too, taken in isolation are excellent scenes. But in general, readers frown on on five versions of the same scene, jammed into one book. I suppose we could take an avant-garde approach and simply do variation after variation… but no.
So what’s going on here?
The core problem has been that I failed to make some major decisions (call them meta-decisions) about the book right at the start. Because I wasn’t clear about things initially, all of the potential scene versions and plot choices and character definitions are reasonable… BECAUSE I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH WITH THE STORY.
At root, because I failed to make critical decisions about what I want the book to be about, and how I want it to feel, I then created a morass where all possibilities were equal and any plot twist was reasonable.
Since I finally realized this, I’ve gone back into the book and started making decisions, starting at a very high level:
What is the book about?
What is it supposed to feel like?
What is the final result supposed to be like?
And as I’ve done that, options have correspondingly narrowed.
And I’ve had to throw away a lot of really fantastic scenes, and details, and plot ideas, so that the scenes I have left will actually serve the story, instead of serving themselves.
Now, having finally thought clearly about the story — about what it’s supposed to do, and where I’m trying to make it go — things are going much more smoothly. Words keep flowing, scenes interlink, characters and subplots arise, but they mesh with the story that I’m building, and when I hit new points where decisions need to be made, I can quickly refer to core of purpose of the book that I’ve defined and know whether the decision fork leads to a dead end or to a promising development in the larger story.
The first versions of the story had a hazy quality to them. Now, things are getting very concrete. It feels like I’m building a railway, and every day I lay down more track: hard iron rails, thick heavy railroad ties. It feels substantial and definite, and it feels like its finally *moving* somewhere.
What a relief.