Crisis of Confidence

Lately I’ve been suffering from a lack of confidence in my story, and thus in myself as a writer, and it came about not because of any criticism or anything similar that came my way. It came about because of a writing contest, a contest I did not even enter!

How can not entering a contest cause me to lose confidence, you may ask? After all, this was (still is, in fact) a contest that specifically does allow unfinished works, so it would seem like a perfect fit for me, yes?

Alas, as with most contests of this nature, the entry requires a synopsis. Nothing particularly unusual about that, and every writer eventually needs to come to grips with producing the scary synopsis. However, typically for contests, this synopsis is limited to a single page, double-spaced, in 12-point type, with 1″ margins all around. Oh, and the first line really should be a heading stating “Synopsis,” so that’s one less line to work with. That means the synopsis is pretty much limited to somewhere between two-hundred and two-hundred-fity words, which is not a lot.

The typical five-page synopsis written for an agent or editor’s consideration has an opening statement about theme and genre, a closing statement about character arcs, and in between summarizes all the major plot points that impact and influence the main characters.

That’s impossible to do for a novel-length work in two-hundred-fifty words.

So, a one-page contest synopsis should instead focus on theme and how the character’s growth and conclusion illustrate that theme, and that’s about it.

Trust me, while it might be just one-fifth as many words, it is five times harder to write! And to give you an idea of what two-hundred-fifty words looks like, we’re at about three-hundred right here.

Still, this is a very good exercise for any writer to go through, and it should not be impossible. Indeed, it should be mandatory!

But describing how a character’s growth and plot arc illustrates the novel’s theme is difficult to do when you don’t actually yet know how the story ends, or even perhaps what theme you are illustrating, because you’re making the story up as you go, by the seat of your pants, in an episodic nature because you publish each scene online as you write it.

After spending an entire day struggling mightily, and ultimately in vain, with this one-page synopsis, I came to the conclusion that my story has deep structural flaws, because I’m currently unable to figure out how the main character’s plot progression drives, or is driven by, the theme! I’m not even sure if the story has a theme. Surely a contest loser.

I brooded on this for most of this past week, and a couple days ago came very close to stopping all further development of The Silence of Ancient Light and starting over on an entirely new story, one that would not be pantsed, but instead properly and traditionally plotted. Which, interestingly, is what I was trying to do two years ago when I started SoAL as an exercise to distract me from my analysis paralysis of developing a plot.

The good news? After two years of this distraction, I still really do want to go back to that original project. I still think it has fantastic potential, and I now have some better ideas for how to work out the plot roadblocks I had encountered. That project, by the way, was tentatively titled A Drive of Light and Shadow, but I will probably change that (but I love the title, so I’m keeping it, even if it ends up stuck on a different story).

The other good news? After two years, I still think The Silence of Ancient Light has promise, and I still like the story — even if it is devoid of any theme and the main character is flat and without growth. I know some of you are enjoying it, because you have told me so and I trust you when you do, but I also know that not very many people have read it, so the sample size is not large.

So no, I am not discontinuing SoAL, I will continue to churn out (or drizzle out, more likely) episodes for you, and I will try to figure out my own angst along the way. Perhaps I can pass some of that to Anna in the story to amp up the tension, although it’s not as if she doesn’t have enough on her plate to keep her angsty already!

Crisis averted. Though I have decided, for the health of my own stress levels, to pass on the contest this time around.

🚀

For SoAL readers curious about that original story from two years ago, there’s an oblique reference in a casual comment Anna makes to Laxmi in the 2nd scene. Yes, that’s right, these stories take place in the same universe. Can you spot it?

🚀

And for those curious about the contest I almost entered, it’s the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Unpublished contest. The deadline for entries is in about a week, so technically it’s still not too late! But no, I’m not ready, so you go right ahead.


header image credit: user:Free-Photos / Pixabay under Pixabay License

Drafting For Two

A little over a year ago, I spent the Christmas holiday with my wife Carole in Bend, Oregon, to ski the famous cross-country tracks of Mt Bachelor and environs, taste the famous microbrews of the Bend Ale Trail, and lay down some serious drafts, writing retreat style, for my novel.

Bend had a notoriously low snow year, so we accomplished only a little skiing. We did, however, collect some growlers from a handful of wonderful brewpubs.

Growlers
© Matt Fraser, 2019

And I spent hours staring at my laptop, completely blocked.

It wasn’t a problem of the words not flowing, though I’ve faced that at times, too. I simply couldn’t figure out the plot. I had an idea, summed up in a couple of sentences, but could not figure out the sequence of events that would tell the story. I had devised a few character sketches, I knew roughly who my protagonist was, knew a bit more about my antagonist, and had a wonderful concept for a contagonist impact character. I even had the broad strokes of how to bring the first act to a close, and what sort of crisis would precipitate the third act climax, though the details remained fuzzy.

I just had no idea for what should happen in between.

Carole had a perfect description for my state: analysis paralysis. I was so focused on getting every plot point just right that I was letting perfect become the enemy of the good. I sipped drafts from the collected brews of the Deschutes valley, but found no further inspiration there. And then Carole said something fateful.

“Why don’t you stop worrying about the plot and just write? It worked for you in NanoWrimo, so why not now?”

2013-Winner-Facebook-Cover
Yes, I “won” in 2013

So I did just that, albeit not with this project. I set my unfinished plot outline aside, and simply began writing, without any plot worked out in advance, based upon a simple image I held in my mind, an image of alien ruins, signs of an advanced civilization, long abandoned. I saw space stations, falling apart in orbit around a darkened planet, and the arrival of human explorers to investigate.

The result of that stream of consciousness experiment is still unfolding, as The Silence of Ancient Light, and some of you have been reading along as I post my first draft scenes on these pages. That was another part of the experiment, to post scenes as I went, thus “forcing” myself to keep going.

I’ve made mistakes along the way. I’ve posted scenes, only to realize one or two scenes later that I got a technical detail wrong, some point of astrophysics or orbital mechanics that just wouldn’t work. I’ve thought of better ways to handle events for already posted scenes, and then struggled with whether to keep writing in a manner consistent with what’s already been posted, or to write as if the earlier scenes had been different. Of course, that would make the narrative confusing for anyone trying to read through, but it is a first draft, after all.

Perhaps worst of all, however, is that I’ve concluded I had my characters go down a path I didn’t want them to tread several scenes earlier, and I’ve written myself into a corner. Now what do I do? Do I keep writing the story as it has been unfolding, even though it isn’t really where I wanted it to go? Do I go back for a “do-over” and rewrite everything from that point forward? And if so, do I create a new fork in the thread of the story, leaving the originals as they are as signposts for my folly?

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve slowed down on my output for the draft, and this crisis of my own making is the major reason.

Along the way, I’ve had concepts and ideas for other novels come to mind, as they do, and even been tempted when the writing on Silence slowed down to break off and explore one of them. The writing community over on Twitter (great group!) was practically unanimous in their advice not to do that, to make notes on the concept, but keep going on the current draft, finish what I’ve started. And so I’ve been doing just that.

Yet a new conundrum has arisen.

Remember the original story idea, the one I was trying and failing to carefully plot during that winter retreat to the land of ales and trails a year ago? The one I put aside to work on Silence instead?

I think I’ve solved my plot blockage.

There is still a lot of work to do before I begin drafting the prose, but I have a very high-level outline for 60 scenes spread across 20 chapters (those numbers may and probably will change). With a few more days (or weeks, more likely) of work, I should have an outline detailed enough to be called a treatment, a plan for simply “writing down the bones,” scene by scene, chapter by chapter.

And this, after all, was my original project, which I set aside to work on Silence. So, should I now set aside Silence to return to it?

No, I don’t think so, and I don’t think you think so, either.

So how successful can I be, working on two projects at the same time? That depends. Silence was always intended to be a way to break the logjam, to spur creativity and to keep writing, to keep up the practice. If, along the way, it turned into something decent, that would be a bonus. I do think there’s something decent in there, even if it’s gone a little bit off the rails, so I’m nowhere near wanting to abandon it. It deserves better than that.

At the same time, I’m ready to breathe new life into my more “serious” project. (It has a working title, but I’m holding that in reserve for the moment; for now, we’ll call it Shadow.) Yet there is a difference in the stages of creation for Shadow vs Silence. I’m plotting Shadow, whereas I’m drafting Silence. Shadow has a careful structure to it; Silence is by design more free-form.

I can see myself going back and forth between the two. When I’m stuck with something in Shadow, I’ll return to stream of consciousness writing with Silence. When I write myself into another corner in Silence, I’ll wrap up the next subplot in Shadow.

I’m undecided whether I will post scene drafts from Shadow in the same way that I have for Silence. One negative side-effect of doing so has been finding myself writing for the effect of the next post, instead of writing for the effect of the narrative whole, thus giving the unfolding story a bit of a Perils of Pauline serial feel to it. When the work is complete, I don’t want the reader to feel as if she is reading a series of shorts; I want her to enjoy it holistically, to be unable to put it down until reaching the very end.

Nevertheless, I may still do so, but I make no promises. Meanwhile, though, you can still expect to see scenes from Silence appear in these pages.

Some of you likely have strong thoughts about this approach. Feel free to critique me in the comments! Seriously, I want to hear from you.

Until the next cliffhanger…

512px-Perilsofpauline
used under Public Domain

header image credit: user:JAKO5D / pixabay.com under Pixabay License

The Inherent Risks of Pantsing a Novel

You know what I mean, of course. Writing a novel “by the seat of your pants.” No detailed planning, only a vague plot idea in advance, making each scene up as you write it.

Sounds like no way to write a novel, does it? The Project Manager in me cringes at the very idea. If I approached my day job in this manner, it wouldn’t be long before I’d be out on my ear.

Yet… it’s a lot of fun. The characters definitely have minds of their own, and as the words fly onto the page, they let the author know in no uncertain terms just where they want to go, what they want to do. Of course, all is not peaches and cream for the characters, they don’t always get their way, and indeed sometimes things go very badly for them. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a story, would there?

Hint: things are about to get a lot more tense for one or two of my characters, but I won’t say any more just yet.

The arc of the story, however, remains rather foggy for the author. This is the nature of pantsing. We know roughly where we’re going, but it’s a bit like navigating a boat through heavy fog with no chart, only a compass and perhaps a handheld GPS. You know where you are, you know where you want to go, and you know which direction to point the boat. But you have no idea what’s between you and your destination. Large ships may loom up out of the mist, threatening to crush you at any moment. And that bell you hear ringing? What’s that? Oh! There it is! It’s the navigation buoy, the one you were aiming for, dead ahead and… hard to starboard! Quick, or we’ll smash into the thing!

Ah, but we found it, the nav buoy, in the end, didn’t we? Sure, we almost ran it down, but now we know exactly where we are.

Pantsing is a bit like that, and like that ocean-going tug looming out of the fog, there come inflection points in the story, where things can go one way, or they can go another, and the author must make a momentous decision before continuing.

When Takashi opens that station hatch — because of course he’ll figure out a way, right? — what will he and the others find? What alien relics have the Keplerians left behind? What will be revealed about Aniara and her crew’s own situation? Are they in even more trouble than they yet realize?

Make one decision, and I could be sealing the fate for not just this crew, but for any other stories I may wish to write in this same universe in future. If I’m not careful, I could “break” the universe, making it unsuitable for further adventures, and, well, I really don’t want to do that. I have other story ideas, at least one of which has been hinted at in the narrative already.

Make a different decision, and the future of interstellar civilization could be assured. Well, as assured as any civilization can be where the fastest way to get a message from one place to another is to get on a ship and go there — no ansible here.

And yet…

There’s an appeal to having this story go a certain way. It would be… interesting. And risky.

After all, breaking an entire universe is a pretty heavy risk.


Side note: that bit about navigating a boat through fog with only a handheld (non-charting) GPS and a compass, and nearly being run down by a tug, and then nearly running down a buoy…. yeah, that happened. Ask me about it some day.


image credit: l_schwarze / pixabay.com