Turning the Corner

The joy of writing a novel by the seat of my pants is that I get to find out what the story is as I go along. There's a wonderful freedom to it. I need a character, so I make one up; and the character comes to life and has his own needs and wants and needs his own backstory, and this suggests new events and conflicts and complications.

In my current work in progress, for example, Michael Henderson (of Vikings at Dino's) begins the novel in the middle of a firefight…in the middle of a department/grocery store:

I shrank down behind the display of crab lozenges ("As good as Mother used to make!") as another round whizzed past my ear. I was longing to mash the button nestled under my left thumb but knew that I mustn't. The wrought iron of the display rack might have given me more comfort if its frills and scroll work hadn't had so many gaps in them.

Mr. Monocle, which is to say the fellow with whom I was sharing the scant cover of the display, glanced sideways at the contraption in my right hand.

"Bit overpowered for the situation, don't you think?" he said, returning fire with yet another carefully aimed shot from his long pistol. There was a wisp of steam and a report that was much quieter than I would have expected. "This is small arms work, what? But perhaps you know your business best."

"It's all I've got," I said.

He was looking down the iron sights of his long pistol when I said it, and so help me he lowered the gun and studied me through his monocle. His handlebar mustache twitched.

"All you've got?" he said in a tone of faint consternation. He continued to study me until the next bullet from the fellow down the aisle knocked the natty bowler off his head.

"Oh, blast," he said. "Brand new, that was." Turning back to the matter at hand he fired a quick shot—"Hah, that will teach him to show his head!"—and then applied himself once more to looking down the sights.

He was a sight himself. He was wearing a form-fitting coat of blue broadcloth, equally form-fitting cream trousers, and high black boots. Around his neck was a cravat sort-of-thing that had the kind of artless folds that only come with untold hours of practice. There was a long knife tucked in a sheath on the outside of one of his boots, and a holster of plain black leather at his waist. The holster was empty, of course.

At this point I had no idea who "Mr. Monocle" was; even the name was just a nickname Michael gave him, because Michael often gives nicknames to people whose names he doesn't know. The whole point was to put Michael in a situation, so that I could figure out what he was doing there. The story would grow from that.

And so, almost 80,000 words later, it has; and "Mr. Monocle," whom I thought a throw-away character at the time, proved too much fun to throw away. It's fair to say that the whole story—plot, setting, and world—grew out of this vision of a well-armed gentleman in vaguely Regency attire in a Target or Walmart-like store.

And as it begins, so it continues: I just follow along and see where it goes.

But eventually there comes a time where the continuous invention has to stop—a time where instead of introducing new elements, I have to look to resolving all of the conflicts. I call this "turning the corner", and it's a difficult moment.

Usually by this time in the story I have a number of notions in my head about how the book will end, usually in the form of one or more brief scene-lets. And it's at the point that even while writing by the seat of my pants I need to figure out at least the broad sequence of events that leads to those outcomes.

This is generally a difficult moment: first, because it involves planning things out in advance, a dangerous activity for a pantser; and second, because of the way a pantser's mind works. Or, at least, the way my mind works.

See, it isn't really true that I don't plan things out in advance. It's just that I leave that sort of thing to my subconscious, or, as I call it, my back-brain. When I've got a creative problem that's giving me trouble, I chew on it a bit, and then move on to other things. That loads it into my back-brain. Then I come back to it a day or two days or a week later, and there's the answer, all ready for me to capture in pixels. (This works in software development, too.)

And sometimes I come back to it, and sit down and try to write, and it's like pulling teeth. That usually means that my back-brain isn't done yet. So I go away and come back the next day, or two…and sometimes it still isn't done.

When November started, I was about 70,000 words into Very Truly Run After; as of today, as the month draws to a close, I'm at not quite 80,000. Not very good progress by NaNoWriMo standards, but I'm more than satisfied. I spent a couple of weeks wrestling with a couple of scenes; but really, I was wrestling with turning the corner. Now, I think, I've pretty well got it.

There's still plenty of room for invention, mind you: the end isn't that close. But now I can see the trail that will get me to the climax, and that's a very good feeling indeed for Thanksgiving weekend.

photo credit: niiicedave _IGP9494.PEF CA-70 NB Feather River Scenic Byway Bute County California via photopin (license)

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