What is it, 6 weeks since my last post? It’s not so much that time flies when you’re retired (though I am that), but rather that it flies when you are working.
That work is the work of writing. I certainly can’t claim an encyclopedic experience of my new vocation, but I do know enough to say it is not just staring out the window awaiting inspiration from Sharon Stone. For one thing, when inspiration does strike me it’s most likely to do that while I’m exercising, on a walk or on my stationary bike. For another thing, Ms. Stone and I … ah, best not to go there.
So what is this supposed work? For the past 5 years I’ve been working on a Blair and Terendurr trilogy. Thus far I’ve completed about 250,000 words – two and a half books worth. I’m quite pleased with that and as I copy-edit and re-read I’m more and more confident this work is good. But that does not mean it’s done. It means it’s time to make it better.
Whether you consciously know it or not, whenever you read a story, you are processing the rhythm of the action. Almost all stories (and almost all movies) use a three-act structure that is roughly like so:
- Meet the hero or heroes, learn about their problem or antagonist.
- Heroes contend with the bad guys, suffer a crushing defeat.
- Heroes bounce back with a just-so-crazy-it-just-might-work plan – which works! Yay!
We don’t want every story to simplistically follow the three-act structure (which would be boring) but at the same time we need to see challenges and victories. The books we like the most tend to be the ones that vary the rhythm, keep us guessing, while still fulfilling the goals of the three-act structure. This is where the crunching comes in. I’ve taken the first story of the first book and for every separate scene in it, given it a number that indicates an achievement or a setback. When Blair finds a new lead on the case, that’s an achievement, worth a “1”. When she finds someone has deceived her, that’s a setback, a “-1”. A major defeat is a “-3”. Then I’ve plotted those values on a graph:
This literally shows the ups and downs of the story. “A” is the crisis, a tragic gun-battle where civilians are killed, the bad guys make off with the object everyone is pursuing, and Blair is knocked out and apparently kidnapped. “B” is where Blair and her kidnappers – who were her allies all along – rally, strike back at the bad guys and at the last instant hit upon the one weapon that will bring them victory.
You’re probably thinking, “Didn’t he already know this, seeing as he wrote it?” Having this in number form is more than just confirmation of what I already knew. It’s a way to plan optimization: Are the lows low enough? The highs high enough? And the achievements/setbacks are just one way to look at all this. In what scenes do the characters change? What made them change? Is it clear enough to the reader? Finally, a very practical asset is knowing the length of every scene, so you can assess where to make cuts or tighten things up. For example, as a writer I might like the scene where Blair and her beau have dinner, and we learn some of the beau’s backstory. But, is it worth 5 pages?
To end let me leave you with a few paragraphs from story 2 of book 1, REMNANTS:
At that more Keret began entering the saloon. These were Alwin’s officers and senior staff, each needing an introduction. Most were formal in their greetings. One, Pinthill by name, offered a witticism, “Blair? I thought all Terrans were named Doug.” This raised shrieks of Keret laughter, together with much waving of tentacles. I chuckled myself and was grateful at this lightening of mood.
The conversation in the company was that typical of new space-travelling acquaintances: What places have you been? My roster was the shortest by far. An older lieutenant claimed twenty-one worlds and was subject to interrogation. He was a shy sort – uncommon for a Keret – and it seemed he was oppressed by his shipmates’ skepticism. Until, that is, Alwin-vir intervened, “For shame, you spratlings. You should all serve so long to see what my friend Theebus-lim has seen. I go nowhere new without consulting him – a paid service, mind you! Now let us to table. Theebus shall sit on my left. Blair, you shall be at my right. The worthy elder lieutenant may offer some good advice.”
I rather like the “Doug” joke. Will it make the final cut? Only time, aided by my spreadsheet, will tell.