Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Finding the story

Letting a story percolate is perhaps one of the most important things a writer can do.  Maybe it's a lesson I've learned on my circuitous journey to what I'll today call (with apologies to Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance) authentic publication, I don't know, but I sometimes sit on stories for years, even decades.

This isn't totally unusual.  A lot of Stephen King's recent output has been work he originally envisioned or tried to tackle early in his career but for one reason or another didn't think he could execute properly at the time.  I don't know if those stories changed for him once he finally wrote them, but that's certainly been the case for me.

The story I was originally going to write about was the final novel (as the complete saga now stands in my outlines) in the Space Corps sequence.  (Mind you, I've only written one of them so far, Seven Thunders, and I happened to get my first rejection for it on my birthday, of all days, a little over a week ago.)  Based off something I'd written that wasn't even originally part of that novel, I realized something that absolutely needed to happen.  As it stands, this element will be the subject of an epilogue.  I love epilogues.  I love flipping the script on something the reader thinks they've previously known pretty well.  I don't believe in one-dimensional characters, for instance.  Someone who's seemed like the villain suddenly turns out to be sympathetic once I've presented their full story.  (Something I developed in my writing during Seven Thunders, and certainly I'm indebted to Lost for fully appreciating as a storytelling technique.)

Then I realized something about what I wanted to do with Belle York, the manuscript I'll be tackling this fall.  As it turns out, I've had to change the title, to The Cement Pond.  Suddenly this has become a much more personal story, a realization I had after a recent viewing of Saving Mr. Banks, the movie about the battle between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney over the making of Mary Poppins.  I'm still working on dotting all the t's in this new vision of the story, but I'm more excited than ever about it.

Finally, I had an epiphany concerning King of the States, a comic book project I developed a few years back, while reading the Salman Rushdie memoir Joseph Anton.  I've been trying to break into comics for years, with mostly miserable luck.  Next year I'll be in the position to spend a little money on artistic collaboration to try and get myself into a position to pitch projects to publishers like Image.  The beauty of States is that it's a long maxi-series split into short arcs, so I can sell it one arc at a time (I realize this approach bit Jack Kirby in the butt when he tackled New Gods) if necessary.  I changed the main character's name, figured out what he ought to be doing, what he did, and what it means for everyone around him.  Suddenly the whole thing seems as vital as I only thought it was originally.

All three are instances of coming up with better versions of stories I thought I already knew, all because I didn't jump on writing them as soon as I came up with the ideas.  I tend to write on spur-of-inspiration, changing the story even as I'm writing it, so this isn't entirely new to me, but having a better idea of what it should be before I begin, I think, is about as good a way to approach a project as there can be.  To have done this with three projects more or less at the same time has certainly made for an interesting couple of weeks.  I'm the kind of writer who thinks most of the art of writing is actually the art of thinking about the story.  The advice of writing every day can help with fundamentals of the form, but I don't know that it necessarily improves the storytelling, unless you're capable of doing both at the same time.  Storytelling, for me, is everything.  You can be an excellent writer, but if your grasp of what you're trying to tell is poor, then you're still, ultimately, failing as a writer.  Some of the worst writing I've read is clearly the result of the writer going full-steam ahead with an idea that was never fleshed out.  They insist on following through with whatever they came up with first when it should have become clear at some point that the story was in fact headed in a different direction.  It's like a writer who thinks description is everything, but they fill a room with nothing but empty space.

Ever realized that about something you were working on?


  1. If writing is thinking about the story, I'm good at that.
    My first book changed from concept to end project. Of course, there was thirty years in between.
    They say never go with the first thing that comes to mind. Mulling over a story for a long time gives you the chance to see it from many other angles - and then you can pick a better one. So, now all three of those stories will be better because you did that.

    1. Sometimes I wish you'd spend more time blogging about your writing experience.

    2. That makes two of us.
      Hi, Tony. Long time no see. This is really interesting. Before I lost my love for writing stories, I could spend endless time thinking about them. It was really important. Moreso than style and all the technical stuff. Somewhere along the road I got lost, I think. I should resume my thinking.

    3. The beauty of writing is that even when you don't think you're writing, you are. You're coming to a better understanding of how you approach storytelling. Which is always a good thing.


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