Revision 03d: The Plot Indecisive

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Sometimes you reach a point in a story and you can’t figure which way to go. Sometimes, oh allergic to writing things down pantsers, we forget what was supposed to happen, after a hiatus. Sometimes we read a blog that decries our choice we haven’t even written. Sometimes we have too many ideas.

If you can’t remember what your plot was, the grim reality is that if you can’t recover it through meditation, free-writing, or hypnosis, it’s gone. Take the pieces you have and make a new plot, cursing all the way, because we always know that the one that slipped our minds was just fabulous. Except it probably wasn’t or we’d remember it. It probably just seemed clever at the time. Very often, after you’ve written a new version, if you find the steno book or disc with the missing plot notes, you find they’re just so-so and you’ll be happy with the new one.

If the markets and your ideas conflict, you will discover one of two things. Either you are the kind of writer who can enjoy working to plan and modifying your ideas to suit — you lucky dog! — or you are the kind who is stuck writing what you have to write. (This does not excuse bad plots, junk characters, or derivative settings as being what you “have to write.”) What you will likely find is that after you have written one complete draft, you can put that away as “the true story.” After that, you can write “the fictionalized version” and feel free to modify it any way it needs to go. That, or you may find that you were thinking of the wrong market for this, and it’s really some other genre.

Sometimes you reach the middle and you know your ending, but you just can’t decide by which road to get there. Sometimes you reach a point in the manuscript where you realize that, at this point, you could go for one of two endings, either of which is good. Or a character could be one of two things. In all cases, both are good — it’s not like one is soggy or undramatic or unsatisfying — but it makes it a very different book.

Worst of all is when the character, as you’ve been writing, has revealed itself to be something you’re not sure would be in some planned plot situations. Even though you had been decided on the plot, the character has made it all questionable.

The simple, authoritative answer, of course, is that you decide what it is, you make that character behave like what you wanted and needed it to be, and stick to your plan (you really should have plotted it out: everyone is a plotter, if they’ll only get over their laziness, the authoritative teachers will insist).

The complex, humanistic answer is that art is not necessarily a front-and-top of the brain event, as controllable as a math equation. What’s most worth saying for the writer tends to boil up out of unknown depths. That’s why we talk about Muses, and characters that take over, and gods speaking to us, as if we hadn’t integrated our two brain hemispheres yet. None of us have.

Some just ignore that rich mystery stew and write with as little unexpectedness as possible. However, these books are often formulaic and dry. The characters never hooked the writer enough to “come alive and take over,” so they never become that hooky for the readers, either. This often results, in under-skilled hands, in obviously cardboard puppet characters behaving without convincing motivation, and being Stupid on Cue, and so on, just to make the plot work out.

The more chaotic a writer you are, the less of a plotter/railroad/crafter you are, probably the more you work on a pipeline from your subliminal. You will be able to touch archetypes, myths, and reader hearts more easily. You are more likely to have this sort of problem, too.

Either way, the problem here is an embarrassment of riches: too much creativity.

It’s very well to say, “This version will sell easier,” or “This lets me write an entire series of books.” If that decides the matter for you and lets you get going, great! But for some people it doesn’t. They have to do more work on themselves at this time.

You have two shining glorious possibilities before you. Maybe you can find a way to do both. But more likely, you are going to have to shut the door forever on one and make the other live, or lose both in the limbo of unfinished tales you never get to share with anyone else. Only books that have an audience outside the author are ever really alive. You want yours to live.

Let’s work it out.

Open your word-processor with two windows with different background colors.

1) In one, write out the working title in black ink. Write the synopsis to the point of divergence. Copy all this to the second one.

2) Now, take the two trails. Work out the diverging synopses, each in its own window. Keep parallel events visually parallel. That is, if the carnival is in both but with different secondary characters, make sure they both start on the same page. This can be dicey because one version may have more incidents between connect points. That’s what the forced page-break is for.

At this point, writing them out may have made up your mind for you. You know which is too simple, too contrived, or too little dramatic to wind up to a real wowzer finale. One may have that plot killer, “And then something happens in here,” which means you just haven’t got a real plot there yet. Definitely, prefer the one that has a plot you can follow, because if you can’t figure out what happens between two points, it will never get written.

If they’re still both good, you poor soul, you need to go over them in detail as synopses. Re-examine the plotting: you may actually have to change them more from each other to make the characters work on natural-looking motivations, because what motivates one character shouldn’t necessarily motivate another, unless they’re way too close in construction to be different characters.

3) Now, at the top of the synopses you’ve been doing, put a new title on each one. Don’t save the old title for one: it gives it too much weight, whether for good or ill.

4) Open two new windows. Put the title of each of the versions at the top. (This you may want to do by hand with a pen on the backs of old print-outs or on lined paper.) You are now going to brain-dump the pros and cons of each version. Why do you like this version? What annoys you about it?

If the manuscript you have grasshopper-written and rewritten and cross-written is so messy you can’t write a continuous synopsis, try writing it out on index cards or half-sheets of paper so you can shuffle events. You may find you have large chunks of a second novel that needs to be freed and set to grow on its own.

There’s no way to grade this for points, so that you can have a mechanical decision of one version having a higher quantity. When you have these four files done, just compare them for a while. That varies from instantly — writing this has revealed your overwhelming preference for one — to a day. Twenty-four hours, not a minute more. Do not allow yourself unlimited time to decide, or you’re right back where you started, dithering forever. Add to these four files as you like, as you tweak the ideas.

The voices in your head will tell you which is right, or at least they should tell you which version you do not want to do. Then, like getting married, commit yourself to this one and gently bid the other possibilities adieu. If you need to, write them goodbye letters explaining your choice.

Then get to work.

If at the end of twenty-four hours, you still can’t decide — call it dead and put it in the Bottom Drawer. Don’t think about it for a year at least, while you work on something new.

Points to Consider in Choosing

It’s a Good Thing® if a book looks to be commercially very viable, easily salable, but don’t let this bludgeon you into trying to write something you’ll give up on because you don’t really want to write that.

If that perception is based on a current reading fashion, remember: the pioneers of this new surge in vampire romances, medieval detectives, or Asian a/a heroes who never go near the West, sold their books two to three years before they hit the stand, and wrote them before that. If you take a year to finish this, it will then usually take a publisher two years to decide to buy it, if you sell it to the first one, and one or two more years to bring it out. Publishers have to think that far down the road. If they don’t think it’ll still be hot three to five years from now, they won’t buy it just because it’s presently fashionable. It had better be a very impressive piece of writing on its own because you’ll be at the tag end of the rush. Besides, if you only make this choice “because this version will sell,” you’ll never finish (you’ve already shown avoidance on it), so it won’t sell anyway.

So choose to write what you love, even if it breaks the rules. When you finish, you may find you had it pegged wrong, and it was mainstream not romance, fantasy not science fiction. Leave sales factors like genre for when you’ve finished a draft.

The same goes for being afraid to write something just because someone in your life won’t like it, so you should write the version they would like. That’s what pseudonyms are for. You can only write your books, not the books someone else would write or would want you to write. Don’t let the approval of someone who may never read this force you out of writing the one you want (because the other won’t get written, or you’ll always hate it).

See how the other reasons to stall can start sneaking in here?

Both of these are subsumed in the fear of “it’ll be too freakish and no one will want to read it and if they do they’ll hate it.” Are you being purposely freakish just to be weird and get attention because, if you’re “normal,” it’ll be boring? Don’t do it. Everything has been done before, so don’t worry about having to make it weird to be interesting. Make the characters real, the drama entertaining, and it will be fine.

If the odd things you’re thinking of doing are organic to the characters, and really satisfying for the reader, just run with it. Wait until everyone’s turned you down before you decide they’ll hate it. Along the way, someone could see what you see in it. Organic weirdness never includes deus ex machina or “we’ll never know endings,” which are dodging really writing a proper ending. (see tensionicide, terminal variety.) That’s just poor writing.

Don’t choose one variant just because it’s “easier to write.” No one said this was an easy job. Learn to confront, challenge, wrestle, and conquer difficult scenes. We all know how to string the words together. What we’re fighting is some block in ourselves that is preventing us from seeing that scene happen. Unless, of course, the problem is actually that the scene can’t happen that way: you may need a very high-level plot fix if a contrived plot-line fails a reality check or lacks plausible motivation for the characters to be doing this. The one that’s supposedly easy may never get finished because of boredom, or it will reek of the boredom  when you have it done.

Consider how much each choice will increase the time it’ll take you to finish the manuscript. That’s a factor if you’re on a schedule, or you just can’t face doubling its length. You may be at the point you just want it done and faster is better than resolving something in yourself. There’s not just writing time but research time. Historical novelists, I’m looking at you, but also at those who have to research growing up in Vienna thirty years ago if they go with character A, and volcanic eruptions if they go with ending B. Talk to yourself about whether or not the gains are worth it. Sometimes they aren’t. Only you can know.

Why do you like any changed character? Write it out. It makes you think more clearly about it to express it in solid words. What didn’t you like about the one it replaces?

If you have a concept you really love and don’t want to abandon, write it out and then drop a couple of blank lines. Free-write about it. Think of another story that would possibly show this off even better. You haven’t lost anything — you’ve gained a hot new project for when this is finished.

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There’s a truly extreme cure for this indecision: write both versions. Completely. I did this once for a divergence that was more than half of a 250,000 word novel: who gets the girl. Work, yes. Lots of work. Not recommended, but sometimes necessary.

I know which one I found more heart-warming. I know which one I found suited my series plan better. However, I found that by meshing incidents of the two I could make the one warmer and still keep my novels to follow — and one of those was half-written. (Extreme grasshopper.) I had to change to whom the incidents happened. I actually discovered that I had been avoiding that character’s vulnerabilities because they touched on a fairly terrifying past for someone who seemed always calm and in charge: in getting into his skin I had adopted his avoidances. In the end, I did get to have my series and warm my heart, too. But what a load of work over weeks and weeks! The shorter synopses method above is designed to avoid this.

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