Writing a novel is a balancing act. You’ve got to balance exposition with action, description with dialogue, you’ve got to balance multiple character arcs and the needs of the external conflicts and the internal conflicts and lots of other stuff, too. Go too far in one direction and you wind up with a book that is either boring or one that is too frenetic to follow. It will come as no surprise then if I tell you that doing this well is hard, hard work.
When I write a novel (and, I would guess, when a lot of people write novels) there are certain scenes, sequences, or sometimes even specific lines that I know I want to show up in the book. They are the tent-pole scenes – the ones that hold up the rest of the story. The pivot points of tension and reward, of strike and impact (to borrow a phrase from this excellent craft thread from @dongwon) circle around those scenes.
Now, really intense reads – the books that really have you turning pages, that have you staying up late to finish them – have the best tent-pole scenes. They are constantly drawing you from crisis to crisis, giving you a helpless sense of being drawn along through events. A book, though, can’t be nothing but those scenes – it’s impossible. You can’t have nothing but car chase, because very quickly the chase scenes stop mattering (for reference, watch the second Matrix film). You need to build tension and you need to set the stage for the chase. The more understood the stakes are, the more powerful the payoff will be.
The trouble though, is how much buildup do you need? When I’m writing the first draft of a novel (as I am now), I get bogged down sometimes in preparing for the big scene to happen. I know it needs a stable platform to stand, so I just keep shoring up my foundations, over and over and over, until its clear I’m wasting time. In revision, I trim a lot of this buildup out, keeping the bare essentials – balancing set-up and payoff, essentially. This is a challenging process because it is difficult for the author (who has had this pivotal scene in their head for possibly years) to know if the scene is landing for a stranger.
Often I feel I’ve missed the mark – I get feedback from readers and editors who say things like “why is this happening” and I’m like “DUH, CAN’T YOU READ MY MIND?” Naturally, I’ve got to go back then and fill in blanks that I didn’t know were there. This sometimes feels frustrating – I feel like I’m back where I started, wasting everyone’s time. Let’s be honest, if it were possible, we’d like to write nothing but chase scenes and pivotal battles and emotionally wrenching death scenes and stuff. “All Killer and No Filler” as they say.
You can point to various thrillers and action-packed reads and say “see! They did it!” What isn’t commonly realized, though, is that the “filler” – the set-up, the build – is still there. It’s just done so elegantly that you don’t notice. They have just enough to make the action land, but not so much that you get bored waiting. In other words, they balance it perfectly.
I can’t say I quite do this to my satisfaction, yet. But I’m working on it.
ACT 1: THE IDEA
Writer: Wait…wait a minute. What’s this here? Why…why it’s a little idea!
Idea: (tiny voice) Water me, and I shall grow!
Writer: LET IT BE DONE!
(weeks of obsessive scribbling in notebooks pass)
Writer: THIS WILL BE THE GREATEST OF BOOKS!
ACT 2: THE DRAFT
Writer: There…outline finished.
Idea: That doesn’t really look like me.
Writer: It does if you tilt your head a little and squint.
Writer: Let’s just start writing this thing and bring it to life. Then you’ll see.
Draft: HELLO! I AM DRAFT!
Idea: That looks nothing like me.
Writer: NO SHIT.
Idea: This is a violation of your promise to make me beautiful.
Writer: IT’S A PROCESS, DICK!
ACT 3: REVISION
Writer: Maybe if we hacked off its arms….
Idea: My arms are my best feature.
Writer: Okay, well, then I guess you’ll have to be purple.
Writer: WORK WITH ME, IDEA!
Idea: I will not compromise my integrity.
Writer (brings out chainsaw): Get on the table.
Writer: DO IT!
A BRIEF INTERLUDE
New Idea: Hi there! I’m a new Idea!
Writer (stooping over bloody corpse of old idea) GO. AWAY.
New Idea: Uhhhh…this seems like a bad time.
Writer: (points) GET IN THAT NOTEBOOK, SCUM!
ACT 3: SECOND DRAFT
Writer: (throws switch) There! LIVE LIIIIVE!
Idea/Draft Hybrid: WE. OBEY.
Writer: (frowning) Nope. Back on the table.
Idea/Draft Hybrid: WE. OBEY.
ACT 4: COMPLETION
Writer: There! All done!
Writer: What? What’s wrong?
Idea: Why am I purple?
Writer: (looks at chainsaw) Hmmmmm…
Idea: No! Purple! Purple’s fine!
For the past few months I’ve been closing in on the end of a complete draft for my latest novel. As of yesterday, it hit the ‘tipping point’. There’s less than fifty pages left in this sucker, probably closer to thirty, and that means I am probably going to bury myself in it and finish it in one go.
All of my novels hit this point towards the end. Traditionally, it means that I cocoon myself in my office and write non-stop for a couple days, forgetting sometimes even to eat, until the thing is finished. I’ve completed four novels to date, and its happened with each of them when I get to the end of the initial draft. I’ve heard this happens for other authors, too.
While I can’t speak for anybody but myself, part of why I believe this happens is because writing a novel is a lot like solving a labyrinth. You know, ultimately, where you want the whole thing to go, but getting there often involves twists and turns you didn’t anticipate, dead ends that turn you around, and the occasional spot where you find yourself going around in circles. Then, though, in a fit of inspiration, you see the whole damned thing – the path from where you are now to the finish line in perfect clarity. At that point you are no longer lost. You’ve got it. It just remains to write it all down. The feeling is exhilarating, and you feel an almost physical compulsion to finish it, no matter how long it takes.
Of course, this tipping point has coincided with the end of the fall semester, which means stacks of papers to grade as well. That complicates things somewhat, but I should be very surprised if I don’t have Lych done by Christmas, one way or another. So, what I’m saying here is that my blog will be neglected, one way or another, for the next 2-3 weeks or so. Sorry. I’m sure the internet has other ways to distract you, anyway.
Then, of course, I’m going to have to face the infinitely harder task of revising the novel I have now, which is nothing like a labyrinth and everything like a CIA interrogation at a black site. Anyway, wish me luck, and I’ll see you all on the other side!
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, too!