Thursday, June 25, 2009

Writing out of the Mist

I'm getting really close to being totally done, aside from a final read-through. In fact, that may happen today if I can avoid interruptions. I just have the last two chapters to re-work, though one thing that will fix the last chapter needs to be set up in an earlier chapter, which will involve a little rewriting there.

Meanwhile, my subconscious seems to be churning away at the latest idea. In writing groups, there's often a lot of discussion about being a "plot-driven" or "character-driven" writer, meaning what's your starting point for a story. Do you come up with a plot, then populate it with characters, or do you start with a character and build a story around him/her? With me, it varies depending on the book and on where the idea comes from. With my Enchanted, Inc. series, it started with a kind of book, a particular genre mix. From there I developed what the magical system would be and how the main character fit into it, and then the basic kind of person the main character would be. I think I developed the specific plot and the specific characters at around the same time, just before I started writing (though I'd written the first page or so before I did anything -- yes, I wrote the first page of the book before I knew who was actually talking).

This new idea is an entirely different animal. It started more with a vague feeling and a mix of elements I wanted to play with, all of which were swirling together in a kind of mist. Sometimes I'd see a shape in that mist, like when you look at clouds and suddenly see a cloud that looks like something, but if I stared too hard at it, it would lose shape. The first thing to come out of the mist and hold its form was a dog that I thought must belong to the main character. Then I got a very basic, high-level, generic plot (on a par with "a detective has to solve a crime" -- not that, but at that level of detail), and that's when I realized that the dog actually belonged to someone else, but the main character would be stuck with it for most of the story, and the dog was more of a kindred spirit with the main character than with its real owner. Then more things swirled around these elements, some of them taking more solid shape, though they're still pretty misty. The main character is still forming, and I think I'm getting a sense of her, but the challenge will be how to tell her story.

As she exists now, in her vague, misty form (she doesn't even have a name), she's one of those force of nature type people who goes after the things she wants without even considering that she might not be able to get them, practically reshaping the world around herself as she goes -- and without being consciously aware that she's doing so. She's the kind of person about whom Terry Pratchett tends to have characters say, "Oh dear, I hope she hasn't happened to someone." Like the book version of Mary Poppins, she manages to make all kinds of amazing things happen, then acts like she has no idea what people are talking about when they refer to what she's done. (Incidentally, as I'm re-reading those books, I'm finding it more and more funny that because of the movie the name "Mary Poppins" has come to mean someone who's all sweetness and light, while in the books she's kind of a bitch and very vain and crabby.) This is also a character who has a big discrepancy between what she appears to be like and what she really is -- she has the kind of appearance that leads to people making incorrect assumptions about her, so they're always surprised when they find out what she's really like.

The trick is how to convey this kind of person. I prefer writing in first person, and if I do that, this character would have to be the narrator because she's the only one who would be present for all the major events, but that doesn't really work to convey that difference between outside and inside. It's so much fun to get that sucker punch through the eyes of the person being sucker punched. This is a character to get to know from the outside in. I would rather introduce her through someone else's eyes. Then there's the fact that not being entirely sure what she's thinking is half the fun because you're never sure what she'll do. Going back to Pratchett, it's like the way he mostly talks about Carrot from someone else's point of view, especially as Carrot has developed. Half the fun is never really knowing how much of what he does is calculated and on purpose and how much is really him being naive, and the other half is seeing how people react to him. If you knew what he was really thinking it wouldn't be quite as interesting. As a result, we don't see much of him alone -- in one book where Carrot did have to go off alone on a mission, Pratchett sent the talking dog along with him to provide an external point of view (I don't know if that's why he did it, but that was the result).

But Pratchett uses an omniscient point of view -- what I like to think of as the storyteller voice, where the primary point of view in the book is that of an off-stage narrator who sees all and knows all, and who has as strong a voice and perspective as any of the actual characters. That allows him to dip into everyone's head, as needed, as well as providing editorial commentary. That's really tricky to pull off. If you do it right, you get Terry Pratchett or Jane Austen. If you don't do it right, you get headache-inducing headhopping that reads like a beginning author who doesn't even know what point of view is, let alone how to use it. It's also really easy to slide into telling instead of showing. I'm not sure I've got the skills for that, or that it would work for this story. I prefer to really get into a character's head and see the world through that person's eyes.

I suppose as I continue to let my subconscious develop the idea, I may come up with another character who will be around enough to be a narrator (come to think of it, the dog's around a lot ...). In a sense, I do that with the Enchanted, Inc. books because even though Katie's telling the story and plays an active role, Owen is really the "hero" of the story -- it's ultimately mostly about him, just told by someone else. The story wouldn't be nearly as fun or as interesting if you were inside his head -- trust me, I've worked out some scenes by writing in his point of view, and it's not as interesting as when Katie has to guess, and I absolutely can't get first-person out of him because it would be out of character for him to talk at that length. It has to be third-person, where you're eavesdropping on his brain, and that's a very noisy place.

But in the meantime, I have this project to finish and get off my plate, and then another I want to revise. By then, all the mist should have solidified nicely.

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