Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Leaving The Dump

The Third Draft Problem

By Jay Stringer

Weddle's post yesterday was well timed.

I just finished the third draft of book 2, and the dump was one of the key battles in this draft. My first manuscript, OLD GOLD (under submission right now, plug plug) was a novel written by accident. I started writing a short story, and then kept going until I had a moody hardboiled mess of around 80,000 words. There was never a plan for it to be a novel, so all of the lessons I learned on that first one were about editing and re-structuring. Between the first and second drafts I changed the protagonist; in draft the first it was a barman, in draft the second I realised that one of the customers at the bar was far more interesting. Then I hacked and I chopped and I rewrote. I took advice and I honed and I cried and occasionally I wet the bet. (wait, did I say that out loud?) But at the end of it I had a tight little novel that I'm proud of.

But for the second book I found a whole new heap of problems. This was the first time I'd actually planned to write a book. How the hell do you do that? Well, if you're me, you don't. You know what themes you want to wrestle with, you know what happens in the first line, and you have a pretty clear idea of where you want it to end. Sit and type. Wait for the characters to start bossing you around. It's all fairly simple. (simple and easy are two different things.)

The first lesson I learned was that the first draft of the second book was exactly the same process as the first draft of the previous one. The only difference was the editing of the first one had clearly honed my voice somewhat, because straight off the bat I used about 20,000 fewer words. I had learned to get to the point. (I know that you might be finding that hard to believe right now.)

So the new process has gone something like this.

DRAFT ONE- Throw a load of words onto a page and try and find a good ending for it all.

DRAFT TWO- Take out as much of the crap as I can, and find my characters amidst all the sludge.

DRAFT THREE- Okay bub, the easy part is done. Now you gotta make this into a story. You got your plot and your characters, but now they gotta work together.

So somewhere in the second draft I figured out which characters needed to drive the story, and what their stake in the whole thing was. For the third draft I had to make sure that the characters and the plot were serving each other. Because if you know what happens, why it happens and who it happens to then you're on the road to having a story.

Which is where Weddle's dumping ground comes into it.

Fir the third draft I gave myself a rule. I am not in the book.

These are my characters. They are my words and they form a story I want to tell. Each little bit of the book's DNA has me in it. But aside from all that, I had to make sure I wasn't talking directly to the reader.

To follow that rule meant getting pretty hard on myself. If information needed to be put across, then it needed to be put across by a characters words or actions. One sub plot I'll dangle out there is that a character in the book has a drug problem. But, see, he has a problem, so he's not going to tell the reader about it. He's sneaky like that. And it's not really going to come up in conversation, because that would be contrived. So how the hell to let the audience know?

The answer was the scary part; trust. I show the character taking pills. I let him say it's medication. But then I also show that he won't let anyone else in the book see him take them, and I know the reader will pick up on it if they want to. And if they don't want to, hell, they still have a plot to enjoy.

One of the characters has fallen for one of the other characters, but doesn't realise it. That's a fun piece of information to try and get across when your main tool -your character- is being stupid. Again, I just decided to only show the things that it made sense to show.

The hard part of the rule was that there was a lot of information that I couldn't get across without stepping into the narrative. If it failed the test, it got stripped out of the book.

The dump takes on a few interesting added dimensions when it's the second book in a closely knit series. You need to give the reader information about what has happened in the previous book, without giving away too much. And that's a fine balance to try and find.

For instance, in book 2 I could tell you that Timmy fell down the stairs 9 months previously. You needed to know that to understand why he has a limp, a drug problem and a fear of stairs. But I didn't need to tell you that he was pushed down the stairs by the serial killing elf from Pluto. That way, if you go back and read the first one you have an idea of what happens at some point, but not why or how. You're still going to choke on your squash when you find out that his best friend, an elf from Pluto, is the serial killer.

So it's not just judging how and where to dump the information, it's judging which bits of information you need to dump more than once. Somewhere in the first 50 pages of every Matt Scudder novel he tells us about the girl that he accidentally killed. Was it always needed?

There was a time when every single Batman story would tell us that his parents were brutally slain and that cowards are a superstitious and cowardly lot. Did that always have a bearing on why he was about to punch the Joker in the face? No, not really.

But sometimes it did.

Sometimes we needed to know that lonely alcoholic Matt Scudder once accidentally killed a girl, and lit a candle for her every night. Sometimes we needed to know that Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents being killed. Sometimes the character and the story demanded that we know.

And these are all parts of the fun battle with the dump that I've been having. Not just how to get the information across, but also which information needs to be there.

And once you've fought those battles, and you're climbing free of the dumping ground and leaving it behind, there's one more hurdle for the second book to clear. The damned ending.

This might be a trilogy, it might be a quartet. Truth is, I won't know until I've nailed the first draft of the third book. But either way, book 2 has a problem. It's the middle of the story. It's building directly on what happened before, and it's leading directly to what follows.

But the book needs to stand. It has to be a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to satisfy. As much love as we all throw at The Empire Strikes Back, and as much as that ending might have blown our minds when we were kids, it does a lousy job of standing on it's own as a story. It's just a couple of hours of middle, with some cool fight scenes and one of Harrison Fords finest moments.

But for my tastes, and for what I want to do with these books, I would be doing a disservice to the book and the readers if I pulled something like that. So the challenge was, how to fashion a beginning, a middle, and an end from what is all the middle of a larger story? How to serve the reader who only reads book 2 just as much as I serve the one who reads all three?

I know how I did it, but that's a post for another time. For now, all of these are just a few of the challenges that I'm labelling The Third Draft Problem. (That is, until I have to write a fourth.)

But what good examples can you think of writers who've managed to serve both sets of readers? Which books have stood just as well alone as they do when put in their place with the larger story?

And who wants to call me a jackass for taking my latest shot at Star Wars?


John McFetridge said...

"How to serve the reader who only reads book 2 just as much as I serve the one who reads all three?

That's a good question. the truth is, if you write enough books most people will only read some of them. I've read a few Lawrence Block, but not all of them. Same with Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos.

But I've read all the Elmore Leonard and I find that the characters and situations mentioned in more than one book can be like a reward for people who've read them all, a little extra to appreciate.

So maybe that's the way to look at it, it isn't so much that you want to serve the reader who only reads one book, you want to reward the readers who read more than one.

(movies are different. If you can find a person in the world who has only seen Empire Strikes Back and no other Star Wars movie, I think you could make a reality show about him.

Bryon Quertermous said...

John had a good comment on Steve's original post I agreed with. If I'm sucked in by the voice and by the characters, I don't mind an info dump. In fact, sometimes these info dumps can be very entertaining. Elmore Leonard is very good at them.

writenow said...

I liked what you said, and take all the potshots you want at Star Wars. Lord, it was boring!

When you talk about writing, you really speak to me. It sounds like we go through many of the same things. I'm in the process of editing three books I wrote in the past 2 1/2 years. I didn't want to stop after the first one because the ideas were coming so fast. So I put off the edits.

Now it's time to pay the Piper. I need to do the "third edit", as you say, and I grok your process. It's time to make everything count, and though I know what to do, it ain't easy. Hey, I always look forward to reading your posts here. Thanks a lot for writing them.