Two chapters in one day today, mainly because what I have to say about them is the same for both chapters. One of the biggest problems the early draft of VODNIK had was this huge gaping hole in the middle of the build up to the climax. In the original, Tomas gets zonked out for two weeks, and then it’s all a mad dash scramble for him to catch up and do everything that needs doing in just a few days.
It didn’t work at all.
But why it didn’t work was a very eye-opening experience for me as a writer. It wasn’t because the plot idea was stupid. There are tons of weaker concepts than that used all the time–successfully–in writing, television, and movies. It also wasn’t because it was executed the wrong way. That was my first instinct–that I’d done something wrong in the actual “Tomas gets zonked out for two weeks” description. So I wrangled with it for quite some time, trying to make it read better, or flow better, or anything. But the more I looked at it and fiddled with it, the more I was convinced that it in itself didn’t have any problems. So I must have been wrong, and it was too stupid of an idea, after all.
I started massively revising the ending–thinking about what else I could put in there. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like the ending was how it should be. I didn’t want to revise it. And that’s when I discovered the problem didn’t lie with the ending. It was all tied up with the setup to the ending.
I hadn’t properly prepared the reader to accept the fact that it was possible Tomas could get zonked out for two weeks. It came too much as a surprise. I went back and highlighted those passages a bit more. Put in a few mentions of Tomas feeling weaker, and worrying about getting zonked out for a few weeks–or more. In the end, I didn’t really add much at all. It was the equivalent of flipping a few switches and then calling it good.
When I gave it to new readers, I was pretty apprehensive. Surely it couldn’t have been that easy. They’d read it, and they’d still have the same huge problems with the end. I waited for feedback, and it came. No mention of having problem with the end. They loved the tension and drive and climax. It all flowed smoothly.
I had done it.
I learned a ton from that experience. First off, when a reader objects to something that happens in a book, it might not have anything to do with that actual spot in the book. It might be based in something that happens much earlier. So you can’t just limit your focus to what’s there at the trouble spot. Second, small tweaks in key places can make a much bigger difference than large tweaks or massive revisions. In lots of ways, writing is like sculpting in this arena. You write your draft and get all the main pieces in place, and then you move in and start chiseling in the fine details. It isn’t until everything is really set and honed that it all looks great. If a hand of a sculpture is looking off, for example, the answer isn’t to lop the hand off and change the sculpture’s overall look. It’s to get that hand right.
This isn’t to say that you don’t need to massively redo things from time to time. But if you’ve created a solid first draft, that should be a rare event. When there are huge problems, it’s often sufficient to go back to where those problems began and start fixing them on a small scale.
And that’s all I have time for today. Looks like Hurricane Sandy is on her way to greet me. I’d better go tie the dog down outside. (I don’t have a dog.)
Stay safe, everybody!