Blocked at Every Turn

You know when you see a mouse in a maze, and it’s running up a passageway only to find it’s blocked off, and so then it changes direction and runs down another passageway only to find – horrors! – that it’s blocked off, too, and so on?

Yes. Well. I always had huge sympathy for mice in those sorts of situations. From now on, though, I will have even more, because, right now, that mouse is me, people.

Photo Credit: Rain Rabbit via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Rain Rabbit via Compfight cc

You see? I’m so stressed I’m using too many commas.

I’m about three-quarters of the way into my rewrite of Eldritch. My hero is in a bind. He’s trapped in the presence of a powerful, but unhinged, relative who has A Nefarious Plan. Of course, my hero has a secret weapon, but it’s not one he knows about yet – and even if he knew he had it, he wouldn’t know how to use it, anyway. So, as you can see, plenty of scope for dramatic tension.

You’d think.

The first version of this story had the hero trotting off, at this point, on a whole rambling sub-plot about magical creatures which (for reasons best known to the automaton who appears to run my brain) appeared in the story, just because. I got myself all tangled up in their world, their King, their city, their rules and laws – and after about ten pages of this I came to a screeching halt and went…

What is the point of any of this?

So I stopped, forthwith, and went back to the last good point in the story. We have the hero and his relative facing one another down. Cue lots of mwahaha-ing and threatening language and displays of awesome magical power, and in this version the hero accidentally discovers how to use the secret weapon we talked about.

It should’ve been brilliant. But instead it was – flat. Ridiculous, actually. Images which looked so cool in my imagination came out of my fingers like so much fluff.

I junked all that, too, and went back to the first storyline which – if I’m being honest – seemed to flow better in terms of my ability to put one word after another, but I still had the nagging question in the back of my mind all the time. What is the point of any of this? Having been through a substantial edit on another book, I could anticipate my agent reading the work I was doing. I could see her comments. ‘Sorry, but what in the world is going on here? What does this have to do with anything?’ The only answer I’d be able to give her would be ‘Nothing. None of this has anything to do with anything, because it’s just silly. And unless I can find a way to tie it to the larger plot, it’s a piece of pretty decoration but not a lot else.’

Which meant, of course, it has to go.

So then it was back to rethinking the other plot, the secret weapon one. I had to consider what I wanted my character to do at this point; what does he need to learn? He has to overcome a difficulty, sure – but it doesn’t have to be a difficulty on the magnitude of being taken hostage by a bunch of magical creatures and having to fight his way out of their clutches at the same time as trying to fight his deranged relative. He has to learn that he has power within him which he hasn’t tried to tap, yet; he has to learn that when he needs to make a last stand and deliver, that he has the goods. So, there has to be another way – a neater and more pleasing way – of doing that.

There has to be.

So I decided to consider the scene in relation to the story overall, keeping in mind the larger movement of the book. One of the reasons I felt the scene with the magical creatures wasn’t working was that it was too slow, and took the story away from the primary field of action for too long. It wasn’t necessarily a bad scene, badly written or uninteresting – it just didn’t fit where I was trying to put it.

The first question I asked myself was: what is this scene trying to illustrate? I realised that the answer lies in several parts. Firstly, the power of the antagonist, and the lengths to which he’ll go to get what he wants. Secondly, the power – as yet untapped – of the protagonist, who knows not only his life, but also the lives of people he loves, are being put in danger by his relative’s megalomania. Thirdly, it has to hint at (but not give away entirely) the method by which the hero will eventually fight the antagonist, and I don’t want there to be too much repetition going on. As my agent said, repeatedly, on my last MS: ‘Ring the changes.’ As in, don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of using the same structure, plot device or conceit too often. It’s really easy to do, and it can be really hard to fix. I’m still not sure how to distinguish this preliminary battle scene from the one which I’m sure will come later – the showdown – but I think I have a calmer handle on the story at this point. I think. Though I’ve yet to look at it today, so that might all change in the next thirty minutes.

Anyway. I think I can safely say I found this technique (wherein I stop running around bashing myself into walls for long enough to think about the actual book and what I want it to do) very helpful. I keep forgetting who’s in charge when it comes to writing; I think of the book as being the one who calls the shots, neglecting to remember that I’m the writer and therefore the shots all lie with me. I also tend to put myself under so much pressure, as though there’s a looming deadline, that it destroys any sense of creativity or fun I might have in my work. There really is no need to panic: the calmer you are when looking for your story, the easier it is to find it.

That’s the theory, anyway. I’ll let you know how it all works out.

8 thoughts on “Blocked at Every Turn

  1. emmaleene

    It’s interesting to look at plot struggles of other writers. I wonder if your first version where you went rambling, got tangled into their world and then went what’s the point, does actually have a purpose. If only to help you build background knowledge that can probably be threaded back through the story later to help build a 3d world. I think it’s interesting how you used the world tangled. We do, after all, want the reader to be totally immersed. I think there’s something important here. I would suggest ramble on and pare back later, ignore the nagging editor voice and allow that fertile imagination of yours create the great the nuggets of gold that you have a talent for. Eventually you’ll mine a nugget that fits perfectly! Enjoy!

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Emmaleene. I really appreciate your perspective! I’ve been picking away at the scene gradually this morning and I’ve managed to add a little to the second scenario (the ‘secret weapon’) which is interesting, and I think perhaps I’ll be able to do something like what you suggested, and bring in some of the rambling, tangled stuff to add a bit of interest to the next chapter. Here’s hoping, anyway! I do find it hard to just write, and not pull everything apart as I go, but last year I found that when I did just that – wrote without censorship – I wrote my best work to date. So, there’s clearly a value to what you’re suggesting. Thanks so much for your input, and the benefit of your experience. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Elaine Peters

    I hope you find a nice bit of cheese in the middle of the maze! As Emmaleene said, ignore the editor in you for now. But your blog certainly lets us follow your thought processes.

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks! Though I’m dairy intolerant, so I’ll swap it for a nice rice cake instead… (so not a fair exchange!) I hope the blog was interesting. It certainly helped me to get a handle on my way of working. I’m not sure I’ve solved my problems just yet, but at least I’ve made some progress. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Jan Hawke

    I’m a big fan of flashbacks or ‘parallel’ plotting if you’ve got 2 worlds, or environments, or scenarios going on. That and the threading/weaving technique that Emmaleene’s suggesting can build up the onion skin layers and add depth to the main storyline and maybe help introduce a pivotal character gradually or insinuate them into the story so it doesn’t seem like such a deus ex machina flashpoint?

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      All excellent suggestions, thank you. I think what I might end up doing is writing two versions of what *could* happen from this pivotal point, and seeing which one makes more sense. I’ve made some progress today, but I’ve just re-read my work and it doesn’t seem as strong as it did when first written, so it might yet need a total rethink. I just wish I could figure out why this particular ‘corner’ is causing me so much difficulty! Hints at a larger issue, maybe…

      Anyway. Thank you very much for your helpful and insightful comment. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Maurice A. Barry

    I’m forever in awe of how you can go right through such a major piece and make changes at that level. The bigger the story gets the more ownership you have in the way it is. Simply put, it gathers inertia–resistance to change of any type. I think the words bravery and determination apply equally well to what you are doing and I wish you continued strength.
    Now, as for the closing line in the second last paragraph. I’m not sure I’m in total agreement. Yes, an element of level-headedness is an asset but a healthy dose of the good kind of stress is also an essential component.
    And, frankly, a nice extra-glass of wine to be sipped after you’ve logged off the computer and are pondering the next day’s edits would be truly useful. Just don’t edit while under the influence!

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      :-D! Sometimes I wonder if editing under the influence would be just the ticket, actually. 🙂 Thank you, Maurice, for another thoughtful and kind comment, and for your continued support.

      Reply

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