When things get really bad, I go to the writing place. Neil Gaiman.
When I sit in a chair and face a blank canvas and make up words on that blank slate before me. I am at my best when I rewrite those words and create a better draft than the one before. I am at my best when I add and subtract words from that scribbling I recently put on the page. I am at my best when I squeeze everything I can out of those words and get juice. Writing, I love every part of it.
The beach appears empty. It is high tide and the waves rush toward the shore. The sun is about to set. A fiery orange colors the sky the way Van Gogh must have colored his canvas. With strokes of genius. Suddenly a head bobs up from the water, then two arms reach toward the white sand that is the beach.
Questions arise in my mind. Who is this person and why alone in the water? Why is the beach empty of people? This is where the questions start begging me for a narrative to answer them. Story is born.
Could it be that the one I see is an alien criminal, escaped from some distant waterworld of a prison and the galactic cops are trailing her? There I can almost see one of the police behind her. No, that’s a mermaid, or maybe a merman. I am relieved but, at this distance, I can’t really tell who it is behind her.
Could be that man in the water some five minutes ago dove for pearls. The water grabbed him up and tossed him miles toward this African beach. Soon the night overcomes the world with its darkness and the surfer drags himself up onto the shore. He lays naked on the warm sand, his swimming trunks pulled off him by the tide going back out to sea.
There are dozens, hundreds of possibilities. These are only two. Maybe I can combine them and see what story appears on the horizon. But looking out onto that man on the beach, I know his name is Charley and he fell off a cruise ship. Knowing this, I now know what he wants, what he desires more than anything in the world. To get back to his wife and home. So what is stopping him? Nothing but the jungle and the ocean. And maybe Tarzan of the Apes who doesn’t like other human beings treading into his territory. You see, Tarzan is a very territorial guy and this part of the jungle is off limits for everybody except Jane, Boy, Cheetah, and himself. Seems like Tarzan may very well be my antagonist.
Now where do I go from here? Not sure. It’s going to take some brooding and figuring out the kind of guy this Charlie fellow is. As I study old Charlie and write several scenes, each taking him in a new direction, I realize that Charlie doesn’t really want to get back to his wife and civilization. You see, I start getting some back story. Charlie and wife Allie were having a fight on the cruise ship. “I want a divorce,” he screamed at her. “The hell you do,” she screams back at him. She hits him. She hits him hard across the face. He falls backward and over the side of the cruise ship, the Norwegian Viking. The last words she hears from him as he hits the water is, “Oh, shit.”
Now I can hear it. Uncle Bardie, where’s the planning in that? What structure do you have? None at this point. But this is my first draft and a very rough one at that. In my second one, there will be decisions to be made. Do I begin on the beach or on the cruise ship will have to be answered.
Next comes the digging. I don’t know what this Charlie really wants. I make a list of important events in his past. I pick one that I think is the most important, I count to ten and start writing. I am writing for insight not to include the scene in the story. If I don’t know this stuff about my character, my reader won’t know it. In this and other scenes I write I am coming to know my character well enough to tell his story, He is like a stranger I just met. By the time the story ends I will know him better than my closest friend or partner. Once I know him well, I know what he wants and I can then tell whether he will turn left or right on that beach or go straight into the jungle. I know whether he has the resources to survive the jungle. I have some clue at what resolution the story will have. That resolution may change along the way and probably will, but at least I have a direction. And I can see the first turning point in my plot. It is a goal to head for.
One of six. These key scenes include: plot point one that turns the plot on its head and twists it in a new direction, a midpoint where the story changes again and sends the character flat on his ass, a second plot point that throws my story into a completely new direction, a catharsis where Charlie has a knock-down-drag-out with Tarzan. I find out that Charlie beats the crap out of the Ape Man himself and ends up in a tree house with Jane, Cheetah, and the Boy. Course I always knew Tarzan was an extraterrestrial cop. I just didn’t have proof. That’s my first draft.
Didn’t know I would end up in a tree house at the beginning but so it goes. Now comes the elbow grease and the spick and span. It’s time to do the polishing, get out the structure chart and make sure all the holes are filled in. Begin to discover which scenes need more work, which scenes need cutting, which scenes need creating.
In my process, I haven’t completely abandoned structure at the beginning. But I leave a lot of room open for discovery. As I work through the second and third drafts, I know where I should be in the story. But, for me, it’s like knowing that I am in Chicago on my way to Seattle. I just need to decide how long I will be in Chi-town and what sights I will see there. As I visit those places, I get a sense of whether I am headed in the right direction to get to the sight I want to see. In each scene, I decide what the characters want in that scene, what is opposing them and whether they will get it. If they do, it becomes a “yes” but. if not, it is a “no however”.
Soon I am into my fourth draft and I am polishing up all those verbs, kicking the adverbs out on their asses and deciding if that noun needs a buddy adjective. When it is all nice and neat in its Sunday best, out it goes into the world. Hopefully some publisher will like. But …
And now it is on to my next tale. For I am at my best when I sit my butt down in the chair and face the blank sheet and put words on paper.
When are you at your best?