Last week was hectic at work, but I did manage to get some writing done. I dropped about 1000 words on a manuscript that has been sitting around since at least the late 1990s. I set it aside years ago to concentrate on "The Chronicles of Fu Xi," but now I've picked it back up in an effort to complete it.
It's funny looking back at your old draft manuscript. The process makes most writers cringe, myself included. However, that's not the case with this manuscript. It's been at least five, maybe even ten, years since I've read chapters from this unfinished work. I don't cringe when I read them (well, most of them). I think it's some of my best work, but it's unfinished. My wife doesn't comment on my writing much, but she has stated in the past that she prefers this manuscript to my work on "Chronicles of Fu Xi." I really need to figure out a way to complete it.
But why? If it's so good (at least in my head), why can't I bring myself to finish it? In this blog, I'm going to talk myself through the problems I'm having with this manuscript. Maybe writing about them might help me break this decades-long logjam and get the project moving. You're welcome to listen in.
I spent most of Sunday morning inventorying completed chapters and story outlines. I have perhaps 50-60 thousand words, lots of good scenes, a rough story idea, but no solid plot structure. That's what stopped me last time. How do I progress this story with solid characters and great personal interplay? Where do I take it?
First, I don't know where it's going. That's a hard pill to swallow as a professional writer, realizing I just started writing scenes but have no idea where to take it. As my writing style evolved, I eventually found that it's best to start with the ending. If I know what the climax will look like, I can build a story to get me there. Yet, I don't have a solid climax for this manuscript. I have a vague idea of where I want it to go, but not a solid scene in my head. This is the first problem to solve.
Second, my MacGuffin is vague. A MacGuffin is the object that sets the plot into motion and gives the plot purpose. For example, in the Harry Potter books, it's the thing Harry and his friends are trying to find, like the Sorcerer's Stone. In "Raiders of the Lost Ark," it was the Ark. I have several MacGuffins to choose from in this manuscript, but I can't settle on just one. I think it's because just one doesn't satisfy everything I need it to do. That probably means I need to simplify the plot and maybe even axe some characters.
The third problem I have is when the story is set. I started writing it in the late 1990s, and that's where I left it. It went from being a contemporary "urban" fantasy to a period piece. I didn't mean for that to happen. I'm going to keep it set in the '90s because I think it adds flavor, and one of the characters must come from the "Greatest Generation," and if I make it happen today, they would be too old or dead. A period piece demands more research to make sure I have my facts right so it feels like it's set in the 1990s. Computer tech plays a major role in the plot, so getting the state of the art for the mid-1990s is key. All of this adds time.
The fourth problem is that I have too many characters and subplots. Actually, let me correct myself—I definitely have too many characters and subplots. For instance, I'm currently in the middle of writing a new prologue to solidify the MacGuffin, but it quickly spiraled out of control as the minor character in the prologue (who was supposed to be there only to set things up) started to take on too much of a life of his own. What was intended to be a 1000-word section has now ballooned to over 3000 words. There I go again, falling into the trap of forgetting that less is more. If I want this novel to be under 100K words, I need to streamline everything. It's time to make some painful choices.
The next issue isn't really a problem per se, but it's a necessary and difficult aspect to tackle. This story is dark—brutal, even, at times. Profanity and violence must occur to stay true to the characters. People who have become familiar with my previous work probably won't like or understand it. Some may even recoil. I can't sugar-coat this plot. The characters are who they are. However, amidst the darkness, there is a strong streak of goodness and hope in this book. But for that light to shine brightest, it needs to be surrounded by darkness.
All of these flaws act as poison pills for the manuscript. But it's not all bad news. Every story needs an overarching theme, each character needs a theme, and each chapter needs its own theme. I sort of have an overall theme for this book—the redemptive power of love and the timelessness of love. Yet, as I'm writing this, I've come to the realization that I actually stumbled upon my true theme by accident. I didn't even realize I had written it down inadvertently.
I feel better after talking through all of this. Thanks for listening. Okay, it's time to get back to writing.
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