Friday, January 19, 2007

Plot and Character

Status: 8500 words and counting

There's been a lot of talk lately at CS Harris and Razored Zen about plotting and character. Lately, I'm wondering if there's much of a difference.

The more I write, the more I come to suspect I'm a definite seat-of-the-pantser when it comes to plot. For me, there was a lot of truth in Stephen King's comment that writing is like finding a half-buried piece of colored string and following it to see where it ends. His archeaological metaphors also resonate, the point being that for me stories are things unearthed, discovered.

Which brings me to character. My more successful plots, such as they are, are where I take some characters and put them on a collision course. Viola, plot.

I'm not the first to work this way, and I won't be the last. It's just what works for me.

But not only is plot a thing discovered in my work, so is character. I've seen all the worksheets and the like, the advice about knowing what your characters had for breakfast that morning and what their star sign is. They probably work for some people. For me... meh.

I get to know my characters a little at a time, same as my friends. I'm not an 'instant BFF' kinda guy, and I'm not an instant intimacy kind of writer. By the end of the book I know my characters pretty damn well (Sarah had an English muffin and juice for breakfast. Tommy had a fistful of Benzydrine.), but in these early days they don't show all of themselves to me, and the sides they show aren't always entirely truthful.

Sometimes the characters send me off in the wrong directions, but not often. Mostly, it's me and my damn ego trying to force them in directions they don't want to go. I can be pretty damn stubborn, so several thousand words might get written before I figure it out and the story begins to flow again.

My record is forty-eight thousand. Yup. 48,000 words spent barking up the wrong tree, my hero fighting me all the way. It happens.

More often, the characters will reveal something late in the book that means going back and setting it up earlier on. How early depends on how important.

So right now I'm in the honeymoon phase. It's flowing, everything new and shiny. A month or two down the road, it's going to get rough. They'll quit talking. Or I'll quit listening. The work will slow to a crawl.

But I will finish. I learned a lot of life's lessons in my messed-up youth, and probably one of the most valuable was: You can't quit just because you're being punched in the face. In fact, that's probably the worst time possible to give up. So I know going into this that the going will likely get rough, but the book'll get done anyway.

If history repeats, I'll likely end up with 120k words or so and then trim down. POISON DOOR ran 140k before I typed 'the end'. By the time I was ready to show it to an agent, the ms came in at a lean mean 88,000.

That one's going out to editors now-ish at 90,000 words. Agent Anne assures me that the extra weight is fighting muscle, not an ounce of flab.


Charles Gramlich said...

My preferred reading range is somewhere between 65,000 and 120,000 words. There's something to be said for the shorter, tighter, rip-roaring works, but I don't mind a meaty tome on occassion, as long as it doesn't have the "flab" you mention.

Steve Malley said...

Totally. James Ellroy's COLD SIX THOUSAND comes to mind. It's huge, but not a bit of waste on it. Not even most articles, adverbs or prepostions.

You'd hardly expect a guy who strips sentences down to bones to leave in useless I-love-these-characters scenes or -wow-what-a-lot-of-research-I-did bits of exposition.