Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Strong Spine

I'm hard at work on the third pass for Crossroad Blues. The second pass went well: the spine of the story showed through, nice and strong.

What's the story's spine, you ask? In the Full Throttle toolbox, the spine of the story is that sentence or two that forms the essence of the story, its core.

The spine of Double Indemnity is two shiftless lovers plotting to get away with the murder of her husband. The spine of American Gods is Shadow's deepening relationship with his father in the face of the coming war. The spine of Crossroad Blues is a decent man thrown into a nest of human vipers.

This first draft was hard. There was a lot of flab and dead tissue before I got both hands wrapped around that spine. And as often happens, by the time I wrote 'the end' I knew I needed to change a few things at the beginning. And a few more. next thing I knew, I was deep in the second pass.

And of course, by the time the second pass was done, I could see that I had to get back in for a third.

My second draft was relatively minor. There were hours spent looking up facts I glossed over in the heat of the first draft: which private jet does the rich guy use? What's its range/how many refueling stops/what kind of time does he need? What breed of horse works best in this terrain? What would this expert actually know, and how would he say it? The usual.

Also, I'm shocking for changing the names of minor characters mid-book. Lots of search 'n replacing there.

Third run at the material, now I'm grappling with structure. I need to add some new material to set up more of the end of the story. Certain scenes, I need to change the viewpoint characters. Which means changing the voice of the narration, sure, but also, the information one character takes from a scene will be different from another. (Example: a sixteen year old girl and a middle-aged auto mechanic will see wildly different things when they look at a car.)

As I move through this stage, I keep one question at the front of my mind: Is this true to the spine? Because you can monkey with a lot of things in a story, but you touch that spine, you may very well kill your story.

Take Double Indemnity. Does Walter need to be in inurance? It helps, but you could write the story differently. Does Barton need to be so tenacious, or even there at all? Not really. You could write the story with a different set of complications and pressures. Now imagine it without the adultery, or the husband, or the money. Any one of those things come out, what's left?

Or how about American Gods? Shadow could meet different gods. He could go different places in his quest. I think the decisions Neil Gaiman made are brilliant (especially Laura and the abandoned hotel at the center of the US); they contribute to and enrich that core story. But the truth is, some things could be done differently and still have a similar story. Not so with Shadow's father, or the coming war.

So I work, trying to figure out what contributes, what can come out, what needs to change and what doesn't. In all these things, I try to be faithful to that spine. I want to make it better, faster, stronger.
Because I really like this story, and I want to do it justice.


SzélsőFa said...

Thank you for this useful post on the various phases of revision.

I think what you call 'spine' som might call 'core' or 'main message', perhaps...?

Bernita said...

Good advice.
I'll try to remember it after I'm through adding vertebrae.

Shauna Roberts said...

Interesting metaphor. Interesting, too, that you have one easy-to-remember measure for judging each section of your work. Do you go back later to check each character's growth arc and to strengthen themes, or do you nail those in the first draft?

Charles Gramlich said...

Very good point about how in a story some things can come out or be changed while others are core, or spine. This is one of those things I kind of knew but hadn't verbalized. It helps to make them conscious.

Lisa said...

Would you consider the spine to be the same as the theme/s, or is it something even more concrete? The photo is stunning -- you have a way with creating great visuals to complement your written ideas, but I guess that should come as no surprise.

Steve Malley said...

SzélsőFa, you're right. In fact, I did call it 'core' a few times. I just use spine for the idea that what I keep is sleek and muscular and helps it stand. That, and a chance to use that cool graphic!

Bernita, thanks!

Shauna, my method grew out of drawing comics: rough sketch, proper drawing, black ink.

2nd draft is where (among those other things I mentioned) I'm looking for arcs and themes. They're always in there, even though I spend the first draft going 'he does this!' and 'ooh, that means she does THAT!'

Charles, if we could only teach the idea to Hollywood directors, we might get better movies!

Lisa, I always figured 'theme' was a unifying idea that pops up throughout the work. To me, it's bigger and more abstract:

Can murdering thieves ever trust each other? --Double Indemnity

America is no great place to be a god. --American Gods

Sons must one day part from their fathers. --American Gods

Never trust a grifter. --American Gods

A theme (and books can have more than one; American Gods certainly does.) threads its way in and out of a story. The spine/core is what you cannot take out without bringing the story crashing down.

eg. What if we made Bridget Jones married, but unhappily? Then, when she meets Darcy, there's a 'forbidden love' thing going on?

Not saying that story can't be written, but...

Steve Malley said...

I think I might post on theme next. It'll take some thinking!

Lana Gramlich said...

Interesting insight into your creative process. Sounds like an effective plan.

cs harris said...

Interesting approach and metaphor. And as your illustration suggests, the spine is golden!

AvDB said...

The spine is key, no doubt. But that changeable matter, the muscles and tissue that support our spine, that's where we get to build a living thing, to move beyond a universal theme and show ourselves as individuals. The settings, characters and words we choose are the embodiment of us, the reflection of our selves as writers.

Steve Malley said...

Lana, you're right. It *does* sound organized and effective when I write it down like that. In practice, well, that's another story...

CS, the spine is indeed golden. Many's the time I wished I built from the spine up, like you plot-outliners!

Avery, great to see you back, and well put! You are seriously eloquent!