Hidden in Plain Sight

I didn’t spend the weekend writing, like the good little writer boy that I aspire to be.

Instead I spent it reading and thinking about the first draft of a friend’s novel that I had a chance to look at. I won’t say I was “honored” to look at it, since the truth is that reading anybody’s first drafts (my own definitely included) can only be considered an honor if you’re also “honored” to have Mistress Helga take a paddle to your bare ass after a hard day at work, so you can “unwind”. First drafts can hurt, and not in a good way.

This isn’t something I regularly do. I don’t hang with writers. I don’t belong to writing groups. Other people’s writing process interests me. The result of that process, especially in its raw, first-draft form, not so much.

First, as I think I’ve mentioned, I almost never read fiction when I’m writing. Some possibly-foolish concern about cross-contamination, stylistically or in terms of plotting or characterization. Like most, if not all writers, my style and way of telling my stories are a result of years of reading and writing and reading some more. Absorbing bits of style, ways plots are developed, how characters can be made real to a reader. Mostly on a subconscious level, though occasionally it’s been “I like the way she did that – I’ll have do something similar sometime”. But once I’m actually pounding out the words, I want to concentrate exclusively on my own voice, not somebody else’s. So I read non-fiction.

Second, as I’ve also mentioned, I don’t believe everyone has a novel in them. They may have enough words to create something approximating novel length, but often the story is ill-advised, the plotting is dismal, the characters wooden cliches that barely have enough buoyancy to float. I don’t want to read that. And I dread the inevitable “what did you think?” that follows. Because it puts me in that moral gray area – do I say “Yeah, it was good” or do I tell the truth? And the only lying I like to do is making up stories and telling them in book form. Unless I’m fairly sure that the writer has the skill to have, perhaps, “issues” that can be pointed out and discussed (rather than telling the writer “delete it and start again” or asking “do you have any hobbies that you’re good at?”) I decline the “opportunity” to read early-draft work. Or, for the most part, even later-draft work.

In this case, I’ve read other stuff from this writer, over the years, so I know he can write. He can tell a story. He can write realistic characters and have the words coming out of their mouths sound like actual speech. Also his style is radically different from my own, and not one that I’d want to emulate, so I’m not apt to be “contaminated” by it. Which is not to in any way say that there’s anything wrong with his style. It’s just not appealing to me as a writer. As a reader, I’m fine with it.

And when I read somebody else’s material, I try my damnedest to read it as a reader, not a writer. Give five writers the same plot synopsis and put them to work, you’re going to have five different versions. Written different ways, focused on different aspects of the story, with different characters moving the story along. If he summed up his plot in a paragraph and said, “Write it your way” it would be very different. So I have to suppress that. I have to say “This is what it is, and it needs to be read based on what he wrote, not as I would have written it.”

For a writer, that can be difficult.

Even moreso when as a reader you get to a point where the story becomes unsatisfying and as a writer you see all the elements already in place to turn that around.

In this case, it was in the ending portion the book. Which is, as I’ve found myself, often a minefield that you have to get across to bring the story home.

Endings are hard. Maybe they’re easier if you plot the whole damn thing, chapter and verse, from beginning to end, ahead of time. Or if you write to a template, whether it’s something like the Hero’s Journey or an “act” structure, where certain things happen at certain points in the story, because readers “expect” it. I don’t write that way, because for me, if the story doesn’t roll out organically, it ain’t a story worth telling.

So getting the ending right is hard. In Bleeding Sky, I was two-thirds of the way through the book and I knew I was adrift. I knew where I needed to end up, but there was no satisfying path to follow. It took some hard thought and reflection. And then I saw it. I saw what was there all along, what was, as I’ve said, “really going on” – who was who, how they connected, and what it meant. A little retrofitting of a couple of scenes in the book and it all fell together.

In Bandit’s Moon, I actually cheated a bit, in my own mind. I knew the last chapter was going to be episodic, so I went ahead and wrote the last scene. It gave me a target, and helped me through the events that made up the last chapter.

In the first draft I was reading over the weekend, the ending portion is also episodic. But the episodes weren’t especially strong. Some blah-blah-blah, something happens, some more blah-blah-blah, something else happens. There was no compelling thread to it, something to make me, as a reader, want to find out what’s going on, what happens next.

But as a writer, I saw all the elements already there, in place, to construct a compelling thread, to give a reader something to follow along with, to even get some questions answered, as the book moved to its conclusion.

As writers, we sometimes miss things in our own pieces. Things we’ve put there but left unconnected to the whole of the story. They’re there, they’re clearly visible, but they’re hidden from us. Because we’ve got other ideas, or we’re anxious to move on, or because of the peculiar tunnelvision that keeps our eyes so focused on what’s ahead that we miss the scenery on either side as we pass.

And as loathe as I am to put on my writer hat when I’m supposed to be a reader, I pointed out this different direction to him. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with it.

For me, it’s time to get back to Blood for Blood. It isn’t going to write itself…

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