There are two fairly significant maxims that I’ve been hearing ever since I first demonstrated an interest in writing back in elementary school.
The first, the one I’ve heard the most often, is the infamous ‘Show, don’t tell’. That one seems to be just a little bit controversial, a fact which has always intrigued me because for me, it’s simplicity itself. Apparently not so in the world outside of my head; I’ve seen countless forum threads where everyone seems to have taken something completely different from the notion. Maybe the difficulty arises from the necessity of telling in order to pass on a definition of the idea? Having gained my understanding from seeing it in action, maybe it means a whole different thing to me.
I don’t know, and it’s not really the point. I only bring it up because in contrast to that contentious little word of wisdom, most people I’ve met seem to be pretty much agreed on what it means to ‘write what you know’.
Of course, the commonly-held interpretation is incredibly useful advice. Oh, sure, most people are going to have to branch out from what they’ve literally experienced in order to tell an interesting story and that goes doubly for speculative fiction writers. But without some kernel of truth, it’s really hard to make writing sound believable. If you’ve spent all your life living in the middle of a buzzing metropolis as part of a single-parent family with no siblings, you’re probably going to have a harder time conveying the nuances of what it’s like to live as part of a giant family on a ranch house in the midwest. We all get this. We may disagree on the degree to which it’s relevant, and what can constitute ‘knowing’, but we seem to pretty much accept the validity of the initial premise.
What I didn’t fully realize until this morning was that there’s an entirely different aspect to the entire idea, one that had never occurred to me until I ran into it at full speed and broke my nose.
I started writing my current novel thinking that I knew what it was going to be: a detective story, set in modern-day Boston, that happened to involve some fairies and magic and maybe Aladdin. About a quarter of the way in I realized that that just wasn’t going to work, for any number of reasons, many of which I’ve forgotten by now. The focus changed somewhat dramatically, the plot changed rather more subtly, and I basically took a look at the first six chapters and went “okay, so these mostly don’t work; I’ll edit them as necessary after I’ve finished my first draft and get them in line.”
At the two-thirds mark, I looked at what I’d done and realized that I still didn’t quite have it. It’s my first novel, so that didn’t exactly come as a huge surprise to me, and having had such success at shouldering my failure and moving on, I sat down with myself and figured out where I thought I’d erred and how. “Okay,” I thought, looking at the first twenty chapters, “so there’s a lot of good stuff there, but a lot of it needs to change. That’s fine, I’ll just keep going, edit them as necessary after I’ve finished my first draft.” And so I did.
As best as I can tell, I’m now somewhere between 10 and 15,000 words away from being done. I think I’ve only got two more chapters to go, once I wrap up the one I’m writing now. I’ve written the climax, such as it is.
And my GOD was it hard!
Of course, it makes perfect sense as I think about it. Each time I changed directions, I changed characters’ motivations and goals. I knew that while I was doing it. Tameron Forbes started out as kind of a non-entity. The first major adjustment I made was to raise him to main character status, and the first thing I handwaved to the ‘fix it in post’ pile was his recent history and current motivations. I wrote them in for him in subsequent chapters, but that first foundation block is currently sitting in a very large pile of hypotheticals waiting to be addressed. Gwen, who has always been a main character, didn’t take quite so large a hit, but she did go from wondering whether or not she was going to quit her job at the end of the week to wondering whether or not she can afford to get close with a partner, and that’s not exactly a small shift in priorities either.
There have been others.
What that meant, I discovered yesterday, is that I was suddenly trying to write this giant sweeping scene where most things come together … without actually knowing anything about the people everything was coming together around. I got incredibly frustrated for a while, when I realized that everything was seeming hollow and inconsequential. I rewrite slices of the scene a dozen times, trying to figure out what the hell I was missing. I’m worlds away from flawless, but I’m not usually this bad a writer. But how could I possibly write the ending I’d originally intended, when none of the characters involved are the characters I’d originally planned to include? The basic ‘and then they went there and did this’ structure still holds, but climaxes are about more than just surface-level resolution and I just don’t have the knowledge right now to give each character what they need – or what they don’t, maybe, if I decide I want to torture them instead of handing out happy endings.
This isn’t an excuse. I’ve written most of my dramatic climax right now, hollowness and all, and I’ll write my denouement in the days or maybe unfortunately weeks that come. If this sudden burst of insight is any indication, the last two chapters will probably also ring somewhat false in my ears. That’s fine; it’s part of the process, I think!
And if all else fails, I can always edit as necessary when I start work on my second draft.
“Aeval, Lady of the Gray Cliffs, I invoke you.”
This time, the reaction was immediate.
The air in front of Tameron Forbes shimmered and wavered, and suddenly there was a woman there, looking for all the world as though this patch of snow-covered landscape was her domain and Gwen and Forbes were somehow intruding. She was tall and dark, with ringlets of auburn hair that fell down over her shoulders and eyes that shone like burnished bronze. Gwen had never seen the woman before in her life, she was absolutely certain about that, and yet … there was something oddly familiar about the way she held herself, the tilt of her jaw and the quirk at the edge of scarlet-painted lips.
Then the shape wavered and flowed like the air had a moment before. Red curls turned jet black, dark skin lightened to a shade not much darker than the snow, and eyes the color of pennies bled black. The entire configuration of the woman’s face shifted and changed, narrowing, angles sharpening, eyes growing far too large, and Gwen recognized the figure of the fairy queen from the week before. Her gown was deep green this time and it hung straight down from her shoulders, emphasizing the fae woman’s shape – boyish wasn’t the right word, not on someone who towered well over six feet, but the lack of visible curves was oddly jarring. Those curving, too-wide lips were exactly the same, though, equal parts predatory and disdainful.