Which is a pretty uncompromising thing to say. And also a little bit untrue, since almost every writer does get incrementally better over time, so, in some way, writing bad stories does feel like it helps. But I also think there’s a lot of truth there. Because you can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over and expect the output to get better. Furthermore, in my own writing career, I’ve often spend months writing draft after draft of something–all of which were complete crap–only to arrive at one simple conceptual leap that finally helped me create the right draft.
I don’t think that writing the bad words helped me make the conceptual leap, I think that rejecting the bad words helped me make it. Writing bad words just keeps you busy. It confirms you in your belief that you are a writer, and it creates the space in which something good can happen in your writing. But that good thing still needs to actually happen. If it doesn’t, none of the bad words are ever going to amount to anything.
In the most recent case, I feel like I’ve finally cracked the problem of my second novel. For a month or so I’ve been trying to revise an older novel (my pop star novel), but something always felt wrong with it. In fact, something felt wrong in the initial draft, too. I never felt like the protagonist had sufficient motivation for doing what she did (walk off the set of a TV show she was filming). It always felt more like something I’d mandated than like something that flowed organically from the character. In the initial draft, I papered over that problem by attributing everything to the voice of God. You see, God tells her that she needs to leave her show, so she does. But that’s unsatisfying, because it’s so external. In fact, the story only works if God is a hallucination, and it’s actually a reflection of her own desires. But in that case, the story I’d written felt too distant. Because of the voice of God conceit, the character never had to integrate and own up to her own desires.
So I’ve been trying and failing to figure out who this person was. I just didn’t get it. I worked on it from all kinds of angles, trying everything. Mostly, I tried to make her a little spunkier and a little less hapless (more hap?), since, in my opinion the main problem with her was that she was too passive. But it’s one thing to make a heroine more active–it’s an entirely different thing to figure out what she needs to be active about.
But today, while driving home, I had a realization. My elevator pitch for the book used to be: A pop star is filming a television show when she suddenly hears a mysterious voice telling her that what she’s doing is sinful and wrong. After deciding that the voice is the voice of God, she walks off the set.
Now, say what you want about that book, but it’s a book that’s about something. Whereas now I had zero elevator pitch. I was actually unable to say anything about my book beyond A pop star walks off the set of a television show.
Why? Why did she walk off? What could possibly make her want to leave?
Once I framed it that way, I was able, pretty rapidly, to come up with a new elevator pitch: After complaining about a distasteful scene she’s been asked to film for her show, a sixteen year old actress walks off set when she realizes that the people around her have zero respect for her abilities–they see her as nothing more than a body.
There. That’s it. Pretty simple. Is it good or not? Will I be able to write it? Will my editor and publisher like it? I have no idea! But at least it’s an actual story.
After getting that down, I was able to sit down and write out the entire synopsis. It heavily draws upon the synopsis for my first draft of the book, but in this case the story has a solid backbone. There’s both an external story: Will she beat the studio and get her own way? And there’s an internal story: Does she actually have any talent?
And the two stories work in concert, because the internal story is the key to the external story. If she has talent, then she ought to keep fighting the studio. Whereas if she’s nothing more than a manufactured sensation, then she ought to give up and let them do what they want.
I also wrote down that critical first scene! In it, she’s having a very carefully supervised phone call with her mother, where the mother tells the actress that her show is sinful and wrong.
So yeah, who knows. It’s entirely possible that I’ll wake up tomorrow and realize that EVERYTHING IS COMPLETELY WRONG. But maybe I won’t!
The broader point is: how did I work on this draft for a month (and on this novel for close to a year and a half) without ever realizing that it didn’t have a character arc?
I really can’t say. Writing novels is hard! It’s really easy to get bogged down in details! In this case, I kept getting short-circuited by all the story-within-a-story parts. I could write the actress parts fine, but whenever I had to write about her TV show, I just got dreadfully bored, because it seemed to have no relevance to anything. I realized, quickly enough, that the problem was that the show-within-a-show parts didn’t advance the central story, so I kept trying to figure out ways for it to matter more. What I didn’t realize, though, was that I was looking at it backwards. I couldn’t write a good story-within-a-story until I figured out what really mattered to the character.
After I’d figured out what the novel was actually about, the story-within-a-story came together pretty quickly (it’s a Game of Thrones analogue–the actress plays the Sansa character).