I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Momentum Matters!

Momentum matters in two ways.

First, momentum is important in drafting a story. Nothing has killed more of the stories I’ve started than simply stopping in the middle, then ignoring the story for a few days. Days turn into weeks, then into months, and before I know it, I won’t remember why I ever wanted to write that particular story in the first place. My hard drive is littered with these aborted stories. I write a few pages, setting up the characters and plot, maybe even finish the opening scene. Then, I’ll get stuck. I won’t know what happens next. Sometimes I’ll have doubts about the characters I’ve chosen. Once I know I wasn’t happy with my knowledge of a setting and went to a library and got a book about the city, then never came back to the story after I read the book.
One could make the argument that it makes sense to abandon works where you’ve lost enthusiasm for the characters or lost faith in the premise. The story may not have been worth wasting your time on anyway. This is, bluntly, a load of hooey.

Every good story I’ve ever written passed through a phase where it was a bad story. (See the previous article.) Especially on a novel, it would require almost superhuman skill to sit and type out 120,000 words and not have moments of severe doubt and second guessing. My advice: Never look back. Keep typing. Press ahead as quickly as you can, moving the story forward. You will never really know what the first chapter of your book should be until you’ve written the last chapter. First drafts aren’t the time to worry about the fact that your characters are inconsistent, or that your plot has holes, or that your characters aren’t able to speak in anything but clichés. Or rather, it is a good time to worry about it, but it’s not the best time to go back to try to fix it. Keep moving forward. Make note of what you want to change. Fix it in the second draft.

For instance, in Dragon Forge, I have a character named Burke the Machinist. The first time he appeared, he had an unnamed teenage son. A few chapters later, I thought the son would be more interesting if he was actually a she, so I made her his daughter disguised as a boy so she could join him on the frontline of the battle. Later in the story, though, I fleshed out Burke's back story and decided that the events of his life required his daughter to be older, probably 19. Also, the daughter had gotten bolder and more assertive as I wrote her, so it no longer seemed realistic she would fight in disguise. She’d just be herself and let others think whatever they wanted to about a woman fighting on the front lines. Then, very late in the story, I wrote a scene where Anza, the daughter, moved through an entire scene without saying a word, communicating only with gestures. It was so fun writing her communications with the other characters without having her speak, I decided that was going to be a permanent part of her character. Making her mute set her apart from the other cast members, and gave her an extra air of mystery. Now, as I rewrite the book, I'm enjoying the challenge of making the scenes where she had conversations with her father unfold her end being conveyed only in body language.

If I had gone back and revised previous chapters every time I reimagined her character, I would never have finished my first draft. Anza changed from little more than a prop at the start of the book to a fully formed supporting protagonist at the end. I make these changes all the time as I’m writing. I just write the later chapters of the first draft as if the early chapters already have the important information about the character in it.

I generally don’t show people my first drafts until I’ve written the last word. That’s almost always true with short stories. I occasionally share chapters from novels as I move forward, but not often. On my first drafts, I don’t even stop to reread the chapter I just wrote before moving on to the next one. Rereading is only going to lead to rewriting. It’s more important for me to get two or three chapters out in a week than it is to spend to or three weeks working to make a chapter sparkle.

This flips in the drafts I send to publishers, of course. Two or three weeks is a long time to spend on a chapter, but on my current rewrite of Dragon Forge I’m spending a fair amount of time on each chapter before I move on to the next. I reread each chapter three or four times—and before I turn it into Solaris, I’ll be reading it three or four more times and tweaking and sharpening each pass.

In the rewrite phase, I think walking away from the project for a while is actually useful. But, you aren’t going to get to the rewrite phase if you don’t get that first draft phase behind you. Momentum matters!

A second way that momentum matters, of course, is in your actual story telling. I’ve read a lot of unpublished novels by my peers over the years. For me, the single biggest problem that sucks the life out of most novels is when I reach a point in the book where I just don’t feel like the story is going anywhere. The characters are meandering around aimlessly. I’m not sure what they want or how they are working to get it. I get bored and start asking questions. After a few more pages, I’ve asked enough questions that I doubt the skill of the author and no longer trust them to finish the story in a satisfying matter.

This may not be a problem in all literary endeavors. Naked Lunch certainly doesn’t care about maintaining a feeling that the story is moving forward. Neither does Winesburg, Ohio or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Still, if you are an author looking to break into print for the first time, especially in SF or fantasy, a lack of forward progress in the story can be fatal. The people reading your story in the slush pile won’t muddle through more than a few pages where nothing important is happening. If the beginning of your book was gripping, maybe you have a little buffer. Perhaps you’ll get a chapter or two of leeway where you story doesn’t progress in any meaningful way. But, why take that risk?

Not every novel needs to be a page turner, and you certainly don’t have to make each chapter end in a cliffhanger. When I say a novel needs to feel as if it’s moving forward, it doesn’t have to be action propelling the book. A conversation where the characters learn more about each other can advance the story. A long and detailed setting description can advance the story. Even a long monologue on the meaning of life can advance the story. And, at the risk of being contradictory, all three of these things could also sap every last bit of forward momentum in your tale if handled clumsily.

How will you know if your protagonist’s ten page monologue on the absence of God is fascinating or boring? Write a lot of stories. Get them critiqued. Eventually, after you’ve had a few hundred thousand words critiqued by a couple of hundred people, you’ll know what's working and what’s not. However, this is getting into the subject of my fifth article in this series, so I’ll wrap up here. One secret to maintaining momentum is knowing when to stop!

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