The Rat’s Muse

I recently watched a show in which they monitored the brain centers of rats while they were running a maze and then again while they were dreaming.  It turns out that the rats were replaying the maze in their sleep, using background processes, as it were, to solve the puzzle.  Some rats were kept from dreaming and others were not.  The group that was allowed to dream unfailingly scored better on the maze during their next run than those who didn’t.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke with a full understanding of the novel I’ve been working on.  Before that day, it had been a blank canvas on which I had been experimenting with various colors and lines.  Afterward, it was a paint by number kit.  I woke knowing more about my characters and their interactions than I had for the past half-year since I began this first draft.  More importantly, I now know the plot in its entirety.  I know where it’s going, the things that have to be changed to retcon the story to fit the plot, and the steps that have to be taken to reach the end.

I started this draft last spring with a terrible vision of two children standing in the debris field left by a tornado that had wiped out their whole town.  In fits and starts, I began to put together a story that grew from that moment and moved toward some unknown end.  I laid in the character traits, the interactions, the points of conflict, a general, overall structure, but I never knew where it was going.  I wasn’t even sure who among the characters were pro- and antagonists.

It took a combination of writing pages that I knew would be deleted and my background processes poring over the details in my sleep to get me to that point where I knew for sure that I will get to the end of the story.  It doesn’t always happen and that’s one of the pitfalls of not being an outline maker. Relying on your muse, for lack of a better word, is sort of like a gambler relying on luck.  You can place your bets to the best of your ability but you never know when that lady is going to blow on someone else’s dice (to paraphrase the Chairman).

Trust me on this, I have a dozen unfinished novels that never received the benefit of a visit from the plot fairy.

Anyway, I’m now in a race to get it all down on paper.  That’s why I haven’t posted in awhile and why I won’t be posting much for the short term.  When I get this draft finished and have tucked it away in a drawer for the flavors to marry, I will have more of my mind to use for other things.

Willful Ignorance & Sudden Onset Character Traits

I enjoyed the first two Hunger Games books tremendously.  They were certainly an improvement over the blunt force trauma of Battle Royale but there was one sour note that ran through the entire first novel and most of the second: Katniss’s mistrust of Peeta.  In spite of his history of doing nothing but kindness by her, she presumed every gesture was as trick of some sort.  It seemed to smack of willful ignorance, that ability of a character in a story to be blind to something that is dumbfoundingly obvious simply because the plot requires them to not see it.

We see this willful ignorance most often in horror stories when potential victims, plainly aware they’re being hunted by this point, strike out on their own or go down into the basement or check out that noise in the garage.  The one truly funny running gag in Scream was Jamie Kennedy’s pathetic attempt to warn characters in a horror movie not to act like characters in a horror movie.  It seems trite now, but it was really refreshing at the time.

I ran into this pitfall myself with Pawn Takes Knight because it was important that Roy not recognize a particular series of events that he had plainly seen before until the denouement was in the offing.  Of course, the unintended consequence of willful ignorance is that your character looks stupid.  That can be forgiven if they’re cannon fodder for a serial killer but not so much if they’re the brilliant detective protagonist.

The other pitfall I came across was in Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom.  Now, I think Sorkin is one of the greatest living screenwriters and his work in The American President, The West Wing, and The Social Network are unparalleled.  He has an incredible gift for making intelligence sound normal, which on today’s television shows is remarkably rare. 

He’s great.  We all love him.  But the Newsroom* has issues.  The dialogue tends to come off like regional theater, for one thing.  The only other time I’ve seen professional actors at the top of their game sound this staged is in every Mamet movie ever made.  When actors have too abiding a love of a writer’s words they fail to take ownership of them.  They’re so concerned about getting every pause and stammer just right that they are basically reading.  And they sound like they’re reading.  That’s what I think is happening at times on The Newsroom.  The actors are stepping out of their roles, relinquishing ownership of their characters, and just trying to speak Sorkin’s admittedly brilliant dialogue exactly as written.

Oddly enough, that’s not the pitfall I wanted to talk about here.  Instead, I want to point the accusing finger at suddenly appearing yet profound character traits.  For instance, in this episode of The Newsroom, Dave Patel’s nebbishy character suddenly develops an obsession with Bigfoot.  It grabs him with such fervor that he calls in his cohorts on a Saturday to give a PowerPoint presentation on the subject.  And they come.  Even though they all plainly state they never come into work this early on a Saturday. 

Two questions: When did the news program’s official blogger suddenly become vested with the power to call the line producer and others who plainly outrank him into work on a Saturday?  And, when did this character become Bigfoot obsessed?  We’ve never heard a word about this before from him and I suspect we never will again.  Even if we do, it’s still so out of character for someone who is as plainly intelligent as Patel’s Neal Sampat to believe in something as hokey as this that it weakens everything he will say from now on. 

I mean, I get it.  You’re trying to pull this story together and you really need for someone to pick up on a subtle clue that only a habitual Yahtzee player would understand but none of your characters has ever mentioned a passing interest in any kind of dice game.  What do you do?  You stitch a quick scene at the beginning where one character says, “Where’s Bob?” and the other character rolls his eyes and says, “Off playing Yahtzee again.  You know him.”

And you see, here’s the problem: We do know Bob and we know from the last three books or sixteen episodes that he’s never mentioned anything about Yahtzee.  So it rings false to us.

The other hack, of course, is for Castle** to say, “Wait a minute!  Three sixes and two fours?  That’s a full house!”  Then he shrugs at Becket and says, “I spent a lot of time playing Yahtzee with my grandmother when I was a kid.”

Eh?  Did you now?  Because that sounds like a case of sudden onset character trait (SOCT) to us.

* I love this show and I’m seriously hoping it gets over the speed bumps and makes it into a second season.

** I love this show, too, and I wouldn’t want them change the way they do anything.  I just picked it as an example of things that have to happen in television land – which sounds like the title of my next post.

Dealing With Disappointment

Just the other day I finished what was supposed to be the final draft of Pawn Takes Knight, the hotly awaited sequel to The Vengeance Season.  After cogitating on what I had wrought and conferring with my First Reader, I decided this would be a good time to write a post on dealing with disappointment.

I’m an Astros fan.  And when I say “fan” I mean that I watch over 120 games a season.  I DVR the ones I can’t watch live and I try to make it to Houston for at least two games a year.  All this for a team that sucks worse than the Cubs.

This post isn’t going to be about baseball, I’m just declaring my bona fides for talking about disappointment the way a guy who writes a weight loss book shows you his before and after pictures.

Writing is a solitary undertaking.  That’s good and bad.  For instance, when a shortstop muffs an easy double play, millions of people watch him do it.  And then millions more ask him about it when he goes out for dinner or drops by a talk show.  And if he has the bad luck to do it during the World Series, as Bill Buckner did, it dogs him the rest of his life.

A writer, on the other hand, has the luxury of failing in private.  A bad draft just becomes fodder for the next, hopefully better, draft.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that writers are just as enfeebled by the desire for applause as actors or baseball players.  In our minds, we rip the last sheet of paper from the typewriter (because we all secretly live in the 1930s when writers were actually respected) and toss it into the air where it explodes into confetti as our family and friends and especially total strangers come rushing in to congratulate us.

It’s hard.  Writing is hard.  Writing a novel takes a long time and there are many points at which you’re unsure you’ll make it to the end.  Very often, you don’t make it to the end.  Finishing is in itself a sort of triumph.  And that sense of triumph is what compels so many writers to pack that less than acceptable manuscript off to an editor or agent the moment the ink dries.

Yeah, sure, it’s not great, there were parts you wanted to handle more deftly, but you got the point across.  The rape scene is probably too graphic and the revenge killing is too underwritten but, hey, there are worse novelists making big money on the New York Times best seller list.

Right?

Wrong.  There is no writer worse than the one who sends out a manuscript that is not up to his own idea of what quality is.  Yes, there are writers who slap stuff together and still manage to inhabit the NYTBSL like so many tapeworms but they are doing the best they possibly can.  It’s not that bad writing is popular.  It’s just that the stuff these guys cough out in a pool of bloody mucus is actually their hard won best effort.

The truth is that it’s not bad writing that gets you booted out of the literary saloon.  It’s lack of conviction.  Readers can smell it on every page.  I’ve done it.  I won’t mention the writer, but I clearly remember thinking he was hacking his way through the second half of a novel while I was trying to finish it.  That book remains unread to this day and that writer is off my purchase list.

So… that brings us to Pawn Takes Knight.  I put everything into the story that I wanted to put into it.  All the elements are in place and all the pieces that are supposed to fit with future and past stories from Roy’s life are inlayed there with the precision of German engineering.  But it’s still not right.

When I finished the 198th* draft of The Vengeance Season, I realized I had finally put together a story.  It had characters, it had plot, it had style.  It was the novel that opened the way for everything else I’ve written since.  But it was also the novel (in its first 197 instances) that taught me what fake sounds like.

I hurried my way through Pawn Takes Knight because people were telling me they wanted to know what happens next.  That’s a valid concern and a valid reason to try to appease them.  It’s just not a valid reason to deliver a substandard product.

Roy Doyle’s adventures will take a short hiatus while I work on something else (marketing Arc of Destruction and writing the second draft of a YA novel just brimming with monsters and teen angst) until I can gather my wits and take another run at the story.  I’m not worried.  I got most of it on this try – there’s a good chance I could have gotten away with releasing this one – but Roy is my centerpiece.  He deserves better than that.

In the meantime, I’m now world famous.  My books are now being purchased on Amazon UK, Germany, Spain, France, and India.  Who’s missing from this list?  I’m looking at you Italy.