Eagle-eyed lurkers will have spotted my word count’s gone down. How can that be? I’ll tell you: up to now I’ve been taking decent bites out of the novel. Yesterday the novel bit back.
It was chapter 3 that floored me. Reading back over it, I realised it’s way too long: 6,000 words in total. Don’t know why I didn’t see it before. That’s partly because there’s just too much going on. I’m trying to introduce a major character, give him a little back-story, maintain the tension I’ve established in chapters 1 and 2, define the events that bond these two characters together after their initial meeting, foreshadow critical events yet to come … woah!
Anyway, I wrestled with the words for most of the day, reached screaming pitch, calmed down and decided at last to break one chapter into two. I made a start, gave up, went to bed totally dissatisfied. This morning I realised the problems I’d been trying to solve were the wrong ones. The real problem’s actually quite simple: I’d stopped listening to the characters.
The giveaway is the dialogue – more particularly, the attribution. Halfway through the chapter, one of the characters starts telling the other about events that happened years before. It’s important exposition. It’s just in the wrong place. I couldn’t see that, but the character could. I know that because, all the time he’s talking, he’s fidgeting, impatient, itching to get out of there and get on with the task at hand. As the time, I thought I was writing tension. I wasn’t. My character was yelling at me that this was not the time for a pow-wow. And I was ignoring him.
Now I can see what needs doing: strip out the chatter. Cut the crap and get on with the story. Listen to what my character wants to do and let him get on with it. I’ve got a scene planned for later where he talks about the old times – the kind of scene that orientates both the other characters and the reader – so I’ll just save the exposition for then.
I know why I got myself in this mess. I’m working from an outline. The whole novel’s plotted out chapter by chapter in a document that runs to about 7,000 words. I don’t always work this way. I’ve chosen to with this project because it’s hard to keep on track when you don’t write full time (yes, I have a day job). The downside is you can easily end up with a story that’s driven by plot, not character.
Think of your average Hollywood action blockbuster. You can tell it’s plot-driven because the hero keeps delivering ironic quips. That’s because he’s reacting to the action, not driving it. Same with a novel. Me, I prefer my characters to be in charge.
The upshot of all this? I’m about to go off-outline. That’s a bit like going off-road. It’s bumpy and unpredictable and messy and scary as hell. Exactly why I love writing, in other words. More importantly, it means the characters have stopped doing as they’re told and starting developing lives of their own. 25,000 words in, this is where the real writing begins.