Monday, November 03, 2008

Lost in Space

Working on The Last Free City at the weekend, I had to admit that I had literally 'lost the plot'. With the main narrative three-quarters complete, I had taken the decision to retrofit a second viewpoint character into the same events, and I had merrily been writing these new scenes, dropping them in at what seemed like the right place.

On Saturday it became apparent that I had lost track of the 'golden thread' which glues the nuts and bolts of the stories together. I needed to write a scene of political intrigue (well, it was that or a swordfight...) and I realised that I couldn't remember which events had already happened and which were yet to happen: I was living inside an ongoing continuity error. At this point I made the only tenable decision in the circumstances: stop digging.

Instead, I soothed myself by creating a spreadsheet comprising three columns: first, the 'day' in the story; second, the events happening to the first viewpoint character; and finally, the events happening to the other viewpoint character. This was a couple of hours very well spent. I now know what happens when, and to whom, for the first three-quarters of the story - and it also demonstrates very neatly when a particular character is offstage for too long.

It's surely no coincidence that I sat down to write on Sunday in a more relaxed frame of mind, and wrote a new "filler" scene early in the novel: 2,000 fluent words, it seems to me like one of the best scenes in the book.

I've never written a story where I've tackled so many scenes out of order--and I hope never to again. It plays havoc with continuity, pacing and character development. Yesterday, for instance, I introduced a new place-holder character who immediately became so interesting I wish I'd known about her sooner: I can tweak subsequent scenes to accommodate her, but, however beguiling she is, I'm not going to restructure the story around her.

There are two ways all this can end: either the mess will be so pervasive that it can never be unravelled, and the underlying clutter will be apparent even in the finished work; or the final draft will be so richly textured, so allusive of the chaotic vitality of the city I am trying to represent, as to leap off the page with the texture of van Gogh. At this stage, mired in muddle and counter-muddle, I know which way I'm betting--but the prospect of a better outcome, however remote, is enough to keep me honest...

What about the rest of you who are writers? Have any of you managed to fashion a triumph from first-draft chaos?

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