This is the sixth installment in the continuing story of "Editing Mister D," a joint project to coach British nonfiction writer Pete Oxley through completion and publication of his first novel-length fiction work.
If you are constantly asking questions about your story, characters,
setting, and so forth, the troublesome result is that you will have
answers. I say that answers are troublesome because they force you to
be specific about things that were once shapeless and ambiguous, and
because they oblige you to make changes. They say no one likes change,
but change is an integral part of the writing process.
Pete has returned to the developmental stage, he has made a great
variety of changes, from renaming two of his central characters to
cutting out an entire chapter's worth of story line. This isn't at all
unusual in the developmental stage, but the need for remaining flexible
and open to change continues throughout the writing and editing stages
as well. As I've said, nothing is carved in stone until a story goes to
press. Until that time, no aspect of a story should be considered
sacrosanct or beyond reconsideration.
It's a natural outgrowth of
any creative process that we get new inspirations as a result of
thinking creatively. For instance, my Magnetron Chronicles series of
stories started as a fairly serious attempt at recreating Victorian Era
science fiction in the mold of Jules Verne. Now, apart from editing and
re-editing, adapting from short story to serialized story, adapting
from serial to novelette, and changing several characters' names, I also
completely changed the character of the stories. They went from
serious to tongue-in-cheek, a shift that took many months to internalize
after a sudden inspiration caught me unawares.
As I was writing, I
was trying to adopt a Victorian voice, but as I got into my narrator's
head I also found myself unintentionally overwriting pretty much
everything. I had learned to write with strong verbs and avoid
adjectives and adverbs as much as possible, but my narrator refused to
be limited by such sound writing advice. Thus, although his sentences
still relied on vigorous verbs, they were also festooned with a dizzying
array of flowery adverbs, hyperbolic adjectives, and complex
syntactical constructions (see what I mean?). I couldn't help myself,
it seemed, but for all the additional verbiage, my stories still felt
like pale imitations of the real thing.
Then, inspiration struck.
I was rewriting my first story for the umpteenth time and wrote a line
of dialogue uttered by the character Dr. Hogalum:
"I do not wish
to appear ungrateful after having been raised from the dead, but I must
ask why you did not see fit to include my body in this enterprise!"
dawned on me then that this was the missing element in my stories:
humor---bone dry humor by a narrator who doesn't realize what he's
saying is funny.
I had found the key to make my stories work, even
though they broke so many rules of good writing. My sense of humor
would be hidden in the overblown language of my pedantic narrator. All
of the characters became ludicrous caricatures of themselves, despite
the narrator's overtly reverent tone. The storylines morphed from
science fiction tales into science fiction farces, made all the more
farcical by contrast with the narrator's ostentatious, deadpan delivery.
in Pete's Mister D (now N'yotsu) stories, he had intended to have some
humor and good-natured joshing between some of the major characters, but
as the story development is proceeding the plot has taken on a deadly
serious tone that might not benefit from humor. Where will that lead?
names have changed, some characters have been eliminated or combined
with other characters, and new back stories and rationales are being
constructed. The setting is being nailed down, which in historical
fiction requires historical research. Pete has come to understand that
the more you try to assemble the puzzle of a new story, the more you
realize there are both missing pieces and pieces that don't belong in
The crucial thing to remember is that this process
doesn't stop when you're done outlining and making character sketches.
As you write, new inspirations will come to you if you are open to
them. Your hero might become an antihero. The end of your story might
become the beginning of your story. Your main protagonist's goal might
turn out to be illusory or counterproductive, forcing a major plot
shift. Don't fear the change. Have the courage to cut out things that
don't help the story, even if you have already fallen in love with a
character or a nice turn of phrase.
Do not ask "will it be too
much trouble to change the story?" Ask "will the story benefit from
these changes?" At some point, you will find that never being satisfied
with your story is the natural order of things, which is just something
you'll have to learn to live with.