15 June 2013

Metamorphosis: On the Plastic Nature of Stories

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.

Now that 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!"

It 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.

Now, 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?

Character 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 your puzzle.

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.

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