Pruning

Every story has a structure. Whether it’s the planned structure of an outliner or the ‘organic’ one of a pantser, it is always there. I am learning that respecting the unique structure of the story makes it believable. It helps it move along at the right pace. It makes twists and turns seem plausible even when surprising. Obvious, right?

Partly right, I think. To dig deeper, though, every structure brings with it both opportunities and risks. Fine books on writing often focus on the opportunities a given structure creates. Risks, not so much. As a writer myself and as a judge of writing, I’ve come to understand that a lot of almost-good writing is skillful at using the opportunities a chosen structure offers. Perhaps because risks are less discussed, these same writers often fall into structural traps. Umm. Let’s not generalize. I often fall into structural traps. 

My novels to date are thrillers which lean toward technical detail for their central threats. (The traditional thriller always has a central threat bigger than the protagonists—think presidential assassination, power grid interruption, nuclear event). Thus, exposition of the (to me) fascinating details is the big risk. In other words, TMI…or in my case, TMD (Too Much Detail) or TMC (Too Much Confusion). And there we have a shining example—three acronyms in one sentence, a good way to trip up the reader.

I’m realizing that part of the TMD/TMC problem for me and I think for others is that the more I know, the more I want to expostulate on it. I mean, I really like the stuff. This fourth thriller, Fatal Cure, is about manipulation of genes. I worked in the field. There are so many little-known interesting facts, it’s almost a crime to keep them from the reader, right? Did you know the yard-long chain of three billion molecules we call a gene is usually 90-plus percent inactive? No, well, I’ll explain. The exome (throw in a term there, confuse the reader, when I could have said ‘the part of the genome that does stuff’) is only about two percent of the total. Fascinating? Of course—to me.

So, I’m pruning. Cutting so the story’s later chapters can grow (oh, my precious cliché!). I’m cutting parts where I write everything out so that I understand it myself. Asking the question, “Does the reader need to know this? If so, does she need to know it right now?”

I hope pruning will make the story stronger. Just like it does the tree.

Collision: Football and Storytelling

Those of you who write know that writing comes to invade much of your life. You see an expression on a face in a crowd and think about how you would capture it in words. You see a news item that makes you add a twist to your plot. Putting words around life becomes a constant. Which brings me to football.

A few days ago, I read the beginning of my fourth novel to a critique group. One of the members said. “I like the beginning, but then you take me into a biotech development hub. Interesting, but it slows the story down.”  I was contemplating that comment, going back and forth about whether to cut the offending section.  I took a break to watch a University of Florida football game. (If you’ve lived in Gainesville, Gator football puts a stamp on you, even after you leave.) I was half thinking about my writing dilemma when Florida captured a Tennessee fumble, or seemed to. There followed a half-dozen video replays, shots of refs conferring, several minutes of ads, replays, conferences. Finally, a decision. By the time, I had lost track of the game. I had just read an article in which a sportswriter talked about the new safety rules and technology that made it possible for millisecond, millimeter measurements slowing the game, destroying its rhythm. The writer credited falling viewership on the delays that alter the rhythm, which is to say the emotion, of the game.

The same is true is true about writing, it seems to me. Like football, there is a rhythm to a story, and that rhythm needs to be ever-present in a writer’s mind, because rhythm is an important component of the emotional bond between the reader and the story. That bond makes the reader turn the page.

Looks like that bit about the biotech incubator is out. I loved writing it. I worked there (well, not the fictional one) for several years. I know the people, the structure, the kind of events that go on … and I neglected rhythm.  

Maybe I’ll get a chance to put it in later.