My last post on the process of writing my current novel was over a month ago. Then, I considered why sometimes chapters came to an end before I was ready, when I still had more to say. My answer was that a chapter is an organic object, a set of scenes that accomplish certain story or character goals. The problem was not really the chapter length, but the scope of the chapter goals.
Well, I survived that crisis, and now I am six more chapters along, working on lucky 13, and I have a different kind of chapter problem. It won’t move forward fast enough, no matter how hard I push on it.
I’m near the middle of the Middle section of the novel, at 41 thousand words, about where the complications should be developing fast and furious, building to the climax near the end of the Middle. But I need to turn a corner.
Scott, my main character, hit bottom in the Beginning, lost everything, but experienced a bounce in the opening of the Middle, which became his hope of re-establishing his life. Alas, he has been defeated at every turn. Not only that, his romantic interest is drifting away from him, although he doesn’t quite see that yet.
What I need is for the romantic interest (RI) to exit stage left, pronto, so I can usher in a new character to propel the story forward. Scott met Selma, the RI, when he was down and out, and maybe he misjudged her, and himself. The way she developed, it became clear to me that she wasn’t going to be right for him in the new future I have planned for him. So she needs to be replaced.
Sometimes writers complain, or marvel, that their characters do unexpected things and behave in ways the writer did not intend. But I say, if your characters are out of control, then you don’t know what your story is about. That’s a writing failure, not something to brag about.
I admit, I had not fully envisioned Selma’s future. She was perfect for Scott when he desperately needed companionship, but that was way back at the start of the Middle section. She was the beginning of his recovery, and I had not yet envisioned in detail what would happen in the Middle. Now that I’m writing the Middle, I can see that Selma is not going to work out.
I like Selma. I could delete her retroactively and put in the right character, but I don’t want to do that. She’s a strong character. She can reappear later with great effect. But for now, she needs to be fired. She did not run off and behave badly on her own. She behaved exactly as I wanted her to, but now that I’ve clarified in my mind what needs to happen, she’s not the right person for the job.
So now I’m five pages, 1500 words into Chapter 13 and all I’ve been able to do is create some doubt in Scott’s mind about Selma. A knock-down, plate-throwing fight would be too abrupt at this point. Tensions need to mount. Selma will introduce the new RI, and then I can have a huffy-puffy fight and get Selma off the stage. Even with plenty of high-handed narrative exposition, that’s going to take several pages. And I can’t introduce a new character without at least one dramatic scene, so there’s a long way to go.
Replacing Selma is not even the main goal for the chapter. What I want to get done is have Scott and his new RI begin a different kind of life. That’s the critical direction I need to set sail for. It’s a big turn. It’s Scott’s crisis point. How many pages will it take me to turn his ship around?
Maybe I’m just feeling impatient. That’s how you feel when you push on a rope.
UPDATE: 2 days later.
I finished Chapter 13 in 13 pages. Once I got Scott introduced to Rosie, the new RI, they hit it off immediately, and the writing just flowed.
Selma got jealous, pouted, and went home. She is still not out of the picture, but now I’m in a place where I can cut the cord between her and Scott.
I dread writing the scene that has to happen. I feel like Scott does: Can’t she just go away? I don’t really owe her anything just because we’ve been together nonstop for six months. Why does that suddenly make her feelings my responsibility? But he knows it does, and he has to confront the reality. Aargh. I don’t want to do the break-up scene any more than he does.
He’ll be reasonable but he’ll feel terrible. She’ll be petulant, all the while denying her obvious resentment. That will have to be next chapter; can’t let it fester any longer.
Meanwhile, Scott and Rosie have instant attraction that needs to be developed. I plan for this relationship to stick, so I need them to exchange some backstory, which I never did with Scott and Selma. Backstory is a show-stopper, I know, so I’m going to have to use a very light touch. The context will have to be very much “getting to know you,” and not info-dump. That will be tough.
Also, I’ve made Rosie highly intelligent, but with a zany sense of humor. That’s going to be hard to sustain. Humor is impossible to write well.
What I still did not get done is Scott’s big turnaround, his epiphany and life-change. I couldn’t just tack it onto the end of 13. It needs to be centerpieced. I did set up a moment of doubt in his mind, so the change will not seem out of the blue when it comes in 14.
I don’t know how it will go. I don’t want a clichéd aha! moment, even though that’s exactly what it is. Maybe something bounces off of Rosie. He sees something in her that makes him reconsider himself. I don’t know how that would work. That’s why starting every new chapter is hell.
Update: 2 days later
I stayed out of the way, and Chapter 14 wrote itself. Scott and Selma broke up. Scott and Rosie, and her 10 year old son, Danny, bonded. Out with the old, in with the new. Mission accomplished.
The breakup with Selma was difficult to get started. I couldn’t find an entry point at first. I finally got it rolling by having the 3P narrator go in real close, right into Free Indirect Discourse, where the narrator’s and the character’s voices become barely distinguishable. It becomes almost, but not quite, a first-person narrator. Once I was inside Scott’s head, I knew how it should go.
I set the showdown out at the experimental horticultural gardens, because that’s where Scott and Selma had first met the previous spring. Now it’s fall, the weather is cold, the sky is darkening. My idea was to have Selma fiercely and violently yank weeds from between plants, betraying her feelings to her words, but it turned out, she didn’t act that way. She generally kept shut up pretty tight, because a big part of Scott’s frustration with her has been her lack of openness. And although he shows real compassion for her, Scott’s also a little cold-hearted in the scene. He wants out, and he gets out, fairly skillfully. I had imagined a lot of screaming, crying and wild accusations, but it turned out, these are not that kind of people. Besides, the scene, in a garden, seemed to work better with the tension staying quietly subterranean.
Then I put Scott back with Rosie, ostensibly to discuss her report on chocotle, but actually to introduce her son, Danny, give a little more backstory on her, and create some emotional bonding I can use later. The scene was at a restaurant again. Where would writers be without restaurants, bars, and dining room tables?
Maybe that’s just me. In “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul,” a novel I’m reading by Bob Shacochis, I notice he’s not as foodbound as I am. He has plenty of talking scenes, as I do, but he sets them in interesting places, like in the middle of a gun battle in Croatia or in a Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. I need to get out more.
Anyway, Chapter 14 is short and sweet, only 11 pages and 2500 words, and it nicely accomplishes two important goals: Scott – Selma; Scott + Rosie.
What it does not do, however, is reach Scott’s epiphany, the point where he sees the light and turns his life around. It just didn’t want to happen yet. Characters live at their own pace. Yes, I’m the author, and I can make them do jumping jacks any time I want, but authenticity, or at least, believability, puts constraints on what I can do. I felt I needed to get Scott better connected to Rosie before he would make his turn. Rosie is the start of that turnaround. Without getting her looped in first, Scott would sit up in the middle of the night, bolting from a dead sleep to declare, “Hey, I need to make a turnaround!” That wouldn’t be convincing. Now he’s got motivation to visualize his future. I think he’s ready. Chapter 15 for sure.