I did my state income taxes this weekend. I was all set to post something snarky about how the Ohio I-File system was designed by lobotomized lemurs, and then I got to the Minnesota online filing system. You know, the one that doesn’t exist. So, nice job, team. Fist bumps all around. I thought no one could give me warm fuzzies about the IRS, but you got it done.
The problem, you see, is that when creating an income tax filing system, you can’t just set out with a song on your lips and a gleam in your compiler and hope for the best. You have to have some sort of plan. But thankfully, novels are not like tax systems, and maybe we can take a different approach in our writing.
There are, as I mentioned last time, two major camps: outliners and freestylers. Freestyling gives you the flexibility to take the story wherever it needs to go. You’re not bound to a predetermined plot, so you can get in tune with your characters and make their decisions based on whatever you think they would really do right then. Stephen King is a freestyler, and he’s brilliant at creating characters you care about as a reader.
Unfortunately, the endings of King’s books – not to put too fine a point on it – suck. This happened with both The Stand and It. I tore through the pages of those giant books like nobody’s business, but when I got to the ending, it felt tacked-on; it didn’t make good on all that suspense. That’s why I didn’t read the Dark Tower series. I didn’t want to trek through seven giant books, only to be served with whatever random ending he decided to throw out there. Instead I went online and read the ending first, just to see; and, sure enough.
I’m nowhere near the level of writer that King is, but I know that I have the opposite problem in miniature. I plot extensively, get everything laid out so carefully ahead of time that any change I want to make later on becomes a sort of logic puzzle, trying to line up all the story threads I’ve surgically severed. And you know what? My beta readers have consistently told me I write kick-ass endings. They also tell me, though, that they can’t identify with my characters, that the plot steams forward but they’re not so invested in the outcome. That’s a problem.
Right around now, some of you are muttering a word that starts with “f” and rhymes with “alse dichotomy.” And you’re right; it’s very possible to create identifiable characters and a satisfying plot in the same book. I’m thinking Ender’s Game and The Lord of the Rings, to throw out a couple of the most obvious examples. But I think that at some level this means a marriage of the two approaches: perhaps freestyling with a definite end in mind, perhaps outlining based on a strong understanding of your characters. That’s what my revision is about right now – trying to take a strongly plotted book and flesh out the characters into people the reader can root for.
Oh, and speaking of the unlikely union of taxes and novels, The Pale King is coming out soon, and it’s supposed to be pretty good. Anybody planning to grab a copy? I’m still looking to tackle The Broom of the System first myself…
Second pass revision progress: 54%