. little bitty essays about writing

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Leave out the dull stuff

I am writing the third book of my trilogy now. There are two protagonists and two timelines that alternate every other chapter. In one story, about 8 years will pass. In the other, about 200 years go by.  The timelines are slowly converging, so it gets complicated at times. The chapters tend to be short overall, but I use chapter length as a way to brighten or dim the spotlights guiding the reader back and forth when emphasis is needed on one thread or the other. To keep all this in sync, sometimes I have to readjust for pacing.

So I spent this morning turning twenty chapters in one of the storylines into fifteen chapters, by combining chapter content, changing the emphasis points, re-polishing the little cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter and, most of all, diminishing or eliminating the ink spent on things the reader already knows/has seen. The story rolls so much better now.

It can be useful  to reread each chapter of any book in progress and see what it really brings to the story. If the event you are excited to write--the real heart and purpose of the chapter, occurs in the middle of the night after the protagonist comes home from spending time with someone that you know they are slowly going to come to love, or hate, or anything that is story-significant.....it might be worth painting a full evening scene, let the protagonist get ready for bed, fall asleep, then be awakened by whatever the midnight-surprise in the actual plot-moving scene is.

But if the protagonist spends the evening with people less important in her/his life, or with significant characters the reader already  knows and understands in terms of their roles in the protagonist's world, you might not need to write the last few hours at the office and the train ride home this time. If the reader already  knows the layout of the apartment or house or campground (or whatever the scene venue is) and can imagine the physical setting of the event without an awkward   real-estate-tour-guide-author-intrusion, consider a chapter opening that has almost no set up: here is a quick made-up example:

Instead  of this:    

Chapter 14

       Jenny left the store about five minutes after closing and she had to run to make the last train. It wasn't as crowed as usual, but it was slow again, so she got home later than she wanted to. She quick-walked the two blocks to her apartment, her keys protruding from her right-hand knuckles as always. She used the stairs up to the forth floor as her daily aerobics, unlocked her apartment door, then went through the ritual of locking all five of the locks her father had sent her.

     Taking a long shower helped a little, but it was getting harder and harder to make herself to relax after work. The two new sales girls remained annoying. She could only hope they would both get fired when someone finally noticed they smelled like pot half the time.  She had overheard them telling jokes about her at lunch again, too. Mr. Gregory had been tedious as always and sometimes she wondered how she could stand to work there, but she knew she had to. Nothing had changed. She had to support herself now. There was no other way to convince her family that she could eventually survive by selling her art.

     So she made a decent dinner, read a little more of the romance novel her mother had sent her, then turned on the TV. An hour later, she turned it down, then off, hoping she wouldn't have nightmares, that she could sleep until her alarm went off.

((ok, assumuing the reader knows/had seen most or all of the above in previous chapters, knows she is having nightmares, etc...consider jumping into a scene without the usual daily-activities intro:...))


Chapter 14

     Jenny jerked upright and the pounding stopped. She could hear her heart beating as she freed herself from the tangle of sheets and stood up so she could walk off the adrenalin. The nightmares were getting scarier, more real, including the sound tracks. The floor was cold and she was about to turn on the lights and find socks when the pounding started again.
     For an instant Jenny smiled, glad the sound was real, not another nightmare. Maybe some drugged-up addict was using trashcans as snare drums? She looked out the window at the empty street, then turned back to stare through the darkness that led to her little kitchen, her front door. The banging was real, close,  meant for her. It was not muted by skin or flesh. Someone was attacking her apartment door with a heavy metal bar. She heard the jingle of the first lock hitting the floor.....  etc....