Friday, July 24, 2015

Coming up with the "WOW!"

Yesterday I talked about trying to come up with a "process" for rewriting that works as well as the process I've arrived at for first draft.  Taking into account that I'm lazy and really don't like rewriting.

I've talked about this before, but maybe it's time to pop up with this anecdote again.

Long ago, I read a book by or about Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, in which a single short story is used as an example of his process. In the course of the book, we see three separate versions of the same short story

1.)  The first version is pretty good.  You know, you'd probably read it and go, "nice."

2.)  But Mr. Gardner isn't satisfied. So he mulls it over, tweeks it in different ways, and produces a second draft.  This version is much better, so much that it is kind of astonishing.

3.)  But still Mr. Gardner isn't satisfied.  The story needs something stronger, some twist, some revelation, some surprise, that will unleash the potential of the story.

Sure enough, he comes up with the corker, and you think, "WOW!"  It improves the story dramatically.

Anyway, this always stuck with me.  I've tried to a greater or lessor extent to keep it in mind when I write.  I've been lucky in that I think I usually can come up with a satisfying conclusion to my stories, sometimes with a nice twist.  But I haven't rigorously made myself sit down and think about how I might really up the level.  Partly because I think it's dangerous to mess with a story once it's down.

I have sort of been doing something similar, however, to the first third of a book. In the course of writing the first draft, I've learned that if I pause about a third of the way through and ask myself, "What's missing?" I often come up with new elements that complete the story.  Maybe I'm missing an adequate villain, or love-interest, or sidekicks, or settings, or...any number of things.

Throughout most of my career of owning a bookstore, I would go to sleep at night asking myself two questions.

1.)  What am I doing that I shouldn't be doing?  And even more importantly....

2.)  What am I not doing that I should be doing?

It was amazing how this clarified the problems and often gave me the solutions. So I've taken to asking the same things about my stories.

So my latest epiphany is that I need to apply the same thinking to the last third of the book.  What plot developments can I come up with that will surprise, or move, or wow the reader?

For instance, The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Murders is pretty good as it is.  I like it quite a bit.

But I decided that I'd like to try to see if I can't come up with at least 3 strong improvements in the last third of the book.  Just really give it the Erle Stanley Gardner treatment.  What sort of crux points can I put in that will make the reader go, "WOW!

Almost immediately upon thinking about this, I came up with a couple of changes that will improve the ending.  After mulling them over for a couple of days, I've realized that these two changes aren't the "WOW!" I'm looking for...but they are an improvement.

They are also just a beginning.  As soon as I get the manuscript back from Bren, I'm going to spend as much time as it takes to try to come up with at least one "WOW!" and hopefully a couple more.

Thing is, even if they aren't "WOW!"s, they will probably be improvements, and that isn't a bad thing.

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