Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What If I Played What If?

Ya gotta break a few eggs to write a novel.

The alleged success recipe is intimidating enough to make a grown author cry: mechanically-sound and easily-readable prose; a roller-coaster of a story line; enough subplots to populate a small town; characters capable of bringing you to tears, hurting your sides with laughter, or making you want to strangle them; a level of suspense that hooks readers from the very first sentence and never lets them up for air; and plot twists capable of keeping your readers wide awake and turning the pages at 3 a.m. on a workday.

To make matters worse, there are no guarantees that this recipe—even when strictly followed--will produce a best-selling novel.

Damn!  The prospect of all that work makes me want to crawl into bed, pull the covers up over my head, and settle in for the proverbial long winter’s nap. 

To be perfectly candid with you, I’ve come sooooo close in recent months to doing just that, at least within the context of writing.  More bluntly put, I’ve quit more times than a cheap watch. My debut novel, “Child of Privilege,” taught me a variety of sometimes brutal lessons in writing, editing, marketing and promotion, networking with other authors and bloggers, and social media basics. (Before “Child,” I was one of six people in the U.S. who had neither a Facebook page nor a Twitter account nor any kind of social media presence whatsoever. I was such a radical back then. Sigh.)

I had undertaken my next book believing that 2nd novels imposed even larger responsibilities upon their authors. Why? Because they were expected to be so much better than their debut siblings.

I was determined to bring this newly-acquired wisdom to bear on Novel Number Two which is slowing wending its way (with a lot of stall-outs along the route) through its first draft. Number Two was to be as perfect as I was capable of achieving. We’re talking soaring to new heights, crashing through barriers, raising the bar, pushing the envelope, reaching for the stars, breaking new ground, reaching the other side, rewriting the record book, ad nauseam.

God, I love it when I write like that!

The result? Analysis paralysis. Too much thinking and not enough writing. Worrying. Chocolate overdose. Doubts. Do-overs. An overwhelming urge to turn off the computer and watch my fingernails grow. Fussing over every finicky detail which is generally a huge no-no at first-draft time. I became obsessed with perfecting this book in just one draft rather than following that time-tested writing protocol of just-get-the-damned-thing-down-and edit-it-later. This has been going on for months now as I’ve gotten myself stuck like a subcompact car in a snowdrift.

So, I remembered that line from one of my favorite movies, the iconic feature, “Speed”: “What do you do?” 

You call out the reserves; shorten your bench; signal to the bullpen; reach back for that little something extra; send for the literary equivalent of the U.S Cavalry; google the phone number for Ghost Busters; try to find Clark Kent so he can summon Superman.

Last but not least: go for the doughnuts.

More realistically, you grab the most potent tool in the writer’s toolbox: the game of What-If.

One of my more troublesome roadblocks consisted of four characters intended as antagonists for my beloved protagonist and heroine, Samantha. (Yes, Virginia, Sam would eventually have seven really bad eggs determined to skin her alive. That’s quite an antagonist omelet, don’t you think?)

Problem: these four nasties were too weak to execute their own subplots. As individuals, they lacked depth, roundness, credible back stories, and complexity. I didn’t want to devote precious “onscreen” time to them in order to endow them with what they needed to work. They were germane to the story but not THAT germane.

What do you do? You start playing What-If.

What if I created additional characters to bolster these four weaklings? No, I didn’t want to overcrowd the stage. You CAN have too much of a good thing.

What if I dropped them all? No, Samantha needed a menagerie of villains to overcome. Otherwise, there was little point to the story.

What if I developed them all? No, too little time and space. 

What if I dropped some of them? No, that would still weaken the overall story line.

What do you do?

What if I did a “mix and match” amongst these four characters? Could a “personality transplant” between these four ineffective entities create more formidable players whose subplots could then be reworked and expanded to make Sam’s life even more miserable? Could a literary Six Million Dollar Man get my novel started again?

THAT’S what you do.  And that's what I did.

When the dust finally settled, I had “grafted” bits and pieces of those three characters onto the fourth, creating a considerably more powerful force whose subplot I’m already expanding … with several tantalizing plot possibilities under consideration. The three “donors” were then consigned to my Outtakes folder.

And more importantly, my desire to complete this book seems to have returned with renewed vigor. As the wonderful Fred Rogers used to sing: “It’s such a good feeling!” 

So don’t hesitate to reach for the What-If tool when your stories or characters need a little something extra. Sometimes an acceptable stew can be amped up into an epic stew with the simple addition of the right spices and accents. You might be pleasantly surprised at what happens. 

Before you leave:
Due to the success of my recent “Child of Privilege” Amazon Giveaways, I’ve been finalizing plans to conduct some future Giveaways in this space through the use of Rafflecopter. After several weeks of research, I’m excited about the potential for reaching new readers and connecting with them. Stay tuned to this space (following this blog via email is the easiest way of doing that!) and watch for future announcements.

P.S: Don’t forget to pet your Thesaurus today.