Friday, November 30, 2012

Why Writing Is Like Jackstraws

        The idea for this post came from a piece  by Vanessa Chapman on the excellent Limebirds website, where she suggests overcoming writers' block by throwing in something off the top of your head, like having a spaceship land on the door step or making the building across the street explode, or even  killing off your protagonist; and then see if that will spark your creative process and get you going again.
       Sigh.  That's improvisation -- a dirty word in my writing vocabulary.  It simply doesn't work for me.  Once I had landed that spaceship or exploded that building, it would accrete itself into the plot, never to be gotten rid of.  The story would turn into science fiction about alien abductions or into a story about terrorism, and my protagonist could never, ever be resurrected -- because now THIS IS THE WAY THINGS HAPPENED!   
       That's why I say, writing is like jackstraws.  Do children ever play that game these days?  I used to love it when I was six years old.  You throw down the straws and then you try to pick out individual straws without making any other straws move.  It's almost impossible at times.
       It's the same with writing.  If you improvise something and drop it into the mix of straws, it affects the whole structure.  Suddenly you have to add something early on to prepare the way for this addition, and later in the text there will undoubtedly be references to what you added.  Then, if you try to get rid of the addition (or in fact if you decide to change anything in the plot, whether added or original), everything will shift position, like the heap of jackstraws.  Plucking out or changing one thing means changing a dozen other things, which makes it necessary to re-read the whole mess of words you've written, or to find some way to search the text for keywords (and then you're never sure you've found everything.  Some allusion is always rearing its ugly head, perhaps inconveniently in the final edit before you publish).  And when you rewrite those passages, the re-writes always feel awkward and stilted and never feel as if they belong organically to the story.
       Some of you may have noticed I've been posting the opening chapters of my unfinished "opus" (anything that ponderous deserves that appellation!) entitled The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars (this link will show you all the chapters so far, in reverse order).  The jackstraw conundrum is a part of why I doubt it will ever be finished.  Let me describe the story.  It's laid in the 28th century -- a fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the man who commanded the first interstellar mission (which went to Epsilon Eridani).  The ship crash-lands on a moon of one of Epsilon Eri's planets and the crew was about to succumb when another ship appeared.  It's an exploratory ship from the planet Krisí’i’aid, which is inhabited by three intelligent species, all avians.  They rescue our Captain and his crew and help them get back to Earth, where the appearance of these Big Birds obviously creates a sensation and a crisis.  That's the central kernel of the plot.
       However, since the story is a biography of Robbie Nikalishin, it has to encompass his whole life and a whole lot of stuff happens during a person's life.  It's a big mistake to write that sort of all inclusive story, especially if you're as long-winded as I am.  The story ballooned all out of proportion and became a series.  It took -- well, I'm chagrined to admit it, but I will make my "mia gulpas" as Prf. A'a'ma once said, and confess: the first document alone, which I call v.1 & 2 and which takes the Captain only from birth to his 38th year, when he's about to launch on the Big Mission -- that document consists of 780,000 words.  And we haven't even reached that central kernel of the story -- the meeting with the Krisí’i’aidá.
       I actually think those first two volumes are pretty good and could stand alone, but they can't be published unless they can be pruned.  And I haven't even tried yet.  I thought I would see how people react to the opening chapters first.
       But that's not the worst of it.  I wrote a section to bridge the gap between the end of v.2 and the launching of the Big Mission.  And I didn't have a clue what needed to happen in that time, so I (shudder!) improvised.  (I wrote 580,000 words of pure transition -- how disgusting is that?)  Several subplots developed.  I had to add new characters because the Captain was interviewing and selecting his crew, who would all play a large part in the core of the story.  These characters then assumed a life of their own, with backgrounds, conflicts, etc. 
       In the midst of all this, I decided I wanted to account for what had become of Judaism in my future history, so I introduced a Jewish character, who would become the ship's communications officer.  Actually, I introduced him in the opening volumes, but he wasn't developed there.  I decided that he needed to get married so I could show what a Jewish wedding has become at that time.  That meant I needed to work up a female character for him to marry, who also blossomed into something greater.  And then I had to learn about Jewish weddings. 
       And that precipitated me into a three or four month study of Judaism, including studying some basics of the Hebrew language.  Double-sigh!  I became totally immersed in the subject and fell in love with the Jewish religion (don't worry, I'm not converting, although I can definitely see many strong points in the Jewish faith and culture).  So I ended up writing a whole section where the Captain and his crew go to the Istrian Judish Enclave (in the future there can be small territories set aside where religions can be practiced openly), attend Avi's wedding, meet a couple of wonderfully complex characters who are Rabbis, and learn the tragic story of one of them.
       What does all that have to do with interstellar travel and making first contact with the alien Birds?  Nothing!  But if I were to throw out that entire transitional third part, a lot of the events that happen during the voyage and a lot of the ship's crew won't have a backstory and the pile of jackstraws will be fatally disarranged!
       When I finally got around to writing about the voyage, it went pretty well, but I made one fatal mistake.  Again, I wanted to show as I did in The Termite Queen what making a first contact would actually be like.  I wanted to show in detail how one side would have to learn the other side's language.  This time it would be a vocal language, but one that the human throat can't enunciate, so it's the Birds who have to be taught an alien language, in this case, English.  It was defintely an experimental undertaking and it was a disastrous failure.  I happen to love grammar and so watching crewmembers teach avian extraterrestrials about English word order and verb tenses and pronoun cases and articles was fascinating to me.  However,  it would without a doubt be terminally boring to almost everybody else in the universe.  And I also had no real plot for what happens after the Birds reach Earth, so the improvisation began again.  I had to introduce some new characters and again they threatened to take over the story.
       And I still had the rest of the Captain's life to delineate.  It had certain high points that I knew I wanted to hit but there was no connective tissue.  I also know exactly how he's going to die -- I've written that scene in my head a million times and made notes.  But a vast desert stretches out over the last 30 or so years of his life.
       About the point where the Birds were settling in on Earth, I threw in the towel. I was  spending all my time playing computer solitaire instead of writing because I was so sick of the whole blob, even as I fumed about how I wasn't getting any younger.  So one day I quit.  I went back to The Termite Queen, revised it one more time, and started trying to get it published.
       But I still haven't completely given up on my Captain.  I do think I may be able to work v.1 and v.2 into something publishable.  I have hopes of condensing them considerably.  And I'm thinking of turning the Jewish section into a novella.  It's a wonderful chunk of text and I hate to lose the characters of those two Rabbis and I hate to lose the philosophical discussions that take place in that part.  So we'll see.  Will the whole edifice of the story collapse when I start pulling straws out? Stay tuned!


  1. We love that game,pick up sticks! Though straws work too....

    1. Mine were little wooden sticks that came in a tube. I don't know what became of them. When I cleaned out all the storage boxes after my mother died, I found all kinds of old toys, but I don't remember seeing those.

  2. Great analogy, Lorinda. Writing is meticulous and precise. Your "opus" sounds so interesting and I look forward to reading it.

    1. In spite of its horrible, over-grown verbosity? Well, thank you! I think it does have some interesting characters and ideas. And you can read the Prologue and the 1st three chapters on this blog, you know. The link is in the post, or simply scroll down the sidebar to the labels and click on Man Who Found Birds among the Stars (text).

  3. I've only just seen this post, thanks for the mention!

    We used to call that game fiddlesticks, coloured wooden sticks with pointy ends. My kids still play it occasionally too; their version is called Mikado. It's a good analogy for writing.

    1. Yes, I've always thought of "jackstraws" (one of its many names) when I write. I pull out one sentence and the whole structure changes. Thanks for stopping by, Vanessa!