Writing Forest God

Posted on May 16, 2017

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And Rewriting It, And Rewriting It, And Rewriting It

Two years ago, I was hot on my novel, Boa, New Mexico. I had written 50,000 words in two weeks and had the entire book plotted out. I have a white board at home with maps and everything. And then one day, I woke to a half-dream state and started pondering a very simple idea: what if you captured an immortal being. You couldn’t kill it, but what if there was some way you could imprison it? What would that be, what would that look like, why would you do it, and what would happen? (In other words, you have a great idea for a book/movie…)

I talked to my friend Kelly about it and decided maybe it was worth writing. In probably 10 or 15 minutes I had “solved” the problems and had worked out the outline of Forest God. However, I had a novel to write and so I was bound not to be distracted by it. Then, I ran into a few issues with the novel. Not plot issues, more issues of how to tell the story better. So, I decided to sit down and “bang out” Forest God, while Boa percolated. I was certain that I could, and should, tell the whole story in 10,000 words or less. Because I thought it was a “good” story, had high concept, hung together well against a lot of historical data, and was well, just kind of a fun take on my home town. And I pretty much did. It took me maybe 12 or 15 thousand words, but in just a couple of sittings, I had the whole thing roughed out: beginning, middle, and end. I never planned for that to be the finished story, just wanted to capture it before it left my ever-filling brain.

First Draft – Omniscient POV

That’s when the problems started – once I was “finished” with the story. Because at that point, I really should’ve put it away and gone back to Boa. I didn’t hate Forest God, but I didn’t love it either, and by god if you are going to type 15,000 words, it better be worth the time to do it. And while I publish a lot of “drafty” stories on my blog, for some reason this particular story really began to bother me: A good story, poorly told. Maybe I did hate it.

This began an odyssey which maybe should’ve happened long before in my writing. I started reading and thinking about what makes a good story. I pulled Forest God apart scene-by-scene to see what was lacking. Because this was the first story I decided to “just write” before I had fully told it to myself in my head, I thought maybe it was just the 3rd person omniscient telling of the tale which “told” without “showing.” And, I can certainly see that writing the bones like this is probably ultimately why I hated it. I mean, I really was conflicted. I’ve certainly read many published stories written this way, but for some reason, it wasn’t working.

Second Draft – Omniscient POV

So I started thinking a lot about Point of View characters, and whether the POV character should be the Protagonist, which might still be “telling;” or could the POV character serve as a person who reacts to the protagonist, which would certainly be “showing.” And ultimately that turned out to be the path I took. But here I think I made my next crucial mistake. Originally, I decided that Paige, the POV character, would become the Forest God’s bride. But then I second-guessed myself and decided that maybe people would find that creepy as she is a teenager, so I introduced another, older character, Lizzie, who was  betrothed to the Forest God years ago (when she was also a teenager, so I never really solved that problem, just kind of swept it under the rug).

Somewhere along the way, a friend of mine, Amber, became interested in my stories and why I wasn’t working on my novel. I explained I had this novella, Forest God, that was “almost finished” and shipped her off a copy. Little did I know how far I was from being done. But Amber became something I have long sought and little found, a collaborator who would read my stuff and help me figure out just why it wasn’t working, because the more I put into this the less I liked it, but I was too close to it to see what was working and what was not. She probably suffered through 6 drafts, returning them each with notes and backing that up with numerous conversations. Honestly, for all of the effort, I must apologize that it did not come out better.

Third Draft – Nonlinear Structure

Around then,  I started to think about my story structure. I went from my original three-timeline story with a Preface in Ireland, a second section in the Plymouth Colony, and a present day story line, and found a different way to tell the story, by essentially putting all of the back story into a diary and using a plot device which gave me a series of flashbacks.  I took both the first scene, which takes place in 439, and the second scene which takes place 1200 years later and put them into one story as a diary. Then, I went through the present day story and divided it into “beats.” I took the diary, divided the total word count by the number of beats, sliced it up into like-size pieces and inserted it as a starting point. Before I did that I had no idea how parallel the stories were. I was fascinated with how incredibly well this incredibly mechanical process worked. I barely had to move a sentence.

Theme

It still wasn’t resonating with me, so I spent a lot of time contemplating the relationship of the theme to the story, something I never really worry about at all. All of my stories are definitely thematic, but usually I could only clearly state the theme after the story is done. In Forest God, the theme should be rich and obvious, but it wasn’t, and I thought perhaps that was why it failed. But when I went looking for it, it was there, several times. I added some lines to tighten it up and moved on.

Voice

Next, I really worried a lot about Voice. One reader’s comment made me worry that my work is “too breezy.” I certainly don’t pack in the sixteenth notes like a lot of writers with frills and flourishes dangling from every idea in a Baroque symphony of imagery. (Did you see how I did that?) But this was at war with my totally arbitrary “10,000 word” limit. In the end, I was reading some Bradbury and gave myself permission to be sparse where sparse was enough. I decided to put weather in every scene to parallel the turmoil in the plot and moved on.

Face-Grabber

I thought I had it all buttoned up but realized I didn’t have a “face-grabber” beginning. Amber suggested the simple expedient of flipping the story and diary entries. Problem solved.

Revisiting Paige and Lizzie

Something was still nagging me, and finally, I figured it out – the decision to include Lizzie as the Forest God’s bride further distanced Paige from the protagonist and weakened the story. It essentially turned it from an allegory, to a Young Adult mystery. Paige herself had no personal relationship with the god. It was all proxy. It didn’t work for me. I had to go back to my original inception and allow Paige to become the bride. I had to give her some magic of her own. In the end, the two stories are only a few hundred words different, but I think it changes the whole flavor of the piece.

Conclusion

Here are 3 Versions, with comments and annotations The final version, I was able to quite a bit more with typogaphy than I could easily here on the blog, I think it makes the reading a little more fun:

This story didn’t stop me completely, I did write Destroying Angel, a 4 month effort; Pigs of Minot (two sittings just to show I could – and it shows, but that story is not worth more effort); The Snob; Dead Man Blues, and Don’t Tell Lucille (which got published n the Fly Fish Journa) during this time. For sure I can tell you which of those stories are “good.” On top of that I wrote a book’s worth of articles on Story Theory while I pondered this all out. I hope they help you more than they helped me.

When I like a story or when it’s easy to write, I don’t care why it works, but in this story, I really wanted to figure it out. Often when I’m stuck, I realize I’m asking the wrong questions, and it turns out that if I had just followed my instincts, I probably could’ve just smashed it out. So that is probably the lesson here. Even I think removing Lizzie was the right thing, but I still wasn’t compelled. I’m still missing something…

I hope, at the least, that the time and pain on this story was lubrication for other stories, that while this story my not in itself be worth the effort, that that effort will pay off as I return to Boa, because that is sure as hell a good story. One thing that did happen between finishing this story and writing Lobster a week after, is that I somehow learned to edit very fast, tighten the language, and add descriptive phrases to heighten the imagery. Read the line in the Lobster about the eyes. Just saying.

I wouldn’t have finished it at all if it wasn’t for Amber, and I also got input from John, Ethan, Kimball, and Rob, so thank you all.

Antepenultimate Afterthought

I have spent hundreds of hours on this story. Many times the amount of time I have spent on stories I like much more, like Destroying Angel, and I rewrote that every day for a month. Or the very smallest concept story I ever wrote, The Snob, which only took me a day or two.  I honestly cannot tell you where all of the time has gone. It’s not like I was ever “blocked.” I always had an idea of something to write or change. Every day I work on it, I’m sure I’m almost done, this will be the last day. Instead, I’ve spent lots of time writing notes and graphs freehand, lots of time in the document, lots of time thinking in the car. And clearly, it wanted to be a bigger story. A novel at least, even a possible series, but I fought that daily, pruning, cutting. I took out an entire sub plot as I tried to bet back to my 10,000 word goal. But what was both most interesting and more concerning to me throughout this whole process is that I could never, ever put my finger on it. I’m two and a half years into it and I couldn’t tell you if this is a good story or not.

Penultimate Afterthought

Finally, I decided to take my own advice. I went back to my blog, So You Have an Idea…, turned that into a checklist filled it in, and finally got something actionable.

Afterthought

By the way, if I realized that if I truly collapsed the characters, removing Paige instead of Lizzie, and then made Lizzie the protagonist, telling her tale of love, insanity, and finally redemption – I could easily spin this into a novel. Further, if I wrote out the stories in the diary first and then the adventures after the escape, I have the makings of  trilogy here. Given how hard I worked for something I don’t love, I think I’ll just have to let that one go for a while.

 

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Posted in: Essays, Technique, Writing