This afternoon I mailed the manuscript back to Editor. It’s done. It’s done again for the umpteenth time. I thought it was done last week, but Editor was busy with something else and said “I’ll be ready for it in a week and a half. ” So I spent a week combing its mane and tail, polishing its hooves, AGAIN, and sure enough…there were knots in the mane and tail that I thought I’d combed before, and its hooves…well. It’s better now. It’s lots better now. That’s not to say it’s perfect, or that there’s not an embarrassing glaring typo or other mistake in it that she will spot (after FOUR of us going over it didn’t see it!) but it’s definitely better now. Editor made some excellent suggestions and so did my three stalwart first-readers. To celebrate, a blog post.
I use some terms that some of you may not be familiar with. They’re not in books about literature, or writing science fiction stories. They’re my own private terms for things in writing and revising my stuff that come up time after time. Some of you have seen mention of some of them before, but please pretend you forgot.
PLOT BOMB. A plot bomb is an idea that explodes in my mind and sets off more idea-explosions, markedly improving the book. It’s exciting and fun when one goes off, like a fireworks display when you thought it was going t be another dull evening. Most books have a few plot bombs in them, and they usually appear from somewhere in the middle book through to the one that arrives in the last three chapters and makes me rewrite half the book because it’s what *should* have happened from the start. I can’t depend on them to get me out of a stuck place–they may in fact arrive when everything seems to be going merrily along–but they’re wonderful gifts from some unknown part of my brain, and they’re always welcome.
RUNAWAY TRAIN. I may think it’s a plot bomb but it’s not. It’s a day or so of fast writing, eager writing, everything is so incredibly cool and wonderful and then…comes the train wreck and I have 20+ pages of text that doesn’t belong in that (or any other) book. When things are going swimmingly, I can miss the signals that I’m not on the right track and the engineer isn’t in the locomotive. It’s a long, miserable walk back uphill along the track to get to where I went wrong.
SHORTCUT. Isn’t. And yet, at least every other book, I yield to temptation and write one or more shortcuts, and then have to go back and take the long (not always scenic) route to the next bit. Every time I tell myself “Don’t take shortcuts” because I’m trying to keep the word count down (I write long) and every time at least one of them has to be unpacked to its full length.
HINGE. Where the story changes direction and heads for its ending. Stories “swing” from the hinge. In very long story arcs, I will not know how many volumes the whole arc needs until I get to the hinge (I can feel it; I can’t describe it.) Twice I’ve thought I had a three-volume story and it took five. Once it went from three to seven. Sure enough the hinge covered most of the fourth volume. The hinge in a multi-volume story arc is near the middle of the middle volume. That volume, in particular, is hard to shape with a sub-arc, because it’s busy being a bigger hinge for a bigger arc. In one volume stories, the hinge is somewhere reasonably close to the middle. In short fiction, there’s also a hinge, and in really short fiction it may be a single phrase or even a word. I’m not a bad short fiction writer, but I’m also not super at it, and a short story can take me as long as 3-4 times as many words in a novel.
OOMPH. The intrinsic energy of a story that drives it forward–for those who ride, it’s the writer-equivalent of impulsion in a horse. The writer isn’t pushing the story, but guiding, regulating subtly, with sensitivity, how the story proceeds, so it doesn’t lag or bolt. OOMPH comes from the deep place, and is most often ensured by the writer paying attention to motivation…motivation drives the characters and creates plot. It’s the motive power of the whole thing. The ability to feel the flow and ebb of oomph is an essential tool for writers–the sooner you recognize facing oomph, and figure out what it needs to flow strongly again, the easier (and better) the writing.
So how does someone learn to recognize the signals from Plotbombs, Runaway Trains, Shortcuts, Hinges, the ebb and flow of Oomph? A lot of it comes from reading…and not even analytical reading. Just reading. And re-reading. Re-reading is when you are less eager to get to the end and find out what happened, and more aware of your internal feelings at different parts of the story. With a story that’s exactly suited to your taste, you may need to re-read multiple times to get past the sheer joy of having a story you find fully satisfying before you can be aware of your internal responses to it…but keep at it. It’ll come. Someday you’ll find a place in someone’s plot that’s clearly a plotbomb–you, like the author, have new insights into the story, see new possibilities. You’ll recognize hinges and ample or insufficient oomph.
And then, when you’re reading your own stories, you’ll recognize that vague internal, “Yes!” or “Wait–something just went…kind of flat.”