If It Doesn’t Advance The Plot


I was finishing up my last edits on Brigham Plaza when the quarantine hit, so I couldn’t join my fellow writers in celebrating “all this extra free time” we had to write. But now that the book is with my editor, I’ve actually been using some of this “totally not anxiety- and stress-filled time” to do some exploratory writing. And you know what, faithful blog reader? It’s nice. It’s real nice and good.

Exploratory Prefatory

I’m drawn to this graphic that keeps appearing in Westworld, specifically when it is pointing out one of these “divergences.” This is a good representation of what it is like to write in a shared universe. Prior, I’d always imagined the Vinestead Universe timeline as stretching into the infinite distance, but now I’m starting to see it more like a circle with these little peaks stretching away from it.

It says to me here is everything that has ever happened, and the peaks say here is where the interesting stuff happened. Writing novels (and choosing the next one) that take place in this universe is all about finding something worth showcasing.

Having this circle of history makes things easier in some ways. You know who the characters are, what technology they have, and the balances of power at any given point in the timeline. But characters themselves are not interesting, to me at least. Nor is one little piece of technology. There has to be something bigger, some reason this story is important to the overall arc.

In my experience, the only way to discover that reason is to drill into the timeline, maybe at random, maybe with intent, to see if we find anything.

Flashes From the Verse

Yesterday, I posted Flashes From the Verse: Island Girl, one of a handful of exploratory writing sessions I’ve done in the last week or so. For a while there, I really did believe the anxiety and stress of quarantine was keeping me from writing, but then I had a bit of a breakthrough and realized that’s not the case. Ultimately, I believe it comes down to the simple truth that you have to want to write.

If Buzzfeed did a list of the Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Writing, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see global pandemic or dangerously incompetent President near the top. COVID is a huge stressor and I wouldn’t fault anyone who was too wracked with worry to even consider pulling out their pen and paper. That said, most writers I know aren’t completely blocked by COVID or the quarantine, and the reason is simple: they want to write.

If you want to write, you find a way. And if something is blocking your path, you figure out what it is and remove it. For me, it was that piece of writing advice that titles this post: if it doesn’t advance the plot, cut it. I am absolutely torn between an understanding of why that is good advice and the feeling that I don’t give a damn if it’s good advice.

The problem comes down to context.

Switching Gears

Spend enough years editing and revising novels and you’ll find yourself adept at figuring out what stays and what needs to be cut the F out. You become a completely different person than the guy who sat down all those months ago to write the first draft. All you care about is cutting, streamlining, trimming, shaving, and other verbs that mean the same thing.

When you’re firmly entrenched in that mindset, it’s hard to switch gears back to I’m just gonna see where this goes. If you’re just on vacation in your private fictional universe, the reader is going to notice. They can tell when you pad your chapters or your book. They’ve been programmed to want to move forward, to get to the next hit of that sweet, sweet dystopian cyber-thriller action.

With Island Girl, all I wanted to do was take a peek at the life of this little girl living on an island with her mom and dad. As a compromise to if it doesn’t advance the plot, I added an incoming storm just to give it some urgency. If you removed the storm, it would be the exact same information, but somehow that impending danger spices things up a bit.

Once I figured that out (again, because I forget after every book), I realized the problem could be further reduced to one of scope. After all, how can you worry about advancing the plot of the book if there is no book yet?

Advance the Chapter

One piece of writing advice I do quite like is along the lines of give the character an immediate problem. It can be as simple as an incoming storm or more nuanced… like a battalion of synthetic soldiers chasing them through the ruined streets of Matamoros. Whatever you choose, the problem provides the context for the chapter and scratches that itch of what’s the point of all this?

I think it’s easy to lose hope sometimes, to keep sitting down to write only to ask yourself where is this going? And really, the destination isn’t the point, unless you’re one of those writers who’s into fame and money and general success. It’s the writing that makes you happy, the moving the character from A to B, the new turn of phrase, or expertly crafted metaphor. It’s getting to the end and realizing two hours have passed in the blink of an eye.

It also helped when he had a mission, a purpose. Erik losing his glasses was a problem to be solved, a simple equation with a finite resolution. The glasses were somewhere in the house, probably downstairs in the den, perhaps laid across the cover of some Nabokov book Erik had become fond of in his later years. The prize for solving the problem would be gratitude and the opportunity to climb back into bed, both of which Lucas desired.

I love writing, and I love isolating and removing the obstacles that keep me from writing. Then I like to write a blog post and attempt to organize my thoughts about writing in the hopes it will somehow help a fellow writer push past their own blocks. I have a handful of talented friends who could be writers tomorrow if they wanted to, but for whatever reason, they haven’t moved forward.

If they don’t want to write, that’s perfectly fine.

But if they do but are blocked, it’s only neighborly to try to help.

Keep writing, friends.

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