Middle Madness

I think I’m over the hump with the third major draft of my new novel, Untimed (for a quick blurb see here).

Story structure is hard. And while this book is much better structured than early drafts of my previous novel, it had two major problems: the ending and the first part of Act II. Late (very late) in the second draft I cracked the ending. So that just left the middle.

Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when the biggest comment from my awesome freelance editors’ (I use three: Renni Browne, Shannon Roberts, and R.J. Cavender) involved problems in this middle section. It’s not that the scenes wen’t good or exciting, but mostly that I fell prey to a personal need to sneak Napoleon into the story (time travel seems to call out for the most pivotal personality of the modern era) and this resulted in a bad case of “Double Mumbo Jumbo” (or a variant thereof).

So what is the dreaded Double Mumbo Jumbo? Most specifically it’s the phase coined in Blake Snyder‘s Save the Cat book (which I discuss here). DMJ is invoked by throwing two unrelated implausible things into the same story. However, my specific problem is really a cousin, what my editor Renni calls “1+1=1/2”. This is, the idea that doing the same improbable thing twice in the same book isn’t twice as good as doing it once, but actually half as good. Even if the thing is cool. So a kind of DMJ.

And I was doing it in my middle.

Still, this section of my story accomplished a lot of other things too. And I had to figure out how to rework it to keep as much of the good as I could, avoid a DMJ — and not make TOO much work for myself in terms of repercussions later in the book. Thinking about various ways to restructure, particularly given the constraints of my story, my elaborate time travel scheme, and history itself, was quite the brain buster. I thought on it all day for at least a week. So hard one Friday that I literally gave myself a migraine headache! I found myself pondering time travel so aggressively that I became confused as to what year it was — and then my vision began to shimmer (migraine).

I probably outlined 15 different scenarios and talked about countless more. This part of the writing process is very peculiar. I often end up with a half-baked scenario that satisfies some goals, but just doesn’t really work. One quickly reaches a point where no new ideas surface internally and you need to shake it up. I then find it extremely useful to talk with a limited pool of friends who have read the book in it’s latest incarnation. This allows me to efficiently go over the possible elements. Then we talk out the problems. By vetting numerous failed scenarios it’s often possible to collect enough different disconnected ideas that a single coherent new plot can be jig-sawed together. Or at least coherent enough to polish out in the writing.

This last week, I even twice resorted to writing out (as prose) incomplete outlines to see if they worked. The first revealed itself as a miserable failure. The second made it to the finish.

Now it’s off to friends and editors to see how it passes muster.

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