Saturday, July 1, 2017

Turning Point

Over the past seven weeks, I have rewritten, adjusted, edited and reviewed 25,000 words of my book, The Fifth Man.  I am just now getting to the point where the second draft I was writing began to go off the rails.

There were a lot of small reasons that slowly coalesced to create larger and larger problems.  The central problem was blocking, which in turn created problems of pacing and character that were being subverted in order to compensate for that blocking problem.

For those who don't know, I'll talk about blocking.  From what I've seen from most sites on the net, "blocking" is usually described as a rough outline of what happens in each scene of a book or play, from beginning to end.  This is partially correct but it is astoundingly oversimplified ~ if you go looking on general websites to find advice that will help you block your book or other work, you're going to find yourself struggling pretty quickly.

I learned about blocking from performing in theatre, where the term describes the arrangement of actors during a scene from moment to moment of that scene; blocking is best when this is coordinated with the spoken lines, and when the acting reaches a level where it is impossible for the audience to notice that any blocking has taken place.

We watch bad blocking all the time, particularly in television shows.  Watch from scene to scene how the actors move when they speak a particular line: all of a sudden the actor stands up, walks forward four paces, turns around and then speaks their line.  It is both an example of bad blocking (minimal, natural moves are best, rather than stark dramatic actions) and bad acting, where the excessive move is made more blatant by the actor thinking, "Okay, the other actor has finished their line, now this is where I rise up and walk over there before speaking my line."

In a good performance, every second of movement needs to be timed and then fixed with rehearsal and more rehearsal.  The concept is more or less the same with a novel, though the rehearsal is replaced by examining the description carefully in order to produce the correct impression on the reader.  The actions of the characters must make sense: why do they go here at this time and why does it matter to them?  How did they know to ask this question that adds to the novel's exposition without it sounding staged and inappropriate?  If three different groups of people all arrive at the same point in space and time for a confrontation, how did they all get there, and why are they there at the same time?

A writer can spend a lot of time angsting over these details.  It is like putting an enormous puzzle together with thousands of words, none of which can jump out and look painfully obvious to the reader, since that's the best way to destroy the sublime, suspended disbelief that makes a story work.

In the Fifth Man, there are certain moments that have to come together to make the main character think a certain way about himself and about his place in the world.  Those moments have to come together fluidly and interestingly; the characters who help these moments come together must be believable and, for the most part, likable.  This includes the villains!  Everyone in the story is following their own path but, since I am writing in first person, only one path is for certain known, that of the main character.  This means that other narratives have to cross the main character's narrative in a specific, patiently crafted way if the reader is to know anything about what's going on, while keeping both the main character and the reader in the dark enough so as to not know what's going on.  If someone lies to the main character, and the main character doesn't know it, then the reader can't know it either; but at some point the main character has to discover the lie, whereupon the reader discovers the lie, which creates the identification the reader shares with the main character: both the reader and the character are in it together.

This is tremendously difficult and I have been wrestling with certain scenes since I began this novel. Just when I think they are working, I realize I have forgotten some detail which then threatens the fabric of the story (often called plot holes), which must then be fixed and explained away in a manner that doesn't ruin the verisimilitude of the rest of the novel.  And since I like to tell complicated stories, about complicated people doing complicated things, I have felt pushed to the edge by this novel.

Steadily, however, I get on top of it.

At this point, I find I need to put down the semi-daily editing and rewriting, since I've come to this point in the novel where the clarity started to break down.  There has been a massive redrafting of Chapter 17 and I can see that, with the changes I've needed to make, that Chapter 18 forward is going to need considerable examination to get the various blocking to come out correctly. I am deeply steeped in the characters so I am not worried about them; there is one pacing issue that starts with Chapter 18 that I am frankly going to eat because the book needs to work that way.  Consider the way Dickens did it with Great Expectations, at the point where Pip returns to the village to attend the funeral of Mrs. Joe.  The book's steady progress is subverted somewhat at that point, with the pacing changed and a different point of view for Pip offered; yet the passage of about four or five thousand words is an important one for many reasons I won't go into.

I have a similar passage like this in my book and I'm fine with it, though some readers may feel the book slowing; nonetheless, I can't make later scenes work without it, nor can I firmly establish the relationship in concrete between the two most important characters.  The reader will just have to wait for the next action scene.

Anyway, this brings me to the point of this post.  I don't wish to stop posting my progress; however, I'm going to adjust that progress to show the second draft, which I'm going to essentially write again from where I am.  It will effectively be a third draft, which will then be followed by a fourth draft, but since I have been working on the third draft to date I want to keep it straight what draft is being managed for the whole book.

Therefore, think of it as me throwing out the old second draft and writing a new second draft, since large portions of it will technically be a first draft, as there are scenes to be added that only occurred to me (as a way of solving my blocking problem) as little as a month ago.

I will be recording how much second draft is being written from day to day and keeping a note on how much of the third draft was finished before I stopped and began the second draft again.  I know that for some this will make it sound like the book will never be finished (and no one succumbs to that feeling more than me!), but in fact the book will be finished when it IS ~ and that is a little insight into the mind of an artist with a sense of proportion.  We don't write these things to get them done, we write them to get them right.

I thank you for your patience.  I know I have been fairly tetchy lately, but we live in a tetchy world.  I appreciate that you have the tenacity to come back and read me again and again; gawd knows, sometimes I can't make it easy.


  1. Huh. I've never heard about "blocking" with regard to creative writing (I know it well from my training as an actor). You learn something new every day...

    I have to say, reading these updates gets me excited to see the final result.
    : )

  2. I too generally think of blocking in terms of acting but I agree that it's quite apt to describe the writing process. I would think it could, with a little bending of terminology, describe the similar process of natural organization and movement within a role-playing game. The bad blocking example you provide resembles some Wizards D&D modules' writing: precise descriptions of what to say as the players enter each room and little help on what to actually say in response to complex questions. A good DM wants to provide some sense of fluidity to the game environment so that the players' enthusiasm doesn't falter while the DM launches into their soliloquy on the dungeon's fourteenth antechamber. You can see how here too the connection is made between the actual content of the game and the problems of fluidly communicating it. If the DM is entirely in their own head, they won't hear the players' concerns or questions which are really the meat of the game communication-wise.
    I still struggle myself with answering questions comfortably and easily even after doing plenty of improvisational and scripted theatre. I suppose that sort of thing comes with practice in D&D's particular setting, but it does make me wonder what it would be like to have a director in D&D as distinct from the DM (who I guess is more a cooperative writer/dramaturge/actor/producer in this analogy?)
    There have been a few times where it could have been useful to have someone tap me on the shoulder and suggest repeating a "scene" but scaring the players more, or adding another choice to make them squirm a bit. But D&D is witnessed as it is created: repeating or reworking just mutes the original emotion. I guess we have to just do our directing on the fly and in our heads.


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