Under Reconstruction– When Good Stories Go Bad

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So, have you ever started a project– maybe a story, maybe baking a cake, or choosing what to wear– and somewhere along the way you think “Oh, that’s not right.”  I’ve done it with a cake– I forgot to add salt to the batter, and something else that all these years later I never figured out.  The first bite of that cake and I thought, “Oh, no, that’s not right.”  I’ve done it with my wardrobe, usually at the worst possible moment when you are already walking through the door at school or work, and you discover you are still wearing your slippers, have a blob of toothpaste on your shirt, or my favorite, your toothbrush in your pocket (yes, I’ve done this).  Most definitely NOT RIGHT.

Well, that’s where I am with one of the books I’m working on right now.  It was a great idea, it’s been a ton of fun to write the first few drafts.  And now I’m giving it a hard look.  Too much salt?  Is that toothpaste?  Whatever it is, something is off kilter and it’s Just. Not. Right.

So, what do you do?  If you’re me, you go shopping online.  And then you come back to it.  You stare it in the face, you flip it around, and you get angry/depressed/hungry/distracted.  Then, you come back to it again after dinner.  And you give yourself some good advice.  Take the pulse of the story.  Where does it sag?

How does one take a story’s pulse?  I do it with a handy chart I learned from Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great.  In fact, this chart is an excellent illustration for where this blog got it’s name.  You see, I write my stories in a classic three-act structure.  If you were to draw a horizontal line, this is the timeline of your story.  Now, bisect it into thirds, with the middle section being the longest.  The first section is your first act, or beginnning of the story, the middle is the second act, and the end is the third.  I try to build my story along this so that the action rises, climaxing at that second line, or pole.  It looks like a circus tent to me, when it’s done right.  When it’s done Not Right, it sags in the middle.  Those middle pages, or the middle hundred. 

So, I take my manuscript and drag a pen along the page to draw this chart based on what I have.  I call it an EKG, like a heart monitor for the life of my book.  Then I can see where I’ve got problems.  The book I’m working on is arrhythmic.  It sags in the beginning and the middle… and the end.  Whoops.  Time to apply the paddles.

Where does that picture of the house under construction come in?  The scaffolding is my outline, the structure of my story, the bones.  I’m working on putting the scaffolding in the right places now by brainstorming.  I’m also knocking down a few walls and dreaming up what else could go there. 

It’s like the wardrobe issue.  Say you just bought an orange shirt and you want to wear it today.  You love this shirt, but you can’t figure out what it goes with.  You pull out jeans, skirts, shorts, overalls– everything you own in an attempt to turn this shirt into an outfit worthy of such awesomness.  And it isn’t working.  Now you’re late for school, or that date, or work, or an appointment.  Guess what, folks?  Time to ditch the shirt.  I’m not saying return it– you need the receipt for that and you loved it so much you tore up the receipt.  I’m just saying, the shirt will have it’s day.  But now, you need to get dressed, and you’ve laid out seven other great outfits just by emptying your closet looking for THE outfit to suit that shirt.

That’s where I am now.  I’m taking off the orange shirt for another day, and I’m getting dressed and moving on.  Or, at least I will be when I stop procrastinating by writing this post.

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