Writer’s World Episode #167: Five is the Guy.

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Keys to Life. Author image.

Five is the guy. At least lately. I have chugged away at getting him upriver and whether any of the story of his sailing adventure is worth including I can’t yet say. His journey is fraught, there is conflict, it moves the story forward and all that. Sometimes I like it, sometimes it seems a crazy diversion. And despite the rest of the manuscript being at the third draft stage, this is first draft material, hence, it requires a second look in terms of substantive value and of course the line editing. I may have over or underwritten things. Which is to say the idea is important to the architecture of the plot – Five’s origin and travel, his entry into this novel – but my rendering may be tedious and boring. It must add value above and beyond being a component of the plot. Let’s face it, a castaway and solo sailing adventure is hardly a unique idea and it can make for its novel, hence, it threatens to bog down or bloat TC2 with what amounts to a spurious side story. It’s been my challenge, then, to render Five’s experience in line with the style, level of detail and pace of the rest of the manuscript. How to get the job done, for instance, in a page-turner manner without driving the manuscript too far past 500 pages?

Part of being professional is knowing when and how to manipulate the level of detail in favor of keeping the story moving. When in doubt, give the reader the opportunity to fill in the detail, resist the urge to explain and all that. But requiring too many leaps of logic results in the type of annoyingly silly, ultimately nonsensical, fragmented, hackneyed non-stories that you see in, say, too many Ultraman episodes. Our characters are here, then suddenly they’re over there – context comes and goes and a jarring sense of discontinuity poisons our otherwise enjoyable suspension of disbelief. The thrill vanishes, we feel gypped and manipulated and the whole experience becomes one of meritless frustration. It’s the experience of tossed-off indifference to quality and the problem can arise from lack of inspiration, lack of time spent on a thing and, conversely, too much time spent on a thing. The proper balance and chemistry rarely comes easily – it can be argued that it almost never comes easily – and it becomes another aspect of professionalism to battle through the sticky, oftentimes unwieldly nature of a creation and bring it home to at least competent completion.

Have I gone too far this way or that with Five’s entry into the story? I have to maintain a workable faith in my intuition and the editing process, both. Meanwhile, I see it as an opportunity to communicate Five’s psychology. And it’s part of the nature of a charismatic character that we enjoy watching them, listening to them, and reading about them when they’re doing virtually anything. Take Sherlock Holmes as an example. Conan Doyle could place Sherlock within the context of a moon launch in the modern day and people would be compelled to at least try it out. Now, this strength of a character’s charisma of course leads directly into a weakness, namely, that a writer can make the mistake of assuming that you can indeed disregard context and rely upon the charisma power of character to carry the story. In the end, while it may perhaps sell some books, initially, to refresh, as it were, a character’s context in otherwise incongruous ways, the lasting effect is one of diminishment. Sherlock Holmes is a private detective within nineteenth century London and environs. That context is inevitably tied to the value and success of Sherlock as a character. You cannot manipulate that context without overmanipulating the character and, in a sense, losing him.

And this has been the curious experience for me of writing the second novel, namely, that of working with established characters, of not being required as in the first novel to develop the main characters from scratch. These are two different tasks. As it stands, Mr. Z., Vixy, Captain Chase, Professor Wilhelm, Neutic, Five, Cog and the General are known, whereas the Emperor is not so much and the Empress is almost completely new. All their character arcs are different, too, hence each character demands its own special care and handling. They write their own stories, too, of course – it isn’t as if I’m in complete authority – which is both fun and frustrating. This helps explain how Five’s castaway status and sailing adventure came to insert itself, really, into the story. Five himself deemed my original attempt as lacking. Lacking? Yes, quite frankly, in the first draft and even the second I was attempting to avoid the complexity of that plot line. For whatever reason, I didn’t want to write anything more about it. At the time it seemed irrelevant and I was satisfied with leaving it a mystery. But self-editing required me to repeatedly confront the lack. And Five himself spoke to the solution, even beyond my own intentions. He demands how I’m to write his way, my way or our way through it – it’s a weird experience from an author standpoint, believe me. And anyone who writes fiction will likely identify with it.

Meanwhile, at least I’ve finally brought the story forward to where I left off in the editing prior to being overtaken by the impulse to reconfigure Five’s process of arrival. For better or worse, he has run his catamaran aground at the northern portion of the Tonle Sap Lake, damaging the craft beyond reasonable repair (given his circumstances), and this afternoon I look forward to perhaps a paragraph or two that will put him properly and literally on the ground near Angkor in 1296. He will tough out the remainder of the rainy season by way of establishing a reliable shelter, developing a routine of hunting and gathering and exploring the geography. I already know that I don’t have to write that part out. With a handful of allusions, more or less deft, we can provide the reader enough to work with. At least I think so. You don’t describe every step a character takes or every breath he breathes. Herein lies part of the magic trick of writing a novel that people want to read: as an author and with the help of an editor you work to create something that readers enjoy reading and most importantly, reading themselves into.

Anyway, when the dry season arrives in Angkor, Five will be in the bamboo grove where I left him prior to this crazy rewrite, somewhere around page 175 or so in the manuscript. Which is now at something like 520 pages including a table of contents, the notes and glossary but no illustrations. Henceforth, however, rather than adding I am compelled to return to trimming. But, we’ll see. Again, it’s not all up to me.

P.S. On Monday, the TC2 book cover redesign gets underway….