Getting More Blood From A Turnip

Originally posted October 1, 2009

Ohhh-tay! Time for another candid peek into the dark and mysterious ways of spec fic writing. Keeping with the subject of creative inspiration, which is something I am a bit obsessed with, let's look at a few more tricks you can use to fill word count.

One big problem with a novel manuscript is that it involves a lot of subplots and subevents, character evolutions, who knew what when, shifting alliances, etc. Keeping track of all this is damned hard, especially if you are like me and write 'organically' (read as 'chaotically'). This is particularly true as you get into the last third or so of the novel, where you are tightly structured by the existing material and the need to fill specific holes with specific, limited word counts.

What really helps for me is to go through at about the half-way mark, and make a summary of all the scenes in the story, listed in order by chapters. Write each one down on a sheet of paper and include enough data that you know what that scene involves. Here are a few such summaries from 'Overland':

'Leave compartment, argue over food, bad guy provides gold coins, gives Nate idea, threatens Nate'
'Nate gets over shakes in hall, recruits porter as spy'
'In diner'

What all that means is that in one scene, the villain demands that Nate (the hero) send food to him when he goes to lunch. They argue over it, and the bad guy gets angry, but gives Nate some money. Out in the hall, Nate decides to recruit the train's porter to spy on the villain, paying him with one of the gold coins. As you see in the next scene, I had nothing at the moment except that Nate is in the dining car.

From this I could see where I needed to focus my creative efforts. It also gave me an overview of the story line, which is difficult to follow when you have 300 pages spread out over a dozen or more separate computer files. Computers are wonderful gizmos, but they are kind of constrictive at times.

Another virtue of a master scene list is that you can look at the chain of events and see what scenes need to be moved from here to there, either to improve the plot flow or the time line, or to balance the size of the chapters. It can also show you places where you need to add a chapter (sometimes by splitting an existing chapter in two) or consolidate two chapters into one. In 'Trial', the chapter count started at 24, and wound up with 29 plus a post-script in order to make the timeline work. More: a master scene list will let you see where your gaps are, so you can focus on further development of specific items. Unless you work from a rigidly structured outline, which I find almost impossible, you will create a number of perfectly good scenes, but they will be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So once you've dealt the cards, you'll need to shuffle them. Master scene lists are good for that.

Still better: if your word count just isn't coming up enough, and you need to toss in a new wrinkle such as a new character or a series of incidents, then a master scene list will show you spots where those new entries can best be used. Just scribble out a new set of events over your existing list (a set of colored pens is great for this).

Finally, as you go through and complete each scene, mark through it on your master scene list. That will help you see where you need to concentrate, and will let you know when you're done.

In a similar vein, you will want to make up a master character list showing who appears in what chapter. In 'Trial', the master character list showed me several large multi-chapter gaps where major characters simply disappeared for a time. For those worried about word count, keeping those characters in play adds a lot of scenes in a hurry. I estimate that added 20,000 words to 'Trial'.

It's all kinds of warm and fuzzy if you have the ability to sit down at the keyboard and grind out 100,000 words in linear order while nursing a hangover. For us mere mortals, writing is not so much a matter of talent as it is of hustling ourselves into getting the job done. Con-artistry, that's the ticket!

Speaking of which, enough brilliance for the moment.

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