Tag Archives: ray bradbury

The Umpteenth Draft

If you’ve ever written anything, including term papers for school, you know what a first draft is: a complete but unedited work. So what comes next? Well, you say, obviously editing. And you’re right. But what kind of editing?

Broadly speaking, the adventure starts with overall structure and gradually works its way down to typos. Although not always that neat, once a first draft is done it’s time to step back, draw a deep breath, and look at the big picture.

Ray Bradbury, in his mystery Death is a Lonely Business, summed up the process rather graphically. His lead character, a writer, develops a friendship with a local police chief. The police chief, it turns out, harbors literary ambitions, so the writer helps him get started. His key advice: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”

That’s worth remembering, if only to remind you how good your first draft likely is.

These days, few of us use typewriters. Via computer, it’s easy to edit as you go, and I regularly do that. Most days before writing anything new, I get a running start by rereading what I wrote the prior day and cleaning it up. By the time my so-called first draft is done, it’s already been edited substantially. Even so, it won’t be free of structural problems, substandard writing, or scads of typos. It remains a first draft in spirit, if not precisely in number.

Usually I crawl through a story at least three times before I’m happy with it, after which my wife tears it apart and makes me fix it up again, often contributing new material along the way.

These rewrites are not merely finding better words or fixing spelling errors. I rearrange material, throw out entire scenes and start them over, and add new scenes. I fix glaring continuity errors, plug up holes, and expand upon ideas.

To take one small example, in Ice on the Bay (my current work in progress) , I introduced a stack of boxes at the back of a room in which a murder had occurred. At the time, I didn’t have any plans for them. I didn’t even know what they contained. Nearing the end of the first draft, I realized that Eric Dumas, the principal investigator of the murder, never bothered to ask what was in them, much less look for himself. He should have. And once he did, it turned out to be important.

Completing the first draft may seem like a lot of work, but once it’s done, the real work begins. And until it’s done, one doesn’t have a story worth reading.

A Walk in the Park

On September 20, 1976 at Northwestern University, I met a bright young lady who would before long become my wife. One day that fall I happened to be in her dorm room looking at a poster hanging on her roommate’s wall, a gorgeous photograph of forested mountains draped in the oranges, reds, and golds of autumn. As I admired the poster a story came to mind, and in short order I wrote the first draft of “National Park.”

To be honest, it wasn’t very good. I still had a lot to learn about writing in those days. Over the years, the story was rewritten and recast several times. You can read the current incarnation here, and I suggest you do before going on, because what follows is a serious spoiler.

Initially the story featured one lone character making a climb up a treacherous mountain. The climb lasted only a few pages, and was followed by a startling revelation. (This is where the spoiler comes in, so if you haven’t read the story yet, better do so now!) I left the climber intentionally anonymous, to emphasize what I hoped would be a stunning transformation from the richness of the natural world  to the desolation of the city in which he finds himself.

[SPOILER ALERT!]

That’s right: the National Park isn’t a natural wilderness at all, but a virtual reality experience. The climb didn’t happen except in the character’s head. The story was a cautionary tale about the destruction of the natural world and how increasingly we were being severed from it.

Not bad for 1976, a time when the term “virtual reality” hadn’t even been coined, although a few SF writers had created virtual reality stories before (Bradbury’s brilliantly chilling short story, “The Veldt” comes to mind). Alas, it wasn’t a well-written story.  Over the years I would rewrite it several times.

Even in its improved forms, readers didn’t seem to know what to make of it. One editor rejected it with the comment that although he enjoyed it, at the end all I’d done was to build up the danger to the climber and then reveal that he hadn’t been in any danger at all. Obviously the guy totally missed the point. The danger is real; it’s just not what it first appears to be.

Others told me to give the climber a name, and as I learned more about the sport of climbing, I added considerable detail to the preparations and the climb itself. I also added some other characters, partly to increase the realism and partly to increase the tension. Last but not least, the original story didn’t have a very good hook. The current version starts with one of the climber’s companions suggesting that he’s going to die on the mountain.

Today, virtual reality stories are so commonplace that I doubt “National Park” would excite any editor. So it is now relegated to my files and this blog. But I hope you enjoy it anyway.

 

Setting: Harder Than You’d Think

Of the three main elements of fiction–plot, characterization, and setting–setting is arguably the most challenging.  You might think otherwise.  My Howard County mystery series is, for example, set in Howard County, Maryland.  Where else?  The plots of the novels can’t be stated so simply, and the characters are (I hope) sufficiently complex as to defy such brief description.  So what could possibly be so hard about the setting?

There are several ways to answer that question.  To start with, setting is not monolithic: it has a surprising number of components.  Different writers spell it out in somewhat different ways, but let’s start with three key aspects of setting: where, when, and who.

  • In broadest possible terms, where involves universe, galaxy, solar system, planet, land or sea, every level of geopolitical territory imaginable, building, and room.  A location is not just a specific place but an entire conglomeration of nested locations.  Knowing that a character is in a room is not enough.  A room in a pricey high-rise condo in Manhattan is hardly the same as a room on a derelict spaceship drifting without fuel through the emptiness of intergalactic space .
  • When can involve historical era, season or time of year, time of day, and elapsed time (how long something has been going on, how long it’s been since something happened, how far apart in time two scenes are, etc.).  One might include the weather in this category, since it changes over time.  Some aspects of when may be constant (a whole story may take place in 1865), but some are ever-changing (the story may take place over the course of a month).
  • The who part of setting is distinct from characterization, involving socio-political culture (itself a complex of history, religion, tradition, etc.), ancestral influences, and population density.  It’s the human background and surround against and through which the characters move.

Another way of understanding the complexity of setting is to think about its interplay with the scenes in a story.  Except in the case of single-location stories (e.g., “In The Butcher Shop”), action is spread over a sequence of scenes which take place in a variety of places, times, and conditions.  The first of my Howard County mysteries, The Fibonacci Murders is naturally set in Howard County, but each scene is located in a particular place within the county: any of several houses, a shopping mall, a state park, the county police department’s Northern District Headquarters, and so forth.  The story unfolds over the course of a couple of weeks, with scenes set at different times of day and in different weather.  Indeed, some of the action in my second novel, True Death, reaches beyond Howard County, even to the Rocky Mountains.  Except in the simplest cases, setting is always changing, just as the plot and the characters are.

The interplay of setting with plot and characterization is more complex still, because setting can influence and even control those elements.  Imagine, for example, that your character must get to the top of a mountain to find an artifact necessary to saving the world.  The location and shape of the mountain will play a vital role in determining how easy or hard it will be for her to succeed.  Indeed, the mountain may render success impossible or even kill her.  Moreover, conditions on the mountain may influence her state of mind and thus her actions, or the experience of climbing may ultimately change her in some way.

Finally, setting can establish tone and mood, and may be used symbolically to reflect other aspects of a story.  I’m currently writing my third Howard County mystery, Ice on the Bay, which sprang from a detail of setting: last January as I drove over the Francis Scott Key bridge on my way to work, I saw to my surprise that the water was nearly frozen over.  (In twenty years here I had never seen that happen.)  Cold weather permeates the novel and mirrors the spiritual state of certain characters in the book.

As you can see, then, setting is neither simple nor easy to get right.  It should be treated as a dynamic element of a story, just as plot and characters are.  In reality, all elements of a story interact with each other, setting included.  Otherwise, you don’t really have a story at all.