It wasn’t until the first teardown of the first draft that I noticed that my outline for the overarching project had taken on biblical themes. The beginning, dubbed Genesis; the middle, dubbed Exodus; and the one that wraps it all up—after things get horrendously worse, of course, dubbed Revelations. In fact, what I’ve got now looks nothing like what I started with.
- What’d I start with?
- What changed?
Truth be told, rigid planning had little to do with how this happened. In fact, the planning I’d done beforehand almost didn’t let this happen. It wasn’t until I got frustrated with the lack of movement and tore down the first draft that serendipity struck.
(Such a funny turn of phrase. I think of it, and I picture a lovely woman, wearing Greek or perhaps Roman attire, with a lovely smile and a lovely…gigantic mallet that, once she’s swung it, takes me upside my fool head, shooting stars and holographic images out instead of skull fragments.)
I started with a scene. Just a scene. One scene. It was heavy on the eye candy, and light on anything else. While it made for pretty mental pictures, it was skinny.
This is often how I start: a scene pops into my head, and my mind proceeds to ask me: “How did we get here?” That’s when I begin this thing that sort of passes for an outline. It’s usually closer to a mind map, put together in a .txt file instead of a sheet of paper or a nifty app. (I didn’t have my own machine when this project began. It was stored across two flash drives.) I began working backward, coming up with the pivotal scene that started the whole thing, and formed the path leading up to it: shiesty!high priest makes a move on his mark, modest!apprentice priest.
It occurred to me one day that it had all the depth of a kiddie pool. I had to go deeper.
(…did I just reference Inception? …well, I’ll leave it in. It works, and you’ll see why.)
At the start of the project, I had exactly two characters—Shiesty and Modest—and two characters does not a novel make. I began to think backward: Why the hell is this character so interested in that one? What’s their connection? When did it happen? Out of this, I created an attendant for Shiesty, gave him a minor past within the city the story’s set mostly in, and set him up as a spy.
This, of course, led me to wonder: What’d Attendant do? Why’s he’s on Shiesty’s side in the first place if his loyalty was previously here, in this town? I went deeper, to the literal beginning. Or, if you prefer, the Genesis. I’d jokingly applied it as a placeholder or a code name so that I could remember it, but then…well, it stuck. I mean, it was the beginning of the beginning, and in the beginning, there was…plot. Suddenly, I had the underpinnings of a plot, where I had nothing of the sort before. We have three main characters now, who for simplicity’s sake, we’ll just refer to by their first-impression adjectives: Shiesty, Attendant, and Modest. Furthermore, Shiesty’s boss, Well-Informed, has emerged as another driving force.
I took the first 80 pages of my first draft, and took a hammer to it. Then I took the hammer to the pieces. I still have the first first draft, but looking at that one side by side with what I now consider my real first draft, I don’t recognize them in one another. Sure, some names are the same, but there is a different feel to the story now—even if they are the same fundamentally, they feel like two different narratives.
This is a good thing. That first shot was godsawful. Out of that first shot, I think I kept three elements total.
Between that first shot and the real zero draft, several things changed.
(I’m calling it a zero-draft because I ran that whole first draft—that is, the one that resulted from pounding the first shot into itty bits—in the space of one month, in a spirit of “Can I even do this?” Even though it’s incredibly rough, it’s far better than that first attempt—and more importantly, it’s completed. …well, as completed as something before its first edit can get.)
- Shiesty priest developed a personality. He’s kind of a dick.
- Modest priest is just an apprentice. Kind of a prodigy, but also kind of a ditz. (And kind of a smartass.)
- Attendant was once a priest. In fact, he’s Modest’s master. He picked up one hell of a tragic past. Also, he’s kind of a dick and a smartass. (Modest got it honest.)
- Well-Informed, initially intended to be a level-headed foil for Shiesty, picks up a wicked, dry sense of humor and piercing insight. Also, he’s totally jaded (which, to those who don’t think the way he does, makes him seem like kind of a dick. …I’m seeing a pattern, here.)
As I ran through the draft, pulling out characters and slapping nametags and signs on their backs reminding me of who they were, a clear theme emerged, and I was less-inclined to drop the Genesis codename. Most surprisingly, as I was keeping all of these people straight both in my head and on paper, their motives became clearer and clearer: everyone was working toward a totally different goal.
As I’d tried to make the baseline of this project tenable, I’d unearthed both theme and plot.
I only took five minutes for my victory jig. It was one of those 3K word days, and I couldn’t break rhythm for too long. Genesis had gotten things started. And a year later, Exodus would get things moving.
…well, moving faster. The leitmotif of travel and escape runs strong through Exodus, along with the more obscure bits that you don’t see unless you actually have begun to read the Book of Exodus.
Genesis, Exodus…biblical references that mesh perfectly with the pattern of action. I’d not planned this at all; it simply rose organically as I wove cohesion into the narrative.
I know serendipity when I see it. And I’ll take it.