Monday, February 25, 2013

The Understory Revision

I've been working on a rather tricky revision for the last few weeks. After receiving critique on "Mind Locker," I decided I had a better - much better - idea for what should be going on behind the scenes. I didn't want to change the main character. I didn't want to change the bad guys, or the secondary characters, or most of the plot. I wanted to change what the bad guys were up to, and why.

I have described this to friends as being like the trick where someone pulls out the tablecloth from underneath a completely set table, while trying not to disturb anything. Like this.

Now, in the instructions for pulling a tablecloth out from under a set table, it says you have to make sure that each of the dishes has something in it so that it won't fly away. I actually have that. I'm very happy with my protagonist, Hub Girl, and her voice and attitudes on life. I'm very happy with my antagonists' placement in the plot. Heck, I was even happy with the sequence of scenes I had set up.

In those instructions, it also  says not to have any wrinkles in the tablecloth.

I mean, come on. This is a story draft. Let's just say, it's got a few wrinkles (darn).

So what happened when I tried to change the understory was that things got rearranged a bit, and one of the "dishes" flew off the table, and now I'm having to put it back together with the following kinds of changes:

1. Backstory detail
It's really important to seed your larger problem early on in the story by using small detailed evidence. I had to look at the opening interactions between the characters, and change some of the details of how my protagonist met one of her friends. I made sure that her friend had been touched by the larger problem, so that evidence of it was present, but its significance was not understood yet by either of the two characters.

2. One entire scene change
You know that scene where the protagonist first gets a meaningful sniff of the larger plot, and someone tells her there's something bigger going on that she'd better care about or else? Yeah, that one. Gone. Totally changed, because what was going on is different and there is no way that she'd actually have a conversation with the person I'd had her converse with. One of the first hints that the story could be better (a lot better) was this big, early, plot-driven conversation, where Hub Girl found herself talking to someone she'd never in a million years take the risk of talking to without an extreme motive. And she didn't have an extreme motive.

She was going to need one, too. So when I cut that scene out and built another one, I tried to show more of her life, and the forces that kept her trapped, so that when she felt motivated to act, the reasons for it would be clear. I also used this new scene to show her taking control of those parts of her life that she can control, and acting. In particular, showing what she's capable of, and what her limits are. Both of those things are terribly important. If I don't show her hacking, you have to just take my word for it that she's a hacker and can do this stuff. Less believable. If I don't show her trying to rescue a friend, and failing, you might be tempted to believe that she's the kind of character who believes in "no friend gets left behind" (she does) and would risk her life (she does), guns blazing (uh, no, not in a million years). I find her more interesting because she is both powerful (as a hacker) and helpless (a skinny kid with no chance of reasonably challenging a larger, armed opponent). She still encounters a key bad guy in this scene, but doesn't seek him out or interact with him personally. It would simply be too great a risk for her.

3. Retooling every motivational connection - the problem of drive
I like to think of each scene as following the previous one in a logical progression. Hub Girl encounters this, so she does this, where this happens, so she does this, which causes this to happen, and forces her to do this... etc. It's this kind of logic, internal to the main character, that creates a sense of her being in control and driving through the story. This in turn helps readers feel motivated to keep reading. The change in the initial encounter with the baddies changed everything about her motivation going into scene 3. And the further she went, the more she learned about the underlying situation, which was different, so I've found myself having to rethink exactly what she learns and how her motivation changes to take her into the next scene. This for me has been a bit like realigning all the place settings that do remain on the table. I'm not actually changing who Hub Girl talks to and where, but the why is totally different, and I have to make sure not to drop plausibility. The draft had that one spot where her actions were potentially unconvincing, and it led everything off track. This draft has to be tight, and well-thought-through, so that it doesn't stray off at a different spot.

4. Rewriting dialogue
The dialogue in this story is really important. When you talk with a bad guy, they tend to tell you things about what they're up to. Now, I'm rejecting the idea of the bad guy monologue for this story, but I still have to give Hub Girl some information. Here's an example, from her first encounter with the Locker:

Draft 1:
Hub Girl: "Get outta my head! If you hurt Fisher --"
Locker: "I can't be interrupted. I'm doing something important, you understand?"
Hub Girl: "I heard. War on the Arkive. Else why'd you lock everybody?"
Locker: "Stupid urchin. Can't tell the difference between war and Spy versus Spy. Stay out of it, or I'll lock you all."

Draft 2:
Hub Girl: "Get outta my head! Give us Fingers back!"
Locker: "Sorry, girl, I've got big enemies, and I need her more than you do. Stay out of it, or I'll lock you all."

Notice that the second one is a lot shorter. The whole "war on the Arkive" thing is gone, because that's no longer what's going on behind the scenes. Besides which, it was a piece of information someone else had provided to Hub Girl, and having her just believe him was a stretch. Neither was it a particularly good motivator for Hub Girl, since she doesn't care that much about the Arkive (read: City internet) itself. She cares about herself and her friends. The key motivating phrase in the second version is "big enemies." This one really fits with Hub Girl and the life I imagine for her - and it fits with how she's menaced both by the police and the Locker. She knows what happens when there are big enemies about:

"When big enemies fight, it's us little ones that get crushed."

5. Consistency Cleanup
At this point I'm almost through redoing all the big motivators, and the things people say to one another. I know there's going to be another round of edits after those changes are made, just to make sure that everything surrounding them lines up properly. The silverware on the table will have to be realigned, basically. That I figure will be easier than some of this bigger stuff I've been dealing with.

I'm excited about the results so far. And I hope that these thoughts may help you on some of your own revisions.