Almost six years ago, I finished one novel—now deep in a virtual drawer— and started writing Julius for NANOWRIMO. The story was a a respite from writing a Holocaust story, but after researching the Rosenbergs, the Blacklist, the Spanish Civil War, and anything having to do with the Left, I realized that there wasn’t anything funny about any of these subjects. However, I still wanted it to be funny so I manipulated scenes, I made characters do silly things, but I kept hitting one wall after another.
With this current rewrite, Julius is a different beast. It’s still about a magazine, but the motives and the goals of the characters have changed and there’s more conflict right up front.
Once I decided to take on this massive do-over and outlined my scenes, questioned why my characters were acting a certain way, the writing didn’t seem forced. That doesn’t mean I won’t run into some problems, but now when I see that I’m approaching a wall, I ditch the scene that’s not working instead of forcing it and the story to be something it isn’t
I’m currently working on the seventh chapter of the novel, and I ran into a roadblock. I suppose I could take a detour and write my way out of it. Although I think I can make the scene work, this time I’ve chosen a different vantage point because I’ve learned (finally!) that the reader doesn’t need the minutiae or details of Corinne’s job as fiction editor. The chapter is about a chance meeting with three veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades and that’s what it should be about. Not her job, but how these characters will play into the plot.
Like so many things in life that you can’t force—love, career and friendship—you can’t force the writing either. If a particular element isn’t working—chuck it. Don’t fall into the trap of keeping it. Spare yourself the time and pain from all the head-banging when you discover that the 20K words you wrote to make that one scene work didn’t help one bit, but made it worse.
The next time you write 300, 400, or 500 words and you see your character putzing around in scene that has no relevance to the plot, subplot or theme, stop writing. Step away from the keyboard and rethink the scene. Don’t worry about making your daily word count, instead consider the story like a game of chess and try to be ahead by five moves. Think of how that chapter will portend a major plot twist in the book. If it doesn’t then it’s just padding to make your characters look busy and we all know the senselessness of that and not accomplishing anything.