Until last week, and the start of the current chapter, work on the December Book was ticking along nicely. Halfway through said chapter, it stalled. Right now, it’s dead in the water. I’m stuck, spinning on the spot, going around and around the same problem. It’s not a plot problem, or even a character problem. It’s a very specific problem, with this specific chapter.
You’ll have heard, many times in your life, that rules are made to be broken. Although I’m generalising, writers who say this seem to me to fall into two rough camps. The first camp are usually new or inexperienced writers, who still see the job of writing as a vast, undiscovered country, waiting to be discovered. They will break the rules many, many times, and discover that in most cases, rules aren’t there to be broken at all. In the old days, they would have eventually taken one of two paths*. The first would be to fail miserably and perpetually, until they finally quit. The second would be to learn through failure, until they became experienced enough to understand that rules exist to maintain order and structure, and order and structure are crucial to spinning yarns. In effect, they join the second camp, the successful writers who might warily agree that rules can indeed be broken, but would caveat that this should be done only in extraordinary circumstances or to extraordinary effect. It is usually only the most experienced writers who can understand or intuit what those circumstances might be.
My current problem is a rule that should not often be broken. Effectively, nothing happens in this chapter. Nothing progresses. Nothing changes. No pertinent new understanding of the story is gained through reading it. It’s irrelevant. It stands still. It shouldn’t be there. It stalls the narrative drive built up, meaning I’ll have to waste time building things back up to the same place when it’s done. The chapter should go, so I can move the hell on.
Another rule, broken into a thousand pieces in this chapter, is that I have committed the sin of showing my research. I’ve done a fair bit of research for this big old historical horror book, but for the most part have managed to smooth it into the background. The story had primacy. The research was window dressing. That was last week. Since then, without warning, research ambushed my plot and bludgeoned it cold with intricate bits of period detail, leaving it on life support. The character involved in the chapter is intact, and much of the research illustrates a new aspect of him, but mostly it all just sits there looking pretty. It’s an explicable research, showing your research. After all the work I did, it’s no surprise that I’ve weakened, and want to show it off and be able to declare “hey, look, I did some proper work on all this stuff.” Readers don’t care about how hard the book was to put together though, not when they’re turning the pages. They want to know what happens next.
Easy enough, you say. Why keep tinkering with it? Scrap the lot.
True. But I likes it, my precious.
Third and final rule killing this chapter – you should always kill your babies. Those precious bits of text that fill you with pride? They’re your babies. You may love them, but everyone else is going to get bored with the mewling, defecating sproglets incredibly quickly. To make a good story that will grab people, you don’t just have to kill your babies. You have to slaughter them by the dozen, until every distracting one of them is gone.
Those are rules, that for some reason I’m trying to find ways to break, just to lower the dead baby count. That’s the wrong reason. A noble enough aim, but doomed to failure. Hopefully, having written it all up here, there might be a chance I can take my own advice and move on.
*These days, there is a third option for the constant rule-breaker, and that is to perpetually self-publish ebooks, in the vainglorious hope that genius might one day be recognised.