Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Downward Spiral

There comes a point in every story where the end begins.  The threads have all been woven or cut, and those remaining must be tied off.  For completed work, this is the final buildup toward the climax.  For short stories, this is the end of the initial setup.  Short stories begin poised to end.

I call this moment of no return the Downward Spiral.

There's simply no turning back.  And if you have all your ducks in a row, that's just fine.  You can ride the wave to the end.  But sometimes, maybe often times, the tug of the downward spiral brings a twinge of apprehension.  The rapidly approaching future is still unclear.  Sometimes just hazy, and sometimes fully obscured, a fog of half-formed approaches to getting what you need done, or, worse yet, not being certain what needs to be done at all.

I used to revel in this uncertainty, and perhaps I still do.  I love having to think on my feet, like the characters themselves.  But with some projects, this approach simply won't work.  Whether because you've jumped your outline or never had one, the vortex of the downward spiral might make you want to pause, and get your thoughts in order before you go on.  The larger the project, the more likely this sort of late-stage planning is necessary.

My current trilogy, Queen of Cinders, is a perfect example of this.

Book One was a textbook outlined project, that I followed relatively unchanged from beginning to end.  Book Two, however, derailed the outline I had prepared for it.  My expanded understanding of the characters, and the pacing that had developed, demanded events happen first at different times, and then in different ways, than I'd foreseen.  The ending was far more satisfactory than I'd pre-imagined it.

With this in mind, I began Book Three with an entirely different approach.  Rather than outline, I'd plan just a few scenes ahead.  This trilogy has many points of view, and I used a simple spreadsheet to give each character a column.  If I thought of things that needed to happen further into the future, I'd simply write it in a cell far down their column.  Sometimes I'd switch which character presented an event, based on whose take on the events I wanted to highlight.

All three of these books are in two parts each.  Now, part one of book three is coming rapidly to a close, and will be finished in a few days, leaving the final half of the final book.  Everything I want to do has to happen in an ever-shrinking future.  The ability to forward-cast interesting hooks, or events I wanted to include, is coming to a close.  A more structured outline suddenly needs to return.  Full circle?  Maybe.

This last book is going to be about four hundred pages, so I've got only two hundred pages to work with.  And that feeling of visiting a place for the last time will be growing as I write, as it sometimes does for me during the downward spiral.  Of course, as the author, I can do more drafts, and thus revisit places, but editing is different than creation.  Barring the sort of disastrous mishap that would require major rewriting, editing is a far cry from forming the initial draft.

So the downward spiral is a good thing, signalling that I'm nearly done in the process of completing a new manuscript.  The story is almost finished, rough edges and all.  But there's pressure there, to do what needs to be done in the story, and make it look easy while it happens.  It's a special time that makes many authors feel like slow-motion athletes, swimming an ever-tightening route, until the tale is told.