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Two Good Scenes
I like to open up old first drafts and see how bad they were. I had to do this recently because I picked up Lexicon for some reason, the published version, and before I knew it, I was all like, “Gosh, this is quite the dizzyingly intricate array of character and plot. Why isn’t my current work-in-progress like that?” Then there was some soul-searching and comfort eating.
Luckily I found a 2008 draft of Lexicon on my computer that was 31,000 words—that’s about one-quarter of the finished length—and really terrible. It has the same underlying concept and almost all the same characters, including most of the same relationships, but everything about it is wrong. Characters stop to explain things, and the explanations go on forever. There are interesting set-ups and then the scene ends and I never come back to it. Background characters nobody cares about have emotional journeys.
Exactly two scenes from this draft made it to the published book; together they comprise about a thousand words. The other 96% of this pretty advanced work-in-progress I completely jettisoned, including plenty of scenes I’d worked and reworked.
It’s comforting to remind myself that good stories don’t come out that way the first time. I have always needed to write a ton of bad stuff to find the good stuff. Sometimes I need to write a ton of bad stuff just to figure out that it’s bad stuff. Good novels don’t depend (totally) on good ideas; they depend on lots and lots of work. And I’m happy to do that work. Work, I can control.
The way I start a new novel is by writing lots of disconnected scenes. I’m always tempted to begin putting things together as soon as possible, to think about how they connect, and why, and in which order. Because novels are meant to, you know, make sense. They need beginnings and middles and ends. But it’s easy to write a lot of mediocre words just because they fit. If I’m writing something purely because I think it’s good, maybe it never fits, but at least it’s good. And it might just turn out that it’s not this scene that doesn’t fit: It’s the other 96%.
The Write Order
Did you write Lexicon chronologically and later decide which order to publish the chapters in? Or did you write it in the order in which the chapters appear? Or something else?
I wrote scenes in the order they occurred to me and moved them around later. That wasn’t chronological order, but wasn’t the published order, either, since I rewrite like a lunatic.
Actually, that’s misleading. I also write like a lunatic. It’s not just rewriting. When I had the basic idea for Lexicon, the first thing I did was write 20,000 words that never ended up in the book. I think a lot of writers do this. Many people have told me they started writing a novel and loved it for ten or twenty thousand words and then lost interest. I always say it’s not you; it’s the book. You haven’t lost steam because you’re not a good enough writer; it’s because your stupid story isn’t giving you enough to work with. You had something good but went wrong and now you’re trying to decorate the Sistene Chapel ceiling with crayons. Did Michelangelo use crayons? No. That ceiling would have sucked if he’d had crayons. People would say, “That is one mediocre ceiling. I can’t believe I came all the way here to see it.”
So when that happened to me, I threw it all away except for a 500-word scene of a guy getting assaulted in a bathroom and 1,000 words of a street hustler’s magic game gone wrong. I still found those interesting.
This time when I hit 20,000 words and began to hate it there was more to salvage: I had characters like Eliot, Yeats, and Bronte, and a stronger idea of what people were doing and why. Everything else was still terrible. I didn’t have a story so much as a bunch of different people doing different things. But there was more there. So I cut back to 10k words and spent a couple of years writing and cutting and rewriting my way up to 40k.
Then I threw it all out for the same 1,500 words I’d had before. I’d developed a lot more of the world, but the whole thing still sucked for reasons I couldn’t identify. So I decided to try a new approach.
(During this time Machine Man went from idea to online serial to published book. It was nice to work on something with a linear relationship between time spent writing and book length.)
This time, I made those simple two scenes the openings of Chapters 1 & 2 and spent the entire rest of each chapter exploring them. With all the other stuff stripped away, it immediately felt more like a real story. I ran it up to 80,000 words without too much trauma, relatively speaking, sticking with this new format of alternating point-of-view chapters: Wil, Emily, Wil, Emily.
That became increasingly challenging as the ending loomed and I needed to bring story threads together. For example, I would want to do something with a particular character in a particular time-frame at a particular point in the story, but it wouldn’t be the right point-of-view chapter. I managed to make it work anyway, kind of, and finished a first draft (110,000 words), but it was complicated and hard to follow, with too much jumping around in time and space. It even had the worst kind of flashback, where first you see something that doesn’t make any sense, then later the story is like, “Oh, so here’s what you needed to know back then. It’s pretty great now, right?” No! It’s too late. You can’t retrospectively save a scene. I already experienced it and felt bad.
The structure also made it impossible to change anything. My first drafts always need a lot of reworking in the back half, since they evolve through a beautiful, natural, organic process of creative discovery, instead of from a plan like a sane person would use. My structure was a Jenga tower of Babel where I couldn’t touch any part of it without risking collapse the whole thing, because it was all interconnected and inflexible.
So I straightened out the timeline, moving scenes to where they made the most sense from a story point of view, rather than the dictates of an alternating chapter structure. That sounds neat and tidy, like you can click and drag a scene from one place to another and it will snap into the right place, but the reality is more like operating on someone who has their big toe growing out of their forehead. It’s messy, is what I’m saying. You create a lot of ragged edges. There may be some crying involved.
Usual disclaimer: This process isn’t something I recommend. Ideally I would have an idea, plan the book, and write out a first draft in chapter order. I’m just not smart enough to do that. That’s the only problem. I can’t guess in advance what will be interesting about a story. I have to wade in there and figure it out from ground level. But maybe you can!
How I Make Cakes
Why is Lexicon told out of chronological order? Is this entirely for the sake of suspense?
Good question! There was more to it but I removed the HUGE SPOILERS since this is a public site.
So a linear structure is simple and powerful because as a reader you want to know what happens next. That’s the main reason you’re here. What happened before can be interesting, and well-told, and add layers to the story, but it’s always at least a little irritating to be pulled out of a story thread you’re following and sent somewhere else. (Unless you’re getting back to a previous story thread that you were enjoying more than this one. Which is often the case with stories that flip between multiple points of view. I mean, you’re going to have a favorite. So inevitably you’ll feel like you wish the story had more of that person and less of everyone else. Multiple narratives are deceptively slippery.)
Linear is a solid default. But you can do a lot more as a writer when you free yourself to leap around in time, since now you can reach forward and backward to include anything that impacts on the part of the story you want to tell. Our lives would be a lot more dramatic if we could do this in real life. Every small triumph or disappointment, imagine if you could build up to it with scenes from your past that illustrate just how significant and poignant it is. Stories are events arranged as to give meaning, and that’s easier to do when the events don’t need to occur in lockstep.
Most novels have some of each, of course; even the most linear story has, if not flashbacks, then reminisces of the she-had-been-here-once-before-five-years-ago variety. But Lexicon has. I think it’s accurate to say this is “entirely for the sake of suspense,” for a broad definition of suspense, since suspense is a fundamental pre-requisite for any novel, or almost any scene, in my opinion; if there’s no gap between what’s happening now and what might happen next, there’s no actual story. Almost everything I do on the macro level is for the sake of suspense.
But a key element to the opening of Lexicon is that there’s something unfolding and for quite a long time you don’t know what. So it makes sense for readers to stay with Wil and Emily as they’re each going through that learning state. It would be annoying to follow one of them on that journey and then have to go through it again with someone else. I mean, you just couldn’t do that.
I also think Emily’s early story is more interesting because Wil’s story is simultaneously revealing the darker side of the world she’s entering. Without that, it’s really just a girl going to school. Similarly, hers adds some solidity and meaning to his, which would otherwise be (more) chaotic and confusing. There would be a way to do it differently, but an awful lot would have to be different. To straighten out the whole book, I think it would break so hard in so many places, it would need to become a different book altogether.
Really, though, the answer is that this is the way I found into the story. I write tens of thousands of words trying to find a story that might be hidden inside an idea, and for Lexicon that process generated two pieces I liked: the eyeball thing and the street hustler. So I explored those more, and delayed figuring out how they would connect until later.
When I’m writing, I make the icing before the cake. So the cake is all that fundamental story stuff about who’s trying to do what. It’s the structure and plot. It’s the bulk of what will make the book succeed or fail. When it’s done, it’s what everyone will say the book is about. But the magic part is the icing: all the subtleties of tone and dialogue and a hundred tiny indefinable things that may even escape notice.
For example, if I have a scene with two people talking, and I love the way they’re interacting, I feel like I might be able to write a book with those two people doing whatever. I’m very interested in thinking about how they might have gotten here and where they might be going. Whereas if I have an actual story idea, like a secret society of poets, that’s good, but there are a billion ways to write that story, and I might never find one that works.
This is a bit of an exaggeration; I do usually start with some kind of story idea. But I don’t then try to build it from the ground up, layering on structure and plot. I go straight to the icing. Obviously a lot of both the cake and the icing will evolve simultaneously. And in the end, both need to be delicious. But I feel more confident in my ability to figure out a delicious cake to go under some great icing than the other way around.
This may not be a smart way to work, by the way. This analogy is very apt in the sense that if you imagine me making a cake by spreading the icing first and then trying to build a cake underneath it, that’s exactly how I work. There’s cake everywhere, is what I’m saying. Tens and tens of thousands of words of cake. But it’s more interesting, and more enjoyable, and ultimately the only way I can reach that moment where belief sparks and I can see it’s a real thing.
Spotted in the Wild
My favorite thing to happen this year:
Eagle eyes by C. A. Bridges. Story here.
Will the Real Lee Bob Black Please Stand Up
Hello Mr.Barry, I was required to read your book Lexicon in my college literature class and enjoyed it very much. However, I’m forced to create a presentation about Lee Bob Black. So my question is: Who the hell is Lee Bob Black? All I’ve found is his website with a bunch of links to his blog. Which would have sufficed if my teacher didn’t think you were this ingenious wordsmith wizard or something. She thinks you made him up basically. Something to do with marketing and illusion. Can you help me out? Is Lee Bob Black a persona you made up or are we digging a dry well here? Thanks. Maybe.
Lee Bob Black is an actual person. Sorry. That website with his work on it is completely legit, not a carefully constructed piece of reality augmentation for the book. There are a few pieces of reality augmentation floating around, but Lee isn’t one of them.
Basically I needed a lesser-known poet. In the book, people get poet names based on rank, so Woolf and Eliot and Yeats are serious headkickers, while Lee Bob Black could be a younger guy working the streets. The real Lee I had met in St. Kilda sometime around 2001 when his friend graffitiied my house. Artists. Anyway, we got talking and then he moved to New York and we lost contact, but I remembered his great little poems.
At some point I emailed him:
You are in my novel-in-progress. I needed the name of an obscure real-life poet and you sprang to mind. I was intending to change it, but since here you are, I will ask if I can use it. Context: there are characters in the book who adopt the names of real poets, and the one who uses your name is cool but sleazy. So do not feel compelled to say yes.
I’m a little shocked by that now because I wouldn’t describe the character as “cool but sleazy.” He’s outright despicable. He does things that you wouldn’t want to be associated with in any way. But Lee, not knowing this, was delighted and honored. And I was happy, right up until the book was published, when I suddenly realized I had done a terrible thing and Lee was going to freak right out when he read it.
At a reading in New York, I looked into the audience and surprise! There he was. I had to stop and check whether he was about to serve me with legal papers. But no. He was incredibly gracious about it.
I understand your teacher thinking Lee Bob Black must be fictitious, because no author would be stupid enough to name that character after a real, living person. But actually I am that stupid.
SPOILER WARNING: Mild spoilers about Lexicon follow
I am currently enjoying reading Lexicon, however my pedantic nature forces me to question the storyline at page 190-191 where Emily sleeps with Harry then he is not there next morning.
How does she get home?
How does she get home in such a way that she has difficulty finding her way back?
I’ll be honest, Graeme: You are my nightmare. When I’m trying to move the story along while developing character and a satisfying emotional arc, blah blah blah, there is always a little voice in the back of my head that says, “You didn’t explain exactly how she got home.” Henceforth I will call that voice Graeme.
How did Emily get home? I don’t know. I never thought deeply about it. I presume it was somehow. She’s not that far from home; she is resourceful; she has feet; I just figure she gets it done.
But I know this isn’t a satisfying answer, because all stories are real, and real things have facts. So here is THE ACTUAL ANSWER that I just invented:
Her shoes were useless, of course, two-inch heels, so she carried them. She didn’t know the area but followed the dirt road in what she hoped was the right direction. It was an hour before she reached anywhere she recognized, which was another hour away from town. It would be less if a car passed by, but that would also mean she was recognized, and never live it down. So she walked with her head down. She was never going to see him again. She had already decided that.
Now I want you to bear in mind, Graeme, that rural roads are like rivers. There’s a main road, from which smaller roads branch out. If you start on a small road with a vague idea of the right direction, you can follow it back upstream until you reach the main road and there you are. But going the other way is more difficult, because you have to remember which branch to take. Right? And it’s dark when she returns. I hope we can agree on this.
I try to provide the minimum amount of detail necessary when writing. I think that’s my job: to figure out how to have the greatest effect in the fewest words. Because what amazes me over and over about novels is how much of the story is provided by readers. The page holds only the tiniest details, yet we conjure whole worlds. That’s the only reason novels work.
I don’t think they work when the author tries to explain every little thing. Or when they describe physical objects to death. I can’t stand that. It actually feels a little insulting, like they don’t trust me enough to share the story. Just tell me there’s a broken glass, dammit. I can do the rest.