A few years ago toward the end of ’07, I began writing an online serial called Citizen Kang on The Nation magazine’s website. The Nation is a venerable lefty institution founded in 1865. Citizen Kang (and yes, there’s a Simpson’s episode with the same name but way different story) was a political thriller that begins in an office above Lennox Avenue in Harlem. My protagonist, the early forties, smart, hip, bisexual (rumors about her sexuality play a role in the plot) California Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia Kang observes the horse drawn gold coffin of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, passing by down below.
Soon thereafter her mentor in politics, the former Speaker of the House Grish Waller is found dead, an apparent suicide. But like the Vince Foster mess during the Clinton Administration, suspicions arise as to did Waller really kill himself or was it murder due to his involvement in a nefarious scheme having to do with the mega corporation Fallenbee, owners of among other holdings the nationwide discount chain, Dollarville. Heh.
It was like those old movie serials of the 40s, the hero is knocked out and placed unconscious in his car, the vehicle is set in motion and rams into a gas station. The car going up in a ball of flame as it ignites the gas pumps. Only when we return next week, we’re in the car, the hero rouses himself, and tumbles out of that bad boy before it hits. I was always retconning what had gone before. Yeah, you read it, but what you read wasn’t exactly what happened,. Rashoman-like, I kept retelling parts of the story in different ways.
By the time I wrote my second serial, the Underbelly on the fourstory site, I’d learned a few things from writing CK Again working from an outline, this time I kept notes as I wound into sub-plots. It helped too that while the story was timely, about a sometimes homeless Vietnam vet’s search for his disabled friend who has disappeared from Skid Row set in a gentrifying downtown L.A., I wasn’t compelled to incorporate current news stories. This time writing about my vet Magrady, I did write my way into a few corners but it was more deliberate.
Putting your character in a tight spot and sweating how to extricate them makes me go deeper into their skin. Given what I know about them, what would they do to resolve the situation? If I introduce a twist in the story or unveiled a reveal about this or that character, I better have foreshadowed it in some way. Seeming asides aren’t asides. Stories to me work best when they loop back on themselves. A woman on page two seemingly loses her tube of lipstick in the crease of a couch. Only on Page 99 it turns out that tube is really a bug left to eavesdrop on the people going in and out of that room.
If I’ve learned anything from getting in and out of corners, of trying to make this organic to the story as a whole, as the now departed Elmore Leonard observed, “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.”
Don’t overwrite but write enough.