Friday, November 19, 2021

Flying Down Blind Alleys by Josh Stallings

 Q: Have you ever tossed out 20,000 words from a work in progress? Why, and was it, in hindsight, the right move?

“A wall is just a door you haven’t pushed on hard enough.” Regular advice my mother gave me. It’s true, except when the wall is made of bricks. I have the scarred knuckles to prove that some walls don’t open. 

More than once I’ve kept writing on a section that I knew wouldn’t survive to the final MS because I had a sense it would lead me to important discoveries. 

Sometimes when I get story stuck, I polish the chapters leading up to the stop. Somewhere in the previous work I may have left clues to the next move. Sometimes I need to run stumbling in a word swamp, grasping at vines to pull me out. Either way, as long as I’m typing I know I’ll find my way through.

A few years ago, my younger sister Shaun and I decided, for motivation, to share our word count each day. Shaun day 1, plus 480 words. Josh day 1, minus 27 words. For a week it kept going this way. While she was continuing to write, I was cutting more than I kept. I was depressed, until I noticed my manuscript was getting better. I stopped tracking daily word counts after that.

My latest MS, somewhere between the 1st and 2nd draft I left 32,000 words on the cutting room floor. I dropped one character’s love interest complication. I needed to write it to understand the character, but the readers didn’t need to read it. I also discovered duplicated information from several different character’s perspectives. While I had been tracking each character’s of their personal journey, I needed to read it all in order to see these duplications.

First drafts feel a bit like research. To write Tricky, I needed to study the history of policing in LA. The first paid police force was in 1869, and the first City Marshal was killed by one of his deputies in a disagreement over a reward. That fact didn’t make it into TRICKY, but it shaped the novel and the way I look at my beloved city of angels.  

This leads me to why I don’t work from a ridged outline, and don’t find tangents unproductive; it’s the little moments and details that bring a book to life.

In Tricky there’s a section where Cisco takes Detective Madsen to an arcade. We discover Cisco is an air-hockey wizard. It doesn’t further the plot, or help solve the crime. The scene came about because my son Dylan was an unbeatable air-hockey player. Reading over it, I can see that it’s an early moment where Madsen has to question his assumptions about Cisco’s capabilities. It’s not the kind of chapter that would make it into an outline. Yet in hind-sight it feels vital.

In Out There Bad there’s this moment on the front stoop of a brothel. It’s based on a conversation I had with a bouncer in Ensenada. 

“Hitler, si, verdad. My mother named me Hitler.”

“Your mother didn't name you Hitler.” I was leaning against the wall in front of Anthony's, talking to the door man. He was about my age, not as big, but still I doubted many men didn't listen when he talked.  

“She did. Adolpho,” he said.

“That's a good name.”

“Si, but to you, Ingl├ęs, it is?”

“Adolph, I guess.”

“Si, Hitler, no? Adolpho, Jose. Asesino on this shoulder, santo on the other. All night they fight for my soul.”    

There was no logical need for this brief encounter. What I didn’t know was that Adolpho would become a key character and give Moses a family to return to at the end of the book. I don’t tend to know until editing what is important and what isn’t. 

When Berry Gordy sold MoTown records, a guy I knew was retained to help the transition. The new company brought in an MBA genius, who after two weeks with the books, announced at a board meeting that he had discovered how to make the record label profitable. Dropping a stack of charts and graphs on the table he stood up and proudly said, “The thing we need to do, is only release the hits.” And that makes sense until you ask, how do you know in advance what the hits are?

I never do, and that’s why I write full tilt down blind alleys, sometimes a door opens, sometimes I crash and burn, but it’s never a wasted effort. 


clpauwels said...

"Stumbling in a word swamp" sounds awfully familiar - and well said! I spend lots of time there.

Nice to see someone else explore their way through that first draft too. Thanks!

Catriona McPherson said...

First drafts as research - yes!

Susan C Shea said...

When a blind alley turns out to be a door...That's never happened to me yet! Good post, Josh.