Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I have been Missing in Action of Late, what have I been doing? Not blogging - that’s for sure. I didn’t intend on taking a break this week. I kinda did that last week. I think what happened was that I took my break then and found I liked it, so I did it again. Also, I finished that draft of my novella and haven’t bothered to even turn on my laptop for the most part for a while. Sorry if anyone has felt neglected. Although, my bets are on most folks not realizing I’ve not been around.

Anyhow – I’ve been watching Arrested Development with my son. He was too young to watch when the show was on air, but now that he’s older and can perceive a lot of the subtleties and nuances in the show he’s enjoying as much as I do.  What I think I love most about the show is how intricate the subplots of the show culminate by the final act into a large clusterf**k of disaster. It was as cleverly done as the best of Seinfeld and was consistently great. I'm sad it's gone. 

Unlike Seinfeld, this show never developed the fanbase to carry it to commercial success, I think the lack of a laugh track hurt (were there sitcoms before that didn’t use laugh tracks? I know several that don’t now), and they made irony the backbone of the humor.

Recipe for disaster. Oh, and I’m going off on a tangent, let me try to reel this back in.

It has me going back to plotting and how much I think I’ve missed out by not doing this in the past. I tried to write a novel last year, another seat of my pants story, and it had multiple viewpoint characters and several interwoven plot threads – and I had no idea where any of them were going.

It was as real test of faith for me, putting my belief system on the line. Stephen King, a huge proponent of the ‘pantser’ philosophy of writing has preached that your subconscious will sort all that out and you’ll get to where you need to in the end. I liked where that method had taken me in the past, but as I wanted to try more complicated stories I found that it was getting tougher and tougher for me to write anything. I got into a habit of introducing characters and having them say something vaguely cryptic and the rest of the cast looking to one another and asking one another what’s going on.

By the time I figured it out, I had so much rewriting to do that the only logical thing to do was to scrap everything I had and start over – which means that whole first draft was really a giant brainstorming session… mostly unnecessary.

I recall the first time I noticed, and I mean really noticed, how amazingly things seem to come together in an episode of Seinfeld. It was the episode where George was pretending to be a Marine Biologist to impress a girl. During the episode there was a subplot about Kramer and his desire to hit golf balls into the ocean.

If there are a few people who haven’t seen the episode, and still want to, I’m about to give it away here, so stop reading now if you don’t want the spoilers. Although, I think there is really no reason for me to avoid spoiling it, as this episode aired well over 15 years ago… it’s a long time to keep something on your DVR unwatched. Anyway – the episode ends when George and his girl are walking along the beach and find a crowd surrounding a beached whale. Someone in the crowd desperately cries out for a Marine Biologist – of course, George must continue his charade if he wants the girl so he agrees to help out…. Of course the big reveal is that the cause of whale’s problem was one of Kramer’s golf balls being wedged in its blow hole.

Now, that isn’t to say that this episode is more special than a thousand others that have been done before, or better, in other shows, movies or books, but it was when I first had my epiphany about storytelling.

I was an adult at the time, and was a pretty hearty reader then too, but I never considered why a story might work, or about how different elements might come together to tell a bigger story.  I had tried my hand at writing then, but never took any writing advice, never read anything about what makes a compelling story, never did much except write. I don’t even recall taking a course on writing prose before then.

So, I’d never thought about it. And when it hit me, it hit me hard. The writers had to have worked out the ending first, and worked backwards from there.

Wow. It never occurred to me you could do that before then. Get an ending you wanted, and go backwards to work on the beginning.

I was on my way to being a writer. Too bad I didn’t actually implement that revelation into practice. I kept thinking about it though, I got better, somewhat, at writing drafts that seem like they’re going somewhere, even when they’re not. 

But watching Arrested Development, at least at the level of a single episode, has reminded me how a story so tightly worked out can be enormously satisfying. All the jokes and gags early in an episode that may fall flat have been building to a larger finale.

It’s pure genius. I’m going to start work plotting out my next novel length POS soon. I can’t wait.  


Rogue Mutt said...

Of course no TV script or movie script ever gets shot on the first draft, except maybe if Ed Wood wrote it. But yeah the problem with the "pantser" thing is that you wind up with huge plot holes to cover up. I always think it's good to have at least a vague idea of the ending so you know what you're working up to. Or you could do like Raymond Chandler and take three short stories and then mash them up into one complicated novel.

Michael Offutt said...

I agree with Mutt.

Deborah Walker said...

Hi Rusty *waves* Don't feel bad about not blogging. It's a pain when it becomes a chore.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's why I outline. And I always know the ending - just have to figure out the best way to get to that point.
No spoiler for me - I've watched every episode!

Arlee Bird said...

I've just started watching Seinfeld and haven't seen many episodes and it may be years before I see them all if ever cause that's just the way I am with TV these days. I've liked that pantser method so far, but then again I've been writing pretty straight-forward stuff with very linear story lines. I start out and have a pretty good idea where I want to end up and just let the journey happen as it goes. We'll see how all that works.

Good to know that you've been writing since that's really what you're supposed to be doing.

Tossing It Out

Tonja said...

I like mapping the story out first, but I just started doing that after learning the hard way and a million hours of revisions.

Matthew MacNish said...

Writing has to come first, so don't worry about blogging.

And I love Arrested Development. Wasn't that Michael Cera's break?

Rusty Webb said...

Rogue - Right on about all things, the ending is usually the hardest thing for me to come up with, which of course is why I always just started writing and hoped the rest would figure out itself.

Michael - me too.

Deborah - I just need more time. I've asked my wife if I could quit work and her support me but she's not as keen on the idea as I am.

Alex - I'm with you from now on.

Arlee - I do think there is a good place for it, sometimes you just gotta do that stream of consciousness thing. Although if you know where you want to go you aren't really pantsing, or at least not the way I did it.

Tonja - then it sounds like you and I have kind of went down the same path.

Matthew - Thank you sir, I hope to be able to do both. But you're right, when you have to make choices, I guess writing has to come first.

julie fedderson said...

The last two novels I worked on, I wrote the final chapter before the middle was even a sketch (unless lines on cocktail napkins and various post it notes count). It worked rather well. And Arrested Development was a great show.

Andrew said...

I can't write without an ending. I really can't I don't know where I'm going. I have this great world in my head, I've even written an opening scene for it, but I don't know where the story goes, yet, so it's just been sitting there for 2 years, now. But that's okay, because I wrote The House on the Corner while that one sat there, and I have 2 more books worked out in the House series, as well, so that will keep me busy for a while. Maybe I'll have the ending for the other when I get around to the end of the 3rd House book.

Arrested Development is great, although we haven't seen it all the way through. Not only was it Cera's break, but it also reintroduced Bateman, which is awesome.
"I was racing..."
"In a Prius?"
"I don't win a lot."

Andrew said...

Oh, and I noticed you hadn't been around. If I wasn't so busy, right now, I would have emailed to check up on you. :P

The Golden Eagle said...

I started my last project (which was the first novel I actually ended up finishing) without any kind of idea plot-wise. For my current WIP, I did make an outline--but that's after discovering the hard way it takes a lot of energy to type down several hundred thousand words only to find there's a plot hole in the middle. :P

Briane P said...

So judging by the comments that have come before me, I have to comment on Rogue, Arrested Development, and plotting.

Rogue: Plot holes are just opportunities for sequels. Or for people to come back and say "No, there was a spell that Harry's mother cast and that's what secretly protected him and later on he had to die to kill Voldemort but the spell that let him live and then die and then live wouldn't let his mom die and then live..."

Arrested Development: Stumbled across it, loved it the moment I saw it, own all three seasons on DVD and each time I watch it I catch new jokes. But I think the types of jokes also had something to do with it not catching on.

Pantsing? That's what we're calling this? I like to write without planning it out because it's more fun that way. My serials -- Lesbian Zombies and the all new IO17 -- have seat-of-the-pants plotting, although Lesbian Zombies was going to originally end in a great big battle, but that was 500+ pages ago and I'm no nearer to the end of that than ever. Looks like I'm writing a trilogy! Or Quadrology! Or Tetrakaidekaology!

Briane P said...

But, by all means, if you like to plot stuff, do that. Because the world needs GOOD writing, too.

Laila Knight said...

Well hey there, I noticed your absence. I'm glad you took some time off. I don't blame you for wanting to continue it. And congrats on fulfilling a goal with the novella. Never heard of Arrested Development. The backnoise laughter gets on my nerves because I know it's not real. I had the same problem you did. Multiple characters and point of views and a few plot lines. As a panster I will admit that structure to plot goes a long way. I was never a Seinfeld fan but George was funny, especially that one where he told somebody he manufactured condoms for a living. Hilarious. And Kramer was a hoot. Yup, they must know the end. Come to think of it, I think the beginning and the end of a story are easy. It's everything in between that takes time to construct.

On a second note, you've convinced me. I'm going to be a Marine Biologist in my next life for sure. I'm planning ahead. Hopefully it'll be in another planet somewhere. :)

Rusty Webb said...

Julie - I'm a very linear writer, I'm not sure I could ever actually write something out of order. I've never even considered it before.

Andrew - Endings are hard for me, I've rarely been satisfied with one I came up with. In fact, I think I spent something like 5 years trying to write a novel but quit because I could never come up with an ending (or middle, whatever). It wasn't until I decided I was going to start writing whether I had an ending or not that I really got going.

Eagle - Ugh. You made my stomach hurt there. I'm not sure I'll ever really write again without an outline.

Briane - A lot of professional writers are pantsers, I wonder if they all tend to produce longer works? And the world needs good writing, I agree - but I'm sure it would require a good plotter to help there too. And that ain't me.

Laila - Never heard of Arrested Development? I don't have words... nothing.