04 July 2006

Things I'm learning about Dag

Well, not exactly about Dag, but about Security & Exchange in general. Now, having posted 8 of 30 chapters, here are my discoveries:

First off, I really thrive when I've set a strict set of boundaries in which I have to operate. That's one thing I like about NaNoWriMo. I have thirty days in which to write the whole story. So I set up this year's book to progress one day at a time through the thirty days of November. That is what has suddenly informed my new discoveries. It's a little like the TV show 24 where in each hour you see exactly one hour out of the 24 in a full day. Only I am doing this from a single POV. So what do you do when your MC/narrator is "sleeping?"

I've realized that I have a tendancy to either write nuggets with huge gaps between them as I did in Accidental Witness, and simply ignore everything else in life that is going on during the time that I cover with the words "the next week..." or I get bogged down in minute detail of what is happening in the moment, recording how many cups of coffee he's had and how many steps it is from office to post office. (Yes, a little of my own obsession with counting things shows through. How many things do you have to count to be considered OCD? Different subject.)

So, if Dag spends an entire day tearing apart the laptop computer and decoding passwords, is that just a really short chapter: "I spent the day tearing apart the laptop and decoding passwords," or can I use other devices such as his telling what was happening to Riley while he was stuck in the office: "Meanwhile I sent Riley down to Stocks & Blondes to find out more about Angel. She found the task harder than it appeared..." I am tending toward the latter, especially since Dag spends about 9 of the thirty days of the month in the hospital. I don't think that I have to wait for Riley to come back that night and tell Dag what happened to her. I think, as the narrator, Dag can just tell what happened in the story, even though it puts him into a third person instead of a first person narrative. I've found several examples of that in some of the detective writing I've been reading and the movies that I've watched. It's going to be a little tricky, but I think I can make it work.

The next thing is that I'm fighting a tendancy to compress the story. It would be so much easier if, like most movies and TV episodes, I only deal with a couple days time span in which an incredible amount happens, he gets the assignment, figures out the mystery, and ends the story quickly and easily. You can lose yourself in detail because there has to be a momentus event every thirty minutes. Stretching the story out over the full month of November, while a more realistic portrayal of the timespan it would take to solve this mystery, means that I have to find something noteworthy about every day to write a chapter on, and that no day merits more than a chapter. That's cruel! I've hedged somewhat by allowing myself six days of the month to reminisce about his life, and suddenly I've managed to skip a dull day and move to one that's more exciting. But I haven't solved the one that there is too much happening on one day. I'm having to carefully tease out the threads so that I can spread them over multiple days instead of just the one.

And speaking of multiple threads: I have three storylines that are interwoven into this plot. The first is the six interludes in which Dag goes back in his memory a decade further and each of the stories told there serves to advance the other two storylines a little further as he recalls a key event from the past. But you can't really just leave it at that. This is all one man's story, and you can't break it apart so that he's telling three stories independently. I've set it up so that five of the six interludes occur while Dag is in the hospital. (The first one opens the story and sets the stage.) But he's in the hospital because of something that has just happened in the mystery storyline (find the missing husband/money) and always leads to something further in the life or death storyline (need a new heart but so does the little kid).

On process, I've created a huge spreadsheet in the form of a calendar. I started blocking out days with static items that shouldn't be changed ever. Dag has a standing appointment with his doctor and group counseling every Thursday. When you are waiting for a heart transplant, you can't really just skip an appointment. Then there is the complication of one Thursday being Thanksgiving, so the appointment has to be changed: Wednesday or Friday? There is the working schedule of Angel at the nightclub. She's not there every night, just on weekends. Do I want the calendar to match this year's November, or let be a mythical November and put Thanksgiving the distance I want from the end of the story?

Then I started blocking in the big chunks of time on the calendar. How long does it take for Dag to actually crack the codes on the computer? How long does it take to find out that they are laundering money? How many days is he in Chicago? Who is taking care of Maizie while he's gone? How many hours is he in the air? What is the temperature in Minneapolis? How does he stake-out Simon and Angel without freezing to death? Then I figure out the big transition points that land him in the hospital in Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, and again in Seattle. Those become the key transition points for the interludes. Are the well-spaced? Do I need to compress a couple days in one area? Make more things happen to justify another day someplace else? Each day has a chapter title that I use to summarize what I think the key event of the day is, and then it has a very brief synopsis of the action. On the big synopsis (that I'm posting), I detail the action of the day, often having to go back to the calendar and juggle things around a bit more.

All told, I'd have to say that I'm glad I'm doing all this work four months before we start writing in earnest. I haven't even begun the technical research that I need to do in order to keep the story credible. I definitely don't want to spend time in November tracking down the steps to getting a heart transplant and how to break a 128-bit encryption key. Yow!

Would love your comments.


> So, if Dag spends an entire day tearing apart the laptop computer and decoding passwords, is that just a really short chapter: "I spent the day tearing apart the laptop and decoding passwords," or can I use other devices such as his telling what was happening to Riley while he was stuck in the office ... ?

Well, the more interesting questions is "why did it take all day?" If it took all day because the password was really hard to crack, then you're right. That's not very interesting to read and makes for a pretty short chapter. But maybe there are some other options:

* it's hard because of some unexpected reasons which end up teaching Dag something interesting about simon.
* it's dead easy. He's into the files within minutes, but then quickly notices something odd in the files, which takes him all day to figure out. Something he knows he has to figure out first, because it would mean something important about how to interpret the rest of the files. That can turn into a chapter's worth of more interesting narrative, because the task becomes not a duel between Dag and an encryption system, but between Dag and Simon, with the files playing the role of Simon's proxy.