Thursday, July 30, 2015

Routine is Great For Writers, But Terrible For Your Story

I've mentioned in the past that, for a time, I was an editor at a small press. The way my contract worked was that I received no money up-front, but I would be given a small percentage of the royalties when the book was released. It wasn't an ideal situation, but I figured that if I edited good books with potential, and if I edited enough of them, then I could count on a fairly regular check. The problem, of course, was that small presses aren't flooded with brilliant novels written by the next genre leaders; they're beacons for slush.

It's like this, only significantly more unpleasant.
While slogging through that slush I remember one particular story. In this story our main character was a veterinary assistant, she lived on a small hill in a small town, and rode her bike everywhere. She would ride into work in the morning, have lunch at a cafe, do some grocery shopping after work, and then ride her bike home to make dinner. I remember this cycle specifically because it was repeated over, and over, and over again. In the first half of the book (all I managed to read) the reader was dragged through her completely pedestrian routine no fewer than four times. She didn't run into mysterious figures in the bread aisle, or receive a tape that would self-destruct with her coffee... she just trundled through her boring-as-shit life waiting for something to happen to her.

The Never-Ending 9-5

Most of us live our lives based on routines. We go to work, we come home, we sleep. We go to the gym three days a week, and we work out at the same hour every time. Some of us even eat lunch at the same goddamn place every day when our break comes up. The point of a novel, though, is to focus on the things that move your plot along, and which contribute to the story. So if Stacy is a waitress, we should see her go through her average workday one time in chapter one or two. If Tom is going to college, then show us his class schedule and mention the course load he has to establish that he isn't neglecting his responsibilities. Once you've established that your lead has a job/vocation, though, it's time to focus on the plot.

But then an ancient order of assassins recruited Tom into their ranks, and he never graduated.
This doesn't mean that you immediately jettison your lead out of his or her routine, but it means that you do not focus on it anymore. If Stacy is at work then it should be because something happens while she's there, or because she's about to be called away by the mysterious young man who left a bizarre stone on her table as a tip. Tom might be in class, but while his chemistry professor is droning on, he's replaying the strange events of the previous evening and drawing out timelines in his notebook.

The focus isn't on washing dishes or taking notes; it's on driving the plot forward. Work, school, etc., cease to be important. The regular routine of your character's life is the background of the play, but it should not be center stage.

Also, if you end every chapter with your lead going home and going to sleep, then chances are you really need to spice up your story.

Uses For Your Background

I'm not saying you shouldn't establish who your character is, and what they do. Those are important traits, and in the case of cop thrillers or private detective stories that's what the book is about. Not only that, but by following your lead around to his or her job you get a sense of the world around them. You know whether the story is set in a small town, or in the depths of dark, dirty city. If you're writing sci-fi or fantasy story, though, then your lead's daily life is one, big piece of exposition. Whether they're building space ships or serving in the town militia, everything your lead sees and does, every conversation they have, is going to lay the ground work for the world around them.

The shrouded ruins of Old Neve were forbidden... and horrors dwelt within.
In addition to showing us the world, though, your lead's day-to-day gives us an insight as to who he or she is. By watching them in their natural environment we see if someone is dutiful or clever, lazy or cantankerous. We see what they excel at, and what they fail at. However, all of this is setup to your book, and not the book itself.

Put another way, people would be really interested in a compelling story about Detective Jack Warner, and how he has to navigate his own strengths and weaknesses to solve a triple homicide that might mean indicting one of the most powerful men in the country. By contrast, no one would be overly interested in a book where Detective Warner makes traffic stops, writes tickets, gives depositions on open-and-shut spousal abuse cases, then goes home and ticks another day off work until retirement.

Your character's routine is like the fiber in your diet. Yes, you need to have some, but no you don't want every chapter to be bland, boring bowls of cereal.

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