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Back on Track With “The Company of Distillers”

So, I’ve finally figured out what the hell was wrong with the novel I’ve been trying to write, tentatively titled The Company of Distillers–why it was so damned stuck after I reached basically the halfway point or so. It means excising most of what I’d written since Christmas–about half the text I have on hand now–but that’s for the best, and I have a clearer picture of where it’s headed now. (And a clearer picture of what I was doing wrong, not just in this book but in the other one I’d been working on, too.)

What helped me, besides time off and some reading, was thinking about the dynamics in my story, in terms of sets or categories of problems. In the first part, most of the action focused on my Georgian (as in, Georgian England) brewer-alchemist dealing with the following stuff:

  1. the lab work and experimentation of working out an alchemical mystery.
  2. the dangers and guilt of a pseudo-love-triangle.
  3. dealing with the ostracism of his fellows within the Brewers’ Guild.
  4. handling problems (marital and financial) at home.
  5. foiling a very bad conspiracy by very bad people.

Of course, since this was drafted as a novella first, he (sort of) foils the conspiracy at the end of the first 20,000-odd words. But that’s just the first battle in the war, right?

The problem was, that the tension in several of those arenas dissipated rather abruptly at the end of that section: he effectively lost his lab, the pseudo-love triangle exploded,  he lost his wife to the conspiracy as retribution for foiling it. In other words, tensions 1, 2, 4, and 5 all mostly collapsed out from under the story. I didn’t realize that, of course: I had this whole cool thing that happened where he’s taken across the English Channel to the Low Countries, where crazy (crazy!) stuff happens. And then he… what? returns to England? And does what?

It was a fine ending to a novella: the protagonist had to give up almost everything to solve the story problem, and then what he had left was taken from him in the end… all but the victory. But in a novel, you cannot do that to your character 25% of the way in: the problems that have been ramping up, you can’t rip them out from under him or her. One or two might get resolved, but not 80% of the problems so far. It’s a question of narrative timing, and the novel is a long game, requiring more patience and more torture before those resolutions either are achieved, or become impossible.

Eliminate all the sources of tension built up in Part I, and obviously Part II is going to end up lost at sea. At least, for the kind of story I’m telling. People do this, of course, to varying degrees, in episodic novels, including the “picaresque,” but those novels work in a way very differently that what I’m trying to do. There are sometimes very good reasons for vaulting a character to a new part of the world in a new section of a book, if the story problems are internal to the character, and if that character simply cannot work through them while staying in the same place, like the protagonist in a book I wrote about the other day–but in a story where the problems are a big mix of internal ones and especially external ones, to sort of pull the rug out a quarter of the way through just sends all the silverware and food flying into your readers’ laps… and all over yourself.

The writing I did and can’t use isn’t a waste, mind: I’ll be using some of it in another project eventually, maybe featuring the same protagonist, and there’s a major thread that came to me while I was writing that, which I’ll be retaining. One new character came into the story via that stuff, and he will definitely be making an appearance despite my excision of his entry route into the story. So, you know: it all ends up “in” the novel somehow.

That is, however, a vote in favor of writing a plot treatment before the main text. That is, in fact, what I’m doing now. I found when I wrote a treatment for a screenplay, it was quite a lot easier to just churn out the material at a much higher quality, because I knew what was generally happening; it also freed me up to play with detail and work in stuff I might not have included, had I been busy with working out the plot. So, that’s my work for now.

Anyway, instead of sending my character across the English channel to the Low Countries, the Low Countries will come to him. Instead of resolution-by-elimination, the problems he has with his fellow brewers, his wife, and the conspirators need to amplify. The threat he’s facing needs to grow more legs, to go from being a rat to being an octopus…

And so, off to the hop markets–and the Stourbridge hop fair–he goes, and here comes a stranger who goes by a name both familiar and unlikely. Happily, the parcel bomb of 1736 (which marks the beginning of the tale) occurred on July 14, and the Stourbridge Fair ran from August through September, so he has plenty of time to get there, do what he needs to, and return to London in time to witness the trepidation mounting as gin becomes illegal… though, of course, at least in our world, nothing much actually happened when its legal status did change.

After all, there’s always the black market. (Funny how much history repeats itself. I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook of William S. Burroughs’ Junky (which I got as part of the Humble Audiobook Bundle a while back). I discovered that it had more in common with the events in 18th century England (and my own novel’s events) than you might first imagine… and I don’t just mean the kneejerk upper-class urge to prohibit whatever new intoxicants the unwashed masses embrace, either.

It’s nice to be back on track… oh, and I found some more neat information about Stourbridge Fair, but I’ll save that for another post.

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