You’re Not Fired, Just Demoted

I had yesterday off for Memorial Day.  No big plans.  I thought I’d surely get a bunch of writing done on my novel this weekend over three days.  I ended up with about a page and a half, but that was written seven or eight times.

Kurt Vonnegut had days where he wrote only a couple of pages and filled his trashcan with rewrites.  I’m generally not like that.  I don’t like agonizing over every little word knowing that it’s going to get edited later anyways.  But in this case, I also felt like I couldn’t just dive in.  Part of it might have been because I haven’t written anything for so long.  I had the pieces in front of me in the outline, but I couldn’t seem to understand how the pegs fit in the holes.  The first few tries was just trying to get the tone right.  It felt flat, uninteresting, and worst of all it gave backstory without really propelling anything forward.

Let me back up a second.  I’m writing an alien invasion novel told from firsthand interviews, one of them being the commander of invaders.  I wanted him to describe how grand their civilization was, how magnificent their planet looked, and how they simply felt they had a right to invade others.  If the aliens are intelligent – not mindless xenomorphs – then we always feel there’s a reason for them coming to Earth.

After a while, I decided to go for a walk – a few walks, actually – when it kind of dawned on me.  I love documentaries, especially war documentaries where veterans tell you their stories.  You might even say that my novel is the transcript of a mockumentary.  They rarely have documentaries featuring world leaders.  The only one I can think of is George W. Bush’s 9/11 interview.  You don’t see interviews of FDR, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, or Hirohito in WWII documentaries, not even archival footage.  The oldest recorded interview with a US president I found was one of Kennedy in 1963 with reporters during his administration rather than a reflection after the fact.  I think that will change in the documentaries of the future.  People seem to want more exposure and connection with such figures, although we never see that with authoritarian leaders (the aliens fall under the latter category).

History, real or fictional, has no singular heroes, only masses of heroes.  It’s not just John Wayne leading soldiers at Iwo Jima.  It’s the soldiers following him, the naval crews landing them, and the Marine corpsmen healing them.  It’s someone in the War Department writing a letter to his family when he dies and his family reacting to that loss (sorry, but it’s been seventy years since The Sands of Iwo Jima came out.  You don’t get to bitch about spoilers).  And it’s the Japanese on the other side as well because they’ve got their own problems to worry about too.  So with that in mind, I demoted this character from a lofty, almost Emperor-like position down to one among millions.  It removes a great deal of psychological pressure (largely of my own making).

If you’re in a similar situation, try this: start your story not with the protagonist but rather the sidekick or even with an anonymous background extra.  You can always edit this later.  Getting your foot in the door of the story is the main goal.

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