It’s the In-Between That’s a Killer

If you’re a fanatical planner/outliner, this isn’t a problem for you. I can’t deny it would make life easier if I could plan out every novel completely before starting to write. I always have at least a general idea of how the plot is going to work itself out, and may even have some of the details, and have written (sometimes just in my head) whole scenes and dialogues. But as a general rule, I go into the real work of writing with a skeleton that has lots of bones missing. In between what I do know is a tremendous amount that I don’t know, and that’s the scary part of developing a novel.

The number of questions that have to be answered can make the actual writing look like an enormous boulder with smooth sides that provide not a single handhold, no way to get from here to there, there being a finished work with all the problems solved. To an outsider, it may look as if the months and years spent before tackling the real work are just procrastination. You’ve given up in the face of the enormity of the task. And there may be something to that. But it’s in those months and years that the problems are solved, the questions are answered. And it’s possible that the solutions and answers work better than the ones you come up with when you’re trying to force your way forward, setting up some kind of deadline that you want to meet.

A Well-Educated Boy is what’s most on my mind these days, and it’s a perfect example of the virtues of “procrastination.” One of the important themes in the novel is the question of why Harte’s best friend killed himself. Why kill off a character if you don’t already know why he does it? This is one of the great mysteries of writing, that you can make your characters perform for you without having any idea of their motivations. They do what they do because the plot requires it. But you can’t stop there. Without real, believable motivations, they will be nothing but puppets, and the readers will most likely catch on to it.

So, for months now, I’ve been trying to find a reason, or reasons, why Zach would kill himself. I found plenty of them, but none rang true, none brought anything important to the overall needs of the book. Until a couple of days ago. The feeling, when that happened, was a lot like finding a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle and sliding it perfectly into its place. But more intense. One more in-between solved. One more handhold on that enormous boulder. And a little less fear.

August 5 – Weekend Notes

I must be a very cruel person. I enjoy reading Amazon book reviews at least partly for the ignorance and illiteracy they often reveal about their writers. Do these people even realize that they are exposing themselves and usually coming off much worse than the author they’re trying to badmouth? Or do they care?

I also enjoy dipping into a variety of subjects in WordPress’s Reader, and noting the variety of skills, or lack of them. This morning, I’ve seen loose used in place of lose, an all too common error. It’s being used as a possessive, almost as common as dirt. But here’s one that really caught my eye: “I am very excited to announce the publication of my short story A Day at the Beach on Amazon.” Two commas would have been a nice touch, and eliminated the mental image of spending a day on the beach while on Amazon.

I take it for granted that the freedom to expose yourself on the internet applies to writers and would-be writers as well as the rest of the world. I would like to believe that everyone who aspires to be a writer is open to criticism, but we all know that’s unlikely in the real world.

On a different note, work on A Perfect Slave is coming along — much slower than I foolishly hoped — but I’m almost halfway through. It seems, regardless of my logical approach to prioritization, that the next project will be A Well-Educated Boy, in spite of being not much more than notes. If I could ever figure out why WIPs seem to set their own agendas, my life would be much less frustrating. So Gift of the Ancien gets pushed to the back of the line once again.

I’ve been exploring Bullet Journaling, which is supposed to be a supremely practical approach to the scattered sticky notes and bits of paper that are the bane of the hopelessly disorganized. Of course, that research involved hours of ignoring all the non-computer work waiting for me, but convinced me that it’s worth trying. Using the computer to keep myself organized has just not worked, no matter how many and how many types of organizers I’ve tried. Pen and paper really does work better for me because it’s immediate. Where it doesn’t work is how to keep track of all the bits of scribbles. Bullet Journaling seems to combine the best features of working on the computer with the ability to just pick up the darn notebook any old time rather than interrupt whatever I’m doing to pull the computer out of sleep mode and open a program. I have a graphing notebook on order from Amazon, which does rather piss me off because graphing notebooks are nothing special except that they’re now a big item for Bullet Journaling enthusiasts. The one at the drugstore was cheap, but only available in one size — way too big for convenience — so I’m letting myself get ripped off for a smaller one. Will eventually report on how it goes.

 

“Mystery.” Is That a Prompt?

What should I write about? Something about that question always gets under my skin. It’s an irritation that gets worse when the answer is a list of prompts or some discussion about using prompts. I’ve never used prompts. In fact, my attitude toward them is that if you need a prompt from somewhere outside yourself, then maybe you’re not meant to be a  writer. My brain is always overflowing with ideas because the world is overflowing with ideas. How can you be serious about being a writer — or wanting to be a writer — if you can’t figure out for yourself what to write about?

To be fair, my attitude is somewhat narrow-minded. I think about prompts in terms of lists made up by someone or other and offered as a form of inspiration. But what is that world out there, with its endless flow of subjects and ideas, but a never-ending source of prompts? What prompted this insight was one word from a post I read this morning, on a writing blog. The post was about an essential requirement for any novel or story: mystery. Any genre. Mysteries aren’t the only books that need a mystery or mysteries to keep the reader hooked.

And there, seemingly out of nowhere was a new, important detail about one of my in-progress novels. I wasn’t thinking about the novel at the time. In fact, I hadn’t thought about it at all this morning, and I’m not currently working on it. Like all my WIPs, though, it’s always simmering in the back of my mind, and there’s nothing unusual about some element being added or a problem solved, out of the blue, when I’m reading something completely unrelated. (I’ve mentioned this before.)

Why did the word mystery bring up this particular WIP and provide the answer to a question that I hadn’t even consciously formed yet? That’s a mystery in itself. Someone who appears at the beginning of the book to be an important character just fades away and disappears. I knew why he disappeared, and also knew that he will eventually come back, and why. I didn’t know when or under what circumstances, and hadn’t given that much thought. I thought I knew, but it turned out I didn’t. Because my original concept of his return was kind of boring. It wasn’t until I collided with ‘mystery’ that I even realized I needed a dramatic setting for his return, and that I had already set it up.

Oddly, ‘mystery’ isn’t a prompt in any way that we’d normally recognize. I won’t be writing about a mystery, which would be the normal outcome. Instead, what I think happened is that the word unlocked my awareness of an unstated but important problem that has been working away at an unconscious level of my mind. If that isn’t a prompt, I don’t know what is.

I’m a pretty literal-minded person, which might explain why I’ve viewed prompts in such a limited way. Maybe it’s appropriate that ‘mystery’ is the word that offered me a different perspective. It’s also appropriate that it’s still a mystery why that happened, and why it happened to one particular WIP.

How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel?

How long does it take me to write a novel, from start to finish? As long as it takes, which might be, and usually is, several years. How many drafts go into a novel? Another unanswerable question because I pick up and drop WIPs, and pick them up again, for all sorts of reasons, or no apparent reason at all. My writing life is in a perpetual state of disorganization, flux, chaos, whatever you want to call it, and it works for me.

Ideas are always running through my head, against a background of unanswered questions about this WIP or that, even the ones that I’m not currently working on. Out of this mess comes the answers — usually. All this came to the foreground this morning as the solution to an ongoing problem with Bentham’s Dream came to me with no warning.

The question: Why would the warden of a secretive prison sit down with the first inspector to invade the premises in the 40 years of the prison’s existence, and reveal all (or nearly all) to him? I fooled around with motives like trust: for some reason, he knew that this inspector would keep everything to himself. The long-pent up doubts about his position and the whole concept of total solitary confinement, and no longer concerned about the possible consequences of his revelations. Well, there were others, also, but none of them satisfactory. This morning’s solution is truly the solution I’ve been looking for. It unites two ideas that my mind had kept totally separate, for some reason.

It’s a mystery why I couldn’t have seen the obvious need to combine them much sooner, but mystery is a good part of creative writing. Maybe I’m just trying to justify my lack of discipline, but it seems to me that you longer allow a piece of fiction to simmer and develop, the more chance there is of finding the best solutions. Not the solutions that let you zip through several thousand words a day or produce several novels a year, but the ones that bring characters to life, that result in a plot that seems inevitable rather than manufactured.

In today’s dominant emphasis on building a career, on treating writing as a business, taking the long path to a finished novel can look suicidal. It can certainly dump you in the waste bin called hobby writer, ignoring that, by those standards, many of the past’s great writers were mere hobbyists.

 

Trapped by Details: an Epiphany

One of the side effects of a medication I’ve been taking for a couple of months is insomnia — serious lack of sleep. There are moments when I think this could be a good thing because the hazy state between sleeping and waking is often the source of ideas and insights — and there has been a lot of hazy state . Alas, those ideas and insights seldom carry over into the daylight hours. If I could just lie there in the dark and dictate into a recorder, who knows what marvels of novelistic fiction I could create. Well, that’s never going to happen, but once in a while, something worth pursuing does survive until morning and daylight.

A recent night was one of those frustrating on/off sleep/wake stretches that had me wanting to just get up, wander around the apartment, find something to do, and forget about sleep altogether. But I stuck it out and let my mind do the wandering. And what happened was that I had a sort of vision. I haven’t been able to write at all for the last two or three months, so part of the night’s mental meandering is often about trying to select the ongoing WIP most likely to have a chance of sucking me in and getting my fingers back on the keyboard. Gift of the Ancien is always one of those being considering — and discarded.

But last night, I saw that novel in an entirely new way. It was as if I was standing off from an actual, physical construct, and seeing it as an object independent of details like voice or characterization, and stripped of my personal interest in and attachment to it. I can’t regain much of the feelings I had about this new view, but the image itself is still fairly clear in my mind — and its meaning. Although I can’t reconstruct or explain how I came to it, the meaning of the image is that this particular novel (and several others), has been a challenging puzzle to work out, and that challenge is completely independent of the novel’s importance to me. In other words, I’ve been sucked into an ongoing attempt to solve a puzzle (or a handful of puzzles), fascinated by the challenge just as certainly as any game player. It’s the intricacies of that particular story that I’m attempting to work out, without any consideration of whether it has enough value to me to justify the time and energy I’m putting into it.

I also had brief glimpses of a couple of the other WIPs being bounced around as possible ways out of the black hole of wordlessness. Most of the insights are gone, damn it, but there was the sense, however vaguely I can see or express it now, that those WIPs had value apart from the details. Their value — their meaning — to me, personally, was more important than the puzzles they represent, or the working out of the puzzles. Ancien, on the other hand, even though it would have value as a published novel, and possibly of more value than the others, has no other value to me.

On a superficial level, this all boils down to the question of why I write: for money, or for myself. But now I can see it isn’t that at all. The real question is: is this a story I really care about, for its own sake, or is it just a container for intriguing puzzles? I turns out that anything I write for myself has a boundary far beyond me. It’s an idea or collection of ideas, that I hope will draw readers looking for more than entertainment. Of course, every novel is a series of puzzles to work out; maybe that’s a big part of the appeal for writers, especially writers who aren’t particularly successful in the fame and fortune arena.

I still haven’t settled on a WIP to drag me out of the creativity black hole, but at least I have a better basis for making that selection. Ancien, as strongly as its puzzles fascinate me, needs to be put aside where it can’t tempt and distract me. The same is true of several other WIPs in various stages of development. Maybe if I can get them shoved under the carpet and use the imagery from my vision, I’ll find the piece that will inspire me to get back to writing.

 

 

Theme and Variations

One of the topics currently under discussion on a writing forum is theme. The post’s author stated that she sometimes feels as if she’s writing the same book over and over again.  I can certainly relate, having recently taken note of the overwhelming presence of various kinds of oppression in my stories. You can probably make a good case for the presence of a dominant theme in the work of many writers. After all, any theme you choose — or that chooses you — can probably be explored endlessly in all its complexity and variability.

My particular concern, when looking over my published work, with an eye to writing projects still in process, is whether I am, unconsciously, telling the same story over and over, merely changing the settings and the names of the characters. I can see that I concentrate on the character suffering oppression, whether as a prisoner, a slave, or someone caught up in the gears of a society suffering the strains of unanticipated and extreme changes.

But what about the people or the social forces responsible for the oppression? They are the source of the novel’s necessary conflict, but I think a closer examination of my published work might show that I sometimes allow them to remain shadowy figures that aren’t fully developed. The source of conflict in a novel can’t be an abstraction; the protagonist must be doing more than punching the air against a mysterious figure that fails to reveal itself.

There are many ways to approach theme, and that includes discovering it after you’ve written the first draft, and then developing it more fully. Chuck Wendig, bless his foul-mouthed heart, offered some valuable views of theme in an old post. Go there. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/09/26/25-things-writers-should-know-about-theme/

Short Break from Long Stuff

I just started a revision and expansion of Refuge, one of my short stories. It’s currently around 4,500 words, and I hope to get it up to between 6,000 and 7,000 words. Why, when I’m trying to get Bentham’s Dream finished, am I veering off again? There’s certainly some burnout here–really good progress for a while, and then the wall. Maybe jumping from getting Camp Expendable out of my hair right into another big project wasn’t a good idea.

One reason to switch off is the nagging need to publish, to start making up for the last two dead years. Even a short story is a right step in that direction, and it can be done comparatively fast. From that point of view, it can relieve the pressure to get Dream written and published as fast as possible. Fast doesn’t work for me, so some downtime is never a bad thing. As long as it doesn’t turn into nevernever time. I’m always going to be switching back and forth between projects, but maybe using a short story for burnout breaks will keep me from switching to one of the long WIPs and keep me on target with Dream.

I’m thinking all this through as I’m writing, and I think I see how spending some time with short stories might break into my dysfunctional pattern of jumping constantly between novels, which just delays finishing any of them. That’s probably a big contributor to that period of publishing nothing at all. So a new pattern would be: work on a novel or novella until I reach burnout. Take time out with a short story, and then go back to that novel or novella. Repeat until publication.

It could work. Something has to work, before I’m too old and feeble for it to matter any more.

Damn Plot Bunnies

As if I need more story ideas, I was apparently dreaming one, because it was solid in my mind the instant I woke up a couple of mornings ago. Usually, my dreams just leave a trace whiff that they’d even existed, so this was a very weird thing to happen. And even bitching about it, I’m glad it happened because maybe it’s a signal that the prison stories that have been accumulating and wanting to be a book are still a thing.

It might just be something that’s peculiar to me and my peculiar mind, but I think immersion in research for a nonfiction book may need some kind of outlet other than the book itself. So the research on the death penalty, as well as other aspects of criminal justice, keeps engendering fictional variations. The original intent for those stories was to have them anchor Bentham’s Dream, which is becoming a novella — a long way from the short story I’d intended it to be. Then I thought it would probably be a waste of time and energy to publish anything like that. Who would read it? It’s bound to be mostly depressing, fodder for a masochist, or for the very few strange souls who take criminal justice seriously enough to want to read about it, even in fiction. But the damned thing keeps creeping back, and now a new story has presented itself to me.

A lot of what comes out in the stories is my own feelings about prison and the death penalty. It’s reality-based–solidly reality-based, but it’s an outsider’s view still. Well, I’m stuck with that, but I’m just realizing that this new story is not just a view from the outside, but a view of someone who has been outside the inmate mentality and then finds himself inside, part of that mentality. That’s a fascinating idea to explore. A kind of doubling of the outsider view — his view of the work, where he was an insider, and of the prisoners, which he would never have anticipated seeing from the inside, all seen through my eyes.

One (at least) of the stories is entirely first person, present tense dialogue. This one will be entirely third person omniscient without any dialogue at all. It will be an unrelieved look into the head of a prison guard who lives by the rules, not just on the job, but also in his everyday life, is persuaded to do something that is very much against the rules, and winds up in prison, as an inmate.

Maybe someday I’ll figure out why I’m compelled to write fiction that almost no one is interested in reading.

Pantsing Experiment

I’m not sure whether the election results have had anything to do with the last week of not being able to write. But when I find myself thinking about getting back to work and saying “What’s the point?” something is going on. Despite having supposedly finished Camp Expendable and on the verge of converting it to an ebook, I started going through it again because I’m just not happy with it. But that came to a screeching halt in the middle of the second chapter. I’ve had periods like this before, so I’m hoping it’s very temporary.

But, as usual, being in the midst of a serious down period, the ideas don’t stop coming. One has been nagging at me for a few weeks, and seems so much more important now, with the US taking a turn toward something ugly, and the rest of the world crumbling around the edges. The current title is A Small Bright World of Sorrows. The premise is that an observer has been sending alarming reports home about a world and its inhabitants, and now two “adjudicators” have arrived, tasked with determining what’s going on, whether this world is dangerous to the rest of the inhabited universe, and if it is, what to do about it.

For some unknown reason, I sat down with a notebook this morning and started writing. Pure pantsing without the distraction of the internet. I gave up paper and pen a long time ago, but two pages came so easily that I’m seriously considering just keeping on with the story this way, whenever the notion strikes. Looked at objectively, writing a novel in longhand is a potential nightmare, so I don’t know whether I will just go on that way, or transfer the material to Scrivener every few days–or when there’s enough to be worth taking the time. Right now, I like the idea of just letting it pour out of my head however it wants to, and knowing that it will be much harder to read if I try to do any editing. So this will be a truly “rough” draft.

One Thing Leads to Another — Sometimes a Sequel

When I wrote Hidden Boundaries, it was intended to be a complete novel–no cliffhangers, no unanswered questions. But it turns out that unless you’re writing a story in which there’s  a specific goal, and that goal is achieved, then there’s always more that can be said. Because, just like real life, the story doesn’t always end with The End. So I wound up writing Crossing Boundaries.

Now, several years down the line, I’ve been working on a novel that’s intended to end with The End. The only problem is that The End of A Well-Educated Boy doesn’t want to come into focus. It shifts, recedes out of sight, comes back looking pretty good, and then disappears again. There are two ways to look at this. I simply can’t make up my mind how I want the story to end because I don’t know Hart, my protagonist quite as well as I should by now. So he can’t make up his mind about what he wants to do.

Or… There’s a story beyond this story, and its existence means that the first story has to lead into it. Hart’s decision about what he’s going to do next depends on that story. Hart’s story is originally the story of his town:

Growing up and going to school in a company-owned town isn’t something Hart Simmons thought about much. He didn’t have any reason to. Until his best friend disappeared. Came back. Killed himself. Hart was always a bit of a trouble maker, the kind of kid who shoved back at rules, just because they’re rules. But he didn’t really know what he was shoving against. Zach’s death woke him up. And then his troubles started.

Burgundy is a nice town. Almost idyllic. Clean. No crime. Good jobs. But Hart doesn’t live in Burgundy anymore, and he probably can’t ever go back. Because he knows where Zach disappeared to and why he killed himself.

Dystopias can hide in plain sight. Right under your nose.

Where is Hart when the story ends, and what is he going to do now? The feeling that the story is about more than Hart’s life in Burgundy has been getting stronger lately, but that didn’t break through until just yesterday, when a new story idea popped into my head. It didn’t actually pop; it evolved out of an old idea that I was looking over and nudging here and there to see if it was ready for a little more development. And it turned out to be the answer to the big questions Hart has about Burgundy, and what direction his life might take. A sequel, durn it.

What it looks like so far:

Privatization had taken over many cities. particularly in one state. A group of owner corporations agrees to cooperate in a “utopian” plan, which includes testing for desirable qualities. The “failures,” those who don’t measure up, are trained to do unskilled and semi-skilled work. The “elite” are educated to enhance their abilities and are treated almost as a separate species of human.

Starts as a humanitarian project to ensure the survival of desirable traits and to benefit the human race in a time of extreme instability, but becomes a more far-reaching enterprise as corporations and later, governments, realize the advantages of controlling a population trained to obedience and a work ethic.

This concept is still sketchy, but it both answers questions that are hanging right now, and adds a complication. How do I end the first novel without leaving readers hanging? It needs to point to where it might go, but not with a frustrating cliffhanger.

Turning Dry into Drama – Bentham’s Dream

This is an unplanned followup to yesterday’s post. It may be somewhat disorganized, even a little incoherent, since I’m thinking with my fingers. Bentham’s Dream was originally intended to be part of a short story collection about prisons, from about the early 19th century to the 2060s or thereabout. Somehow, Bentham’s Dream took over and shoved the other stories out of sight. Credit the last few years of research about the death penalty, solitary confinement, and other aspects of criminal justice. The story has grown, from some 8,000 words to 26,000 words and is still a long way from being finished.

I think it was at about 25,000 words that I realized I had a problem and needed to do some very deep thinking about where the story was going. More important, and I think yesterday’s question about why anyone would want to read it was a trigger, the problems coalesced into one question: how do I turn a somewhat dry subject and two talking heads into a story that will fascinate rather than send readers off into slumberland.

This might serve as a metaphor for any subject that might grab a writer, but seems to have little potential for attracting readers. Fortunately, science fiction allows a lot of latitude in topics, and any serious sf reader probably has fond memories of books dealing with subjects that they never would have considered worth their time. This is worth thinking about in this age of formula writing. How many Hunger Games clones can you bear to read? How many zombie novels or post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world reruns?

There are thousands of possible topics waiting for the science fiction writer with some imagination, someone who’s willing to take some risks and walk away from the clones and clichés. But it won’t be easy. It’s probably been well over a year since I started writing Bentham’s Dream. My original concept was fairly limited, but turned out to be nothing more than the skeleton from which to hang something much more complex and, I hope, more dramatic. Something I discovered about my writing is that I tend to place my characters in very restricted circumstances. Well, there’s nothing more restrictive than a prison where there is zero chance of prisoners causing any problems for the staff. So, no riots, no murders. None of the clichés that we associate with prison stories. Just two people wandering around the prison, observing the prisoners, and talking about it. How in the world can I introduce action and drama into such a setting?

Originally, the main protag, an inspector for the region’s penal system, does his job and then leaves, trying to decide how he wants to slant his report. He and the warden have had an interesting and enlightening discussion, but never touched base with each other as human beings. Dull, dull, dull. After much backing and forthing about POV, I’m writing the story in first person, from the point of view of Jerry Stanton, the inspector. This puts us closer to him than third person would be, but also limits what we can know about Chandler, the prison warden. Since Chandler starts off as an efficient bureaucrat, Jerry’s point of view is important if we want to see him as a human being, possibly with doubts about his job.

As the story evolved, Chandler turned out to be the key to the drama, and to a very different ending than I had planned, one that will be, if I do it right, a shocker.

Slow Learner or Slow Processor?

When you’re editing, edit. When you’re proofreading, proofread. Never the twain should meet. (With apologies to Mr. Kipling.) It was Chapter 6 that made me stop and think about what I was doing. In the first paragraph, I moved one sentence around for smoother reading and added some new text. Then I rewrote the first sentence of the second paragraph. For the first time, it really registered that I do this every single time. I get to the supposedly final stage: proofreading, and make it another round of editing.

I don’t know if keeping editing and proofreading is meant to be a hard and fast rule, but it’s one that has an excellent reason for existing. With every edit, you take the chance of adding new, unnoticed errors. The way I changed one sentence meant that I had to be sure to close a newly split-up quote. Oops. Almost didn’t notice that. Editing while proofreading means that I have to be even more attentive, more alert, doing work that is  already exhausting if I don’t take enough breaks to rest my eyes and brain.

More seriously, from my point of view at least, is that it makes me question why I’m still editing when the book is supposedly finished. When I look at the changes I’ve made, I have to wonder why I didn’t see the need for them much, much earlier. Am I just obsessive about details that readers won’t even notice? Or am I such a slow learner that even after writing a half-dozen novels, and having read innumerable articles, blog posts, and books about the craft of writing, I haven’t learned nearly as much as I should have by now?

There’s another possibility that’s discouraging because I can’t do a thing about it. Which means that I will always be editing while I’m proofreading. I know that my mental processing speed is slower than normal. I’m not fast on the uptake, a problem that can be compounded by auditory processing disorder. In a conversation, I may recognize that someone’s statement has something wrong about it, but I won’t be able to pin down what the problem is. And I’m having enough trouble keeping track of everything that’s being said, so there’s no chance to think about it. Hours, or even days later, it will come back to me and I’ll know exactly what was wrong.

I have the same problem with text. It may take days to understand what bothered me about something I’ve read. Once my brain makes it through its snail-pace processing it has no problem. I know what’s wrong. I just can’t access it immediately. Obviously, or I would have given up writing a long time ago in sheer frustration, I do gradually learn well enough to access important knowledge with less delay. But it’s a very slow process, and the amount of craft knowledge you need to have under your belt is seemingly endless. Also, much of it is abstract and thus harder to grasp than proper punctuation or spelling.

For now, I have to decide whether I can simultaneously edit and proofread, or whether I’l have to torture myself with an eye-blinding, brain-burning final proofread. Because there will always be something that I can improve.