How Do I Write Thee?

For several years, I’ve played around with the idea of blogging the novel-writing process, focusing on just one book, as I write it. I’ve never done it, and probably for the very good reason that it’s such a looong process that it would drag on for months, if not years. I doubt I could keep track of it, much less expect readers to do so. But a novel written in a month? That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax, compressed tightly into just 30 days. Doable. And might even be beneficial for me, as a kind of reference for what works and what doesn’t

So, during NaNo 17, I’ll try to get a grip on exactly how I’m doing the thing. It won’t be daily, and there certainly won’t be any of those “I wrote 2,16 words today and I’m only 2,000 words behind the count,” or “Oh god, how am I going to get my hero out of this jam?” posts.

If it turns out that there are only two or three times it’s worth writing up, then that’s all there will be. I’m going into this year’s NaNo without much of what most people would consider necessary enthusiasm, just the need to do a job of work, and finish the month with a workable first draft. This old horse kind of laughs at the kids who seem to think they have to be out of the gate as soon as the bell rings at 12:01 am on November 1. I suspect that most of them won’t get very far.

As a start, here’s what I’m working with after five years of “preparation.” For the first time, a conscious attempt at structure, which turns out to be easy because the novel naturally breaks into three parts (acts). 1. After Zach’s death and up to Harte’s being sent off to Porter Alternative School. 2. At Porter. 3. After Porter.

What do I know about the plot? Enough for it to act as a framework, but not enough to outline or plan scenes. You could say that once in, I’ll be pantsing. Within each act, the action is somewhat non-linear — lots and lots of short flashbacks — with plenty of room for surprises.

Chapters will be third person, limited, with some of them preceded by Harte’s first-person commentary. How often he’ll do this, or what he’ll talk about? I have no idea.

A Well-Educated Boy is, to some extent, an experiment, both in its structure, and how I’m approaching the actual work of writing. That makes it different enough from my past books to be worth documenting, at least for my own use.

 

No Present Without a Past

Looking back at the various novels I’ve written or left unfinished, I realize that I’ve seldom (never?) thought about a theme, some idea that runs throughout the story and holds everything together. That could very well be one of the reasons I’m never quite happy with the  finished product. What made me ask the all-important question about A Well-Educated Boy? Darned if I know, but once I answered it, I felt that I had a much better sense of the novel as a whole, and what I would have to do to develop it.

The theme? The present grows out of the past. Harte’s maturation, his growth from a more or less typical teen oblivious to anything outside his own life and desires, to an awake and aware adult, is based on his understanding his friendship with Zach, and his parents’ memories of what it was like when they were in high school, and how the world around them has changed.

Harte is the person he is because of those two threads, and there’s little chance of major change for him until he realizes it. My own understanding of that fact somewhat simplifies my job. Zach has always been a major player in Harte’s life as I visualized the novel, but until now, the prominence of Harte’s parents has been something to be decided arbitrarily rather than as a necessary part of the story.

All this is part of what it takes to fill the frightening black hole that suddenly appears when you think about turning a great idea into an actual book. A boy who grows up in the perfect town rebels against it. What’s next?

Solutions Out of Nowhere?

Has my obsession with A Well-Educated Boy finally reached a tipping point or is it just the pressure of an upcoming deadline — November 1 and NaNoWriMo? Whatever the cause, solutions to problems and answers to questions are now turning up with fair regularity. Three major plot points resolved within a week? That’s phenomenal.

Not that it’s going to make the actual writing much easier, except that I’m developing a bit of confidence that this can be done. When you’ve been mulling over a story for five years and are still faced with problems involving major issues, it’s natural to have a few doubts. And when those doubts are rumbling around against a background of questions about whether there’s any point to writing, at all, well then…

Every iota of common sense tells me that nothing I can write will make the slightest difference in how the earth spins. That it may very well be spinning without the company of humans within a century or two — or maybe far less if we’ve entirely failed to grasp the potential costs of tampering with the earth’s systems of operation. In the face of such a sweeping possible outcome, not even Ozymandias’s arrogance and eventual oblivion can serve as a lesson in unjustified pride. Someone once said something along the lines of we are but worms crawling along the surface. I think that’s true. Further, over a long lifetime, I’ve learned that being aware of all this is not the design for a happy or contented life. And if you have the good fortune — or misfortune — to live a long life, it necessarily has to come around to that question — what difference has my life made in any sense that matters?

So, the writing has to be its own reward, and only to me.

Russell Blake: The Philosophy of Being a Hack

I haven’t read anything by Russell Blake, but even if I’m not interested in the genres he writes in, or in writing full-time, this is a post worth reading. It’s rather alarming that he writes a novel about every five weeks, but he does it for a living, and writes for a popular audience. Whether you believe that he is truly a hack, and that his books are crap, both of which he acknowledges with tongue in cheek, he makes some very good points. Mainly that the correlation between sloooow writing and quality is false. It came out of the publishing industry’s limitations and schedules, not out of the reality of professional writing.

I do have a caveat when he says, as so many writers do, “Just write.” The more you write the better you’ll get at it. That isn’t always so. You can’t get better if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong. And that generally takes some outside reality checks.

I have to agree when he says, “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a business where there’s so much poor advice or lousy, limiting thinking than the writing business, nor so much misinformation.”

This fits in with the misinformation about National Novel Writing Month, which I’ve blogged about in the past — the attitude that if it’s fast, it can’t be good. Obviously, if it’s your first book, or maybe even your second, fast is probably going to result in a big fat mess.

http://russellblake.com/the-philosophy-of-being-a-hack/

 

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.