Random Bits

Just washed out the bread machine, (instead of wiping it down) and while I’m waiting for it to dry, here are some odds and ends on my mind today.

Currently reading Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, by David Livingstone Smith. It’s a subject that has puzzled me all my life. Once you get beyond all the theories, all of which, when true, are still only part of the answer, the full answer is that the human brain is built that way. From my fly-on-the-wall position in life, I have to say I haven’t seen any improvement in the 3/4 of a century I’ve been alive so far.

To point that up in the most searing way (as if the current president’s political position isn’t enough to make its own contributions, one of the news sites I read daily had this article this morning: Libya is Home to a 21st Century Slave Market and the UN Security Council Won’t Act.

As with virtually all human rights causes, small battles are won, as this one may be, eventually, but the larger war is always lost. Slavery has always, existed, in many forms. I have no doubt that it will continue to exist. One of the stories I work on now and then involves the return of legal slavery to the US, along with an inherited political strata, much like England’s House of Lords.

My stories endlessly tug me between them, so for the moment, I’m back to trying to complete Bentham’s Dream, while still plugging in notes and occasional text fragments for A Well-Educated Boy.

Bread machine is almost halfway through its cycle. Fresh warm bread for lunch!

End Game: I’m Out

I deleted my novel and personal information from NaNoWriMo this morning. I can’t swear to all the reasons I took this step, other than a vague feeling of revulsion, about my novels in general, not just A Well-Educated Boy. There’s nothing wrong with them, or it, particularly, except that I can no longer believe there’s a good reason to write them. Maybe one possible spur was seeing the statement on the NaNo site every time I clicked on it: “The world needs your novel.” No, the world absolutely doesn’t need your novel — or mine.

I wrote a little over 2,000 words Wednesday, the first day of Nano, not quite 1,000 Thursday, and have found it impossible to set down a single word since.

But the problem goes back much further than this year’s NaNo. What is becoming clear is that my relationship with writing has changed. I’ve never been motivated by fame; neither has money served very well as a motivator. What has been increasingly uppermost in importance has been mastering the craft of writing, and creating work that is meaningful, that has long-term value for readers. I have no problem with the first. I still find satisfaction in a chapter, or even a snippet, well done.

But meaningful? What does that even mean these days? Maybe that’s the big question for me. Or maybe there’s a question I should be asking that I’m not even aware of. All I know at the moment is that I can’t find a reason to write. Maybe that will change. Even if it does, I suspect that it will have significance only for me.


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?

Four Days To NaNo and a Deep Breath

It wasn’t exactly a decision to back away somewhat from A Well-Educated Boy for the last few days of October. Not that details aren’t still working themselves out, mostly without much help from me. But it’s quite possible to burn out before I even get to NaNoWriMo, so I guess it’s a good thing that my unconscious mind is able to divert me to something else for a while.

That “something else” is Gift of the Ancien, which I wrote for NaNo several years ago. It’s a huge, wandering mess of a novel, unsure what its major point is, or who is the real protagonist. My lovely beta reader pointed out the problems (some of them) way back when I had every intention of revising and publishing it. I keep going back to it, and giving up in despair. I’ve thought seriously about trashing it rather than trying to rescue it, but this is one darling that I just can’t kill. I love the story and I think it’s one that might attract attention. There’s a hint of vampires, a touch of romance, and a tragic hero. But it needs way more than mere revision; large parts will have to be scratched out or rewritten.

This wouldn’t seem like the best time for Ancien to sit up and wave at me, but maybe the mindset that’s been working away at Boy is slopping over onto Ancien, to the advantage of both. Suddenly, light is shining in dark places, and I can see my way to approaching the job intelligently. It’s still going to be extremely difficult, but for the first time in several years, it seems doable. So the plan is to concentrate until November on exactly how to do it, and then dive in once NaNo is over. That’s the plan, if the gods are willing and the creeks stay within their banks.




Everything I Do Wrong During NaNoWriMo

Except for the first two years, when I was just figuring out what’s involved in writing fiction, I’ve won every year that I entered. I lost track some time back, but that amounts to seven or eight years, I think, with a skipped year every now and then, for various reasons. There’s a lot of advice out there on how to win, and I suppose it works for many people. But I wonder how much it interferes with participants finding their own way, the one that works for them. When the same suggestions are made over and over again, from year to year, the advice begins to look more like rules to be followed than helpful suggestions to try out.

Not even in my usual contrary spirit, I discarded most of them immediately. For instance, I’m a loner, and having buddies for mutual support is something I can’t even relate to. I haven’t attended write-ins, or done any of the socializing that’s such a big part of NaNo, and is supposed to help motivate you through the stressful 30 days.

I don’t announce to the world that I’m going to write a novel, in the hope that failing would be so embarrassing and shameful that I’m compelled to do the thing.

I don’t play any of the games with spelling and punctuation (dirty tricks) that are meant to add words to the count, regardless of whether they add anything meaningful. I just write.

I don’t outline, but I’m far from being a pantser. Some years, as this one, I have five or more years of thinking about and planning for a novel.

I don’t give myself rewards as motivation for keeping on. Steady progress is reward enough, though unexpected breakthroughs are a special reward, unsought and unplanned for — intrinsic to the work, not a form of self-bribery.

I don’t write every day, having planned for necessary breaks by amassing a high word count right at the start.

I don’t have a daily schedule. I write in spurts, when I have the energy, when something else isn’t taking my time and attention, and when a particularly good idea strikes.

Above all, I do edit. I correct typos as I go, and almost always look back to the previous day’s work to see what more needs to be done. I sometimes make changes that mean losing words, but more usually add them, since my first drafts are very bare bones and always need further development.

My focus is my novel, not what other people are doing, what’s the right or wrong way to go about it, or external approval or motivation. Either the book is worth writing or it isn’t. If it is, nothing else matters.

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.



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.

Nudge, Poke, and a Swift Kick

There’s writer’s block, and there’s just… there’s no word for it. It’s about much more than not being able to write. It’s about not even caring that I can’t write — or do much of anything beyond the basics of everyday living. And this has been going on for weeks, with no end in sight. There are any number of equally possible — and rational — reasons, but none that offer a way out.

I can’t help but notice the number of articles on the effect of Trump’s presidency on the country’s mental health. That’s kind of easy to pooh pooh, at first. Until I realize how much of my mental paralysis is focused on the sense that a deadly shoe is waiting to drop, and that all other issues, including those that really aren’t trivial, appear to be so trivial as to either fade away or become the fodder for a kind of hysterical attention-suck in the media. We are living in a world where the terrible costs of human trafficking, political corruption, attacks on free speech, attacks on women, people of color, people of alternate sexualities, etc., etc., seem of little importance when placed in a larger context, a context that can render them all completely irrelevant.

It isn’t just Americans who have to live daily with knowing that one out-of-control man has the power to render every humanistic concern secondary to sheer survival. Suddenly, my regret that my age will keep me from seeing how the next few decades of the future play out is replaced by the very real possibility of future horrors that I don’t want to see.

This isn’t the only thing that’s keeping me in a state of mental and emotional paralysis, but the rest is personal and private. I haven’t given up trying to break through that paralysis, even if, as usual, most methods don’t work. So it’s an act of desperation that I signed up for NaNoWriMo again. The notes for A Well-Educated Boy keep piling up, and the story haunts me, but nothing is happening. Maybe NaNo will be the swift kick that breaks everything loose, or maybe nothing will continue to happen.But at least I’m going to give it a try.

The World We Don’t See

The world we don’t see is the one that we are most deeply embedded in — the everyday world around us. An article about the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro highlighted something that will be an ongoing concern for me, in writing A Well-Educated Boy — the initial obliviousness of the central character to the truths of his existence, and his gradual recognition of them.

“He (Ishiguro) can describe things about our world that nobody else can. In Never Let Me Go, that thing, I think, is the crushing weight of circumstance on our lives. The place in space, history, and social hierarchy that we occupy is an accident of birth and a cage, Ishiguro shows—one that our humanity resists.”

I’m reminded of my own growing up in the deep south, in a large metropolitan area that, even in the 1950s, remained trapped in the racially divided 19th century. It wasn’t until many years after I had graduated that it even came to my consciousness that my high school of over 900 students didn’t have a single black student. That I had never had black school mates at any time, from 1st grade on.

Luckily for me, my parents were transplanted, educated, politically liberal northerners, not native southerners. So I grew up free any specific prejudices, along with my total ignorance.

Harte Simmons is  just as ignorant and naive, life in his idyllic little town protecting him from the problems and the growing violence of the rest of the world. I’m still working out how to make his life very ordinary and at the same time, drop hints, or foreshadow, the slow development of his awareness that something is very wrong in Burgundy. The “man behind the curtain” is not a dictator. There is no power-hungry madman lurking behind the scenes. Nevertheless, Burgundy is a kind of dystopia that will probably never be recognized as such by the vast majority of its inhabitants.

Fairly soon, I’m going to have to reread Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go because my very impatience (and boredom) with its description of the school and the lives of its students, when I read it years ago, may be the clue I need to how to accomplish my goals.

On Not Publishing a Finished Novel

Now that A Perfect Slave no longer exists, except, unavoidably, in the Time Machine on my backup drive, I find myself thinking about its history, from original vague idea to its completion and the decision not to publish it. Why did I write it? Had I originally planned to publish it, and if I did, why did I change my mind?

I did always plan to publish it, up until the first time I trashed it, but publication was only one of the reasons I wrote it. In the back of my mind there was the knowledge that people who’d read and enjoyed the two Boundaries novels very likely would want to delve deeper in the world of Carhagen’s hand slaves. But delving deeper became kind of an obsession for me, for my own reasons. Where the central character of the Boundaries novels was an adult kidnapped from his own country and forced into slavery, the central character in Perfect Slave started as a child of free citizens, taken into the system when his parents were enslaved for debt, and trained for three years as a hand slave.

What I wanted to explore was the psychology involved in turning a child into a slave. What kind of adult would such a child become? The first version wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t really satisfied with it. Rather than revise it, I decided to regard it as a kind of craft practice piece. The version I wound up with after raising it from the dead, doing some revisions, and expanding it by about 5,000 words was quite respectable. Maybe it still wasn’t as good as it might potentially might have been, but enough was enough, in terms of the time invested in it.

The main reason I decided that even this new version wouldn’t see the light of day was that my slave-fantasy writing was in danger of overshadowing whatever else I might manage to write in the time left to me. Three slave-fantasy novels, plus a short story. In pursuit of a better balance, I also took the short story, Within the Silence, down from Amazon and Smashwords, so I’m left with the two Boundaries novels and not very much else at the moment.

I still have some slavery plots that I’d like to work out fully if I can ever find the time, but they are more science fiction than fantasy — possible futures in which slavery has, in one form or another, surfaced as an area of social and economic concern in the United States.

And A Perfect Slave? Do I regret destroying all that work? In a way, yes. I’ve invested a great deal in the hand slaves universe, aside from the time and energy I put into it. I could easily write several more novels and short stories within that universe. In fact, I had a couple more started. But I don’t consider the time spent on it wasted — at all. With every novel I write, I try to learn more about the craft of writing, and use that to create more believable characters and settings. I think I did that with A Perfect Slave. The final draft was significantly better than the original one, so I accomplished something that’s very important to me: becoming a better writer. Balancing the pros and cons, I’d say that made it worth the effort.