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.

 

 

Getting Back to the Keyboard

Being too sick to write is a new experience for me, and one that’s been made even more difficult and unpleasant by dragging on for about six weeks. I’m far from well, still, but maybe improvement can be measured by the ability to at least think about writing. As always, when there’s been a hiatus, I have to go through the process of deciding exactly what I’m going to write. Which means which ongoing project am I going to pick up.

Normally, I have some internal reason for choosing one project over another, but now a new factor has come into play — money. As happens to many in this greatest of nations with the worst health care system in the world, one catastrophic illness means that I will spend the rest of my life deep in debt. I will never write the kind of book that could wipe that out, but I do have choices that are somewhat more likely to find readers than a couple I’ve been working on recently.

Gift of the Ancien and A Well-Educated Boy are far from commercial, but both have the potential to be tweaked a little way in that direction. Of the two, Gift is complete and has been through a certain amount of rewriting, so it’s the obvious choice. It would also be nice just to see it finished and published since it’s been in the works for several years.

I probably won’t be able to do a great deal of work each day, but it feels good to anticipate getting started. Onward and upward!

The Joy of Editing and Revision

The joy? I know the very idea of editing and revision being anything but agony will be a foreign concept to some of my readers. But. Yes, it can be agony, but it has such a vital part to play in turning ideas into a novel that the process sometimes seems like a kind of magic. NaNoWriMo and other little interruptions made it necessary to put Gift of the Ancien aside for longer than I really wanted to. But the time away has allowed the dust of forgetfulness to settle on the novel. Now that I’ve come back to it and blown the dust away, what I see is both flawed and slightly unfamiliar.

My big problem is that I pick at the little things needing correcting, and lose sight of the big picture. The big picture is what I’m looking at now, reading the novel from the first chapter to the very end, trying to keep that nit picky editor in its place. Gift is going to require the most massive and difficult process of revision I’ve had to face so far. In addition to the base story, I wrote a series of “interludes,” short pieces that read like short stories, and that were intended to serve as a kind of fictional backstory. That’s complicated enough, right. Fictional backstory for a novel.

Then I decided to continue the story into a slightly distant future, using part of what had originally been a stand-alone spinoff novel. The result could be, and was threatening to be, clutter. Massive clutter. So the revision process has been focused on how to draw all these wildly different parts together into a coherent whole.

An additional complication, thanks to a friend’s insightful critique,  has been moving the original central protagonist somewhat to the side, and ramping up the importance of others. It would be accurate to say that the original novel has turned into a gigantic mess. But it would not be accurate to say that I should just give up on it. Because, shining through the clutter and complications is the novel I hoped to write — exciting and original.

My way of going through the process of editing and revision isn’t one I’d advise anyone to imitate, but it works for me. I don’t create multiple drafts. Bad, bad, bad writer. Multiple drafts allow you to look back at where you started, and rescue parts that you initially thought should be discarded. Instead, I commit surgery and mayhem on the one and only original draft. I may save small chunks in a separate file for possible future use, but very rarely. The original draft rolls along, shedding detritus, picking up new material, slowly evolving into a brand-new creature.

I suppose that way of writing comes from a psychological quirk that prefers to leave the past in the past rather than dwelling on it. The idea of trying to find my way back through four or five drafts, or more, has a nightmarish quality that just makes me want to back away as quickly as possible. The horror! The horror! Not to mention the clutter.

So Gift of the Ancien is now under the gaze of the distant, objective god that created it. I highlight here and there, and make occasional notes in Scrivener’s floating notepad, but mainly, I’m just reading, getting back into the big picture. I never imagined that it would become such a huge picture.

Ready, Set, Go!

I finished NaNoWriMo on the 25th, with 52,600 words, and have started the complicated job of revising and editing. Since all those words have to be integrated with the original novel, there will be (already has been) much murdering of my darlings. Whole chapters have already disappeared, and other chapters are being combined in preparation for more blood-letting.

I was surprised that I could come up with an additional 50,000 words and even though I never want to do another NaNo this way, it was worth it. The challenge of writing brand new material and trying not to create new plot holes while filling in old ones was exciting, even while it was exhausting and frustrating. One of the side benefits of working on something that was written five years ago was seeing how much I’ve learned since then.

I hope to have all the pieces of the puzzle where they belong by the end of the month, and ready for more detailed editing. Also in the works is a major rewrite of New Serfdom, the novel I wrote in 2012; the completion of several partly written stories; and two nonfiction books.

Because all that isn’t enough to keep me busy (I still have time to eat and sleep!) I’m working on a proper author’s website that I hope will be ready for the public sometime in January. And I joined Kindle Write On. For anyone who’s familiar with Wattpad, it’s something like that site. More about that in a future post.

Once More Into the Breach

Or how to tell lies in public. It wasn’t meant to be a lie when I said I was done with NaNo for this year. I didn’t add to my word count for four days, even though I did do a little writing. I really felt that there were no more big chunks of text to be added, just little dribs and drabs that wouldn’t amount to much.

Maybe I just needed to chill for a while, because whatever was blocking my brain let go, and the ideas started flowing again. I really didn’t think it was possible, so today, at 41,600 words and the rest of the evening, plus seven more days ahead of me, it still seems pretty amazing. I think that’s why writers keep plodding along even when nothing seems to be happening. Because, eventually, something does happen, and it’s always an unexpected something. For me, that’s just as thrilling as winning the lottery would be for someone else.

Relevant to this is a question someone asked on the NaNo forum the other day. Whether it’s acceptable to write a story within a story. The simple answer is yes. When I began writing Gift of the Ancien (originally Gift of Blood) it was with the intention of including three or four “interludes,” which were essentially short stories about events that might have taken place before the events of the novel.

When I started planning for NaNo, I decided to place one of those at the end, as an epilogue, and integrate the rest in various ways. One was expanded and became the first chapter. Another became a short story written by one of the characters. The very last thing I would have expected was for another of those internal stories to show up, but that’s what happened.

They aren’t just random stories. They’re all fictional imaginings of what Ancien life might have been like at different times in history. The story that has become the epilogue is about the plague that started it all. Another is about an Ancien family’s tragedy in Renaissance Italy. The new one, which was inspired by a discussion between two of the novel’s characters, takes place in 19th century America, when a few Ancien families wanted to escape the wars of Europe. All these stories are a natural outcome of the novel and expand it in a way that info dumps or backstories could do, but only in a clumsy sort of way.

I still don’t know if there’s enough for me to reach 50,000 words, but what I got out of quitting for those four days makes that almost unimportant.

NaNo is Over – For Me

I finished up yesterday (the 17th), with 35,000 words. Now it’s on to the heavy lifting, the slicing and dicing that I hope will turn Gift of the Ancien into a successful novel. When I look over the chapters and snippets that I’ve written since November 1, I wonder why the novel I see now was invisible to me when I created it several years ago.

But having gone through the long process of thinking about it, reimagining it, and understanding my characters better, I realize that’s why good novels can take years to write. And that says a lot about the current generation of writers who are boasting about how many novels a year they are writing, and how many copies they’re selling.

It’s possible to write a decent novel in just a few weeks, one that keeps readers engaged, that doesn’t trip you up with poor grammar, and that might even have a style of its own. But I seriously question whether you can expect that novel to still be around in a couple of years. A visit to any well-stocked used-book store will impress you with the endless shelves of novels you’ve never heard of, by writers you’ve never heard of.

I know I’m a decent writer. I hope to become an excellent writer. I don’t expect to write anything that will become a classic, something that’s still being read generations from now. But it’s a worthy goal to strive for, so I don’t regret that it’s been five years since I wrote the first draft of Gift of the Ancien. It was a good idea then. It’s a better idea now.

 

When Revision Feeds on Itself

Preparing for this year’s NaNoWriMo has been an exciting experience, with some unexpected developments. Considering that I’ll be doing almost a total rewrite of a novel, I should have expected that. But hindsight is always clearer than foresight.

One of the major changes in the revamp of Gift of the Ancien is that I decided to end it by resuscitating a discarded novella that was originally meant to be a sequel. By “discarded” I mean trashed — no longer in existence. It might not have been terrible, but it went in a direction I was no longer interested in for my writing. But the idea persisted.

Gift of the Ancien, for those who haven’t read my older posts, is about a subspecies of humans that developed out of a mutating plague bacteria centuries ago. Every so often, a male child will turn out to be a throwback to the earlier form of the mutation, expressing itself in a three-times yearly need for blood. So the story touches on vampirism, but is very different.

What the novella did was take that story a few generations into the future. In getting ready to rewrite it, I realized I needed to ask a lot of questions that I hadn’t dealt with in Gift. You never know when inspiration is going to strike, and it struck late last night. The questions poured out, and the answers began to come. Questions about the throwbacks’ social structure, moral values, and relationship to both humans and the Ancien themselves.

I went to bed with all that spinning around in my head and woke up this morning with the realization that certain aspects of the novel would have to be changed and/or more fully developed in order to foreshadow what becomes, essentially, a new kind of American Ancien, very different from the one that originated in Europe, and that dominates Gift.

Only six days left to whip all the material into shape and bring it to fruition during November. Exciting, yes. And scary.

Never Say Never – Bringing A Novel Back From the Dead

Is it worth trying to rescue a bad novel? The argument can go either way; there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on the novel itself, and on the writer’s insights and abilities. When a critique of Gift of the Ancien showed me just how bad it was, I had a choice: throw it away and pretend it never existed, or put it away and hope that I might someday find a way to rescue it. I put it away, for two reasons. It’s an original take on the vampire theme, which has been written nearly to death with thousands of variations on the same old details. It’s a study of a population that’s superior to humans, but not strong enough to replace them or even survive if their existence is discovered.

Ancien has been waiting for almost exactly two years now, and it’s only in the last few months that I’ve found a way to resurrect it. It means an almost total rewrite, with most of it being brand-new material. Right now, it looks as if very little of the original will survive, but the original idea still glows brightly in my mind.

In fact, it’s glowing so brightly that when October rolled around and talk about National Novel Writing Month popped up on several sites, I had to rethink my belief that I have no more use for the annual event. I pulled out very early last year, and an experiment with doing some writing during the July Camp Nano didn’t work out, so it was goodbye NaNoWriMo, it was great while it lasted, but now it was time to break up.

It just proves you should never say “never.” So it’s back to NaNo because I want to get this thing done while inspiration is red-hot, and NaNo is the container that keeps it from running away and getting lost, and also the breeze that keeps fanning the flames.

The new version isn’t going to look very much like the old one, but I think it might possibly do what I originally intended — knock readers’ socks off.

 

 

Setting a Doable Course for 2013

It isn’t as if I haven’t tried to do this before, but it seems to be one of those things that keeps shifting under me. Staying organized, meeting goals — there must be a gene for that, and I was born without it. But I keep trying. If there’s one thing that I keep relearning is that I have to be realistic about how many writing projects I can handle at one time. That’s why I start so many that I have to drop, even though I’d really like to keep them going. You can count all the blogs I’ve started and deleted among the victims. And online writing, which is another whole story.

In the name of sanity, I’ve decided that the most major projects I can handle at one time is two — one fiction, one nonfiction. The rest can be broken down into “Secondary” and “Sporadic.”

Here’s what that looks like at the moment. Always subject to change, of course.

Priority
Perfect Slave – final editing, proofing
Maverick Writer – gathering, categorizing, editing, expanding blog posts.

Secondary
Gift of the Ancien (novel) – major rewrite
The Warden (novel) – revision
New Serfdom (novel) – revision
Disposable (novella?) – writing
A Well-Educated Boy (short story) – writing

Sporadic
Empire of Masks (novel)
Breaking New Ground (novella, continues Boundaries)
short stories
essays

As soon Perfect Slave is published, I’ll move another novel up to priority. That will probably be Gift of the Ancien. It’s been around the longest, and an excellent critique straightened me out on what it needed. I’ve already shifted some material around, and determined what needs to be cut, and what needs to be added. Unless I run into problems, it should be ready for publication by early Fall.

If I can publish two novels and two short stories, that will be a good year’s work. If I can manage more, it will be a miracle.

 

Back on the Shelf

Gift of the Ancien just got the critique it needed, and it’s not ready for prime time. So I’m just as glad that I burned out and stopped editing it. The whole structure needs to be torn down and rebuilt, and that will mean rewriting most of the characters. You might think this is a big downer, but I’m very happy about it. There were things I wasn’t happy with and I sensed that there were other problems. But it took a very insightful person to lay them all out clearly. I’d credit her here, but she might not want to be identified.

I’ll continue working on The Warden until NaNo rolls around, and Ancien will just percolate in the back of my mind for however long it takes. Could be months more, or it might suddenly all come clear. One of the joys of writing — surprises.

Why it’s a Miracle that I Ever Finish Anything

I’m halfway through the final edit of Gift of the Ancien and have been opening it every day for a week or more, and closing it again without even looking at it. It’s time to face reality. I can’t stand the sight of that book right now, and there’s no point driving myself crazy with it. So it’s back to The Warden for a while.

I’ve done four chapters so far today, and even though I don’t expect to finish this draft before November rolls around, it feels good to be working on it again. Enough time has elapsed since I last tackled it, that I have a much clearer vision of what changes need to be made and how to write the ending. Getting far, far away for a while really does make a huge difference.

As usual, a lot of what it needs is fleshing out, more detail, and replacing words that just lie there on the page with words that actually do something. “Looks” gives way to “glares,” “gazes,” “stares,” or whatever will help convey a relevant emotion. Maybe it’s just old age creeping up, but sometimes I feel as if my vocabulary is deteriorating. The thesaurus is my helping hand. Not to find five-dollar words, but to remind me of alternates that my memory can’t seem to dredge up.

39 days more and I’ll have one more WIP to add to the pile.

Breakthrough, Ancien Excerpt, NaNo Posts

Finally, the breakthrough I’ve been waiting for — the heart of Gift of the Ancien. I’m not going to discuss it today because it’s material for another post in the developmental series. That isn’t meant to be a tease; I’m just very happy about it because without the heart, or the overriding theme, the book has no real focus, and that’s been a big worry for me. It’s another big step forward.

I’ve posted another excerpt from Gift of the Ancien, probably the last one. Available, along with the previous excerpts under the link at the top of every page.

For anyone considering joining National Novel Writing Month, or looking for hints and helps about getting through the month with your health and sanity intact, click on Categories in the side bar, for links to several dozen posts.