Smashwords Summer Sale — Progress on “Boy”

Just for the heck of it, I’m adding my books to Smashword’s summer sale. So, for the rest of July:

Darkest Prison  .99

Camp Expendable  2.99

Hidden Boundaries 2.99

Crossing Boundaries 2.99

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A big part of what’s been hanging me up with A Well-Educated Boy is trying to decide whether it’s to be first-person or third. I’ve tried the beginning and some fragments both ways, but neither felt right. I’ve been through this before and don’t want to go through the agony again, of writing several thousand words and then having to go through the entire thing and change the focus.

The solution, which finally feels exactly right, is to open every chapter with Harte’s first-person perspective and then switch to third. Also, I’m going to be naming the chapters — a first, for me.

It can be really frustrating to look back and see that I began work on a novel years before, in this case, six years ago, and still haven’t written more than a few fragments. What I’ve found, though, is that the huge gaps between work periods can sometimes generate ideas I might not have thought of if I’d given it less time. So the book I’m working on today is much richer and deeper than the one I conceived of six years ago.

Harte’s parents play a larger role and come through as individuals. The differences between Harte’s life in Burgundy and his cousin Steve’s life in the “regular” world change in ways that make both boys less envious of the other.

 

Still Rolling the Boulder Uphill

In passing: Is anyone still waiting for Trump to become more “presidential?”

Running through the last few months of frustration about not being able to write is a thread that says maybe I just don’t want to write fiction anymore. Or at least not novels. But I don’t want to write straight nonfiction, either. And that isn’t helping me get unstuck with Set Me Free, about capital punishment.

So, the idea of “autofiction” in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/23/drawn-from-life-why-have-novelists-stopped-making-things-up intrigues me. Not that I want to write an autobiography or memoir, even mixed in with and disguised as fiction. (Though I was actually playing with the idea briefly before I even saw this article.)

Writers are playing and experimenting with the forms of fiction; modern journalistic reporting has changed in many ways (In Cold Blood being an early example.) Why shouldn’t it be possible to do the same with nonfiction?

In conceptualizing Set Me Free, I had decided that quotes from prisoners on death row wouldn’t be just an occasional interjection. Instead, they would be part of the structure, regularly strengthening the impact of factual information with the lived experience of being on death row and how it feels. But why not go further? Why not incorporate fiction, as well? “Waiting For the Needle,” a short story that is more or less finished, could be divided into three or four “chapters” and spread out through the book. Maybe I could even organize the book around it.

I’ll be giving that some serious thought. It’s possible that I may have to revise the story so that it aligns with my plans for the book, but at this point, revision of short works is something I can actually handle.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

I’m bound to run out of ways to get back into writing, and I may have nearly reached that point. But once more into the breach, friends.

Morning pages lasted two days, and then I forgot I even had a brand-new notebook to fill. One and a half pages the first day. One and a quarter pages the second day. But my attempt, abortive as it was, to submerge myself in stream of consciousness writing, did get me to thinking. Maybe somewhat productively. We’ll see.

I know very well that one of my major faults in writing — maybe the major fault — is obsessive perfectionism. I was reminded of it again the other day, reading Pretending to Be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome, by Liane Holliday Willey. She says of her own writing: that she spends “far too much time selecting which word to use and too much time reworking a sentence so that it looks and feels and sounds right.” She’s a more visual person than I am, so I’m not concerned with how a sentence looks. But it has to sound right in every way. It has to say exactly what I mean it to say, so the reader isn’t dragged out of the story by having to figure out what it means. There’s a place for ambiguity, but not at the word or sentence level. The sentence also has to have a natural flow that doesn’t trip the reader up. If I stumble over it, then the reader is sure to.

For me, perfectionism is a necessity — up to a point. But when it becomes a stumbling block, I’ve gone beyond that point. That’s what came through to me from the two days of morning pages. The free-flowing stream of consciousness doesn’t have to be limited to morning pages. What if I could use it, consciously, in a writing project? It’s tempting to say that’s what I actually did during several years worth of NaNos, but it wasn’t really. All I did for those frantic thirty-day periods was to try to catch myself when I was obsessing about a word or the structure of a sentence.

What I’m trying out now is quite different, thanks to the failed morning pages and Liane Holliday Willey. I’m applying it to A Well-Educated Boy, and will see how far I can get in a novel that’s been stuck right at the start. It’s only been one day, and I wrote only 167 words, but those 167 words look like the key to what comes next. Over the last year or so I’ve made something like a half-dozen starts that didn’t lead anywhere. Suddenly, I know the time and place for the next scene, and why it happens the way it does. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of just 167 words. Right now, it looks as if they’re strong enough to bear it.

Do It Wrong or Don’t Do It.

Whatever the actual cause (or causes) of my inability to work on writing projects for the last year, it’s come down to this: all standard efforts to break through the obstacle have failed. Articles that are intended to help get past writer’s block are mostly irrelevant to what’s going on in my head.

I’ve come up with two possible ways of attacking the problem, to be tried simultaneously rather than one at a time. There’s a possibility that breaking out of the linear, one-at-a-time methods may allow for synergistic effects. One is to take up morning pages again, after many, many years away. The other is more drastic than I think most writers would be willing to give a try.

I won’t say anything about morning pages here because I imagine just about every writer has read about them at one time or another, if not actually tried them. They worked for me, and I don’t know why I quit doing them. Maybe I felt I’d gotten all I could out of them at the time.

The drastic approach is acknowledging that I can’t set priorities and devote myself to just one project, when three or four are constantly spinning through my brain and demanding my attention. Lately, I’ve been working through different ways of setting priorities, and all I’ve achieved is paralysis. I’ve been faithfully making notes for each project, as I’ve done for years, without considering that it’s okay to go beyond just notes and a few scraps of dialogue or lines of a scene. I’ve tied my writing to the rules of everyday life, even though I’m chronically unable to follow those very well. If I can’t keep my daily life up to the standard that requires starting a job and finishing it before starting another, why have I been trying to force that linear way of working on my writing?

Yes, there was a time when I was able to start a novel and work on it until it was finished, but that was usually with the help of NaNoWriMo, which gave me a goal and a deadline. But NaNo hasn’t worked for the last two years, which should have been a warning that something was going wrong, and that I needed to figure out what that was.

The most obvious drawback to skipping randomly between three or four projects is the length of time that it will take to finish any one of them. When you hit your 80s, that’s an important consideration. Poor health makes it even more important. But what it seems to have come down to is either write in this fragmentary way and hope I still have time to finish something, or don’t write at all.

A Possible Break on the Writing Front?

It seems that most people have to make a real effort to read books, mostly for lack of time. I have to make a real effort to stop reading. There’s always another book — or several dozen — waiting to be read, and it’s the one thing I can do when I can’t do much of anything else. It isn’t an addiction; I don’t have withdrawal symptoms when the reading bug slows down or stops, and I don’t always have to make a real effort. If I’m well into writing, the reading can wait. Or I can ration it out and fit it in around current occupations.

I’ve come to the slow realization that there are really only two things I care about to any great extent: reading and writing. If I can’t write, I read, and if I can’t read, I’m in trouble. I know I’m in trouble when I spend almost an entire day on the internet, and accomplish nothing at all in the real world. So, this way too-long stretch of not being able to write is taking its toll. On a practical level, I can’t read all day every day, indefinitely. My eyes won’t take it, and my ability to pay attention and absorb what I’m reading flags.

I want to write; I need to write. But, as I’ve whined about more than once, long projects — like novels — look like boulders that I’ll never be strong enough to push uphill. I have neither the strength or the persistence of Sisyphus.

But a lightbulb went off over my head yesterday. What if my worst trait as a writer could be turned into a way to get moving again? My usual pattern is to work on a piece until I get bored, burned out, or distracted. I drop it and go on to another one. I don’t even want to think about the huge number of WIPs lying around in various stages of development. For several years, NaNoWriMo kept me sharp and focused for one month out of the year, but for the last two years, that ploy failed. Camp Expendable was the last book I managed to complete and publish. That was January of last year, and that’s when my health started to take a major plunge.

I don’t have any doubt at all that dealing with bad health, a medical system I had avoided my entire life, and the various side effects of the meds I started taking, were a causative factor. Maybe the only factor. Be that as it may, I still want, and need, to write. I’m down to the wire. I have to make something happen.

For the first time, I see my grasshopper hop, skip, jump method of writing as something that might be transformed into something useful. Instead of fighting it, corral it. Choose three or four, preferably three, WIPs that I care most about, and let them be the grasshopper’s playground. I’d still hop, skip, and jump, but only between those three. I wouldn’t commit myself to any specific number of words or any other goal. Just work however much I can on one WIP, then jump to whichever of the other two seems most attractive at the time. I’ve always looked at this as a way to never complete anything. Now I’m looking at it as possibly the only way to complete anything. Maybe I won’t be able to finish any of them. Maybe I’ll be able to finish all of them — or one, or two. If this works, I’m still a writer. There doesn’t have to be an end goal.

 

A Concept Without a Plot

I hadn’t planned to post today, but I thought it might be interesting to meander about a story that’s set up active housekeeping in my head, even though it should be way, way down on my list of priorities. Because I have a protagonist, a concept, and a couple of possible themes, but no plot. No, none at all. This isn’t the first time I’ve started working on a possible story without any clue about the plot. It isn’t the best way to work, but that’s never inspired me to change. Either the story will work itself out or it won’t.

“I will devote my life to penance for all humankind.” Or something along that line. Grayson Browning is giving considerable thought to joining a secular monastic order — The Penitents. His girl friend (or fiancée) is outraged. If he wants to help people, there are plenty of ways to do it. Giving up his entire life and becoming a celibate vowed to poverty is just crazy.

The time is probably near the end of the 21st century. The central government is either non-existent or powerless. The country is fractured (by what?), with much of it reverting to a comparatively primitive state. Post-apocalyptic, more or less.

The big question is where I want to put the emphasis — the state of the world? Or Grayson’s place in it, and why he would want to become a penitent? I don’t have much interest in world building, but that isn’t the only reason for not wanting to go into great detail about the time and the place. For one, my own time and energy are running out, and the prospect of jumping into a really big project is just too daunting. Some of those I currently have on hold may never be finished for that reason. They’re too big. Second, and maybe most important, is that I’m much more interested in people than places. I want to know what makes Grayson tick, and that means I’m willing to let the world around him function as a shadowy framework.

I’m also interested in exploring how and why what is essentially a social welfare organization came to model itself on a defunct religion.

How much of a plot do I really need? An interesting question. Maybe the answer lies with Grayson himself.

 

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.

OmniOutliner to the Rescue

Now that I’m down to the last chapter of A Perfect Slave, I’m switching some of my synapses over to A Well-Educated Boy. It’s taken forever to decide what point of view I want to use, and have finally settled on first person. The other big question mark was about where to start the darned thing. For better or worse, I’ll be using a lot of flashbacks, in order to start where the real action is, but most of them will be very short, some as short as a single sentence.

And I just had a flash. One effect of the flashbacks is to show that Harte is obsessed with the past, especially about his dead friend, Zack. I hadn’t thought of him as being obsessed, but now I can see that it’s an important part of his personality and influences how he sees the world around him. Yes, even after five years of working with this project, I’m still learning about the central character.

It’s very possible that this will be my first novel that’s developed from a full-scale outline. I don’t normally do outlines because my stories are usually straight chronologies and I can allow them to grow organically. Boy is a different kind of beast. Not only will there be many, many flashbacks, but the story will move from the main events to where Harte is, geographically and psychologically, after the main events.

I’m a little slow on the uptake, but I did finally realize that I’m not going to be able to pull together a coherent story from a vague idea of what happens when. So I pulled out my ancient copy of OmniOutliner, hoping that it still works after a multitude of Mac OS upgrades. And it does, by golly. I bought it in 2007, it’s been a few years since I used it, and I’d only used it for a variety of lists. Organizing a novel in it will be an entirely new experience. OmniOutliner has a notes feature that makes all the difference from using an old-fashioned outline. And of course, all modern outliners allow you to shift things around easily, which is probably going to happen a lot, but being able to insert notes is pretty crucial.

One reason I’ve been putting off serious work on Boy is its complexity and the potential for a lot of frustration in pulling everything together. Maybe, using the outliner, it won’t be the problem it was shaping up to be.

A Well-Educated Boy — What’s it About?

The first step in documenting the development and creation of a novel: Tell the readers what it’s about, and how I envision it.

Boy is both a YA and a coming-of-age novel, but mainly it’s about dystopias — two of them, existing at the same time. Harte Simmons was born and grew up in one of them, a small town that, on the surface, is almost a utopia. Burgundy is crime-free, its schools are excellent, and all the adults are employed. It’s also a little unusual, in that it’s what was once called a “company town.” Burgundy is privately owned by a large corporation.

Steven Simmons, Harte’s cousin, lives in a suburb of a typical urban center. He’s a year older than Harte. The two families take turns visiting during summer vacations and holidays. Both boys have had reasons to be envious of the other’s life, but gradually they become less naive and less envious. Each town, in its own way is a dystopia, though they’re very different from each other.

This is Harte’s story, told after he’s graduated from high school and left Burgundy. He was a typical, privileged, alienated teen, certainly not a hero, but in his last two years of high school, he lost his best friend to suicide, was forcibly enrolled in an alternative school run by the corporation, and began to understand how the world works.

He lives just a few decades down the block from us. There are no aliens, no major catastrophes (this is not a post-apocalyptic novel), no world-spanning evil overlords of any kind. The technologies in use either exist right now or are in development. It’s a world that doesn’t look terribly different from our own. And that’s the central problem I have to work out. How do I show that a world that looks so much like ours is an ominous warning of the world we’re already becoming? That’s what I’ll discuss next time.

 

The Three-Act Structure? Oh. Finally Got It

I have a bad, lifelong, habit of automatically rejecting anything that I can’t understand immediately without having to work at comprehension. Very bad habit. Whatever it is that doesn’t ring immediate bells has to look as if it might be very, very interesting, or unpleasantly necessary, for me to take a second and even a third look.

So the subject of structure in fiction keeps coming up, and I keep trying to figure out why I should bother trying to understand it when structure seems to come to me pretty naturally. That might be my ego talking, of course, but everything I read about structure and the debates over how many acts a book should have, and why the three-act structure is the most natural, seem terribly abstract and unrelated to the reality of getting a story put together.

But in the midst of pondering the development of A Well-Educated Boy the other day, it hit me. Boy quite naturally and all too obviously, uses the three-act structure. So two things happened. First, I was sort of confirmed in my belief that I tend to find the appropriate structures for my books without having to give it much thought. Second, I could see how being consciously aware of the structure might be helpful as I develop the story.

Going beyond Boy as I thought about this new perspective on structure, my mind jumped to a novel I started on NaNoWriMo many eons ago and never finished. I would like very much to finish it, and I’ve struggled with it off and on over the past few years, only to end up frustrated. The problem has always been how to structure it, and intuition has failed me with this one. It has two protagonists whose stories converge and separate several times. How the heck do I tell two separate stories in the same book? I know it can be done because I’ve read book where it’s been done very well. So that’s something I’m going to have to look into in some depth. I’m not going to let myself get off-track to pursue it right now, but I can now see that a serious examination of structure might help me finish the darn thing — someday.

On another note, I plan to post another chapter of A Perfect Slave this week — maybe tomorrow.

Battle of the WIPs

A Perfect Slave isn’t really a WIP since it’s complete, but needing some final editing. I’m halfway through that, but I should be just about done by now, almost ready to publish. It looks as if it isn’t going to happen. Why? Because A Well-Educated Boy has taken possession of my mind and won’t let go.

I always spend a lot of time in preparation before I start writing, but what’s going on right now is sheer obsession, or something very close to it. Over the more than a year since Boy made its appearance as a bare-bones idea, it has morphed and grown into something far from the original, rather simplistic, concept. It’s become far more complex, and it owes some of that complexity to questions that several essayists have proposed lately.

It seems that I’m not alone in thinking that science fiction needs to pull its attention from battles that are distant both in time and place, and consider where we are now and where we are possibly going in the near future. I’m far more interested in dystopias than in apocalypse, but the majority of dystopias in current science fiction are written as if they happened more or less suddenly, and as if the entire world (or nation) is in a monolithic state against which the heroes (usually teens) must battle.

That kind of dystopia is, to put it bluntly, a fantasy. Even if we accept that certain trends may converge from many points, as in the world-wide increase in bigotry and fear about the other: people of color, refugees, gender nonconformists, etc., that they could converge into one monolithic, all-powerful government is so unlikely that its possibility approaches zero.

But those fears, taken advantage of by powers already in existence: corporations and the military, could certainly lead to localized dystopias of various kinds. Many dystopias can exist simultaneously, and function in very different way. A Well-Educated Boy will be about two of those possibilities, both of which are actually possible today, and some features of which are already in place.

We are all living in a period of serious upheaval and transition. Most of that is invisible to us because it is taking place over months and years, slowly enough that we become accustomed to what is going on and accept it as normal. For instance, in spite of increased flooding and endless warnings from scientists about sea level rise, some 60% of home owners in S. Florida are unaware of or unconcerned about it. It wouldn’t be that difficult to write a dystopia that focuses on coastal cities and the long-term effects of climate change on lives and property.

Writing this more realistic version of utopia is more difficult, though, when the protagonist is a high school student. How do I avoid turning him into some clichéd save-the-world teen hero? How do I show his gradual realization that there’s little or nothing he can do to change the world, even his limited, local world, without ending the book in a state of despair and hopelessness? What can I give him as motivation for not giving up in the face of overwhelming power?

Books like The Hunger Games and Divergent speak to young people’s need to matter in a world that has very little use for them except as consumers. But how can we expect them to be anything but consumers when heroism and rebellion are presented to them as impossible fantasies with no basis in the real world? What can we give them that will keep them from being consumed by the bigotry and violence currently showing its face in Virginia?

Publishing a fantasy about slavery just doesn’t seem important right now.

“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.