All That Stuff in the Middle

Penitents is going slowly as it should at this point, but is also making great progress. What it’s needed has finally been found — an antagonist — an ex-convict with a guilty conscience. Even a story based on character rather than action needs tension, and without an antagonist of some kind, there is no tension. There’s a real thrill in solving this kind of problem, especially when the addition of a new character wasn’t intended to solve that particular problem. It’s a light bulb moment.

That thrill is actually a problem of its own. I love this developmental period and its discoveries, much more than the writing itself. Writers tend to complain about “all that stuff in the middle” being the hard part. For me, it would be more accurate to say it’s all the stuff between the high points of discoveries.

I’m a fanatic about using the right words, so if there’s any area where I’m more of a perfectionist than is good for me, that’s it. Lately, finding those words means more dependence on my thesaurus than I’m happy with. It isn’t a matter of not knowing the right words; it’s a matter of recall. That’s always been a problem for me. I might not be able to call up the answer on my own, but I’ll recognize it when I see it. Whether it’s advancing old age or the cognitive effects of one or more of the meds I have to take, I wind up plugging the almost-right word into the thesaurus and hoping that I’ll recognize the word I’m looking for.

Now that I think about it, my personal style, if I even have one, seems less creative than the discovery process of constructing the story. That probably has a lot to do with why I have so many stories developed to the point where they’re ready to be written, but instead languish, untouched. Penitents is almost to that point.

Penitents Progress Report

This is an expansion of the latest (today) journal entry for Penitents. It’s coming along, even though I still have no idea whether I’ll actually write it. Or anything else.

The notes and questions are accumulating, and I’ve even scribbled some text fragments. I have a much better idea of my central character, some secondary characters, a sense of where this story might go.

The character—Grayson— is still central, but I haven’t had much of a sense of what his world is like—until just now. It’s the same world that Camp Expendable is set in. Maybe even the same as A Well-Educated Boy. Though Well-Ed is probably set somewhat earlier, before the country is in near-total collapse.

So it might be interesting to find ways in which to link the stories, showing that they’re all outcomes of an ongoing process of social, economic, and environmental fragmentation and decay. Part of that would be setting actual dates for the action of each story so that (assuming I write them all–hah hah) they can be read in chronological order. Maybe giving characters from one story small roles in another, though that’s probably too much of a stretch.

Still a major concern is my reluctance to start a large project. If I’m going to write it at all, I want to keep it to novella length, and that’s looking less and less possible. Each new character adds complications and length if they’re to be more than cardboard cutouts.

Here’s a bit that’s more or less the way I want it. Grayson is trying to explain to Lydia why he wants to do a one-week guest retreat with the brotherhood.

“What have you ever done that you need to do penance for? You’re just an ordinary person, like the rest of us. You’re not doing any of the horrible things that messed up the world.”

He opened his mouth to answer and knew that if he didn’t pay attention, he would stumble over his tongue as he usually did when Lydia put him on the spot. It was too much: get the words out properly and make sure they’re words that say what he meant to say. “It isn’t me, Lydia.” He stopped. Not him. That would make it even crazier in her eyes, wouldn’t it? “Okay, it is, a little bit, just because I’m living — eating, eliminating, using up resources…”

“So am I,” she broke in. “So I’m guilty too? Do you want me to share your poverty to make up for… Oh, I don’t know. Whatever.” She waved her hands in angry frustration.

“It’s a brotherhood. They don’t take women.” The second the last word was out of his mouth, he knew it was absolutely the wrong thing to say. He’d jumped off the track–again.

“I don’t care about that! It isn’t the point, Gray.” She sprang up from the couch, banging her shin on the coffee table. “Do whatever you want. I’m not going to argue with you about it. If we’re lucky, you’ll realize it’s just another one of your obsessions and it will burn out by the time you get back. So go! Sleep on the ground naked and eat grass, or whatever it is they do to demonstrate how we should all be living to make up for… for being alive, for heaven’s sake!”

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.

 

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?

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.

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.

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 — Random Thoughts

9/5/12 — That’s when I created the Scrivener project for A Well-Educated Boy. Five years ago. It probably started as little more than a bare bones idea, and it isn’t atypical for how long I can work on a project. In August of last year, I was apparently considering devoting November to actually writing it, during NaNoWriMo . It didn’t happen, and even now, though I have tons of notes and a very good idea of how it will turn out, I’ve written only a few thousand words of possible text.

As is usual with me, now that I’m stepping into the deep waters, I’m already thinking ahead to promotion. Several years ago, I posted segments of a novel on Wattpad for a while, but found that the effort of attracting attention was just too time-consuming. Quite a few people say that there is good writing on Wattpad, but finding it is a frustrating exercise in skimming hundreds of pathetic attempts at creativity. So, making yourself known by commenting and rating can be an exercise in futility.

And yet — I still, now and then, give some thought to trying it again. The young adult audience is built in, and a recent commenter on a writer forum said that there is a significant audience on Wattpad for dystopian/post-apocalypse fiction. Boy isn’t post-apocalypse, and its dystopian elements aren’t as exciting as stories like The Hunger Games or Divergence. It isn’t an action novel, and unlike Hunger Games and Divergence, it isn’t more fantasy than science fiction. So is there an audience for a young adult/dystopian novel that is more thoughtful than action-oriented? I have plenty of time to think about it, so I’m not inclined to say yay or nay right now.

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.

 

August 20 — Weekend Notes

Currently reading Echopraxia by Peter Watts. It’s the second of what may or may not be a series, the first of which was Blindsight. Watts isn’t easy reading, even if you’re a hard-core SF fan. But, plowing my way through the first few pages of Echopraxia yesterday, he hooked me with his sheer mastery of language even when I had no idea what he was talking about. The problem with Watts, is that he clearly expects his readers to be capable of serious thought. If you aren’t, then hard science that includes a future version of vampires and zombies is going to be a bit difficult to swallow.

I had planned to reread Blindsight before starting Echopraxia, but alas, I discovered that it was apparently one of the books I left behind when I had to vacate my old apartment. The losses from that epic event continue to show up now and then.

I’m contemplating a new approach to publishing a book on my blog. As I’ve mentioned before, Hidden Boundaries and Crossing Boundaries were both serialized, as I wrote them, on my Live Journal blog. That was a successful experiment, but for many reasons, not one that I want to repeat.

What I would like to do instead, with A Well-Educated Boy, is use it as a demonstration. I’ve written a little bit about it here already, with reference to structuring the novel. In response, Alicia wrote a blog post about how she uses structure. A lot of that is documented on her blog, but she’s been working on her novel for several years, so I doubt she started blogging about it right at the beginning, which is what I would like to do.

I don’t know how many readers would be interested in following the process from beginning to end, but I consider it a worthwhile project for my own edification. I’ve looked back at several of my novels and wished that I had some record of how they came about, and developed.

For those who aren’t interested in going into depth in the creation of a novel, have no fear. There will still be plenty of my weird thinking about whatever strikes my fancy.

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.