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.

“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.

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.

 

 

Trauma and Creativity: Off the Beaten Path

The last couple of months have been a no-writing zone, and the medical issues responsible probably aren’t going away anytime soon. The devil’s brew of meds I’m taking probably has something to do with what I perceive as a cognitive decline. Not anything so serious that I can’t function more or less normally, but certainly getting in the way of sustained work on writing projects. I’ve also come to see this non-productive period as similar to the one I went through after the apartment building fire and having to start my life over. Call it trauma, or even a mild form of PTSD. It’s a psychological shock to the system, and it’s bound to have effects on intellectual function. But what I learned last time is that it doesn’t last forever. Even the destruction of the belief in a healthy old age has to be accepted, and adapted to. Unless I want to take on the role of victim.

In spite of the cognitive decline, which includes a loss of focus for sustained work, creative insights keep coming. Since my novels tend to take at least a couple of years for development and completion, the current slowdown doesn’t seem terribly significant. What is significant is that the bursts of creativity are based, as they always have been, on input from my reading, both fiction and nonfiction, including current news. When I can’t write, I read, as always, and probably more obsessively. And there is no way to anticipate what will trigger sudden insights into an ongoing piece of work.

A Well-Educated Boy isn’t the WIP I’m currently working on (or trying to work on), but it’s the one that’s developing most actively in terms of plot and characterization. One of the interesting things that happens when a novel develops over a long period of time is that it can change significantly from my original concept. In the case of Well-Educated Boy, the emphasis has been shifting from Hart’s discovery of what lies behind the peaceful facade of his hometown, to the psychological changes he goes through over the course of the novel. The strong influence here comes from several novels that portray, to one extent or another, the development of the central character from childhood to maturity.

Both as a fictional theme, and an aspect of real life that puzzles and intrigues me, the maturation process and the possibilities of future potential are an endless source of material for the creation of complex characters capable of surprising readers. Richard Herley’s The Earth Goddess was the first book to focus my attention on this theme, and is still central to how I think about my characters. That’s followed in importance by the Phoenix Legacy trilogy by M. K. Wren, and more recently by Lion’s Blood, an alternate history by Steven Barnes. What is important is the many different paths by which a character’s temperament and life might be formed, and how the one chosen or forced on them determines the shape of the fully formed adult.

In the case of Hart Simmons, his developmental arc ignores the usual young adult trope, in which our youngster overcomes a major negative force, such as an oppressive government, and becomes something of a hero. Instead, Hart has to acknowledge a power that is ubiquitous and fully capable of swatting him aside if he attempts to face it down. The question then is how he manages to live with that understanding without succumbing to hopelessness and acquiescence.

Well-Educated Boy is dystopian science fiction as well as young adult fiction, and this is another area where I want to ignore the usual themes in favor of something more complex and realistic. So Hart will experience two kinds of dystopias, the one in which he lives, as a citizen of a corporate-owned town, and the one taking place outside that cocoon, one not very different from our current reality in many ways. Compare and contrast.

A lot of this hasn’t been worked out yet, of course, so I’m prepared to be surprised.