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.

Writing Fiction — Steps on an Unmarked Path

Still making notes for the story temporarily called Penitents. Two possible titles have popped up: A Perfect Act of Penitence and None Will be Forgiven. I always try to find the title before I’ve gone very far into the story’s development. So, either of these could be a major influence in where it goes. Until I’m well into the writing, even the smallest, most obscure fact or idea found in a book or elsewhere, can change everything. 

It really shouldn’t surprise me that this happened today. It’s the particular item that served as the trigger that is massively surprising, and the degree to which it will influence how the book develops. Start with the idea of a monastic but secular group that functions somewhat like an NGO service organization. It works out of an abandoned and partially destroyed monastery. The training is inspired by the defunct Church, while it remains purely secular.

So, today… The Passive Voice blog posted part of an article published on a site that probably none of us have ever heard of: The Jesuit Post. The article, if you’re interested, is: Harry Potter and the Prisoner

I’m slowly building the biographies of the characters, so my little journey into The Jesuit Post struck lightning. The head of the penitents’ group turns out to be a former Jesuit who left the church! I’d already started doing research into the Jesuit order in order to adapt some of the practices for my group, so I was primed, it seems. And I could hardly ignore the influence of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which I’ve read three times. Jesuits, Jesuits, everywhere.

Here’s the kicker though. I’m a lifelong atheist. Not one of the majority who have “turned away from God.” There was very little religious influence in my early life, which meant I was left to figure it all out for myself. I did figure it out, and to this day, I honestly don’t understand the mentality that allows one to believe in the existence of a god or gods. It isn’t something I argue about — live and let live, I say, as long as you don’t shove your beliefs in my face. But it does tickle my funny bone that I can comfortably write a novel in which religion plays a part, and an important part for some of the characters.

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.

 

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?

Solutions Out of Nowhere?

Has my obsession with A Well-Educated Boy finally reached a tipping point or is it just the pressure of an upcoming deadline — November 1 and NaNoWriMo? Whatever the cause, solutions to problems and answers to questions are now turning up with fair regularity. Three major plot points resolved within a week? That’s phenomenal.

Not that it’s going to make the actual writing much easier, except that I’m developing a bit of confidence that this can be done. When you’ve been mulling over a story for five years and are still faced with problems involving major issues, it’s natural to have a few doubts. And when those doubts are rumbling around against a background of questions about whether there’s any point to writing, at all, well then…

Every iota of common sense tells me that nothing I can write will make the slightest difference in how the earth spins. That it may very well be spinning without the company of humans within a century or two — or maybe far less if we’ve entirely failed to grasp the potential costs of tampering with the earth’s systems of operation. In the face of such a sweeping possible outcome, not even Ozymandias’s arrogance and eventual oblivion can serve as a lesson in unjustified pride. Someone once said something along the lines of we are but worms crawling along the surface. I think that’s true. Further, over a long lifetime, I’ve learned that being aware of all this is not the design for a happy or contented life. And if you have the good fortune — or misfortune — to live a long life, it necessarily has to come around to that question — what difference has my life made in any sense that matters?

So, the writing has to be its own reward, and only to me.

Russell Blake: The Philosophy of Being a Hack

I haven’t read anything by Russell Blake, but even if I’m not interested in the genres he writes in, or in writing full-time, this is a post worth reading. It’s rather alarming that he writes a novel about every five weeks, but he does it for a living, and writes for a popular audience. Whether you believe that he is truly a hack, and that his books are crap, both of which he acknowledges with tongue in cheek, he makes some very good points. Mainly that the correlation between sloooow writing and quality is false. It came out of the publishing industry’s limitations and schedules, not out of the reality of professional writing.

I do have a caveat when he says, as so many writers do, “Just write.” The more you write the better you’ll get at it. That isn’t always so. You can’t get better if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong. And that generally takes some outside reality checks.

I have to agree when he says, “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a business where there’s so much poor advice or lousy, limiting thinking than the writing business, nor so much misinformation.”

This fits in with the misinformation about National Novel Writing Month, which I’ve blogged about in the past — the attitude that if it’s fast, it can’t be good. Obviously, if it’s your first book, or maybe even your second, fast is probably going to result in a big fat mess.

http://russellblake.com/the-philosophy-of-being-a-hack/

 

Prompt Me No Prompts

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I don’t understand how or why people who can’t come up with ideas for stories want to be writers. Do they really want to write but have little or no imagination? Do they think that all that’s necessary to be a writer is to come up with an idea? Do they have any idea at all how many millions of books are written that are either never read or fall into obscurity almost immediately? It would be a fascinating study to explore the many reasons why people without a single idea in their heads want to be writers. But in the end, who cares?

Scanning my usual news sites this morning, I came across an article that triggered an idea for a nonfiction book. The article itself isn’t particularly significant. I could have read another and had the same idea pop up. I think it was just a matter of timing. The subject has been stewing for a long time. I say stewing rather than something like rolling around, because it’s a rather emotional topic. It was bound to come out sooner or later, and the article was just the trigger in the right place and at the right time.

The point of this rambling rant is that this is the way my mind works. It overflows with ideas, most of which I’ll never have a chance to develop, given the state of my health and my age. But it also means that my mind is alive, that it constantly engages, even if only from a distance, with the world at large. And I suspect, now that I think about it, that this might be the reason so many would-be writers have to ask for ideas: they engage with a very narrow world that involves primarily the people they know personally, and the limited extended world that the mainstream media allows them to see.