Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ category

In the Trenches with the First Draft Revision

May 23, 2018

So I putter away at revising the first draft of the novel, not quite yet doing very much of the real work.  The real work of laboring to put words that make sense in the right places.  One after another, for a long time.

I have to write some new scenes, rewrite others.  I’ve got one subplot kind of figured out.  I’m hoping a more whimsical, trivial one will make itself apparent to me.  I’ve made a few editing changes here and there.

There’s no doubt that writing the first draft had to be an exploration, a struggle to make each event a cause of another so true that a story appears.

I’m starting to have the scary perception that some of what I’ve written is good.  Of course I have no real way to determine how much off the mark that is, but I feel a hint of excitement.

I wrote the first draft one paragraph after another without going back and inspecting what I had wrought and must inevitably adjust.  That was freeing.  I had my scene roadmap, adorned with missing pathways and “Here Be Dragons” that I steered by.  Eventually I passed over some parts of the plan, and added scenes and fresh (occasionally hackneyed without doubt) directions to others.  But most importantly, I didn’t try to rewrite anything, or even edit atrociously awkward sentences.  I was careful not to go back and read them.

Alan Watt’s book The 90-Day Novel really inspired me.  I didn’t follow the schedule of his book at all or even pay much attention to that tired 3-Act Novel act.  (Three Act Structure just means the story has a beginning, a middle and the end.  It doesn’t really amount to a method….)  But words like these were encouraging, perceptive and wise:

“Many of us are writing stories of freedom, but struggle to imagine what that might look like for our hero. …

“Being certain about any aspect of our story limits us.  Let’s trust that the story lives fully within us, and that something valid wants to be expressed.  There’s an experience far more empowering than certainty, and that is a faith in the fundamental truth of our story, a growing belief that it is not necessary to force anything, but rather to inquire into the nature of what we want to express.”

I’m surprised now as I read, that my first draft is often so succinct and descriptive. The characters actually stand out from the background.  You can hear who they are.  There is a story, an interesting one.

The tasks of this second draft I think will be to carefully remove the indistinct and to sharpen turns of the characters and to tighten the chains of causation between them.  Make the future world more interesting and strange, yet plausible.  Make the story better.  Don’t die by the time I get around to finishing it….

There is a workable, standing framework to carefully sculpt, without disturbing whatever delicate balance I might have accidentally managed to create.

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Plodding Through the Sucking Swamp of First Draft Novel Revision

April 27, 2018

OK, it’s not quite as bad as that.  Almost just about, though, sometimes.

I’ve written a lengthy first draft, and since I’m pretty new to this whole cool, impressive novel thing, I’ve dithered about buckling down to revision.  (If you’re curious, it’s a science fiction revenge and redemption novel, with alien contact.)

I did take a number of months hiatus after finishing the first draft.  I found that easy to do.  (I did keep jotting down ideas and advice to myself, so showing some good instincts there, I hope.)

The problem is I have no idea of what good revision means, in an operational sort of way.  This is similar to my problem about writing a story.  I had no idea what a story really is.  I am still not entirely clear.

And my first response to the revision problem was, just as for story, to find and read as many books as possible on the subject.  You’d be surprised at how many there are, although I didn’t buy all of them.

I’ve read quite a few by now.  I can recommend a couple that will end up probably helping me:

Layer Your Novel, by C.S. Lakin, and Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley.

Although I’m definitely getting to grips with revision now, I still plan to read Blueprint Your Bestseller (uh-huh) by Stuart Horwitz which promises a way to “organize and revise any manuscript.”  We’ll see.

One of the big things dragging me down has been perhaps an over-sensitive appreciation of the problem of structure.  How do I see the structure in what I wrote?  How do I make the story big, better?  One starts to get bogged down in the theory.  But I have found some approaches that make sense in starting to get an overview.

Peering Through the Thickets

When I was thinking about starting the novel,  I wrote kind of a scene by scene treatment where I wanted to go, which inevitably in the doing went down unforeseen paths.

So my first step, after reading the whole thing once, was to complete a list of all my scenes, along with the necessary scene questions.  This was good advice from Cathy Yardley.

By going through all the scenes, I’ve read the draft a second time.  The second time around, it was as if I was reading it for the first time.  I found so much that I hadn’t caught at all.

For some background, I wrote the first draft without going back and editing anything.  Just get it down and worry about all the rest later.  Sometimes the sequences are disjointed and out of kilter because I was still discovering what the story was.

Most recently I’ve been working on a list of every character in the book, along with penetrating questions about the main ones.  But every character, even the most minor, has a visual, or if not, I make one up.

I worked on characters quite a lot before starting writing, but only after writing the first draft am I able to see possible connections and oppositions between the characters I didn’t before.

I’ve only now really started to get a sense of the characters.  They were thin specters in a haze previously.  This is not to say that they’re somehow completely clear and real in my mind – there’s still much fog wafting about.

Up until now, I’ve put off any line-by-line editing because of my structural concerns and worry about where to best add or delete new scenes (and/or sequels).

But even so today, for the very first time, I did some line editing of the first chapter.  That’s going to be fun, improving and making the words come alive.  (I would like to think.)

It really requires getting in the scene with characters, as if in some battle arena where you, incorporeal, closely observe the goings on without fear of a knife in the ribs.  One or two specific true-to-life descriptions in the scene can do so much, I’ve found, and being imaginatively in the scene with the characters facilitates that.

I’m sure I’ve got much, much more to learn about it.

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A note about a couple of useful tools in revision – for me anyway.

My favorite thesaurus, online or offline: Power Thesaurus.

This customizable random name generator is my favorite.  Still using it in revision, after forgetting to put in names of minor characters…. Behind the Name .

The End of the Novel First Draft

November 13, 2017

“A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel. I know this from experience. He has no clear idea of his story; in fact he has no story. He merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality, and he trusts he can plunge those people into those incidents with interesting results. ”      — Mark Twain

Well, I did it.  Finished the first draft of a science fiction murder thriller alien contact novel set in the far future.  Lot going on there.

I’m now in the recommended fallow period after finishing a first draft.  Let it sit, compost itself.  How long?  Some say this rest period should be at least a couple of months, others say it’s been so long since that first chapter got built, one can begin again on it almost right away.

I feel like I should wait two or three weeks, at least, and probably more.  Get some distance or perspective on the whole concept of the novel.   Be able to start reading the thing almost as if I’m encountering it for the first time, at least to get started.  I made it a point during the writing of the first draft not to go back and do any changes at all.  Or even to re-read critically what I’d written.

But I haven’t stopped working on it really.  I am going through C.S. Lakin’s The Twelve Key Pillars of Novel Construction to see what I can do to improve broad story structure when the time comes to dig in.  I quite like her approach to writing, and I think this will be helpful for the revision.

The whole question of revision is daunting.  I’ve got a book on that subject to go through as well: Manuscript Makeover by professional editor and author Elizabeth Lyon, which appears to be highly recommended.  One of her purposes is to help the writer develop his or her own revision style, which tipped me towards thinking her guidance will be helpful.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all cook book.

This isn’t the first novel I’ve completed.  I wrote one many years ago in a frustrated flurry of determination, often overwhelmed by how badly the process seemed to go.  But I did finish the first draft and the second too.  I should really dig it out again, if for nothing else but to see who I was trying to be and what I managed to write thirty-five years ago.

This time around, I kept up a writing schedule (and a light number of words per day as a preemptive strike against my innate restlessness) which in the end produced a lot of words over a year and a half.  I did a lot of work in story preparation before I began the writing — I put together, with the guide of John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, a story treatment that was very helpful to get me started and to keep me going.

But for about the last half of the first draft, I put that treatment aside and tried to follow instead where the story was leading me.  Alan Watt’s advice in his book The 90-Day Novel — although it took me a lot longer than his prescribed time — meant a lot to me with words of wisdom such as:

“It’s liberating to know that we don’t know our whole story.  When a seemingly mad idea pops up, we must follow it in our minds for a moment to see where it wants to take us.  In the first draft, we can not assume with total precision the direction our story is heading.  By exploring the opposite direction, we may discover it is a temporary detour that offers a more fully realized conclusion.”

What have I learned?

First off, I’ve learned that I have no idea whether this effort will amount to anything in the end, although I have hopes.  But I intend to persevere until it gets into a near-publishable state, and see what happens.

I’ve realized that a lot of what makes satisfactory writing is developing emotional resonances for the characters and for the meaning of the story.  I have a long way to go with this in the revision.

I’ve learned the gratification of keeping to a schedule and watching the words pile up, and giving myself the freedom of putting off the whole notion of whether they’re really good words.

I’ve come to understand how obsessed with story I am, just like everyone else in the world as we distract ourselves through film and music and books.  Occasionally we discover real meaning through story.  For us who want to write creatively, this obsession becomes more conscious, and in its compelling way, comes to capture our thoughts. We want to make stories that can speak in the same way that others, at the height of the best story-telling, have moved us.

Even as I take a pause on my science-fiction extravaganza, I find myself mulling over a character, two actually, and a situation, and certain conflicts and back-story for a down-on-his-luck private investigator in present day Vancouver.  It’s starting to form itself like this science-fiction story did, similar to Mark Twain’s quote above.  Maybe there will be more than one first draft to revise down the road….

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What I’ve Learned About the First Draft of a Novel

June 14, 2016

“What if we entertained the possibility that we did not need to even understand where our story was taking us?”
— Alan Watt, The 90-Day Novel

It can be daunting, this writing business.

For years, I procrastinated getting started on the first draft of a science-fiction novel.  Oh, I did my research in a disorganized way, kept copious notes and agonized over how to organize them usefully, and read widely about novel-writing and the nature of story.  It often amounted to not much more than pencil sharpening, without finding the motivation to put that point down on the paper and get going.

But now, I’m happy to say, I’m almost 45,000 words in on the first draft.  I’m told a typical book length manuscript might be 90,000 words, so that makes almost half-way.  My plan is to overwrite by quite a bit, because I’m quite sure I’ll be paring and trimming extensively during revision.  And that makes sense that I will have to in this case, because the story has only barely got up on its feet and begun to stroll forward.

Why did it take me so long to get on with it?  It was sheer procrastination, fear of failure and lack of imagination about the satisfaction of it, really, rather than some deep-seated writer’s block rooted in the psychology of my relationship with my mother. Or father. Or crazy aunt from Argentina.

What Finally Got Me Going

I wanted to share what finally tipped me into the role of novel-writer (even if it never goes anywhere finally).  That tipping is, of course, about actually writing almost every day versus just thinking about it.  But I hope describing some of what helped me it might help others of my procrastinating brethren and sistren.

First of all I have to give a lot of credit to Chuck Wendig.  He’s a novelist, and comic-book writer of all things, who manages to convey with sparkling crudeness the need to stop with the excuses already on his blog Terribleminds.  After I read his post How To Push Past the Bullshit And Write That Goddamn Novel: A Very Simple No-Fuckery Writing Plan To Get Shit Done I had no place to run.  It was either do it or don’t.

The main point of his “simple plan” is to pick a relatively small chunk of words to do every day and commit to writing them on a schedule that you keep.  It will add up, but it has got to be done almost every day.

One of my difficulties in the past was trying to do too much writing in one sit-down, and then getting frustrated and blocked. Now I do a little more than Wendig’s recommended 350 words, but not a lot more.  As he says, you can sneeze that much at one go….

Another very useful thing that I did in preparation was writing a rough 30 page story treatment.  Not really an outline, because strict outlines always seem to shut down my imagination, but a scene sequence that would take me to the major points of my story.  I was guided in this very much by John Truby’s insightful book, The Anatomy of Story.  As a result of that effort I have a web of characters, a “reveals” sequence, and the main points of my plot laid out as a rough road map.  I’ve already gone off the rails with much of the scene sequence but that’s alright.  I don’t feel lost.  I may not be on the exact road I imagined but I can see the high points off in the distance.

On Not Having Any Faith in What You’re Doing

But you may be sitting at your computer, or dipping your quill into the inkwell, and yet even with that sneezable amount of writing to do, you’re still feeling a little stuck or fretful.  You lack faith.  I find that having an inspirational book on writing beside you to browse for a minute or two is good at these times.

For me, it has been Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within.  There’s a few of these kinds of books around: write a novel in a month, or on the weekends, or in this case, in 90 days.  I’m not following Watt’s schedule of writing, or even his thoughts on structure, which go on about the typical three acts.  (There’s nothing about stories or novels that dictates three acts; it seems to be just a way of talking about the beginning, middle and end of a work of fiction.)

But what is so inspiring are his thoughts about discovering the story we’re struggling to get down, the story that’s in us.

“The fear that we are doing this wrong is bound to arise, but it is often tied up with the idea that we are supposed to know how to do it.  Our story is bigger than we are…. Our job is to inquire.  When we put our curiosity before our fears, we will get to the end.”  And:

“You don’t need to force anything.  We allow the truth to be told, even if it seems, at times, temporarily at odds with our idea of the story. Sometimes it may seem that we’re off course, but as we stay with it, we discover a deeper truth.  As our hero moves toward his goal, he encounters obstacles, and we might be surprised that he’s not doing what we thought he would.  This doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong.”

A Nice Cup of Green Tea

So this is what I do on every day I write:

— Make a cup of green tea.  This signals to me I’m now ready to write.  It serves as a way of declaring, to me and my subconscious, that the surgeon is approaching the patient, for better or worse.  The signal could be anything really: playing a certain piece of music, spraying oil of patchouli around the place, or making a series of elaborate arcane gestures over the computer.

— Open the congenial, straightforward writing application I’m choosing to use.  Once upon a time, I wanted to get too complicated with software that helps you sort out scenes, lists characters, manages structure, etc.  I’ve forgotten all that.  I use RoughDraft, which is an old free word processor that produces files in the common .rtf format. It allows you to attach separate notes to each chapter file, has a word counter and a back-up function built in.  But anything you’re comfortable with will do, I’m sure.

— Use a calculator, virtual or real, to have at the ready a display of my word goal for this session.  I often go past the number of words it sets, but I find it so helpful to have that mark in front of me.  With RoughDraft I have a running tally of how many words I’ve written, so I just add to that figure to get my day’s goal.

— Start to write.  Cause and effect.  Enquire and discover the truth of the characters, the best I can discern at this stage anyway.  See where it goes.  Sometimes I’m rewarded with a byway that is surprisingly appropriate and that I hadn’t planned on.

— Don’t go back and rework what you’ve written (following Alan Watt’s advice).  I don’t know for sure where I’m going yet, so how do I know what to revise?  Just write, trust in the exploratory nature of the process, and the words add up.

— Back up everything.

A couple of useful online resources I’ve found: Power Thesaurus, when you’re looking for a better word that you haven’t used three times already; and another that I will use and adapt from more, The Online Slang Dictionary.

There’s also my copy of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression which is useful for showing not telling the reader something of your character’s state of mind.

There are many more sources of both inspiration and craft that I could mention.  But these are working for me, so far.

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At 65

April 29, 2016

To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.
–  Bernard Baruch

So, I just recently turned 65.  I’m officially a “senior citizen,” which implies a general condition of being cast off.  I would prefer to be thought of as an aspiring “elder” with the connotations that native people (or First Nations folks, to be politically correct) give it.

I don’t feel “sixty-five,” whatever that is supposed to feel like.  I am most fortunate to be free of ill-health.  My gait so far is unaffected.  I still retain some lightness on my feet, and my range of motion in general is only marginally shrinking.

I still practice aikido and tai chi to a certain extent, although regrettably I haven’t had the opportunity to do much Western fencing in the last several years.  However, my level of interest in physically demanding pursuits has declined, and that, rather than not being able to do them, has become more a sign of aging.

I am also fortunate to have my wife as a companion of over 25 years: to have someone who cares for me, and for whom I can care.

The main thing about these milestones at 65, or 80, or 30 for that matter, is the opportunity for reflection.  They give an excuse to take the time to consider what the years might mean.

I graduated high school in 1969.  That is a whole cultural era away.  Or maybe more than one.  Mostly I think of the music, how important and central to my life and the lives of many of my generation it was:  the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Electric Prunes.  Wait: you don’t know about Paul Revere or the Prunes?  You’ve missed out.  Perhaps you haven’t had “too much to dream last night“?

The power of music in the culture was a convergence of technology, music industry ripeness, the Vietnam war and the resulting counterculture.  In an era without iPhones or multiple other digital distractions, including not even home computers, hard as that is now to imagine, music was central.

Its rebelliousness, youthfulness and exuberance were constantly being challenged and undermined by the status quo, but there was a balance of sorts for a while.  And, as hard as it was to see at the time, there was even a slow alteration of what was understood to be the “status quo.”

The fragmentation and loss of cultural significance for music as a whole is evident to me looking back.  Those of younger years might think that the efforts to stand out by Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga, or Sia amount to something, but not much really.  A meat dress worn by Lady Gaga doesn’t really cut it, although I do like Sia’s songwriting.  The efforts to get noticed in a fragmented musical environment overwhelmed by the powers of the modern corporation take on amusing forms.

I listen to the old music, and some of the new, as I finally get down to the first draft of a novel that I’ve been thinking about for years.  I am 30,000 words plus into a science-fiction thriller coming-of-age save-the-world extravaganza that, fingers crossed, I will actually finish some day before I die.

It is a time to reflect on mortality.  I like the idea of living as if we will live forever, of plans uncompromised by the reality of some future end.  But the eventual end does give poignancy to what we do, and who we do it with, and how we meet it with our hearts.

I have lived longer than either of my parents.  My mother died of multiple sclerosis in her early 60s.  My father died of a stroke in his mid-forties.  I realize now how short, how brief, their time was here.  I’m proud of them for what they were able to accomplish in their fleeting sojourns on this world, and sad that many of their dreams remained unrealized.

I have often been a late bloomer in my life, although others might not recognize the blooming as of much note.  But I have, and it gives me encouragement as I diligently peck away almost every day at the novel, wearing down that huge mountain, like a bird trailing a scarf across its rock periodically — it will shrink, if time is enough.

Speaking of blooming, one of my colleagues at work (I have yet to retire, perhaps in a year or so) was discussing with me about my plans and his.  Our conversation concluded by him saying, “Well, everything is coming up roses then….”

That caused me to think, “Yes, everything will be coming up roses, or if not, at least I may have the privilege of pushing them up myself.”  That’s not a bad fate, to perhaps someday be a ground for roses, or even more happily to think about, for some wildflowers….

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The Migrant Crisis and An Old Apocalyptic Novel

September 19, 2015

“Raspail may have written the most politically incorrect book in France in the second half of the twentieth century.”
Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, The Atlantic, Dec. 1994 in a review of The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail, 1973.
—————-

My wife and I recently visited Greece on vacation for a couple of weeks, part archaeological tour and part chasing photographs on a couple of the tourist islands.

At night, with BBC World Service usually about the only English channel available on TV, we heard and saw all the drama and tragedy of the ongoing migrant crisis, which continues to deepen.  Although we didn’t come into contact with it, Greece on top of its economic troubles is also dealing with an influx of the refugees piling into Europe and headed north.

Camp of the SaintsIt reminded me a lot of an old science-fiction novel, I guess you could call it, I read back in the 1970s.  Returning from our trip, I tried to track down the name and more details of the book.  It turns out to have been the 1973 apocalyptic novel The Camp of the Saints by Frenchman Jean Raspail, which was translated into English in 1975 and I must have read shortly thereafter.

It’s about the starving, the wretched and the disenfranchised pouring out of India in a flotilla a million strong and arriving on the beaches of France.  Although France is the focus, the rest of Europe and the Western world in the novel eventually suffer the same fate as hordes of migrants continue to come ashore.  As Raspail himself put it:

“I literally saw them, saw the major problem they presented, a problem absolutely insoluble by our present moral standards. To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.”

On their way to France, the enormous flotilla wants to approach Egypt (to gain access to the Suez Canal) and South Africa, but the military of both countries threaten to sink the boats and drown the occupants if they should approach.  So, in Raspail’s world, the horde of migrants make their way to France.  Raspail is more interested really in the reaction of the French establishment and the rest of Europe in the face of such an onslaught, and depicts it as decadent and weak in the face of this threat to the Western way of life.  He casts the coming migrants in a poor light as mangy and prone to violence and sexual assaults in their long journey to anywhere that will be better than what they left.

A review of the book by T. Williamson describes it in a way that is thought-provoking about current events:

“The actions of the main characters in the book mirror what we see every day in the media and especially on the Internet: There are the government spokesmen telling us not to panic, the media talking heads telling us what our duty is or should be, the leaders of church and society instructing us in what is the “proper” way to feel about everything that’s happening to us. And front and center is the ordinary citizen, caught like a child under a steamroller as events roll over them at their terrible slow speed.”

The Fate of Western Civilization

The point of Raspail’s book seems to be that Western civilization is psychologically incapable of defending itself.  The French in the end order their miltary to shoot or sink the approaching menacing armada, but the soldiers and navy refuse and flee.  Eventually, at the end of the novel, as examples of the overrunning by the third world, the mayor of New York is made to share Gracie Mansion with three families from Harlem, the Queen of England must marry her son to a Pakistani and other huge armadas are ready to head for Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

Raspail has been accused of writing a racist tract, but that is too simple.  As an example, one main spokesman for European civilization in the novel is non-white but has embraced what he sees as the best of Western civilization.

As another reviewer, Dominique M. Sanchez, puts it:

“I did not see it as a racist book but as a book written by an elitist who is strongly attached to his way of life and fearful of seeing it vanish. All cultures are protective and proud of their own ways and that includes Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Latin populations. The issue here is poverty and exploitation, not necessarily race.”

Over the years, as migrant and refugee crises have cropped up here and there, those from both sides of the political spectrum have referred to this book from the mid-1970s.

The National Review, a prestigious conservative publication, in 2014 had a short essay by Mackubin Thomas Owens about The Camp of the Saints after the sudden influx of migrant children into the United States.  He asserted the deficiencies of multiculturalism and the loss of self-confidence of Western liberal society:

“Instead, multiculturalism has spawned a balkanized society of resentful members of various groups that seek favors for themselves, often at the expense of other groups — identity politics at its worst.”

The Atlantic, a literary and cultural magazine that would likely be considered too liberal by the National Review, examined The Camp of the Saints 20 years prior to that, trying to place the fictional events of Raspail’s novel in the context of exploitation of the third world.

The authors, Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, wrote in 1994 that:

“Perhaps the global problem of the early twenty-first century is basically this: that across our planet a number of what might be termed demographic-technological fault lines are emerging, between fast-growing, adolescent, resource-poor, undercapitalized, and undereducated populations on one side and technologically inventive, demographically moribund, and increasingly nervous rich societies on the other.”

The Fault Line of War

It seems to me that the main fault line is simpler than that, and it’s called war.  The current migrant and refugee numbers are a direct result of civil, guerilla and national wars.  Right now, on the continent of Africa alone, there are something like 20 nations with major conflicts with a half-million or more of their citizens on the move, struggling to survive.  That’s not even on the horizon of most Western minds.  Never mind all the displacement from the Middle East conflicts that is front and centre in the media now.

My modest proposal is that those nations who profit most from the billions of dollars they are making in the arms trade, who export the weapons of war, should import the most refugees.

By that measure, the United States, Russia, Germany, China and France should be taking in the most.  Great Britain (no. 6) and Canada (no. 15) should also be stepping up.  (And remember the hypocrisy when representatives of those nations prattle about the evils of war.)

Connelly and Kennedy put it well at the end of their Atlantic article:

“However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. It will take more than talk to prove the prophet wrong.”

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Thoughts On Building A Novel

June 27, 2014

I’ve had ambitions towards writing most of my life.

I wrote science-fiction short stories as a kid from time to time for my own amusement.  I did find them frustrating, unsatisfying.  They never quite turned out as well as I imagined they should.

I liked to write stories with unexpected endings for school.  Typical what-I-did-on-summer-vacation fare, with the last sentence something like, “Then I turned into a wolverine.”  This amused my friends more than the teacher.

But the urge for writing wasn’t so strong that it shaped what I wanted to do with my life.  I haven’t known what I wanted to do, really, for most of my adult years.

I went to university and got a degree in psychology, figuring it was more valuable to understand what makes people tick instead of learning how to be an engineer, to mention one alternative.

I learned more about rats in psychology at that time and school than about people, I’m afraid to say.

The Urge for Writing

Then I thought, what about writing, as a reporter?  I went on to more university to study journalism.  That didn’t work out so well, either, although I did eventually end up working in one ghetto or another of that field.

I still had ideas about stories though.  I should be able to write a novel.  I read them all the time — science-fiction, modern day thrillers, even an historical novel or two.

My big ideas about subjects for novels — almost always science fiction — came to me in the form of settings or milieus.  I would start collecting material and background information, but when it came to actually write anything, the lack of any characters to speak of left me completely bogged down, as one might expect.

One lengthy period when I was out of work, just as I turned thirty, I did force myself to write a first draft of a novel by slogging through three pages a day, every day.  Then the same thing to revise it.  It was a non-science fiction story, this time, kind of an adventure/thriller, about an out-of-work character getting into trouble while on a canoe trip around the Bowron Lakes.  This is a famous location for canoeing here in British Columbia, a journey over a group of lakes, rivers and creeks that form a rough circle that can be travelled during a week or so.

The geography of the location helped give coherence to the structure of the novel’s story, and its grandeur and variety were something to ground and inform the main character.  This journey mechanism is a useful one, I would learn later.  But at the time I just floundered on with it and got to an end.  That effort now sits in a drawer someplace in this house.  Again the result felt very unsatisfying.

There have been many more ideas since then.  Some would take seed and sprout into mind maps of spaghetti notes on a big sheet of paper on the wall.  Others might get elaborated in a notebook in the first flush of enthusiasm, before realizing that what I thought could be a story was going nowhere.

I Don’t Know How to Write a Story

But now, most recently, I have a science-fiction idea that seemed to come this time with characters dimly attached.  It’s become more than just an idea over the last few years, as I collected notes and reference material.   But again, just as I started to get going with scenes and world-building, it all bogged down again.  I really don’t know how to write a story.

The last post or two on this blog have been about my struggle with story, and my efforts to learn more about it.  I have no craft.  I have read many books on writing that sounded good and were full of advice but gave me no tools.  Although probably I wasn’t ready to receive what they did have to offer.

But working through John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, I’ve found a guide that I’m actually able to bring to bear on what I want to write.

Many years ago, in yet another novel-writing attempt, I tried to follow Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald.  It actually has most of the structural necessities I’m learning from Truby’s book, but it is presented in a more abstract English Lit kind of manner that I was never able to fully take in.  I thought it was a great book at the time though, and looking at it again now, I still do.  (I still have the same paperback, $2.50 in the US, $2.75 in Canada.)

This Time, It’s Going to Work!

So where am I now?

I’m working through Truby’s 22 steps list — an expanded version of his minimum Seven Story Steps — to build a novel.  It’s not like a three-act or any other imposed structure — besides being much more detailed and contoured to every kind of story, it allows creative flexibility.  It’s not so much an overlaid scheme, as one that grows out of the characters’ “yearning” (to borrow Robert Olen Butler’s term for the desire lines in a story), and associated obstacles.

I’ve got about 25 pages of detailed notes about the wheels and gears of the story itself — what will turn and drive the events of the novel.  A kind of story treatment….  This is all new stuff for me — I never had the advantage of having done that kind of work before.

Besides that, I’ve come to learn, whether or not it is ultimately true or not, that it is most useful to think about a novel as something that I, the writer, discover.  The parts of the world or characters that I don’t know yet, I am beginning to have the confidence that they will reveal themselves, at least partially, as some already have, while I fill in the pieces around them.  At the same time, all is in a partially obscuring fog, subject to change.

I forget which writer said it, but writing a novel is something like driving down a road in the dark with your headlights on.  You can only see a little ways ahead.  You can still get to your destination.

The thought of world-building, especially in a science-fiction story, can be overwhelming.  But I’m coming to realize that only where the world intersects the characters, like a cross-section in an engineering drawing, does it need to be so detailed, and the rest can be alluded to in the background.  Specifics can stand for the whole, and they are much more writerly.

There are aliens, or at least alien artifacts, in this story.  How can one portray the really alien?  I haven’t figured that one out yet — or I should say, I haven’t discovered what it might be.  Giant ants or robots with laser eyes are so… human.

Now, I haven’t actually gotten back to writing the novel yet, after seizing up after getting a few scenes done.  The next major job in my preparation is what Truby calls the scene-weave.  In some ways again it is like the process that Butler describes that I posted about a number of years ago.

It makes me think about learning guitar.  I’ve practiced hard and I think I’ve learned a piece, and then when it falls apart when I try to play along with a backing track or to show somebody, I realize I’ve just started the process of learning it.  There is much, much more practice necessary.

So the novel-writing preparation will go on for a while yet.  It’s just that this time, I have real hope of being able to write with somewhere to go.

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Notes:  There is a whole industry built around selling advice to would-be writers.  This takes the form of an avalanche of books on writing, magazines and also software which promise to make your novel writing a breeze.  I’m tried a couple of the novel-writing programs over the years in my desperate quest.  They don’t work very well, because the story that’s going to live for you can’t come from a ready-made scheme or formula.

Related to that, but also possibly useful in some ways, are various story-planning worksheets, or beat sheets.  These feature various versions of what their authors see as the necessary structure of a story, coded as “beats” or the major plot events that a story must have.  Such a beat sheet might have the “Four Major Beats” and the minor beats to fill them out in a table to allow you to script your story events.

(As with many of these story-planning worksheets, a lot of well-meaning and even useful story advice comes out of the National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo — endeavour where people make a commitment to write a novel during the month of November.)

I’ve also read that editors can spot any story based on these beat sheets a mile away.  The method tends to give its products a certain artificiality.

The question is, does Truby’s guide lend this artificial aspect?  I don’t think so, although it could degenerate into formula.  In Truby’s words, he wanted to “lay out a practical poetics — the craft of storytelling that exists in all story forms….

“You are the never-ending story.  If you want to tell the great story, the never-ending story, you must, like your hero, face your own seven steps.  And you must do it every time you write a new story.”