Posted tagged ‘novel writing’

All Our Adventures

December 10, 2020

Although I usually sleep well, from time to time I unaccountably wake up in the small hours of the morning.  Sleep has fled like a disturbed bear into the underbrush.

I don’t rest at the boundary of sleep and waking — I am wide awake.  I’m sure something is busy in my unconscious, indeterminate, but making itself known with a feeling of muted dread, or heartfelt remembrance, or realizations about actions I really need to take.

On this recent occasion, my thoughts drifted to news of the day, to a dentist’s appointment, to a chess game, and finally towards the novel I’m working on.  I tried to review the shape of it.  That’s how I tend to think of it, as a felt shape, with its characters and plot and the ups and downs of its planned crises tunneling through its duration.  (The hard work is getting to the specifics of that.)

I have a kind of rough confidence about writing the novel now, perhaps quite unjustified, after completing one already — as yet unpublished.

The characters are taking on more and more cohesiveness.  As I lay there unmoving in the dark, I started to muse about the nature of these novel characters.  I felt as though my aim should be to dip into the flow of their lives already in progress, cooperate/direct with the currents found there to paint a semblance of their fictional being. 

It may be helpful for me as a writer to consider the characters of the novel, even the most minor ones, as having full lives mostly unknown to me.  I may barely glimpse them, like whales from the depths just touching the ocean’s surface, but I like to think of them as there to discover, as much as I need to.

It occurred to me that each character is on a kind of adventure for me to understand, as far as that understanding is important for the novel. Say, that waitress in the tight dress taking coffee to the main character. Skeins of adventure weaving in and around each other, contradicting and reinforcing….

Then I thought, maybe our lives are like that too in certain ways. Our “adventures,” though, are fraught with real disappointments, failures and the occasional disaster. Most of all there is the inconclusiveness of much of life, unlike a novel. But our “adventures” also have patience, bravery, resilience, and caring embedded in them, and maybe that’s what they’re about.

I’m reading a book called Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, by the poet Rebecca McClanahan, from 1999. She makes it clear that description is a lot more than tossing a salad of adjectives and adverbs together with a sprinkle of nouns and verbs.

At one point in there, she advises the writer to become aware of his or her particular “constellation of images.” These are “recurring images, descriptions, or isolated words, …the ruling passions that fuel your most original work.”

She goes on: “Paying attention to recurring motifs in our work can help us discover the sources of our originality.”

For me that ties into author Ray Bradbury’s writing prompt: to make lists of nouns as triggers for ideas. He wrote: “I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds.” His list might have The Lake, The Night, The Dwarf, The Ravine…. That specificity of the definite article is important.

Mine might be, in part: The Creek, The Cabin, The Mountain, The Trout, The Fire, The Clearing, and so on.

And now I can add a new one — The Adventure.

As I lay awake with my wife beside me asleep, dawn arrived marked by the distant ululation of seagulls and the honking of Canada geese.

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The Pain of the Long-Cutting Novelist

October 31, 2020

I finally did it, fretting and stewing and twisting my long socially distanced hair — I cut my verbose science-fiction novel down to a more acceptable length.

Originally I claimed it was a mere 168,000 words long, although in reality it was more than 10,000 words longer than that.

As a rough rule of thumb, a typical novel might be around 90,000-100,000 words (and shorter in some genres).  In the science-fiction genre, it is acceptable for it to be longer due to world-building requirements.  Around 115,000-120,000 might be an upper limit, I’ve read.

So I’ve spent the last couple of months “murdering my darlings” as such severe editing has been described, shrinking the manuscript down to a more publisher-friendly 116,000 words.

As result, I think it is better paced and focused, while keeping the main threads of the story that I wanted to explore.  But it was a definite challenge.

Prior to that, I had been sending query letters to literary agents in North America without any response other than occasional form letters of disinterest.  (This is understandable as their time is valuable and apparently out there resides an earnest horde of would-be novelists.)

I wanted to improve so I sharpened up my short and long synopses, and developed a much better pitch in the body of the query. (A beta-reader and friend helped me with these efforts.)

My pitch now is:

A thousand years in the future, the Earth is failing, and civilization barely hangs on. A young archaeologist, Nick Himinez, desperately eludes a ruthless politician’s clutches by escaping to space after the man murdered Nick’s parents. Nick vows to bring him down while the politician rapidly gains global power and pursues Nick relentlessly. As they confront each other on a moon of Saturn, Nick is forced to choose between fulfilling his revenge and embracing a last-ditch opportunity for humanity offered by a powerful, but dying, alien race.

A literary agent very shortly after I made these changes to my queries responded to me as a living human being!  She strongly suggested that I really needed to shorten the novel.  She made no commitment but said I could re-query if I could get the novel to lose its wordy weight.  That was so heartening, even if it goes nowhere.

So back to the query-letter fray, and see what happens.

And also back to working on a second novel — got to keep writing! — set in the same universe as the first but in a much earlier era.  I have missed elaborating the characters and story of that while forced to pursue the loneliness of the long-distance writer (to go off on one of my elliptical references).  And with a little more prep, that first draft will begin!

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A Tale of Two Books About Writing Novels

September 10, 2020

The Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson, Adams Media, 2011
Plot, Ansen Dibell, Writer’s Digest Books, 1988
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I read a lot of books on the craft of writing. 

It’s a little like my quest for meaning and spirit during my twenties — a search for the book or person or method or experience that could make sense of the world in a deep way.  Unsuccessful in many respects, I might add, yet that impulse informed my life too.

So it is with wanting to learn more about writing novels.  It’s another kind of spiritual quest, if you want to get highfalutin’ about it, in the form of this impulse or desire to evoke imaginatively a world and characters to care about.  If done well, such creations can seep back into our every day world in surprising and even beneficial ways.

The frustration for me is how far off the mark my written meaning falls from what I want to inarticulately portray.  This frustration is part of the impulse — maybe I can do better this time.

I look to books on writing to help.  I have two here to discuss: The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson, and Plot by Ansen Dibell.  Both are about “plot” but are really structural guides for the entirety of a novel and its characters and settings.

I have to say, and it’s the impetus for writing this post, that Ansen’s book (I love that first name) has moved into the pantheon of my top three books about writing novels. It is there with John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story (for its inspiring analysis and formulation of the elements of a great story) and Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel (for the solace of its wisdom about how daunting it is to discover the story that wants to come to life for you).

The Plot Whisperer

I will describe Ansen’s book in more detail below, but I wanted to start with The Plot Whisperer, which is presumably like a horse whisperer in leading you to water.

Alderson’s book is subtitled: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. That’s promising a lot — even me?!?

It’s a useful book in many ways about structuring and planning your novel. She has a method with schematics and diagrams, a plot planner, which may or may not inspire you. Her book, unavoidably, shares some characteristics with many, many writing craft books: Three-act structure, the importance of theme, showing over telling, what makes a good protagonist, what makes a despicable villain, and so on.

I confess to a prejudice against shoe-horning any novel into the three-act boot, as if it’s magical footwear, but I always translate it into just being statements about the beginning, middle and end of a story.

She is good about the emotional trials, how many writers struggle over their stories.

I found of use her visual way to lay out the different facets of your story as you develop it. I wrote previously, for instance, about her method of circling around potential themes in The Quest to Write with Meaning .

She has seven questions to ask for every scene and its relationship to the plot, which you can find in many places, but still are valuable:

  1. Does the scene establish date and setting?
  2. How does it develop the character’s emotional makeup?
  3. Is the scene driven by a specific character goal?
  4. What dramatic action is shown?
  5. How much conflict, tension, suspense, or curiosity is shown?
  6. Does the character show emotional changes and reactions within the scene?
  7. Does the scene reveal thematic significance to the overall story?

There is much more to her book than I will cover here. The most inspiring thing I took away from Alderson’s work was her identification of “The Universal Story” and its three phases — comfort and separation, resistance and struggle, and transformation and return. That’s a lot to think about: what those words mean.

Plot

Ansen Dibell was an American science-fiction author who passed on in 2006. She also became well known for her writing about writing, in particular for Plot.

(Ansen Dibell was a nom de plume and probably a wise choice — her real name was Nancy Ann Dibble. It’s amusing that some reviewers on Amazon assume Ansen is a man (as I did at first). It probably helped, back in the day, with male science fiction readers’ prejudices about women writing in “their” genre….)

Without cutting down Alderson’s book too much, I rate Ansen’s book so highly because it seems to arrive from within the novel writing experience, whereas Alderson’s book is more from the outside looking in. Ansen’s stance is more “this is what it’s like, what I’ve found that works, what you need to think about” rather than as a template bestowed upon neophyte novelists.

I like Ansen’s writing voice a lot; that is her, still in the world.

“But you know, and I know, that writing is as much a process of discovery as it is one of invention, and the more serious you are about your writing and the more complex the story you’re trying to tell, the more likely it is to start creating itself in unexpected ways.

“Unfortunately, the inevitable flip side is that the story is also more likely to take a quick dive into the sock drawer, unless you can identify what’s going wrong and choose an effective strategy for coping with it.”

And so we have this book of hers, with her strategies about two problems: creating plot and controlling plot.

Let me highlight just a few of the insights and strategies she talks about.

— I found invaluable a section on how to test a story idea. I’ve had so many great ideas for novels over the years that led nowhere. “I think that’s what the traditional advice to ‘write what you know’ really means: to choose things that matter enormously to you, things you have a stake in settling, at least on paper.”

— She advises on practicalities: multiple viewpoints, how do you switch; the dread world-builders disease, where it becomes more fun to create the world than to write about it; keeping exposition under control.

— Her chapter called Building the Big Scenes: Set-Pieces really provided me a different and valuable way to think about the progression of a novel. Set-pieces! This is the first craft book I’ve read which talks about set-pieces.

What is a set-piece? These are the memorable landmarks of the story, like the duel between Luke and Darth Vader. “Seeing a scene like that coming, watching it build to crisis, is one of the major ways of creating tension, drama and suspense in a story.” This isn’t every scene. In even a long novel, she says, there might only be between six and a dozen. She calls it “outlining from the inside” by connecting each set-piece, as you block out the story in a rough form.

— There is another entire chapter about using melodrama as a carefully administered spice to occasionally add zest to the story. It’s not always to be avoided, as would be my tendency. Get a little dramatic! “Melodrama is a part of our common emotional and cultural language.” She uses the idea of “a curse” as a symbol for melodrama in her discussion of how to use it, which I found fascinating. Even if you don’t believe in it, some of the characters will….

There is much more but this gives you an idea of this excellent book about fiction writing.

Her final advice:

“Use the simplest possible structure that conveys what you want to convey, presents what you want to present. … It’s not the form but the content…

“Now, quit reading. Go write.”

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An afterword:

It struck me after reading over Martha Alderson’s seven questions to ask about a scene: The frame of mind to ask those questions is exactly not the frame of mind that allows the flow of imaginative writing to which we aspire.

The questions are good, but need to be limited to being pursued after something is written, for revision. Or even better maybe, reading them just before buckling down to the heart of the thing itself, following a man through a room as he abruptly swerves to speak to his sister… the devising is of a different order than a list of analytical questions.

The Quest to Write with Meaning

May 22, 2020

In my long quest to write with meaning, always approaching but never quite reaching, I’ve written one science-fiction novel, and now I’m almost ready to start the draft of a second one.

I’m trying to flog the completed sci-fi novel, without success so far, to agents and publishers.  But I can’t wait around, as I am not all that junior, except maybe in ability.  I’ve started the second and again I’m puzzling about theme.

I should say that this second novel situated 20 years or so in the future is well along in terms of character and plot development.  Still I feel the lack of a central cohesion.

(For a sampling of my previous self-imposed torture about what theme means, check out Thinking About Theme in Writing A Novel. I concluded then that the theme had to emerge from the struggle with the writing and, for that novel, it had most to do with freedom.)

Oh, the craft books I consume!  Many of my books on the craft of writing extol the benefit of knowing the theme of the story you are about to embark on.  Although it doesn’t seem to be much of a selling point in a query letter.

Maundering about theme

Theme is what the story is about, what the reader can take home.  It encapsulates the meaning of the story, its reason for being, really.  I feel silly to be so foggy about what should be clear.  The theme could be a statement about love or corruption or goodness or deceit or honesty.  On that kind of abstract level.

But it is not that clear cut to me, what the meaning of the story I’m starting to write now will be in the end.  Oh, I can say in a tentative way now that it is about guilt, or freedom, or redemption, but those words are pro forma at this stage, without resonance.  Except, partially, the idea of “freedom” which to me is kind of an ur-theme which other thematic notions resolve to.

At the suggestion of one craft book (The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson), I’ve resorted to diagramming my first stabs at thematic ideas, arranged in small ellipses overlapping at the edges of a large empty ellipse.

This visually-oriented strategy appealed to me: reserve the big ellipse for a statement that feels like something.

In those smaller ellipses I’ve placed words like “anger”, “shame”, “repentance”, “redemption”, “transcendence”, “struggle”.  The big empty ellipse just sits there, aloof.

This brings me to a phone conversation I had with my wife recently, stuck as she is in Shanghai in these Covid times, looking after her dying father in his nineties.

Getting older

We are both older, and sometimes we discuss the end of life, and probable feebleness of some sort eventually.  My wife, as a doctor and given her situation with her father, is occasionally given to stories of what can happen to people which might strike some as morbid.  Although she is actually a woman of considerable positivity.

She told me of one older colleague of her father, a doctor too, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness.  This colleague, she said, decided to spare himself and his relatives the pain of his suffering.  He ended it all by one day walking into the ocean.

I didn’t want the conversation to rest there, so I said, “I’d rather walk out of the ocean.”  There was a moment of silence on the phone line, and then we both laughed.

Off-hand remark though this was, it continues to reverberate for me.  It’s become a strangely deep metaphor on a lot of levels.

I have this image of a man emerging from the ocean buffeted, then released, by the clear salty water, finding his feet as he lurches forward onto the beach.  He is unencumbered, sopping wet, and headed towards he knows not what, but he is free.

Conversely, he emerges from the miasma of our culture and our times, out of the detritus of life mistakes and character flaws, onto a shore of the possible.  Sea gulls dip and squawk overhead.

This reminds me how this will to write is unavoidably a spiritual impulse, a religious one, even, in its original meaning re-ligare, to tie together again, to re-connect.

Several of the better books on the craft of writing allude to this.

Alderson in her book writes, “The Universal Story is the story of life.  The energy of the Universal Story flows through three phases: Comfort and Separation. Resistance and Struggle. Transformation and Return.”

John Truby in The Anatomy of Story says simply at the end of that book: “Let me end with one final reveal: you are the never-ending story.”

I sit back and then write my theme phrase in the waiting empty ellipse.

Walk out of the ocean.

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Note:  Here is the best short description of theme I just found in an older book from 20 years ago by Philip Gerard, Writing A Book That Makes A Difference:

“What the book is thinking about.”

Later Gerard describes it this way: “It’s the unconscious of the story.”  I like that.

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 by 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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