Posted tagged ‘Novel’

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.

Working On A New Novel — Obsessed with Character

February 13, 2020

“Characterization is a complex and elusive art and cannot be reduced to exact rules or to a comprehensive statement. The more we talk about it, the more we feel has been left out….”
Leon Surmelian, Techniques of Fiction Writing

“Human beings are the religion of the angels….”
— from the movie Cell

Both these quotes speak to the difficulty of discovering and creating characters who come alive for us, both as writer and reader, in a piece of fiction.  The one from a famous text on writing and the other an evocative and ultimately mysterious quote from an otherwise unmemorable film.  They both allude to the imaginative challenge.

I managed to finish writing a science fiction novel last year, and I’ve been submitting it to literary agents and to publishers, so far unsuccessfully.  Although I think it’s good, and I have high hopes for it, you never know.  Maybe it will go nowhere.  It’s tough at the best of times to get published, and with all the technological turmoil….

But in the meantime, I’ve started working on a second novel.  As part of that I’ve been obsessing about how better to develop the characters that will inhabit it.

The now completed science fiction novel was set many hundreds of years in the future on a failing Earth struggling to recover its potential.  This new one is intended to be more of the present day thriller variety, although situated perhaps five years in the future to give myself as much latitude as possible in creating dark situations.

Before I write about the useful advice and books I’ve come across, I want to describe my working theory about imaginative psychology, simplistic as it is.  Maybe it will help provide context for my preoccupation about developing characters.

The discovery model

I have become convinced of the discovery model of fiction writing.  We are creating, making stuff up, this is true, but the best material for that creation is what we discover in the surprising backwaters of ourselves as we write, or what comes illumined to us at the edge of sleep.  For others these riches may come wholly dressed and dancing, but for me they are fragmentary and usually wrapped in fog.  Yet there is something there.

The rest of my pet theory is that there is a deep layer of our being where reside all the archetypes and our collective unconscious in the Jungian sense.  The archetypes are forces, not things.  There too the spiralling currents and tidal streams of our personal shadow slowly circulate.  I have no idea, for the most part, about whatever the heck is going on in there.  But I’m sure it’s all homeostatic!

The next layer up, I postulate, is at the subliminal, subconscious level, at the edge of conscious realization.  The level where a whisper comes through out of nowhere about a character’s motivation, or the shape of the plot, or where appears a fleeting image of oranges on a truck.  I’ve found that you have to pay attention to these transitory strays, get them down in a notebook or on the page right now.  It’s a matter of respect for that entire submerged ocean that feeds the subconscious level, that supports you.  If you want more to come, you must not have it avoid you for your negligence.  These morsels won’t always make sense or be useful, but much more often than not they provide sustenance.

And then there’s the mundane, everyday level where I struggle to make sense with words, just as I am doing now.

Helpful books on characterization

I want to mention several books that have provided insight in my quest about characterization.  I may have a “felt sense” or intuition about a character which provides the irritating sand for the pearl I hope for, but often that intuition stays static for quite a while.  I want to learn how to nudge it along.

The first couple of books are off the beaten path of the mainstream industry of providing craft help for would-be writers.  They are Verbalize — Bring Stories to Life and Life to Stories by Damon Suede and Unmasking Arkhelogy by Jennifer Van Bergen.  Interestingly, both authors come out of an acting background.  That gives a different take on characterization which I found valuable.

Verbalize? What’s that about? Of course we’re verbalizing our stories.  But that’s not what Suede is referring to.  He’s using “verbalize” as shorthand for the process of finding (discovering?) the most precise verb to describe the character we’re working on.  I found this very insightful.

Characteristics aren’t character

Characteristics are not character, he points out, despite all the standard list of things you’re supposed to know about your main characters before writing.  (This kind of list I’ve always found sterile and mostly meaningless.)

“Words don’t create characters, emotions do,” says Suede. “… The first step for a writer is to nail down the foundation that aligns and supports all the emotion that makes books worth reading.”

The way to do that, he says, is to understand that the character who makes choices drives the scene and steers the story.  And where do these choices come from, you may ask?

A character is not a face, but a force.  The character’s choices arise from that force, and that can be symbolized as the most fitting and exact verb for that character.  This gives you a lot to play around and experiment with.  Get out the best thesaurus and dictionary you know.  Once you find a ballpark verb, check all the synonyms and even antonyms to zero in on that intuitive character shape you may already sense.

The richness of the English language is your ally.  Your character is all the shades of meanings of the chosen verb.  They embody the activity of your character, with the exceptions and focus you choose.   The energy of this “verbalization” can be elaborated into all the actions which the character takes and which bounce off the other characters.  This is Suede’s counsel.  There is a lot more to the book, and I found it fruitful.

Arkhelogy?

Van Bergen’s book, Unmasking Arkhelogy, is a slightly updated 2011 book originally published as Archetypes for Writers: Using the Power of Your Subconscious. She’s arrived at a terminology for the process of bringing out one’s own character archetypes.  “Arkhelogy” is an example, and it means doing this work investigating archetypes useful for your characters.  She feels it necessary to have her own jargon in order to be clear about what she’s describing.  The reader may only find it puzzling.  The book is also rather chaotically organized.

But despite that, I found her ideas intriguing.

“This approach has little to do with how to ‘create’ characters or plot stories.  Rather, it is more about how to find your character and story archetypes, or even how to have them find you. Underlying this approach is the premise that each person carries within them a given set of character and story archetypes.”

You can see how this fits in with my own biases.  So what is her method?

Elsewhere budding writers are advised to use archetypes such as The Lover, The Hero, The Magician, The Sage, The Ruler, etc., to provide a basis for characters.  Such archetypes are said to be “notably recurrent across the human experience.”  Unfortunately, for me, these give no real clue about developing a specific, interesting character.  They’ve become another form of fixed and simplified stereotypes.

Van Bergen wants to develop a capability of finding character archetypes from our own experience, imagination and subconscious.  In essence we want to discover the secret lives of the characters.

A series of skills

In order to develop the skills needed to do this, she prescribes a set of exercises.  These include among others:

— Establishing character facts for the character.  These are purely factual statements.  They include no judgements or personal opinions about who this character may be.  Try to avoid any adjectives which give our slant on who this person is.  For example: “He comes to the office exactly on time.  He wears a navy suit that is a little too snug.”

— Discerning the character’s “universal drive.”  This is the most basic type of drive such as survival, or the need to love or be loved.  Most other drives collapse into these, Van Bergen says.  She might also include the drive to protect and nurture, the drive for sex, the drive to realize “the Core Self” and very few others.  Interestingly, she doesn’t see freedom as a basic urge, which is a universal drive to me.

— Elucidating discrepancies. A discrepancy is an incongruity or inconsistency in a person’s behavior that reveals something significant about the person.  Example: “He calls her his girlfriend but he makes no effort to visit or spend time with her.”

Van Bergen points out that a goal for us as writers must be to find the things that bother us most.  And understand where they come from.  That’s where the juice is.

There is much more but this gives you the flavour of her approach.  I found it thought provoking, although it remains to be seen how able I am to use it.

The Art of Characterization

Another very good book about characterization is the deservedly popular The Art of Characterization by David Corbett.  I’m giving it short shrift here, but it is mightily worth it if you are interested in this subject.  He writes:

“Just as you must untether your characters from predictability by granting them the freedom to contradict themselves, to grow, to change, so you must grant yourself a similar freedom to play the trickster, shift at will, embrace the unexpected, be free.”

But the best single piece of advice for characterization I’ve found to date is this nugget panned from David Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, which I will paraphrase:

Determine the conscious goal of a main character and then constantly ask “Why?” until the true answer reveals itself.  This should pull out backstory, history, internal beliefs, future hopes and dreams and fears, and more….

That advice is written on a yellow sticky attached to the side of my computer monitor.

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A Few Notes On Getting Creative With Writing

March 16, 2019

Here are a few notes to myself about creative writing.  Gathered from many places!

—  If you want a creative scene, dialog or description, put two or more disparate elements (characters, scenery, moods) together.  Make them as unlikely and interesting as possible. Beware ridiculousness.  Have it make sense.

— People often belie their names or labels or concepts about themselves.  They’re not quite what they’ve been categorized as.  It’s fun to try to show that.

— Describing one thing vividly can be more effective than describing an entire room.  Or civilization.

— Try to look at the world, and especially your loved ones, with wonder.  And then at yourself.

— Story as change, not just conflict.  Thank you, Ursula Le Guin.

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demirep*
That loves and saves her soul in new French books —
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway: one step aside
They’re classed and done with.
— Robert Browning

* a woman whose chastity is considered doubtful; an adventuress.  I think these are elegant ways to put it.

— 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.  Having an inspirational book on writing beside you to browse for a minute or two is good then.

It is the writer’s openness to the ambiguity and uncertainty of any experience (even the experience of determination and certainty) which gives clarity, and thus a kind of certitude, to his writing. — John Bergen

— At the end, our hero is sunk so low in his voyage of revenge — a change of heart is his only possible way forward.

— 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.

Springsteen sings like a man intent on opening his heart.  In this way he is an inspiring figure.

— Every character has some kind of armor, perhaps manifested in physical form that the character feels safe inside — a role or symbol or self-presentation that the character relies on, like say a doctor’s white coat or a stripper’s lack of clothes.  This becomes highly limiting.  And then to make it more complicated, occasionally putting the armor on is the right thing to do.

We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.
— Peter Brooks

— 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 before it gets published….

— Thwarted needs turn into neediness, even if only on a subliminal or subconscious level.

— Texture of air.

— Emotions can often be more effectively described by showing the restraint of them.

— Each character’s little vanities about themselves or what they do, little prideful things.

— “Kenning.”  A kenning is a different name for a thing — so the sun becomes a day-star.

Clifton Fadiman on a book by Hemingway:
It is written with only one prejudice — a prejudice in favor of the common human being.  But that is a prejudice not easy to arrive at and which only major writers can movingly express.

— Write just enough setting detail to get in the scene with the character.

— 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, or more, specific sensual descriptions in the scene can do so much. Being in the scene imaginatively with the characters facilitates that.

— 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.

— 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 have moved us, at the height of the best story-telling.

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.
— Alan Watt

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Thinking About Theme in Writing A Novel

October 25, 2018

Quite a few books on the craft of writing advise again and again to formulate the theme for the novel you’re working on.

I always have a tough time with that.  I’ve never been sure with the fiction I’m fighting what “theme” means.

Going back to one of my first inspirations for how to write a novel, which never quite worked for me, the book Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald  (1972) says:

“All traditional novels demonstrate that certain people have had certain experiences,  and these experiences comment on life, leaving the reader with some conclusion about the nature of existence that can be factually verified.  This conclusion is the theme of the novel.”

The Delphic nature of theme

Clear?  Not for me.  What does all this abstract vague stuff mean?  “Factually verified?” It’s kind of an amorphous cloud that gives me no hint about how to write and incorporate theme, if indeed it is important.  If I am baffled by what the theme is, how can I allude to it?  I just want to write a story that moves people.

A more recent book, Plot Perfect: Building Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene, by Paula Munier (2014) bases its entire method on you knowing what the theme is of what you’re writing.  “Chapter One, The Power of Theme.”

She tries to simplify the problem (she seems to recognize that there is one, especially for such as me).

“Theme is simply what your story is really all about.”  (My emphasis.)  She gives the examples of Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. Their themes are about power.  That is nicely clear.  For what I write though in the novel I’m revising — it doesn’t seem to fall into one easy classification.  (And maybe that’s a problem.  But let’s assume for now that clarity on this may be possible if I can just wake up to it….)

Munier acknowledges that there may be more than one theme.

“Themes speak to the universal; they address the human condition.”

She also advises: “Try writing your first and last lines now, whether you’ve finished your story or not, and make sure they embody your theme.”  This begins the process of embedding the theme in your writing.

At first glance seems like good advice (yet sounds to me now really artificial and bad). And I’m still not sure what my theme really is!

Theme as armature

In the writing craft book Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate,  by Brian McDonald (2010), he uses “armature” to make the concept of theme more accessible.

He describes armature as the internal framework upon which a sculptor supports his work.  In the wider sense, the armature provides the same kind of focus that makes jokes work.

McDonald says he uses jokes as an instructional tool. “Just as all elements of a joke support the punch line, so should every element of your story support its armature.”

That helps a little with my understanding but I’m not completely out of the woods yet.  I’m confused because it would make more sense for McDonald to say the armature supports the elements of your story, rather than the other way around.

And then there’s the advice from a craft book and author I respect, Steven James in his book, Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction (2014) .  (These books always promise you the unforgettable moon.)

“So stop trying to define your theme.  Write a story to tell the truth about human nature or our relationship to eternity and the divine, and your story will say more than any theme statement ever could.”

Okay!  I don’t have to spell out a “theme.”  Yet somehow I’m still not satisfied.

My go-to book for general writing inspiration (and not for its method so much), The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt (2010) says:

“Once we begin to develop a sense of the world of our story, we can begin to inquire into the structure questions…. But as we continue to inquire into the structure questions, and we hold our story loosely, it becomes more specific.”

He is saying when we ask universal questions, which is another way to discuss theme I think (nowhere does Watt talk about that subject directly), over time the framework of a story emerges.  Images reveal themselves to us.

I’m working on the second draft of a novel, in part waiting for beta-readers to finish having their say.  It seems to me, with my very limited experience, that it is difficult to know what the theme of a work is exactly at the start.  The resonance isn’t there until you discover what you’ve written.

At the beginning, trying to come up with meaningful theme statements for this novel, I know now that such ideas were only partial, and a distance removed from any deep feeling of mine.

Revenge and justice

At the beginning of the science fiction novel I’m writing, I thought I could say the themes were about revenge and justice.  A young man suffers the murderous intention of a ruthless ambitious man, and is dispossessed of his family, his wealth and his future.  The story chronicles within the context of a future failing earth his commitment to exacting that revenge, and how that turns out to be insufficient for the meaning of his life.

But it was something else that Alan Watt wrote that I read a while back now that twigged me to a theme I can get my heart around.  After all that.

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

The stars aligned, the moon came over the bow, seagulls flew over me screeching, and tonight I finally realized what the damn theme of this novel is.  It’s a story about freedom.

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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 manage to publish 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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