Monday, December 21, 2009

Something Old, Something New

It's entirely possible that I won't touch this blog for the rest of the year, so here's a short report on the progress of my books.

So Honest a Man is still in the hands of Jeff Kleinman, my agent. At some point he'll get back to me and tell me what he thinks of my latest revisions. Some time next year, if there is a god at all, the book will actually go out on submission to publishers. Last night while riding the bus from Ballard to downtown, I had a new title idea: A Fine Pair of Jackdaws. I like that one, for a variety of reasons. We'll see.

Cocke & Bull remains in unfinished first-draft state. I've got a few hundred words to write to finish out Chapter 13, which I may attempt to do during lunch today. We'll see. I might go shopping for stocking stuffer items instead. Anyway, the book sits at around 30,125 words and I have long ago lost track of the bodycount. It's high, that's all I know. Not yet double digits I think, but certainly I'm giving Shakespeare a run for his money. There are at least four more corpses to come (not to mention all the destruction that will result from a handy natural disaster in Chapter 21). Stay tuned.

Edited to add: Chapter 13 is finished! Yay, me! I wrote about 750 most excellent words during lunch and got to the end of the chapter. It ends on a prepositional phrase, in case you were wondering. Now I get to skip forward in time a bit, a week or so though I plan to not specify exactly how far as it doesn't really matter. First sentence of Chapter 14: "We've gone too far west."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Year-End Roundup: Books Read in 2009

Every year I tell myself that I'm going to keep scrupulous track of the books I read, and every year I manage to keep an accurate list for about the first four months and then my scruples abandon me and it all goes to hell. So here's what I can remember in the way of books I read (or, in many cases, re-read) in 2009. Certainly Mr. Melville and I spent quite some time together this summer, but even so I know that this list should be longer and that there are missing titles. For the life of me I can't think of what they are. Anyway, a pointless list of books for you:

Paradise Lost John Milton
The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov
The Uncommon Reader Alan Bennett
Literature and the Gods Roberto Calasso
Transmission Hari Kunzru
A History of the Devil Gerald Messadie
Primitive People Francine Prose
Hamlet Had an Uncle James Branch Cabell
A Preface to Paradise Lost C.S. Lewis
Song of the Crow Layne Maheu
Grendel John Gardner
The Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling
The Boys on the Bus Timothy Crouse
March Geraldine Brooks
Bridge of Birds Barry Hughart
Moby Dick Herman Melville
Finn Jon Clinch
A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
The Turn of the Screw Henry James
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Junot Diaz
All About Lulu Jonathan Evison
Big World Mary Miller
The Namesake Jhumpa Lahiri
The Art of Subtext Charles Baxter
Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America Thomas A. Foster
Early American Dress: The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods Edward Warwick, et al
American Colonial Prose Mary Ann Radzinowicz (ed.)
Common Whores, Vertuous Women, and Loveing Wives Debra A. Meyers
Everyday Life in Colonial Maryland George Schaun
New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America Jon Butler
Lectures on Literature Vladimir Nabokov
Technique In Fiction, Second Edition Robie Macauley, George Lanning
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Vladimir Nabokov
The Art of Fiction John Gardner

If I were to make a list of books I'd intended to also read this year, it would be just as long as this list. I'll spare you, though. There is never enough time for all the reading that must be done.

Chapter Thirteen Report: Uh, Not Done Yet

Last night Mighty Reader was kind enough to let me ignore her while I sat in the Designated Writing Room and worked on Chapter 13 ("South"). I'm about 2300 words into this chapter and not done yet. There are two more scenes to write (or two and a half, I guess) so I'm thinking that maybe I have about another 1000 words to go before I can figure out what I'll be doing in Chapter 14 ("Indians and Frenchmen" or something like that).

This chapter has been a real trial to write, as it's sort of the emotional heart of the book, whatever I mean by that, and so there's a lot I need to get right. Or at least, at this point, not get too wrong. Anyway, I realized that whenever I sat down to work on this chapter I got depressed, and then I realized that I was getting depressed because I'd made so many fucking pages of half-conflicting notes for the chapter that I couldn't form a picture of the story in my head and go forward. So last night I ignored my notes (except for the original notes I'd made some time ago) and just wrote. Out came about 1500 words of story, and while some of it's admittedly rough, some of it is--at least in today's changable opinion--the best stuff I've written so far. I have one difficult scene to write (difficult because it's all about character so I have to really concentrate and mean what I'm writing) and then I can finish up the chapter quickly as my notes are pretty solid for the last scene, and then, finally praise Allah, it's on to the next chapter and the rest of the Second Act which should come easily enough. We'll see.

The first draft is looking like it's going to be a tad on the short side, say around 60k words. Which is fine, and as Mighty Reader reminded me, my books always get longer during revisions no matter how much I cut because I Can't Shut Up.

Oh, before I forget: bodycount for Chapter 13 = 1.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Not Busting Up The Chiffarobe

So on Saturday I did not do any writing, because Mighty Reader and I were driving a rented SUV to an antique shop out of town to fetch the 1940's-era china cabinet shown here. We managed to load it into a Honda Element despite the protestations of the antique shop's owner, who claimed it would be impossible. Those side doors on the Element? Brilliant idea. Anyway, here it is in our kitchen, loaded for bear. The picture frame above the cabinet contains a letter from Stuart McLean of CBC Radio's "The Vinyl Cafe," in which Stuart explains why he didn't make it to our house warming party in August. At least he sent the note.

Speaking of notes, while I didn't write any actual prose on Saturday, I did get out of bed at one point on Saturday night and, after rushing into the Designated Writing Room, made some notes about Chapter 13 and they were good notes so I'm pleased.

Sunday was also a no-writing day, though I had an epiphany about the climax of the book and have gained a new way of thinking about dramatic arcs and character development, so that's good.

Today at lunch I pulled out the notebook and the notes I made on Saturday night and managed to scribble out about 500 more words of Chapter 13. I'm not exactly sure, from paragraph-to-paragraph, what I'm doing in this chapter but so far it's following my large-scale structural intentions, so I'm calling it good at this point. I've got about 2500 more words to write for this chapter, I think, but I'm pretty sure those words won't fight back much, and after this chapter, the rest of the Second Act should be easier to get down on paper and my plan to have the first draft done by springtime ought to hold. Unless, of course, when I hear back from my agent he'll request more time-consuming and extensive revisions to the MS of "So Honest A Man." We shall see.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Whiskey and Oysters

An hour later Cocke stepped out back to use the privy and saw two mounted English soldiers, slowly walking their horses in the direction of the tavern. It was approaching sundown and in the slanting rays of ruddy light the soldiers looked to Cocke in his half-drunken state like some kind of demons. The red of their coats glowed like hot iron; the brass buttons on their turned-out cuffs and fronts caught the light and glittered, flashing over the riders’ arms and chests. Mounted on coal black horses and wearing broad black hats, the soldiers put to Cocke’s mind certain images of Hell he’d seen one afternoon when paging through Father Dowd’s catechism.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chapter Thirteen, Underway

After all the dithering I've done about the middle of the novel, I have finally resumed actually writing the damned thing. That means that during lunch today I got out my pen and notebook and managed to scratch out about 700 words. So far so good, I tell myself. I seem to be on the right track again. Let's hope that continues. I am pretty sure I know the way this chapter is going to go, and how it fits into the Second Act of the book, and it all seems to be making sense. So I'll just keep writing.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Chapter Twelve is Past Tense

Yes, this evening (after a day spent shopping for Xmas trees and then purchasing a fine 1940s-era china cabinet for the dining room) I finished Chapter Twelve, "South." It was, and I don't mind saying this, a real bitch to write. I took a couple of days off from prose writing to figure out where I was in the story and what needed to happen, because I'd gotten lost. What I actually did to find my way again was start at the end of Chapter 17 and work backwards through the story to where I was in Chapter 12. That worked a treat and now I have a much more solid map through the Second Act.

wordcountometer = 26,147!

The wordcount is a bit low by my estimate, which might worry some folks, but I know that revisions will expand things I've only sort of sketched in at this point. I always find more things to say, you know.

Next up, Chapter Thirteen, Cocke & Hope. There was no killing in Chapter 12, but there was sex. Same deal for Chapter 13, though I consider producing a corpse, just because it's been a while. We'll see.

Thursday, December 3, 2009



The moon over Seattle was quite gobsmacking tonight. Mighty Reader took this hasty photo a couple hours ago. I think it looks very Edward Gorey, myself.

The Fictional Dream

Writer and teacher John Gardner had a concept he called the fictional dream, which was the idea that fiction does its job by creating a dream state for the reader, and as long as the writer is doing a good job of maintaining that dream state, the reader won't "wake up" from it and will continue to read and believe in the fictional world the writer has created. Gardner argues that this fictional dream first happens in the writer's head, and the writer's job is to write it down for the reader:

“In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead.”

For me, at least, this is a pretty accurate description of what writing is like, at least some of the time. As I work my way through the second act of "Cocke & Bull" I am finding that even though I've got a couple of outlines written for the book and I'm accumulating notes to myself about what the second act is all about, the tool upon which I am leaning the most to get the writing done is my imagination. Last night I was trying to write a simple scene in which three people camp out for the night in a pine forest, and when I imagined the scene I found myself imagining all sorts of surprising action and then I found myself describing this action in all sorts of surprising ways. I read back over what I wrote and at one point had to ask myself where a certain symbolic image came from; I didn't remember writing it at all but there it was on the page and it was perfect.

All of which should give me confidence as I move forward through the middle section of the book, but still I feel like I'm taking a white-knuckle ride through the story, because even though I know certain things that have to happen by the end of the second act, in some ways I have no idea at all what's going to happen during the course of this act and I'm still feeling my way blindly through the story even with my pages of notes and outlines and maps and charts (yes, charts). I breathe a sigh of relief at the completion of each chapter, as if I've survived some harrowing experience. Which, you know, I have.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Working Toward the Second Act

So last Thursday night I finished writing Act One of "Cocke & Bull." The next step is to write Chapter Eleven, which is essentially a trip across a couple of colonies and down to Georgia. I have to think of some event that will occur during this chapter to avoid it's being nothing but a travelogue. But that's a pretty trivial challenge.

The larger challenge remains writing Act Two. This second act should be around 40,000 words long, have its own story arc and 3-act structure, and neatly connect the first and third acts of the novel's overall shape. When I was writing my original outline for Act Two, I wasn't at all clear about what was going to happen in it, though I knew how the act would end. I'm one of those writers who starts with the idea of the ending and works backwards from there to the beginning to sort out plot and character evolution.

So I've been sort of brooding over Act Two since Thursday, letting it stew and seeing if I'd have any ideas. I knew I wanted the middle of the book to be a sort of novella that bridges the outer acts, and I knew I wanted the middle to have a three-part structure of its own, but I didn't know what that structure would be. I was missing two things: an idea of what the essential conflicts of Act Two were (and who they were between), and an event that would trigger the climactic chapter of this act. Last night I sorted all of this out.

One of the writerly conceits of this book--the structural narrative devices I'm using, that is--is the idea of repetition. Images and events keep getting repeated by different characters in different settings with different meanings. It occured to me that I could have a character do something 2/3 of the way through Act Two that was done 2/3 of the way through Act One, and it would have heightened effect in the second act, and the consequences of this action would be similar in Act Two to what they were in Act One, but much more dramatic for the main characters. Also, repetition of this action will make the irony implicit in the plot more apparent. Further, everything about this action and its consequences is true to character for all the players and readers will see that it is inevitable. So it's all Win, which makes me happy.

I still have to sort out how to make this happen across nine longish chapters, how to keep the tension growing across 40K words without boring or exhausting the reader, and how to avoid getting to the climax of Act Two without making the act either a series of episodes that do nothing but pad the length of the novel, or a bunch of digressions about the nature of man and that sort of thing. In other words, things have to keep happening that have to do with the essential conflicts of the book (both the outer conflicts of Act One and Act Three, and the inner conflict played out in Act Two). There must be, as John Gardner said too often, profluence.

My plan (though I should really write Chapter 11 first) is to sit me down at lunch today and expand my outline, and find out what necessary events and crises are called for by the book.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Chapter Ten? I call that "written"

So last night, from about 9:30-midnight, I sat and wrote Chapter Ten, the climax of Act One of my current novel. I'm all aquiver over it; I think it's pretty good.

wordcount? 21,993!

Chapter Eleven ("South") is a sort of transitional chapter that sets up Act Two but also gives the reader a bit of breathing room after Chapter Ten, which was very tense. Oh, body count ended up being only four corpses. I have saved one for later, because I'm thrifty like that. It's good to leave survivors, too. They make trouble down the line.

Anyway, I think Chapter Eleven will go quickly enough and is likely to be fairly short. The nine chapters which make up Act Two are all to be fairly long and before I really dive into the prose I want to sit and reflect for a bit and make some more detailed notes. This book is the finest thing I've ever written, and I'm pleased pleased pleased with it so far.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Quick Update Pre-Bed: Chapter Nine Done

wordcountometer=19,438!

Next, Chapter Ten, or Hope Unbound, in which our protagonist does regrettable things that will change the course of his life, such as it is. The promised corpses will be delivered in this chapter. I can't decide if there will be four or five. At least four, though. Hang on for a rough ride.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Chapter Eight? That's Done.

Yay, me. The chapter I began at lunch today was continued during a commute this evening and finished about half an hour ago after dinner and a late-night trip to the grocery store. Color me productive and pleased enough with what I've written. Some of the action might need a bit of work, but I think most of the chapter is good. Better than I thought it would be. Captain Penner turns out to be a fine character. I have named two of the grenadiers Claypoole and Diggins. Things might not turn out so well for those two; we'll see.

Wordcountometer=18,088. That's not bad. I'm up to about 23% of my 80K first draft goal. In a few chapters I'll stop worrying about wordcount entirely, though it's one of the few quantitative measures of progress we writers have, isn't it?

Anyway, on to Chapter Nine, "Hope Bound." Threats, promises and decisions will be made. A failure to communicate will result in the action of Chapter Ten, to be titled "Hope Unbound." The first act is nearly concluded. I'm all aquiver, I am.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sick Day, Chapter Seven With a Fever

So today I was not feeling up to going to the office so I called in and slept late, rising at some point mid-morning to make a pot of coffee, sit in the kitchen and scribble out the entirety of Chapter Seven ("Hope"). In my somewhat challenged and possibly still-fevered state, I think it's pretty good, this lot of words what I've written. We learn what sort of woman Hope is, we learn more about Cocke and Bull's relationship, we learn some important stuff about Bull through a fabulous bit of backstory that is, yes, a flashback in present tense because I'm a rule-breaker and stuff, and we move the plot forward with the introduction of a certain Captain Penner (have I stolen that name from you too, Piedmont Writer?), of His Majesty the King's Grenadiers.

Wordcountometer: 16,736!

Next up, Chapter Eight, predictably enough titled His Majesty's Grenadiers. There will be some English grenadiers (oh, go look it up why don't you) and a surprising turn of events courtesy of Hope, and some commentary about Anglicans versus Catholics. Nobody was killed in Chapter Seven, and I don't think anyone will be killed in Chapter Eight. Huh. Things might be slowing down, though the tension seems to be ratcheting up. But I promise a couple of corpses in Chapter Ten, whenever I get there. Anyway, it's progress.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Chapter Six is History

So there's another one written. It was a short chapter, but I'm happy with it. Wordcountometer=14,530. At this point, before diving into Chapter Seven ("Hope"), I will pause to write out one or two paragraphs outlining each of the next four chapters, whose plot developments will bring Act One to a conclusion. My goal is to reach 20K words by the end of the first act. Act Two will be about 40,000 words in length, or so I intend, which means that each of the nine chapters in that act will have to be at least 4,000 words long. All of this math might seem a bit artificial and anti-art, but I like the idea that I know what the general shape of the story is going to be, and I like that I'm following my own current ideas about beginnings, middles and endings and I have some sort of benchmarks to gauge my progress and keep me more-or-less within the guidelines I have set for myself. All of this can change during revisions, of course, and likely many things will. But for now, it's nice to move boldly and with confidence. Anyway, I hope to get my next chunk of outline written tomorrow, and it would be cool to have chapters seven and maybe eight written by the end of the week. I'm excited about chapter eight, because I get to make up and introduce a new character who I have as yet not even named. If I haven't said it before, I do write primarily to amuse myself, and I'm having a very good time with this draft.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chapter Five Finished

Wordcountometer: 13,291! People killed in Chapter Five=none. Which is nice. A relief, really. The first couple of pages of Chapter Five contain, I think, some of the finest writing I have ever done and I'm very pleased with them.

Chapter Six ("A Sudden Storm") will include an argument in a church, the promised sudden storm and the appearance of a woman whose name is Hope.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chapter Five Half Done

Yesterday I wrote the first half of chapter five, wherein Mr. Cocke visits the Widow Abigail. Today I hope to write the second half of this chapter, wherein Mr. Bull visits Mr. Clockshott. I am attempting to do something clever in this chapter. We'll see how it turns out. Actually, as I was writing this post, I had a fabulous idea about what happens next. So that's cool. Word count at this point? Maybe 13k. I haven't been so good about typing up my daily scribbles into the Master Document(tm). Hopefully I'll get to that tonight. Anyway, things progress nicely.

I remain pleased that I have an outline. It's a pretty skimpy sort of thing, just one page listing all the chapter titles with a phrase or two at each chapter telling me what I think should happen. I also have been writing out a paragraph description for each upcoming chapter so I have the opportunity to think about what the point of each chapter is so I don't get lost in the writing. That comes in handy, especially in situations like last night when I was working on a scene and one of the characters showed no interest in going where I wanted them to go, plotwise. I had to convince them, which made things interesting.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Chapter Four Finished

So there's that done, then. And about time, too. Wordcountometer: 10,578! Breaking the 10K mark is a nice accomplishment. I think I'm making excellent progress.

Next up, Chapter Five, entitled "The Widow Abigail." Parallel seduction scenes ensue. Also, a lot of cash might exchange hands; we'll see how I feel about that when I get there. What larks!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Chapter Four Started

Yeah, that's right. I had a very long commute home last night, and plenty of time to write, so I did. I got the first scene of this chapter written, and a start on the next scene. No one, as yet, has been hanged, nor has Mr. Clockshott made his appearance. Wordcountometer: ~9400.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chapter Three Finished

Just saying. Wordcountometer: 8581!

Next up, Chapter Four, "A Hanging." To include, yes, a hanging and also possibly a man with the improbable last name of Clockshott. We'll see.

Monday, November 2, 2009

NaNoWriNot

I'd just like to say that I spent the first day of November not writing. Instead, Mighty Reader and I climbed up and down ladders in epic battle with the gutters on our house. I installed some flashing. She cleaned. I got up on the roof and nailed some loose siding back into place. There was a break for a trip to the farmers' market, coffee and cupcakes and a brief stop at the hardware store. Later, we made nachos and watched a couple episodes of BTVS, Season 2. I am not doing NaNoWriMo, is where I'm going with this. I'll continue to push along with the current novel at my regular pace, which means I'll probably have a first draft done by spring. But good luck to everyone who's driving themselves mad over the next 29 days.

Edit to add: wordcountometer says 7358! Not brilliant, but it's progress.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chapter Three started

Yay, me! Chapter three! It begins with a description of the town and environs wherein the first act of the tale is set. The protagonist's accomplice then goes to lunch at a tavern. He may have a whiskey while he's there. Later, he will meet with The Merchants at a manor house and hijinks will ensue. Possibly rum-drinking and card-playing. I know: excitement! Contain yourselves, do.

Edit to add at 10:47 pm: Mutton, beer and whiskey consumed! Meeting with The Merchants to take place next! Wordcount: 6461!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Chapter Two Finished

Yay, me! Wordcount: 5339!

Chapter Three ("The Merchants") may have another POV shift. I haven't decided. Do we see through the eyes of Cocke, the merchant, or the merchant's wife? We'll see, though at this point in time, my money's on the merchant. I believe that there may be one or two sentences of what could be considered by some to be backstory in this chapter, but I don't know yet. If there is, it's the last of the backstory and the book can just move forward forward forward on its own momentum.

Not Writing-Related

I post here only to show that even though I live in Seattle and it's the rainy season (known elsewhere as "Fall" or "Winter" or "Spring"), some days we have sunshine and it's warm enough to go outdoors. Below is breakfast in the back yard on Saturday. The cat in the photo is Madame Gradka, ruler-in-exile of the Kingdom of Myxolydia, seated on her portable throne.



More alarming than visiting royalty was the appearance yesterday afternoon of a peregrine falcon in the back yard. He swooped in between the trees, landing in the cherry tree with some smaller bird in his talons. Possibly he caught one of our dark-eyed juncos in mid-air, but I didn't see that. We did see drops of blood and feathers on the ground beneath the tree after we chased him out of the yard. It wouldn't do for our back yard to become a regular feeding ground for raptors.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

One does not dress for private company as for a publick ball

"By my rambling Digressions I perceive my self to be grown old. I us'd to write more methodically...'Tis perhaps only Negligence."
--Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Friday, October 23, 2009

Update and a Confession of the Author's Hypocrisy

I continue to work on Chapter Two of "Cocke & Bull." I like what I'm doing, but I find that I am apparently violating rules that I hand out over at the Literary Lab. Maybe. Lately I've been claiming that I'm looking to traditional storytelling for inspiration, which is in one way true because the prose style touchstones right now appear to be Melville, Dickens and Hemingway. But I am also breaking a lot of alleged rules like shifting point-of-view during a scene (which means that my 3rd-person limited omniscient is more like 3rd-person unlimited omniscient), shifting tense during a scene (I jump from past to present to tell, oddly enough, about an event in the story past), and making Chapter Two essentially all backstory, though it all goes to character. So I'm going off half-cocked and doing as I like.

But I remind you that this is just a first draft, and at some point I have to go back and revise all of this and make it work as a coherant narrative structure, so all the thrashing about I'm doing right now could well disappear and find itself more well behaved down the road.

Wordcountometer: about 4600!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chapter Two at last

Over lunch today I began writing the second chapter of my new book, "Cocke & Bull." I did not churn out a lot of words (a few hundred, I think), but what words I did scribble down are interesting. This chapter will have a bit of backstory, but I'm not telling it like backstory so much as I'm telling it as...well, I'm not quite sure what. There's an event from a month or so before the book begins that I'm relating in sort of reverse order, using images from the event to tell about the protagonist's character. It's not "this is what happened" so much as "this is how my character thinks and how he views himself." I won't go into any detail about the actual writing, I don't think, but I'm constructing this passage in a way that's new for me, and I am intrigued by the results. So that's all good.

Also good is that I've figured out how some of the characters should talk. My research into Colonial American prose is paying off. "Law me, ain't that gent?" Oh yes, it is.

Edited to add: Current wordcountometer(tm) reading: 3606!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Still Outlining, Researching and Writing

I'm awfully sure that I'm done enough with my first chapter to move on to chapter two. I hesitate to write much more now, because my Grande Outline of the Novel(tm) remains unfinished; I've got notes for only about five of the 24 planned chapters, and even though I know the story in broad strokes, I don't want to get too much prose down on the page before I become even more familiar with it. Also, I'm getting deep into Writerly Research Mode(tm) which will pull me away from the writing for a while, though last time I managed to keep scribbling while doing some book larnin' and maybe that's how I'll work this time, too. Which means that my book-in-progress will become festooned with sticky notes and odd scraps of paper reminding me to change the bits about the farmer's hat or the cost of oats or whatever when my research turns up things I've written that are historically wrong.

But progress does continue, however slowly, on the outline. Yesterday I made some good notes about chapter 17 or something like, and I'm really pleased with the ideas for that bit. It gave me insight into the protagonist to see him down the road, as it were, interacting with some minor characters. The best way to learn who your characters are, you know, is to have them do things and interact with other people. Like little children they learn to walk and we sit back, their proud parents. Yes, even if they also learn to pick up guns and shoot people, we remain proud of them. It's the way of writing.

Anyway, I'm collecting characters and locations and scenes and themes still, and I continue to believe that "Cocke & Bull" is going to be a Really Amazing Book(tm).

WordCountMeter(tm): 2,606

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Cocke & Bull"

I am now 1500 words into my next book, "Cocke & Bull." Don't ask me about the title; it came to me in a dream so I'm going with it. Anyway, I am pleased with most of my 1500 shiny words. They do pretty much what I want them to do, and the chapter is unfolding in a satisfying way. Though I keep feeling the narrative trying to get away from me, which is why my next step is not to write more prose, but to sit down and write up an outline more detailed than my single-paragraph synopsis. A list of events and scenes is what I need, and soon. I also need to do a great lot of reading for research purposes. This story is set in 1749 in the American Colonies (Maryland, north of Baltimore on the shores of Chesapeake Bay to be precise), and I realized that I just don't know enough about the times to get the depth of character that I want. Though I have found a dictionary of criminal slang for that time period, and that should be a lot of fun for me.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The End is in Sight

I made excellent progress last night, typing up my changes into the ms. I think that I can finish up in either one long session or two nice short sessions at the keyboard. I remain well pleased with what I've wrought, and even though I am still in Writer Mode and keep coming up with all sorts of new ideas to throw into the book, That Way Lies Madness And I Refuse To Succumb To The Lure Of Additional Scenes. Unless I do succumb, in which case someone needs to drop by and hit me with a brick. It is a fact undeniable that changing one word anywhere in the manuscript necessitates changing lots of other words throughout the rest of the book, and I just don't have the rest of my life to fiddle around with it. I have other books to write, and "So Honest A Man" is fine the way it stands.

Also, my astrologer has told me this:

Your time is up, Virgo. No further stalling will be allowed. We need your answer now: Will you or will you not take advantage of the messy but useful offer that is on the table? Don't ask for an extension, because you ain't getting one. Please take advantage of this chance to prove that you love yourself too much to get hoodwinked and abused by perfectionism. Be brave enough to declare your allegiance to the perspective articulated by the mathematician Henri Poincaré: "There are no solved problems. There are only more-or-less solved problems."

Who am I to argue against that sort of logic?

The word count keeps dropping, little by little, but as I've been saying, the book is plenty long enough and the lost words were all just cluttering up the prose. It's a good book, and I'm glad I wrote it.

Bird Head For Charity

Buy a great anthology. All proceeds go to charity! Big-name writers, flash fiction, cool stuff. Pre-order and save $5!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

But who are these "young people?"

This is interesting. We are apparently in a literary boom. No wonder agents are buried in queries.

Also, Amazing Ben Thompson's cover art (finally):



The book has loads of cool illustrations and maps, too. I like maps. "Badass" comes out next month. Buy it at your plucky local independant bookstore!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Revisions Update, Part Something

I've been typing up all my changes to "So Honest A Man" into the Master Document(tm) these last two weeks. I really hate this bit, as it entails going through the marked-up pages and editing the Word doc to reflect all the edits I've made by hand on my printout. It's slow going because my handwriting isn't the best, and sometimes I've changed my mind a couple of times about revisions to passages and it takes me a while to figure out just what I meant. If there are radical changes to passages or scenes, it can take me longer to type up my changes than it took to do the actual revisions.

I find this very dispiriting work, and since I'm only reading the ms in bits and bobs as I edit, I keep getting the feeling that the narrative makes no sense. Of course it doesn't when read in this manner, but it's an odd mental place to find myself.

Happily though, when (like last night) I sit and take the time to read over a revised chapter, I am immensely pleased with what I've done to the book. It's a really fine story that I've written, and all of my changes work. The current plan is to ship it off to my agent around the first of October.

Approximate word count at this stage (about 50% through typing up changes) is 88,000. I assume it'll stay about that same length. I'm interested in that number, but not concerned about it. The book is plenty long enough.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Hope for Novella Writers

I read this morning that a new publishing house, Madras Press, will be publishing a line of novellas and donating all proceeds to a charity of the author's choice. Which is, you know, way cool. Of course, Madras Press stole the charity idea from Davin, Michelle and me at the Literary Lab. Or, not. In any case, if you see their books in your local independant bookstore, pick them up.

Also, if you're a dead European writer of novellas, there's a good chance that Melville House will publish your book. The Proust title featured on the page to which I've linked is quite fine. Their entire The Art of the Novella line is really cool. "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a must-read for anyone.

Other places printing small books that are very cool include Hobart. The Mary Miller book "Big World" is way better than good. Mary autographed my copy. She had no idea who I was, but that's okay; most people don't.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Jonathan Evison Book Wins Award

Jonathan Evison's fabulous debut novel "All About Lulu" has won the Washington State Book Award for fiction. Go buy a copy, especially if you live in the Pacific Northwest. Support your plucky local authors published on small presses! And read his next book, "West of Here" when it comes out next year. Do it. Jonathan is a really nice guy; he and I had a great conversation about agents a couple of months ago, and Jon bought all the beer. For the whole room. And he likes rabbits.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Crazy

I have clearly gone mad, but I just realized that I miss being in the process of revising my novel. Not that I'm going to start in again, but...I do miss it. Which is likely a sign that I need to start working on my next project, working title "Cocke & Bull." That'll show me. That'll show me good.

Cutting Room Floor, Part 3

More expostion I don't need:

Like all young men on their first real exposure to education, Hamlet was amazed at his capacity to learn and mistook that capacity for a greater intellect than he actually possessed. I’d gone through it as well at his age, and it is only because Hamlet was truly likeable that I could withstand his earnest lectures about every subject under the sun. In the first and second year at university a young man feels that he either knows or is about to know everything worth knowing, and that every thought, even if it merely echoes the thoughts of the writers of antiquity he is being forced to read by his masters, is being thought for the first time in history, by him, and he is compelled to give voice to it. Hamlet regaled me with all the Plato, Aristotle et alia that I read years earlier, and I was expected to be astounded by the ideas he discovered. The prince was an excellent parrot of classical wisdom, entertaining and well spoken if not insightful. He enjoyed philosophy and the poets but had no mind for history, theology or any practical knowledge.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cutting Room Floor, Part 2

More backstory that didn't make it into the final draft.

I was so skinny and weak that no tradesman would apprentice me, and my father understood that the only thing to do with me was to have me educated. When I was six years old he sent me to the bishop’s Latin school. This was once the place where all Wittenberg’s men, except for those few who could afford private tutelage at home, began their studies. The Latin school had been housed for nearly a century next to Schlosskirche, in one of the buildings owned by the diocese. After the Lutheran usurpation of Wittenberg, the bishop’s school was closed down and a Lutheran school took over that building. The City Council turned a blind eye as the bishop continued to run his own school, on a much-reduced scale, outside the city limits at the abandoned Benedictine monastery. Our teachers were aging monks; a few of them had once lectured at the university. Under city edict, theology and the Catechism were banned as subject matter, and at times the City Council opened its eye and closed the exiled school to remind the bishop who it was that really held the keys to Wittenberg’s kingdom of knowledge.

It cost money to attend Latin school, and oftimes my father could not afford my tuition. When I could not attend school, I made an effort to help my father and his apprentice in the shop, running errands and getting in the way. From my father I learned nothing of the bookbinding trade, having neither the dexterity nor the interest for it. I did learn how to avoid a beating when I could, or take one when it came. These skills served me well at Latin school, where it was said that youth learn neither manners nor grammar passively; knowledge is taken in through the skin as well as the eyes and ears.

With the interruptions to my schooling, a course of education that normally took no more than four years lasted eight in my case. A boy usually left Latin school at nine, having learned his basic grammar from the histories of Cato, the letters of Cicero and the comedies of Terence. He then went on to one of the colleges, or the seminary if he was destined for the priesthood--or the clergy, I should say, as there were no longer any Catholic seminaries in all of Saxony. Those few Catholics left in the city were fortunate that the bishop’s school retained the monks who had lectured at Wittenberg, for by the time we were old enough to enter the university we were not only fluent in Latin but also knew our Xenophon, Demosthenes, Virgil, Catullus and Ovid. Perhaps our studies in music, geometry and arithmetic were not up to the same standards as our Lutheran neighbors, but certainly we surpassed them in rhetoric and dialectics. I was not the most brilliant boy at the bishop’s school, but I took to Latin like a native of Rome, and when I’d read some of the classics I dreamed for the first time of more than beef and mutton. My schoolmates and I stormed the walls of Troy, founded great cities along the Elbe and captured foreign princesses before wandering home to our hovels and our fathers’ workshops. When I was ready to sit the university entrance examination I was well enough prepared for the challenge. What nearly kept me from my degrees was lack of money.

My father could little hope to afford my university education. While he had at last been allowed to join the lowest tier of his guild, in Wittenberg the trades were not yet as powerful as they were elsewhere; there was steady work but the Duke’s taxes were heavy and the guilds had more ambition than wealth. Our family lived in a shack built against the bindery, we ate gruel morning and night and there were months when no work at all came my father’s way. I was another mouth to feed from his small portion of food--food better spent feeding the ugly apprentice who now lived in the shop. We argued over my going away to Italy or France to enter a seminary, but I felt no calling. I refused my father’s suggestion of the priesthood and greatly vexed him. I was a headstrong boy, even at fourteen.

“I want to raise the family name to respectability and honor here in Wittenberg,” I told him. My proud claim meant nothing to my father; he cared naught for honor and knew that I mistook respectability for no more than a clean bed.

“Hmph,” my father said, and dragged me off to see the bishop.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cutting Room Floor

So last night I finished revisions of "So Honest A Man" and in a few days I'll tidy things up and send the new version off to my agent to see what he says. Hopefully he'll say "Wow!"

I ended up cutting all of my protagonist's childhood from the book, because it was nothing but setting and backstory. Some of it wasn't bad writing, but the book is better without it. Here's a snippet of snipped prose:

In the warm months I ran the length of Wittenberg’s streets, in the tall shadows of newly built marble counting houses that shouldered their way into lots between the older step-gabled brick buildings. Barefoot and clothed in whatever stray patches of rough cloth my mother had sewn together into breeches, I got into what harmless private mischief I could. In an alley behind a carpenter’s shop where I meant to collect wood scraps and stray ends of boards, I once ran foul of a gang of older boys who had cornered a lad from one of the city’s few Jewish families.

“Foreigner,” the older boys spat, shoving the little Jew down into the mud.

“I am no foreigner,” the frightened boy protested. “I was born in Wittenberg, as were you.”

“Jew,” they accused, beating on him with their fists. “We should burn you and yours at the stake!”

The boy saw me and called out for help. I took a step toward him. Some of the older youths came forward.

“What ho,” they said. “A little Dankser.”

“Nay,” I answered. “I am German.”

“Jew!” they threatened.

“Nay, I am Catholic,” I said confidently.

“Papist!” the boys cried, and fell upon me. When I arrived home hours later, bloody, naked and with no armload of kindling, my father gave me a few blows when I told him what had happened, and that I had fought back.

“A man fights not,” he said. “No matter what is done to him.”

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Moby Dick" page 360

Melville refuses to gloss over the violence and cruelty of the whaling business:

As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. but pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. Still rolling in his blood, at last he partially disclosed a strangely discolored bunch or protuberance, the size of a bushel, low down on the flank.

'A nice spot,' cried Flask; 'just let me prick him there once.'

'Avast!' cried Starbuck, 'there's no need of that!'

But humane Starbuck was too late. At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask's boat and marring the bows. It was his death stroke. For, by this time, so spent was he by loss of blood, that he helplessly rolled away from the wreck he had made; lay panting on his side, impotently flapped with his stumped fin, then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world; turned up the white secrets of his belly; lay like a log, and died. It was most piteous, that last expiring spout. As when by unseen hands the water is gradually drawn off from some mighty fountain, and with half-stifled melancholy gurglings the spray-column lowers and lowers to the ground -- so the last long dying spout of the whale.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Missed Deadline

I just sent an email to my agent, telling him that I'm going to be about two weeks late with my revisions. I did not mention the word "deadline" because it turns out that I'd only given him the end of August as a provisional date. How smart I was to hedge my bets and pad my timeline.

Anyway, here's a brief status report: I have done all the big changes I wanted, and I still like what I've done. I'm almost finished reading through the whole ms, with about 45 or so pages to go, and happily enough I'm not finding much to change. A few entire pages without a mark on them! Chapters Seven and Eight didn't fare so well, and were almost rewritten from scratch, just because I didn't like the pacing.

My plan of action is to change one big scene, add in another big scene (already written) and add a bit of dialogue to another scene. Everything else is just playing with language and condensing dialogue. The hope is to actually finish revisions by Friday night, and type up all my changes into the Master Document the weekend of the 12th, when Mighty Reader and I have returned from a well-earned vacation along the coast. I may post pretty pictures if I think of it.

Was there a point? Oh, yeah: back in June, this revision looked impossible, but now here I am, nearly finished with it. See yesterday's post about perseverance.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Revisions Continued

I took today off from work and from all things computing to renew my driver's license and then, after the 2.5 hour hell that is the DMV, work on revisions to the novel. Here is what my desk looked like during revisions:



And while that may look like plenty of scribbling on the pages, it's what I consider a light edit. This might be why revisions take so long for me; I tend to make a lot of changes every time I read through the book. Why? Because I can. Also, I hope, because I get better as a writer all the time. At least that's what I tell myself. Maybe I just can't resist fiddling with the narrative. Don't know. Anyway, I'm about 25% of the way through the manuscript. I'd like to get through the whole thing by the end of the month (as I've been saying here for quite some time), but it looks increasingly doubtful. It will take me a day just to type up all of the changes, very likely. Where is my personal assistant, damn it?

I won't be revising tomorrow; it's my birthday, and Mighty Reader and I plan to go to the beach, ride the water taxi across the bay, possibly take in a matinee of the new Miyazaki film, have dinner at the fabulous Carte de Oaxaca in beautiful Ballard, and then return home for champagne and cake. I will not, needless to say, be playing on the internets or building more walls in the attic tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rewrites, We Got Rewrites

I have now marked up the first four (4) chapters of my ms; I need to find time to actually type up the changes in The Master Document(tm), but still, I'm making good progress. It took me two months to rewrite the first chapter, but only a couple of hours to edit the next three. Things are looking pretty good chez Bailey. Not to mention that this weekend I built a fucking wall in my attic and put up a load of drywall and installed doors on a big storage space upstairs. I roolz.

Where was I? Oh, rewrites. It's going well, I think. As usual, for every paragraph I cut, I end up writing a new paragraph elsewhere in the narrative. My wordcount remains healthy and in the neighborhood of 90,000. Not that it so much matters at this point. My hope is to get a lot of editing done tomorrow while I'm sitting around at the DMV renewing my license. We'll see. And I still roolz.

And a question: My friend Ben Thompson, whose fab book "Badass" comes out in October and you should all buy a copy, asked me if I could think of any good interweb sites that review books (aside from the big sites like Kirkus), particularly quirky nonfiction historical books. If you can think of any sites that would review an ARC of a book about badasses through the centuries, let me know.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Revisions: I Win!

Today at lunch I successfully tied together the massively revised first chapter with the rest of the novel. I need to work on that last transitional passage, but really, the worst is over. I am very pleased by that. I thought I'd never get from the new opening pages to the stuff I was leaving alone, but I've finally managed to do just that.

Am I done now? No, not quite. I still need to add two new scenes (already written) and cut the end of one scene that doesn't work now that I've written one of the above-mentioned new scenes, and I still need to read through the whole thing and address one or two little things and make sure that I haven't introduced any continuity errors while rewriting the first part. I am pleased to have kept the glorious eel passages, now wriggling away at the end of Chapter Six, I believe.

The bigger accomplishment, bigger even than actually having revised the first 11,000+ words of the book, is that I have pretty much eliminated any need for backstory. There is now only the Story Present, the NOW of the tale, and anything that looked like backstory has been cut or transformed into details of setting or character. A few bits of the past remain, alas, but I've done a more-or-less complete job of deleting all of that. I may post something about this idea of There Is No Backstory, There Is Only Now on the Literary Lab one of these days.

Anyway, yay me; I think I may still manage to get this revision off to Agent Jeff by the end of this month. I'm a total rock star if that happens. We'll see.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Revisions Progress, Day Who-knows-what

Chapter One, Scene Two is coming together nicely. I worked on it last night and again at lunch today. There was a sentence of pure "telling" that I decided I didn't need. I also must remember to add in the bit about the smell of meat cooking. Maybe tonight.

I think--if I've got this right--that I only need to write/rewrite about five more scenes and the greater portion of the revisions will be done. Then it's off to look at the rest of the story and see if I've created any continuity errors. Certainly there will be some. A couple of extant scenes will be expanded to better introduce characters, but I've already got that stuff written down in a notebook somewhere. I'll also need to see if I can salvage more of my beautiful backstory. The eels, for those who know the reference, are fine and happy in their new home in Chapter Six. Or Seven. I forget which, precisely.

Best news of all: I am once again utterly in love with this book.

Monday, August 10, 2009

That's Great Kid; Don't Get Cocky

I've been sort of pushing my first chapter around into all sorts of configurations for the last month or so, not quite ever getting it to stand up and walk on its own power, because I lacked clarity of vision about both the theme of the book and the protagonist's character arc. I kept changing my mind about something, which made it impossible to move forward. There was a lot of sideways motion, but none of that actually got me past working on the first scene of the book.

Happily, I have sorted all of that out and I have a very clear idea of what I've been trying to do with this guy since I first wrote "Chapter One" on a blank page, lo these many years ago. That may sound odd coming from someone who's already been working with a well-known agent on this book, but I discovered that I had done some literary sleight-of-hand with the story which masked the fact that certain important story elements were either unclear or just missing from the book. Now that I've spent a couple of weeks wrestling with the story in my head, I was able to rework that first scene during lunch today, and it's just fabulous. Suddenly, revising the book is going to be a lot of fun again, instead of a lot of work. So, yay me.

In the vaguest possible terms, I'll explain that I have finally seen the essential irony of the protagonist's journey, and now I can bring that out and the whole story will be a deeper, richer and more interesting experience. Best of all, this won't require the major surgery I was afraid it would take; most of the elements are already there in the prose; I just have to expand a bit here and contract a bit there, and add a couple of lines of dialog in the final chapter. Voila! I'm a supergenius.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Last-minute Announcement: Mary Miller Reading

Author Mary Miller (whose book of stories, Big World, was published this year) will be giving a reading tonight in Seattle. Click here for details and then show up at 7:00 PM. Miller's stories are sad and Southern, full of yearning. I'm going to have her sign my copy of Big World. I don't know the other two writers who'll be there.

Mary is one of the 20 writers that Davin Malasarn has pulled into the collaborative effort that is Two Hundred Fingers Tapping.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Inspiration

I have no idea what inspiration really is. The Oxford English Dictionary gives one possibly useful definition: "A breathing in or infusion of some idea, purpose, etc. into the mind; the suggestion, awakening, or creation of some feeling or impulse, esp. of an exalted kind." That one feels about right for what I mean today.

On Friday, I was sitting at a Chinese restaurant having lunch and reading "Moby Dick." Ishmael and Queequeg have just signed on to crew the Pequod. Anyway, for some reason I suddenly had an idea about my first novel, which I wrote some fifteen or so years ago and abandoned because, frankly, it's rubbish. But the idea that came to me out of the blue takes that rubbishy old novel and made it into something really cool, really interesting, and really entertaining. I was inspired all over again about the basic ideas of the book and wanted to write it.

Where did this idea come from? I've no idea. It's not at all related to anything in "Moby Dick" or anything else I was thinking about all day. It was just sort of floating out there and I breathed it in, as the OED would have it.

Which makes me think that perhaps we can have good ideas for novels but at the same time not have a good idea for how to tell the story. Also, possibly, the better we get at telling stories, the better our ideas about what stories are and what is required of us while telling them, the more of our good ideas we'll be able to actually turn into books. That's a particularly nice thought. For a while I worried that I would run out of ideas, or that most of my ideas would come to nothing, but I begin to think that, maybe, given enough time I'll come up with ways to tell the stories that have been sitting around in my slush file for years. We'll see.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Unstuck, Part Two

During lunch today, I sat down and read the first bit of my novel. Or rather, the new first bit of my novel now that I've cut the 5200 words that used to be the first bit. I made a list of the events of what's now Chapter One, and it goes something like this:

1. Scene introducing protagonist (P), main character 2 (MC2) and supporting character 1 (SC1)
2. Scene w/P & MC2, mostly exposition
3. Exposition
4. More expostion
5. Scene introducing main character 3 (MC3)
6. Telling (exposition)
7. More telling about setting
8. SC1, P and main character 3 (MC3)
9. Scene w/P & MC3
10. Scene w/P, MC2 and other characters
11. Telling (exposition)
12. More telling (exposition)
13. Scene w/P, SC1 and main character 4 (MC4)

So, erm, a lot of exposition and a lot of telling. What there should be instead is a lot of dramatized action between P and MC2, then scenes between P and MC3. And the whole thing should have a dramatic arc from the first scene to the final scene. Right now it's not development of story so much as placement of playing pieces.

Since I love outlines and outlining, I have of course made a chart showing what the dramatic arc of this chapter will be when I've rewritten it, that shows character interactions and conflict and rising action and goals versus results. This time tomorrow, or maybe the day after, I'll have a much better chapter that points the reader on the trajectory of the story.

"Nick of Time"

My friend and colleague Alexandra MacKenzie announced yesterday that her book Nick of Time (a time-travel, science fiction, slashy mystery novel), is going to be published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. Tentative pub date of Fall 2010.

Alex wrote this novel about a decade ago, and has been shopping it around all this time (without an agent, which is apparently more easy in SF than in literary fiction). Everything about this publishing business is maddeningly slow, you know. Be prepared, future authors, to wait around a lot. It took over 18 months for Edge to decide to publish Alex' book. That's not a comment on the quality of Nick of Time, but indicative of the way the industry works in general.

Anyway, it's a good book, Edge is a reputable publisher with good distribution in the USA and Canada at least, and I'll keep you posted as I hear more from Alexandra. Meanwhile, you can read a sample of her writing here.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Unstuck, Part One

So, despite my continuing claims that I've been stuck at the cusp of actual revisions, I have made some progress. Davin can attest to the fact that I've been making a lot of notes, and I have already done the hardest bit by cutting the first 5200 words of the manuscript. Here's a picture of all the words that have been hacked off:



Some of the next 5000 words will have to be rewritten, and I've got long-range changes that will have to be made over the course of the entire ms. But I know what I want to do and the more I think about it, the less overwhelming it looks.

I really would, honestly, rather not begin this revision. It sounds like work, and I'm enjoying being lazy of late. But I know that the book will be much, much better when I'm done. I also know that I'm going to do a lot more work than my agent actually suggested, because his suggested minor change made me realize that it would be really cool if I made even bigger changes, and I can't stop myself. Does my agent know that my planned revisions exceed his suggestions? No, he doesn't. But I'm doing them anyway, because that's the sort of person I am. I know I'm right, so off I go to be right.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Stuck

I'll just say it: I'm stuck. I have no idea what to do at the point I've reached in the narrative. I could claim "writer's block," but I think "writer's block" is just another way of saying "no idea what to write." And me? I've got no idea what to write next.

I suppose I could be panicked about this, as I have a deadline that's only about five weeks away. But I'm not, because I know that somewhere in the back of my head a Truly Great Idea is forming. I'm positive, really I am. But in the mean while, I am stuck, and I don't enjoy it. I could work on some other part of the book while my subconscious solves my narrative problem for me, but that's not my way. No, I will pace around and give my story opprobrious looks until it tells me what it needs.

It's fine to be stuck. As long as, you know, I don't become unglued.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Revisions, Chapter 1

Over lunch today, I began revising (again) the novel in progress (current working title: Hip-Hip-Horatio. Look for that to change). Step one was to cut 5200 words of backstory from the beginning of Chapter One. Step two was to rewrite the first couple of sentences of what came next, it being now the beginning of the book. My new first sentence is better than my original first sentence, I think. Step three (in progress) is to read onward from where I'm now starting, to see how things flow from the new beginning of the story.

I'm trying not to do any line-editing, as the book should be in pretty good shape in that regard already. I'm just looking at big-picture things, long-range structure and the like. I also have a couple of new scenes I want to add in here and there, and I'd like to take a look at two scenes near the end of the book. But on the whole, I don't think there's nearly as much work to be done as I feared. Which comes as something of a relief, I don't mind telling you. Though possibly after I write my "to do" list for this rewrite, I will be afraid.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Why We Tell Stories

The last book I read was Homer's The Iliad. If you haven't read it (and you should), it does not tell the story of the fall of Troy. It is instead the story of the death of Hector at the hands of the hero Achilles, beginning nine years into the Greek siege of Troy when Achilles becomes angry at Agamemnon (lord of the Greeks) and refuses to enter the battle, sitting in the shade of his ship while Hector leads the Trojans in a general slaughter of the Greek army. Toward the end of the story Achilles holds a funeral for Patrocles, his best friend who was killed by Hector on the battlefield. The funeral rites are described in great detail, which pretty much brings the dramatic action to a full stop, right when the story was galloping along thrillingly.

I had to ask myself why Homer would do this. What dramatic purpose did the detailing of Patrocles' funeral serve? None, as far as I could tell. It was then that I remembered something important: stories are told for a variety of reasons. The epic poems of Homer, for example, serve many purposes. They are histories, they are morality plays, they are hugely entertaining stories and they are religious and cultural instructions to the audience as well. Homer stops the forward action of the story at Patrocles' funeral because one of his themes is that all men are mortal and die. Our fates are written for us and are unavoidable. Death is the most significant fact of life, and the death of Patrocles was far more important to Achilles than his own death would be (Achilles has known since before he left home that he would not return alive from the Trojan war). So Homer shows us how we celebrate the deaths of our friends, and how important funeral rites are to his culture, and demonstrates for his audience what the proper way to grieve is. So there is a strong cultural, pedagogic element to Homer.

Which is fine. C.S. Lewis claimed that the point of literature was to ennoble the reader, to make us into better persons and that stories instruct and challenge us when written well. The Screwtape Letters is hi-larious fun, but also very moral in a nice, subversive way. So Lewis and Homer both wrote not only to entertain, but also to teach.

I have no such pretensions. I don't think I've got anything to teach anyone, so my stories lack any sort of lessons, even in a subliminal way. I do, however, want to think out loud, as it were, about things. Which means that in my stories, I like to leave the plot behind now and then and digress, or linger over things that are not dramatic and open doors that would otherwise stay shut. Because, you know, I like to think about stuff and I like to read books that are about more things than the central action. I'd like to write books that are thoughtful, beautiful, subtle and layered and have at their core ideas rather than just dramatic conflicts.

The problem is, while I know that books like this are being published, I don't think publishers are necessarily excited by these books. They don't make a lot of money even if they win prizes and critical acclaim. Agents and publishers are not constantly saying, "You know what we'd like to see more of? Thoughtful and enriching tales about the life of the mind." What they're saying is, "Zombies! Or vampires! Or wizards! Or--just bring me the next Stephanie Rowling-King, damn it!"

Which is why, I think, that I won't be quitting my day job no matter how many titles I manage to get published. I tell stories to talk about ideas, not necessarily to supply pleasant diversions and move a lot of units. My heart is more with Thomas Hardy than with Tom Clancy, and nobody reads Hardy in this day and age.

The point of this? Really, it's that I need to remember why it is that I want to write: to explore ideas about humanity and culture. There is a temptation to strip away everything in my planned books that is not dramatic action, that might get in the way of the drive to the climax. I must resist that temptation, because I would hate some day to look back and see that I am the author of books I would never want to read.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Not Writing

I have not been writing, not a word. I have revisions due to my agent by the end of August and I've begun a new book, but I have not been writing. I bought a new laptop with a Very Large Screen and full-sized keyboard and set up my fancy teak writing table in the second bedroom of the house, but I have not been writing. I have an antique oak office chair and a nice apothecary lamp at my writing table, and I have the world's greatest pen and plenty of paper, but I have not been writing. I have been doing a lot of work on the new house, Mighty Reader and I laboring long into each night painting and repairing and rebuilding and shifting and unpacking and watching that the cat doesn't get outside unsupervised and running to the local hardware store every other day and getting to know the folks at the lumber yard up the street and trying to remember that we must eat while painting, hammering and lifting things, and I have had neither time nor energy for writing.

It worries me, this not writing. Certainly I padded my schedule for revisions to take moving house into consideration, so my August deadline isn't a problem. What is, or feels like, a problem is that I am afraid I might lose the habit of writing. It might be very hard to pick up a pen and face my revisions and my new novel once Mighty Reader and I have settled into the new home and I've finally found time/strength to write again. Yes, I think I've come up with ways to address all my agent's concerns (and I've come up with a few extra things I want to do to the story as well), but the more time that goes by without looking at/thinking about the novel, the more foreign the idea that I am a writer becomes. So it worries me, this not writing, because I have not been writing.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Badass in Print

My friend Ben Thompson (a smart guy with degrees in history and political science) has written a book, Badass, that will hit the stores in October. He showed me an advance reader's copy (ARC) this morning, and it looks great. Illustrations! Maps! I have promised to buy one when it's available, and to heckle him when he does local promotional events. I expect reciprocity when my book is published.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Agent Update Redux

Mr. Agent, who has a well-earned reputation as a "hands-on" sort of guy, asks that I make further changes to the book. These will be pretty major structural changes and will take me about two months, I estimate, to complete. Darn, I say. I was hoping to get a decent start on my next book. But no.

See further whinging and commentary about this turn of events here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Happy Bloomsday!

Happy Bloomsday! Behave yourselves. Although this is an excellent day for a first date.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

New Home

Mighty Reader and I are getting this next week:



Why? Because it's got this kitchen:



I shall be busy and penniless for the rest of the year! Hurrah!

Book Two Progress Report

This evening I made six and a half pages of notes for my next book. I have the rough shape of the story, and the first five chapters outlined, and I think it's going to be a good book. I like my outline so far, and I'm leaving room to improvise along the way. This is going to be a very weird, very dark tale, and I plan on pulling out all the stops. Nothing is too much, I wrote in my notes. I think I have my main characters figured out, and I have a dandy end to Act One planned. The story is taking turns that surprise me, which is nice.

Anyway, I've done fine work and I'm truly bitten by the writing bug again, but for now it's late and I must to bed.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Agent Update (Really, this time)!

So, I sent my revisions to my agent two weeks ago and hadn't heard a word back from him. I wasn't actually expecting to hear anything for a couple more weeks; my agent is a busy guy, BEA was last week and he had a conference last weekend, and he's got other clients as well. It would be nice if he'd drop everything and concentrate on my ego, but that's unrealistic. But...I have been getting a certain amount of pressure from certain quarters to send Jeff an email asking if, at least, he ever got the file I sent. So last night I wrote a brief, "no pressure, just checking if you got the ms" email and send it off. This morning (something like 3:00 AM his time; does the man never sleep?) Jeff replied that he'd received the revisions and had given them to his reader for her opinion. I don't know who his reader is, but I do know that he puts a lot of stock in her opinion. Anyway, his reader "read and loved it," which is great news. My agent promises to start reading/provisional editing the ms "shortly," which is code for when he has the time, which will probably be sometime this month. And this is all fabulous news. The manuscript will hopefully be on submission to publishers sometime in July. Fingers crossed.

I am exceedingly busy at work these days, so I will likely not check back on this blog until...let's say Sunday.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Adrift

My agent is busy this week with BEA and a writer's conference and all sorts of actual non-Scott-related business. Which means that I've heard nothing from him about the revisions I sent off. Which doesn't surprise me. I don't expect to find anything out for at least another week, possibly longer. And that, surprisingly enough, is fine. I was asked last night if I'm nervous about my agent's response, if I'm dying with anticipatory dread and obsessing over the time it's taking for him to read the revisions. The answer is no, I'm not.

I find that mostly, I feel like I've finished that project and I can move on with my life. I have no expectations that anything will come of this. Part of me believes I'll never hear a word back from my agent, and that'll be the end of that. It's as if these last three months have been a manic dream, and I've awakened to find myself in my own life again, with my same job and apartment and day-to-day concerns. Nothing, really, has changed and I don't expect anything to change.

Without the surreal pressure of revisions, I am however at loose ends, cast adrift in my life again. I get home after work, make some dinner, play some music, clean my bathroom, do laundry, vacuum the floors, read a bit, watch DVDs...and I'm not revising a book. Nor, frankly, am I doing much in the way of writing my next one. I have a pile of research materials on my table, hundreds of pages of reading, and a couple of non-fiction books on the shelf, but I'm ignoring all of it right now. The books and research papers look at me askance, wondering why I don't turn my attention to them, but they can wait a bit longer.

I am enjoying this feeling of drifting, of floating just offshore, of having no obligations to literature or my next project. It'll all come to an end at some point when I pick up a pen and start hacking away at my half-finished outline for the next book. But for now I am content to drift.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Done for Now

About five minutes ago I emailed the revised novel off to my agent. That means I don't have to look at the ms for a while, and that's a relief. I can finish reading some things, maybe do a bit of research and planning for the next book, and stew while I wait for my agent's comments. I have, frankly, no idea what he'll come back with. We'll see, I suppose.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Clearly Insane

I have a deadline, and I need to finish my line-edit so I can email my revisions off to my agent. And yet. I have clearly gone insane, because I find myself at this very late date rewriting scenes. I don't have time for this. As I say, I've gone insane.

And yet. There was one scene in my book that I've never liked. It was necessary to move the plot forward, and the scene after it (which scene I do like) makes no sense without this disliked scene before it, so I felt rather stuck with it and wishing I could find something else to put in its place. This morning, I had A Truly Great Idea for this scene, an idea that's had me excited all day and when I got home I spent hours revising the scene when I should have been finishing up my line edits.

The new version of the scene is radically different in an important way, and much cooler and weirder and surprising and I do love it. But now I have to get back to my line edits.

Update at 11:34 PM: Line edits done! Sleep now!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

First and Last Pages

"You know my methods," Holmes said to Watson. And anyone who's read my posts or comments in blogland knows that I believe firmly in the outlining method, of doing pre-production work and Knowing My Story before I begin to write. Knowing my story means, more than anything else, knowing how the story ends. I need to work toward something, to write at a goal, so I know where I'm going and how to tell the story.

All of which is to say, after a great lot of dithering I have at last figured out how my next book ends, and I've written the last page of it. Just this afternoon, over lunch. I had an image in my head and I wrote it down; yes I did, you boys. Now I have the first page and the last page and all I have to do is fill in the lengthy middle bits. How hard can that be? I've already got 1500 words; I just need to come up with 98,500 more. Piece of cake.

Working title of brand-new work-in-progress: The Factory.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Somebody Stop Me

Sometime toward the end of next week, I plan to send my revisions off to my agent. This week I'm giving the ms an alleged final read to catch anything that bothers me at the last minute. That sounds easy enough, doesn't it? The only problem is, I am apparently one of those people who can't stop fussing. As I go through my manuscript I can't seem to stop myself from making at least one change each page. "I can find a better word here," I say. "I don't like this sentence; I don't think I need it, either, so I'll just cut it." Really, enough is enough. But things keep catching my eye and am compelled to fix them. A lot of these little changes are questions of style rather than actual errors and aren't--strictly speaking--necessary, but I have learned to trust my instincts. Though there are three or so pages of dialog between two of the main characters and when I read these pages last night I had no clue what they were talking about. Maybe I was just tired. I'll have to look at them again tonight.

The good news is that, even though I've read this book a bazillion times over the last three years, I still like it. I think it's a good book. It's not perfect, but I'll admit that I am, yes, proud of the work I've done. Let's just hope that my agent is equally impressed. Otherwise, I'll have to rewrite it and put in a bunch of zombies and sparkly vampires.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Forward, Into the Breach

Last night, quite late, I began my next book. Oh, I've been hacking away at an outline for months now, but I didn't have any actual prose down on paper. But now I have what I think is the first page. It's only a single page, but it's a page that really pleases me. It also surprises me, because it isn't what I thought I was going to write. I had a specific image, of a locomotive moving through foothills at the base of a mountain. The protagonist is on the train, heading toward...well, something. Not your business just yet. Anyway, the writing took a different direction than I thought it would, and it's a good direction to take. I am well pleased, and I like the narrative voice.

It's also--despite whatever I may have said to anyone about how much I'm loving this vacation from working on the last book--both relaxing and exciting to be writing something new. I'm home again.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

So, That's That

I have finished the fifth draft! With time to spare! Actually, I finished it last night but it didn't feel right. I couldn't decide if it didn't feel right because of my sleep-deprived state or because it wasn't right. On the walk home from my bus stop about half an hour ago, I realized that I'd made a mistake in the climax scene and in a subsequent scene as well. I've fixed those mistakes, adding in about 500 Very Inspired Words. And now, I'm done. Done, do you hear? Next stop: long weekend vacation followed by two novel-free weeks! Yay me!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Troika!*

This weekend I was offered the opportunity to join Michelle Davidson Argyle (Lady Glamis) and Davin Malasarn on Davin's blog, the Literary Lab. Being no fool, I accepted the chance to co-host the Lab with these fellow writers, whose essays and comments about the craft of writing I greatly admire. The point of this merging of ideas is, as Davin says,

"We decided to work together because the three of us share a love for literary fiction, an art form that has sadly become associated with stuffy and inaccessible writing. Our hypothesis is that classical literary techniques will make any writing better, and the best popular fiction can also be the best literary fiction."

In other words, everyone should write well regardless of genre and the three of us are hoping to be some help in our little corner of the cyberworld.

This blog will be continued and I'll post progress reports as my novel moves through the publishing process. I'll pass along anything I think I've learned during that process. I also intend to post about writing my next novel (working title: Kindle-Ready Zombie Book), once I really get started on it.

* Tolstoy reference for Davin

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pacing, and a Surprise (for me, that is)

I am very nearly finished with my Major Revision, and the work is going swimmingly since my Post-It(tm) epiphany earlier this week. I did a bunch of work last night, mostly cutting dialog, it turns out. I have a bad habit of writing repetitive dialog, like this:

Antonio: So I'm going to kill you.

Babar: You're going to kill me? With a sword?

Antonio: Yes, with a sword. This one, in fact.

Babar: It goes without saying that I'd rather you didn't.

Antonio: While I can understand your preference to not be killed by me (or, likely, by anyone), I shall nonetheless proceed to slay you. Prepare to die.

Babar: In that case, we must fight. Have at you!

Et cetera. Obviously the above can all be reduced to:

Antonio: I'm going to kill you.

Babar: Have at you! (draws sword)

While dialog presented in this manner is sometimes realistic because people do ask clarifying questions and often just don't know what you mean, in most cases that sort of realistic dialog is not appropriate for fiction.

More than it being dull on its own, repetition like this really slows the pace in any passage. I became acutely aware of this last night (or maybe it was the night before; it's all a blur these days) when I hit a section of my book where it gets really truly very exciting and I stopped editing and just read what I'd written, carried away by the story. I had no idea, frankly, that my book so picked up the pace in the last 1/3 and ran so precipitously toward the climax.

Which is all very pleasing, but suddenly*, after a couple dozen pages of exhilarating prose, the story tripped over its own feet and ground almost to a halt. That's right, I had hit a chunk of my repetitive prose and I wanted to shout at my characters, "Will you just get on with it?"

Now, it's fine for me to act that way in the privacy of my own home, because as author I can make the characters get on with things by cutting all the junk prose. It's less fine for the reader to say that to my characters, and I've now become hyperaware of pacing, especially in the second half of the book. There are some scenes that exist purely for expository purposes, necessary for the action of the end of the book, but they sometimes feel static. I'm going to revisit those scenes after I've done the bulk of my revisions and see if I can give them some forward momentum.

Because momentum is really what I'm looking for in the second half of the book, and I have an image of the reader being carried forward down a hill that becomes progressively steeper toward the bottom, the reader traveling faster and faster until hitting the bottom of the hill. Like the old cartoon snowballs turning into huge avalanches as they roll down snowy slopes. So I'll be doing one editing pass just for pacing. This is sort of like Lady Glamis' technique of layers.

The surprise for me in all this is that I am now aware of momentum and pacing in a new way. I'd always sort of approached this intuitively, not really knowing at a conscious level that I was fussing with the pace of the story. Now it's suddenly* another story element over which I have direct control. So, huh. More and more, I look at novels as something like machines, with all sorts of interconnected parts, moving at different speeds and in different directions.


* used (twice!) for Davin's amusement

Monday, April 20, 2009

Work in Progress (and I do mean 'work')



I've made a lot of notes for myself during the ongoing revisions to my novel. Something like 100 pages of notes since the beginning of March. The Post-It(tm) above is likely the most valuable note I've made. It shows the conflicting motivations of the main characters as applied to the protagonist's central goal. Why is this little note useful to me? Because it's taken the last week to figure out that this is the basic structure I'm going to use for the last 2/3 of the novel, and a lot of hard thinking was necessary to get me to this point. When all else fails, I draw charts. This is not the only chart I've made lately. I have a much larger one that details the conflicts in every scene in the last 15 chapters of the book and how the characters' goals change (or don't) as each event in the story unfolds. I didn't make that chart on a Post-It(tm), of course.

What I liked best about this exercise is that it made clear to me that nearly everyone in the story is my protagonist's antagonist, even if they don't know it. Ta-da: instant and constant conflict. Yay! Conflict=good reading. Also, this makes it much easier for me to revise the book; my story has suddenly become more clear to me. I was floundering there for a while last week, which frankly terrified me. But I'm better now, ta awfully.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Brief Revisions Update

I have cut page upon page of beautiful prose. Some of my favorite dialog--truly lovely stuff--is now in the bin. A new chapter has been added about a third of the way into the narrative. Two subsequent chapters have been rewritten from scratch. I've rewritten scenes that I've already rewritten. Twice. I'm about halfway through the revisions. My characters' fates sadden me. The book is better than it was a month ago. And now I must sleep.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Revisions

Tonight I finished writing a new chapter for the book, to fit into a three-year gap in the narrative I'd left to the imagination of the reader when I was trying to be clever. I've filled in those three years and it was, I must say, a job of work. I have been writing this chapter since last Monday, I think, and earlier this evening I worried that I'd never see the end of it. But I have, and I sit back with some satisfaction and declare it quite fine. I shake my fist at my protagonist and say, "I have finally got you!" For I do have him, at long last. I have his fears, his anger at fate, his love of family and his conflicted loyalties. He is now fully alive and the revisions to the rest of the book should come pretty easily after this. I may have to go back to the previous five chapters and add a bit here and there, but all in all I'm feeling pretty smug and full of myself.

I realize I've said this any number of times, but this revision is hard work, much harder than any of the writing I've done up till now, possibly including the first draft (though let's not get hasty). The book is growing longer at an alarming pace, too. I've cut about 3000 words out of it, mostly useless exposition and awkward phrasing, but the word count is nearly 11,000 words more than it was a month ago. Huh. I have no idea how long the book will be when I'm finished rewriting it. About 100,000 words, I'm guessing, which is much longer than I ever imagined it would be. I remember feeling lucky when I got the second draft up to 80,000 words, the minimum length for a work of literary fiction. The revision process continues to surprise me.

Despite the great flood of words spilling out of my gawcy pen, I still think I'm on track to finish the first round of this rewrite by the end of April, which gives me a week to collapse and sleep before I take a run at--I hope--a line edit in May before sending it off to Mr. Agent.

Most valuable lesson learned during rewrites: It doesn't matter if you don't feel like writing, it doesn't matter if you're not in the mood for it or you don't feel inspired. You can make yourself sit down and write when you need to write. The muse will find you if you commit yourself to the work no matter how tired or doubting you are, and the inspiration will come despite your reluctance to be inspired.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A List of Influences

Davin was tagged to list the 25 writers who have been most influential to him, and he has invited everyone else to play. I'm posting this list as a comment on his blog, but I'm also putting it here because I've been slackerly about posting and this looks like an easy way to fill up a post.

In no particular order I present:

1. Aesop (first stories I read)
2. Leo Tolstoy ("War and Peace" was the first real novel I ever read)
3. Ernest Hemingway (for his clarity of prose)
4. Hans Christian Anderson (early influence, filled with sadness and longing)
5. Antonia Susan Byatt (for richness of language and symbolism of food)
6. Franz Kafka (for Gregor Samsa and the absurdity of life)
7. Gabriel Garcia Marquez (for the beauty of magical realism)
8. Gunter Grass (for showing me that history is personal history)
9. William Shakespeare (no explanation necessary)
10. John Milton (for being brave and assertive and mighty)
11. Umberto Eco (for erudition and human comedy)
12. Flannery O'Connor (for clarity of prose and vision)
13. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (for richness of character and human comedy)
14. Ivan Turgenev (for foreground/background connectedness and character)
15. William Faulkner (for being brave and looking inward)
16. J.D. Salinger (for loving his characters)
17. Mikhail Bulgakov (for "The Master and Margarita" and a large black cat)
18. Nikolai Gogol (for absurdity and symbolism)
19. Vladimir Nabokov (for creativity of form and love of wordplay)
20. Anton Chekhov (for character and a gun in the first act)
21. James Joyce (for "The Dead" and "Ulysses" and being bold)
22. John Cheever (for the miraculousness of the ordinary)
23. Harlan Ellison (for "A writer writes. Every day.")
24. Isaac Asimov (for "Nightfall," for writing a lot, and making me want to write a lot)
25. Ray Bradbury (for showing me at a young age just how weird the universe really was)

Very likely I am forgetting the authors who have most influenced me because the influence goes so deep that I am not even aware of it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More On Revisions (Moron Revisions?)

I have thus far worked my way through about 35 whole pages of my 258-page opus, so that means, using one method of calculating, that I am 14% of the way through the rewrite. No doubt I have actually made less progress than that, because the work I'm doing goes far beyond line editing. I am making large-scale and far-reaching structural changes to the book, and since I've made some decisions about my protagonist I keep coming up against whole sections that no longer work and have to be rethought and rewritten, which in turn means more changes down the line.

Also, I am looking critically at a lot of the opening expository chapters that I haven't really paid any attention to for months upon months, and seeing that I don't like the way they flow. Or, rather, the way they don't flow. All forward motion seems to have stopped midway through Chapter Two, and I find myself having frustrated conversations with myself:

"Look at all this exposition. What is this? Two pages about the tributaries of a river? Does anyone want to read that? Even I'm falling asleep."

"It's a wonder your agent bothered to read this crap."

"He must've been high. Lucky for me, though."

"This all needs to be rearranged."

"It needs some action; it's just a lot of history, description and dialog."

"Yeah, what we need is some sex and violence."

"Hey, yeah. It's the middle of the second chapter and nobody's got naked yet."

"Yeah!"

"Yeah!"

"Hey, wait: is this
that sort of book?"

"Uh, no...But we can still have the violence, can't we?"

"Sure we can. Hey, has anyone been castrated yet in this chapter? Where's my pen?"


In better, less idiotic news, I have figured out who the mystery woman, Astrid, is. I had the clever idea of having one character describe her by talking about all the things she is not. I think it works pretty well. Though she is not anything like a seductress, Astrid does get to say, "Tell me more about my eyes."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dramatic Purpose

Revising my current novel has meant some large-scale changes to the narrative. One set of these changes will involve taking a character who has been only talked about and putting her into scenes. I'll give her a real personality, dialog and a recurring role in the book. In order to accomplish that, I need to know who she is.

This weekend was supposed to be devoted, at least in part, to figuring this character out. I pushed some ideas around, but really didn't come up with anything of use, because I had no real idea where to start. I didn't know how to invoke this woman's presence until this morning's helpful epiphany, which has to do with dramatic purpose. What follows might not apply if you write genre fiction as opposed to interpretive ("literary") fiction, but I'm betting it does, so bear with me if you will.

A good story, I think, has a purpose--a reason to exist. Whether that purpose is to discuss how (for example) one man faces the darkness within himself while being exposed to the darkness of the real world, or (as a different example) to take the reader on rollercoaster ride through a ripping good yarn, there is a reason you're telling the tale. And every element in your story should serve the story, and you should have at least some idea how those elements work together to create your narrative. Which leads us back to my unknown character. There's a reason I put her into the book in the first place, and if I think about that, and I think about the purpose she serves (to be a sort of foil character to the two other main female characters, and to show a relationship that is an alternative to the other primary relationships in the book), then who she is begins to become clear. She has to be certain ways to fulfill her duty as a character in this particular tale. So as I write her scenes, I'll be thinking about Astrid's dramatic purpose: why this particular character is in this particular book, and that will tell me who she is. One hopes.

Anyway, the point is, I think, that if you don't know who your characters are, it's possible that you don't really know why they exist, and you might want to think about that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Scene and Sequel (or: Show, then Tell)

I pause in the middle of my work day because a) I'm in my post-lunchtime slump, and b) I thought of something that might be useful to other people who are revising/rewriting manuscripts right now and are interested in ideas about balance within the architecture of the novel.

Scene and Sequel is a structural technique for balancing show and tell within narratives. It gives the reader time to breathe, as it were, between actions in the story, and the author a place to deepen character while advancing the plot. Here's how it works: after any significant action ("significant" being a term only you can define for your specific story needs) you take a moment to have the characters react to that action. The reader gets to know your characters better, the text relaxes and opens up a bit, and you have built in both a lull which will make the following action stand out more in relief and an opportunity for characters to ask, "Now what?" Or to regret what they've just done, or celebrate their (likely temporary) victory, or to give us backstory. Loads of things can be done in the sequel after a scene. Loads of things except those that bring the action to a dead halt. The sequel should, as a rule of thumb, be brief unless you've got really fascinating backstory to add.

How I'm using it in my current rewrite: The main point of my revisions is to deepen the reader's emotional connection and understanding of my characters. As my ms currently stands, the narrator/protagonist stands fairly aloof from the events, and none of the other characters do much in the way of discussing what's going on around them. In other words, it's scene/scene/scene of forward-moving action, and even I get out of breath reading it sometimes. So I am going through the story and asking my characters after each scene if anyone has anything to say about what just happened. But not after every scene, because hopefully at least half of the scenes exist to show character and emotion. It's also not something you want to do all the time, because then you're just writing to a formula, which never works. It's more something I'm trying to be aware of and use when appropriate.

I have a growing idea about balanced elements in large-scale works that this scene and sequel technique seems to fall under. I begin to feel that, for instance, every element in a story must have an equal-and-opposite element to balance it out. Not necessarily in a surface-level sort of way. I don't quite know yet; I'm still working it out.