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."



"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."

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.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Another rewrite? Must I?

I didn't think that my agent's "I think this could use some work" comment would lead to quite as many changes to the manuscript as I now see it's going to. I've got my work cut out for me, especially if I want to complete the changes by the end of May, which is the provisional deadline Mr. Agent and I agreed upon.

What I'll be doing is essentially deepening all the characters' emotions, and thereby hopefully deepening the reader's connection to all the characters, especially the narrator/protagonist. Mr. Agent's main criticism of the book (which was shared by the reader he had look at it), is that we never really connect to the narrator. I can see why that is: when I first wrote it, the narrator was just that: a witness to events, and a dispassionate one at that. Sort of an ironic observer to a tragedy. When I did the first major revision, I realized that the narrator is also the protagonist, but that distant, ironic voice remained, so it's not as easy to care about the narrator as it should be. So my job is to make Horatio (the narrator/protagonist) come alive for the reader, to open the door to his emotions, and to give the reader more of all the other characters while I'm at it. Which is, you know, going to be a bit of a bitch and I'm only just now beginning to get ideas for how this will be accomplished. Sadly, a lot of the first few chapters will have to be rewritten, and I'm going to have to simply cut some good stuff and write new material to replace it all. Three months is sounding like not much time at all.

But, because I'm nothing if not obsessive, I've been thinking about almost nothing but the story since Thursday night, and I've begun to have what I think are Really Good Ideas. This revision will likely be the hardest of all the rewrites, but I am convinced that the book will be a lot better after I've made the changes. I am simultaneously dreading the sheer volume of work and excited about the ideas I have for new scenes and additional material. I expect to be exhausted at the end of May.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Historical fiction or merely historical setting?

Because I have recently decided to set the novel I'm currently writing in/near 1900 rather than the present day, I've been thinking about why I made that choice. The story wasn't working for me as a modern-day tale, but as soon as I had the idea to move it to the early 20th century (really, within minutes of making this decision), all the elements of the story began to come together beautifully in my mind. Why is this, I wondered. There is nothing about 1900 that particularly draws me in, is there? And it's not like I'm interested in historical fiction, is it?

According to that fountainhead of interweb wisdom, Wikipedia, "historical fiction" is fiction about a real historical period with real historical figures as main characters, and "writers of stories in this genre, while penning fiction, nominally attempt to capture the spirit, manners, and social conditions of the persons or time(s) presented in the story, with due attention paid to period detail and fidelity." Which is not, frankly, what I'm interested in doing.

What I required, aside from technology that was still physical as opposed to silent and computerized, was critical distance. Looking at the modern world from inside it, as we all do, means that we all suffer from the attribution heuristic, and we can't really see--at this close distance--what's important about our own time. Also, I don't want the story I wish to tell to get lost in all the noise of the 21st century that has nothing to do with my story. So I push it all back 100 years or so to where I can get a good look at it, without my own space/time getting in the way, and where the ideas can be explored without me (or the reader) bringing current emotions about tangential current issues into play. For example, I want to talk a bit about war, but I don't want the imaginary reader's views about the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to be part of their reading (though of course, in some way, it will be anyway).

But I digress. I think that an historical setting, for me, means that I can talk about people, and human nature, more-or-less as if in a petri dish; the distractions of people moving through our world (and therefore the distractions of you and me moving through our world) don't get in the way, and I can keep the focus on the matters at hand. Which, perhaps, just points up a weakness in my craft. Hmm.

I also must confess that I have a certain dislike of looking too closely at our own time period; it gives me a headache. Another confession I am compelled to make is that, when one leaps into the past, one can be iffy or even deliberately wrong about details of place and history, and most readers won't care as long as the story retains its shape. One of my maxims is that if reality tries to get in the way of the needs of the story, reality will usually lose the battle.