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


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.