Thursday, January 7, 2010

Behind the Story's Back

I took yesterday off from writing, because I needed to outfox the story. Instead of spending my lunch hour scribbling frantically in my notebook (now on Notebook #2 as I've filled Notebook #1), I had a nice leisurely hour eating fish and chips and reading (not for the first time) Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea. I know there are people who are bored by Hemingway, and all I can say about that is that those folks need to get out more. Ernest was the real deal, as they say.

Anyway, I deliberately ignored my novel-in-progress yesterday, because I was outfoxing it. By which I mean that I wasn't quite sure what was going to happen next so I didn't know what to write down. I had the first line for Chapter 15, "Wherever they were, at least it was a town." But that line didn't lead to a next sentence, because I didn't know where my characters were. I didn't know what the first scene in the chapter was, and since I write in scenes, I was a bit stuck. So I told my story that I wasn't going to think about it. "That'll show you," I said to it. "You'll wish you'd been a little bit nicer next time."

After work, Mighty Reader and I made dinner and then she read her book and I went off to practice violin (Ab major scale and arpeggios, some Bach, some Seitz, some more Bach) and when I was putting the violin back into its case I realized that at some point while ignoring the story, the first scene of Chapter 15 had come to me, as well as the last scene in the chapter (being a sort of bookend to the first scene and entailing the same characters and setting), and now I know how to write what comes next. All hail the power of willful ignorance. I shake my fist at my story and proclaim my superiority.

Anyway, I have some notes about setting and place and I have my notes about character arc and plot points and I have my first sentence which means that, I think, I will be writing that first scene of Chapter 15 today during lunch. Unless I decide to let it stew another day and finish up the Hemingway. We'll see.

Edit to add: 500ish words written to begin the chapter! The actual first sentence appears to be "Welcome to Helltown," the man said, and put out his hand to Bull, who shifted his armload of saddlebag and blanket and then shook the man's hand. Runs good, needs work.


  1. Yes, I have done this with Monarch before. I can attest that it works. I find it hilarious that you ate fish while you were reading Old Man and the Sea. :)

    Monarch has also outwitted me on many occasions. Payback, I suppose. Damn book. I'm getting to the point that I'm almost ready to send it to my first beta, I'll make changes, then it's on its way to you. Mr. Bailey.

  2. I completely missed the irony of eating fish and chips while reading that Hemingway! Post facto LOL, as Caesar used to say on his blog. Anyway, pretending to not think about the story really worked out for me, and I got a good start (around 500 words) on the next chapter during lunch just now. I've introduced a new character (Matthew Barley) who, as far as I know, isn't going to be killed off. Which is a nice change.

    I await your revised MS. Is Big Daddy going to read it as well? Should we call him Big Daddy or just Big D?

  3. You can call him Big Daddy. I'll stick with Big D, lol. Yes, he'll be reading it as well. We should have a contest to see who can get finished the fastest. Not really. :D

  4. I love the fish irony.

    It's amazing to me how wrinkles will iron themselves out, if I take myself away for a while and work my brain in a different way--like music or art or throwing snowballs at children (those trajectories are tough).

  5. Lois: If "wrinkles will iron themselves out," how come my dress shirts are always in need of a good pressing? Riddle me that.

    But yeah, I've learned to sort of unfocus my mental vision and look past whatever I'm working on and let it fix itself, so that when I look again, the answer is revealed. People who don't know better call this "daydreaming" or "spacing out."

    I totally get the "snowballs at children" reference; you have to sort of not aim at all.

    And hey! A month ago you promised to tell me what you were writing. Well?

  6. I really love the first half of Old Man and the Sea. The whole thing is good, but some magic was lost for me when the fish appears for the first time.

    It's very interesting to hear you talk about the structure of this book, Scott. You say "bookends" a lot, and I'm wondering if these are multiple bookends or the same bookends that you keep referring too. I'm very curious to find out.

  7. I can send you a sample. Heck, I could send you the whole thing and let you beta, if you're game. That's what I'm doing this month. I'm hoping to query next month. You already read some of my writing in the Genre Wars. My novel is YA for girls though. It could like totally cleanse your palette. I mean, there's this super hot mysterious guy and high school drama... giggle, giggle. eye roll. swoon.

  8. Lois: I don't shy away from genre, though I might not be the target market. I just like good writing, you know. So I'd love to see your book. I'd be a poor choice for a beta reader though; I read more slowly as time goes on and my first priority right now is my own first draft of C&B. So I'd like to read your MS, but you'd be foolish to expect any useful feedback from me, especially by the end of January. So I leave it up to you. I am curious and useless; it's a fun combination.

  9. Davin, the story does slow down once Santiago hooks the fish. I think Hemingway was trying to give the reader a feel for the long days in the boat when Santiago was doing essentially nothing but holding onto the line letting his mind wander, waiting for the fish to tire. But after a few pages, I think it picks up again. The passages where Santiago first feels the fish pulling on the lines are brilliant, though.

    The bookends I mean are multiple sets. I have ideas about symmetry and balance in long-form stories that I'm experimenting with increasingly. I don't know how much I can say about it without quoting big chunks of the book, which I don't want to do. But one of the things I'm playing with is a structure like this:

    Scene 1: an interaction between two characters,
    Scene 2: one character lives through a dramatic event, and then
    Scene 3: an interaction between characters that is, on the surface, almost identical to the first scene, only a lot of the meanings behind what is said are radically different in the second scene from what they were in the first scene. If that makes any sense at all. It's a lot of the idea of contrast and subtext giving meaning to events.

    I'm also playing with the conceit of having things happen over and over and each time X happens it either happens to a different character or it will have different results than on previous occurances. So there's a constant rhythm, but also constant change and surprise.

    A lot of this is stuff I'm not thinking about consciously in that I'm not planning these long-range structures so much as I'm recognizing them and reinforcing them as I go along. Likely more of that will happen in the revision phase. Vague enough for you, Big D?

  10. Re: Old Man and the Sea, I think I loved the part where Santiago hooks the fish. When the thing under the water was pulling him, that was fascinating. But, at some point later, the fish actually appears at the surface of the water, right? That's when the magic faded a bit for me. I loved the idea of some invisible force driving him.

    Your bookends idea is very interesting, Scott. Regarding the repeated actions, that's something I got into with Rooster, when the men would repeat the actions of other men/boys in other generations. It was interesting, but I never stopped to really map it out, so I don't know how systematic I was about it. I sort of kept it in the back of my mind and never moved it to the front. Regarding the dynamics and subtext, I find that I'm FINALLY figuring the power of that. I've made some changes in Rooster that has a lot more going on underneath the surface, and it's quite exciting for me. The changes are small, but I think they're good. I hope I can get a better grip on this with my later stories because it's a lot of fun to read when it works!

  11. Scott, I love the idea of the bookends. I love things like that. Short and long chiasmus. Reverberating actions that carry forward. Repetition. It makes me think in Latin terms. How you can couch a word in the middle and surround it with descriptors and phrases that refer back to it like pairs of bookends. e.g. solus in villa vir silente felix stetit. Does that make sense? Of course, the verb isn't part of the bookends but you could put it next to vir and the bookends would be more symmetrical. Maybe it's just too late on a Sat. night and I need to just turn off the computer.

  12. Lois: I don't think "...vir stetit silente felix" sounds as good as "vir silente felix stetit." At the end, "stetit" has a nice full stop, don't you think? And if you think of it in pairs as:
    solus in villa vir
    silente felix stetit
    then all the vowels sounds line up nicely (and the x and s between "felix" and "stetit" slur together in a fine way, too). But that's sort of me being tired and looking at it all in terms of sheer sound, I think.

    Anyway, I think I get what you mean, or you get what I mean about bookends. Symmetry of actions and symbols and the rhythm of repetitions. I also like each repetition to be a variation on a theme and not strict repetition, though sometimes too I will use the same phrase or sentence over and over across scenes. For example, in my current book, every time John Cocke thinks about sex, he "smooths his hair with his left hand." I never vary from that construction.

    I also like puns a lot, and the names of the main characters, Cocke, Bull and Hope, give ample opportunity for language play. Especially Cocke and Bull, whose names mean a bunch of different things in the criminal slang of the middle 18th century.

    But mostly what I think I meant about bookmarks is that certain actions in my story tend to close sections, and each time that action comes around to close a section, it has a different meaning to the reader because of intervening events. Again, it's hard to talk about in an abstract way but I don't want to quote thousands of words of MS here. And, you know, I'm really sleepy and it's really late and I should be in bed.