Archive for December 2009

Addictions

December 9, 2009

I am becoming a knitting addict. I can tell, because when the person with whom I share knitting experience is around, I am unable to resist the urge to knit. When we’re not knitting, we’re talking about knitting. We shop for knitting paraphernalia together — and if you’re not already a knitting addict, then you are probably not ready to hear about going to the knitting store and petting all the yarns. Oooo, baby.

Further evidence: when I am knitting, I feel calm. In fact just being near my knitting basket, knowing that I could knit if I really wanted to, is calming. I spend too much time knitting, and sometimes neglect other things I should be doing.

But here is why knitting is good: knitting is like writing. When you knit, you learn writing lessons — and writing makes you a better knitter. Possibly my favorite thing about knitting is that, as with writing, you can make mistakes without completely hosing things. When you sew, if you make a mistake, you may be able to rip out the seam and try again — but the place where you ripped it out may be visible. And heaven help you if you’ve made a cutting error! But the worst-case scenario in knitting is ripping out what you’ve done…which just leaves you with all the yarn you started with and a bit more experience at the craft.

This is a miraculous secret, in my view. I knit with abandon; if I hose it, I rip it out and start over. This is just like a good day in the study: if I hose a scene, I try again. I can excise it from the file that holds my current draft, possibly storing it nearby if I think parts of it may prove useful later. Or I can simply dig back in and knit new sentences around the first attempt. A knitted item is really just one long complex knot you tie with needles. It is subject to change without notice, and you don’t have to beat yourself up for trying again. It will be better next time, because you learned from the last attempt.

Writing is like that, too, of course. I have tossed out literally hundreds of thousands of words in the course of my writing practice. But none of them are ruined. I can use them all again, as often as I like.

And I would like to tell you I could stop anytime I wanted to, but…well. Maybe I am a writing addict, too.

The joys and perils of letting the characters drive

December 8, 2009

This is far from the first draft I’ve written of The Shadow of the Sun. I have known the story, the heart and meat of it, since the first draft; subsequent drafts have been about refining my narrative techniques and the telling of the tale. Oh, yeah, and the perennial worldbuilding.

The story is vastly more robust than earlier drafts, this time around. And unlike the first and second drafts, this time I’m using an outline. I’ve planned all my plot points and the stops on my characters’ journeys. In fact there is a segment in the middle, which I am just coming to the end of, which contains plot points which I planned not to advance the plot of this novel, but to set things up two novels hence.

That’s planning. Yeah, I have gotten good at the plot-planning thing.

What I forgot to think about this time (and there always seems to be something I forgot to think about) is what those plot points, which I need to execute now in service of the story two volumes hence, would *mean* to the characters who have to live them. Sounds elementary, doesn’t it? But I was focused on making my plot do what it needed to do.

It will surprise no one but the writer to learn that my characters reacted quite strongly to the two curves I threw them, here in the middle of the journey. Not only did I have to stop and wrestle with the chapter in which those plot points occurred; now it’s derailing what the characters had been supposed to accomplish in the next chapter. Because, of course, it’s all immediate to them, and they don’t have access to the outline.

Personally, I hate it when characters, whether in books or film, clearly do things because that’s what was in the outline. Everything goes flat when writers allow themselves to fall into that trap. Fortunately I’ve learned to feel when what I’ve planned doesn’t match what my characters would naturally do, say, feel in that situation: usually as I’m writing the scene in question. The challenge of writing fiction with robust characters is honoring their genuine reactions while still advancing the plot.

It never gets dull. In fact, as I wind my way through the I’m-afraid-to-even-count-how-many-times-I’ve-been-through-this draft of this novel, I find it is the surprises that keep me going.

And the characters. It’s all about the characters. If it weren’t, I could write much shorter.