Posted tagged ‘writing the novel’

Hardcore revisions: a method

August 29, 2011

You already know how fascinated I am by the creative process and how different artists get things done. Over on her blog, Leona Wisoker is in the process of detailing the method she’s using–and the actual practice–of digging back into a story she trunked a long time ago, with the intent of raising it to her current standard. The project has been under way for almost a week, and it’s fun to see what she’s doing with it: not least with the ways she keeps things both fresh and disciplined, remembering to feed the artist at work.

The writers among you will surely find ideas worth stealing. For everyone interested in such things, it’s a cool lens into an artist’s process.

Writing Geekery

May 15, 2011

Have I mentioned that I’m a plot structure geek? Surely you knew that.

Last night about bedtime, I realized that there are so many one-on-one interactions  between Ellion and his enemy Nechton in this novel that they constitute an entire subplot, which I have not analyzed in terms of its own story arc–and that until I look at that thread on its own, I will be failing to maximize the opportunities inherent in those interactions. Today I am entirely too excited to sit down and do this piece of analysis. I can’t wait to see what surprises the Muse in his Architect aspect has in store.

I am an irredeemable geek.

Today’s Dirty Writer Secret

April 10, 2011

A couple days of forward motion at the keyboard does not constitute total immunity to creative malaise. That is a battle we have to fight more days than not. After just one day of derailment by the mundane (in this case, allergies) I am back down at the bottom of the mountain trying to push that damn rock again.

Heave. Ho.

Writing again

April 7, 2011

Huzzah! The Muse is back! After far too many months of absence (mine) from the study, I am sitting at the writing desk for longer and longer periods this week…and today the words began to flow.

Miles to go before I sleep, of course. 6%* is probably a generous estimate; The Shadow of the Sun hit 215,000 words during editorial. But this is the best work in the world.

* In case you’re wondering: No, I didn’t write 13,000 words today. I wrote about 2000. But a hundred 2K-word days is a 200K-word novel. 🙂

Getting ready for the last draft of War-Lord

March 11, 2011

I’ve been away from the study for a few months because things have been so action-packed in the office. Meanwhile Ellion and his problems haunt me. He whispers in my ear when I’m doing layouts and eBook designs on other people’s books. Not writing is becoming an ache, and before long there will be no choice about it.

This morning I was struck by the realization that a critical plot point may unfold in a very different way on this final draft. It would change little in terms of plot but have huge impact on meaning. And now that I’m aware of the possibility of this other course of action, I am tormented by not knowing what Ellion will actually do.

I won’t know until I get to that chapter on the final draft.

It’s not that I don’t know how the book will end. I’m just a little fuzzy on what will happen in the middle. This is going to make me crazy until I can get back to the study for a good extended run.

Outlines: learning to love the bomb

February 24, 2010

I recently crossed into Act 3 of The Shadow of the Sun. Shortly thereafter I crossed the 150K-words border. All told, I’m a good long way into this rewrite: by last week I believed I had all my major plot twists behind me, had crested the top of the roller coaster, and all that was left was the screaming descent to the end. After all, I had an outline, which was based on the plot-replanning I did before I began this draft, encompassing all the plot points I had discovered in writing previous drafts as well as plot points I developed in order to make the story better. And by Act 3 the outline was really just a laundry list of continued bombs to be dropped upon the characters as they tried to reach their latest and (at least within the confines of this novel) final goal. A simple skid into home plate.

I was, of course, wrong. None of what lies before me will be simple, outline or no. I am not an Outline Person by nature: I discover stories by dropping interesting-seeming characters into the middle of puzzles and following them around, trying to figure out who they are and why they’re doing those things and what the truth of the puzzle may be. I find that style of writing thrilling, and love what results when I let my subconscious dip into the perilous waters of the collective unconscious with nothing but a snorkel and a net.

That’s art, at the end of the day. But I have learned, over the course of beating my head against this series which will finally begin going to press next spring, that what I do using only the tools of Art only takes a story 80% of the way to where it needs to be. The last 20%, at least for me, comes from Craft.

On this (hopefully final) draft of The Beast, I began with Craft. I reworked my plot, with an eye towards using plot as a vehicle for character. I built a robust outline with the plot that arose when I just wrote by instinct as a framework, adding plot points that would allow me to flesh in things I wanted readers to understand when they became important, develop character motivations, set up devices I would call on at critical moments, replace plot points I had invented on the fly with others that I expected to accomplish the same things in more satisfying fashion. And I started my rewrite, reserving the right to re-use scenes from previous drafts but expecting that I would write more than 75% new material. After all, I am a much better writer than I was when I wrote the previous drafts. All this wearing out of keyboards should count for something.

Even though I had an outline, I started at the beginning and wrote straight through. I know there are no rules for writing, because we each have our own process, but this is as close as I get to declaring something a Rule: I find it’s critically important to write through rather than drop in on what’s interesting, because a good novel is about character rather than about plot, and the character will develop during every scene. (And if he doesn’t, the writer needs to rip out that scene and try again.) And each of those developments shifts the next scene, and so on.

I will admit that I found writing the first act, the first 40K words or so, less than compelling. It was like buying a coloring book, or more accurately drawing my own comic, and then staying inside the lines as I colored: all the design decisions were mine, but I’d made them in advance, and most of what went on during that part of the novel was setup: establishing the characters and situation, laying in all the stuff I would spend the rest of the novel tearing apart. Because I’d worked with these characters before, there were few surprises. But what landed on the pages was good, in my admittedly less than objective opinion: I stayed with it, waded through to the part where I could begin developing the material that was truly new.

That got much more interesting. By this point I was already seeing some interesting changes in my characters, and they were beginning to surprise me: not enough to drag things off track, but enough to make writing scenes the kind of fun that results from seat-of-the-pants writing. And I was writing more compact, direct scenes and chapters, because I knew where I was going: there was no wandering around as characters tried to figure things out, only the things I had decided they needed to experience and their (frequently surprising) reactions to them.

I also found that, because I knew in advance what conflicts I was setting up, scenes zeroed in on them without hesitation, deepening both the characters and the conflicts much more rapidly than in previous drafts. Characters who had previously been reasonably interesting became compelling; my protag, who had previously been a very together guy with an interesting past, rapidly grew into a high-functioning train wreck. Every plot development, purposefully chosen as they were, coaxed both higher performance and greater risk of total meltdown from him–and from the story as a whole. This outlining thing, I now saw, might be a good tool for writers who thrive on plot–but it is high-grade plutonium for writers who work from character.

But, as I noted earlier, every change in the character shifts the next scene, at least a little. By the time I reached Act 3, my plot was still absolutely on track–but the depth at which it was operating and the people my characters were becoming were so much more than what I had conceived during the plotting phase that the remaining plot points in my outline, while still exactly the things that need to happen between now and the end, are taking on completely different meanings than anticipated; and those few scenes that I had thought I’d be able to re-use are so weak compared to what I’m writing now that I can’t even use them for reference in developing their successors.

There are, of course, worse problems than a plot and characters that have outstripped your original plans. But I find that now I must treat my outline in much the same way I handle road maps in Ireland: as general indicators, but containing points of interest which must be perceived and interpreted as true in right-brain rather than left-brain sense. The distances between them are subject to change without notice (as anyone who has ever driven in Ireland, and paid attention to the total lack of correspondence between distance markers on the roads there knows) and the terrain will turn out to be completely different from what I anticipated. That, as always, the old man was right: The Map is Not the Territory.

I am very pleased with the fact that I developed a map for this trip: it made the journey much richer. I will use an outline again next time I dig back into something of which I already have one or more drafts. I will probably even sketch notes in advance next time I start a novel from scratch. But I reserve the right to ignore those notes completely: ultimately, it will be the characters who decide what any new novel will be, and–at least for this entirely character-driven writer–outlining  only becomes powerful once I’ve established a framework.

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.

Further Cat Waxing

November 11, 2009

I can’t say why I’m finding it hard to settle in to writing this morning. I feel a great need to wax the cat. So far this morning I have checked in on Facebook; decided I was bored of my profile picture and looked at the existing FB photos of me for a new one; decided that I needed more current pictures on FB; concluded that it is time to organize some sort of hugely fun outing of the sort that motivates us to take pictures and post them on FB, so I can have a new profile pic. Things aren’t bad enough that cleaning the kitchen looks like an option, but they might get there.

I think I need better things to do while waxing the cat. Suggestions?

This is almost like work

November 9, 2009

After a good morning in the study, I have completed a scene. About 4-1/2 pages. Under ordinary circumstances I would pronounce that a good day’s fiction work, have some lunch, and go downstairs to the office, where myriad incomplete tasks await. But I haven’t made my page goal.

Discipline in the area of my own fiction output is something I haven’t expected since–well, since I started Mercury Retrograde, I suspect. Writing has mostly been a guilty pleasure of late. I must reaccustom myself to expectations of productivity. I must have some lunch and come back to the study, and stare at myself until I write another scene.

The good news: I have gotten past the “maybe I’ve entirely forgotten how to write, and now suck horribly” fear that always comes up when I haven’t been writing for a while. I know what I wrote this morning is good. Now I (mostly) only doubt my ability to attain the level of productivity I’ll need to make my date.

Mostly. I still acknowledge the possibility that No One Else Will Love It. But that’s a thing every writer must live with. It is one of the top two reasons so many writers drink so much.

The other, of course, is fear of abject suckage. But coping with that, and writing sentences anyway, is one of the most important things that separates pros from amateurs.

Today, I am a pro. I’ll be back after lunch.

Stupid novelist tricks

November 7, 2009

Well, as a famous sidekick once observed, I’m back.

After really screwing myself on my fall schedule (more on that anon. Yes, I know I said that already.) I am finally back in the study, where finishing my own novel is actually the hottest project in my queue. ‘Cause, yeah, back when I said I’d publish it next May, it seemed a totally attainable deadline. Meanwhile, I have (according to the word count thingy in Power Writer, my writing program) a little more than 88K words written. I know that number’s inflated; it includes a lot of planning and previous-draft material. A better gauge is that I am a bit more than halfway, in terms of distance my characters must travel, to the midpoint of the novel. If this one has four acts (and I think they do, but I also think the first and fourth acts are more in the stage-drama than the screenplay tradition: which is to say they’re meaty) then I am in the second half of act two.

What I know is that, if this book is going to press in May, I’ve got to finish it by early December. It’s going to be interesting.

The good news: this is not a first draft. I know the story. The bad news: the previous drafts are mostly not up to my current standard, and I’m writing every scene from scratch–and, in fact, most of the scenes I’m writing are wholly new.

During the golden period when all I did was work on my fiction-writing skills, I could produce about 7 pages per day. Now, of course, I’m also running a publishing house–and I believe I need to be producing at least 10.

“Nervous” is an understatement. In fact I’m waxing the cat right now.

Off I go, then. Wish me luck.