Fallow Time

Fallow FieldIt’s the writer’s mind and heart in which written works are grown to maturity. Nowhere else does every single element needed to produce the end result come together.  It’s as if our mind/heart, or brains/guts if you like, is a field in which the seed of an idea can be planted and then nourished by time, craft and often the help of our colleagues.

It’s stressful, being a field. You have to manage all that nourishment coming in so it gets properly onto the page, while at the same time your inner resources are getting pulled out by the very thing you’re trying to create. And like a field, if you don’t have a rest period from time to time, you become so drained that no amount of nutrients put in will get anything out. In agriculture, resting a field is called letting it lie fallow. In writing, or any discipline, really, I call it the same thing: fallow time.

Of course, we wouldn’t be in this game if we didn’t have a passion for bringing our visions to life, but remember: even God took a day off. Fallow time is your chance to let the heart/mind heal and recharge so it can grow its next crop of results even better than before.

So, a few propositions:

Vacation: Vacation is part of your compensation—for most of us it’s the only payment we’re likely to get! Find a good place to stop working, reach it and then go.

Breaks: Even if it’s only five minutes, go off by yourself (without your notepad, smartphone, tablet, etc.) and chill. DO NOTHING. Think as little as possible. Find a meditation method that suits you and practice it.

Reading: Lose yourself in a good book that has nothing to do with what you’re writing. Not the newspaper, a book.

Fitness: You don’t have to be a jock. Just go outside and amble for twenty or thirty minutes. If the weather is inclement, stroll around the aisles of your cube farm (assuming you’re a resident of such), do some yoga or play some baseball on the Wii. You get the idea.

Sleep: Get enough. Most people need 7-8 hours, some more, some less. You can always tape Kimmel and watch it later.

Say no: Too often we dig our own holes using the shovel of “yes.” Refuse some requests by just pleading overload, or by showing how taking on this one additional thing will hose your other valuable activities. Or just politely decline with no explanation—you’re a grownup and you have that right.

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Cliffhangers

Cliff ClimberIn the last post, I noted in particular a change I had made to the scene template I copped from The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. It’s a line in the template for a cliffhanger.

If I’m planning an Action section, there’s a line that says: “Cliffhanger from character’s last section” and another that merely says “Cliffhanger.” The former helps me take up from where the character left off and the latter helps me paint a thumbnail sketch of the latest mess the character’s wound up in.

My goal is to have a cliffhanger at the end of every action section in which a good guy is the viewpoint character. There’s not much point in having a cliffhanger for an opposition character’s action section, since the opposition gets its way until the very end (although I don’t suppose you have to rule it out altogether). If I’m working on a Reaction section, in which the viewpoint character takes a breather to reflect on what’s happened, draw some new conclusions and set some new goals, a cliffhanger isn’t needed either, since the character hasn’t done anything to get him- or herself into trouble.

I enjoy planning these moments because they exercise my imagination. Sometimes I have to ask myself, “why on earth would this scene lead to a cliffhanger?” This question often leads me to re-evaluate the scene at hand, always leading to improvements. At other times, the cliffhanger itself comes easily, but I find myself pulling my hair out coming up with a resolution to it. That effort can lead me to re-work the current scene, come up with a sharper subsequent scene, or both.

The classic example of cliffhangers, at least the one that leaps to mind first, is the old movie serials. Back in the days of yore, my high school had a film festival and every week’s presentation started with a Buck Rodgers serial. There’s one where you see the spaceship falling through the sky, and then a title card rolls: “See TRAGEDY ON SATURN, Chapter Two!” The spaceship doesn’t actually crash, it just falls through the sky. Maybe at the beginning of the next installment (which you have to wait a week for), Buck wrestles the ship out of its downfall and comes in for a safe landing.

Or maybe he doesn’t. Who knows? That’s the beauty of it. You’ve got to come back the next week to see whether or not the spaceman and his pals escape doom. The same principle applies to chapters, or sections, or maybe even pages if the writer is skilled enough. The uncertainty at the end of a part makes the reader want to find out what happens next. That’s the hope, at least, right?

Cliffhangers keep you, the writer (me, the writer, anyway) going, too. Looking forward to the next crisis and the next, and the next, pulls you through your plotting. They help you build the bridge while you’re walking across it, all the way to the end of your tale.

Paddling for the Latest Plot

Writing is an individualistic pursuit. While it’s perhaps wise to read the advice of those who have gone before and certainly to read their fiction (if they’ve written any), at some point you’re going to want to do things your own way. This is made easier by the fact that some advisors tell you in case A, do X, while others tell you that case A absolutely calls for doing Y. Whatever boneheaded thing you do, there’s probably some other bonehead out there advising just that thing, or close to it.

Alas, making your own path is also made more difficult by the same division of opinion. If you’re a beginning novelist like me, you have no idea whose method is best, or if they’re all equally good, or if they’re all dead wrong, at least for you. You have to just point your bow, start paddling, and hope that star you’re pointing at is the right one.

Having completed the rough draft of the beginning part of my novel, I’ve decided to revisit the plot, which seemed to have a lot of unnecessary stuff cluttering it up. This goes against the advice to keep going, no matter what, and only partially with the advice to have a galvanized outline (iron-clad would be too inflexible, I think) before writing a word–you see, I wrote sort of an outline, wrote some prose, did another outline, wrote a lot or prose, and am now doing another outline.

If you take a look at the outline below, you’ll see it really does need some work. The Beginning section has 35 sections, while the Middle has 14 and the End weighs in at a mere 10 sections. That’s a little out of whack, isn’t it? (Don’t worry, the full version has lots more detail.)

To get myself out of this jam, I’ve returned to my original cookbook, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, which gives a clear, if somewhat traditional-publishing-oriented (that is, non-indie-e-book) approach to the process. One of the many useful features in this book is a section template. Here’s an example of my own modified version:

Tartarus Trouble

Denizens/staff of Tartarus figure if Colin & Faust are down there, they are supposed to be punished somehow, for something. Aegaeon, a hundred-handed giant, is in charge of Tartarus. He is incredibly strong and ferocious (per wikipedia).

From # Oracle’s Word Surprise #1

To # Reacting to Oracle

Action/Reaction: Action
Section Character: Soul-Colin
Where: Tartarus
When: Early morning, June 17

ACTION
Goal from character’s last section: Get back to his body ASAP. Get out of Tartarus before the alarm gets too much. Stay true to his values. Continue trying to get free with Faust’s help. Just now, he feels to heck with the souls.

Cliffhanger from character’s last section: They leave the island and the demons are after them. (Maybe they go further into the lake of fire to get away.) This Cliffhanger part is my own addition.

Against (person or circumstance that brings crisis): Tartarus demons, especially Aegaeon.

Conflict (occurrence of crisis; section character’s reaction): Colin & Faust want out of Tartarus. The demons want to imprison them there.

Failure (unless opposition) (inability to undo or deny crisis) (swift and sudden): Faust gets caught and Colin can’t rescue her; he has to get away.

New Goal (or go to a Reaction section) (character doesn’t necessarily have to devise, but describe it here; can devise here, though, or devise in Reaction section): Rescue Faust before he does anything else; figure out how to do that. AND… Get back to his body ASAP. Stay true to his values. Continue trying to get free with Faust’s help. He feels to heck with the souls, except for Faust.

Cliffhanger: Faust getting dragged away. Colin diving back into the lake of fire, swimming deep.

REACTION (Used if a character is not acting, but reflecting on events from his or her previous scene.)
Failure from character’s last action section (briefly describe; the section will restate it):

With (other character that shares the section):

Emotional reaction (character’s gut reaction to the previous failure):

Rational reaction (character’s analytical reaction to the previous failure):

New Goal (character devises): He/she will X in order to X.

By slowly and carefully completing one of these for each scene, or at least trying to, I’m starting to get plot #3 into some kind of shape, with a better sub-plot, a more coherent main plot and a good storage bin for bits and pieces I want to see if I can use once the big rocks are all carved up and placed more or less to my liking. With any luck, I’ll have Middle and Ending sections outlined in a few weeks.

Without any luck, I may find that the start I pointed my bow at is the light of an oncoming supertanker. We’ll see. All I can do for now is cross my fingers and keep paddling.

Beginning    

             1.  Mine! (R)

             2.  Worst Tip Ever (A)

             3.  I Ain’t Got No Body (R)

             4.  TS & Coven Revealed (R)

             5.  Welcome to Hell (A)

             6.  (A) Getcher Hands off my Garbage

             7.  (R) Today is the First Day of the Rest of Eternity

             8.  (A) Satan: Prince of Darkness, Major Ass-Badger

             9.  Body-Colin Bodyguard (A)

             10.  All Busted Up (R)

             11.  (A) Welcome, My Son… Welcome to the Latrine

             12.  Sucking Up to Satan (A)

             13.  (R) Septic Beastie

             14.  (A) What Really Happens to All Those Missing Socks

             15.  (A) It Pays to be an English Major

             16.  (A) Gimme Shelter

             17.  (A) Into the Slop

             18.  (A) Thanks, Superpigs!

             19.  (R) Friends

             20.  (A) Br’er Fox Makes a Comeback

             21.  (A) One Fancy Stick in the Mud

             22.  (A) Pretty Tough for a Dead Guy

             23.  (A) Shelter Skelter

             24.  (A) de Retz Promoted

             25.  (A) Colin Becomes a Gladiator

             26.  (A) Hitching a Ride

             27.  (A) Colin’s First Battle; Spares Faust

             28.  (A) Roadies

             29.  (A) Oracle Explanation & Escape

             30.  (A) I’ve Got Rythm

             31.  (A) Journey to Tartarus

             32.  (A) Coven Concert

             33.  (A) Demon Head

             34.  (A) Oracle’s Word Suprise #1

             35.  (A) de Retz, Big Demons, Angel Hint

Middle

            37.  (A) Tartarus Trouble

             38.  (R) Reacting to Oracle

             39.  (A) Body-Colin Gets Away

             41.  (A) Swiping the knife–but not the bough

             42.  (A) Swiping the Bough!

             43.  (A) Discovering Satan’s Plan

             44.  In Heaven’s Court

             45.  DIY Saving Universe

             46.  Working Drummer

             47.  Hiding the Bough & Knife

             48.  In Arena with Traitor Angel

             49.  Lost Fight

             50.  Annihilation

             51.  Captured

End

           52.  de Retz finds the Bough

             53.  Attack on Heaven

             54.  Killing Colin

             55.  Taking the Universe

             56.  Utterly Screwed

             57.  Annihilation Again

             58.  No Annihilation

             59.  Animals Stampede

             60.  Colin gets Bough

             61.  Freeing Angels

Back to the Drawing Board…

Back to the drawing boardIf you’re a more or less regular reader of this blog, by now you’ve probably come to expect an exciting (or not so exciting) chapter of the rough draft of Thin Spots, my novel-in-progress, each Friday. But this Friday is different.

Why?

Tweaking.

Tweaking showed me how badly I needed to return to the outline.

On May 9th, when I wrote the post “To Tweak or not to Tweak?” I was trying to work out the answer by writing about it. In the end, I decided to tweak and I made a valuable discovery: the sub-plot wasn’t working.

The sub-plot is all about Tanya, the waitress/shaman, who travels through the astral plane, or “metaverse” to help out our hero Colin and various other folks, like Doc the pizza guy. She’s fun and lovely, but I found myself asking why she was there. She started to feel like breadcrumbs in a meatloaf—contributing bulk, but not much else. So, as an experiment, I decided to axe all her scenes from the outline.

Axing Tanya’s scenes left me with a fairly streamlined story, but I lost the element of Colin’s body being in one place and his soul being in another. I also lost Colin’s love interest.

Double drag!

What to do?

Enter sub-plot 3.0 (1.0 was Colin’s evil wife, whom you never saw, and 2.0 was Tanya). I am not going to share it with you at the moment because I must go back to the drawing board and…

Outline.

That’s “outline” with a capital “O” and on its very own line because it looks like I’ve got to be a lot more thorough this time around. In my eagerness to get to the writing part, I plugged in the first likely subplot and got moving, eventually winding up with story-bloat.

Lately I’ve read a couple of things about people who outline like crazy. James Patterson, for example, says he does a twenty- to thirty-page outline for every novel. Whether or not you like Mr. Patterson’s work, you’ve got to admit he does produce novels and they do well. Also of late, I’ve begun to have that swamped feeling I’ve gotten when trying this novel thing before, like the whole thing was sliding out from underneath me. So, rather than repeating my past mistakes and trying to move forward with an inadequate outline or no outline at all, I’m going to stop writing for a while—maybe all summer—and nail down a detailed roadmap.

More than anything, this blog is a document of the learning experience, and I sure learned something this go-round. I’ll be off to that drawing board now and never fear—I’ll keep this space stocked with writing-related ravings as I go.

One of Those Days: Writing and the Blues

Blues Man LeadbellyEver had one of those days? Sure you have. You cut yourself shaving. It’s T-minus a nanosecond ‘til the schoolbus comes and junior refuses to put his shoes on. Your spouse appears to have all too accurately recognized your thousand glaring faults and is having a predictably aggravated reaction. It’s raining and when you go to pet it goodbye, the dog barfs on your shoes. Or maybe all those things didn’t happen, but it still feels like they did. Your soul is lying in a heap at the bottom of your solar plexus, which feels like it’s being squeezed by a cold, invisible hand.

In short, you’re depressed.

I think, based on no scientific evidence whatsoever, that writers are a favorite target of this particular demon. I don’t know if it’s the writing that makes you depressed, what with the solitude and effort, or the depression that makes you write, as a release and a means of finding clarity in a stew of emotion. What I do know is that the writing is still there to do, even if you’re blue as the Atlantic on a clear day.

When I feel this way, I sometimes start the day’s prose-making with a free write, just laying words down on the page as fast as they tumble out of my head, with no effort to control them at all. On depressed days, these passages will often start with something like “everything stinks,” or “life is pus.” It’s pretty negative stuff, but I find that after a paragraph or two I get a little more rational. I’ll see that I’ve blown things out of proportion, insisted the universe work the way I want it to, or forgotten to count my blessings. In a half page or a page, I usually feel good enough to get to work.

At other times I get outside and walk for a while. We’ve got a dog now, so I have a built-in excuse for that. I let him lead—within reason—and give my attention to whatever’s happening in the natural world. On these walks, I try to look up and out a little, to take in the expanse of creation. It reminds me of God and the interdependence of all things, which always puts life into perspective and calms my heart. I also pick up the dog’s poo in a bag, which is life-affirming in a really weird, smelly way.

Other things work for me, like listening to music, playing a musical instrument, reading a good book (nothing sad, though), or throwing some paint onto a canvas. You probably have your own list.

One other thing that works: sucking it up and just writing what you have to write. Sometimes the old blues can give your work an edge it wouldn’t have on an ordinary day.

Writing this entry made me feel better. I hope your next depression tactic works for you, too.

To Tweak or not to Tweak?

WaterfallYippee! I’m about to reach a big milestone in the production of Thin Spots: completion of the first third; that is, the beginning. I’m mighty pleased to have made it this far. Now that I have, the question is, do I pause here to go back and rework what I’ve done, or do I keep on writing the draft as it is?

The conventional wisdom says I should just keep going as fast as I can until I reach the end. That way the story doesn’t stop flowing out of my head but rolls naturally along through the middle section, through the ending section and wham, into the exciting conclusion. It’s a pretty appealing scenario, I must admit.

On the other hand, there’s other wisdom (I’m thinking particularly of Lawrence Block) that says, “to thine own self be true,” meaning do whatever the hell you want—it’s your book, pal. So, I’m thinking about taking a pause for the cause and reworking the beginning third some.

Why would I engage in such masochism?

My professional background is in project management, using—Geek Alert!—the waterfall model. In the waterfall model, you finish one phase before another starts. The theory is that each phase should have a solid foundation to build on. I’ve also built a treehouse, single-handed, and let me tell you the supporting struts and frame had better be good to go before you put the floor in and the floor had better be solid because that’s where you’ll be standing for the rest of the job.

I’m thinking that if I tweak the first third, make it a solid foundation for the next part, I’ll be way better off while writing the remainder. I’m not talking about prettying up all the language or making everything just perfect. What I have in mind is tightening up the loose ends. For instance, in “Today is the First Day of the Rest of Eternity,” de Retz has a brass truncheon he uses to whoop up on Colin and Cerberus. The object never appears again. Do I work it in later, get rid of it, or leave it as is? And what about Tanya? In her first chapter she’s taking her soul and Doc’s soul out of their bodies and doing this crazy healing stuff—do I need back story somewhere, and if so, does it come in the beginning section or later? There are plenty of things like that to consider, including the possibility of axing some pieces, like the part where Colin gets swallowed by a fish in the Cocytus—it’s fun, but does it move the plot?

I’m pretty sure I’m going to take the tweaking route, but I’m going to ask my writing group for advice first. I’m also going to ask you, gentle reader, right now. Should I keep going or should I pause to tweak? I’d appreciate your input. Thanks. And stay tuned!

Personal Goals for Writing

Writing GoalsA long time ago, when I was single and much more carefree (but much less happy), I set a writing goal of eight hours each week. My schedule was three hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and two hours sometime over the weekend. I kept it up for a year and at the end of that time had a short story published for the first time. For the curious, the story was “Homefield,” published in the summer, 1997 volume of The South Carolina Review.

As a result of this small success, I am a big believer in writing goals.

The flip side of this success story is that “Homefield” is not just the first short story I ever published, it’s also the last. About a month before the acceptance letter came I had given up writing fiction as a waste of time. By the time the letter came, I’d had a month for discouragement and laziness to set in and that was that. I’m rather ashamed of throwing in the towel, but there it is.

As a result of that fumble and later reflection on it, I am a big believer in not giving up. Make that a lot of later reflection. Make that a lot of later reflection and a spate of writing later on, after which I also gave up.

Now I’m writing again and I’m a shade wiser than I was before. I think. I hope.

I still believe in having production goals for writing, but I think now that each writer has to set his or her own type, be it a certain amount of time devoted, a number of words written, a certain project milestone reached on time, or whatever else might suit. For me, it’s time. If I hit my five hours a week, I’m happy.

I’m also a huge believer in flexibility and non-attachment for goals. If your goals just aren’t going to work with the more important priorities in your life one week, make up for it next week or simply let it go altogether. I know this thought might be nearly sacrilegious to some, but if I didn’t take this approach I wouldn’t be able to write at all—I’d be too uptight.

I have also come to see that a writer mustn’t give up. Nobody ever got readers by not writing anything. I have three things that keep me going.

For one thing, I told people I was going to write a novel and started posting chapters of the rough draft on my blog. If I give up somewhere along the way, I’m going to look pretty stupid and I’m as opposed to embarrassment as the next guy.

Making peace with the possibility of stopping once again helps me keep going. If I burn out, yes, I’ll be embarrassed, but the world won’t end and there will still be plenty of love and fun in my life. Having the freedom to fail helps keep the bung out of my creative keg.

Lastly (is that really a word?), although I would love to have readers (witness the excerpts posted every Friday in this space) I am doing the writing just to tell myself the story and to see if I can master the challenge of just finishing. The joy of sitting down to see what happens next keeps me coming back to the old keyboard.

I don’t know if this philosophy will work for every writer, but it’s working for me so far. Back in the days of yore, there was a band called .38 Special, as in the pistol. They had a hit song with the lyrics “hold on loosely, but don’t let go.” Maybe that, in a nutshell, is the best way to have writing goals without them making you crazy.