Keeping the Muse Atop the Monitor: Reprise

Hi, there. It’s a holiday week, so here’s a reprint!

Greek musesI tend to get obsessive over stuff.

Like writing.

If you were loose enough with your time to read the first post of this blog, you may recall I said stuff like, “I’m treating this as fun, for its own sake” and “I’m taking my time. It gets finished when it gets finished.”

For a while, all was well. I just kicked back in my chair, put my fingers on the old keyboard and told myself the story. Great fun!

But then the gremlins of perfectionism, hurry and ambition started climbing up on top of the monitor with my muse. At first I thought it was just because my muse is pretty cute and they wanted to put the moves on her. Also, no such luck. They were there to drag me down, just like they’ve always been.

“Don’t you dare leave this page until it’s better than Hemmingway! And no, Steinbeck’s not good enough,” said Perfectionism, adjusting his twisted boxers.

Hurry jumped up and down and shouted, “Four hours a week is not enough! You need to be cranking out more words per day or you’ll only have one novel finished before you’re dead! Maybe not even that!”

“This is how you’re going to show ‘em,Carson. Anybody whoever said you were less than 100% fantastic, once this baby hits the best-seller list, boy, are they going to feel small. And that’s what we want, right?” Ambition lit a cigar and blew the smoke in Muse’s face.

Day after day they kept up this nattering until I started to believe it. Poor muse was reduced to sitting next to the keyboard, having been shoved off the monitor altogether. She was miffed, of course, and spent more time sulking than helping my story along.

It’s easy to describe now, but as it was going on, I wasn’t fully aware what was happening. It’s a slippery slope one slides down into the slough of obsession.

Then, fortune smiled. I have the chance to talk to a good friend about the work and how it wasn’t going well, how it was starting to feel like an obligation instead of a lark. She wisely helped me stop talking about it and visualize what was happening. That’s when I really saw the gremlins, along with poor Muse, and realized what was going on.

I realized that my first-novel project is subject to the same tension that informs the rest of my life—the desire for spontaneous freedom versus the desire for rigid order. If the two get out of balance, it’s bad news—too much freedom and nothing gets done; too much order and creativity goes to hell.

So, what’s a wannabe novelist to do? Just three things, I think. First, remain aware of those gremlins and what they’re up to. Second, choose to keep the balance tipped in favor of spontaneity and freedom. Third, make a conscious decision at the start of every writing session to do the first two. That should keep Muse on top of the monitor, where she belongs.

I could work on a clever closing, but it’s late and I’m tired, so I’ll just say I hope this is helpful. How’s that for spontaneity and freedom?

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No More Posting the Draft

Rubber stamp marked draft

For a long time, I was posting regular excerpts of my nascent novel, Thin Spots, in this space. More lately, I’ve had the draft up on Wattpad and invited you kind readers to view it there.

Well, not anymore. I took the draft down from Wattpad a few days ago and am pretty sure I’ll keep it off, because, as I’ve been working through the draft lately, the idea of thrusting version 1.0 into the public eye has seemed more and more lame.

First of all, it’s a first draft, full of errors, from typos to plot holes you could fly a zeppelin through. The more I think about it, the less I want that to be the first impression people have of my writing. It’s better, I think, to wait until the thing is fully baked and then cast it upon the waters.

Secondly, and more important, is that having the draft out there started me worrying about how many people were reading it, why or why not and how I could get more people to give it a look. I was slowly slipping away from writing the very thing I wanted, for the enjoyment of the thing, and into writing to please everybody else. As I’ve said here before, that could be the death of the process for me.

Third is the problem of major changes. I have revamped the first three or four chapters and some of the changes ripple through the rest of the book. Do I make all those changes now and re-post all those chapters, or leave that until later and hope readers understand when, say, characters who were around in chapter six (pre-major change) aren’t around in chapter 45 (post-major change) when clearly they should be, at least as far as the reader knows? It gets messy and, frankly, I’d rather spend the little spare time I have writing than reorganizing everything, writing catch-ups and what not.

My only worry is that there are a few people out there that really were following the draft and would like to continue. If there are any such people (this may be looking for the lost tribes of Israel), and you are one of them, please write me at coolcarsoncraig@gmail.com and I’ll put you on a mailing list.

Half-Baked Planning

Half baked bread loaves being put into an ovenNote: In case you care, I have removed the rough draft of Thin Spots from Wattpad. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Having made it more than halfway through the draft of novel number one, despite having many other demands on my time, has made me a holy-rolling believer in planning your novel before you start writing it. I have my little setup of manuscript, scene sketches and fix sheet all constructed and waiting for me every time I sit down at the keyboard. The manuscript says “start here.” I look at my scene sketch and I start there. When I run across something that will need cleaning up later, I note it on the fix sheet.

Planning is a beautiful thing, but, I wonder, can you do too much?

I just finished writing a chapter that’s long, rambling and weak. It’s a prime candidate for the rewrite operating table, and I think the problem is Stebbins, a gladiator who shows up earlier in the story. Because Stebbins wasn’t there.

It’s a battle scene. Colin (the lead) winds up there unexpectedly and hides, because he’s injured. Then he comes out of hiding and meets… not Stebbins, but another guy named Calley. See, I was writing along, Colin came into the open and all at once Stebbins, who was not scheduled to appear, popped into my head. I could see Colin spotting his friend, being amazed and overjoyed.

This vision of the Colin-Stebbins reunion was powerful and required some consideration. If I went with it, Stebbins’ role in the planned story would change drastically. It would also greatly hork up Calley’s planned role. And I liked my plan. It was a good plan, and it was already there.

To stick with the plan or change things–that was the question.

My point here – and I do have one, as Ellen Degeneres says – is that I was in the midst of a good problem. Making decisions like this one lies at, or at least near, the heart of the fictioneer’s craft. It’s also a huge part of the fun.

If I had planned each scene in the novel down to the last pinhead, I’d be far less likely to land in such a delightfully uncomfortable spot. I’d be much too wed to the plan due to all the trouble I had put into it. I’d also find it much easier take the already mapped out path of least resistance.

Instead, since I have a plan that’s more general in nature, I get to make writing decisions on the fly. I am creating and solving fiction problems all the time, while at the same time not constantly trying to figure out the next big milestone in the story.

So, yes, for me, at this point as a nascent novelist, half-baked planning is best. I have the broad brush strokes. It’s filling in the detail along the way that keeps me turned on.

What’s your stand on planning? A lot or a little? In-between? Let me know in a comment.

Qualities of a Great Book

A display of booksI was at a birthday party the other night and got reacquainted with an old friend of my wife’s, a really excellent writer I’m going to call A.J. for purposes of this post. A.J. was very happy about having sold a nonfiction book to one of the big publishers. Given how difficult that gauntlet can be to run, I was pretty impressed. I thought later about how he had done it and some lessons revealed themselves.

He coped with his situation. A.J. was a newspaper writer for a long time. That business being what it is these days, he was laid off. Rather than lying down and bemoaning his situation, he started freelancing and eventually found his way to this book. Lesson: Cope with the situation that’s in the way of your writing. Maybe it’s time, or money, or relationships, or something else. Figure out a workaround.

He remembered a contact. A.J. sold his book with the help of an agent he had met twenty years before. Lesson: Keep up with people who can help your writing career, be they editors, bloggers, or just interested friends. You never know who might lend a hand.

He used an agent. A.J. told me he wouldn’t have had a prayer without his agent. Lesson: If you’re going the traditional publishing route, get an agent first.

He wrote a killer book synopsis. The synopsis A.J. wrote was about 20,000 words long, which was, like a ‘60’s miniskirt, long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting. Lesson: An great synopsis will help sell your book, so put in the effort.

He had a fantastic idea. A.J.’s book idea was derived from an experience he’d had while working at the newspaper. I’ll enumerate its virtues in a list, but first, the lesson. Lesson: Have a wonderful book idea with all the concepts below.

  • Have plenty of conflict. In A.J.’s book, individuals and communities square off against each other in a conflict of deeply held values. You can feel it crackle just when he talks about it.
  • Have a satisfying resolution. The ending of A.J.’s book is moving and it ties up all the loose ends, so it satisfies the emotions and the intellect.
  • Populate your story with interesting people. This story is awash with character possibilities. Some are on one side of the value questions, some on the other and some stand around the middle. There are differences in economic and educational backgrounds, and stark differences in the way children are raised. The characters move this baby along.
  • Feature characters that change. The resolution of this story requires that some of the characters change dramatically. Observing that metamorphosis makes for great reading.
  • Use an engaging setting. The setting is rural America, but some of the features of it are unlike any most of us have ever experienced. Those aspects of the setting you are more likely to have experienced are viewed from a rarely seen angle.

The ideas listed here aren’t the complete list of everything needed for a great book, of course, but it’s a good idea to put them into practice if you can. I’m certainly going to try, and I’m going to keep up with A.J.’s progress and that of his book.

If you’ve got any more ideas for improving the writing process or the product, please leave a comment. Thanks.