Onward! Even When Your Fiction Writing Stinks

02-27-13 OnwardIf I have learned anything about writing fiction this week, it’s that the magic genie comes and goes. I’m talking about the magic genie that makes your writing worth someone’s putting an eye to.

Monday was painful. I had to squeeze fiction in amongst a bunch of other stuff and what came out was corny or wooden. Tuesday was much the same. But then, on Wednesday, something happened. My imagination woke up, the cork came out of my word-bottle and the next thing you know I was writing about pirates-turned-gladiators-in-Hell and a prison where the inmates are encased in solid blocks composed of some – let me exercise some delicacy for once – especially unpleasant materials. I had action, sights, smells, characters, plot movement—joy! Thursday and Friday continued this happy pattern.

So what does this have to do with you, dear reader, who is perhaps, like me, a time-challenged part-time fictioneer?

Everything. Well, okay, a lot.

The one thing I did on each of this week’s five working days was sit down and bang out some fiction. Stinky, glorious, whatever its quality, I hammered on it. That happened for a few reasons, handily revealed by hindsight:

Habit. Over the last year-and-a-half or so, I’ve become accustomed to the routine of carving out about an hour or so five days a week to work on the not-so-great American novel. So part of getting through this last weird week was just reflex, one I’ve developed through some early discipline.

Big Picture. I kept reminding myself that this is the first draft. It’s okay for the first draft to be rough—okay, terrible—in places, or even all the way through. I’m just at step one of a lengthy, multi-step process.

Permission. I followed the advice of J. A. Konrath and gave myself permission to write crap. It never fails to surprise me how that little attitude adjustment will help you keep going.

Associative Causality. That sounds important, huh? Let’s say it again, together: “associative causality.” Ooooh. We are smart. Actually, I’m not smart enough to come up with a term to encapsulate the notion that because our thought processes proceed by associating one thing with another, that even crummy writing produces thoughts and ideas that eventually cause your brain to spit out something halfway decent. This is just a pompous, ten-dollar way of saying I realized that if I kept going, something good would happen. I just didn’t want to call it “optimism,” okay? Too cheer-leader-y.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. I hope it’s helpful. Good luck with your genies, folks.

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The “Ikea Effect” and Re-writing Fiction

Ikea store frontThe other morning, after dropping my son off at school at 0-dawn-thirty, I heard a report on NPR about something called “the Ikea effect.” In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last several years—which is fine, if that’s your choice—Ikea is a chain of stores that sells housewares, including a lot of furniture. The unusual thing about Ikea furniture is that you purchase it in a box, unassembled, take it home and—you hope—put it together yourself.

Some researchers at Whassamatta U. or some such institution did some research and discovered that while people who buy new tables like them, people who buy new tables from Ikea and put them together love them. They love the tables more intensely and for longer.

Why? Because they put some effort into them.

If you’ve ever put one of these things together, from Ikea or anywhere else—my kit was a desk with a hutch—you know that you had darn well better love the thing, because it was such a pain in the buttocks to construct.

By now you’ve probably guessed what this has to do with fiction writing. We don’t just pour knuckle-flesh, blood, time and our cussword vocabularies into our craft. We pour our hearts into it, our deepest emotions, a measure of our souls. Even something that might seem less than deep to the reader has come out of our boundless, crazy need to create worlds on paper with the magic of words.

So, naturally, when we’ve finished writing some slice of fiction, we tend to love it with a passion that makes an Ikea table-lover look like somebody who… well, somebody who really, really likes a dumb table.

There’s a problem here and that’s the strong temptation to send our literary babies off into the big world before they’re ready. I know, I know, you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating (and besides, I wanted to write about the Ikea effect because it was cool, and it’s my blog). Let that manuscript sit in a dark drawer for six weeks, at least, after you finish it. Then, and only then, drag it back out, read it and improve it. Time will separate you from your passion for the thing.

And that’s not all. Get your writing group or some beta readers to give you impartial feedback and then rewrite yet again. If you’re able to and your manuscript is a big enough deal, have it professionally edited—not just proofread, edited—and rewrite again. Then rewrite some more.

Okay, so maybe you’ll do fewer rewrites, maybe more. I’m not trying to dictate a process. But it is undoubtedly very important to put some emotional distance between yourself and your fiction before you polish it, so you’re not blinded by the Ikea effect.

The world has plenty of wobbly, lopsided tables already. Let’s all be sure we don’t add to them.

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.

Filling the Gaps in Your Story

A canyon between two steep cliffsNote: If you’re interested in seeing how the draft of Thin Spots is coming along, you can check it out on Wattpad. Thanks!

A simplification of Newton’s first law of motion, from our friends at Wikipedia, states: “An object continues to do whatever it happens to be doing unless a force is exerted upon it.” The same can be said of your novel. If your novel is moving nicely forward (which I hope it is), it will continue to do so unless something comes along to stop it or shove it off in another direction.

While there are plenty of things that can stop or re-direct your novel, the one I’m thinking of today is what I call gaps. These are gaps in your knowledge, plot or other novel elements that crop up as you’re writing, regardless of the amount of planning you’ve done. For example, you might be writing a scene that occurs in the vicinity of the Hoover dam and discover that, though you’ve read about the dam itself, you know nothing about the countryside or the roads. Gap! Or, let’s say you’re composing away and suddenly realize that if Uncle Slappy has the knife in the chapter your currently crafting, it had to show up in Aunt Kizzie’s handbag several chapters prior. Gap!

Whatever you do when you encounter a gap, you don’t want to let it stop your progress and you don’t want to let it re-direct you to the extent that you go off to work on something else. You can avoid that sad fate if you have a way to handle gaps already in hand when you start your project. I have a couple of ways I’m fond of; no doubt there are more.

One gap-handler I like is the in-line notation. This allows you to go with the flow when you hit a gap and still provides you an opportunity for patch-up later. As you hit a gap, you simply note the problem in brackets and keep right on going. For example: “Uncle Slappy pulled the magic knife from between the sofa cushions and [for Unc Slap to have knife now, knife must be in Ant Kiz purse way before now] brandished it like a sidekick in a B-grade swashbuckler.” This is not my idea; I picked it up from some writing book a long time ago and have used it with some success.

Another method, and my current favorite, is to keep a document called “Fixes.” I use a word processing file for this, but you could use a card file, or a legal pad, or the wall—whatever makes your cork float. I keep the document open while I’m writing and when I hit a gap make an entry there. For example: “For the scene ‘Uncle Slappy Cuts Up’ be sure the knife shows up in Aunt Kizzie’s handbag some scenes prior.” I like this method because I don’t have to go combing through the manuscript later to find the fixes.

That’s all there is to it. Happy gap-crossing!

9 Ideas for Resolving A Character Crisis

Chinese character for crisis. Danger plus Opportunity.The adventure in novel-writing continues. This week I finished part two of four, which was great. Unfortunately, this accomplishment is overshadowed by a minor literary crisis I ran into last week, courtesy of my writing group.

My writing group is terrific—we read each other’s stuff, mark it up and tell each other what we think is right and wrong about a piece in a straightforward, but supportive way. One of the folks observed that he didn’t see any particular reason to like, or root for, my main character. The others tended to agree.

Why, he asked, should I like this guy?

I couldn’t answer. Minor literary crisis! So what are some steps I can take?

I’m thinking out loud here. Here’s what I’ve come up with, in no particular order because, honestly, I don’t know in what order to do these things yet.

  • Look at pictures. I can get on Google Images, Flickr, etc. and look for photos of guys who strike me as Colin-like. Seeing an image might spark some ideas.
  • List characteristics. A while back, I completed a list of characteristics for Colin. I can review that. I can also write another one.
  • Try situations. One thing that works for me is to put the character into a random situation—standing in line at the grocery store, taking a shower, fighting a zombie—whatever comes to mind. Something about dreaming up the situation and seeing how the character reacts seems to break loose my intuitive knowledge about him.
  • Think about reasons a person is liked. I’m trying to make this guy likable, or at least supportable. What do people like? What makes a person interesting and attractive? How do some of those things fit in with the person I think Colin is?
  • Research. I have some favorite how-to resources. I’ll go back to them and see what advice they have.
  • Stare at the ceiling. I wrote a post about this not long ago. Sometimes just letting the mind wander around a creative problem on its own will produce solutions, or at least hints.
  • Enlist the universe. There’s a whole interconnected web of being of which I am a part (setting aside metaphysical questions of who or what “I” really am). Through prayer and meditation I can bring the subtle power of that whole thing to bear on the problem. I know this isn’t for everybody, but it works for me.
  • Let go. It’s all to easy for me to get something like this between my teeth and shake it like a terrier. Then I’ll shake it some more, and then some more until my head pops off. By that time, I can’t see the problem or the solution for all the worry in the way. If I can remember to relax and allow this to happen, rather than trying to make it happen, I’ll be a lot farther along.
  • See the opportunity. I do have a little crisis here, but I can already see how rewriting Colin’s first section or two might enable me to solve some story problems that have cropped up down the line. I’m reminded of the old cliché about the Chinese character for “crisis” being a combination of the symbols for “danger” and—you guessed it—“opportunity.” So there’s hope for me yet! And for my main character.

Writing a Stubborn Scene

Writing the Stubborn Scene

This week I had a struggle with a scene in my nascent novel, Thin Spots. It’s a pivotal point in the plot, where the hero finds out he’s not just a soul trapped in Hell by mistake; rather, he has a comatose body on Earth to which he can return. There’s a lot of information to be presented and I figured the best way to do it was in dialogue between the hero, Colin Davis, and the angel who screwed up and landed him in Hell, a character named Sakamiel.

As usual when I struggle with a portion of the book, I learned some things to share in this space.

Be prepared to retrofit. For this expositional scene to make sense, I had to go back and plug some events into a couple of preceding scenes. For instance, Sakamiel gives Colin the news that his body is in a coma back on Earth and that there’s a chance he can return to it. How would old Sak know all this? As things originally stood, he couldn’t, so I altered a previous scene to show Sakamiel’s boss relaying the coma story to him and I altered another to indicate that Sakamiel was doing research that would uncover facts about Colin’s being able to reunite with his body.

Outline for clarity. I didn’t just want to convey information in this scene. I wanted to show that the information had set Colin on a new course of action. That meant I had to arrange the dialogue so it built from the least arresting matters to the most arresting and ended with Colin’s making a decision. I tried simply writing the dialogue a couple of times, but it just rambled. To tighten things up, I made a bulleted list of the points I wanted to make and then arranged them in the most interesting sequence. It was a miniature beat sheet just for this chunk of dialogue. Once that was done, I was able to write the scene to my satisfaction.

Keep going… and retrofit again, if necessary! The day after writing draft one of this post, I started work on the scene after this troublesome one. Lo and behold, I discovered that to make the subsequent scene work the way I wanted it to, I would have to go back and rejigger the stubborn scene yet again! So, with a little carping, I backed up and did the work. Thank goodness I did—both scenes are better than they would have been otherwise.

Let go of perfection. I keep learning this lesson over and over again. Even with all the effort I’ve described, the scene still doesn’t quite ring like it ought to. I was very tempted to keep working on it until it was just right, but then I remembered the old mantra “don’t get it right, just get it written.” The scene is good enough as it is and I will be revisiting it during the rewrite anyway, so it’s time to move on. The niggling pursuit of perfection slows you down, leads to writer’s block and, most important, sucks the fun out of everything! So I’m letting this puppy go for now and happily moving on.

If you’re interested in reading this scene, keep an eye on the Friday excerpts; it’ll be coming up in several weeks.

Colin Davis: Gladiator

Monster GladiatorHowdy! In this week’s installment, Colin pitches in at gladiator practice. (Note to the persnickety: This has not been edited, not even a little bit. Proceed at your own risk.)

Colin leaned against the dugout wall and watched anxiously as Stebbins stepped up to the plate and readied his bat. Stebbins, who had made a fortune in life bundling worthless loans into attractive mortgage-backed securities, was muscle-bound enough to deliver a wicked hit, but the art of connecting bat to ball had thus far eluded him. If he screwed up, Coach Dagon would be angrier than usual with the next few batters, of whom Colin was one.

Dagon flapped his red wings and spit into the dirt. “Elbow up, Stebbins! How many times do I have to tell you, you piece of damned soul scrap! Square to the plate, not the pitcher! You’re at home plate, not on the line of scrimmage, you criminal ass!”

Stebbins corrected his stance. The pitcher wound up and threw a fast ball, straight down the middle. Stebbins swung hard, but too early. The ball — actually a former dictator of a small island nation — smacked into the catcher’s glove and yelped.

“Strike one! You’re swinging too soon, moron! Watch the ball!” Dagon’s blood-red barbed tail snaked out and whipped Stebbins across the back of his naked legs.

Stebbins whiffed the next two pitches as well. “Hopeless! You’re hopeless!” Dagon raged. He grabbed Stebbins by the neck, flew him high to one of the giant torches that illuminated the arena during real competitions, and hung him there by the back of his loincloth. “Anybody else want to give me a sorry performance like that today?” the demon shouted. The assembled gladiators-in-training replied with a chorus of shaking heads and mumbled “no sirs.”

“All right, then. That’s enough baseball! Time for combat practice. Go fetch your equipment. Run! Last one back runs laps for a year!”

The students stampeded for the locker room, all except for Colin, who paused, looking up at Stebbins, who was swaying gently to and fro in a Hellish breeze.

“Master Dagon, Stebbins won’t be able to practice combat if he’s hanging up there.”

The demon fluttered over and came toe to toe with Colin. “Very observant, deadie. Don’t think because you’ve got a little talent in the sword department you can afford to be a smartass.”

Colin lowered his head. “Oh, no, Master Dagon. It’s just that he’s one of the best at combat and if you want Satan’s Sadists to win against Beelzebub’s Bastards…”

Smoke poured from Dagon’s pointed ears. “We’ll beat those Bastards with or without Stebbins! We’ve got the greatest team in Hell, with the best coach and don’t you forget it! Now go get your equipment before I decide to disembowel you this very instant!”

Colin sprinted away, knowing Dagon might well make good his threat. As he got to the tunnel leading to the locker rooms, he looked back and saw the coach flying upward toward the spot where Stebbins was hanging.

***

Stebbins came running in seconds after Colin arrived in the locker room. The big man was breathing hard, but otherwise seemed none the worse for the wear.

“I don’t know what you said to him, but thanks, Colin,” Stebbins said. “I thought I was going to be hanging up there forever.”

Colin cinched his sword belt and grinned. “I just told him we couldn’t beat the Bastards without one of our best fighters. I guess he agreed.”

“Isn’t that helping?”

“Nah, it’s ingratiating yourself to the coach. Totally self-serving.”

“Yeah, right. You ready? I don’t want to be running laps for a year.”

They ran through the tunnel into the arena, leaving some of the slower souls to worry about who would run 365 days of laps.

Though he hated to admit it, even to himself — especially to himself — Colin loved the arena, even though he had never fought a real battle in it. It was an enormous oval of sand, surrounded on all sides by a high wall perforated by various cavities. Some led to locker-room tunnels, others were reserved for the release of beasts and other opponents into the fighting space. From the top of the walls rose row upon row of stadium seats. Fastened to the top rim of the stadium was a ring of giant torches, each carved into the likeness of a different demon, with the fire bowl in the top of the skull. Standing in the middle of the playing field, looking up into the stands, Colin had a hint of the feeling that had come to him for the first time when he had fought Ragtagalog and that came to him now in combat practice.

Dagon’s whistle jarred him out of his reverie. “All right! Give me Colin, Stebbins, Episki and Fights-Like-a-Girl. To arena center. Now!”

The four souls obeyed on the double. Each of them had a leather-and-iron shield and a short sword. Other weapons were scattered around the arena for them to get to, if they could. They lined up in a rank and stood at attention. Dagon pointed to a spot about ten feet away and to the left of the group.

“Colin, over there.”

Colin jogged over to the indicated spot. He knew better than to argue.

“It’s time you kids started practicing something close to the real thing. Today, no fake cuts, no scoring for touches, no Dagon telling you you’re wounded, sit out. No. Today, it’s real cuts, real ichor, real limbs coming off, real heads bashed in.”

Fights-Like-a-Girl raised his hand. “Won’t that leave us in pretty poor shape for more practice or… anything?”

“You’ll heal well enough. Now then… it’s the three of you against Colin.”

“What?” said all for gladiator trainees at once.

“You heard me! Real combat starts soon and you need to be ready. Start on one whistle, stop on two. Ready…”

Dagon’s whistle split the air. Colin crouched into a defensive stance, sideways to the other fighters, shield raised in front of his body, short sword just behind it, ready to lash out at the least opportunity. The other three trainees circled him. Colin felt the battle fever creeping into his blood like wine. He grinned and faced Stebbins.

“Ready, Stebs?”

Stebbins rattled his shield. “Come on then!”

Colin raised his sword, shouted, and at the last instant spun and ran at Episki. Episki began to pivot sideways but Colin detected the move almost before it was begun. As Episki’s sword slashed sideways toward the spot where he expected Colin’s guts to be as he ran past, Colin vaulted into the air, twisted and landed so that he was facing Episki’s back. He swung his sword at the other trainee’s temple. The blade sliced neatly through the top of Episki’s skull. Episki dropped to the sand like a bag of nails.

The fighting stopped. All the trainees stared agape at their fellow student, lying quite still on the ground.

Dagon blew his whistle twice. “Time out!

“What happened to the magic for blunting the weapons?” Colin asked. He was shaking. “It’s just practice. Yesterday that would have only knocked him over and you’d yell ‘touch’ and call him out. What’s the deal?”

“Surprise!” said Dagon. “You’ve graduated from the kiddie-cars to driver’s ed. Real combat’s just around the corner. Plenty of bets on the line. You need to be ready.”

“But Episki…” said Fights-Like-a-Girl.

“He’ll heal! Here, watch!”

They looked. The crown of Episki’s skull was somehow dragging itself across the sand towards the rest of him. They watched as it reached its goal, shot out gelatinous tendrils that attached to the whole part of the skull and used those to pull itself back into place. Episki’s body jerked a few times and then he sat up on one elbow.

“Did I get him? Boy, my head hurts.”

“Gladiators are too rare to waste,” Dagon said. “So they get a little extra repair capability. Lose too many times, though, and it wears off. After that happens, annihilation.”

“What?” asked Fights-Like-a-Girl.

“Annihilation. Erasure from existence. No atoms. No ether. No quarks. No mind. Absolute zilch.”

“Swell,” Colin muttered.

“Spare me the editorials! Now, fight!”

They fought for the rest of the day without a break, always Colin alone or with a partner against the others. He leapt, spun, slashed, kicked, punched, bit and twisted, the battle fever burning hotter and hotter as he worked until he thought he might burst into flame. Blade edges wouldn’t cut him and he hardly felt thumps from fists, feet or weapons. When Dagon finally blew his whistle, the other three trainees were lying on the sand, healing from grievous wounds. Colin threw his sword and shield down and sat heavily on the ground.

Dagon prodded him with an eagle-clawed foot. “You love it, don’t you?”

Colin shook his head emphatically. “No. Absolutely not. If Hell didn’t make me do it, I wouldn’t.”

The demon smiled and spit a sizzling gob into the dust. “Say what you will. I have been around a very, very long time. I can tell.”

“Well, you’re slipping, Master Dagon. That’s all I can say. Begging your pardon.”

“Pardon granted, deadie. Now off to clean up and then to food and rest with you. Go.”

Colin dragged himself off and limped down the tunnel toward the locker room. The battle fever was rapidly leaving his system, leaving him feeling nauseous and weak. More than that, he was disgusted with himself.

Oh, God, he thought. What’s happening to me? I think he’s right. I think I love it. I think I really do.

I Completed a Character Interview and Didn’t Scream Once

Crafting Unforgettable CharactersI’m getting ready to go to the beach today (Monday) and by the time this is posted (Wednesday) I’ll be there, so this entry is going to be brief!

Ahh… I can already hear the sound of that gentle Gulf Coast surf… oh wait… where were we?

Oh, right. Blog entry.

I’ve written before about how mind-numbing I find the work of doing fill-in-the-blank character sketches. You know…

Hair color:

Place of birth:

Favorite food:

In the past, two minutes of this was enough to make me run screaming away from the laptop.

Since then, I’ve rethought matters. In my current project, I found my lead character was sort of an automaton. He was doing some cool stuff, but I didn’t have a real feel for why. I mean, sure, he’s in Hell and he wants to leave, but I am talking about a deeper why, the psychological underpinnings of his nature that make him respond to the situation in the exact way he does.

When I started using terms like “psychological underpinnings” I knew I was in trouble, so for help I turned to Crafting Unforgettable Characters by K.M. Weiland. This little book is available at the author’s website for the price of signing up for her mailing list. I had already read Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel to some profit, so I went for the free book on characters.

I haven’t read the whole thing. Instead, I skipped right to the section on the character interview, which gives you a load of, yes, blanks to fill in. It’s an exhaustive list with some items that go beyond the usual fare.

I have completed three of these lists so far and found them very useful, especially for Colin, my main character. I didn’t complete every question; I don’t think you have to. Having done this work, I think I have more than an automaton now, I have a person, or at least the start of one.

If you’re in need of help with character development, I recommend this character interview list. Now, here’s a list I came up with and that’s all. Off to the beach!

Name: Colin Davis

Background: White, middle class

Birthday: July 23, ????

Place of birth: Columbia, SC

Parents: Hortence “Bebe” and Frank Davis

What was important to the people who raised him: Hard work, discipline and the American Way

Siblings: One sister, Mary Eliot

Economic/social status growing up: Middle class; a bit strapped after his parents divorced and his mother became primary caregiver

Ethnic background: White bread Scotch-Irish

Places lived: Columbia, Atlanta

Current address and phone number: N/A

Education: BA, English, USC

Favorite subject in school: English; creative writing, medieval studies

Special training: Pizza making and delivery. Society for Creative Anachronism fighting and weapons making. Singing

Jobs: Cafeteria utility in college. After moving to Atlanta, Pizza Haven guy.

Salary: A bit over minimum wage plus tips.

Travel: None

Friends: Pizza Haven guys, SCA & D&D gang. There is a portion of these that overlaps; these are his best pals; that is, the Haven/SCA/D&D-all-three folks.

How do people view this character: A nice guy, but a bit of a geek. He’s just average size, but has an athletic build from doing bodyweight exercises to burn energy; people wonder that he never played sports.

Lives with: Two roommates in a two-bedroom apartment; two of the Haven/SCA/D&D-all-three folks. Pete and Dundee, known as “Croc” because of the movie.

Fights with: Words and story lines. Sometimes his roomies, but not much.

Spends time with: His friends and co-workers.

Wishes to spend time with: A girlfriend, any girlfriend.

Who depends on him and why: He depends on himself; no parental contributions. His roommates depend on him for mutual support.

What people does he most admire: John Steinbeck, because he was a great modern writer and also took on the King Arthur legends.

Enemies: None

Dating, marriage: He knows some girls, but there’s no romance. He’s a bit awkward about it.

Children: None

Relationship with God: He is sure there is one, but not sure what the nature of it is.

Overall outlook on life: Romantic

Does this character like himself: Mostly, but he demands a lot of himself when it comes to writing.

What, if anything, would he like to change about his life: He’d like to not be poor, to have a girlfriend and to be a successful novelist.

What personal demons haunt him: Both his parents and his sister yelled at him a lot. When he first tried sports—peewee football—the coach yelled at him and he quit, never to play sports again. After his parents’ divorce, it just got worse. He is haunted by the sorrow over the split, the pain and anger of the psychological abuse, the feelings of inferiority that caused.

Is he lying to himself about something: He tells himself he is really a peaceful guy, that the SCA and D&D are just fun escapism, but deep within he is seething with rage.

Optimistic/pessimistic: Despite everything, optimistic. Otherwise, he couldn’t write.

Real/feigned: Real

Morality level: He’s a good guy, though at times mischievous.

Confidence level: He is plagues by an inferiority complex.

Typical day: Work making/delivery pizzas, hang out with friends, write. Weekends and evenings are often for D&D, SCA. Writing happens first thing in the morning and often last thing at night.

Physical appearance: He’s just average size, but has an athletic build from doing bodyweight exercises to burn energy; people wonder that he never played sports.

Body type: Medium, athletic, but not totally ripped

Posture: Upright

Head shape: Like a head!

Eyes: Hazel

Nose: Straight, short

Mouth: Medium

Hair: Red

Skin: Freckled

Tattoos/piercings/scars: A small scar over his left eyebrow from a childhood encounter with a bully, which he won.

Voice: N/A

What people notice first: The hair

Clothing: He’s a jeans and t-shirt guy, with tennis. If it’s hot, cargo/boarding shorts.

How would he describe himself: I’m a fiction writer, so of course I work at Pizza Haven.

Health/disabilities/handicaps: None

Characteristics: N/A

Personality type (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholy): Laid-back about most things, but fiery about his passions, which are writing and his friends

Strongest/weakest character traits: Determination is his strength—he is determined to be a successful writer. The inferiority complex is his big weakness.

How can the flip side of his strong point be a weakness: He can be so bullheaded he ignores other factors, ignores the big picture.

How much self-control and self-discipline does he have: A good amount.

What makes him irrationally angry: Bullying or yelling, at himself or others.

What makes him cry: Big life moments—births, weddings, etc.

Fears: Failure as a writer. Never being loved.

Talents: Writing. Singing. Making SCA weapons. Being dungeonmaster.

What people like best about him: His easygoing warmth.

Interests and favorites: N/A

Political leaning: N/A

Collections: N/A

Food, drink: N/A

Music: Medieval music, to listen to and sing [research]

Books: All of Steinbeck.

Movies: N/A

Sports, recreation: SCA, D&D

Did he play in school: N/A

Color: N/A

Best way to spend a weekend: SCA battle during the day, D&D-cum-drinking-game in the evening

A great gift for this person: N/A

Pets: None

Vehicles: Chinese scooter

What large possessions does he own (car, home, furnishings, boat, etc.)

and which does he like best: Just the scooter and his laptop. The laptop is best.

Typical expressions:

When happy:

When angry:

When frustrated:

When sad:

Idiosyncrasies:

Laughs or jeers at:

Ways to cheer up this person:

Ways to annoy this person:

Hopes and dreams: Successful novelist. Happily girlfriended guy.

How does he see himself accomplishing these dreams: Novelist: He works hard and succeeds. Girlfriend: He has no idea, but dreams of her just kind of falling into his lap.

What’s the worst thing he’s ever done to someone and why: He beat the crap out of that bully.

Greatest success: Published a short story in a well regarded regional journal.

Biggest trauma: See above.

Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to him: Tried to ask a girl out and halfway through spilled his beer on her.

What does he care about most in the world: Writing

Does he have a secret: No

If he could do one thing and succeed at it, what would it be:

He is the kind of person who:

What do you love most about this character: That he is so committed and kind of naïve.

Why will the reader sympathize with this person right away: Because he has big dreams and is willing to work hard to win them on his own.

How is the character ordinary or extraordinary: He has extraordinary talent and determination. He has ordinary needs & wants of a young man.

How is his situation ordinary or extraordinary: It’s ordinary except for his writing.

Core Need: His core need is to overcome his feelings of rage and inferiority.

Corresponding psychological maneuver (delusions, obsessions,

compulsions, addictions, denials, hysterical ailments, hypochondria, illnesses,

behaviors harming the self, behavior harming others, manias, and phobias): The maneuver that comes from rage and the inferiority complex is the writing. Also the SCA battling.

Anecdote (defining moment): He pulled a bully off a smaller kid in the sixth grade. The bully punched him hard, giving him the scar over his eye with a ring. After reeling a moment, Colin freaked out on the bully and was all over him. Colin’s dad pulled him off the bully and yelled at him for fighting as the bully ran off. Later Colin’s mom yelled at him and his sister made snide remarks. So, even though he felt good for his victory on the one hand, he felt miserable and put down on the other hand.

History:

The Long Haul

Calvin Coolidge pinOne of my favorite quotes, from Calvin Coolidge, has been on my mind of late. It reads thus:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.”

I’ve been thinking about old Cal and his words of wisdom because as I work away at restructuring Thin Spots I get the distinct feeling this whole novel-writing business is going to take a while. Early on, convinced of my innate storytelling prowess, I thought I could whip up a half-baked outline, spit out about two thousand five hundred pages a week and have the first draft done in under a year.

Then, reality reared its ugly head.

My first hint was when a writing group friend told me she’d heard a tip at a workshop, something about spending eighty percent of your time on structure and about twenty percent on the writing. Things were bubbling along pretty well at that point—I was in the first sections of the book—so in my right ear went the advice and out the left it fell. And for a while, I didn’t miss it.

Then came the first re-plot. It started in my gut, with the uneasy feeling that the story was sliding out from under me, even with my lackadaisical outline to use as a semi-guide. It wasn’t long before I was struggling with the subplot, trying to figure out a reason why the guy’s wife (or sister—it went back and forth for a while) would betray him while he was in a coma. Well, there wasn’t a reason, at least not one I could dream up.

So, along came the first re-plot, with a nefarious coven of warlocks in place of the evil wife-or-sister. This re-plot also included Tanya, a waitress who, in addition to being mighty cute, was a shaman capable of traveling through different planes of reality. With these changes in mind, I tweaked the novel’s structure, but again left off after I’d gotten about halfway through the work, figuring I’d clean up all those ugly plot holes while I wrote. No problem, right? Innate storytelling prowess, remember?

Welcome to re-plot number two.

I loved Tanya, but she was just too much. She was a super-hero, really, intruding into a story about a guy who gets his soul sent to Hell, through no fault of his own, while his body remains alive on Earth. And as I looked more closely, I realized that all the plane-travelling shenanigans weren’t moving the plot forward. So I bid Tanya farewell and started again. Now the romantic interest is in already Hell when Colin (the hero) gets there and has a role in the motion of the story.

Slowly and carefully now go I, creeping along scene by scene. What’s next? What makes sense? Where’s the conflict here? Would this character really do that thing. Mark a question here, a hole there. It’s a lot of work, this plotting, but I’m finding it fun and starting to see how making a few passes through it could make my life much easier. I’m reading a couple of books about technique to help me out. They are Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, by K.M. Weiland, and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Both authors are actual published novelists, not folks who only write how-to books for novelists and I’m profiting from both reads.

I’ll keep working on it and, with luck, I’ll be writing prose again by September. Or maybe October. I’m in this for the long haul, gang, betting that Coolidge was right.

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