Getting It Right Enough

Cat says "What absolute twaddle."I recently came upon a section, the first one featuring Tanya—waitress, shaman and romantic interest extraordinaire—as the viewpoint character, that I just couldn’t turn loose. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in making it perfect, but I needed it to be good enough to build more story on top of.

In seemed to me that most of the writers I’d read or heard from said that its best to forge onward, full steam ahead, no matter what. Roz Morris even advises leaving your typos to be corrected later on. Lawrence Block is the only writer I’ve heard that advocates getting it right, or at least as right as possible, the first time around.

I originally started the section with Tanya in her apartment, getting a visit for shamanic services from a timid little man named Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas had nothing to do with the story otherwise and was really only there to discover lead character Colin’s inert body in the bathtub, hopefully causing the reader to ask what happens next. The scene dragged on and I kept thinking, “Get to the bathroom already, you sap!” Besides that, I realized that if Mr. Thomas showed up in the story now, I was going to have to clean him up later on.

So I 86’d Mr. Thomas before finishing the section. On to round two.

With Thomas gone, now I could bring in Doc, a character who shows up in the first section, who interests me and who I know is going to figure into the greater scope of the novel. That felt better. I could delve into Doc’s character a bit and build a relationship between him and Tanya that would round out her character, too. I got further into the section, but stopped again before it was done. There was something wrong I couldn’t put my finger on at first, but at last my finger landed… in giant pile of twaddle.

The section was dripping with useless babble. My favorite example is a fairly lengthy description of a sort of river of light. That sounds a little cool, maybe, but then hippos and chimaeras and stuff start to float by in it and it’s just ridiculous. More important, it was completely unnecessary. I went back again, stripped out the twaddle and finished the section with Doc discovering the inert Colin. (Not dead, just inert—let’s be clear here.)

What with all this rewriting, I was fearing that was slipping back into my old habits of perfectionism, but after some reflection I had a little epiphany. I wasn’t worrying about the beauty of the writing or the typos or any of that while I was reworking, and that’s the kind of thing the writers I consulted warn about. Instead, I was solving a story problem, the kind of thing that’s sure to crop up again and again as I cobble together this novel. And I’ve even left the solution a bit clumsy—as I think the writing authorities would say I should—it will need plenty of polish later on.

Now I can move on with the story feeling like I’m building on a solid foundation, because I didn’t get the section just right, I just got it right enough.

Writing Lessons from Reading: “Inferno” and “Escape from Hell” by Niven and Pournelle

It’s a good thing I decided to check out some other novels set in Hell as I started writing Thin Spots, otherwise I might have stuck with the original title, “Escape from Hell,” which is already the name of one of the books I’m taking writing lessons from in this post, a novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Hey! There’s lesson one already: Check out the genre before you get started, so you don’t repeat exactly what somebody else has done already, in title, content, or some other embarrassing way.

Inferno and its sequel, Escape from Hell, concern the adventures of Allen Carpenter, a writer who falls to his death and, after some time in an urn, finds himself in the Vestibule of Hell. In Inferno, he follows Benito Mussolini (no, I’m not kidding) to Hell’s exit, but instead of leaving, decides to stay and show others the way out. In Escape from Hell, Carpenter learns enough about his own nature to make a try for Heaven, and out of Hell he climbs (up Satan’s hairy old leg, no less).

The Hell described in the book is faithfully based on the one found in Dante’s Inferno. It makes a fascinating setting, from the packed dirt field of the vestibule to the frozen lake at Hell’s very nadir, where Satan sits imprisoned.

And lo! Check out lesson two: A little (or a lot of) creative theft is a wonderful thing, when properly executed. I found the following quote from T. S. Eliot on Keith Sawyer’s blog: “ ‘Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.’ He then goes on to say that good stealing is usually from someone far away in space and time.”

Niven and Pournelle have gotten creative theft right in these novels. Dante is certainly removed in time from them and they’ve managed to put the setting to a different use. Whereas Dante, in his Inferno, is primarily an observer, Carpenter is a questioner; he wants to know who built Hell, why they did, and why anyone deserves eternity there. Carpenter also has the nerve to try rescuing people from Hell, an angle I’m pretty sure Dante never considered.

There was a gap of thirty-three years between the publications of Inferno and Escape from Hell, and it seemed to me that the second book, while still plenty entertaining and populated by the likes of Sylvia Plath, lacked the energy and originality of the first. Maybe that’s just me—I did read them in rapid succession, after all—but it seemed the authors didn’t bring much new to the setting the second time around except some detail about the Forest of Suicides and the addition of exploding souls (the souls of suicide bombers, don’t you know).

Maybe there are a couple of lessons here. Lesson three: Be careful when you revisit something that you bring real freshness to it. Lesson four: Not everything you write has to be the bee’s knees—write it, enjoy writing it and hope others enjoy reading it. If they do, great; if not, it’s no disaster as long as you’ve been primarily writing for your own enjoyment (part of my personal writing philosophy—maybe not so great if you write fiction for a living).

Finally, lesson five: Do your research. The acknowledgements section of Escape from Hell discusses the multiple translations of the Inferno the authors delved into to ensure they had a tight handle on the setting, which, in books like these, is practically one of the characters.

Whatever lessons these novels hold, they’re both entertaining, not dark in tone despite the setting and great examples of how a classic can be reworked in the modern day.

Plotting: New-Fangled Note Cards

It occurred to me as I was writing away on the new beginning to Thin Spots that I still had a lot of holes in the plot. Big ones, like a decent ending. I mean, I had one, but it just kind of lay there, you know?

Also, I’ve been reading Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris, which has some dandy tips of filling in plot crevasses and that inspired me to give the story another look. I haven’t finished NYN yet, but since it goaded me into doing something, it must have something going for it; I’ll let you have my final word when I’m finished reading it. (No doubt you’ll all be waiting breathlessly for that.)

Planning, while it’s fun, is nowhere near as fun as writing is. I keep getting pulled off the planning task by the compulsion to write scenes one after another, to get on with it. The problem is, that’s what I’ve tried before and I’ve always written myself into a dead end that way.

So, how to make planning fun enough to keep me from jumping into the writing work? Buy a new toy, of course. If you’re a nerd like me you buy a new piece of software.

In this case I bought myself a license for SuperNoteCard, which enables you to create stacks of virtual index cards on the PC or Mac. You can create multiple decks, categories, cards, relationships between deck and cards and relationships between relationships. You can color-code and annotate. You can distinguish specific “Factors” in your story, factors being people, places and things that “factor” into your story. You can plan your head off with this thing!

I created all my cards from existing materials and came up with nearly three hundred, counting all the duplicates. That exercise alone was enough to help me see I was building the fiction equivalent of spaghetti code (software code with logic that twists and turns on itself like a pile of spaghetti noodles). Now that I’m able to step back and look at the thing from a higher level, through the cards, I’m better able to trim fat and organize the story. At least that’s the way it appears at the moment.

That’s it from the trenches for now. Here’s a picture of SuperNoteCard in action:

Getting to Know You: Character Sketches

Having started sometime in October, by some other time in December I was twenty thousand words into the first draft of my novel-to-be, Thin Spots (coming eventually to an e-bookstore near you). Pleased as I was about the word count, a couple of things started to bug me. One was a flaw in the plot structure, which maybe I’ll talk about another time.

The other bugging item, which I’ll talk about now, was the characters.

The story’s got characters, all right—good guy, bad guy, love interest, the works—all moving around, doing stuff. Great, right? Except they felt flat, like cardboard cutouts moving around against a watercolor backdrop. Not really knowing what to do, I just kept moving them around, having faith that an answer would bubble up from the kettle of creative process in due time.

Sure enough, due time came around and I realized the problem, or at least part of it, was that I didn’t know the characters. Oh, I knew their names, physical characteristics, motivations and that sort of thing, but I hadn’t sat down with each one of them and let them speak or act as they wanted to. Another way of putting this might be that I hadn’t let their true natures rise out of my unconscious into the daylight.

I started this project with a novel-writing cookbook that advised me to define characters by filling out a list of specifics for each one. Here’s a partial example, for the lead character:

  • Character Type: Lead. Name: Colin Davis. Colin is a short form of “Nicholas” means “victory of the people”…
  • Connection to Lead: Is
  • Story Goal: He wants to get back to his body so he can stay alive, end his torment…
  • Gender: Male
  • Age: 30
  • Appearance: Blonde. Late 20s-early 30s. Average height & build…
  • Height & Body Type: Average American; 5′ 10″. Body type: Just a shade on the stocky side…
  • Hair color: Blonde
  • Eye color: Dark blue, unusually so.
  • Mannerisms: Combs his fingers backwards through his hair when thinking…

You get the idea. It’s all well and good, and it probably helped me start thinking, but not a bit of it gave me a gut feel for what this guy is like. These items are details for building an automaton, not for bringing a character to life.

What to do? I cast my mind back—way back—to a wonderful high-school English teacher who had the class write character sketches, which were just a page or two putting a character in an everyday situation and letting him or her move through it. I’ve been doing that over the past few days and I like what’s happening. The sketches don’t give me all the details of the character’s high school romances, dental work, etc., but they do make me feel as though I’m getting to know them well enough to work with them in a story.

I’ll be sharing these sketches in the next several posts. Here’s the first one. It’s for Doc Lutz, a character I didn’t even know I had until I started working out the plotting problem I mentioned earlier.

Doc Lutz was running late, which wasn’t good, because he was the only one with a key to Pizza Haven. That was only good sense—he was the owner, after all—but it meant the help would be piling up around the back door, bitching, building up a bad attitude that would last all the way until quitting time. Their attitudes were bad enough—he didn’t need to give them any help. He put the pedal to the metal, blasted through the last red light between him and the Magnolia Walk strip mall and arrived in a handy handicapped-only spot with a squeal of brakes.

They were there, all right. Manny, his lead cook, leaning against the graffiti-spattered brick wall with a cigarette dangling from his perpetual frown; Tanya the waitress in her usual form-fitting mini-skirt, hugging a black leather jacket around her against the cold and Colin, the delivery guy, utility player and general waste of space, sitting cross-legged on the ground, scribbling in a notebook as usual.

“Okay, people, spread out, Daddy’s here.”

Tanya spit her gum into an open trash bin. “If you were my daddy, I’d have grown up in foster care.”

“Nice. Merry goddamn Christmas to you, too. Manny, stomp out that butt before you come inside. And wash your hands before you start in the kitchen. How many times I gotta tell you?”

“Hell. I just lit up, Doc. These things are expensive.”

“So, quit. Hey, Shakespeare, you going to finish your masterpiece there and grace us with your presence?”

Colin stayed where he was and chewed his pencil. “Any of you guys know a good word for ‘sticky’?”

“How about ‘fired’? Do anything for you?”

“All right, all right.” Colin slapped his notebook shut and stuffed it into his backpack. “Ready to ride at your command, my captain.”

After he had made sure that Manny’s hands were washed and Tanya knew the specials, Doc went to do the liquor count. Colin Davis, he knew, would take care of himself, scribbling, until there was something he was needed for.

He grunted as he squatted to peer into the liquor cabinets beneath the bar. His weight wasn’t going anywhere but up—an occupational hazard—and his knees weren’t what they used to be. Heedless of the discomfort, he painstakingly counted each bottle, reaching to the back to be sure nobody had hidden a partial there, hoping he’d get lazy and count it as a full bottle. He also spot-checked a few bottles by upending them and watching the liquor cling to the glass or, if they were already open, removing the tops and sniffing the contents, to be sure they hadn’t been watered down. After recording the results of the count on a tally sheet, he went to his office to check the results against the previous day’s sales.

The office was a Spartan affair, consisting of a metal desk, a battered swivel chair—both bought used—and a safe set into the concrete floor. There were filing cabinets, a time clock and a bulletin board. The board contained the only personal items in the space: the first dollar Doc had made at Pizza Haven, sealed in a baggie, and a picture of his daughter, Rosalie, the one good thing to come from a marriage that had broken up many years before.

The liquor count and the sales sheet didn’t match up; the sales figures accounted for less liquor used than did the count, even with a give-or-take of five percent to account for the general inexactitude of the process. This was the third night in a month it had happened. Doc pulled a file and checked the staffing logs for those nights. There were only two employees common to all three nights: Lequoin, a kid he’d hired to bar-back about six weeks back, and Colin Davis, a.k.a. Shakespeare.

Doc scratched his belly and mulled over the matter. It was unlikely Colin was the culprit. He was too young to drink and, anyway, his job was driving, and on a motorcycle at that—not something that lent itself well to sneaking booze. Lequoin, on the other hand, was around the bar a lot, and he was so taciturn and slow-moving anyway that it would be hard to tell if he’d had a couple, unless you got right up in his face and smelled his breath.

“You’re my guy, coonass,” Doc muttered. He pulled up a number on his cell phone and hit dial. In a moment, he heard “Yo, this is Bobby Lequoin. Hit me up at the beep.”

The phone beeped. “Hey, Lequoin, this is Doc over at Pizza Haven. You’re fired. Come get your last check anytime we’re open. Merry goddamn Christmas.”

That’s a helluva cold message if it ain’t him, Doc thought, but he didn’t have any serious doubts. He trusted his instincts in these matters and was seldom wrong. And if he was by some outrageous chance wrong, he knew better than to ever admit it. He pulled an apron from a hook and headed out for the floor, pausing just long enough to look at his daughter’s picture and say a quick prayer for her. It was Christmas, so he was running with a skeleton crew and would have to do some of the heavy lifting himself.

The Dreaded Block Monster

Well, it finally happened. Writer’s block. Oh, the angst of it all.

The old first draft is starting to take a turn or two on its own and, to tell the truth, it kind of freaked me out. I didn’t know what was going to happen next and the first draft wasn’t talking.

The result? I couldn’t get my writing started. Okay, that’s not quite true. I did write a paragraph. Then I deleted it. Then I went through the sequence again. And again. And blabbity blah. Not squat did I get written in my allotted hour today.

A complete disaster, you say? That’s not the case, I’m pleased to say. I actually learned some things that—lucky you!—I will now share:

  •  It’s not the end of the world if nothing gets written on a given day. Empires won’t rise or fall. Nor municipalities, even.
  • It’s probably a good idea for me to lubricate my brain cells with a stream-o’-consciousness free write before I start hammering the brass tacks.
  • It’s wise for me to avoid writing attempts in bustling places like the coffee shop I spent my hour in today. (It’s a wonderful hangout under most other circumstances.)
  • Maybe most important, “block” is a misnomer. It’s more of a space, an empty field where ideas can grow.

The best part is, after all this spacing and learning and whatnot, I now know where the next scene is going.

So, um, yippee!

Lame ending? Well, I told you I was blocked.

By the way, here’s your reward (or punishment) for reading this post: today’s small smackerel, from the wholly unwashed first draft. smackerel 12-07-11