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:

“Rewriting”… no, “Revising”… no, “Editing”… Oh, Crud…

As I’m puttering along with this first novel of mine, I have discovered the desire to rewrite.

Already. Hooray…

One reason for this is that I’ve been listening to the audio version of Lawrence Block’s instructive Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, which is full of great teaching and humorous writing. I’ll get a notion from Mr. Block and feel I simply must apply it right away, before I lose the idea or forget how I wanted to implement it.

I also just like rewriting. For me, there’s a certain pleasure in juggling the puzzle pieces of narrative and language until they fall together in a pleasing manner. (Not that I’m doing that here, as you can probably tell.) This is probably because 1) I’m a pathological perfectionist in matters I care about 2) I’m coming back to fiction after a long hiatus and need to polish the rust off everything I write 3) I like sitting for long periods in front of a computer screen, sipping Arizona Diet Green Tea and snacking on wasabi-dusted almonds.

This is just dandy now, while I’m only about fifty pages in, but as the piece gets longer it’s going to get harder to do this sort of immediate rework. I’ll end up doing so much rewriting I’ll never make any progress on the story. At the same, I hate to set some kind of wrongheaded precedent in the early pages, follow through with it and then have to slog through fixing the whole damn thing when the first draft is done, or make an abrupt change to some story element partway through and then have to make the former part match up with the latter, again after the first draft is done. (Man, oh man, was that sentence long enough? You think?)

Keeping in mind I get to do whatever I want in the course of this enterprise, I have devised a plan. It even has phases, which as a sort of sometime development guy I am certain are bound to enhance it.

Phase 1: I’m going to slow down and spend part of my regular sessions writing new material and part revising. I’ll devote entire sessions to writing or revising, or mix them during the same session as the mood and situation strike me. I’ll keep this up until the manuscript is too long to support this method. At least then I’ll have a first part that’s somewhat fixed, which will give me less to repair at the end… in theory.

Phase 2: Once Phase 1 peters out, I’ll just move ahead and make myself notes in the text, probably cross-referenced to an appendix I’ve already got appended to the document’s end (that’s another post), for necessary details. This will probably look something like this:

Basil pushed open the double doors, only to find Penelope waiting for him, gun in hand. [set up gun in previous action]

The bit in the brackets will be hyperlinked to the appendix entry. I got the brackets idea from some science fiction writer, I think, who wrote an essay about avoiding writer’s block this way… or something like that. It was a long time ago. If you know who it was, let me know and I’ll give him or her credit in this space, which will no doubt lift his or her career to heights previously undreamed of.

I don’t know if this is going to work. There’s at least an even chance I’ll find myself in rewriting muck sometime during this process no matter what I do. That’s okay, though–as long as the green tea and almonds hold out.

Please let me know if you have better ideas! Not high bar, I’m thinking.

Oh, and as a reward (consequence?) of reading today’s post, I’ve attached what Winnie the Pooh would call a “small smackerel” of the work in progress. It’s as raw as Christoper Robin’s nose in February, not even proofread, but you’re welcome to check it out: smackerel 11-23-11.