Fiction Writing in a Hurry… or Not

HurrySometimes I get in a hurry…

Eleven-thirty!

Okay, time for writing break. (Most people know this as lunchtime.)

Wait, the boss has sent an instant message. He’s a good guy, I want to do a good job for him. Stop. Think. Write reply. Done.

Eleven-thirty-two! Omigod. Two precious minutes flushed.

Grab laptop, thumbdrive, shove them into the briefcase. Stupid laptop won’t go. Shoooooovvve! There.

Eleven-thirty-three. Crud.

Speed-walk to the elevator. Punch the down button over and over to make it come faster.

Get on the elevator, press the P1 button to parking over and over to descend more quickly.

Trot to the car, throw in the briefcase, realize I have forgotten my reading glasses. Screw it, I’ll squint.

Peel out and make the five-minute trip to the library or coffee shop. Why do I change location? Too much distraction at the office, what with the demands of gainful employment.

Eleven-forty!

Pray one of the two tables at the library is unoccupied.

Luck! First table is free. Sit. Rip laptop from briefcase.

Where is the stupid thumbdrive? It should be in this pocket, but it’s not.

Root, root, root in briefcase, find thumbdrive somehow enfolded in checkbook. Arg.

Hand are now shaking from a combination of morning caffeine and hurry-stress. Some difficulty plugging in thumbdrive. Come on, stupid laptop, boot, boot, drat you, boot.

Need to do a free-write to focus. No, forget it.

Look at the last sentence written. Do no further review. Just start writing.

See Craig write. See Craig write fast.

See Craig get stuck. Is this right? What happens here? Crud.

Open up the novel plan and check. I have wasted five minutes on a tangent, and not a good one either. See Craig delete text.

Eleven fifty-five!

Write stuff. Hate it all. Repeat.

Alarm dings. Time to return to the office!

Peel, dash, elevator, desk, reboot stupid laptop, have brief lottery fantasy, back to work.

Sometimes, I take my time…

Eleven-thirty! Time for writing break.

Wait, the boss has sent an instant message. He’s a good guy, I want to do a good job for him. Stop. Think. Write reply. Done.

Eleven-thirty-two. No problem. I’ll just do what I can do today. Persistence will win my battle.

Pack the laptop in the briefcase, taking three seconds to reach in and jiggle things a bit so the PC slides in. Put the thumbdrive in my pocket.

Stroll to the elevator, press the button once. Smile and nod to passers-by.

Down to the car, off to the library. Wave to the librarian and sit down at the table. Unpack, boot up. While the laptop starts, take minute for breathing meditation.

Check the novel plan to see what’s on tap for today. Reread a few pages from the previous day’s work to get grounded. Free-write for a couple of minute to get the gears greased.

Linger over the first words, letting today’s pace come out on its own. From there, write as quickly as possible without rushing, pausing to look up once in a while.

The alarm dings. Look over today’s production. Not bad, either for quality or quantity.

Back to the office. Smile as I open that first email, because I’m a good worker.

And I get to be a writer, too.

So… which do you choose?

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!

10 Bogus Reasons for Not Writing Your Novel

No ExcusesWhen I look through the wonder that is the Amazon Kindle store and other online literary emporia, I’m flabbergasted by the number of novels out there. After I’ve been flabbergasted for a while, I have a cup o’ joe to calm down a bit. Then I start thinking about something else—the number of novels that aren’t there, but could be. These poor little guys are in people’s heads as concepts, in desk drawers as partially-finished manuscripts to be picked up one day, in city dumps or recycling centers where they were tossed by folks who just gave up.

Do you have a novel that’s languishing for lack of attention? You have your reasons for neglecting it, of course… but maybe they’re bogus! Check this list and see if any bogus reasons are yours.

10. You Don’t Have Talent. If you’ve got the yen to write a novel at all, it’s a sign you have some kind of talent. Maybe it’s a talent for pretty prose, or artful plotting, or just sitting back and letting rip with a good yarn. But you won’t know until you try, will you? Talent needs to be developed. If you have that urge to novelate, the ability to generate that emotion is your talent. Nurture that by writing and it may develop into more and greater talents.

9. Your Story Ideas Aren’t Good Enough. Good enough for who? If your ideas are good enough to keep you entertained while you’re writing, that’s all you need. Nothing will sustain you through the long course of a novel like enthusiasm for the project for its own sake. And who is telling you the ideas don’t cut it? Some long-dead teacher? A parent? Tell these ghosts in your head, “Thank you for your opinion. I embrace it and now I let it go, because you are just a ghost in my head, and I can have a big glass of wine when I’m done and you can’t—ha, ha, ha!” And then write.

8. It’s Self-Indulgent. We’re so often taught that doing something for ourselves is selfish and bad, especially if it doesn’t result in money or a mowed lawn or something. Let me remind you that the seventh habit of highly effective people (Stephen Covey) is to Sharpen the Saw; that is, to get away from the grind and do something that enriches your brain. That’s what writing does. Besides, if writing makes you happier, isn’t that good for everybody around you? You bet it is.

7. You Need a Certain Environment. Okay, I know we’re all tired of hearing about her, but J.K. Rowling wrote at least the first Harry Potter book in several Edinburgh cafes . I know one author who, when her three kids were all tiny, would lock herself in the bathroom, put her pad on the toilet seat and write while the three little ones were banging on the door. If you try, you can write almost anywhere; maybe not as much or as well as you like, but you can do it.

6. You Have Writer’s Block. I believe that writer’s block is real. It’s happened to me, in a small way, when I tried to write everything beautifully the first time around, or when I tried to write for somebody else. It’s also happened to me when I didn’t have an adequate plan for what I was writing. If I have a plan, I don’t write myself into a corner and get blocked trying to figure out how to write myself out. Once I gave up perfection, started writing to please myself, and started planning everything, my blocks went away.

5. Your Novels Always Flame Out. We’re back to planning again. Your novels flame out because they have no plan, so they get out of control and crash into the trackless wastes of Not-Written-Land. As a seat-of-the-pants, non-planning writer, I have flamed out on at least three novels. These days, I use a plan and I am farther along that I’ve ever gotten before. What’s more, I’m confident I’ll finish. Make that flight plan, gang, and you won’t crash.

4. A Novel is Too Big. I wholeheartedly agree. A novel is too big for any sane human to take it on. All those characters, settings, events, details… it boggles the mind. But what if you only had to write one page? You can do that, right? That’s how a novel is written: one page at a time. The pages add up and become your novel. It’s almost as miraculous as compound interest.

3. It’s too Hard to Get Published. I agree with this one, too, if you’re talking about traditional publishing. Not only do you have to write a great novel, you have to hope it gets to the agent or editor when he or she is in the right frame of mind for your kind of story. That could be five minutes of every day. But all is not lost, because now you can e-publish yourself for minimal cost. Yes, you have to do the marketing yourself, but you’d probably wind up doing most of that anyway. And the royalties are light-years better.

2. You Don’t Have Time. True, time is limited for most of us. We have jobs. We have families. But how much time is “time”? You could probably plan a beat on a beat sheet, or write a summary paragraph for a scene, or a piece of a scene itself, in ten minutes. Writing in dribs and drabs like this certainly makes the work go more slowly, but if you put the time in, the work will also go forward. There’s no hurry.

And the number one bogus reason for not writing your novel is:

1. You’ll Do It When…  If you look around on the internet you can find a novelty item that’s a round disc with the non-word “tuit” on it. Get one of these and then you’ll be able to do all those things you were going to do when you finally got a round tuit. We want to wait until we’re retired, or when the kids are out of diapers—until all the conditions are right before we jump into the novel. Why? Did you wait until everything was perfect to go to college? To try your first beer? To ask that cute girl or guy on a date? To get your first… well, never mind. The point is, we do lots of huge things in life without waiting around. You can do the same with your novel. Start now! Life is short. Who knows, tomorrow you might get run over by a muscle car and end up in a coma. Like the hero of my novel, which I am writing… now.

The Writer’s Abstract Feedback Loop

Feedback LoopWriters are legendary for trying to avoid sitting down to work, and once we’re there, keeping our butts in the seat is like being chained. When we’re done, we leap up like joyous gazelles (in my case, more of a joyous water buffalo, but you get the idea).

Murray, the news writer character on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, said something like “I like starting my writing, and I like finishing my writing, but I don’t like the writing part of my writing.” Lawrence Block gets into this, too, in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, when he talks about how writers are the only artists who seem to have a level of, if not aversion, a sort of nagging unwillingness to do their work.

Not all writers are the same, of course, and I’m sure they vary widely in the level and manner in which they experience the phenomenon. Isaac Asimov would happily write from dawn to dusk, even on vacation, while Mr. Block, at the time of writing his book, stated his preferred stint at the keyboard was about three hours.

To paraphrase Block again, a musician will work all day in a studio, say, and then go out to play for free in a jazz combo for half the night. Visual artists are always picking up the brush, chisel, mouse or whatever, in their off hours. Performing artists like actors and dancers pick up extra work or take extra classes just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

So why aren’t writers more often the same way about plying their craft? I had an idea about this the other day, and having an idea for me is so rare a thing I thought I’d share it.

The other arts I mentioned all provide the practitioner with some kind of concrete object to work with. For example, when a visual artist is working, she first conceives the idea to, say, put a stroke of red paint on the canvas. At that point, the stroke is right in front of her, a concrete object. She can look at it and think, “That’s perfect,” or “That should be longer.” Musicians can hear their notes. Performers can get feedback from directors, fellow performers and audiences.

Writers, on the other hand, are never dealing with concrete objects. Instead, we are always dealing with symbols for objects (and everything else): words.

Let’s say a writer is composing a sentence describing a sunset.

  1. He starts with the sunset in his imagination. Nothing concrete there.
  2. He writes the sentence. Nothing concrete here, just a string of symbols. It has meaning, but it’s still just symbols.
  3. To react to the sentence the writer reads the symbols and reconstructs the sunset in his imagination from there.
  4. Once the written sunset is reconstructed, the writer compares it to the original, which is even less than symbols, a tissue woven of thought.
  5. The comparison results in an adjustment to the original imaginary image, the image symbolized by the words, or both.
  6. The writer adjusts the symbols (words) on the page to reflect the adjustments.
  7. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What the writer is doing here is recreating the object for herself, over and over, as many times as necessary, to get the desired results. Several of these reflections and reconstructions may take place in the span of a second, often not even perceived by the writer as they are taking place.

All this is stressful on the writer’s poor little noggin! The feedback loop, without anything concrete to support it, is simply tough to maintain. A rare few writers appear to do it without much effort, but most of us get near the keyboard and an unconscious alarm bell goes off: “Not that again!”

Is there anything to do about it? The only thing I can think of is to self-edit as little as possible while you’re drafting, but even then, the feedback loop is going on at a subconscious level—that’s my hypothesis, at least. Aside from that, just practice good work habits and give yourself every advantage you can. The stress of the abstract feedback loop comes with the territory. It’s the price we pay for creating worlds all our own.

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.

Sharing Some Inspiration

InspirationIt’s always good to have someone considered more or less an authority confirm your beliefs. That’s why I want to share some quotes from Story Engineering by novelist and writing teacher Larry Brooks.

Story Engineering contains some of the best stuff I’ve ever read about crafting a novel. It’s practical advice that’s directly applicable to one’s writing, presented in a matter that is neither straight-jacketed by process nor clouded with vagaries.

That’s not the stuff I want to share, though. At least not this week. I want to give you some of the inspirational language from near the book’s end, in Brooks’s thoughts about why we write.

“If you are a writer–and you are if you actually write—you are already living the dream. Because the primary reward of writing comes from within, and you don’t need to get published or sell your screenplay to access it.”

Confirmation! Those who visit this site on a semi-regular basis (both of you) have heard me say similar things before. Writing is its own reward, even according to somebody who actually knows what they’re doing!

Here’s more:

“The inner reward is the gift of life itself. Writers are scribes of the human experience. To write about life we must see it and feel it, and in a way that eludes most. We are not better people in any way—read the biographies of great writers and this becomes crystal clear—but we are alive in a way that other are not. We are all about meaning. About subtext. We notice what others don’t. If the purpose of the human experience is to immerse ourselves in growth and enlightenment, moving closer and closer to whatever spiritual truth you seek—hopefully have a few laughs and a few tears along the way—wearing the nametag of a writer makes that experience more vivid. We’re hands-on with life, and in the process of committing our observations to the page we add value to it for others.”

If that’s not a top-notch assessment of writing’s true rewards, I don’t know what is. We only get one life (even if you believe in reincarnation, you only get this life once) and as writers we get to create a richer experience of it for ourselves and, with skill and luck, for others. If you ask me, it doesn’t get any better than that.

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.