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Posts Tagged ‘writing process’

Nope, that’s not a typo, and this is not a baseball post. The timing is quite coincidental.*

One of the (many) eternal debates in writing circles is “first- versus third-person narrators.” It says nothing that proposing this topic as a conversation starter will like as not lead to a small-scale riot within fifteen minutes. (Pretty much any conversation about writing, among writers, is likely to start a small-scale riot within fifteen minutes, ten if alcohol is available.) At the same time, it does rank right up there with “Should I write novels or short stories?” and the granddaddy of them all, “Should I submit to markets run by people whose politics I disagree with?” (Which often gets sidetracked by “Is it really bad to end a sentence with a preposition?”–an argument sure to end in blood. And don’t ever mention the words “Oxford comma” in a roomful of writers!)

But I digress. Although I haven’t conducted a study, it is my impression that the first-person novel is frowned upon today. Personally, I often write in the first person (like now). For me, first-person narration makes it easier to get into my character’s head. Some would question the need for this, since the protagonist is often an idealized form of the writer, but for me, it allows a freedom of expression, because the narrator, through his words, is informing the reader about himself.

Normally, an author will show the reader the narrator’s character and motivations through his actions, and his reactions. I prefer a more direct route, a more personal path.  Perhaps this is because I am a science fiction writer, and my narrators are not always people you could meet on the street, or if they are, they are in extraordinary circumstances and I am interested in seeing how they respond, from the inside. (Hey, if I’m not interested, you certainly won’t be.)

Sometimes, my narrator isn’t even a person: In my latest novel, my narrator is a gorilla. How does one get into the point of view of a gorilla unless one becomes a gorilla? (In a manner of speaking.) There is no guarantee I will succeed–although I challenge anyone to tell me I failed–but I can’t think of a better way to try than with first-person narration.

It’s not true in every story, of course; I’ve written a lot of traditional third-person narratives. For me the choice comes at the beginning of the story, and generally it comes upon me already decided; I don’t choose how I’m going to tell the story because most stories choose it for themselves.

As with all of these controversies, it boils down to what’s right for the story, first- or third- person. I don’t have a preference.

Except second-person narration. Then we have a problem. And don’t even get me started on novels told in the present tense…

 

*Nevertheless, go Dodgers!

#SFWApro

 

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It’s time to admit it. I’m 8000 words into my new novel, Marauders from the Moon, the fourth book in the Nemesis series, and the damned thing is going to be written regardless of my personal feelings on the matter. I am still gamely attempting to write my short story at the same time, but I have a sinking feeling that it is going to take second place, and a distant second, at that.

Now, this may not be such a bad thing. After all, I am writing, which is the number one priority. And maybe the short story just isn’t ready; “Rights and Wrongs,” which was published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, took me three years and several versions to get done, and then they sent it back with an R&R request (revise-and -resubmit) that took me another two yearsand I ended up re-writing the entire second half from scratch. I believe when a story is ready, it will write itself.

But I don’t want to take five years to write this story; I have one already that’s been half-done since 2015. Hey, it’s my process. I don’t have to like it, but there it is.*

So at least Marauders is progressing. After a quick start, it bogged down, but tonight I wrote 1100 words, and significantly, I did not stop at the end of a chapter; I wrote the first paragraph of the next chapter. If you’re a writer, you will understand what that means. (And if you’re a writer who has not tried that trick, I recommend it.)

Now, I re-read these words as I struggle to find a closing, and I am reminded that the hardest advice to take is that which you give yourself. Example: Three paragraphs ago I said, “…when a story is ready, it will write itself.”

Marauders from the Moon was busy tonight, writing itself. I guess it’s ready. I guess I’d better be ready, too, or who knows where these characters are going to go if I’m not there to ride herd on them?

 

 

*Yes, I understand the irony that I can write a novel in two months but I can’t finish a short story in three years. It is what it is.

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When I was writing The Scent of Death, second in the Nemesis series, I posted irregular reports on “the Experiment,” i.e., whether I could write a book in three months. (I could.) You can find some of them here and here. I even did a “Son of the Experiment” as I started out the next book, The Killing Scar. These posts, however, were mainly concerned with charting progress through word counts, not so much about the nature of that progress. This time I propose to do something a little different.

I am currently working my way up to starting Marauders from the Moon, the fourth book in the series. And when I say “working my up to starting,” I mean that I haven’t written Word One. It seems, then, that this would be a good place to start with regular Progress Reports–not only to document where I am, but how I got there and where I think I’m going. (As you will see, where I think I’m going is an important caveat.)

Convention-goers are familiar with Progress Reports, and know that PR 0 (zero) is the very first, before the committee really has a lot to say. And that’s where I am, so I’m going to talk about the process so far.

I’ve been trying, with some success, to outline before I write. Many writers outline, and no two of them do it the same way. My approach has four steps:

  1. Write a blurb. Like for the back of the book. A book blurb contains your entire story in a few words. Once you write that, you know what the book is about.
  2. List every thought, concept, setting, character, and plot device you can possibly think of, in no particular order. Just throw a bunch of stuff at the screen that you think might be fun or useful to include.
  3. Begin what resembles an outline. Lay down a few plot lines, pencil in some character interactions. Try to work up a paragraph for each chapter, more or less. Get as far into the book as you can before you start writing so you can get a running start.
  4. Start writing the book, ignoring half of step 2 and most of step 3.

I like to write the book from the inside out, which is to say, I’m a pantser who uses an outline as a crutch. There’s only so far I can outline before I lose track of where I am and how many words I have covered. At that point, I have to start writing the book itself so I can see where it’s going. If I’ve jotted down 12 plot points and cover them all in the first 15,000 words, then I’m going to need a lot more plot points–but I can’t know that until I start writing. And yes, this is a messy process; you should have seen it before I got organized.

The plan is to write about 5000 words a week and be done by April 30. I will also try to post at the end of each week how I’m doing, and why it’s going well or poorly.

That’s it for PR 0. See you in a week. At least, that’s how I’ve outlined it…

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I’ve mentioned more than once that characters have a way of telling the author what they want to do in a story. I can’t count the number of times that characters have intervened in scenes they weren’t supposed to be in, or decided that they want to take up romantically with another character without telling me first. But those things are not so tough to deal with; they can be handled. In the extreme, the author can veto the whole idea. What’s more difficult (and difficult to understand) is when a character thinks he’d better serve the story by being dead.

For such willful souls, characters can be very selfless. In a recent book, I had a character walk into a room and unexpectedly find another character’s lifeless body. And when I say “unexpectedly,” I mean that neither he nor I saw this coming. It was like the one characters said, “Ooh, what if you walked in and found me dead. Wouldn’t that be cool?” Well, yeah, except that all he has to do is play dead; I’m the one who has to explain how he got that way, and more importantly, why.

In this instance (not to give anything away), I had set the character up to be aligned in the reader’s mind with the bad guys–so why was he dead? Why would his supposed allies do him in? This raises possibilities: Maybe he wasn’t who you thought he was. Was he merely an innocent bystander? Was he actually playing for the good guys? I mean, thank you for the chance to mess with the readers’ perceptions and expectations, but come on, I wasn’t planning to do all that extra work! And I thought you were going to be around for the climax!

Oh, well, he’s dead (Jim). Deal with it and move on. But I wish he had warned me. I was going to put him in a sequel. Yeah…you didn’t see that coming, did you? You could’ve been a star… Well, let that be a lesson to the rest of you. Writers write, characters act.

And preferably, not on their own.

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It’s scary starting a new book. You have an idea, maybe just a scene that you’ve been carrying around in your head for weeks or months, waiting to see if it grows into something you can use. If it’s a series, you already have your main character(s), so that’s a help. But you don’t have a plot, you don’t have secondary characters, you don’t have a beginning, a middle, or an end… You have to write 1200-1500 words per day for the next four months and you have no idea what Word One is going to be! Help!

It’s exciting to start a new book. There’s this image you’ve been carrying in your head for weeks or months that you can’t wait to get down and see where is goes. This is the fourth book in your series, and you’re really getting into your characters’ psyches, and you’re learning more and more about your setting all the time. Right now you’ve got nothing more than maybe a half-page of scattered notes, but in a few months you will have a book: Tens of thousands of words that you put together in a way that has never been done before and never will be again. Your universe, your mark on history. The possibilities!

And you wonder why writers can never seem to confine themselves to the here and now, even when they’re away from their typewriters. They are in a constant state of simultaneous terror and awe. (No, not shock and awe. That’s different. That’s when someone buys your book.) There are those who say fiction is irrelevant; it has no relation to, or effect on, the real world. They’ve never written a novel. Believe me, when you write a novel, it affects your real world a lot.

I am at the “ten lines of notes that I may never use” stage. And I have a blurb. In fact, the blurb came first. It was the first thing I wrote, because once you have a blurb, you have a story. You just have to fill in the details.

I have no idea right now what those details are going to be. I am in the same state as anyone else starting to read this book; I have little to no idea what’s going to happen.

It is scaring my pants off, and exciting as hell.

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I am not afraid to admit it: I am a man, and I am a fan of Project Runway. It shouldn’t be a surprise, really, because what I like about the show, and what I admire about the contestants, is their ability to create something out of nothing in almost no time. Their  parameters are like the guidelines of a magazine. Every week they try to transcribe those parameters into a story that says something about themselves. The fact that they tell their stories in cloth and other (usually) wearable materials is irrelevant; they are creating something out of nothing. And they do it in two days. It’s like a mini-Nanowrimo every week.

I’m not one of those authors who can produce something quickly and on demand. When I was at Taos Toolbox, I was petrified we were going to be required to come up with something fresh in the space of a day, and I knew that was never going to happen. It didn’t make it any better that one of my roommates was doing that very thing–and he did it pretty much every day. It still amazes me, that quickness of mind and creativity. It’s like when Harlan Ellison wrote stories in the window of Change of Hobbit bookstore back in the 1970s. I wouldn’t know how to do that if you threatened to arrest me.

One of the things I like about novels is that you don’t have to come up with new ideas all the time. Well, you do, but they fit into a pattern you’ve already laid out. I’m just not the quickest creator on the block. It’s taxing me to write a novel in ten weeks. (Spoiler: It may not happen.)

The answer, of course, is that I don’t have to be the quickest. I have to be as quick as I can be, work as hard as I can work, and write the best story that’s in me. Because it’s not about who’s fastest, or even who’s best, for that matter. There are seven billion potential readers out there; there’s room for more than one “best” writer.

Don’t ever try to put me on a show called Project: Writeaway, though. (“If you want to win, you have to create a story ‘write’ away!”) I’m not going to run around the room asking, “Has anybody got any extra metaphors? I didn’t buy enough!” or crying, “I should have learned to type faster!” That is not going to happen.

Although, I suppose I could write a story about it…

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Whence to Where

I recently tweeted something I thought was a tad clever: “People ask where you get your ideas. It’s not where they come from, it’s where they go that counts.” That’s why it’s ironic that I know where this post came from, but I have no idea where it’s going. But then, no one knows where the story is going when they start.

It’s true that some authors see the ending first, but this presumes that the story won’t take over and write itself. And the ending in itself is not “where the story goes.” That concept encompasses the entire structure, from beginning to end, and perhaps most importantly, the middle.

“What’s that?” you say. “The middle?” And I say, “Yes, the middle.” And there’s a reason I say that (aside from the fact that this is the middle part of this post). It’s simple: Beginnings are tough, but you can start anywhere. Endings are formed by everything that has gone before. Middles, on the other hand, have to carry the beginning and the ending. They have to connect them. They have to be interesting and further the plot without resolving it (or they become endings). They are the most vulnerable to wandering aimlessly. Parallels to middle children are left to the reader’s imagination and experience.

So how do you know where an idea is going to go? That, unfortunately, is not a question anyone can answer completely. Most ideas go nowhere. Every writer has a notebook full of ideas that will never leave that notebook. As for the others, where they go and how the writer determines that, depends on the writer. I favor an organic approach, where each part is like an ending in that it is dictated by what went before. This results in a linear narrative. Other writers may favor a less straightforward approach. To each his own.

Hey, what do you know? Here we are at the ending. And you know, it really doesn’t matter how we got here. It only matters that the journey is complete.

Tomorrow, we start again.

#SFWApro

 

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