So, the reason it took me so long to get any traction on that novel…

400x400_concept_mediumAs my blog-readers may know, I’ve been struggling to write a children’s novel for the past 10-12 weeks and I’ve been putting an epic amount of time and effort into it. And I had several points at which I’d written 15+k of a novel and outlined the rest of it and knew exactly what was going to happen and where and then…I just wasn’t feeling it. For some reason, I couldn’t go through and write the rest. Now, the standard advice in these situations is to just push through and complete the book. That’s probably good advice for lots of people since there are many people who are just overly critical of themselves and need to be given permission to write something that is below their standards, but I don’t follow it because I feel like I am generally pretty rosy about my work, so if something is below my standards, that’s probably because it really is bad.

So each time, I’d go back to the drawing board and try to figure out how to make the novel work. And each time, I’d move along some path. And each time, I’d come to the same place. The characters just didn’t resonate with me. For some reason, I didn’t feel like they were alive.

About ten days ago, I finally sat down and thought, what am I doing wrong here? And then I started tracing my way through all my attempts to write this thing. In my first conception of the book, it was about a boy who gets summoned into a Narnia-like world and  reigns as a king and then comes back to deal with his high school (where the twist, it turns out, is that everyone else at his school also, at some point, got summoned into their own Narnia-like worlds). Then it became a story about a boy who refused to go to the Narnia-like world that kept trying to summon him. And then, at some point, it became something about a town full of heroes who believed their job was to save the world from some future Ragnarok. And at one point it was about a summer camp for heroes. And then it was about a girl who dies and haunts her (magic) school as a ghost and tries to get the headmaster to bring her back to life.

And I realized that the problem with all of these ideas is that they were way too concept-driven.

In general, I’m a pretty high-concept writer. Virginia Woolf might be about to write a novel about the day that Mrs. Dalloway throws a party, but I can’t do that (although I wish I could). I’ve got to have some kind of intriguing premise in there.

But lately I’ve been writing a lot of realist stories and novels, which has, I think, helped my writing a lot. Because in realism, even the highest concept probably contains some hint of character in it. For instance, Enter Title Here is about a girl who’s writing a book about her own life that requires her to go out and be carefree and fun, even though, at heart, she is manipulative and callous. That’s pretty high-concept, but it’s also character-driven.

Where I was having trouble with the children’s book was, I think, that it was my first non-realist work in awhile, and I was falling back into what I now realize were bad habits: I was creating a big sprawling concept and then trying to figure out what stories fit into it, which is pretty much how I composed all my SF stories for a long time.

But now that I am a better writer and I have written more character-driven books, my sense of aesthetics wouldn’t allow that sloppiness to pass. Thus, I was caught in a quandary. All my habits and instincts were pushing me in a direction that my sense of aesthetics wouldn’t allow.

My solution was to just throw up my arms and write a realist book. I closed the old scrivener file and opened a new one (its title is literally NoMagic.scriv) and spent a few hours tossing around realist ideas and when I found one that I liked (kid has to figure out which kids at his birthday party are conspiring to ruin his life), I ran with it.

And I finished the book in five days

 

I still haven’t figured out exactly where this puts me vis a vis science fiction and fantasy. I think that I’m going to need to reorganize my brainstorming process a little bit and retrain myself to produce more character-driven SF.

Work is going extremely well!

I’m well past the halfway point, and it’s looking like I’ll finish by the end of the week (book is a middle grade novel, so it’s only novella length). It started off as a whimsical children’s novel. Now it’s not nearly as whimsical as it once was, sadly.

This has been one of the more absurd writing experiences of my life. Can’t quite talk about it yet since there’s always a chance it could fall apart again, but I’ll let the statistics speak for themselves. I started on the 9th of March. Since then, I’ve worked on it for 79 days and 220 hours and I’ve written 209,000 words. That includes 70+ restarts, including maybe 6 or 7 times when the book got to longer than 15k words, and four separate occasions on which I (in order to clear my head) opened an entirely new, entirely blank Scrivener file so that I could start working on a tabula rasa.

But then it finally came together.

And it happened for a very specific reason that I will relate to you sometime early next week. I’m pretty sure there’s zero chance that the book is going to fall apart at this point, but why risk it?

Also, if you’re someone I’ve mentioned this book to, then you should be aware that the book I’m about to finish is one hundred percent different, in almost every particular (including subgenre) from the one that I told you about.

For fun, I’ve been thinking up my elevator pitch for this one. So far I’m thinking that it’s like Murder on the Orient Express* meets Mathilda.

*There’s actually a different Agatha Christie novel that would be a better comparison, but that might give away the ending.

Working

Still working on the middle-grade book. About to start Chapter Five! It’s growing less and less likely that I’ll need to restart again. Someday I’d like to go back and summarize all the permutations that the concept has gone through. But not now. I think it’s going well. At least, I can’t spot any clear dealbreakers, but it’s hard to tell. Anyway, I’m about to hit the first act break. Usually, by that point I have a lot more clarity on how well things are going.

Right now I can visualize all the big points, but all the little ‘stuff’ isn’t as clear. Novels are so full of stuff. Just little encounters in off-beat places: a person checking into a motel; a guy finding a flower growing on the edge of a cliff; someone talking to someone they don’t normally talk to. And it’s the stuff that’s actually pretty hard to plan out. The two main periods for stuff are the second half of the first act, which is where you introduce all the minor-side characters–the teachers, the bullies, the cousins, the ice-cream vendors–who will (hopefully) come up again.

And then you introduce more stuff in the first half of the second half, because that’s kind of a lighter and more relaxed time. After the midpoint of the book, everything becomes way more clear: you’re just knocking down pins that you’ve already set up.

But introducing the stuff is an interesting problem, because all the stuff has to come from deep within the internal logic of the story. And that means you need to be in tune with that logic.

I’m not sure that I’m yet in tune in the right way. We will see.

Anyway, the nice thing is that it looks like this might end up being a pretty short one (could be less than 40k words!)

I’ve never written three or four novellas before, but none of them were any good, so I’m excited about this. And since the word count limits are different for middle-grade fiction, 40k words ought to still be a saleable length.

Sometimes, when you’re in the darkest and gloomiest part of the writing process, the workshop cliche is what saves you

Source: The Gnomon Workshop
Source: The Gnomon Workshop

Usually, the suggested fixes that you’re given by a writing workshop are pretty mechanical and, oftentimes, not very coherent. The thing that workshop does well, though, is diagnose the problems that need to be fixed. Because stories are so complicated and need to work on so many levels, it’s very possible to create a story that’s all tone or all setting or all language or all concept and neglect the other elements.

Which is exactly when your workshop comes in and says something like ,”What are the stakes here? Why should the main character care about this? And why should I care” or “What does this main character want?”

I’ve heard those complaints so many times in so many different critique groups and workshops. These sentiments are the definition of workshop cliche: a generic thing that you say about a piece of writing that you don’t really like. And it’s very easy for a writer to dismiss these criticisms with some glib tossed-off answer: “They’re interested in seeing whether their philosophy works” or “They want to be alone.”

Sometimes, though, these phrases come back to you when you’re stuck. And questions that seem like cliches can become very powerful when you take them seriously and use them to interrogate your text. When you use them to cut through the easy, glib answers and really examine, “Why does this matter?” and “What does the character want?”

Writing this book, in particular, has meant abandoning two dozen different paths that were very defensible and plausible ways to go, except that they just weren’t the right thing to do. But if I didn’t have the sense of the basics that I got from workshop, then I don’t know that I would’ve been able to recognize or articulate what was wrong with what I was writing.

 

My life is mud, but at least I read a good book

6a00d83451bcff69e20115711e62d3970cIt’s ridiculous how mired up I am in this book. But I distinctly remember how awful I felt when the last one wasn’t going well and how amazing it was when the book finally opened up and yielded its secrets to me. I hear other people talk about how disappointed they are that the book they have in their minds doesn’t ever get translated onto the page. With me, the book in my mind feels weak and ephemeral until it finally materializes on the page.

Anyway, I’m at that point in the writing process where I can’t bear to read fiction, so I’ve been scrounging around for good nonfiction to read, and I recently read a great one.

Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist And The Murderer has what is (justly) one of the most famous opening paragraphs in nonfiction writing.

EVERY journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

Her book is a book that’s about another book: Joe McGinnis’ Fatal Vision.

McGinnis was a well-known journalist who embedded himself within the defense team of a murder suspect, convinced the suspect that he believed the suspect to be innocent, became friends with the suspect, corresponded with him for four years (even after the suspect’s conviction), and then released a book that decried the murderer as a twisted, amoral narcissist who was definitely guilty of the murder.

In response, the suspect sued McGinnis for fraud and came very close to winning his case (one determined juror hung the jury and saved McGinnis from losing the case. However, McGinnis subsequently settled and gave the suspect $330,000).

Malcolm’s book is analysis of what happened in that case and an exploration of what it means to be a journalist: what it means to convince people to talk to you, and then to put your own spin on their story. She also seems very interested in the psychology of the interview subject. She tries to elucidate what exactly the subject hopes to get out of the interview, and the reason why they talk to (and trust) the journalist even though they have no reason to.

My only quibble with the book is that Malcolm gives the journalist too much credit. She portrays the journalist as a bloodthirsty conniver who says and does anything in order to get information out of the subject and then goes out and writes their own article.

Whereas, actually, what we’ve seen in the modern era is that it’s actually not uncommon for interview subjects to co-opt the journalists who cover them. There’s a reason that celebrity journalists are so breathlessly appreciative of rock stars, and sports journalists build so much hype around sports stars, and business journalists are relentless in heaping praise upon successful CEOs. The journalist often seems himself as a relatively unimportant person. And, furthermore, a person who can be replaced by one of a hundred other equally hungry journalists. In many cases, the journalist understands, either consciously or unconsciously, that his purposes are more suited by hagiography than by a take-down.

The spinelessness of most journalism is what neuters much of the impact of Malcolm’s book. However, it’s still worth reading. It’s a well-observed and astute book…it just doesn’t apply to nearly as great a percentage of journalist as she actually thinks it does.

(Also fun about the book is the relentless navel-gazing. Malcolm is very aware that she is engaged in the same pursuit that McGinnis was involved in. And she consistently questions herself and her relationships with her own interview subjects).

Up to my 49th draft of chapter one of this children’s book

rewritingI thought that the 48th was going to be it (I got all the way to Chapter Four!) but then it turned out not to be it. All of this rewriting seems crazy now, but, in my opinion (and in my experience), a book’s not gonna work unless the first chapter works. For me, the first chapter contains the DNA of the entire book: the characters, the setting, the milieu, the conflicts, and, most importantly, the voice. You can’t go back into a novel and add in the voice. Unless you’ve got it crisp and clear in the first chapter, the rest of the book’s going to be limp. When I was writing the first draft of my sociopathic mom book (which has a very distinctive voice), the voice was literally the last thing that gelled. I’d written 70,000 words (in various drafts) and was back at page 1, trying to make it work and wondering what was missing. And then I had a key realization regarding the mom’s motivations, and I wrote a 900 word scene and it was all there. I remember re-reading that scene ten times before I went to sleep that night and reassuring myself that I’d finally found it.

After that point, I wrote the rest of the book (all 110,000 words) in fifteen days.

Before I can move on with the rest of this book, something like that has got to happen.

The way that I prevent myself from going crazy is that every night, I develop a new strategy for tomorrow. That way, there’s always hope. This time, I’m actually pretty excited. I’ve got a whole new tack.

But only time will tell…

As opposed to the last few times that I’ve talked about this, I’ve now actually sold a novel, so (hopefully) people won’t chime in with condescending comments about how I just need to turn off my internal editor.

Believe me, I do not have a very overactive internal editor. My internal editor is the same as the thing that makes me want to write. If I’m interested and compelled by something, then I have no problem writing onwards, despite its flaws. But if I’m not, then it’s a warning (to myself) that I need to step back and reevaluate.

You’ll see! You’ll all see!

Sometimes the key to writing a novel is situating yourself at the right point in your protagonist’s emotional journey

Monarch Changing to Chrysalis 5Actually managed to get to chapter 2 today!!!

Not sure that I’ll stay there. I’ll probably end up getting two or three chapters in and then find myself back at chapter one.

It’s very strange, because I know pretty much what the world is like and the emotional journey is going to be and what’s going to happen and all of that seems to work pretty well (at least in my mind), but I haven’t quite ironed out the voice. There’s no point in writing a book unless every sentence is, in some way, fun to write. A character needs to shock and surprise you. I know it sounds silly, but I do feel like the characters ought to feel, when you’re writing them, as if they’re alive. I don’t think that anything mystical is necessarily happening, I think that’s just a sign of the unconscious taking over.

Writing is primarily an unconscious activity. No one can properly answer the question: “What should the character do right now?” And that’s why you need to rely on the unconscious mind to provide those answers.

However, I’ve gotten better and better at rejecting the false answers that sometimes crop up. And, sometimes, one of those false answers is when the character has too much voice and too much personality and is too sure of themselves. Sometimes you can write a character who spits and cackles and moves across the page, but…to no end. They’re static; they already know who they are.

In my last workshop, one of my MFA classmates gave me a really insightful comment. He said that my characters already seem to know exactly who they are and what they want, and that meant that there didn’t really seem to be enough growing for them to do within the story. He recommended that maybe I ought to pull back a little bit and try to explore what my characters are like when they’re still in the process of becoming their final selves.

Anyway, in the more recent versions of Chapter 1, I’ve been pulling back and trying to write a version that’s more muted, more uncertain, and more human. I’m not sure whether it’s completely working yet (because as soon as one aspect of the book starts to get stronger, then some weakness in another aspect is revealed), but I think I’m starting to get there.

It’s inadvisable to begin a novel with both an unusual event and a weird setting

63463189_8d0f96d5c5With the end of the semester, I went back to work on my whimsical children’s novel (no joke, I am currently writing the 32nd draft of the first chapter). And I realized that one of my problems was that my first chapter contained both: a) a pretty atypical setting; and b) an event that was, for that setting, fairly out-of-the-ordinary. And this sets up an almost impossible challenge. It means that you simultaneously need to convey the setting well enough that readers know what events are ordinary for it, while also describing a big out-of-the-ordinary event.

The problem, though, is that if your setting is weird, then the way that readers understand it is by observing the things that happen within it. For instance, if the first chapter of my novel was set in my escalator-world (a world made entirely of moving escalators), then the way the readers would understand the rules of escalator-world would be by observing how they function in the first chapter. However, if I open the novel with the escalators all screeching to a halt, then no matter how much I have the characters panic and react to the screeching escalators, the reader is never quite going to get it, because they’ve never had the opportunity to see the escalators functioning normally. Thus, any story that’s set in a weird place needs to have a chapter or two of events that are ordinary (for that place) before the big, crazy stuff happens.

The problem there, though, is that it still needs to feel like something is happening. It can’t just seem like the novel is spinning its wheels until its time for something to happen. And that means that those ordinary events need to contain enough tension to propel reader interest and, additionally, they need to somehow suggest the shape of the big, dramatic events that are going to come along shortly.

On the other hand, if you open your novel in a place that people understand very well (an airplane, a suburban public high school, a typical pseudo-medieval fantasy land), then you can open up with something weird happening on page one.

So to recap:

It’s okay to start with an unusual event in an ordinary setting: For instance, if in the very first page of a high school novel, one student jumped on another one and then started trying to eat his brains and everyone began to panic, it wouldn’t be that confusing at all, because you would immediately understand it as something that’s out of the ordinary.

It’s also okay to start with an ordinary event in an unusual setting: For instance, if, on the first page of a high school novel, one student jumped on another one and then started trying to eat his brains out and then the second student pulled out a pickaxe and bashed the first student in the head, and then the janitor came out and swept up the blood and gore and doused everything with ZombAway, then you wouldn’t be confused, because you’d be like, “Okay, this is zombie high school world, where this kind of stuff happens all the time.”

What’s confusing is when you have an out-of-the-ordinary event in an unusual setting: For instance, if, on the first page of a high school novel, one student jumped on another one and then started trying to eat his brains out and then the second student pulled out a pickaxe and bashed the first student in the head, and then everyone in the school started clapping and praising the second student as the best zombie-killer to ever walk the halls of that school and the big-titted cheerleader sidles up to him and is like, “Oh gawd, I love how you bashed that zombie. If it’d been anyone else, then that zombie would’ve killed us all.” Then you’d be like…uhh…what? Exactly how unusual are zombie attacks? What is going on? Do students expect zombie attacks? Or are zombie attacks unusual? None of this is making sense to me!

That part of the novel-writing process where you find ways to avoid writing the stuff that you don’t yet understand

This book is so goddamn whimsical.
This book is so goddamn whimsical.

Sometimes, when I get to a point where (but not all) of a novel is working well, I’ll experience a curious sort of circularity in the writing process. Things will really be clicking for awhile, and then the whole thing will go slack. And then I’ll make a titanic effort and sort of figure out something to do, and then the novel will click for a little bit longer before going slack again. And I can continue this for as long as I want, and the stuff I write will all be sort of good, but the whole thing won’t have any sort of coherence. It’ll just never really come together.

I’ve come to realize that this is basically avoidance behavior. Sometimes my mental conception of a novel is lopsided. I’ll have a really good idea of what’s going on in one part of the novel (one setting or milieu or plotline or family), but haven’t really thought out what’s going on in the other one. So every time I get to the other part, everything will feel off and I’ll wonder why the book isn’t clicking anymore.

Since the human instinct is to avoid discomfort, I’ll do my best to avoid actually thinking about the problem (which would entail admitting that part of my novel is–at least at the moment–conceptually flawed) and instead I’ll concoct some cockamamie way of circling the book back around to the part where I do understand what’s going. And that sort of works for awhile, except eventually the book gets so lopsided–so unable to paper over the absence of part of what was supposed to make it work–that I literally cannot go on with it any further.

At that point, I usually take to my bed with many tears and self-recriminations, and say to myself, “But everything I’ve written is so good! And it all makes perfect sense! I don’t understand what the problem is!”

And then, over the course of several days, I’ll realize that the problem is in what I haven’t written. And then I’ll need to go back and think it through, and–although I’ll usually manage to save most of what I’ve already written–I’ll inevitably find out that you can’t actually write one plotline of a novel without knowing what’s going on in the other plotline, so I’ll have to throw some stuff out.

But eventually it’ll all come together.

Actually, it often poses an interesting creative problem: trying to create something in one half of the novel that justifies something I’ve already created in the other half of the novel. It’s shocking the sort of interesting solutions that your imagination will hand you if you back it into a corner.

Which is another way of saying that Whimsical Children’s Novell just collapsed again. Boo hoo. Woe is me. Woe!

Writing a novel is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle composed of pieces you carved yourself

My metaphor only worked if there was such a thing as a wooden jigsaw puzzle. Luckily, there is.
My metaphor only worked if there was such a thing as a wooden jigsaw puzzle. Luckily, there is.

I’m trying to write a whimsical children’s novel (you know, something in the style of Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket or Dianne Wynne Jones’s oeuvre), because I wasn’t in the mood to write another short story and I wasn’t in the mood to write anything long and complicated. Whimsical children’s novels (WCNs, for short) tend to be pretty short, and I also thought, since I had a pretty robust idea for one, that this would be easy.

I was wrong about that (as I kind of suspected that I would be). Putting together a WCN is just as hard as putting together any other kind of book. And right now, after two weeks of work, I have about 600 words (and thirteen discarded drafts) of an opening chapter.

However, I’m not full of the usual panic and gloom that I normally feel when I’m mired in a novel. I think that’s because no one is really expecting this out of me, and I’m also not working according to any self-imposed deadline. It’ll be done when it’s done. And if it’s never done, then that’s fine too.

Although it’s an unsettling and chancy endeavor, starting off on a novel is also really interesting. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, except that you’re carving and painting the pieces one by one, and each individual piece also has to work as an aesthetic object

When I’m in the process of imagining (for instance) the setting of a novel or the main character of a novel, I can often feel myself getting closer and closer to something that interests me, and it’s always really exciting to find a piece that I think I can work with. But then there remains the task of how to fit it in with all the other pieces.

The temptation is to just hammer the uneven corners together and make them fit. And, eventually, that is what you eventually need to do. There aren’t many novels where everything is perfect: all of them have places where stuff doesn’t quite make sense or things are glossed over. But you generally want to avoid that, because it throws off the whole thing.

The real solution is to go back and sort of re-jigger the edges of the pieces so they come closer to fitting. Often, you’ll need to throw out a bunch of the pieces entirely, because there’s just no way to make them fit.

For me, most of this work takes place without that much writing. Because the first 2000 words of a novel contain so much information—character, conflict, setting, voice, arc, point of view, theme, narratorial distance—they often suffice to show me exactly how things are fitting together. I’ll write a thousand words and then I’ll pull back and say, “Hmm, what’s not working here?”

And then I go back and start moving my pieces around even more.

What’s really exciting, though, is when I get close to the end, and the missing pieces are things that need to be so delicate and so specifically crafted that it seems almost impossible that I can find them. For instance, I was recently writing a story where a hard-working, successful woman was dating a total schmo who’s kind of mooching off her, and at some point I realized that the only question left—the only thing that was keeping me from writing the story—was “Why does this woman want to be with this guy?”

Except it wasn’t just that, because she needed a reason for being with him that: a) the reader would understand and emphasize with; b) wouldn’t make him seem like less of a schmo; c) wouldn’t make her seem like some kind of castrating monster who just wants to be with a weak-willed guy; d) wouldn’t be so strong that it couldn’t be disrupted by the later events of the story; and e) wouldn’t require (since the story was so short) any new scenes.

It seemed impossible that the solution would ever present itself, and I was very tempted to just go ahead and force everything into place with some kind of makeshift solution (i.e. I’d’ve thrown in a few lines of description about how no one else had ever treated her with such grace or looked at her so appreciatively, etc, you know…the kind of stuff that you can say, but which the audience won’t believe, because you haven’t dramatized any of it).

However, when the solution finally came, it felt so good and so right that it felt like there never could’ve been anything else. After that, I wrote the story in a day or two.

Right now, I am at this point with the WGN. Many of the pieces have been created. Many of them are even locked into place. But there’s one major thing that’s missing (an emptiness at the heart of the main character which somehow needs to be fulfilled in a way that will do five very specific things). And it seems impossible that any solution can ever be found.

But I have faith that it will come. Somewhere out there is one extremely odd and extremely specific character trait that will slot perfectly into the space that I have left.

And now I just need to wait for it to reveal itself to me.