Sunday, February 28, 2010

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Part 1: Reading

To be a writer you must first be a reader.  I've been a reader all my life.  Not the heavy-duty "I read a book a day" kind of reader, but the other heavy-duty "I read two to five books a month, and always have several in process concurrently."  [After all, I like to think I've got a life, even though others can prove that's not the case.]  I've always read, but I haven't always been all that choosy about what I read.

Up through college and for more than a decade after, I read science fiction and non-fiction almost exclusively.  I must have read a classic or two in high school (I remember The Scarlet Letter) but they didn't make a lasting impression.  My first foray into the classics was War and Peace.  It seemed the thing to do:  it was alleged to be so long and boring that it had become a joke.  I took it as a challenge, and it changed my life.  I don't usually re-read books, but I've now read War and Peace three times, with ever-increasing enjoyment.

Since then I first stumbled into the classics (W&P was only the first), I was directed by a friend (thanks, Jazz) to The New Lifetime Reading Plan, which is essentially an annotated bibliography of one person's idea of what fiction and non-fiction an "educated" person should have read before they die.  That's pretty glib, but that's what it comes down to.  I've learned so much going through the history of literature in chronological order -- for instance, at certain times and places it was considered improper to claim authorship.  More importantly, I saw the evolution of the novel from before the time there were chapter breaks up to today.

Okay, so not quite up to today.  I'm still working on the reading plan.  I'm currently reading around the turn of the previous century -- Freud (what a whacko he seems now, in hindsight).  As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm not reading as much literature from the last two years as I should be.  I'm working on it.

I've read all of Shakespeare.  [I wound up skimming the bulk of the sonnets.  Try as I might I couldn't find a cohesive thread, and there were so many!  But I enjoyed the plays.]  I've read Chinese, Japanese, and Indic literature from centuries ago.  Gilgamesh, Homer Illiad and Odessy, Dante's Inferno and its brethren, Dickens, Trollope, Austen.  Great stuff.

Sometimes I look back on the thirty or so years I read sci-fi and cringe.  But that's silly.  What would I have been reading otherwise?  Nothing?  No way!  The point is I was reading; reading and learning about stories and storytelling.  Learning what makes a good story and a good tell, and what makes a not-so-good one.  However, it wasn't until I got into the classics that I knew I was learning.  Seeing how the form of written works changed over the centuries helped me to recognize how much the form matters.  The pace of change has picked up in the last 180 years or so, and now that I can see that in context, it makes me excited to think what changes are in store for the novel over the next decade or two.

Form matters.  How a novel is laid-out affects our understanding, our involvement, our belief.  Up until a few hundred ago, most literature was set up to teach morality stories, and they were pretty blatant -- witness A Pilgrim's Progress.  A great many incremental changes have happened since then, some larger than others, but it's been a path of growth rather than revolution.  Today's novels still have things to teach us, things about love, family, independence, survival -- just about anything.  We expect to be entertained in the process of this learning, and (fortunately) we usually are, even in this age of instant gratification, the web, television, and twitter.  Just as in the past when earlier novels spoke to their audience in expected and accepted ways, the form of today's novels speaks to us.  At least it speaks to those of us who read.

What will change tomorrow?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Poetry in Works of Fiction

I'm not speaking here of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, etc. in prose, but rather actual undisguised poems.  Should they appear in fiction -- fiction being written for the current market?  "Of course they should," I say, but how and to what purpose?

Think of Lord Of The Rings (I realize this is anything but current), and what I think of as its three kinds of poetry:
• poems from the old days (in English)
• poems from common folklore (in English)
• poems from the elves (in Elvish)

The first are long "chants", and (I regret to say) too often tend to the boring.  A good example is The Song of Nimrodel, which is so long Legolas doesn't even remember it all.  You can barely call these backstory.  It doesn't matter -- they're too long to appear in that form in a contemporary work.  Most readers simply won't stand for it.  I didn't skip them, but when I saw the poem went on for a page or more and the first stanza proved the entire poem to be of this ancient ilk, I skimmed.  I admit it.  Some of these poems are beautiful, and when shorter (1 - 4 stanzas) are eminently readable.  Poems demand a different style of reading than normal prose.  Only sometimes could I be persuaded to break my normal stride of reading to slow down for these longer old-style poems and "speak the lines inside my head."

The second are phrased in simpler language, and tend to be shorter.  Often much shorter.  Example: The Road Goes Ever On.  Sometimes they're songs of which we're given just a verse or two.  That's fine -- they set a mood, give us a flavor of the time / world we're moving through.  I'd slip into and through these poems easily without coming out of the text, without breaking the spell of the story.

The third are (literally) unreadable.  Example:  Namárië. You could pour over them if you wish, but if you're reading rather than studying, the elvish is impenetrable.  I could have used a translation, I suppose, even if it didn't capture the rhythm or rhyme (if any).

To come back to the main issue of this entry, the question is what place, if any, poetry has in a modern work of fiction.  Not every work deserves poetry, or has a place for it, but some do.  Some stories beg for children's songs and taunts, mnemonic jingles, spells, etc.  But I think they should be used as an accent, rather than be an overpowering influence.  To that end they should be kept short.

My first novel has a few of them, all short, and all in the form of nursery rhymes.  I think they fit and it makes sense to have them there.

I'm behind on my reading of current fiction (I'm trying to do better) -- do you know of any recent examples, either egregious or salutary?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Getting Down To Business.

How often do you write?  For how long each time?  Are you consistent?  Are you committed?

Sometimes I think I'd love to have entire days devoted to writing.  I'm talking about days with no distractions, like you might find at a writing retreat.  It hasn't happened yet for me, and I'm not holding my breath.  I'm don't think I'd like a retreat anyway -- it's just not my style.

A couple of times I've had the opportunity to take a day at home and do nothing but write.  It didn't work well for me.  I could edit or rewrite all day (though I'd not be at my best after a couple of hours), but not write a first draft.  I can go at a first draft for an hour, maybe two, and then I need a break.  By a break I mean overnight.  It's just the way I am.  So what am I supposed to do, wait for a day I can reserve for writing and then use an hour or two of it and while away the remainder?  I think not.

As a writer you should be writing every single day anyway.  Some people call it BIC (butt-in-chair) time;  I call it writing.  Every day.  Above all else, that's what writers do, and it needs to become a daily habit.  Even if you could go on retreat four times a year, you still need to write the other days.  You need to make time each day.  Of course no one makes time, so you have to steal it from something else -- the only question is from what.

I'm not going to say that writing must be the most important thing in your life.  Your family, your health, and probably your day job need to come first.  At least.  But Survivor, or Lost, or anything else on television?  Anything else you do just to veg out?  That sort of stuff is easy pickings.  All you need is half an hour a day, an hour is even better:  as little as fifteen minutes per day is a damn fine start.  Let's do a wee bit of arithmetic, shall we?

Figure out how many words you write per minute.  Sounds silly, I know.  It may also seem like a pitiful number.  When I was working on my first manuscript, I found I wrote about 600 words / hour.  That's 10 words per minute.  (No fair laughing!)  Those were well-considered sets of words, mind you, my first draft was probably a lot tighter than it should have been, but that's what I felt comfortable with.  When you sit down to write, note the time.  When you're done, note the time again and count the words you wrote.  Remember -- it's not a race.

So now you know your average wpm:  10 in my case.  That means that at 30 minutes / day, I'll write 300 words each sitting.  Not much.

But it adds up.

In a month, that's 9000 words.  Is that a lot?  Depends.  But that means that you could have a 90000 word novel in 10 months.  That's first draft quality, and it will need work (maybe an awful lot of it), but you'll have written 90000 words!  If you waited for days that you could devote to writing where would you be?  Let's look at in terms of hours.  30 minutes / day for 10 months gives you a combined writing time of 150 hours.  That's like 3.75 work weeks of 5-day weeks filled with 8-hour days where you have nothing to do but write.  No meetings, no phone calls, no interruptions -- think of having all that time to write (yet not getting stale from too many continuous hours in a row)!

And you can have it for just 30 minutes a day, if you make the commitment....

Video of the week:   Being committed to what you need to do.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sleeping With Your Characters

How do you know who your characters are?  How do you learn what makes them tick?

For myself, I can scheme and plan and write character outlines all day long, but they mean nothing until I write the scene.  That's when I find out who the really are, how they'll react to a given situation.  Anything I do before then is only:
  • my best guess
  • a sincere hope
  • utter garbage
This is one of the things that marks me as a pantser (I dislike that term, and prefer the full-out seat-of-the-pants writer) rather than a plotter.  I'm not going to argue that now, though it will be a future blog topic.  No, the issue here is how to get the writing done.

I write scene-by-scene.  Wherever I leave off in my word processor or notebook, that's where my mind is occupied until I pick up the keyboard or pen again.  When things are going well, "what happens next" is brewing all during my down-time, and then next time I write I have everything present in my head.  When I'm very busy with the rest of my life (my normal situation), I don't get much time to noodle next steps.  Coincidentally, I have trouble falling asleep because my mind is flitting over upcoming commitments or my day job.

But I've found that lying in bed and letting my novel's "what happens next" play at the surface of my mind actually helps me fall asleep.  In addition, I get the benefit of uninterrupted brewing time, in a relaxed state to boot!  I didn't expect this.  I would have thought that thinking about the novel would keep me awake, rather than help to lull me to sleep.

It works for me.  How do your characters become real?

Video:  How to fall asleep without thinking about sleeping.