Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rough Drafts, Colonoscopies, and E-Juice

Rough drafts and colonoscopies have a lot in common.  Neither is fun to watch, I'm thinking.  Both are messy and sometimes uncomfortable (it's called a rough draft for a reason).

One involves a professional (a doctor) looking into the guts of your body, the other involves a professional (yourself at your professional best, anyway) looking into the guts of your story.  The doctor has the best equipment and an assistant, along with other medical help available as needed.  For your rough draft you probably have a fine computer, and maybe an assistant in the form of a reader or critique partner / group.  If needed, there's always help on the Internet.

Both the writing and the probing involve "getting it all out."  When you have a colonoscopy they give you some concoction to drink to help get things moving.  I call it eliminator juice, or e-juice for short.  It is mighty effective.  For better or worse, there's no equivalent to e-juice for writing rough drafts.  Assuming the goal of a rough draft is simply to get the story (in very rough form) into the computer, what you  really want is a sort of verbal diarrhea;  you want a flood of words.  Some people may take a drink to become talkative (or maybe a whole lot of drinks), but that kind of drinking won't cut it.  Inducing verbal diarrhea centered on our story is not as simple as drinking 8 oz of e-juice every 20 minutes till the unstoppable flow is loosed.

I find that two things slow my rough draft:  lack of knowing where the story goes next, and premature editing.  Where the story goes next always comes to me in good time, but the premature editing... sheesh!  I have a lot of trouble keeping myself from editing as I write my rough draft.  Part of me wants even this first stab at the story to be perfect, to flow on the page, to have sharp and witty dialog.  It's a very strong part of me.  I blame this tendency on my programming background -- if it's going into the computer it ought to be as right as it can be the first time.  If I had some writing e-juice to drink, it would make this editor part of me take a vacation for the duration.  But I don't have any of that kind of juice.

Except I've found that helps is to take my eyeglasses off (my uncorrected vision is 20/200 in my good eye), and zoom in on my text.  I can generally tell if I am on the line I'm supposed to be, and I can see that I'm typing, but it's a struggle to read what's on the screen.  My editor doesn't stand much of a chance because it has to work from memory -- there's no fine-tuning happening on the screen where otherwise it would be a persistent time-waster for me.  So while I don't have an e-juice suitable for writing a rough draft, I have a kind of helpful half-blindness that can at least eliminate a major restriction I'd otherwise place on the stream of words.

Do you face any particular problem with writing a rough draft?  Have you found any technique(s) for dealing with it?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Necessary Optimism

From outside the writer's circle, it's easy to see writers as pessimists.  Depressed lonely neurotic unkempt hard-drinking suicidal pessimists.  These types appear both in fiction (The Shining) and in real life (Ernest Hemingway).  Why would anyone want to become this kind of writer?  My answer (and we can argue about it, if you like) is that no one wants to become this kind of writer -- this is what writers turn into afterward.  It's like a second molting:  the first time was a change from mere human into a writer, and the second change was from a writer into a failure.  Failure as a writer, failure as a person.  Not my first choice.

From my perch on the edge of the writer's circle, not yet across the publishing threshold, things look different.  Don't get me wrong; I see a few pessimists, here and there in the fora, usually complaining about the injustice of their (usually first and not-yet-complete) novel not having been instantly bought in a million dollar book deal and an appearance on Oprah.  These people should quit whining and get to work writing  and learning.

It seems that you have to be an optimist to tackle something like a novel.  Why would you ever begin one if you were a pessimist?  The chance that it will lead to fame and fortune are minuscule, and if you're a realist, you don't consider fame and fortune.  (If you're a pessimist, you figure it's there, but they won't let you have any.)  I think there may be a link here, where pessimists tend to look forward to the destination, while optimists look forward to the journey.  If you're an optimist you think you can write a novel, one that's interesting, and ideally one that others will want to read.  Strike that.  If you're a true optimist, you don't use words like ideally, because the ideal is always assumed.

Assuming the ideal is an excellent way to approach writing a novel.  You'll want to pull back and employ a healthy level of skepticism once you get into contracts and such, but till then, being positive is the way to go.  What's the alternative?  Being a pessimist?  Most pessimists I know say they're not pessimists, they're just being realistic.  I'll admit I've said this a few times in my own life.  Being that kind of realist won't get you very far in writing a novel (or anywhere else), though.

I know a young woman who graduated from college a couple of years ago with a degree in psychology.  She's happy as a clam working as a manager in the food service industry, because "I get to use my psychology training every day."  Let's assume for a moment that no other jobs have been available because of the economy, and that either she's wasting her education or she's delusional about what a good fit her job is with her skills.  Well... why shouldn't she be happy?  If she didn't adopt the attitude she did, she'd be depressed instead.  It's the same situation either way, but she's chosen to be happy about it.  I admire that.  I'd pick delusional over depressed any day.

Many beginning novelists are in a similar situation.  We've been unable to finish a novel, or finished one that no one wants to read.  We've gotten 50,000 words written before we learned some key rule of grammar or story structure.  Should we be depressed at how much time we've wasted and how much work we have to throw away, and how very hard it all is?  Or should we be happy about the practice we've had, about the improvement in our writing that it brought, about how much better the novel we're working on now will be because of lessons learned?

One choice leaves you depressed, or just makes you walk away; the other puts a spring in your step and makes you excited for the future. 

Do you know any novelists you'd call pessimists?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Physical Setting and Plot

When a novel uses a fictional setting, (purely invented, rather than, say, summer of '81, in New York's mid-Hudson valley), they have quite a job on their hands. 
Of course, setting affects the entire novel, no matter what, but it's an especially big deal in a work of fantasy set in an imaginary world.  The characters may not even be human, in which case you'd have to decide how they sense, relate-to, move-through, and live-in their world.  How does that make them think and speak?

The imaginary world I'm building right now is not all that odd as fantasies go.  The characters are human, though not of this time, and they may not be on this earth, but their planet is largely like ours:  rocks are hard, water is wet,  the sun rises and sets.  It might be a low-tech and mildly dystopian future earth, but there are no locations in the physical landscape that are recognizable to the reader, so it might be someplace else entirely.

Because I'm starting with our own world as a basis, a lot of things can be taken for granted, both by me and by the reader:  the differences are what need to be brought to the fore.  Just as our environment shapes us, shapes the way we think, act and inter-relate, a fictional environment shapes the characters that inhabit it.

You'd find different behaviors on a Friday night in a quiet prairie town with a single stop-sign, than you would in a bright-lights / big-city sort of place.  Setting your novel in the real world (even in a fictional locale within that world) you'd select a location that enables your characters to do the kinds of things they'll need to do in the story you're telling.  On the other hand, your story could fall out from what your characters do in the setting you've chosen for them.  Either way, the environment must work with the story (even if it works with it by working against it -- a sort of fish-out-of-water story, like a mob hit-man working out of a sleepy town amid the Iowa corn).

When you select your fictional world (or create it from scratch), you have to produce a world full-bodied and consistent enough to be believable.  Consistency is a pet peeve of mine -- inconsistencies pull me right out of right out of my reader's trance.  Using a ready-made world (either ours, or one from an earlier book in a series) is the easiest was to solve these problems.  Every step you take away from the established world is another opportunity to put a foot in a trap or just slip entirely off the path of believability.

Creating imaginary worlds as a pantser-playing-at-being-a-plotter has its problems, though.  I've begun work on a novel that, now that I've gotten into it, is set in the wrong world.  My setting is too stark, too barren.  It needs to be larger, it needs to have forests and more people and a tradition of battered old children's tales.  I feel like I wouldn't be in this jam if I was a real plotter.  But I'm not a real plotter.  Trying to plot this novel is what forced me into this corner, and now it has me stalled.  What little I've written so far can easily move to the new richer setting because I got hung up when I needed the bigger world I didn't yet have.  I guess that's the upside of having made no progress:  when you're not producing even garbage, at least it saves you from making a trip to the curb on trash day.

The grappling creatures under the bed, the red-eyed furnace beast in the basement, the gold at the end of the rainbow, and the devourers-of-children who lurk in the dark woods at night:  these are the kinds of things I need, things that my attempt at plotting didn't show me.  And in order to have these fears and lessons and tales, I need to have beds and furnaces and rainbows and forests.  If this is plotting, then so be it, but it doesn't feel like plotting:  it feels like creating a world, a world where people were born and had childhoods and grew up.  It feels like creating a world where I'm privileged to get into someone's head and tell their story.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Flashbacks are touchy.  They are easy to overuse.  They whisper in your ear while you're sleeping, "Use me for your backstory.  I'm available.  I'm easy."

And cheap.  Tawdry cheap.

But sometimes a flashback is just the thing.  Well done, in the right place and in the right way, a flashback can be stronger than any of the alternatives.

Last post I talked about memories.  Memories and flashbacks are different things (to me, anyway) though they serve the same purposes.

In a memory, the character becomes the narrator, or the narrator relays to the reader what the character recalls.  The point is that the recollection is colored by the character's subsequent experience.  An adult's memory of an event when that took place when they were six years old is an adult's memory, not a six-year-old's memory.  They'd use adult language, they'd be able to see into the future because they know how the event they're remembering turned out.

In a true flashback, story-time shifts to the past.  The narration doesn't change.  The reader is transported to a different time from that of the main part of the story.  If the narration all along has been third person limited, for instance, it stays the same, but the viewpoint is no longer in the present looking over the main character's shoulder and into their mind:  it's in the past looking over and into a younger version of the same main character.  The thoughts and feelings of that younger main character are those they had at that time -- not the over-analyzed, looking-back-on-it-now thoughts and feelings they might have in a memory of the same event in real story-time.

Some people consider memories to be a type of flashback (like Jessica Page Morrell in her excellent book "Between the Lines").  I take exception to lumping them together (I can be the king of the subtle differentiation), but their similarities -- uses, entrances and exits, pitfalls, usage patterns, affect on pacing and mood -- outweigh their differences -- story-time shift, and factual vs colored-by-experience.

When I first thought about flashbacks for this post, the book that leapt to my mind was "Slaughterhouse Five".  At first blush the book is made up entirely of flashbacks (don't try this at home, kids!), but those are not flashbacks at all.  Billy Pilgrim is slipping in time, so what might appear to be flashbacks are just Billy living his life in the sequence he really went through it.  Out of order.  They look like flashbacks, but only seem to function like them -- they don't, really.  It amazes me that Vonnegut could pull that off, but then again: he was a master.

Other than those non-flashbacks, I can't think of any flashbacks from literature that stuck in my mind.  Maybe that's a good thing -- they're part of the craft and should quietly do their job without leaving skid marks.  Have you come across any flashbacks that  made an impression on you?