Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Better Novel

The physical format of a novel has been largely unchanged for centuries.  It shares most of that format with other printed matter of similar length:  a series of double-sided pages bound together in a durable cover.  Normally the author is named, and page numbers are provided as are a title page and chapter headings.

It wasn't always that way.  A reader used to have to cut the pages after purchase.  Chapter breaks were a crazy new invention at some point.  Works were copied by hand.  There was a time when it was considered gauche for an author to claim credit for his work.  There was authorship before paper.

And if you've spent any time reading older literature (certainly anything pre-1700) you've noticed differences in the style and pacing of those stories compared to what's produced today.  The novel is not a fixed-form; it continues to evolve.

We've become very comfortable with the format of a modern-day novel, both its physical presentation and the story itself.  But is there a better way?

We're seeing physical format changes in the e-readers, but they try to mimic paper books to a large degree.  We still have to page forward and back, even though there are no longer any pages.  The text sits still while we move our eyes, rather than the other way around.  We are still shown covers even though these books (which are not books at all) have none:  the protective purpose they used to serve is unnecessary.

The novel itself is changing, as it has changed throughout history.  The physical format the novel is presented in is changing too.  Are we making too many concessions to what readers are accustomed to?  Do we really lack the imagination required to make reading a better experience in more than just a token fashion?

Aside from instant purchase and downloading of books, and the ability to carry a large number of books with us on our e-readers  (note that none of these changes the reading experience itself) what have we done?  We've provided a way to change the font size.  That's about it that I can see (no pun intended).

Shouldn't we expect more?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Time is a Writer's Friend

We often think of time as an enemy, or at least as something that's working against us, something we'd always like to have more of.

But let's remember this:  time isn't our enemy -- time doesn't care about us.  We each get our share, no more and no less.

Time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once.*  Time gives us history, perspective, second-chances.  Ah, second chances....

Time is my helper; I shall not want.
It alloweth me to lie down in green pastures:
It leadeth me beside the still waters.
It restoreth my muse:
It headeth me on the paths of rightness for my novel's sake.

Yea, though I wade through the rivers of my story,
I will fear no false step:  for Time art with me;
My delete key and my backup, they comfort me.
Time preparest a plan for me in the presence of my doubts;
Time annointest my manuscript; Creativity runneth wild.

Surely writing and revision shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in my house of cards forever.

[Okay, that was corny, but let's hear a big shout-out to that oh-so-poetical King James Bible anyway.]

I'm back on track with my writing.  The commitment I made last week to (re)make writing a priority paid off.  I started writing from the very first day, but on the fourth day I found my groove and the words began to flock to my fingers.  I'm working on the outline like I promised myself, and it's fun and flowing like the regular writing (when I pantsed it last time around).  I am so excited.

Time is on your side if you want it to be.

* Attributed to Physicist John Archibald Wheeler (who coined the term "black hole").  He continued on to say "Space is what prevents everything from happening to me."  That guy had a way with words just as he had with theoretical physics.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Struggling to Be a Plotter

I'm still struggling to plot my next novel.  I'm not sure what the problem is, but I have an idea.

I've never plotted before, not like this.  I pantsed my way through my first novel, and while I had a blast doing it and learned a lot, the story suffered from the lack of a blueprint.

I know how to plan.  I plan all the time at work, at home, in the car, out for a walk, mowing the lawn -- you name it.  What's got me blocked with plotting out this novel is fear, and the way I deal with that fear is through creative scheduling.

I fear two things:  that I'll plot everything out and then my story will leave my intended path, or that on the other hand I'll be unable to make my characters come alive because I'm writing inside the bounds of my plot-box.

The creative scheduling technique I use has effectively kept those fears at bay.  What I do is promise myself every day that I will work on my plotting, and then find other things that have to be done before the writing.  Or other things that can be done before the writing.  Or I just let myself get distracted.  I know that some people would call this procrastination, but that's such a nasty-sounding word.  I like the term creative scheduling better.

What to do?

I know I want to get back into the writing phase.  The plotting is wearying and scary to me, but the writing and revision is fun.  The only way I'm going to get to the writing is to get through the plotting process (or just abandon that process and pants my way again through this next novel, but I'm not going to do that).

And the silly thing is that the plotting process should really only take another week or so -- two weeks max.  (I tend to be optimistic in my scheduling, so maybe it will be twice that, but still that's not very long.)  It isn't getting done by itself.  What I need to do is make my creative scheduling work for rather than against me.

That's why tonight, instead of sending that email I've needed to send all week, and instead of making my Amazon order, and even instead of writing this blog, I worked on my plotting.  First.  Then I did those other things that needed to get done.

The writing has to come back to first place in my priorities for my evenings, the way it used to be.  The other things still have to get done (well, most of them, anyway), but I need the energy and time to write, so now the writing will happen directly after dinner instead of at some indefinite time slipping into "later".

I feel some progress coming on!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Synergistic Writing, Anyone?

Last week I wrote about reading more than one book at a time, but what about writing more than one?  Some people do.

If you think it's a challenge to keep to books that you're reading together straight in your head, how much more difficult must it be with two stories you're creating?

I haven't tried writing two novels simultaneously, but it definitely has an appeal.  I probably wouldn't go with working on both each night, nor would I schedule alternating nights (or mornings or whatever -- I write at night), because scheduling is a sort of tyranny I despise.  No, I see simultaneous projects as a way to have an alternative when one of them has me stuck.

Other positives are a reduced risk of boredom, and chance for cross-fertilization between novels, maybe bragging rights....

The difficulties are numerous and, I think, of no significance at all.  I could get characters / plot / setting confused between the stories.  Oh, come on.  Do I get confused between multiple characters in a single novel?  Of course not.  Do I get confused between these things in my story and real life?  No again.  [If I watched television, would I get confused when watching two different multi-episode television programs over a span of a month or two?  I don't think so.]

One of the novels could fall by the wayside, and the effort I'd expended would have been wasted.  First off, I have to say that effort is never wasted.  Effort is how you learn.  Second, the novel that fell out of favor must not have been up to snuff -- otherwise why would it have fallen?  It's loss of status may not be permanent (snuffiness is relative, after all).  It may just be the right time for the other novel, and after that one is done it may be the right time for the dropped story to be picked back up and finished.

Schedule difficulties abound with writing multiple novels simultaneously, but even the worst of these is not a real problem. The simplest problem is that it takes twice as long to finish a novel because I'm working on two.  That's not a problem at all.  The worst problem, I think, is "I need to produce one book a year:  not two books every two years."  Maybe so and maybe no.  The key is to understand that the books don't have to be written in lockstep.  I don't have to start both novels the same week and end them together.  It makes more sense to start one, and roughly halfway through the writing process start the second one.

Many writers have an affinity for either writing or for editing but not for both.  I enjoy both sides, but they are very different processes, and that is why it makes sense to double-up.  Any time I sit down to work I have my choice to write one novel or to edit the other.  It should help to mix things up and keep me fresh.  On the other hand, if you have a strong dislike for editing, then the knowledge that on any given day you are guaranteed to have editing to do might be a discouraging thought.

I haven't tried writing two novels at once, but (if I could only get back into the habit of writing at all) I'd like to try.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Synergistic Reading

When we read, we bring our life experiences, prejudices, hopes, and dreams with us.  All of our personal baggage creates a synergy with the words the author put on the page.  Each person who reads a given novel gets something different from it, and each person is affected by it -- each person is changed -- depending partly on the writing and partly on their baggage.  The effect is stronger than the simple sum of the words and baggage, which is what makes it a synergism.

Sometimes, when reading two books close together the works themselves create connections the authors never intended.  It's an odd and refreshing synergy that comes from one book becoming another book's baggage in real time.

Two books I'm reading together right now are Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel.  Lost Time is set in the late 1800s, in what I can only describe as Victorian France.  The electric light comes into use during the course of the novel, but it's mostly candles and footmen, landaus and horses, twice-daily post and hand-delivered messages, voluminous dresses, walking-sticks, and a vague sense of envy of far-off London.

Strange and Norrel is set in the early 1800s, during the war with France's Emperor Napoleon.  The feel is much the same as Lost Time except that there is no electric light in sight, France looms in the background as a malevolent force rather than a trend-setter, and magic is real.

I put down one book and pick up the other.  Sometimes I lose track of which one I'm reading.  For example, I confuse Lost Time's young Gilberte with the older and magical Miss Absalom of Strange and Norrel.  They are both wearing blue gowns, they both have red hair, they are both intriguing women (for entirely different reasons).  Gilberte lives in a sort of fairytale world (of tea parties, theater shows and such) which is at first inaccessible to the narrator, and which he is later allowed to enter.  Miss Absalom died some years ago, and now, apparently, lives on in the land of fairie:  Strange is (currently, as I read) trying to reach her there.

Would I have noticed these and other parallels if I read these books separately?  I doubt it.

Sometimes reading two books at the same time gives you more than just two books worth of reading.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

E-Books in the Gutter

Last week I bought a book and discovered something interesting.  I had $5 in Borders-bucks that was about to expire and an upcoming trip to CA.  I reasoned that I could pick up a cheap paperback for just a couple of bucks and read it on the trip.  [I prefer not to take my good books on a trip, because they're sometimes too large to fit in my "fanny pack" and/or they'll get too beat-up in the process.  I also like to read something on the lighter and more exciting side while I travel.]  The book I was looking for (All the Pretty Ponies) was not available in a mass-market paperback, and after looking at it I decided I didn't want to read it anyway.  I wandered the store for a ridiculously long time and finally stumbled over Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.  The mass-market paperback at $7.99 was in my price range and less than half the cost of the $16.99 Trade paperback.  Done.

Now I'm enjoying the story and hating the book, odd as that may sound.  Norrell and Strange is 1000 pages in mass-market format.  That's 1000 pages with tiny light print that flows annoyingly close to the binding -- so close in a book so thick, that I find myself guessing at the last few letters on each line of the left pages, and the the first few of each line on the right, since I can't flatten the book enough to see down into that dark crevice.

I tried finding out what this crevice is called.  The on-line visual dictionary I consulted proved unequal to the task, and it tended to crash my browser in the process.  I would have consulted a reference librarian, but it's after hours....  At the start of this post I wrote that I discovered something interesting:  it was not the name of this word swallower.  I have (for now, anyway) had to make up a name for this space.  I call it a page pit, much like an armpit, or an elbow pit or a knee pit.  I will find out the name for this region of a bound page.  If any of my readers know, please enlighten me.  [My brother Ken reminded me that it is properly called the gutter, which fact I knew in a former life and had since forgotten.]

So let's move on to what I did discover.  If I hadn't been so cheap I would have sprung for the trade paperback, which had approximately the same number of pages but the pages themselves are pleasantly larger.  The reason I didn't is not just that I was looking for a minimal expenditure over the Borders-bucks, but that the trade pb was too large for me to take on the trip.  As it is, I won't be taking Norrell on the trip with me, I'll be taking the second volume of In Search of Lost Time.  It's not the ideal book for a trip, but it's a good physical size, the printing is much more eye-friendly, and I certainly won't be trapped in the page pits.

But that's still not what I discovered.  What I discovered is another good thing about e-books:  e-books don't have pit-text because they don't have page-pits.  They don't need them.  In fact, they don't need a whole host of tricks that the printers and publishers have been using to save paper and ink.  They don't need to single-space after a period (but that's a religious war that I won't enter into today).  They don't need to reduce the size of the print to keep the price down.  They don't need to reduce the interline spacing, or use cheaper paper, or refuse to start chapters on a new page.  None of that has any effect on the price of an e-book.

It has always seemed strange to me that (good) computer programmers know the value of whitespace and value it more than printers/publishers.  Now I realize that's not the case:  we all value it, but it's always been free for programmers, and it is only now becoming free for printers and publishers.

The only good thing I can think of about page pits (in a volume where the printing doesn't go very far into them) is that it's probably good for your eyes to have to change focus over the gentle curve of the page as you enter or leave the pit on each line.  That may be a stretch, but our eye's are amazing machines, and I wouldn't be surprised to find that such a slight focal change is beneficial.

Let's hear it for ciliary muscles (which focus the lenses in your eyes), whitespace, and, of course, generously sized or nonexistent page pits gutters.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Friction is one of my favorite things.  A world without it would be very different, and mostly boring.  Don't believe me?

For one thing, walking wouldn't exist, since it's friction that allows us to push forward off the ground at each step.  Let's just say that without friction we wouldn't get out much.

And we wouldn't talk to each other either, since it's a form of friction that moves the sensing hairs in our ears that allow us to hear.  There's not much reason for speaking when no one can hear.

So we're talking about a world where everyone stays in one place and nobody speaks.  There are a myriad other problems (if a surface wasn't precisely level then anything placed on it -- including lunch or yourself -- would slide downhill, pencils would leave no mark on paper, you'd be unable to ever scratch an itch...), but these two alone are enough to spell boring for me.

But of course, there's another kind of friction:  the social kind.  While I would be overjoyed to do away with friction in my personal life, I wouldn't want to lose it from my writing.  Well, I don't want it for my writing (which I'd like to be a smooth and easy activity).  I want it for my story.

Most writers call this conflict, but to me the term conflict carries such negative connotations that it turns me off.  I prefer to think of it as friction.  Friction, by its definition in the field of Physics, is "a force that resists the relative motion or tendency to such motion of two bodies or substances in contact."  Substitute for bodies, the word characters, or desires, goals, needs, etc, and you have a definition of friction suitable for writing.

One of the things I especially like about it is that it refers to two bodies/characters/goals in motion.  We never want out stories to stall or stagnate, do we?  We want our conflict to be combined with forward motion that pulls the reader through the story.  With the word friction we get the sense of movement and the reluctance/resistance together.  Friction is motion (which is change) or at least the attempt, along with something/someone fighting back.

Change for our characters, change that's hindered, that's delayed, that's prevented, that's fought and won or lost or both:  that's conflict.

That's friction.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Customizing Your Writing Space

Look at your writing space.  You have a writing space, don't you?  Mine is a shared space, but it's shared only with other activities, not with other people.  The key thing about owning a space like this is that you can make it your own; you can customize it.

There are lots of ways to do this, but in my mind they break down into two areas; you can customize for taste, or for functionality.  Either way you have to guard against the customization becoming an end in itself.

Some people, for instance, are organizers or color-coordinators or alphabetizers or picture-of-the-day types.  When they realize their space could be more (insert their problem here) than it is, they buy storage bins, a bulletin board, new pencils, better calendars, more colors of sticky-notes -- whatever.

I am a tool-maker by nature.  When I find a problem, my first impulse is to make a tool to solve it.  If I buy storage bins, I might have to modify them so they do the job to my satisfaction.  I might be tempted to make a custom bulletin board, because none of the ones commercially available will do the trick, or my own color-coded index cards because I'm too cheap to buy them (and mine are better anyway).

And that's fine, so long as it doesn't become another excuse not to write.  I try (and try and try) to get the tool-maker in me to concentrate on the real goal:  is my real goal to make tools?  No.  Take a step back:  is my goal to solve problems?  No again.  Step back further.  Is my goal to write my story?  Yes, that's it!

We need to solve problems to tell our stories.  We need to get our spelling and grammar correct, and we need to have so many different things, pacing, voice, character, dialog, etc, all work together seamlessly.  Sometimes we make tools (or buy colored markers) to help us solve some of our problems, but the goal has to be to write.  Otherwise we're working on the wrong thing.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Seeing Different

I was just thinking (okay, that goes without saying) -- ever notice how sometimes the sky, when you look at it upside-down, looks like the sky reflected in a puddle?  Complete with ripples from a soft breeze?

Didn't think so.

If you stepped into that upside-down sky, would your foot get wet?  Would you keep sinking in all the way to where the birds flit about?

Sometimes, if we pay close attention, we might see our characters in a way that changes them and ourselves at the same time.  And our characters might have the opportunity to see each other in a new light; it could change their entire world, opening up new possibilities for them and for our novels.

Because even the sky has two sides.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Proust on The Novel

I have begun reading Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past", or as the title has been more recently translated, "In Search of Lost Time".  This is one of those books that lots of people have heard about, and lots of people talk about, but nobody has read.  And half of those nobody's who've read it think it is unreadable and so didn't finish it, while the other half (a tiny half, to be sure) think it is a masterpiece.

It spans six volumes, with over 1.5 million words in all.  I'm only 120 pages into the first volume, but I'm being swept away.  This volume, "Swann's Way", was published in 1913, and despite that being a different world from this, with different expectations of pacing in novels, I was caught-up from the very first page.  The prose, translated beautifully from the original French by Moncrieff and Kilmartin, is smooth and charming and breath-taking.  Yes, the sentences are long and wandering, but it's appropriate:  the book is about time and memory and change.

Some people insist that it's not a novel at all, but something else instead.  Either way, it's a rewarding read.

One paragraph especially jumped out at me when I read it last night with the need for a blog topic lurking in the back of my mind.  The main character -- I need to explain that this is told in what I'd have to call "first person reminiscence", and while it's not autobiography, the MC is undoubtedly some version of the author himself -- is talking about the experience of reading a book on a hot summer day in a room closed up so much to keep the heat out that he has barely enough light to read by.  He is hearing the church bell toll the hours, and he is so absorbed in the book that the time he spends inside it doesn't seem to register in the real world.  It seems only a few seconds from when the clock strikes one hour until the clock strikes the next.  And then he talks about what a novel is.

Paraphrasing:  A novel is crammed with more dramatic events than usually occur in an entire lifetime.  These events are not happening to "real people", but the thing is we can never hope to know any real people other than on their surface.  If we understand any of the joys or misfortunes of another person, it is only because we have constructed within our own minds a sympathetic image of that person and their situation, and it is that image that we're reacting to.  The novelist's ingenuity lies in their ability to distill real people down to these images, cutting away everything that hides the truth, removing every barrier to the reader's emotional connection with the character.  The result is that the reader experiences things in the space of an hour or two that would take years of actual life to get to know.  These experiences, in turn, enable the reader to recognize changes in real-life that happen over too long a span of time to be otherwise noticed.

Of course he uses a page-and-a-half-long paragraph to explain what I've paraphrased, and says it more clearly and with rich detail.  That's what you get from a master like Proust.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Have you ever noticed how annoying it can be to have to listen to someone who repeats themselves? I sure have.  (I'll do you the favor of not repeating the question here.)  In a class on mass media in high school, I learned about repetition and reinforcement; that's how advertising tries to hammer home its message.  We call this intentional repetition.  I'm talking about the unintended variety.  (Note that I used unintended rather than unintentional to eliminate a verbatim repetition.)  Unintentional repetition is not just annoying: it diverts your attention from the rest of what the person has to say.

We dread (or we should, anyway) unintentional repetition in our writing.  We have to be careful also of purposeful repetition to ensure it doesn't become distracting, but that's another issue.

I recently finished reading Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" -- a fairly massive and very complex book.  It has nearly 800 pages, roughly 400 characters (including a sentient light-bulb), and it-feels-like-200 digressions.  It's packed with esoteric trivia, it changes narrators and voices, and bounces around in time.  The book is hard to follow.

And I noticed a repetition of a distinctive phrase used near both the end and the beginning of the book.  I can't recall what the phrase was, and I was reading in hard copy so I couldn't do a search and find the earlier occurrence, though that would have been a cool party trick on an e-reader.  In a way it's surprising that I'd notice the repetition among all the crazy things flying by me in the book.  But it's not really surprising at all.

That's why we have to be very careful.  Repetition like that is not easy for a writer to catch, and perhaps not for anyone else reading the manuscript multiple times.

We each have to find a way.