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.