When Last We Met…

On Sunday, February 21, 2010, the Magic City Writers met and reviewed nothing.  Which is not to say we did nothing, but I am getting ahead of myself.  

The meeting was small; just Kathryn, Lindy, and Myself.  Nicole was unable to attend again, though she is hopeful that she will be return to the group in the not too distant future. 

Now onto the food.

Let’s Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate

We went for a simple fare this time.  I grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken on the grill while Kathryn made tater tots.  We took advantage of the slightly warmer weather to eat on gazebo and enjoy the garden and waterfall.  As a snack we had ice cream on popsicle sticks.  A very tasty meal with plenty of leftovers for the rest of the week.

An Now What We Did

Since no one had anything ready to submit, we did a variety of writing exercises.  Lindy brought an art book and we took turns picking pictures and writing whatever the images inspired.  Later we listened to songs for inspiration.  

The exercises displayed our propensities,strengths, and weaknesses.  We allowed ten minutes per exercise, which for me is enough to generate a few brief paragraphs at most.  Kathryn  in the same time wrote well over a page.  Lindy was somewhere between the two of us.  My writings and Lindy’s tended to have dark themes, while Kathryn’s were more light-hearted. 

I tried to focus on character development, my greatest weakness as a writer.  I also made special effort to “show, not tell”, i.e. to describe the character’s actions and use dialogue so that the reader discerns their emotional state without being explicitly told what that state is. 

Personally, I found the exercises quite helpful and refreshing change of pace from our normal editing process.

The Remains of The Day

Lindy left relatively early and Kathryn and I retired to watch Juno, a quirky movie which we enjoyed.  Before Lindy left we agreed to meet again on March 7th, and placed the onus of turning something in on me. 

Oh, joy.

I guess that means I need to get off my ass and force myself to start writing ASAP.  Which, of course, is part of the purpose of the group.

Until next time, have fun and party down.

Fighting Inertia

I have been avoiding writing lately.   Partially this is due to an overly tight schedule, but mostly it is due to a convergence of thoughts that inspire near paralysis. 

In recent weeks I came to realize how I needed to trim and structure my story to make it more accessible to new readers.  These thoughts have raised the possibility that I need to rewrite or majorly edit much of what already exists in the first book.  This in of itself is not the core problem, as much of that text needed to be rewritten or seriously edited anyway.  The problem is that the focus of the chapters need to change in order to develop the character of Tara much more.  This means I must develop her character much better than I have to date, and that is not easy.

Also the changes I am considering require me to trim or eliminate much of the scenes centered on Artemis, a character I find interesting to write, but who really isn’t the center of the story and shouldn’t be.  To put it simply, I know what I must do with her character, but I don’t want to do it.  It is tempting to make her the focus of everything, but she is not the right character to do that with.

Then there is the danger of the “infinite edit”.  The possibility of simply going over and over the same material and never moving onto the larger story.  Part of me wants to forget what I have written so far and dive into writing only new material.  Tempting as that thought is, I do need to edit what I already have, to make it better and eliminate what doesn’t work.  If for no other reason than I must prepare some of this text for submission to the Magic City Writers’ Group.

I am uncertain how to proceed.  I may need to establish a more rigid schedule in which I devote certain days to editing and other days to writing new material.   Even that is difficult to do however because of other demands on my time, demands that are not going to go away.  I am dedicated to following my new exercise program, something especially crucial given the serious back problems I experienced over the last year.  And making plans for my upcoming wedding requires copious amounts of time. And writing for this blog and the one I maintain for the Magic City Writers’ Group takes a few hours every week, assuming I have the time to spend on them.  All this, and I haven’t even mentioned my day job yet. And in the meantime development on my new website has fallen by the wayside.

I feel like I am in an ocean and can feel the water recede in the way it does right before a massive wave surges forward.  This is not to say I feel like I am about to be swamped, rather that I am in the quiet mood that precedes an enormous burst of activity.  I am an inconsistent worker, sometimes doing incredible amounts in a short time, and other times being still to the point of doing nothing.  During my quiescent moments I can feel thoughts lurking below the surface as my subconscious mind works out details that my conscious mind is not yet privy to.  At some point the paralysis I have been experiencing will pass and I will tackle the problems before me, I just hope that moment comes soon.

A Time To Rethink

I have been delinquent in my duties to this site for the last week, and for that I apologize.  My intent is to post at least twice a week, but that has proven difficult to maintain with my current schedule.   Plus, I have been plagued by questions about my story of late.  Questions that have consumed much of what I laughingly call my “free time”.

One of the hardest choices a writer can face is deciding what good material must be done away with so that important material will shine.  You can write beautiful passages that slow a story down to a crawl, or have subplots that obscure the main ones, or so many characters that you can’t tell major ones from minor ones.  If this is done intentionally then it is a legitimate artistic choice, even if it turns out to be a bad one.    If any of these happen for no reason, and you make no attempt to correct the problems they cause, then you are guilty of bad writing.

Recently I was working on writing down a chapter-by-chapter outline of my whole story, Gods Among Men.  This became a major task that forced me to think, long and hard, about the order of scenes and what each scene must include.  I have long known my story was big with many interrelated parts, but I am beginning to realize that I have included much that simply needs to be removed. 

A Bit Of Math

I think in terms of books, chapters, and sections.  I have seven books in the series, thirteen chapters per book, three sections per chapter; each section can be as long as it needs to be, but must focus on one central scene or character.    I know at a high level what each book must contain, and where each book must begin and end.

This rigorous structure helps me plot what must be done, and how much space I have to do it in.  A quick calculation reveals that there will be 39 sections per book, 91 chapters in the whole series, and a grand total of 273 sections.  That is the space I have to fill with words; no less and no more.

At first glance that sounds like a whole lot of wiggle room, but it is far less than you might think.  A story has rhythms; a quickening of pace in some places and a slower mood for others.  You can’t mix these elements directly, but must transition from one to the other.  Too sharp of a transition and the story feels choppy, too slow and it becomes boring.  A single book packed with heart-stopping action from beginning to end can be exhausting to read, and can cause readers to not care why characters do what they do.  From there it is easy for the reader to not care about the character at all, and from there to stop caring about the work itself.  The same danger exists with books that meander aimlessly and where nothing important ever seems to happen.

Too Many Notes

At one point in the movie Amadeus, Mozart is told that one of his works has “too many notes” and that he should “cut a few”.  Mozart is rightly offended, and we agree with him that the advice is being given by fools.

But why do we agree with him?  Because we know Mozart is a genius whose works will grow more popular the more people listened to it.  There aren’t too many notes; there is a lack of appreciation from those who are listening.

The truth is that talents on the scale of Mozart are incredibly rare, and most artists think too highly of their own work.  Sometimes there are too many notes, and the best artists are the ones who know which ones to cut.

In my case, I hew too closely to plot and subplot with too little consideration for characterizations.  This is a consistent failure of mine.  Partially it is because I don’t practice characterization often enough, but I have come to believe there is a bigger problem at play here.

Know You Story

It is hard to write a story you don’t fully understand, and it is only in the last few months that my story fully crystalized in my thoughts.  As it did, I came to realize that I had characters that serve less purpose than I had first thought.  Keeping big scenes with less important characters means less space for characters that are crucial.  I have subplots that would be full plots in lesser works, subplots I crammed in because I thought I needed something to fill 273 sections.  I also kept adding characters to flesh out scenes, to provide depth to the work as a whole. 

I was right, and I was wrong.  Yes, a sprawling epic will have many characters and subplots; that is the nature of sprawling epics.  But a story that sacrifices quality for quantity is not worth the time it takes to write, nor will anyone likely read it to the end.

I need to make clear to the reader what are the important plots and subplots, and I need to develop them better.  Also I need to make clear which characters are important and which aren’t; who should be followed closely, and who should be forgotten.  Right now, I have more characters than I can reasonably include and do full justice too, and trying means there is less room to develop important characters.   The work is a maze for me, and someone else has little reason to attempt navigating that maze.

Where To Now?

Gods Among Men is about Damon Roth, and he is not a nice character.  He is not easy to relate to, easy to understand, nor should he be.  But the reader needs someone to focus on that will draw them further into the work.  Someone they care about, positively or negatively, and hope either succeeds or fails.  Damon is ambiguous, and it is important he stay so. 

By the same token, while I like the character of Artemis Arrowsmith, and while she is a crucially important character, she also is not easy to relate to or understand.  She is also not a nice person, nor should she be.  She is the lens though which the reader comes to see and understand Damon.  She is important, but it is impossible for her to be someone the readers latch onto emotionally.  I have written much of the first book as if she was the central character, and that was a mistake.

The person the reader must care about is Tara Rihtwis.  She is the one whose success everyone must root for, whose failures everyone must cry over.  Damon is the brain of the story, it is his quest for redemption that is the central-most plot line.  Tara is the heart of the story, whose hardships make the reader want to turn the page and find out what happens next.  Artemis is the character that joins them together, that is friend and ally to both.

This is my core insight in the last few weeks, and now I must begin trimming my notes to turn this insight into action.  Anything that does not directly affect either Damon or Tara, that does not move their stories forward, must be eliminated.  Any character that does not directly interact with them or influence them must be eliminated, or at least reduced to their most essential moments.  Essential being defined by how it impacts Damon or Tara.

It is a harsh insight that carries with it drastic implications.  I now have a scale to weigh what must be kept versus what must go.  The hard part is actually forcing myself to live with what that insight tells me I must do.  Major portions of Gods Among Men must be rethought, whole chapters rewritten.  The plot remains as it was, but many subplots will be sacrificed so that the most important subplots can be adequately developed.

I must admit, I am not looking forward to this task I have set myself.  But I think it is the right direction for me to take the story.  The right choice to turn Gods Among Men into something people will want to read.

When Last We Met…

On Sunday, January 31, 2010, the Magic City Writers met and reviewed (again) chapter four, …And Strikes Down The Inner Circle, from of my epic, Gods Among Men

This is the first meeting of the group since November of last year, the holidays and bad schedules making previous attempts to meet impossible.   I hope we can maintain a bit more regular schedule for the next few months.

Nicole was unable to attend this meeting, and will likely miss a few more meeting before she will be able to turn once again to writing.   Her presence and insightful comments were missed.

As you can tell from the current date, I am more than a little late getting the post about the meeting finished.  The week vanished rather quickly under a blizzard of bills, the return of Lost, and laziness on my part.  I apologize for the delay.

Much occurred during the meeting, but  first lets talk about the food.

Let’s Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate

The food was excellent.  (Is it ever not?)

Kathryn and Brant made a marinara sauce following a recipe Brant calls “Keep throwing chopped up vegetables and tomato sauce into an 11-quart pot until they threaten to overflow, add a pint of garlic and other spices, then simmer for the afternoon”.  This recipe never turns out the same way twice, but is always tasty.  Once ready it was served over angel hair pasta.

As a pre-dinner snack, we ate a piña-colada/French bread pudding that Kathryn had made the day before.   Delicious without ruining our appetites for dinner.

Changing The Editing Format

Lindy suggested a change to our normal chaos-driven format for going over reviews.  Always eager try new things, we  followed a pattern she has had some positive experience with lately.

First each person, one at a time, lists all of their positive general comments.  After everyone has made their positive general comments, each person lists their negative comments.   During this period,  the author being reviewed sits quietly taking notes, not interrupting, save perhaps to ask for clarification. 

After all general comments are finished, the group begins making specific comments about sentences or paragraphs, or ask what the author was smoking when they wrote something.

I think this technique has much to be said for it, and I look forward to trying it out a few more times before passing final judgment on it.  One immediate advantage is that we made it through the general comments faster than normal and got into the line-by-line edits relatively early.

And Now Back to Ripping My Chapter Apart

Actually this was one of the less brutal sessions for me.   There are lingering problems, but  far fewer structural problems than in reviews of my previous chapters, or of this chapter when it was last reviewed.  

Everyone liked the center section, and were especially fond of a minor character whose personality and role was significantly improved during my last rewrite.  There was the usual complaint that I am too plot constrained and often do not have the best characterizations.   A failing of my writing that continues to plague me, but there was overall improvement even in this area.

I walked away with a list of specific suggestions that will be easy to incorporate, for the most part, and which will make the chapter stronger in the end.  I doubt there will be a need for me to resubmit this chapter to the group again.

The Remains of The Day

Lindy stayed around and worked on some art homework.  She left relatively early, after which Kathryn and cleaned up and dallied in individual pursuits for a bit. 

Later Kathryn and I gathered to watch a mini-series off our NetFlix Instant Queue called The Color Of Magic.  This is a fairly faithful adaption of the first two books for Terry Pratchett comedy/fantasy Discworld series.  While this might not be to everyone’s taste, we enjoyed it immensely.

We plan on meeting again near the end of February to review a submission of Kathryn’s. 

Until next time, have fun and party down.