Dithering in Space and Time

I have been delaying writing my next post, not because of a lack of subjects but because a lack of time has intersected with my propensity to dither. 

Time is Not on My Side

I have previously written about a few of the distractions I am currently coping with.  There are others as well, various personal commitments that individually don’t require significant amounts of time, but which collectively drain away the minutes and hours of the day.

Even poor writing requires time and effort.  Lately I find that when free time bubbles to the surface of my schedule the idea of settling in front of computer to spend hours writing seems to require more effort than I can summon.  It is easy to say, “Not today, maybe tomorrow.”  And tomorrow becomes the day after, and the day after that, then next week, then next month.  Once I managed to let the days go by one at a time for so long that two years passed without me writing a word on my story. 

My self-imposed requirement that I maintain my blogging efforts has forced me to return to the keyboard.  To stare into the unforgiving white page and cover it with words.  It isn’t fiction writing, it doesn’t directly advance my efforts to tell the story that dominates so much of my mind.  But it is writing, and the effort alone counts for something.  Only so many days are allowed to go by before I must express a thought or emotion, describe an event, or simply write something and publish it to the world.

NaNoWriMo Is Not Something Mork Said

This is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo.  (No, I have no idea why they went with that terrible abbreviation.) The idea is that you are suppose to dedicate yourself to writing 50,000 words in the month of November.  This equates to about 175 pages of prose.  Given my tendency to verbosity, that is a long chapter for me.  I exaggerate, though not as much as those unfamiliar with my writing might think.  One of my chapters qualifies as a self-contained novella.

The point of NaNoWriMo is to write as fast as you can.  To pour words onto the page with abandon.  To not worry about whether you use the right words or write characters consistently or believably or any of the other issues that can slow writing to a crawl.   To just type as fast as your fingers will allow.

To break my logjam, I decided to throw my hat into the NaNoWriMo ring and begin work on the second book in my Gods Among Men series, …Demiurge, Unbound,….  The first book, At the Lady’s Behest Comes…, is written, though much of it is still terrible.  (No, this is not false modesty, just an honest appraisal of the vast bulk of the novel that has not been properly edited.)

My reasoning when I started was that, while I have plenty of ideas and requirements  for …Demiurge, Unbound,…  precious little of it has actually been written down.  If I were to generate 50,000 words on that novel in a short period of time then at least I would have something that I could edit and improve on later.  Plus, I thought the effort would help me practice  pantzing character interactions, something I had been planning to do anyway.

So How’s That Working Out For You?

I think it is safe to say I will not achieve the stated goal of 175 pages by the end of the month.  Ignoring the fact that I started late, the truth of the matter is I have too little time.   My slow typing speed alone is enough to prevent me from putting 50,000 words on the page in the remaining time.  With dedication and effort I might reach 20,000 words, but even that seems unlikely to me.  Still, it is a goal worth trying for.

In the process of writing on …Demiurge, Unbound,…, I was struck by a thought.  It was a glancing blow which, no doubt, will heal in a few days, or perhaps a few weeks.  In the meantime, the aftereffects of this thought bothers me enough that I continue to pick at it in my mind.   If I am not careful it will leave a scar.

The thought was simple enough: Why limit myself to the end of the month?

I want to be clear here.  I am not trying to break the idea behind NaNoWriMo.  (Seriously, whoever came up with that abbreviation needs to avoid both writing and marketing as their chosen profession.)  I am seeking to expand the idea and incorporate it into my writing methodology. 

A Time to Edit, And A Time to Write

I have been struggling for some time to discover how best to tell my story.  To call it a “work of a lifetime” is is not quite correct.  At the rate I am currently churning out finished pages it will take considerably more years to finish writing Gods Among Men than I likely have left to live. 

I am faced with the clear fact that I must write faster or Gods Among Men will never be complete, meaning actually written down.  I don’t think it ever shall  be complete in the sense that I will be fully satisfied with my telling of the story, but it is possible for me to write the story arc in its entirety from beginning to end.  To construct a first draft that expresses the plot, describes the characters and their relationships to each other, and reveals the world that consumes so much of my waking thoughts.

I want to go beyond arbitrary deadlines (50,000 words by the end of the month, so many words each day, etc…)  and avoid the bog of infinite editing.  I want to bring the phase of endless planning to its long overdue end and find a structure that forces me to move the story forward at a steady pace.  A way to whittle down the mountain of complex plot and characters and construct a draft that has all the elements required to tell the story, even if it is not told particularly well.  I want a structure that forces me to write and removes the excuses that allow me to dither and delay putting words on paper.

Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant

To that end, I am going to perform an experiment pulling together several threads of thought that I have been toying with for some time now.

In essence, I am considering broadening my idea for writing character vignettes.  Instead of limiting myself to out of context scenes, which I was having great difficultly doing, I would instead spend time each week crafting a first draft of Gods Among Men.  To write as quickly as possible and tell my story from beginning to end.   I would not edit any of the new material at this time, just strictly focus on the flow of the story and the character interactions.

To keep myself honest, I would regularly post what I have written.  Perhaps not every word; I reserve the right to keep the worst tripe safely hidden until I can replace it with something better.  Still, if once or twice a week I am required to post something then by incremental steps I will make concrete what currently exists solely in my overactive imagination. 

This also allows me the opportunity to practice the various skills in which I am less than adequate at the moment, most notably character interactions.  Also, it would let me write my mythology out as part of the story in which it fits.  To weave the relevant details into the dialogue and descriptions in a way that hopefully would be both clear and natural.

I would continue to edit my existing chapters as well, polishing that text until it is of acceptable and perhaps even publishable quality.  But, while I am improving on what exists, I also need to create new material that completes the story arc the existing work begins.

I have Issues. Yeah, I Know, You’re Shocked 

There are two questions which I must resolve before I begin this effort. 

The first question is whether this blog is the proper place for this material, or should I start a separate blog dedicated to posting my fiction, à la Kathryn’s blog about her story, Moonlit

As originally constituted, this blog was about writing in general and the efforts of the Magic City Writers’ Group.  I am the most prolific of the posters on this blog, but I am not the only person contributing to it.  And, while I have often indulged myself by posting material relevant only to me and my story, the effort I am proposing may be inappropriate for this site.  Which raises the question that perhaps I should move all of my story specific material to my own private blog.   But doing so would require a fair amount of effort, and would mean that I would have to maintain two blogs instead of one.  In a word, yuck. 

The second question concerns the content of what I post.   Namely, should I also post completed or recently edited sections from the first book, or constrain myself to just new material as it it written.  My purpose is to create a complete first draft of the whole story, which would suggest posting only new material. 

But the new material would be confusing to those who have not read the earlier material, which includes everybody other than me.  (The writers’ group has read only the early chapters, and even Kathryn has not read the last several chapters.)  In addition, the blog (whether this one or a new one) shall over time become a reference source for me.  A place I can go to find scenes and other materials that I have stored with tags to make them easier to find.  These facts suggest that I should include the older material for the sake of completeness.

No doubt I shall dither and dally over this a bit more before making my final decisions.  I am interested in the opinions of others on these questions.

Until next time, have fun.

Vignettes: Where to Begin

In my last post I wrote about my problem with writing convincing characters.  I said:

I must practice writing characterizations, focus on each character and discover their individual voice.  Learn to describe  them in ways that captures their mood and emotions in an honest fashion.  I must discover the words they would use, the sentences they would say, and the actions they would take.

I have considered using blogging as a solution to this problem.  … I could use some of my time blogging to write small scenes and out of context conversations.  Vignettes from my world that I may or may not keep.  

I received some support for this idea, enough to make me seriously consider it.  The problem is that I am uncertain how to begin.  This style of writing is foreign to me.  My thoughts first leap to my plot, followed by the settings, followed by other concerns that I have typically let take precedence over the characters.  The idea of putting some collection of characters together and letting them interact without a broader context is bizarre to me.

Add yet, that is the whole point of the exercise, isn’t it?  To break my current paradigm for writing so as to improve my overall skill.  To discard old assumptions and start looking at things from a fresh perspective.

This is easier said than done.

As I sit here, flipping through my characters in my head, I find myself paralyzed by indecision.  Who do I pick to start with?  Do I start with a single character alone?  Or should I have two or more in a conversation or perhaps some kind of conflict?  Would it be better to focus on major characters first, or to practice with secondary characters instead?  Should I try to write a scene already in my head, one I know I will want later?  Or should I focus on fixing a scene that I have already written, but which has problems? Or would it be better to focus on something I have no intention of keeping, but which might flesh out the character’s background and behavior?  Should I incorporate descriptions of their current setting, or should I leave out such details for now?

I am tempted to write names and ideas on little scraps of paper and throw them together into my hat.  That way I could draw one at random and just force myself to write on whatever I pull out.  Hardly a great idea, but it would break my current logjam.

Another aspect of my dilemma is that I am a slow writer, prone to editing my work as I am creating it.   I tend to analyze each sentence, each word, in an effort to form the right phrase.  But what I need to do is capture characters in a visceral way.   Analyzing sentences while engaged in that effort seems akin to losing sight of the forest because you spend too much time studying the trees.

And so I dither and instead write a post about the difficulties of making the effort, rather than making the effort itself.

Hopefully by next time I will have a better grasp on how to begin.  If not, I may delay the vignettes a bit longer so I can vacillate some more.  Certainly I have a host of other topics I can write about.  I believe, however, that it is my weakness with characterizations that needs addressing most urgently.  It is this problem that keeps my existing chapters from feeling finished. That forces me to edit them again and again.

When Last We Met…

On Sunday October 19, 2009, the Magic City Writers met and ruthlessly savaged my second chapter, …Awakens The Outer Circle…, leaving me a broken shell of a man (again). 

But first, lets talk about the food. 

Let’s Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate

The food, as always, was excellent. 

Kathryn baked fresh pumpkin bread (with a hint of orange flavor) and banana nut bread, both served with apple butter.  She also baked tandoori chicken, made with various herbs suspended in Greek yogurt and drenched over juicy chicken breasts.   

Nicole also displayed impressive culinary skills by improvising a tasty recipe for curry fried rice with stir-fry veggies on the spot. 

Needless to say, we were all well sated by the end of the meeting.  And best of all there were leftovers for me and Kathryn to dine on for the next couple of days.

And Now Back to the Savaging

With regards to the reviews of my new and improved chapter two of Gods Among Men, I am saddened to report they were mixed.   The chapter is substantially improved over last time, and some parts are quite good.  Unfortunately, only some parts are quite good.  This is not to call the rest rubbish, merely not good enough.

My most serious problem is structural.   The climax of the chapter requires an ambiguous point of view that is hard to get right.  There are multiple characters interacting in a way that creates two sequence of events happening at the same time.  I switch back and forth between different character’s perspective several times.  My intention is to help the reader understand what is happening and how the characters are affecting each other.   However, the switch between the different points of view, as written, is disconcerting and disrupts the reader’s ability to become absorbed in the scene. 

The group had few suggestions on how to resolve this point of view problem, and there was no consensus on the right solution.  None of the proposed solutions felt satisfactory to me.  I fear I may have to be satisfied with minimizing this problem rather than eliminating it.  My best hope at the moment is that once other problems in the chapter are fixed this point of view problem will not be as important as it is now. 

Another prominent criticism was that my secondary characters don’t feel real enough to maintain the readers suspension of disbelief.  Essentially, the group felt that I was forcing the characters to act as I wanted them to act and say what I wanted said, as opposed to the characters doing or saying what a real person would. 

This problem with the secondary characters is addressable by fixing certain key interactions.  As I reflected on this criticism, however, I concluded this problem was indicative of a weakness in my overall approach to writing. 

Houston, We Have A Problem

The first time I submitted any of my initial chapters, the group complained my characterizations were all over the place and unrealistic.  I fixed the main characters and the secondary were still problematic.  I fixed the secondary characters and tertiary characters continued to have similar problems. 

I am, by nature, a plotter, which means I first came up with the major concepts for Gods Among Men and from those concepts determined the details that must occur.  From there I extracted broad themes and formulated a complex tale, complete with an in-depth mythology of its own.  Then I focused on descriptions of settings and other such imagery.  It is characterization that I let linger until the very end. 

Given the type of tale I am trying to tell, I think  focusing upon plot and mythology to a certain degree is warranted.  But the result is that my skills for describing people in a realistic fashion is wanting. 

Perhaps this is an advantage of the “pantzer” style of writing.  If you focus only upon the situation at the moment and your characters’ reactions and interactions, with no thought as to where the story is going, perhaps you get truer characterizations.  I don’t know for certain that this is true, but it is worth considering.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

Practice is what makes perfect, and practice requires a consistent devotion of effort over a long period of time. 

I must practice writing characterizations, focus on each character and discover their individual voice.  Learn to describe  them in ways that captures their mood and emotions in an honest fashion.  I must discover the words they would use, the sentences they would say, and the actions they would take.

I have considered using blogging as a solution to this problem.  My reasoning is thus:  A fixed schedule is the best way to ensure that effort is maintained.  I intend to keep putting up new blog posts, preferably twice a week.  (Though lately it has been closer to once a week.)  Since I always need something to write about I could use some of my time blogging to write small scenes and out of context conversations.  Vignettes from my world that I may or may not keep.   Posting these experiments on the blog also has the advantage of organizing them with attached tags I can use for looking them up again later.

I am still in my waffling stage on this idea.  It might work, or it might be a total waste of time.  The main point here is that I am searching for ways to improve my ability to write realistic characters.   Suggestions are welcome.

The Remains of The Day

After eating and editing, we sat around for a long time talking about various subjects.  Then we went upstairs to watch/listen to the RiffTrax for the movie Daredevil

A RiffTrax is an audio file of snarky comments that you play alongside a movie.  The worse the movie, the better the RiffTrax that goes with it.  Given how truly putrid Daredevil is, the RiffTrax for it was absolutely hysterical.

After the movie/RiffTrax, Lindy had to go to work.  Nicole, Kathryn, and I finished off the evening by watching episodes of the new Battlestar Gallactica.   I personally believe this series is the best science fiction show of the last decade, and one of the best and most daring television shows of all-time.

That concludes the summary of our latest meeting.  Kathryn is set to submit her first draft of the third chapter of her story, MoonlitShe will be mailing out copies of that chapter to the group in a few days.   Our next meeting will be on November 1st, again at my house.  As always I shall try to describe what happens in an interesting or at least entertaining way.

Until next time, have fun and party down.