December 2010

Understanding that storylines change

Because all of fiction is imaginary, it is fluid.  This should not be a surprise, but after a lifetime of reading more finished products (published authors) than works in progress (mine), it is difficult to consider one of my ‘finished’ pieces (‘finished’ as in ‘turned into visible words’) as a crappy first draft, especially since most word processing programs use Times New Roman as a default font, and not Courier.  Courier looks like a typewritten draft (and won’t paste here), Times New Roman looks typeset.  My unfinished word-processed work has the same finished appearance as any costly book.  I suppose I could compose in Courier, but that’s just one more step among many in making a file for this, and one for that, and whoops!, we need a timeline.

Getting past the look, shoving around crappy first draft furniture, landscapes, and characters is hard.  The characters don’t like this and stumble about the shifted landscape, bumping into the furniture and asking, “Was that my cue?  Do I come in now?”   Or they wander off for a coffee break thinking they don’t come in until Chapter 5, while the frustrated author flips among the various pages and screens of notes trying to remember who it was that shot John this time.  Is John still in the story?  By the time the author tracks down the coffee break characters at the closest Krispy Kreme, it’s time for supper, the author’s supper.

Not only do the characters object to changes, but so does the logical side of the brain.  The logical mind is quite happy that we’ve written anything at all (and obsessively clicks the word count button).  Logical Mind complains that this part of the story has already been written and why are we starting all over again?  Onward!  Upward!  Get over it! Keep that word count moving!   To the logical side of the brain, hobbits always had fuzzy feet, Hercule Poirot always wore pince-nez, and Harry Potter always had a lightning shaped scar.  That’s just the way things are.

The creative mind feels a migraine coming on and points out to the logical side that “this story is not working,” and besides that, how do you know that hobbits weren’t once shod as sturdily as the dwarves, that Hercule Poirot did not have a monocle, and that Harry Potter did not start out with a star-shaped scar?  The creative mind can be testy, and listening to the bickering between the brains is like having The Odd Couple in charge of your head.  (It’s a wonder anything is agreed on.)

Finding where all the information is stashed

Once the right brain has prevailed and there is consensus that things must change, and once the right side has figured out what it is that needs changing, then you’ve got to go do it.  The easy part is changing simple things such as names in computer documents.   All one needs to do is open up a document, use find and replace, and click OK.  Changing all the instances means that you open up all twenty documents, and fix whatever it is you’re changing.

What is not so easy is changing the same type of items in a notebook.

It may seem strange for someone to use both computer documents and a loose-leaf notebook while forming fiction, but for me some things work better on the computer, and some things work better on paper.  Using two (or more) different types of media also helps me to differentiate between various pieces of information as, after a while, a series of Word documents blend into one never-ending Word document, even if you use different colors for the typing.  Clicking between documents just shows screens of words, words, words that eventually make as much visual sense as the Lorem Ipsum text.

I also find it easier to spread out papers or note cards than to click on different screens to see the a larger view of the project.  A cascade of document titles look even more alike than do the documents themselves.

The difficulty in making changes on paper comes when a person has to flip through the notebook dividers and scan each page in order to erase the penciled words, or line out the ink/type and ink in something new.  If you’ve made inked-out changes once already, and there is no clear space left on the paper, then you cut a teeny tiny strip of paper and use a glue stick to paste the paper over the previous changes.

Now write on the teeny tiny strip of paper.  Voila!  You’ve made a change.  Repeat the erasing/penciling, inking-out/inking in/gluing teeny tiny strips of paper throughout the notebook.

One caution: don’t try to peel off previous layers of teeny tiny strips of paper.   The removal usually just makes a hole in your sheet of paper and that repair eats up more time and further annoys the logical side of your brain who jogs off into the real world griping that all the presents are not yet ordered, nor is the Christmas letter written, and just who do you think is going to put up the tree, at which point you need some chocolate, and that means you have to exercise longer because you sit too much in any case, never mind the times after you eat the chocolate, and this takes up yet more time.  Do not peel off previous layers of paper.  (Do we wonder that writing has a an aura of dysfunctionality about it?)

Changing the herded cats into ducks, and putting them in a row

As with so many things that people do, writing is like herding cats.  The twenty-four letters of the alphabet are something of a limit on the number of words that can be made from them, although this number must be very large (see the Oxford English Dictionary).  The rules of grammar likewise restrict the combination of words that can be used — it is unlikely that anyone will put together words in an odd way and expect them to be considered a sentence: “it good the time at seemed the a like idea.”  Few people would do this, even if it seemed like a good idea at the time.  The characters in a story are also limited by what behaviors a reader will find believable for the story.   All of these limits, though, allow for an almost infinite number of differences in character population, interaction between this population of characters, and the kind of physical objects around them as they interact.

At the moment, I am going round and round as to where the main character will eventually settle at the end of the story.  If this character stays at place X, then that character will go in a certain direction.  If the character goes back to place Y instead (place Y is in the mix regardless) then the character’s path will be different.  I can’t tell which path will develop the better story, and I don’t feel like writing two books to find out the answer, but I must make a choice because the main character has to be either ‘here’ or ‘there’ unless of course the main character is bumped off, …

I suppose the only thing to do is haul out the metaphorical rubber-bladed garage floor scraper and sweep all the flaky fluid fiction down the drain and start over.  My apologies to my left brain.  (It’s a wonder that writers mange to produce any fiction.)

Nothing original in this post, just adding it as a reminder to myself.

A Tale of Two Stories:

My book is filled with strong, pro-active people. I don’t want them disenfranchised. But my heroine is my heroine for a reason. They can do things, but not to the extent that it will beggar my heroine of agency. If it does, she becomes a tourist in her own story.

Rule #1:

If you want to write your novel relatively quickly and productively, it should have no access to the interweb thingy, also no games, or anything other than the two aforementioned programs. If you can’t write without easy access to endless forms of procrastination, sorry, I mean, research tools, then by all means be connected to that gateway to hell the intramanet.

I was looking for more information on how to use a spreadsheet to help with plotting, and just had to share.

Someone really should disable our cable modem.

More marketing information for published authors:

Amazon gives Nielsen BookScan to authors, 9 Dec 2010, Los Angeles Times

The data, provided by Nielsen BookScan, include nationwide sales information from Barnes & Noble, Target and other big-box brick-and-mortar retailers, from and from some independent booksellers. Nielsen estimates that BookScan captures 75% of print book sales in the U.S. retail market.

Non-fiction writing continues to take time from novel-gazing.  Sometimes, a person just has to write a letter to the editor.  To do otherwise is citizenship malpractice.  What’s in the letter doesn’t belong here, but the dilemma of where to use one’s writing time is pertinent.

  • How much does composing, editing and sending editorial comments siphon away the energy from daily word production?  (finding an address, or climbing the learning curve, however shallow, of an online submission form, always takes that extra bit of time and energy)
  • During novelizing, how sequestered should the creatrix keep herself to minimize distraction?  (reading the paper always prompts some kind of editorial outburst)
  • Or, is distraction a necessary part of the process that feeds the work in the ink mines?  (if I don’t know what’s going on, do I lose touch?)

I’ll add blogging to the novel list of distractions.

I’d seen the idea for using a spreadsheet program to track scenes, but the ‘how’ of using a spreadsheet eluded me.  I’ve never had a use for a spreadsheet (that I knew of — I was mistaken), and my finding a simple explanation of non-numerical uses was hampered by not knowing what search terms to use.

At the moment, I’m working on a novel (working title:  Marilyn’s Fan) that is probably a suspense story.  I’ve invented characters about whom I’m slowly learning and I have two main settings about which I’m not thrilled, but they seem to fit reasonably with the story events so, for the moment, these two places are where things will happen.

The events that triggered the story idea are now bowing to story pressure — reality doesn’t have to make sense; a story does — and so I need to juggle people and what they get up to in order to fit the characters, their motives, and the resulting actions into a form that makes sense to a reader.

And then, there’s Christmas.  It’s like an elephant in the room.  It is going to arrive whether I’m ready for It or not, and there are expectations about It.  No, the world will not come to an end if the expectations are not met — Whoville celebrated despite the Grinch — but we will have lost something in our shared experience if little effort is expended.  December is not a good month to start (re)plotting a long work, but if it wasn’t Christmas whining for attention on the other side of the closed door, it would be something else.

Despite the plotting, Christmas will go on, and despite Christmas, the plotting will continue.


And now, in addition to Christmas, the dentist awaits.

Writing is a real job (if poorly paying).  I wish the Universe would keep up.

Could I do it?  That was the question. I participated in this year’s NaNoWriMo undertaking because I didn’t know if I had it in me to produce at least 50,000 words centered on a single character.  I’ve chipped away at fiction for years, and I’ve mailed editors the occasional hard copies of stories  (all were returned) but ‘real’ work always pushed the stories off to the side.  ‘Real’ work was real, fiction wasn’t.  If I sat down and put together all the words making up the ‘real’ work total, the total could be a million.  Those words were all on different subjects and meant for various purposes, but they show me that I have the ability to braid words into forms that make sense to people other than myself.  But — in the voice of the bespectacled and pinch-mouthed internal editor — the question always lurked:  could I sustain a story thread?  Do I have that talent?

Stories have been floating in my head for years, some have stuck, some haven’t.  Through the years, in the fifty homes where I’ve lived, I wrote — that’s pretty much what I’ve done all along, although taking pictures could also be a contender for first place.  The header and the background images on this blog are from a photo I took at a music concert.

The typing started when I was a child and my parents gave me typewriters for Christmas presents.  In the years after the presents, I wrote signs, announcements, letters, bad poetry, and whatever teachers told me to write (except for that 500-word final essay in 8th grade whose word count conjured a goblin that froze my mind — my only report card F).  After growing up, my output expanded to letters to editors, school newsletters for students, newspaper articles, a support group newsletter, a church bulletin.  After I was able to discover what being online was all about, and as our computer’s hard drive grew in its ability to juggle more than one or two pages at a time, I graduated to booklets, graphics-heavy Christmas letters to provide a use for all those photos, online discussions and blogging.  Magazine articles were also part of the mix. Writing has always been a focus.

What hadn’t been a focus was satisfying the desire to create fictional truth, satisfying the itch to make a world, people it with interesting characters, and tell others what they got up to.  I want to change that.  The characters want to change that.  It’s time to shift focus.

So NaNo and this blog are the gauntlet I threw down before myself.  I completed the NaNo challenge, now to carry through and let the characters loose.