Writing

frog on toilet

Unmentionable?

“Write what you know.”

And something everyone knows is you have to go to the bathroom several times a day. When you gotta go, you gotta go. It’s non-negotiable.

So why do fictitious characters hardly ever need to do this?

Not that I’m keen to know every time someone in a novel needs to take a whiz, but considering how awkward it is to be “took short,” wouldn’t authors who want to make their characters suffer take advantage of physiological realities? Especially when you consider the amount of coffee imbibed by some characters and their creators. What about a detective hot on the trail of a suspect who has to stop and look for a washroom? Or a romantic scene short-circuited by a call of nature?

And what about villains? There may be other ways to foil their evil plans.

Hmm.

Seriously, I’ve read advice to the effect that readers relate better to characters with real human imperfections than to flawless types who never mess up or encounter any of the annoying little problems of life. Like running out of TP. Or making an entrance trailing some from one’s stiletto heel.

So what prompted these scatological speculations? The main character of my current work in progress is right now in a situation where the facilities are minimal and basic. No hot shower, no triple-ply TP, and maybe no toilet as such — awkward for a young American woman visiting a village on the west bank of the Nile in 1962. And things are going to get worse.

I suppose the reason for the absence of bodily functions in fiction is obvious: “Eww, who wants to read about that stuff?” Well, hardly anybody, including me. As a fictional device, this is one where “less is more” applies. Which is why my character will have to cope with the lack of facilities off-page. Besides, if I do my job right, she’ll have a lot more to worry about.

 

washroom sign

Images courtesy of Pixabay

 

 

Advertisements
SWCF manuscript and notes

Slogging Through the Mushy Middle

Nothing is as easy as not writing.

My current work in progress is at the 60% point, based on my scribbled outline. The word count is approaching 60,000, with a goal of 90,000 to 100,000, allowing for trimming off 10,000 words in rewrites. The crisis and climax are crystal clear in my mind, glowing like the Arkenstone in the dragon hoard of Smaug.

So what’s the problem? Or am I just gloating?

No gloating here. Sixty thousand words in eight months doesn’t warrant it. (“Gloat today, grieve tomorrow,” as someone said, or should have). The problem is I have only the fuzziest notion of how to get my character from ‘here’ (the village of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna near the Theban Necropolis) to ‘there’ (the… oh, wait — can’t reveal that. No self-spoilers!)

This is the manuscript that was abandoned on page 17 for a couple of years. Almost a year ago, I decided to go against advice and offer it to my critique group at the first draft stage, section by section.

So far, I’ve written ten of fifteen sections (five to seven thousand words each). I scribble each part in longhand first, just to splash something onto the page. Keying it into Word, I make it real, adding material as needed and changing details. After a bit of polishing, off it goes to the group, to be critiqued at our next monthly meeting. This creates a deadline, which has worked well to keep me slogging forward.

It’s a scary feeling, as each critique meeting winds up, to know I have to create at least five thousand more words of coherent narrative in less than a month. Somehow, during the summer, I managed to get ahead by one chunk, which lessens the panic a little. Of course, if I fail to deliver, it doesn’t really matter. The group won’t mind; it’s one less thing to read before the meeting, and allows more time to discuss the pieces put forward. But it’s still a public no-show — same idea as exercising with a buddy. You don’t want to look like a quitter, so you show up.

But the mushy middle part of a novel — that’s perilous territory. Self-doubt migrates to it and lurks there. Little imps pop up and whisper things like, “Boring!” “Slow!” “Too much ‘telling,’ not enough ‘showing’!” “Why bother writing this? You’ll just have to cut it.” And the biggest imp of all comes up with, “Just give up already. There are already too many books out there. No one’s going to read this, so just give up.”

This recent post from blogger K.M. Allan was really helpful.

Like a mudhole, the mushy middle isn’t the place to stop and brood. I tell myself to keep slogging and just get through it before I sink. I’ll bet many novels are abandoned at this stage. Never mind if it’s not my best writing, never mind if I get all the details right. Just get the plot line laid out. Once the climax is in sight, the magic will take over and I’ll run, leap, fly to the scintillating conclusion! (I hope).

 

purple-2721502__340

I’ve said it before, and think it every day — plotting is hard. This novel, like my others, contains elements of the supernatural, but it’s set in the real world, which means I can’t routinely invoke magic to get things done. I have to pay attention to details like distances between real places, modes of transportation, weather, and technology circa 1962.

I have no problem writing scenes I find compelling. They arrive fully formed in the cranial inbox. All I have to do is sit down and render the mental pictures into prose. Then I go crazy trying to stick them together in a coherent sequence without resorting to tedious glue-like (i.e., boring) prose.

The best way is to move directly from one high-interest scene to the next, adding the minimum of transition text, just what’s needed to avoid confusion. I’m going to do that! If more glue is needed, I’ll apply it in Draft #2.

Then there’s the plausibility issue. I don’t know if this happens to other writers, but it’s amazing how easy it is to lay aside logic and reason to get my characters into the situations I’ve planned for them. I have to keep asking myself, “Why?” Why would she decide to leave Situation A and seek out Situation B? Why would something of vital importance in Chapter 3 become totally irrelevant in Chapter 7? If the answer is something like, “Well, it just has to happen, because they have to be in the…” it’s back to the Plot Plan and Character Profiles scribbled in blunt pencil on the back of a piece of junk mail.

Keep slogging! The ground seems to be rising a bit here. The crisis and climax will soon emerge over the horizon.

balloons luxor

The scene of the WIP: west bank of the Nile, near Luxor. (Image from Pixabay)

3 Reasons Why You Need to Finish Your Writing Project

At the 2/3 point through a first draft that’s getting to be a tough slog I found this inspiring. Writers, read this before you think about quitting!

Knowledge is Power

Have you ever wondered why starting a project can be so full of ideas, motivation, focus, and commitment, only to later on land into an overwhelming state of pressure, agonizing middle, and a completely dispirited end? This scenario occurs more often than not, and am moved to refer to it as the curse of the writer.

Stumbling blocks characterize almost all writing projects, so badly in some situations that they completely disorient what was once a comprehensive research, sleepless nights, sincere effort, and immense sacrifice, just to name a few. Ranging from lack of time, family issues, writers block, running out of ideas to fear of rejection, stumbling blocks can easily lead to an incomplete and stagnated end.

Every writer’s desire is to start writing a book or an article, and most importantly to finish it. Here are 3 reasons that should make you reconsider completing your project.

  1. You Owe…

View original post 354 more words

knitting, yarn, lavender purple

Unpicking and Re-Knitting

At a recent meeting of my critique group, it was brought to my attention that something should happen at an earlier point in the narrative. I sort of knew that already, so didn’t need to go through all five Stages of Receiving Critique (denial, argument, brooding, grudging acceptance, rewriting). I jumped right to rewriting. And swearing and hair-tearing.

Rewriting a completed scene, especially one that’s mostly dialogue, is HARD, even when you want to. It’s got that finished look, prettied up, polished and (you thought) perfect. And even when you have to admit it isn’t perfect, taking it apart and remaking it is a painful process.

In this scene, the characters do things and say things. There’s an internal logic to the sequence of actions. The last words spoken by one character cue the first words of the other. Yanking globs of text from one spot and moving them to another requires a rebuild of the receiving area to rejig that internal logic.

After a couple of minor fits, I decided a logical approach was needed.

First, I identified all the bits of text to be moved and highlighted them in different colours. Topic #1 (turquoise) had to be dealt with before getting into Topic #2 (green). Stuff I didn’t know what to do with was yellow. Directions to self were in upper case purple text.

Well, at least it was colourful. (And so was some of my language).

Once I identified the relevant pieces of text, I had to decide where to move them. Then I adjusted those areas so the incoming text would flow seamlessly into what was already there.

Then I started CTRL-Xing and CTRL-Ving. Some sentences changed colour several times and moved enough times to earn frequent flier points before settling into their final spots. My head started to spin and ache, and certain short words spiced up my internal dialogue.

“No, you can’t put that there! She doesn’t know that yet!”

“He can’t start talking about that until she’s asked him about it!”

“That doesn’t make any !@#$ sense!”

AAARGH!

A number of metaphors sprang to mind — taking apart a piece of woodwork held together with dovetail joints and moving the pieces around, or unravelling parts of a sweater, re-knitting them with a different pattern, and ending up with something that’s still a sweater.

In the end, of course, my efforts were worthwhile. The scene works better, and a reader won’t have any idea of the strain and pain that went into its creation.

rubiks cube

Which is how it should be.

Now back to reading about the geology of the Valley of the Kings, and whether the sediments include concretions.

They do! Another plot point nailed down! Progress!

Images courtesy of Pixabay.

clock mechanism

Fictional Details: Timing and Chronology

Approaching the halfway mark in the first draft of my work in progress, all I want to do is forge ahead, laying down the road — or trail, or path — to the climax and conclusion, in which the big, important themes that are the whole point of the thing will shine and resonate in the brain of the delighted reader. Clanging gongs and fireworks, that’s what I’m aiming for.

So why am I agonizing over whether something happened yesterday or the day before? Or how long it takes to get from point A to point B? Wouldn’t that dinner last a lot longer than the conversation that was its entire purpose? And aren’t those characters having way too many drinks in too a short time? At this rate, they’ll be incapable of the action scene that follows.

Why agonize over these details? Because it matters, damn it! If to only one reader, or only to me, the author.

Especially in genres such as mystery and thriller, but even in semi-literary, quasi-supernatural, adventure-type opuses such as the one I’m working on, it’s necessary to pay attention to matters of timing and chronology.

Consider, for example, the word “minute,” meaning sixty seconds. People use it all the time in conversation with no expectation of accuracy. “I’ll just be a minute,” you say, when you know darned well it will be ten. Or, “It was here a minute ago,” when it was actually five seconds. That’s okay. But when a narrator uses that word, as in, “He stood staring at me for a minute without speaking,” just visualize it, and count those seconds. A minute is actually a long time. If someone stood silent and staring for an actual minute, you would be asking them if they were okay, and maybe calling 911. “Moment,” “second,” or “instant” are much better words here.

At some point before pressing that “Publish” button, a read-through for timing and continuity issues is definitely in order, either by the author or an attentive beta reader.

When I’m reading someone else’s book, I don’t look for stuff like this. I’m fine unless things seem seriously out of whack, such as going from July to Christmas in the turn of a page, or a if a character without supernatural abilities whips up a five-course dinner in half an hour. Readers give writers a kind of license about chronological details if they can follow the plot. But they do matter to me, the writer, as a matter of principle. When I’m working out plot details, I need to know that when I begin a paragraph with, “The next morning … ” the one after it doesn’t make a sudden jump into the following week.

Which is why I’m wrestling with moon phases, distances in and near Luxor, Egypt, the steps involved in launching a hot air balloon, and the chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Trust me, it will all make sense when I’m done. With luck, that might even be in the present decade.

balloons luxor

Image courtesy of Pixabay

planning, yellow pencil, paper

The Ultimate Spoiler

When talking about books, or writing book reviews, the spoiler is a definite no-no. Revealing plot twists or a book’s ending to those who haven’t read it spoils the experience to the point they may decide not to bother.

Plot-driven fiction is way more susceptible to spoilers than so-called “literary” fiction, which depends less on revelations than on artful use of language. It’s the difference between rushing to a destination and stopping to view the scenery along the way.

As a book’s author, I have a special relationship with the book. In a way, for me, it’s already spoiled, unless I were totally “pantsing” it — writing by feel, without any outline or plan at all. And even that applies only to the first draft. Once I start revising or rewriting, I know how it all works out.

When you think about this, it’s amazing any book at all has a tension-filled plot or a surprise ending. Knowing how the story will end makes it hard to create an atmosphere of peril for the characters. It’s too easy to slip into a relaxed tone and pace, like going to a familiar place down a well-worn path.

How does the writer create tension and suspense for the reader? By calling on the brute force of imagination, dancing around the scenes being plotted, seeing them from all sides at once.  Then skewing the view, applying disguises, drawing scrims over crucial details.

Writers have to read their works like readers do, be aware of the expectations they are creating, and either fulfill them or jerk them away and deliver something totally unexpected. Even though they already know the ending.

No wonder writing — the initial act of creation — is so hard!

This is why I personally don’t favour strict outlining or detailed planning. I need to have a specific ending in mind, but I don’t really know how I’m going to get there. When I sit down to write another chapter, I have a list called Things That Must Happen, but quite often, some of them don’t, and unexpected ones do.

Having wiggle room in the plot gives my characters chances to do the opposite of what I thought they might, to try and fail before they arrive at the destinations I have in mind for them, and for me to experience a surprise or two, just like I hope my readers will.

Arrows 1

 

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

 

clock mechanism plus numbers

Optimal Order: Reading the Herbert West Series

 

When I wrote the four books that make up the Herbert West Series, I intended them to work as stand-alone novels. And they do, sort of, but to fully appreciate the second through fourth books, it’s really helpful to have read the first one.

hws-complete-3

To complicate things, I also wrote and published four Supplements to the series, short stories that fit within or between the four books.

The first book of the series, The Friendship of Mortals, and all four Supplements, are available as free downloads. More information here.

From July 1st to 31st, Books 2, 3, and 4 of the series will be available at 50% off the regular prices, at the Smashwords store only, as part of the Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale.

For readers new to the series, here is the optimal order in which to read the books and supplements:

  • Book 1, The Friendship of Mortals
  • Supplement 1, The Nexus : a portal to the Herbert West Series
  • Supplement 2, From the Annexe : an untold tale
  • Book 2, Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey
  • Book 3, Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure
  • Supplement 3, A Visit to Luxor
  • Supplement 4, One of the Fourteen
  • Book 4, Hunting the Phoenix.

 

In whatever order a reader may wish to read, it’s best to save Book 4, Hunting the Phoenix, for the end — well, because it’s the end.

Herbert West Series Composite

HW Series Supps Composite

 

 

 

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay, enhanced with Canva.

 

Crescent Moon

The Moon Over Luxor

For my current work in progress, the phases of the moon at Luxor, Egypt, in the autumn of 1962 are a moderately significant plot factor. I could have ignored facts and written the moon to suit my plot, but that didn’t feel right. For sure, once the book is published, someone will point out the inconvenient facts. So — research required. Thanks to the Internet, I found this:

Moon Phases for Luxor, Egypt in 1962

Lunation New Moon First Quarter Full Moon Third Quarter Duration
483 Jan 6 2:35 pm Jan 13 7:01 am Jan 20 8:16 pm Jan 29 1:36 am 29d 11h 35m
484 Feb 5 2:09 am Feb 11 5:42 pm Feb 19 3:17 pm Feb 27 5:49 pm 29d 10h 21m
485 Mar 6 12:30 pm Mar 13 6:38 am Mar 21 9:55 am Mar 29 6:10 am 29d 9h 14m
486 Apr 4 9:44 pm Apr 11 9:50 pm Apr 20 2:33 am Apr 27 2:58 pm 29d 8h 40m
487 May 4 7:24 am May 11 3:44 pm May 19 5:31 pm May 26 10:05 pm 29d 9h 02m
488 Jun 2 4:26 pm Jun 10 9:21 am Jun 18 5:02 am Jun 25 2:42 am 29d 10h 25m
489 Jul 2 2:52 am Jul 10 2:39 am Jul 17 2:40 pm Jul 24 7:18 am 29d 12h 31m
490 Jul 31 3:23 pm Aug 8 6:54 pm Aug 15 11:09 pm Aug 22 1:26 pm 29d 14h 45m
491 Aug 30 6:08 am Sep 7 9:44 am Sep 14 7:11 am Sep 20 10:35 pm 29d 16h 30m
492 Sep 28 10:39 pm Oct 6 9:54 pm Oct 13 2:32 pm Oct 20 10:47 am 29d 17h 25m
493 Oct 28 3:04 pm Nov 5 9:14 am Nov 12 12:03 am Nov 19 4:09 am 29d 17h 25m
494 Nov 27 8:29 am Dec 4 6:47 pm Dec 11 11:27 am Dec 19 12:42 am 29d 16h 29m
495 Dec 27 12:58 am 29d 14h 43m
* All times are local time for Cairo. Time is adjusted for DST when applicable. Dates are based on the Gregorian calendar.

Cool, eh?

Dates of moon phases for almost anywhere in any year may be found here.

Yet another example of obscure info needed by writers. How did we ever manage before the Internet? Libraries, librarians, and reference books — remember them?

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

type

Counting Words

The novel I’m writing (my sixth) is proving to be a bit of a struggle. In my memory, writing the other five was a silky-smooth process, in which I effortlessly spun out an endless stream of words whenever I sat down at the desk.

Well, it probably wasn’t like that. When I concentrate, I remember plenty of occasions when I sat there, staring at the giant rubber plant (now in a better world), trying to shape another scene.

But this time around, “flow” simply isn’t the word. Scraping, beating, cobbling, hewing — those are the words that come to mind. I’m getting blisters on my imagination.

Part of the problem is that this time, I’m fixated on wordcount. I’ve decided I want to end up with a first draft of 90,000 to 100,000 words, of which I may delete 10,000 to 20,000. Having too many words feels better than too few. It’s as though writing is a weird kind of sculpture — first I hew out a block of stone, and then I reduce it to its final shape. I don’t want to limit myself with a block that’s too small to start with.

I wondered if this warped the process. Instead of letting the plot unfurl organically, I set myself a goal to crank out a minimum of 6,000 words to present at the monthly meetings of my longtime critique group. Before that, I wasn’t writing at all, letting days go by while I played the procrastination game of waiting for the perfect day or moment. Now, with this self-imposed deadline, I’ve been diligently beavering away for five months, and technically am one third of the way through the first draft.

While this approach is getting me to produce, I’m wondering if I’m just churning out crap of which 98 per cent will have to be rewritten. In other words, if I’m just faking it. Okay, the critiquers seem to think the work has potential, but I haven’t reached a point where they can really see the shape of the finished novel. Which is a problem in itself. Or, maybe not — at least the plot isn’t predictable.

This leads to the question of whether it’s better to write too much and cut out a lot in rewrites, or too little and have to flesh out and add stuff. I’ve always taken the more is better approach, and now that the thing is finally coming to life, I intend to press on and test that idea later.

So, back to the quarry…

sandstone-from-obernkirchen-1612461__340

Images courtesy of Pixabay

 

 

reading, characters, imagination

Being or Knowing: Characters and Readers

Reading an interesting post recently on the estimable Story Ape’s blog got me thinking about the relationship between fictitious characters and readers — main characters, known in some circles as “protagonists.”

Some characters are primarily vehicles by which a reader may experience the events of a story. The character is a type — an amateur sleuth, a woman seeking romance, a young person on a perilous quest. Their physical characteristics and personalities may be specified, but they’re actually elaborate costumes. Readers climb in and they’re there — solving the mystery, finding romance, or surviving the perils of the quest.

In other works of fiction, characters are equipped with complex personalities and backgrounds. Their needs and conflicts are not immediately evident. The reader must get to know them in order to discern their issues. It’s quite possible readers may not be able to identify with these characters; they may not even like them, but if the author has done the job right, the reader will find the character and his or her situation interesting enough to keep reading the book.

The “wearable” character is generally associated with plot-driven genre fiction; the “get to know” protagonist is more often typical of character-driven literary fiction. Readers have different expectations for these character types; getting acquainted with the character before you know what might happen to them requires some tolerance for uncertainty on the reader’s part. Writers of literary fiction must make their stories sufficiently alluring to keep readers hanging out with their characters.

I’m fairly sure authors don’t decide, as they begin writing a story or novel, which of these types of characters they will create for it. They usually do know whether they’re writing genre fiction or literary fiction. Characters evolve accordingly.

It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Really well-written works feature complex characters and compelling plots. Readers decide unconsciously whether to become a character and ride their rollercoaster, or to observe and ponder the character’s dilemmas.

The four novels of my Herbert West Series have five different narrators — six, actually, because Herbert West is quite a different person from Francis Dexter. Each of these people has his or her own style: Charles Milburn, diffident librarian; Andre Boudreau, amnesiac Acadian; Margaret Bellgarde, widow of the Great War; Herbert West, amoral scientist, who becomes Francis Dexter, wounded healer; Alma Halsey, disaffected journalist. And The Nexus, one of the short story supplements to the series, is narrated by eccentric professor and sometime occultist Professor Augustus Quarrington.

I’m thinking all these different narrators may be somewhat disconcerting for readers who expect more uniformity among books within a series. And I’m sure not all readers have found it easy to slip into these characters and share their lives. Over the course of the series, however, they have a good selection from which to choose.

dolls-1077237__340

Image courtesy of Pixabay

 

The books include elements of different genres and of literary fiction. Some readers may find the fit a little uncomfortable. I am biased, of course, but I can honestly say no one who spends time with my characters will be harmed by the experience, and some may be entertained.

Featured image created with Canva using free pictures from Unsplash and Pixabay.