first drafts

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

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

 

 

Forging the Draft

In a recent post I moaned about how hard it is to undertake the enormous job of imagining a novel and turning it into readable prose. Since writing that post, I’ve also written several thousand words of my work in progress — new, freshly imagined stuff. At this stage, forward motion is crucial. This isn’t the time to worry about choosing the right words and avoiding the wrong ones, the niceties of grammar or whether elastic bandages were used in 1962. I have to keep that pen moving, writing down what I see my characters doing and saying, as though I’m transcribing the action in a movie, while maintaining the intended narrative voice. Anything I need to check or go back and work out later, I note as such and keep going. Quick, dirty and fast.

This first trip through my plot is like walking a tightrope across a chasm. Standing around admiring the view isn’t going to get me to the other side.

Once I have the bare bones laid down, I’ll go back and fill in, rearrange, add and delete stuff, and generally whip that scene or section into shape. But at this point I don’t intend to get mired in trying to achieve perfection. It’s more important to move on to the next scene or chapter, keeping the goal in mind: finish the first draft.

In On Writing, Stephen King says to write your first draft behind a closed door. Don’t show it to anyone. After it’s done, stash it away for a couple of months before you look at it again. I’ve seen similar advice from other writers and indeed, that’s pretty much how I wrote my first five novels.

For some reason, I haven’t managed to do that with the current work in progress. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer using my subterranean (i.e., basement) writing room. My current writing spot has way too many distractions that make it too easy to avoid the tough work of intense imagining with pen in hand.

Manuscript SWCF

Pen? Yes, I still write the first draft with a pen, on paper. My semi-legible scribble makes it hard to start fiddling with stuff I’ve just written, almost inevitable when the words are displayed in stark clarity on the screen. But I don’t consider a chapter or scene to be properly first-drafted until the completed handwritten pages are transcribed — with changes, of course — into electronic form.

Contrary to King’s excellent advice, I’ve resorted to sending freshly written chunks of my WIP for discussion at my critique group’s monthly meetings. Why? To create an external deadline and a sense of urgency. So far, it’s working. This work has been “in progress” for more than two years, with no progress at all until the past three months.

There are other ways to induce writer urgency — the Write or Die app, for example. I haven’t used it, but I understand you can set it to nuke whatever you’ve written if you don’t keep banging those keys until you achieve a specific word count. (So don’t indulge in too much liquid refreshment during a writing session).

Post header image courtesy of Pixabay

 

Priming the Brain Pump: Research for Fiction Writing

So I’m finally going to write another novel. (I figure I have three more books in me). This one will be a sequel to the Herbert West Series. The main character is Herbert West’s granddaughter. The setting is Egypt, specifically Luxor and the Valley of Kings, in the 1960s. Which means I need to do some research.

There is a vast difference between a piece of fiction whose subject is a place and its history and one that uses a place or a time as a setting. Historical fiction explores and extrapolates real events and people. My book will not be about the political or social situation in Egypt in the 1960s; the story will unfold against the background of the archaeological sites near Luxor. It must of necessity unfold in the 1960s because the main character was born in the early 1940s.

It’s a given that writing historical fiction requires intensive and extensive research, but all writers are obligated to get their backgrounds and settings right. Many mystery and romance novels feature occupations, professions or crafts. Amateur detectives who are veterinarians, potters or chefs abound. The main character of my Herbert West series worked part-time as a mortician while in medical school (in the 1910s). Getting the details of that situation right required considerable research, as will my new project.

So how will I go about doing research for the new book?

The first and most important thing is to load up my brain with stuff about Egypt and Egyptology — the landscape, the climate, the texture of the grit underfoot as one walks in the Valley of Kings, the smells and sounds of dawn, midday, sunset, evening and night. The language of archaeology, the types of people encountered in the bureaucracy of antiquities and at sites being excavated. I’m doing this by reading — a great deal of reading. Accounts of travel, contemporary and historical, descriptions of archaeological discoveries, even the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Once I’ve absorbed this material, some of it will colour my writing in the correct hues and shades. I will be able to speak with authority as my plot unreels.

The best thing, of course, would be to go there, to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. The brain-loading process would then be direct and personal. But I can’t do that right now, so must be content with vicarious experiences. Reading about travel is much simpler than doing it. I can benefit from others’ distilled experiences and impressions without having to spend time, energy and money on the mechanics of travel and tourism. A great by-product of all the reading is that in the process I get ideas for scenes and plot details.

This kind of research is different from fact-checking, which is important but relatively easy, now that we have Wikipedia and other online information troves. Would my main character travel from Cairo to Luxor by train? Exactly when did the Six-Day War start? What was the political situation in Egypt at the time? I need to know these and many other things so as to avoid embarrassing blunders, but I can track down such facts when I need them. The background reading must be done first, to prime the pump, as it were.

I read somewhere that research for fiction writing is like an iceberg — only about one tenth of it should make an actual appearance in the story. Just because I gather a raft of interesting facts doesn’t mean I have to weave them into the plot. It isn’t like writing an essay in school, where you have to show all the stuff you’ve learned. The writer’s business is the fictional story and the characters playing it out.

Finally, I have to say that this feels weird. So far, I’ve written all my books off-line, beavering away in my subterranean writing room on a computer without an internet connection. Writing a blog post about writing a book is doing things backwards. On the other hand, having committed myself here, I had better just go and deliver. The plan is to have a first draft by spring.

No NaNoWriMo

I know it works for others, and is probably great for dispelling the loneliness of the long-form writer, but NaNoWriMo isn’t for me. I’ve already realized that getting connected via the internet (and I am only slightly connected) has been the kiss of death to writing another novel. It’s so much easier to read blogs, comment on posts and write posts, read and write reviews of other people’s books, and generally goof off while doing “research” online.

Here are the elements I need to start the writing fire:  first, an obsession-generating idea. Not necessarily a killer plot “hook,” but some basic configuration of characters, situation and setting that I can’t stop thinking about. It acts like a magnet, pulling other elements to itself until a kind of fusion reaction begins.

Second, time and space. This means a room with a desk and a door, and at least two unbroken hours every day in which to write.

Third, a big stack of paper and a bunch of pens. Yes, I write my first drafts in longhand. The first thing I see when I get back to my opus is the spot where I left off, not the first few paragraphs grinning at me in the stark black-on-white of the computer screen. Reading my scribble discourages the impulse to edit the beginning rather than driving the first draft to its end. And yes, writing longhand makes it almost impossible to track the word-count, which is just fine with me.

That’s it. At the first draft stage, I don’t need anyone rooting for me or keeping track of my words. Talking too much about the work-in-progress might jinx it. For me, the act of writing is as private as — well, use your imagination.

Strangely enough, I did start writing seriously in November. November 7th, 2000, which is why the main character of my trilogy, Herbert West/Francis Dexter, was born on that day (in the year 1886). Fall and winter are great for writing, especially for a gardener. Summer evenings are too valuable as gardening time to be spent writing, but when darkness comes early, often with rain or snow, what else is there to do?

Plenty, for those who insist on being constantly plugged in to the hive of the internet. Which is why, when I find myself preoccupied with a novel-nub that simply must be developed, I will have to unplug. Descending to my subterranean writing room, the equivalent of an alchemist’s cave, I’ll stack up the paper, uncap the pen and begin the Work. The blog may be neglected, but that’s the tradeoff.

In the meantime, happy birthday to Herbert, and good luck to all you industrious NaNos.