novel writing

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.

 

 

Roofing

The title of the post just before this one is “Rooting,” so it’s a piece of luck that this one is appropriately titled “Roofing.” Sometimes things work out perfectly.

After twenty years, the shingles on our roof looked a bit eroded, so we arranged to have them removed and replaced. The job took about a week, and the company we hired did a fine job. So did the fellow who came afterward to install new eavestroughs and downspouts. No complaints there.

But…

A few things for gardeners to think about before workers arrive:

  1. Not everyone cares about plants the way you do. That includes spouses.
  2. In order to get the job done promptly, heavy equipment and men in size 12 steel-toed boots may be stomping on your green babies that have just pushed their tender shoots above the ground.
  3. Plants growing close to a work zone will be perceived as obstacles.

After the house was roofed and downspouted, the professionals departed, and work began on re-shingling the garage. My husband was keen on doing that job himself. I didn’t share his enthusiasm, but was dragooned to assist nevertheless. So I’ve spent a good portion of the past week lugging shingles up ladders and moving said ladders from one spot to another, and then back again. A certain amount of shouting and muttering has occurred, especially following the radical pruning of a winter-blooming honeysuckle (Lonicera X purpusii or possibly Lonicera fragrantissima) that was declared an obstacle. The plant has shown a fair bit of vigor after previous butcherings prunings, as well as last winter’s icy winds, so I hope it will recover.

January 27, 2014

Winter Honeysuckle

In the meantime, the garden carried on with spring.

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Tulipa batalinii and forget-me-nots

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Unidentified double tulip

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Primula and Chinese egg jar

Indoors, I continue to beat out the first draft of my work-in-progress, a novel to follow the Herbert West Series. Every month since January, I have committed to my critique group to send out another 6,000 words. That self-imposed deadline has worked so far; by mid-May I expect to hit — or at least get within hailing distance of — the 30,000 word mark. I’m finding this a tough job, tougher than writing my other novels, but so far I’ve managed to keep at it. Sort of like getting the roof done, shingle by shingle.

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The manuscript

 

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.

The Reminiscing Voice

In a previous post I said how partial I am to first person narrator for writing fiction. Without realizing it, I have at times been seduced by a style within that category, the reminiscing voice.

It took me a while to figure this out. I am right now in the process of editing the second novel of my Herbert West series in preparation for publication later this year. A fellow writer who has read most of the manuscript recently commented that certain sections were too slow, with too many details not relevant to the story. Years ago, a letter from a publisher rejecting this work annoyed me by using the term “plodding prose.” When I discussed this at the time with another fellow writer, we concluded that the removed, reflective quality of the narrative voice may have been what led to this opinion.

Thinking about this some more, I have identified this style of narrative as the reminiscing voice. The narrator is remembering events long after they have occurred, from a perspective of stillness and calm. Whatever the narrator’s problems, conflicts and sufferings may have been, they are over, but they were important events in the life of this character, and he or she is about to relate them to the reader.

Today I took a quick look among my books to find examples of the reminiscing voice.  As an aside, I will mention that many of the books I own — never to be dignified with the terms “collection” or “library” — were purchased in the 1970s and ’80s at used bookstores with no pretensions to the antiquarian. One of these, Ted Fraser’s Book Bin in Vancouver, B.C., actually had “bargain barrels” — big wooden barrels full of books selling at ten cents apiece. Lord only knows what was at the bottom of those barrels. The fact that many of my best-loved reads came from sources such as this should tell you something.

Back to the reminiscing voice. Here is the beginning of The Crystal Cave, the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series:

I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King. The years since then seem to me now more dim and faded than the earlier years, as if my life were a growing tree which burst to flower and leaf with him, and now has nothing more to do than yellow to the grave.

This is followed by four substantial paragraphs about memory and remembering, before the story begins. And even then, we are still in the Prologue.

Another example, this one the first paragraph of The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams (a book that has huge flaws, but which I re-read every few years because… Well, I don’t actually know why):

All day it has been windy — strange weather for late July — the wind swirling through the hedges like an invisible flood-tide among seaweed; tugging, compelling them in its own direction, dragging them one way until the patches of elder and privet sagged outward from the tougher stretches of blackthorn on either side. It ripped the purple clematis from its trellis and whirled away twigs and green leaves from the oaks at the bottom of the shrubbery.

And on and on like this for another two long paragraphs which are word-pictures of a garden and landscape, really quite vivid, but definitely not germane to the story of how the narrator met and lost his wife, the mysterious Karin. Adams breaks another Rule of Writing here, which is never to begin with a description of weather.

For some reason, I find beginnings of this sort compelling, both to read and to write. To me, they are like slow crescendos, starting out quietly and building to a climax in which the narrator is no longer merely remembering, but reliving. But it appears that others disagree. Slow and not sufficiently relevant, they say, and it is difficult to argue with these assessments. “Yes, but I like it, ” isn’t really an argument.

I think it’s OK to use the reminiscing voice if it suits the narrator and his or her situation, but as with so many other things, moderation is the key. Use the reflective style to set the scene and indicate something about the narrator’s personality, but move fairly soon into reliving mode. This is related to the advice about “back story,” that it’s best presented in small, cunningly concealed doses, rather than as a lengthy, identifiable section — sort of like coating a cat pill in butter to make it slip down more easily.

That is if you are following the rules because you must please those who make them, be they instructors, editors or publishers. If you are writing to please only yourself or whatever spirit has inspired you to write, and the reminiscing voice is the voice that speaks, go for it. When I was only a reader and not a writer, I would begin to read a novel and continue to read it to the end, if its voice pleased, allured or fascinated me, never mind why. Much of this writing, I suspect, broke some sort of rule. It’s nearly impossible to identify the precise qualities of prose that attract or repel a particular reader, which is why it is also nearly impossible to come up with a set of definitive rules for writing.

I consider the reminiscing voice at the beginning of a novel to be a signal to the reader that the narrator has something important to say, but isn’t going to launch into the story until the reader is ready to listen. It’s sort of like the opening credits in a movie, that let you settle into your seat, position your popcorn and get set to watch. Or like fancy gift wrapping on a special present, that gives you an opportunity to whet your anticipation. Or like foreplay.

Revision is Endless

Once you’ve written something, especially something long, like a 150,000+ word novel, you have a preoccupation that can last the rest of your life, if you let it. Now that books have become ebooks, there is no reason to stop revising, tinkering, polishing and embellishing, even after the thing is published. In the past, once a book was printed, that pretty well put an end to revision, unless there was a good reason at some point to produce a second edition. That makes sense for certain kinds of non-fiction, but rarely in the case of fiction. Now the whole concept of “edition” is becoming obsolete.

I can upload a new version of my novel to Smashwords any time I want. Should I discover an irritating typo in the text, or have a brilliant idea that improves the plot, I can make corrections, insert a new scene or even do a major rewrite. Out with the old text, in with the new. Yes, in effect there is a new edition, but if only the new text exists (outside of my own computer) it’s not exactly the same as in the world of print.

Just because something is possible, however, doesn’t mean that it’s the thing to do. There comes a time when further tinkering with a piece of work no longer improves it. If you get a great new idea, write a great new work, rather than trying to make the old work into a new one.

A rational approach to revision might be as follows:  ask several people to read your opus in manuscript. If you belong to a writers’ group, you may find readers there. In any case, it’s best to ask people whom you know to be readers. Non-readers probably won’t give you the kind of feedback you need. Family members and friends? Only if they will give you objective opinions, and only if that won’t compromise your relationship afterward.

The comments most worthy of your attention are those made by more than one of your readers. If all or most of them agree that a character needs more development, that a scene does not contribute to the plot, or that your dialogue is weak, those are probably valid criticisms that you should address by rewriting. Then take the rewritten sections back to your readers.

A group of readers also delivers a diversity of comments. Some pick up on lurking typos or grammatical problems, others pounce on continuity problems, still others focus on character motivations. This is another helpful aspect of asking a group to read your work, since it’s unlikely that any individual will note all those details.

Then there’s the question of “professional” editing. Some writers declare that no one should dare to send works to publishers or agents, or self-publish them, without first having them “professionally edited.” I don’t necessarily agree with this opinion. I think it depends. Some writers are perfectly capable of editing their own works, especially in conjunction with thoughtful critiques by a group of capable readers. More particularly, before rushing out to find an editor, consider that anyone can call themselves an editor. There is no testing and approving body for editors analogous to a college of physicians and surgeons. Presumably, editors make their reputations through the results of their work, which suggests that a certain amount of research and investigation is in order before you fork over your cash (which can be considerable for editing a novel — hundreds or even thousands of dollars). Second, know what you expect from the editor — an overhaul of the entire work from concept to plot to characters and scenes, or merely a thorough read-through to pick up typographic and spelling mistakes and other minor flaws. Finally, bear in mind that paying an editor to review and revise your work is no guarantee of success (i.e. acceptance). Decide in advance what you are going to do after the editor is finished — revise their revisions?

This posting is prompted by the fact that I am right now in the midst of a revision of my second novel, Islands of the Gulf, which is the sequel to The Friendship of Mortals. Once I have worked through it with input from my novelists’ critique group, my intention is to make it available on Smashwords, by the end of 2011, I hope.

However you undertake revision of a piece of writing, do it with an end in mind. When that end is reached, declare the work finished and move on.

Show or Tell?

One of the fundamental bits of wisdom writers are reminded of over and over again is, “Show, don’t tell.”  Don’t write, “The sun was so hot that my feet felt like they were burning when I walked on the sand barefoot.”  Instead, write, “My bare feet sizzled on the hot sand.”

No arguments there; the second example even has the undisputed writerly virtue of being shorter. That’s another maxim that today’s writers should carve on their hearts:  the shorter, the better.  But I’ve already dealt with it here (Writing Short, Writing Long, Sept. 19). Today’s question is whether showing is always better than telling.

My opinion? It depends. It depends on what you are showing or telling, and what its purpose is in the context of the work you are creating. Let’s say it’s a novel. There are almost as many approaches to writing novels as there are novelists (or maybe it just seems that way), but most novels consist of scenes involving action or dialogue or both, connected with sections of narrative. The trick is to get the right balance between the length and number of fully-realized scenes and instances of narrative.

Let’s look at an example. Here is a paragraph from my novel, The Friendship of Mortals.

West was right, in a way. Our involvement with the corpse of John Hocks was never brought home to us by any of the conventional authorities, although we had (I thought) left such a trail of evidence that any competent investigator should have found it necessary to question one or both of us. Our grave-digging tools, for example, stayed in the woods near Hangman’s Brook for several days before I remembered them. West retrieved them that night, but anyone could have found them in the meantime.

This is definitely telling. What would showing look like?

A few days after Hocks disappeared, I called on West after work. Fortunately, he was at home.

“Hello Charles, what brings you here?”  He did not invite me past his front hall, but seemed quite prepared to hold a conversation standing by his coat-rack and half a dozen pairs of polished boots.

“I’ve just been thinking — ”

“A bad habit,” West interrupted. “At least when it’s really fretting that one is doing. Well, what’s on your mind?”

“Those tools we used to dig up Hocks. The spades and pry-bar. And the rope we hauled him out of the grave with. They’re all still out there, aren’t they?”

“Unless they sprouted legs and departed the scene, I imagine they’re where we left them, in the woods. What of it?” His tone was light and mocking, despite the quick frown of  annoyance that preceded it.

“Anyone could find them, that’s what. The police, for example. They should have searched those woods already.”

“You give the Arkham police far too much credit, Charles. They don’t exert themselves any more than they have to, certainly not on behalf of a drowned farm laborer from Maine whose corpse has gone missing. I doubt if it even occurred to them to set foot in the woods.” He executed a kind of side-step that brought him close to the door and which I took as a hint that I should be going.

“I just think it’s something we should take care of, that’s all. A loose end.” And one that the instigator of the plan should have thought of. But I did not say this.

“All right, Charles,” West said, opening the door and letting in a flood of thick, yellow afternoon sunlight, “I’ll dash out there tonight and retrieve the tools. Does that put your mind at ease?”

If I had expected him to admit that he had made a mistake, I would have been disappointed.

The original paragraph was only a connector between two scenes that were more important to the plot of the novel. Turning it into a fully realized scene does not add anything to the story and would only slow down its forward movement.

Specifics aside, if every part of a novel was written out fully this way, it would inevitably swell to gargantuan proportions. On the other hand, a pure “showing” approach could be a series of discrete scenes with no connecting narrative. The writer would have to make sure that the chronological jumps would not confuse or disconcert the reader. Done well, such an approach can be elegant and successful.

But done well, any writing can be called successful (aesthetically, if not commercially).  Take, for instance, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite francaise, successful by any measure. It has huge stretches of telling, relatively few of showing. And yet, those long sections of narrative are compelling. They create a movie in the reader’s mind. In the end, that’s what good writing does, whether by showing, telling or both.