work in progress

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.

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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.

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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

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.

 

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…

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Images 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

 

Making Mind Movies

I’ve started writing another novel. Along with short bouts of actual writing, I’ve been reading all kinds of stuff and peering at images and maps on my computer screen.  I’ve been dumping the facts, ideas and impressions harvested from books and other sources into the brain mixer and sketching out scenes.

This time I’m paying attention to the process of novel-writing, as well as the substance. Scenes are the key elements of a novel. A novel is a series of scenes, in which characters and situations are introduced and developed, leading to a climactic scene or scenes in which the situations are resolved and the characters transformed in some way.

Writing goes best for me when I envision compelling scenes — just like a good reading experience, curiously enough. I need to see the elements of my story like a movie in my mind before I can render them into words that will invoke a movie in the minds of my readers.

That’s it! That’s all there is to it!

It sounds easy. But just try it! Especially when the scenes don’t arrive ready-made from some magical studio of the imagination.

Deliberate, sustained imagining is hard. It strains the brain. Like physical exercise, it’s too easy to quit before much progress is made. There are so many elements to be created and/or assembled — the over-arching theme of the novel, the characters with all their quirks, characteristics and emotions, their actions, their thoughts, the setting, and possibly external facts and realities that must be accurate. The writer has to juggle all this stuff in the brain, and then select words to convey it — the right words, and enough of them to do the job, but not too many.

That’s to create one scene — a few thousand words at most, possibly less. Many more scenes will be sweated out to trace the entire story arc. And all those scenes will have to be put into order and glued together with suitably sticky words to make a complete first draft.

No wonder writers procrastinate and agonize, writing blog posts and looking at free images on the internet instead of buckling down and making mind movies from fleeting ideas they got in the shower.

egyptian-1823568__340

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

A Big Read

I bought a copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead (the translation by E.A. Wallis Budge) a couple of years ago, when I was thinking about writing a novel set in Egypt. It sat around gathering dust until last week, when I started reading it in the hope that it would pump up some enthusiasm for that work in progress, which so far consists of a measly 10,000 words.

This book was first published more than a century ago, so easing into it via a 2008 introduction by archaeologist John Romer was helpful. The intro warned me that Budge had rendered the Egyptian texts into the English of the Bible — King James version — full of  “thees” and “thous” and verbs ending in “eth.” This reminded me of my intention, some years ago, to read the Bible, which never really got off the ground. Not too promising.

But I was surprised and intrigued to learn that J.R.R. Tolkien “described the inhabitants of Middle Earth as ‘best pictured in Egyptian terms’,” with helmets apparently modeled on some pictured in vignettes from Budge’s Book of the Dead. Hard to believe, but fascinating. Another surprise was that the structure of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake follows that of the Book of the Dead. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Faulkner also found something worthwhile in it; then there’s Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. All in all, it seems that quite a few writers have found inspiration in this tome.

I’ve already noted quite a few pages with exciting stuff that has made me rethink some of the fundamental premises of my barely-started WIP. I’m excited about realizing these ideas in words; to do that, of course, I’ll have to write my way to that point.

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Notes for the work in progress and the Book of the Dead

And I haven’t even started reading the actual texts. The various introductions and prefaces and table of contents total ccxliv pages. (That’s 244 for those out of practice with Roman numerals). I’m only on page cxlviii (148). When I finally get to page 1 there will be 697 more. I’ll be immersed in this antique milieu for some time.

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Parts of Chapters 26 and 27

The printing even looks old-fashioned, somehow, full of parenthetical and bracketed stuff and bristling with footnotes. I actually need glasses to read it. In his introduction, Romer advises the reader “to slide through its texts as one might read Finnegan’s Wake, marvelling all the while at the expansive scholarship, and at the lilt and span of its exotic prose.”

Indeed. I’ve never tackled Finnegan’s Wake. I hope to slide, rather than struggle.