writing process

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).

 

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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)

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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

hammer and anvil

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

 

mind movie image

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.

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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 Writing Process Blog Hop

Yesterday I found I’ve been tagged by Michelle Proulx in a blog hop about the writing process. Many thanks to Michelle for an enthusiastic endorsement of my novel The Friendship of Mortals.

But yikes! What’s a blog hop? What do I need to do? (Is it like a chain letter? If I don’t carry it on, does my blog get nuked?) On the other hand, writing process is an interesting and vital topic to writers. Every writer has one, whether they know it or not.

So here goes —

1) What are you working on?

After a few years (yes, years!) of no major new writing projects, I feel that one of my idea-seeds is about to sprout. (After all, it’s spring, and all kinds of seeds are sprouting in my garden). A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called “I Need to Move to Another Planet,” when I was in a state of annoyance with the world as it is. Then I wrote a story set in what I envisioned as a better world, about a young man trying to create a blue rose. These threads twisted themselves together in my imagination, but nothing much else happened until a few weeks ago, when I found myself writing notes about plot details and characters. Then I actually wrote an outline for a 24 chapter, 72,000 word novel. Now all I have to do is write it.

That’s the only project that’s even come close to taking shape so far. Another that remains in the idea-seed stage is a spin-off from my now-concluded Herbert West Series, combining Egyptology and a bit of magic. Trouble is, I have to read The Egyptian Book of the Dead first, to charge up my imagination. That might take a while.

2) How does your work differ from others in the genre?

Well, this one’s easy, because my work doesn’t fit into a well-defined genre. Mostly I describe it in terms of what it’s not: not horror, not fantasy, not science fiction or historical or paranormal, but with elements of all of these, rolled into a thing that might be described as “supernatural literary speculative fiction.” Lumpy, but there it is. The Herbert West Series is rooted in a horror story by H.P. Lovecraft, but I was more interested in the characters and their personal monsters than in discrete evil entities.

3) Why do you write what you write?

My first answer — I have no idea. After thinking about it, though, I suspect it’s an effort to create situations in which individuals find a way to access magic. I have been fascinated by alchemy since I read Mircea Eliade’s writings about it in university, and more recently discovered Carl Jung’s Alchemical Studies and Psychology and Alchemy. When I felt compelled to expand upon H.P. Lovecraft’s amoral, corpse-animating doctor, Herbert West, I decided he had to undergo a series of transformations such as those in alchemy, to create excellence from base matter.

4) How does your writing process work?

Well, it starts with one of those idea-seeds. I know it’s viable once I find my brain working on it in the background, throwing out little ideas that I must write down immediately. Those ideas are pretty fleeting, and if I don’t nail them down right away they depart forever. Eventually I start thinking in terms of scenes or chapters and once there are enough of those, if I’m lucky I actually sit down and write something. All my first drafts so far have been in longhand — pen on paper. When I come back to the work, the first thing I see is the spot where I left off, not the beginning. I like watching the pile of manuscript pages fatten up as the days pass, and because my scribble is harder to read than the mercilessly legible text of a Word document, I’m not tempted to fiddle with what I’ve already put down, but  press on to the end. Once I reach it, I transcribe the whole thing into Word, editing on the fly. After that, I add stuff, delete stuff and move stuff around until I feel the work is ready to be seen by my critique group. beta readers, etc.

OK, that’s it. Now for tagging four other bloggers who will (I hope) be delighted to talk about their writing process just because I thought they might.

Edeana Malcolm is a member of my novelists’ critique group. She has read all my novels and suggested improvements. She has published a quartet of novels herself, based on the history of her family. Her blog is called My Writing Eden.

Sever Bronny is a fellow Victorian. He is about to release his debut fantasy-adventure novel and has created an awesomely thorough marketing plan.

Cole Davidson is one of the best WordPress bloggers I know. (He’s been Freshly Pressed!) His posts display strong opinions eloquently expressed and more often than not contain links to music, with lyrics appended. I’m pretty sure he did Nanowrimo last year, so he must have a fiction writing process.

Christian Tanner is a writer of short stories worth reading. (How could I ignore a blog called Weird Short Stories by Christian, with the motto “Stay weird”?)

 

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.

Rain and Distractions

Rain at last! That’s the note in my garden record for October 12. Eight millimeters fell that day and a further eight yesterday. As I write it’s raining hard — ten millimeters so far today and much more to come, judging by the big green and blue rain blobs on the radar image provided by Environment Canada’s website.

The first major rain of the autumn begins the closing down of the garden year for me. There is still a lot to be done in the garden, notably the Rake Dance as leaves fall, but the active growing season is winding down in a wet welter of falling foliage and coloured collapse.

Fireweed (Epilobium) foliage in gorgeous decline

Fireweed (Epilobium) foliage in gorgeous decline

The close of the gardening season is the beginning of Serious Writing Season. From October to March is an ideal time to write. Darkness comes early and there are few outdoor diversions. The writer can go into her cave and create. So is this writer doing that? Not really. After a hot critiquing session last week I’m busy with revisions to one of my novels, muttering and grousing all the way.

A new word (for me) has been added to the list of Words To Avoid: was. A 3-letter word that’s ever so useful. I’ve had little trouble getting rid of “-ly” words, “some,” “just” and even “that.” But “was?” Just try writing a descriptive paragraph in past tense without using it. And I refuse to create elaborate word-structures to substitute for it. Hence the muttering and grousing. My solution in situations where a supposed Writer’s Sin doesn’t lend itself to a quick fix is the Delete key. If you can’t fix it, shoot it. Not a bad idea in a novel of 160,000 words.

In a post-crit snit, I started an entire blog post questioning the inherent, passive evil of “was.” But I’m not sure I’ll ever flesh it out into a postable screed that isn’t petty, snit-induced frothing. I have to do some research first. And just because I find stuff on the internet do I have to believe it? Only if it agrees with me. There’s the problem.

The business of revising and rewriting is serious, however. There is a real difference between the niggly, picky business of revising an old work and the white-hot flight of creativity involved in creating a new one. The writer’s brain (this writer’s brain, anyway) is in two entirely different modes, which is why it’s impossible (for me) to alternate a bit of revision with a bit of new writing. It has to be one or the other.

Endless revision is an inherent danger for the author whose works exist only as ebooks, which are infinitely revisable without the natural concluding effect of putting a work into print. I wrote a blog post about this once.

And then there’s blog post writing mode. I’m not sure what that does to the brain, but it’s a distraction from both revision and fresh writing. Which is why this post ends here.