Back When I Could Draw….

Once upon a time, around 1999-2003 or so, I used to be able to draw. I’m out of the habit now, although I still occasionally do an art project. But I’m scanning in some of my old drawings so I’ll have digital copies of them, which is a bit of a trip down memory lane. The two drawings included in this post were done toward the beginning (the tree frog) and end (the hawk) of my first semester of art class at Corydon High School, back in 1999. I have many good memories of learning to shade without scribbling in that class, most of them with a soundtrack of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with many good conversations with my friends and with our awesome art teacher.

Something I learned in that class about drawing, I’ve also learned to apply to my writing: if you try to put a drawing together by drawing and shading each part perfectly, you’ll end up with a distorted (if well-shaded) image, essentially impossible to fix (short of erasing the whole thing and starting over). The same applies to writing a book – at least, in my experience. If you painstakingly perfect every scene as you go, you might end up with beautiful sentences or passages, but the pacing is terrible and the plot is too thin in places and too overdone in others. And you can’t just pull it apart and stick it back together so easily, because moving those lovely sentences into a different context usually takes all the power out of them. Having learned this the hard way, I compare my writing strategy these days to the process of drawing:

002 First, you sketch the outline. The outline is rough, vague, and leaves out the details and the shapes the shading is going to fill in. Then you write your rough draft, which is like the first pass at shading a drawing – get your contrast set up where you need it by filling in your darkest darks and marking off where your lightest lights will be, making sure all your proportions (pacing) are right. The second draft is blending – smooth it out, shade in your grey areas, and get rid of the pencil marks left over from your sketch. And in your third draft, you perfect your details, clean up, and bring out anything that needs sharper focus or more definition.

So that is how my art teacher from 16 years ago taught me both how to draw and how to write novels. Further proof, as if we needed it, that one kind of creativity informs another.

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yWriter 5, and Why I Might Become an Outliner

Thorough outlining is not generally my thing.  My attitude is usually more like, “Well, this is a cool storyline, and I know where I want it to end up.  Here’s a couple cool things that could happen in the middle.  Let’s connect the dots!!!”  But.  It’s very hard to pace an entire novel with the by-the-seat-of-your-pants method.  It can be done (though probably not in a first draft, unless you’re the Mozart of novelists), if you’re willing to tear the entire thing apart and put it back together a bunch of times.  But.  I’d like to make it a little easier on myself for the second Underworld novel, especially since there will be multiple points of view involved.  It was hard enough keeping things on track with just Erica, let alone the crazy-ass hooligans who’ll show up in Book II!

So I’m using yWriter 5, a free program by Spacejock Software for novel outlining.  What, good ol’ pen and paper isn’t good enough anymore? you ask.  Index cards were good enough when your mother started HER second novel, you sneer.  But, dear reader, it was my mother who told me about the yWriter Project, so…dear reader, kindly shut yer gob.  (J/K, you know I love y’all!)  Point being, yWriter is pretty sweet.  It seemed a little complex and overly-detailed to me when I first started playing around with it, but now that I’m really trying to get this novel laid out, I’m seeing the usefulness of all of the program’s tools and reports.

Example 1:  You can rate each scene’s relevance to the main plot, as well as its humor and tension level.  Then you can look at a chart of all your scenes and see how the flow of your plot builds, the build-up and release of tension, and the ebb and flow of humor throughout the course of the novel.  If there’s no forward movement of the plot in the entire middle section of the book, you’ll see it visually right away.  If you have no tension in the first section of the book, you’ll see it in the chart.  And if the first half of the book is funny and the second half is pure tension and anguish, you’ll know you need to fix that before you plunge into full-on writing.  Example 2:  Characters, locations, & items.  Especially for a series, this is great.  You add characters to the file and then add them to whatever scenes they appear in (and which scenes are from their viewpoint).  Since your character descriptions, biographies, goals, alternate names, etc. (you can even load a photo or drawing into their  file) are clickable from the outline, it’s easy to keep everyone’s stories straight (no pun intended) and everyone’s hair/eye color in mind (don’t you hate when you mix them up?)  You can also put in specific locations and items, each in their own separate files within your project – again, helping you keep your details straight, or reminding you of settings that your characters might need to return to, avoid, etc.  Nifty!  You can also pull up a report to see how many scenes each character appears in, which is a great early-warning signal that somebody might be trying to hijack the book to be All About Them when it isn’t.

Of course, nothing ever goes as outlined – I know once I get started, a billion things will shift around and run off in different directions and go at a different pace than I wanted…but that’s the fun part!  I like writing best when my stories surprise me with being more awesome than I could ever have planned on purpose!

What Day is This? Saturday? Tuesday? Wednesday.

Having successfully completed another semester of school, and not having posted anything on my blog in that entire semester, on this first day of my summer break, it seems like a good idea to update.

My writing life has felt very much on hold for the past four months, but when I think about it, I did make some progress.  I got 5 rejections from agents for my Erica Flynn novel (3 of those in the same day, which is a first for me).  I converted my 50,000-word rough draft from NaNoWriMo 2010  into a reasonable working outline.

Now that I have all summer free (well, free aside from my job and my assistance in the archaeology lab on campus) my brain is turning to questions about new project options.  Should I finish outlining the unwritten 2/3 of the events of my NaNo 2010 project?  Should I draft something new?  And if I draft something new, which of my new ideas should I work on – or how can I combine all of them into one cohesive novel?  Should I outline first, and then write a draft of a new book?  Or should I wing it, NaNo style, but spread it out over 3 months instead of just one?

It popped into my head this morning that it would be sort of fun to do a complete outline of a book every day for a week, no holds barred on going over the top with the plot or being silly about it.  As a rule, I get a lot more out of nonsense than I do over-planning and being too serious with my work.  It might be a good way to loosen up and shake some inspiration loose!  Maybe I’ll do one tomorrow and my next post will be about how it turns out.

Decisions, Decisions

I used to write blindly – no idea where a piece was going, what length I was shooting for, what type of story or book it was going to be, what the storyline actually was…nothing planned.  While the spontaneity had its perks, I rarely finished anything.  These days, I do free writes from time to time, writing whatever comes to mind, as a way to purge, as a brainstorming tool, to make connections and associations – in short, to get the advantages of spontaneity without the commitment to making it be a story.

And when I sit down to a project, I know what I want from it.  I don’t plan for every turn of events, don’t outline beyond a rough arc and a few spots of tricky or intricate turns, but I do have some idea of how I want things to end up, and a few of the places I want the story to go through along the way.  I also tend to decide, ahead of time, on what kind of story I want to be writing.  Not necessarily genre (my stuff tends to be weird amalgamations of bent genres fused together into its own thing), but I’ll have in mind, say, High Concept Zany Adventure, With Funny Bits In.  (That would be The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, by the way.)  Or Uplifting Post-Apocolyptic Story, With Rabbit.  (Short story in progress, as well.)

For me, setting a few ground rules actually opens up possibilities rather than limiting my ideas.  Having a direction, something to aim for, makes me look at the broad horizon of the storyline as a whole, rather than plugging along paragraph by paragraph, missing the forest for the trees, working only with what I have written rather than looking at what I can write next.

There are many times I find myself borrowing metaphors from the process of making visual art as a way to look at writing.  The worst part of starting any art project, for me, is the blank page.  Endless possibility is weirdly inhibiting.  Blocking off a few shapes helps you start looking at what you do know needs to go into the piece.

Having a little definition, really knowing what you want a piece to be, goes a long way – at least for me.  If I have a clear sense of what I’m aiming for, everything starts to flow.  I know what kind of things I want to have happen, what fits, what won’t, what I need to happen and how to make it work with the tone instead of against it, where some relief is needed if the story is getting to heavy or where some darkness is necessary if it’s getting too silly and off-the-wall.

So I will keep doing free writes when I’m stuck, need ideas, or am between projects, but I will also set some clear markers for myself when I sit down to really work on something…because that’s how I get things done.

Friday Exercise – 3 Changes, 3 Complications

Write down three major life changes – stuff like moving, losing a job, getting a divorce, etc.  Whatever three come to mind for you.  Now write down three complications to successfully making these three transitions – can’t get a buyer for the house, no jobs available in the character’s field, ex gets stalky.

Now start an outline for a book, because this will be too much plot to fit into a short story, most likely.  And going along with the three things theme, you could work in a list of actions your character takes to try to fix each of your complications, a list of three supports that help your character, a list of the reasons why the first three things came to be, a list of the outcomes for each of the three initial problems.

Personally, I’m already off on a mental tangent about how the house is haunted and that’s why no one will buy it, and the character’s old job field was a miserable drain on his energy and in his efforts to sell the house he does a bunch of remodeling on it and makes it gorgeous and becomes a professional home renovator and loves it, and decides to keep his now-beautiful house, and his stalky ex-wife gets attacked by the ghosts when she sneaks in through the basement one night and…see, this exercise will totally give you ideas!  So go do it.

Mapping a Novel

I don’t know of anything more difficult about novel-writing than pulling off multiple story arcs.  I don’t mean a main plot plus a subplot or three, which can be a little tricky – I mean when you have an ensemble cast of major characters, for all of whom you have to shape a transformative change worthy of a novel-length storyline.

Personally, this is one thing I can’t do without an outline – at least a rough one – to guide me and help me keep track of the big picture.  It’s easier to keep everything in mind with a concise reference to help solidify it.  Plus, it gives me an excuse to color-code everything, which means I get to use markers or colored pencils, which is always a plus, IMHO.

In a way, it’s easiest if I think of it as a map of the book, rather than an outline, and I have to plan a route for each character to reach the destination of the climax, whether that’s the same place for two or more of them, or totally separate towns.  Then it’s just a matter of travel planning so I know what they’ll encounter on their journey.  Physical battles?  Confrontation with someone they thought was an ally?  An abrupt and ugly revelation about him/her self?  What do I want each person’s story to be about?  How can I bring them to their finest moment within that?  How can I bring them to their worst impasse or their ultimate failure within it?  And of course, where do the different characters’ paths cross?  Do they trip each other up, or spur each other on?  In what ways, and why?

Metathesiophobia – The Fear of Making Changes

Monday is my day for writing about the actual process of writing and revising.  And today I’m going to use it to vent about my revision process, because I’m in the stage of rewriting where you just look at your notes with the same numb horror that grips you when you see a particularly nasty car accident, except that you also occasionally bang your head on your desk and moan.  (Fellow writers, please tell me you have these kinds of days, too…?  Otherwise I have to question my sanity, and I don’t really want to.)

My notes, at least, are very organized.  I read through my NaNo draft a couple weeks ago and made a detailed page-by-page rundown of any problems I found – from awkward dialogue to gaping plot holes – and finished up with a set of observations about overall issues with the book as a whole.  Then I went through the notes with four colors of highlighter – (1) needs research, (2) needs additional material, (3) dropped thread / follow up, and (4) needs clarity / flesh out.  Any problems not in those categories are pretty much too small for me to care about at this point.  My philosophy is:  Fix the big stuff first.  Usually you’ll fix a lot of smaller stuff without meaning to in the process.

So, in a way, I know what to do next – my research, cut and combine some characters, re-outline with my dropped plot points and new character set in mind, and do some writing exercises to acquaint myself better with some of the characters and their backgrounds.

What makes it overwhelming is the scope of the book.  With so many characters and such a vast amount of information I need to convey to the reader within the first 1/4 of the book, the necessity of pinning the events down while keeping the feel of the plot fluid for the reader, and a hella lot of complications, it’s a lot for one brain to keep track of.  It doesn’t help that my last book was a very focused first person POV, and now my writer muscles have to readjust to the different gravity of working in third person omniscient narration.

Woe is me.  But these are the times when a writer must buckle down and start the daunting task in spite of being overwhelmed by it.  If I need to, I will break out the colored pencils and DRAW the threads of the plotline as they move around each other and then converge and resolve.  Sometimes a brain does not want to think in words anymore, even when it is a writing brain.

Right now, anything that will get my head around this plot is my friend.

Forcing the Issue

Anyone who’s ever written a novel (or a solid number of short stories) knows that there are times when the story or the character(s) just won’t go the way you want them to.  I’m not talking about those times when you feel like you’re unable to pull off a scene, when you feel like your writing skills are simply not up to the task at hand.  I mean the times when the story or the characters or a single character start veering away from what you had in mind for them, when a story takes on its own direction, or when a character develops a mind of his/her own.

I realize this kind of thing probably has a psychological explanation rooted in the subconscious, but I still think of it as “the story taking over” or “[character’s name] refusing to cooperate”.  Sometimes, when I feel like I, as the writer, have lost control over the events and people I’m writing about, it’s exciting and fun, and I get much better results than my original plan would ever have yielded.  Other times, I fight tooth and nail to get my characters back under my thumb and do any number of awful things to them in order to make them do what they’re supposed to do for the story.

Some writers hate rampant character takeovers and the story not going as planned, arguing that it’s plain sloppy not to reign in your characters and stick to the plot you set out to write.  Other writers thrive on the anarchy of their characters and the chaos of possible plot turns that even they didn’t expect when they sat down to write a particular story, and the argument on that side of the question is that you leave room for a dynamic, exciting story and characters who are true to themselves rather than slaves to a pre-planned set of actions to move the plot along.

Now, I think both sides have a point.  Sticking too much to an outline or a plan can be boring and, worse, get you stuck.  Making a character do something whether it feels right when you’re writing it or not usually means that it doesn’t make sense, on some level, that he/she would do what you’re telling your readers he/she is doing.  That means you either need to give the character the reigns and do things his/her way, replanning your story accordingly, or you need to have external forces (events and other characters) push that character in the direction you need him/her to go.  Which of those do you pick?  Whichever one makes the story better.

Then there are times when a writer gives too much leeway to a character, and the character ruins the story.  Sometimes it’s because the character isn’t appealing to the reader.  Or the character is too obviously appealing to the writer (*cough* Lestat *cough*).  Or the character has no clear goals or direction, but is just running around doing stuff.  Or the character takes things too far off track to be in line with the overall plot.  Again, sometimes you have to force the issue and make the character want what you need him/her to want – and you don’t do that simply by having them do what you want when it feels wrong for them to be doing it.  You have to use the power at your disposal, as the writer, as the god of your story world, to affect your character in a way that will get the reaction you need from them.

There are so many external factors that can affect a character’s choices.  From weather conditions to family drama, physical danger to a touching observation of a stranger’s troubles, an unexpected break to the anguish of loss – there are so many ways to push and pull at a character, and by using those tools, you not only get your character where you need him/her to be, but you make him/her more accessible to the reader, too.  You reveal a lot about someone by showing what gets to him/her.  You might even make the reader fall in love with your character by doing so.

Reflections on NaNoWriMo 2010

I have mixed reactions to my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short, NaNo for shorter).  For those who are unfamiliar with it, the idea is to write 50,000 words or more in 30 days or fewer.  Generally, it’s advised to write at least 1667 words per day (which will get you to the 50,000 goal if you stick to it every day in November).

My preparations for NaNo were woefully inadequate for helping me get through the month’s word count.  I know there are some writers who wing it in November and do just fine, but, although I shy away from a strict outline process in favor of spontaneity, I have a lot of trouble holding the middle of a novel together during my first stab at it.  Without a clear sense of how things get from point A to point C, my brain goes into a death spiral of doubt, confusion, obstinacy, and just plain childish frustration.  Normally, I can take a step back and spend a few days working out the big picture before I have to force the story on toward a conclusion, giving me a chance to regroup, as it were, and find the logic of the next few steps – like looking at the whole chessboard before you make your move.

In the frenzy of NaNo, there was no way I was going to have the leisure to take such a tactical approach – the whole point, as I understand it, of NaNo is to push yourself and trust the process to produce its own results in the long haul of the month.  So, I pushed myself and watched to see what would happen.  I don’t feel I’ll know exactly how much or how little I got out of the NaNo approach until I start my rewrites (not anytime in the next two weeks, at least, I’ll tell you!) but I will list some of the pros and cons as I see them now, in the immediate aftermath:

  • + I have an entire rough draft of a novel that didn’t exist a month ago
  • – I have a great deal of housework, shopping, and errands to catch up on after neglecting all other aspects of my life for a month
  • + I discovered some character vulnerabilities and inner conflicts that I never would have thought of if I’d sat around trying to come up with them, but in desperation to find something to churn out words about, I essentially stream-of-consciousnessed them into existence
  • + I found unplanned and unexpected characters and subplots that will contribute a great deal to the main storyline, which if I hadn’t been in a hurry to get a word count out, I would’ve refused to add in out of fear of further complicating an already complicated novel
  • – I felt mostly like a crazy person through the better part of last month
  • – This is the worst rough draft I’ve ever written.  It’s not cohesive in the least, has almost no middle, and isn’t even in any kind of order.  I think I could’ve done a much better job on it if I’d had more time to think it out
  • + I have the basics of the entire plot laid out, and I feel like the middle will be much easier to fill in now that I know exactly how the book ends (I wrote the final scene on my last day of NaNo)
  • + I feel like a superhero for having accomplished this insane feat!

Looking over those, I think the pros far outweigh the cons, although I doubt I would’ve said that a week ago, in the throes of whiny inner-artiste agony and despair and with almost no food in the house because there wasn’t time to shop and do my word count.

All in all, it was worth a month of feeling sideways, living cooped up in my own head, being out of touch with almost everyone in the world, and never really being able to relax.  Yes, it was hard work, and yes, I felt stressed out and at times seriously questioned my sanity and adulthood because of how crappy I felt being stuck at home all the time.  But one month of suffering is well worth having a great starting point for a novel I’ve wanted to write for the past twelve years.  Not to mention the ego boost of finishing.  Ha!

Looking Ahead

I’m curious to see how awful the editing process will be after I get the rough draft of my NaNoWriMo novel finished.  Writing an entire draft in a single month sounded crazy to me at first, but (at least with a pre-plotted concept) it’s going surprisingly well for me.  If the second draft rewrites are Hell on Earth, maybe this won’t become a regular practise for me, but if I find that the rewriting is no worse than usual, this is going to become my novel-writing method from now on!

Granted, all I do other than write and work right now is sleep and eat (not at the same time, thankfully (yet)) but one month out of the year is well worth it if I come out of that month with a novel to show for it.

I’m not sure what the point of all of this is, since normally my posts center around some kind of observation on the process itself, a method that has worked for me, or a brainstorming method.  Troubleshooting, as it were, for the writing and editing processes.  I’ll try to keep that up, but most of my mental energy right now is going straight to the pages of my book, so the blog may suffer in November.

So, I’m sorry for the brain-dead post, but that’s all I’ve got right now.  I’m zapped!