Lament for NaNo and How to Raise a Story Once it Hatches

It’s NaNoWriMo starting today – the marathon of National Novel Writing Month – and I can’t reasonably participate this year due to school.  I’m sad about that, in spite of the fact that last year, my first NaNo, I felt half-crazy by the end of November from trying to churn out 2000 words per day.  If I hadn’t gone back to college, the plan was that this year I’d write Book Two of the trilogy I drafted the first book of last NaNo, and next year I’d do Book Three.

As it is, I will go half-crazy by the end of November due to schoolwork combined with trying to make ends meet to pay my December rent and bills, so writing needs to be my pressure valve, not an additional stressor.  I am writing, here and there, in bits and pieces, as I mentioned a few posts back.  More, actually, than I was writing over the summer, when I was trying to figure everything out ahead of time instead of just writing what occurred to me and letting it take me on a tour to see if I wanted to buy the property and fix it up.

One of my favorite things about writing, I realized yesterday, is just finding a new voice, a tone that interests me.  I love when I start writing something and it starts to sound like someone else, when it starts to evoke a feeling and a style and images that aren’t stated outright, but are clearly present.  For me, that’s always been the point where I know I have a character I can work with, a setting I can stroll around in and watch the events of the plot unfold.  If I feel like I’m tuning into a frequency that’s channeled through me, instead of like I’m forcing words to act like blocks I can build into something, then I feel at home in a story.  I want to write more.  I want to go there when I’m sad, when I’m frustrated, when I’m lonely, when I need to unwind, and, yes, when I want to celebrate, too.

And I don’t know exactly what gets me there.  Partly, it’s just a matter of, as I said, giving the piece a chance.  Starting to put it to paper, allowing it to stretch and breathe and move around without trying to shape it too much.  Then starting to see potential, introducing new elements, or figuring out what causes and effects are playing around the moment.  Once you start finding threads of cause and effect, if the voice has kicked in, you’re gold.  You can play around and find what connects to what or whom, find infinite possibilities, and then start picking the best and most interesting ones to work with.

The worst mistake I think you can make on a rough draft that’s starting to have its fledgling voice, that’s starting to take off in this way, is to worry about the grammar.  Grammar is for later.  It is the killer of baby stories that can’t fly on their own yet.  Nobody likes things that kill baby animals.  If you find your inner grammarian slavering for a feast of sweet downy feathers of fledgling story, shush it and promise it that when that nest of darling possibilities grows up big and strong, it will make a much better meal.  Then lock your inner grammarian in its kennel and go back to work.  Let the voice be what it is, especially if you’re using first person or an intimate third person perspective.  How much grammar needs to be fixed and how much is acceptably artistic choice for setting a tone is not something you need to work out on the first draft.  In general, my advice for rough drafts is:  Don’t complicate it.  Don’t make anything harder on yourself than it needs to be.  Have FUN with your first draft.  Writing is fun.  Editing is work (sometimes fun, sometimes not), but writing is fun.

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5 Tips on Dialogue

  1. If you haven’t heard yet, dialogue tags – he said’s and she said’s – are best kept minimal.  Use other methods of making it clear who’s talking:  distinct speech patterns, word choices, accents, etc.; gestures or actions; dialogue that only one character would say (you know the blunt one is the one who made the rude comment, the peacemaker character is the one apologizing for it, and the stranger is the one reacting, for example).
  2. Make it realistic.  I don’t care how dramatic it sounds, if it’s something no one would say in real life, don’t have someone say it in your book.  If it sounds like something out of a cheesy movie when you read it out loud to yourself, you need to rewrite it, unless you have a drama queen (or king) on your hands in the form of a character, in which case other characters need to roll their eyes so your readers don’t have to.
  3. Even in fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, etc., bear the above in mind.  Yes, people speak differently at different time periods or imaginary representations of different time periods.  Regardless, stilted dialogue is a turn-off to most readers, and it’s all the more important to make it sound natural, even if the word choice is more formal or more slang-ridden than what you’d get in a mainstream novel.  Fantasy with cornball dialogue is a particular annoyance of mine, referred to as “forsoothly fantasy”, because it makes me embarrassed to associate any of my own work with the genre.  Don’t ruin it for me, okay?  I want to be proud of what I write.
  4. Always read your dialogue aloud to yourself at some point in your writing process.  Even if you have to mutter it under your breath because you write in a library or a coffee shop, you need to check out how your dialogue sounds.  You’ll catch phrases that no one would really say, sentences that are too long or complex for dialogue, dialogue that’s slipping into narration and needs to be broken up with interruptions or needs to be more conversationally phrased…all kinds of things that can slip by unnoticed if you’ve never read your dialogue aloud.
  5. Never forget that you can skim over the boring parts of an exchange between characters.  Yes, in real life, we greet and ask, “How are you,” back and forth a couple times and ask about basic stuff like the weather and so on to get a conversation started.  In a book, you can just say, They exchanged greetings, bantering about the heat of the summer before Bob finally said, “So, what’s the news on this ‘Rest Stop Killer?'” or whatever.  See, right to the point, and you got a little detail in there as well.

An Oft-Neglected Element

It’s funny how easy it is to forget to mention certain sensory details, whereas others come out automatically.  Most of us go for visual description as our primary focus, with auditory details as a close second, touch being prominent mostly during scenes of sex or violence, with smell barely mentioned and taste almost forgotten.  Granted, it’s hard to separate taste and smell, since if one is mentioned the other is generally implied.

But even within the confines of visual and auditory elements, there is, in fiction in general, a woeful disregard for the atmospherics of weather.  It’s so much a part of our daily setting.  It can color our mood, affect our decisions for what to do with our day, change the dynamics of a conversation.  It changes the feel and flavor of the air, the smells that carry or get washed away, whether we listen to birdsong or rainfall all afternoon.  It can be soothing, frightening, frustrating, or blissful.

How the weather affects people can be anything from a home destroyed by a tornado or a flood to road rage from not having AC in the car, from draught affecting crops to seasonal depression.  A sudden thunderstorm could interrupt a lover’s spat, reuniting the couple as they run for cover together, forgetting their differences just long enough to realize the whole argument is unimportant compared to their mutual affection and respect for one another.  A hot summer day can sizzle away at a frustration until it festers into murderous rage.  A cool rain can bring relief and cleansing on a dusty, dry garden.  A snowstorm can trap a group of travelers, blocking their progress.  Torrential storms can force someone to pull off the highway, giving him time that maybe he’d rather not have to think about what he just said to his mother.  A clear, starry night can make a character feel small and insignificant and lost – or like she belongs to a larger whole, freeing her from the worries of the moment.

People talk about the weather, gripe about it, relish it, go out in it, stay in because of it, take shelter from it, survive it.  Writers, take note, and USE IT!

Friday Exercise – Wish List

Make a list of 5 elements you know you want in your next story (or book).  If you know what tone you want, a few of your main characters’ traits, whether you want first or third person narration, what genre you want, where you want to set it or what kind of setting you’d like to use.  For example:

  1. three friends as the central characters
  2. lots of humor and banter in the narration and dialogue
  3. scenic setting…maybe on a journey of some kind?
  4. adventures and mishaps, and maybe a battle with a tin of pineapple?
  5. a dog

And that example is pulled from Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, by the way, which is the funniest thing ever written.

Think of it as sort of a wish list for your story.  List more than 5 things…list as many things as you can come up with.  Fill in the details.  You want to write something that will fit into the steampunk genre?  Okay, so which established elements of steampunk do you want, and how is your story a little different?  How can you take an element of it a little further, give it a twist, or focus on an area that’s been overlooked before?  You want an exotic setting.  Otherworld or real-world exotic?  If it’s the real world, pick a place you’ve always wanted to know more about, or that you’ve visited, and do some research.  If it’s otherworldly, are you going for futuristic, alternate history, another planet, science fiction, or fantasy?

The point is to aim for what you’re excited about writing, and then get you asking and answering questions to focus your sights.

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.

Repetition & Context

This is my 100th post on this blog.  Happy milestone, blog!

And my content sort of goes along with milestones, or at least perspective shifts.  I’ve always admired writers who can repeat a phrase or an image throughout a piece, and have a fresh impact and a new meaning each time.  Well, I admire writers who pull it off.  When it’s overdone or ineffective, it’s just annoying and feels like the writer is trying too hard.

But I love it when the context alters or colors the meaning of a repetition.  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is one fine example, particularly in Slaughterhouse 5, with the phrase, “So it goes,” with its often-depressing, sometimes-funny, frequently-both-at-the-same-time effects.  Chuck Palahniuk employs repeat phrases with transformational meanings in every book I’ve read by him, good examples being Invisible Monsters and Lullabye, as well as his best-known Fight Club.

It’s a technique often used in song lyrics, with the words of the chorus shifting tone based around the context of each verse, but the absolute masters of such lyrical games, in my opinion, are a pop band, actually.  Barenaked Ladies (none of whom are women, incidentally) have used plays on repetition throughout their discography, but the song that first comes to mind for me is Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel, which opens with the words:

Driving home to be with you
The highway’s dividing, the city’s in view
As usual, I’m almost on time
You’re the last thing that’s on my mind

As song lyrics go, this is also a telling and subtle characterization of a narrator and his attitude about his relationship, by the way.  Anyway, the rest of the song details his subsequent death on the highway, and after a few hints here and there within the death scene regarding things unsaid, the song closes with a multiple repetition of the line “You’re the last thing on my mind.”  And it means something completely different now.  I love it.  We’ve gone from simple self-absorbancy to existential finality in less than 3 minutes.  Beautiful.

Anyway, it’s a weapon to wield carefully, and probably only after enough training that you won’t hurt yourself with it, but when it works, it’s dynamite.

Friday Exercise – The Tool of Music

I’ve probably mentioned on this blog before that what music I listen to can really color the tone of what I’m working on – and so while I’m actively writing, I pick my music very carefully, or don’t listen to any at all.  It gets to be sort of Pavlovian, too – a certain song or type of music will become associated with what I’m working on, and anytime I hear it, I’m in Writer Mode all of a sudden, ready to dig straight in.

I like picking out “soundtracks” – Hey, this song would be perfect for that scene where so-and-so happens, if they ever make a movie of my book!  And sometimes I’ll get an idea for a scene from listening to a song and daydreaming – I’ll start to picture action or dialogue that fits somehow with the music, or some emotion will well up in the piece that makes me realize some new level of what one of my characters might feel at a given point in the story.

For me, music is a great brainstorming tool at any point in my writing process, from the initial spark of, “Ooh, I have an idea for a story!” to “OMG!!!  I KNOW HOW IT ENDS!!!!!!”

So this week’s exercise is this:  Listen to a song/piece that takes you someplace, through emotion or connotation or whatever, and explore it.  Daydream or free write, whatever works best for you.  What could it mean to one of your characters?  If there are lyrics, would they become ironic in association with your imagined scene, or no?  Does the emotion of the music reflect a particular character’s attitude, or the story as a whole?  Are there multiple layers of feeling expressed – upbeat tempo but lots of minor to the melody?  Where there’s dissonance and resolution, what does that speak to in the story – again, is that how one character feels in the scene, or is that a clash between characters?  Maybe this works best for musicians – I play guitar, myself – but I would think it would work for any writer who likes music!

Fancy Meals and Rewrites

My Wednesday posts have been about marketing for the past couple of months.  Since my own marketing is currently on hold while I punch up the first part of my book (the better to appeal to potential agents), “marketing” is, at the moment, equating to “rewriting” in my mind.

I’ve been thinking a lot about presentation – not in terms of query letters or synopsis writing this time – but in terms of sample material:  the first 50 pages of the book, and even more vitally, the first 5 pages.  Don’t get me wrong; my ego hasn’t failed me entirely.  I think the first 50 pages of my book is good material.  But from an objective point of view, if I didn’t know the rest of the book or what was coming next, I can see that it doesn’t look like the book it later becomes.  It looks like a different kind of book entirely, and if my query letter promised something that sparked an agent’s interest, and then the opening wasn’t what they expected based on my query, it makes sense that they’d turn the book down.

It’s sort of like how gourmet meals are “all about the presentation”.  If you’re going to serve an Italian main course, for example, then maybe a German appetizer isn’t going to give your clientele the right impression about what’s coming next.  Maybe if your thing is eclectic world fusion cuisine, you should present that from the very first dish, no matter how good that Spanish tapas dish might be as a starter course.

So it is with writing.  The flavor doesn’t have to be identical all the way through (how boring would that be, in a 5-course meal or in a novel?), but it should have some consistent elements right from the start.

A Rant About Dialogue Tags

Currently, I’m going through The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, working on polishing up the (hopefully) final draft.  One of my missions is to tighten up the writing and trim the word count a bit–it stands at 105,000 words in its third draft.  To make it more concise, I’m cutting unnecessary or generic words and phrases wherever I find them.  In the first six chapters (it’s forty-something total) I’ve already cut a thousand words.  A thousand unnecessary or generic words?!?  How did I let that happen?!

Some of the generics that I over-used are “at the moment,” “just”, “kind of”, “sort of”, and “sometimes.”  Qualifiers.  Things that weaken the words around them.  Now, in some cases, I kept these words and phrases in the text.  The reason being, children, that Erica is a first person narrator, and consequently I have to keep the voice and style of the narration in keeping with her casual personality.  It’s conversational, so the narrative almost becomes dialogue.  I’m trying to keep enough of that in to maintain that tone without wasting the readers’ time or undermining the strength of what’s being conveyed.

The main culprit of word waste, however, is dialogue tags.  Dialogue tags!  Fie on ye!

He saids and she saids are killers of scenes.  They drag at the dialogue they’re attached to, weighing it down.  They’re repetitious and often distracting, especially if they come after every line.  Every writer who’s ever been critiqued knows to try to work around them wherever possible.  You put in actions and gestures instead.  Facial expressions.  Tone of voice.  Use word choice and such to make it obvious who is speaking which lines even without tags.

I’m not generally bad about putting tags in where I don’t need to, but damn, have I caught a lot of them in the first six chapters of my book!  O editor, edit thyself!  The worst thing is, I even put in all that other stuff – action, gesture, expression, etc – to clearly indicate the speaker and then put the dialogue tags in anyway!!!  So now I’m hacking them out again, and looking over it afterward, it reads so. much. better.

Learn, children, from my mistake.  Do not do everything right to avoid overuse of dialogue tagging and then tag the damn dialogue anyway.  You will save yourself hours of tedium by avoiding the fate that I have brought upon myself this day.

Point of View

In my last post, I wrote about getting details and subtleties across when your narrator doesn’t actually take note of them.  It’s a much bigger issue for a novel or story written in the first person than a piece written in third person – which has me thinking about the pros and cons of writing in first person.

How do you decide what perspective to use for telling your story – especially a novel, where your commitment is long-term?

With The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I had very strong reasons for telling the story directly from Erica Flynn’s point of view.  With the novel I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo this November (working title as yet undecided), I have just as many reasons to write from third person perspective.

The first deciding factor, for me, is whether the main plot is one person’s story.  Of course, each of your characters thinks it’s their own story, but you know better.  You’re the writer.  All your characters should have depth, and the more development you can show of a range of your characters, the better.  If, at its core, though, the story is one character’s tale, then it can be told from a first person point of view.  If the story hinges on multiple people, then you most likely don’t want to limit yourself to one person’s viewpoint.

First person’s advantages are many.  It’s highly personal, and although you can do deep third person in which the characters thoughts and ideas and feelings are there in full detail (read Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment), there is something about a narration from your main character that just doesn’t come through any other way – like someone is telling the reader their own story.  It gives your main character this quality of being a real person communicating directly to your reader.  It also allows for characterization through the narration – your word choices, the details mentioned, the style of the writing, all contributes to your reader’s sense of your character.  This was a huge part of writing my Erica Flynn novel – she’s a spunky, casual, humorous character, and I wanted that tone to color the whole book.  It seemed only natural to have her tell it, and let the tone flow from the character herself.  The personal nature of first person perspective was a factor, too – particularly since I kill Erica in the first chapter.  It’s a bigger deal for the reader when the narrator tells you she’s going to be dead in a few pages than when it’s just some character – the assumption would be that this character won’t matter soon, and reader interest in that character therefore wanes.  That’s just the opposite of what I needed the reader to feel at that point.  I wanted the reader to be like, “Holy crap!  I just met this girl, and now she’s telling me she’s going to die by the end of this chapter??”

I love anything that plays on unreliable narration (when your narrator lies, distorts the facts, omits details, or is oblivious to things that are obvious to the reader).  Chuck Palahniuk uses unreliable first person narrators in most of his books, Wilkie Collins frequently uses a collection of first person narrators in his novels (each with very different takes on the facts!), and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is written from the point of view of a man who’s so twisted that he can barely tell when he’s lying and when he’s not anymore.

Obviously, first person has its limitations.  It’s difficult to break to another point of view if you need to, it can be a real struggle to maintain voice and character consistency while still conveying the information necessary to the story, and it limits the focus of the story.  Granted, sometimes that’s what you want (in the case of the Erica Flynn novel, I wanted to keep the scope narrow and simple).  There’s no way I could tell my NaNoWriMo novel from a first person point of view because the scope is enormous and the characters’ development and decisions affect one another far too much for that kind of limitation of perspective.

Choose your point of view wisely, but don’t be afraid to play around with different perspectives or consider changing from one to another if the story isn’t flowing for you!