Archive for the ‘Finnegans’ category

repeating myself repeatedly

February 20, 2012

How many times should the words “for the first time” appear in a 64,000+ word document? Or rather, how many times should they be allowed to appear?

I wanted to add a few lines of text somewhere in the middle of Finnegans Deciphered, the novel-in-progress I’m never quite finished writing. I knew it had to do with Greg Finnegan having a sudden realization about something. For the first time in the story he considered a thought (one he didn’t want to consider, but that’s beside the point here). I knew I had used those very words in the passage where I wanted to make my addition, so I sent Word on the hunt for them.

I found five instances of “for the first time” in the novel manuscript. They are in five very different parts of the novel, well spread among the 64,000 words. I don’t think the casual reader would even notice their repetition, much less find them repetitive. But I was surprised by this little discovery.

Surprised, but not motivated to change any of them. It just left me wondering.

Actually, someone who cared about such things would probably find other, more frequent repetitions in the novel. I use a river as a recurring image in the story. The words “flowing” and “current” and “drifting” and even “backwater” (especially “backwater”) appear several times. And it makes me wonder what other textual habits I have in there that I’m not aware of. I suppose I use the word “though” a lot. Perhaps “perhaps.” Maybe “maybe.” I’m not sure I have an objective-enough eye any longer with this document to be able to spot them.

My beta reader finished her reading. She spotted plenty of typos, and it seems the big revelation at the end (it is a mystery novel after all) was too obvious. So I’ve been doing some work on the story. Mostly it’s just misdirection, but each change gave me an opportunity to enhance the story beyond just fixing it. I’m still looking for ways to add sensory details and to punch up the dialogue. My husband and wife characters, married more than 40 years, ought to have some shorthand in their conversations. They ought to be able to read each others’ minds a bit in order to affect how a conversation between them should be written.

Anyway, do you pay attention to how much you repeat yourself in the stuff you write? Do you have certain words or phrases you find creeping into your work?

Finnegans Deciphered, and collected

January 17, 2012

I’ve passed an important milestone on my journey to complete my novel-in-progress, Finnegans Deciphered. I consolidated all of the chapters into a single document.

For me, that’s a sign that the major writing is now finished. All that remains is tinkering and, of course, wholesale editing and possibly rewriting and hair-pulling frustration and unfocused anguish. But at least the hard part is now behind me!

The final document has swelled by four hundred words since I did my first count of the “finished” novel. That’s the result of my wedging in of late revelations and plot needs, but it’s not the four thousand or fourteen thousand more words I’d feel more comfortable with. The novel barely qualifies as a novel, at least by commonly accepted word-count standards. But I won’t concern myself with such outside standards. I have to be true to the tale I have to tell. Plus, it’s possible that as I do more comprehensive read throughs, I’ll develop this or that plot point or character quirk or even monkey around with the tone and I’ll find more words that need to be said. Or not.

It’s come to seventeen chapters, and seventeen happens to be a significant number in the plot. Nonetheless, I suspect one of those chapters will be split in twain (a possible location for more words to add to the count), so that coincidence of chapter count and plot point won’t survive. That might have been fun to keep, but it also seems a bit twee. (Also, it’s only coincidence that I posted this entry on the 17th of the month.)

So now I’m at the point where I have a whole document “in hand.” That will make for more difficulty finding given places in it that I want to address, but I think I know the story well enough now to be able to navigate it. Perhaps I will print (on paper!) the whole thing and have it literally “in hand.” Then I could carry it and a red pencil to my cabin in the woods for a weekend read-through session. Sounds lovely.

Finnegans Deciphered ~ the progress thusfar

January 2, 2012

I ramble a lot in these blog posts, so maybe I’ve mentioned this before, but I think I am in the end game of my work on Finnegans Deciphered. The little revelations about this or that in the plot have more or less ceased popping into my head. I’m not getting the same understandings of how a given development in the plot ripples through the story any longer. (In fact, I’m beginning to have these insights again about Larger than Life, my fits-and-starts work in progress.) I take all of this as a sign that I’ve pretty much told the story I have to tell, and now I need to polish it. Why, I’ve even begun tinkering with a query letter for the manuscript.

I noted in an earlier post that I had no idea how many words the novel came to or whether I’d need to come up with some subplot to beef it up to “novel length.” And I’d avoided doing an actual word count for a long time because I was afraid of what I would find (or not find). But I whipped up the courage over the weekend to do the math — thanks in part to the frisson of good vibrations that a large glass of iced tea often gives me — and to face the result.

And the result is . . . passable. The word count as it stands today is 61,576, which, I think, meets the minimum for calling my novel a novel. I suspect that there is some fat in that number, that I will need to trim my florid prose a bit in my editing, and that may take me below the 60,000 word threshold, but I also suspect that in my continuous read through, I’ll also discover places where I need to supplement my words and even add bits more to the plot to help it make sense (or in some cases, make less sense since it is a mystery novel of a sort).

Part of my process is to begin a story by tumbling all of my thoughts into a Word file just to see what I have and what suggests itself. As I’m writing, I add to this file just so my stray thoughts and surprising revelations and brilliant insights aren’t lost until I can wedge them into the narrative. Plot points, character development, descriptions, reminders. I have a whole page where I have reworked every single character’s name several times. (Curiously, or maybe not, every single character in my completed novel, The Sleep of Reason, was changed from what I had at the start. Also, no news on the progress of that novel finding an agent, though I am hoping now that the holidays are past I can begin shopping it around again with more hope for attention.) The notes file I have for Finnegans Deciphered stands at about 12,000 words. And that’s just notes. I intend to read through it to see what points I may have missed (or dismissed) that might still find their way into the novel.

Another curious thing, though it retrospect it seems perfectly organic, is that my two main characters, Ann and Greg Finnegan, have taken on lives of their own. I envision a series of novels with them — that had been the goal from the start — but I’m seeing things about their character and their history that I can work in to the other novels. I’m even having a good time imagining an “origins” novel about them. Of course, long-time readers of this blog will know that this is actually my fourth Finnegans novel. The first was apprentice work, from which I intend to steal certain things. The second is a good story that needs an overhaul. The third was lost in a hard drive crash (though I think enough of it survived in email attachments to resurrect it). And now I have the fourth nearly finished. So the Finnegans exist in a world; it’s not surprising to see that they have whole lives and backstories.

So here we are at the start of a new year. I feel as though I am in a good place, which is something to be pleased about (though that might be the iced tea talking).

pencil work

December 19, 2011

I’m at the “pencil work” stage of  my progress with Finnegans Deciphered. I’m picking my way through it, adding this little revelation here, pumping up that bit of dialogue there. Fixing mistakes. I found a missing question mark at one point, for example.

In the story my protagonist, Greg Finnegan, is reading a novel and fearing that there is some subtext to it that he is missing. Resolving that is the whole point of the story, but its real-world analog has me bothered. I feel as though I am marking time, waiting for some subtext about my story to come to me. I fear that the novel is dancing over something deeper that hasn’t yet revealed itself to me. If I keep at it, this thinking goes, the epiphany will come.

Thus the pencil work. The fine tuning. I keep tinkering with it, hoping that something I’ve overlooked will become clear. Does this ever happen to you?

And so I’m in pursuit of a prey that may not be out there. Eventually, I suppose, if I don’t make this vague discovery, I’ll decide that the novel is whole and complete as it is and begin the gargantuan task of preparing it to be shopped around.

I haven’t dared let myself do a word count. I’ve told the story I have to tell (except for the fretting above), and I hope it comes in at the minimum a novel “requires.” But if it didn’t, what would I do? I suppose I could bring in some superfluous subplot. Some red herring, say. (The story fits vaguely into the cozy mystery genre.) Or I could give more background to some of the characters. Or something. But all of that seems contrived and unnecessary.

Well, we do what we can do.

Deciphering my method

November 28, 2011

Well, I’ve pretty much shoe-horned all of my recent revelations into the narrative of Finnegans Deciphered. In recent weeks I’ve been having these realizations pop into my head about how or why some plot or character point must be added, or how I can fine tune the tone or pump up the dialog. I’d been making notes about them as they came to me and then shoved them into the text with each writing opportunity I had. Many of them have been square pegs in round holes, but they were good square pegs.

In more recent days, though, these revelations have stopped coming to me. I take that to mean that I have more or less finished with the “imagining” of this story and am now in my end game. (That’s not to say that I won’t have further insights; I recently made a critically important one-word change to The Sleep of Reason which dawned on me more than a year after I had “finished” writing it.) So I’ve embarked on a complete beginning-to-end read through of the manuscript with the idea that I’m finally polishing the writing and working on one of the “final” drafts. I may be far from this in reality, but it’s nice to think this was for now.

I’ve noted here before that I’m wary of understanding my creative process too much. It seems to work for me, so I want to leave it at that. If I try to scrutinize it, I may slay it. So like a ship on the sea, I ride the waves. (That’s right! I have a graduate degree in metaphor mixing.)

Home again

November 21, 2011

I’m home again after a week in Portland, Oregon visiting my son and new daughter-in-law, which accounts, in part, for why my postings on this humble blog have been so sparse in recent days. Also, I’ve been plugging away at the revisions and revelations I have for Finnegans Deciphered. I’m still wedging these things into the narrative, seeing the implications of each addition, finding where else in the story I must make corresponding or consequential changes, getting fresh insights, and so on. Every bit of it improves the tale and even the telling, but I still have a stack of notes to get through before I feel as though I’ve finished the first draft.

As for Portland, get yourself there! It’s a wonderful, progressive city with a great vibe. Lots of attractions, both urban and natural. Multnomah Falls alone is worth the price of a plane ticket. And if you’re not outdoorsy, Powell’s Books can keep you enthralled for days. Suffice to say that I needed an extra piece of luggage just to haul home all of the books I bought myself there.

So it’s back to the real world for me now, which has its compensations as well.

Bits and pieces

November 6, 2011

I’ve been busy with the structural rework of my WIP, Finnegans Deciphered, in recent weeks. I mentioned before how I decided that my cost-conscious protagonists needed to reduce their time at the bed and breakfast where they are staying over the course of the story, and that has necessitated some changes in the narrative. Events must happen in a proper sequence in the plot, and this bit of rebuilding has meant finding new ways to maintain that sequence.

But there are other things. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t have some revelation about the novel. A can’t happen before B happens, so I need to get B in place. Does he knows C at D point in the story? Have I prepared the reader for that? Am I giving too much away too early? I have ideas about how I might smarten up a bit of dialogue or sharpen up the description of a scene or character.

It’s all useful stuff, and I’m busy wedging it into the plot. Later I’ll give it a comprehensive read through and look for places where the seams are showing. I don’t think these are the kinds of things that I could have foreseen had I written a more elaborate outline of the plot (most of my outlining happens in my head, supplemented with a file of notes many thousands of words long). I’m in the second round of discovery in the writing process, which is fine and is, apparently, my process.

In the meantime, snippets of ideas for other stories and novels continue to present themselves to me, and I note them down duly. One or another of these other projects is likely to achieve critical mass soon, and I’ll know what the next big thing is I’ll need to work on. I’m even having some fresh thoughts about a novel I abandoned twenty years ago. That may get a breath of life yet. I’m grateful for all of it; the ferment is part of what it means to be a writer, I guess.

Curiously, I have not a bit of this happening with my finished novel The Sleep of Reason. I think (hope) I am completely done writing that one. In the last year, I’ve gone back to it only once, and then merely to change one word. It’s an important change; it not only adds to the fundamental mythos of the story, but it provides a critical bit of misdirection early on. What bothers me about this kind of late revelation is that there may be more like it that I’m not seeing. That one-word change I made is hugely obvious in retrospect, and had I not included it, I suspect some keen reader or disappointed editor would have pointed it out. And I would have felt terrible for missing it.

I worry about this kind of tunnel vision a lot. I get so focused on the story I want to tell that I miss the rest of the story that I don’t know also needs telling.

But I press on regardless.

Stand back, I’m researching!

October 25, 2011

Some time ago I posted about the perils of doing first-hand research. I recently undertook the weekend of research I wrote about and lived to tell the tale, so I shall.

The little river town I’m using as a template for the town in my novel is about two hours east of my home in Kansas City. Had it not been for the absolute requirement that we endure a night in a bed and breakfast, we could have easily made a day trip out of it. But this shows the level of my commitment to getting the facts right. Maybe others don’t feel as strongly about this as I do, but I had to follow through.

We arrived in the town at about lunch time and drove to the winery restaurant where my protagonists will have a sunset dinner. Because we arrived on Sunday (we had prior obligations on Saturday or we would have come then) we had to have lunch at the restaurant instead of dinner since it closes at 3:00 p.m. on Sundays. The restaurant is set atop a limestone bluff that soars several hundred feet above the Missouri River valley. The place has floor-to-three-story-ceiling windows that give spectacular views of the valley, the rolling river, the changing fall foliage across a half dozen miles of river valley, and the occasional eagles that floated on the air outside the restaurant. We arrived for brunch and had quiche with side Caesar salads. We also had the sausage and cheese appetizer plate. Plus we each sampled the local wine. It’s all the kind of things my characters do, so we felt obliged to do the same thing as closely as we could. (One of my characters has Cornish hen for dinner, but while that is on the restaurant’s dinner menu, it wasn’t on the brunch menu. Perhaps we’ll have to go back.) As part of my research I bought four bottles of the local wine: two red varieties and two whites. (They wait in my refrigerator for further considered investigation.)

Since we couldn’t check in to our bed and breakfast until 4:00 p.m. we spent several hours wandering the tiny town’s tiny commercial district. There were several antique shops, several art galleries, a general store with a lunch bar (including ice cream that we felt we had to sample), many homes nearly as old as the state itself, more changing fall foliage, and, it turned out, several opportunities to spend several hundred dollars on several gifts for ourselves and others. My characters don’t do that latter business, so I don’t know if my research rigor failed there or not. I suppose I should feel guilty about that lapse, but somehow I don’t.

We eventually checked in to our bed and breakfast, a delightful old bungalow filled with a stocked refrigerator, very good furniture, books, general comforts, and chocolates. What were we to do but sample it all? (My protagonists have an unsatisfactory stay at the fictional B&B I’ve set them in, so I felt a little bad enjoying myself — thoroughly.) The B&B overlooks the famous Katy Trail, a hiking and biking rail-to-trails conversion that is the longest in the country and apparently famed worldwide. My characters rent bikes to ride this trail, but more on that below.

Among the features of the bike trail as it passes through this town is that the only tunnel along the entire route appears there. It was even used when a movie was made of a novel by a famous horror writer. This fact comes up in my novel, and several characters make a wine-soaked visit to the tunnel after dark to look it over. We had other after-dark plans (also more below), so we hiked the trail from our B&B to the tunnel in the early evening, which didn’t amount to a half mile round trip. The tunnel is short, but it is spectacular, and I can see how it would make it into a movie. Along the way we met two cyclists (the little town is full of them) who had just completed a 50+ mile trek on the trail and desperately wanted to find a place to eat. We gave them directions to a diner/bike shop on the other side of “town” (you could see it from where we were standing before the tunnel), and they were grateful.

Our plans (yes, further research) involved being at the winery’s patio just before sunset so we could watch the sun go down across the broad river valley. The winery patio is set atop the bluff (as the winery’s restaurant is), so we drove up there (rather than hike the 1.3 mile trail up there), ordered a bottle of semi-sweet red and a snack basket of cheese and sausage, then settled in and waited for the sun to set as we listened to the live jazz and watched the eagles float by again. While this seems like hedonistic self indulgence, let me assure you it was rigorous, obligatory research. My characters have dinner (Cornish hen) in the fictional restaurant just at sunset. Since we couldn’t do the same, we did the next best thing. The sunset was very nice, though I will doll it up considerably in my story, and when the wine was gone, so were we, heading back to that chocolate-laden bed and breakfast to begin our in-depth pillow research there.

To our surprise, one of the other couples sharing the bungalow with us that evening were the two people we’d met on the bike trail who were ravenous. They had since recovered, having found a double cheeseburger (he) and a wrap (she) at the bike shop diner. One of the things we especially like about staying at a bed and breakfast is visiting with people you’ll never see again. (My protagonists like this too.) You can have rambling conversations about nearly anything at all and not have to worry about it coming back to you in the grocery store or at work. Since we returned to the B&B after dark, I never really saw the husband’s face. (He had hurried by us on the bike trail, and what reason would I have to study his face then? Our earlier conversation was with his wife.) He was outside on the patio, in the dark, drinking some wine (that he had packed those 50+ miles on the trail) and smoking a cigar. I was soon invited to join him, and since my protagonists experience these kinds of random friendships at the B&Bs where they stay, I knew I had to do the same. So he and I sat in the dark under the starry sky, sipping wine and smoking cigars, solving all of the worlds problems and bragging about our children. It’s research, folks. Research.

When the wine ran out and the cigars were finished, we went into the house and retired to our rooms. (Note to self and totally unrelated to novel research: if you’re going to smoke a cigar in the evening, Paul, be sure to brush your teeth before going to bed.) In my experience, the beds in B&Bs are consistently wonderful. I slept well, as will my protagonists, though, for some hateful reason, I awoke at 3:18 and could not fall back to sleep. But the bungalow was quiet then, and I had my iced tea, so I got busy with some rewrites that weren’t going to get themselves done. I think I got three hours of work done before the house awoke. I finally got to see the face of the man who shared his wine and cigars with me. He’s an avid cyclist, retired, and full of a lifetime of stories. The four of us chatted away during breakfast, but they had another 30 miles to cover before their next stop, so they were eager to get on the trail, and we soon parted, likely never to meet again (though it would be nice if we did — and one of my characters does attempt something of this sort, but let me remain vague about that).

We puttered about the house, getting ourselves packed and ready to leave. We still had one more bit of research to get done in town before heading home, but we had to wait until 9:00 a.m. to begin, so we were in no hurry. The time eventually came, so we checked out and drove to the bike shop near the trail head. There we rented two bikes and set out on the trail for an hour’s ride. This is something my characters do as well. I’ve ridden on this trail before, but it was years before, and I wanted a fresh experience of it so it could inform my writing. I think I got it, heading out on the trail for a half hour or so, and then returning. I doubt we covered even five miles round trip, but my protagonists are not cyclists to speak of, so their little adventure would be about the equivalent of that. The mighty Missouri River roils past the trail on this stretch. The bluffs soar overhead. The leaves of late October turn and fall and whisper in the wind. Other cyclists come and go with smiles and cheery greetings. The gravel of the trail crunches under the bicycle tires. The sun feels warm, perhaps for the last time of the season. Life is good and research is rewarding.

Once this was accomplished, we had achieved all I had set out to do. It was hard work, researching in real life like that, but it will make for better story telling. We took two-lane back roads home that afternoon, which tripled the time it took, but interstates are soulless and don’t lend themselves to the kind of reflection a fellow needs.

Word carving

October 10, 2011

A friend of mine is a wood carver. He makes all kinds of things, but his specialty is duck decoys. Not the kind you float on the water to lure in other ducks but the kind you enter is shows and win ribbons for. I have no abilities in physical art. My brain cannot imagine in three dimensions the way some people can. The old joke about carving an Indian from a block of wood has rueful significance for me. How do you carve an Indian from a block of wood? Easy, just remove everything that isn’t Indian.

One of the “sins” in wood carving is doing the detail work before the overall structural work is finished. My friend once showed me a full-sized carousel horse a friend of his was carving. She’d asked him to help her with it. Her problem, my friend told me, was that she had drifted into working on the intricate detail of the saddle when she should have been finishing the macro work on the rest of the horse. She was getting sidetracked and not making the big progress she needed to make. Thus her request for his help.

The same was nearly the case with my work on Finnegans Deciphered. I noted here last week that I’ve had a number of revelations rush into my head recently about major and minor structural fixes the story needs. Some character perspectives need to make complete turns. The sequence of time in the story needs to be changed (and the consequences of this throughout need to be spotted and fixed). An entire chapter needs to be expanded and then chopped into two chapters. I need to bump up the dialog and add more descriptive detail. None of this is surprising, and none of it is insurmountable, but all things in their time.

I found myself wanting to attend to these details rather than finish the last chapter of the story. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t that the detail work would be any easier than writing that last chapter. Indeed, having the end clearly in place (however tentative it might prove to be) would seem to make the rewriting easier and clearer.

I was tempted to do the detail word carving rather than finish the structural work first. But I gave myself a stern lecture about the mistake of this approach and then sat down (in the wee, small hours of Saturday morning) and pushed to the end.

It was satisfying, and I think I’ve come across a sort of signature style to the endings of my Finnegans novels. (This is the fourth Finnegans novel I’ve drafted. The first was apprentice work and good only for stealing bits from. The second is probably worthy but needs some reworking. The third was lost in my hard drive crash of a couple of years ago, but I think I can salvage most of it from email attachments. Always do frequent backups! I can’t say that enough, even to myself!)

So Finnegans Deciphered is whole. Not complete, but whole. I resisted the siren call of detail work and did the right thing. Now the rest of it needs attending to. Step aside, folks. There’s some heavy lifting ahead.

Done! Finished! Complete!

October 8, 2011

Well, not really complete. But I wrote the last word of the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of Finnegan’s Deciphered this morning, and the first draft of the novel is now complete.

I’m currently experiencing the sugar high this moment provides.

Of course I now face the gargantuan job of re-reading and rewriting, with all of the big structural fixes I’ve already identified as necessary and the likelihood of much, much more work that needs to be done that I don’t even know about yet.

But still . . .