Posted tagged ‘fiction’

Winter’s Bone

May 2, 2008

I don’t generally read crime fiction, but I was happy that I made an exception for Daniel Woodrell’s very fine novel Winter’s Bone.

Woodrell writes what he calls “country noir,” which is a category he created for himself because he didn’t want to be known as a mystery writer. Crime is not something exclusive to urban settings, and for the characters in Winter’s Bone, it is a way of life and death.

The story deals with the protagonist’s search for her father, who has missed a court date and used the family home and land as bond collateral. If she cannot find him — or prove that he is dead — her family will be homeless in an unforgiving patch of the world. Her father cooks crank, and in his community he is highly esteemed for this skill. Crank, of course, is methamphetamine, which is a scourge in urban and rural America. But for the people of Woodrell’s novel, it is merely a way to survive.

If the storyline is grim, the writing is like a punch to the stomach. Here is a description of the protagonist: “Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again.” The descriptive metaphor does not let up in this novel, and all of it is harsh. I thought that after a while it became a little too strong, but it was always vivid. And if the plot was a little thin, the characterizations rang true. Woodrell writes like an insider, and he presents a part of America most readers have no knowledge of.

I thought the resolution came about through an unlikely means: the vicious antagonists didn’t like all of the bad talk about them in the community so give Ree the information she needs to resolve her problem. But the ties of family and community, as well as the codes and obligations that come with them both support and strangle the people in this novel.

I will certainly read other works by Daniel Woodrell.

Chapter 14 is completed

April 27, 2008

The words did not come easily, but I managed to finish Chapter 14 of Finnegans Afoot. My problem was twofold. First, it’s a climax chapter, and I wanted to get it exactly right. I don’t know if I did, but given the perspective of time and a complete read through of what has come before it, I think I can get it there. Second, though, is that I’m writing about a subject well out of my experience and certainly out of my comfort zone.

I had written most of the chapter earlier in the week and simply needed about a thousand words to finish it. Instead, I got started on Chapters 15 and 16. I finished those before I got myself back to Chapter 14. That non-sequential writing is odd for me, but it did afford me an unexpected opportunity to set up a great deal of tension at the end of Chapter 16 by just a few words in Chapter 14. Knowing so well what was going to happen, the idea of doing that came to me like a particularly well time gift. I love it when just a few words can do so much work in a story.

Anyway, I’ve gotten a start on Chapter 17. It’s the last chapter of the novel and I wrap things up, but only by implication. I’ve really come to hate final chapters and epilogues in mystery stories that get everything settled and explained too neatly. Life is full of rough edges and unsatisfying resolutions, and I wanted this chapter to end the story in a similar way. Yes, the mystery is solved, and the reader will see that. It just won’t be done in black and white on the page. I don’t think readers have to have everything laid out before them and explained. They are clever enough to understand the meaning with the right amount of suggestion.

I’m not in any race to finish Chapter 17. I managed to get about 500 words down already, but my concluding chapters don’t generally swell to the 3,500 word count I try to achieve (and usually surpass) in the other chapters. I may finish it tomorrow or next week. I need to give a thorough read through of my notes for the novel so I can remember just what I need to get done in this chapter. And then I will do it. And then it will be done. And then onward.

Note: Somehow I failed to publish this post on time. It should have appeared on April 19. If it sounds out of sequence, that explains why.

Afoot finished

April 26, 2008

Yahoo! as they say. I finished the first draft of Finnegans Afoot this morning. The last chapter comes in at just over two thousand words, which is a little lean for regular chapters but fine for a wrap up.

I had started out this moring intending to work on a short story that has been occupying my imagination lately, but I thought I should first visit Afoot and see if any stray thoughts might contribute themselves to the last chapter that was waiting to be finished. As is generally the case with my writing efforts, when I get myself into something I find that I have plenty to write, and I kept going until I was finished with the chapter.

As I’ve noted a few times, this novel was more of a struggle than the others I have written. I attribute that to the insufficient imagining I had done with it. I had intended to begin Finnegans Deciphered originally, but I considered that the plot had too many similarities to Finnegans Festive, which I had just finished. So I set that novel aside and got going on Afoot. Unfortunately, I hadn’t conceived all of the scenes and actions as fully as I should have before I started working on it, so I had to struggle in many places.

This probably explains why the total word count is a bit short of the recommended 70,000 for a typical mystery novel. I intend to let the novel ferment for a week or so then give it a read through, looking for places where I need to smooth some rough insertions and supplement some incomplete ones. I expect to boost the word count a bit by this work, but unless I add some subplot, I won’t be adding a lot more words.

Even so, I’ve grown to like this story a lot more over time. Maybe it’s the euphoria of having it finished that makes me feel this way, but I really do think it is a good and worthwhile effort after all.

So Afoot is in the bag. I’ll probably concentrate on the short story I mentioned, which, coincidentally is set in the very same place as Afoot though with completely different characters and a completely unrelated plot. Then I think it’s time to get working on The Sleep of Reason.

Writer’s block

April 22, 2008

So far in my twenty-plus years of writing effort, I don’t think I can say that I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block. I suppose I should give you my definition of writer’s block so you can understand what I’m saying.

I consider writer’s block to be a state in which I have something I want or need to write, but I cannot make the words come. This is different from the common situation of not being satisfied with the way I have phrased something and a subsequent inability to say it right. Writer’s block to me is sitting before the screen for hours at a time getting virtually no writing done. It is a time when the creative process fails.

There have been long periods when I have not felt a desire to write, but I think that is different. And there have been times when I’ve been bored with what I am writing and didn’t really want to continue, but that is also different. But being stymied when I want to write — that’s just never occurred to me. (Yet?)

I’m not sure how to account for it. I’m certainly better at writing in the mornings, and even better in the mornings that are lubricated by tall glasses of iced tea. Perhaps if I tried to write fiction more often in the evenings, I would face more creative frustrations. I tend to prepare myself for my writing opportunities by making notes of what I should do next or fix or explore. Thus when I sit down at the keyboard on those mornings, half of the creative work — the imagining part — is already done. I may quite literally have a stack of notes beside my computer that I can review and put to use. I guess that’s a form of pre-writing, but as I noted in an earlier post, I’m cautious about understanding too much about my personal creative process.

One little trick I have used to overcome writing fatigue is to take familiar characters of mine and put them in different fiction. By that I mean I could take my husband and wife sleuths, Greg and Ann Finnegan, and put them in a western or a speculative fiction story. They wouldn’t be fish out of water characters but legitimate characters with all of the qualities they have in the mystery stories who happen to fit and belong in the different genre. I wouldn’t have them solving some mystery in the Old West but perhaps taking up farming or ranching on the high plains. They would be the same personalities simply put to a different purpose.

When I have done this with characters, I seem to discover (or create) new qualities for them. I understand them better. I enjoy them better. And when I go back to the original writing, I’ve felt renewed.

I also have a gazillion ideas about stories I want to write. If I ever begin to feel a bit of a frustration with one story, I can easily set it aside to ferment and pick up a completely different idea that I can generally jump right into. In fact, I’m doing that right now with a short story as I wait for the last chapter of Finnegans Afoot to gel.

I’ll cross my fingers or knock on wood or drink copious amounts of iced tea to keep writer’s block away, but so far it hasn’t been a problem.

Overheated (I guess)

April 21, 2008

I think I may have overheated the creative machine in my frenzied pace of writing in the last week. I’m probably within a thousand pages words of finishing the first draft of the novel, and I’ve taken the last two days off. I’ve not written a word. What’s more, I haven’t wanted to.

I guess I reached a kind of overload, which I certainly hope is temporary.

Actually, I read through my notes for the novel yesterday and highlighted points I need to insert or stress more. And I got more firmly in my mind just what still needs to be done in the final chapter. So I can’t say that I’ve completely turned my back on writing the novel.

I do recognize, though, that there may be a cost to such output. I don’t suppose I mind. I put down more than 8,000 words in less than a week, and if it costs me a few days of sluggishness, I’d still rather have those 8,000 words.

We’ll see what happens.

The fountain of (my) creativity

April 20, 2008

I don’t pay too much attention to where my writing ideas come from or the methods I use to link them into coherent story ideas. I think, for me at least, it is unhealthy to know too much about that kind of thing.

Are you familiar with Aesop’s fable of the goose that laid golden eggs? That’s kind of how I look on whatever the source of my creativity is. I fear that if I analyze it too much — if I cut it open to see how it works — I will effectively kill it.

I don’t ascribe to any supernatural sources for creative ideas. I may talk about being visited by my Muse, but I’m only speaking metaphorically. I think the only muse I can rely on is heavy doses of caffeine, applied through the medium of iced tea. I certainly seem to get more ideas and write more easily when I have a caffeine buzz going. (And I pay dearly for it too. I get caffeine headaches so bad that they would send me crawling to dark places where I would shut my eyes and try not to feel anything. In order to control them, I limit my tea drinking to the weekends. By mid-week I will have a day or two of relatively mild withdrawal headaches that heavy doses of aspirin can generally tame. Many people suggest a shot or two of tea to pacify the caffeine urge, but I’ve found that this simply postpones the headache one day, and it comes back more fiercely then.)

But back to the fountain of my creativity. When all of the pistons are firing and I’m writing away, the last thing I want is self censoring. I don’t want to think about where the idea is coming from or why the sentence is forming as it is. I simply want to get it down and keep getting it down. On a good day, I might get a couple of hours of this state, and I’m grateful when I do. And on bad days, I don’t think knowing the source of my ideas would help.

I’m not sure I could know either. If I plumbed the shallows of my subconscious mind and thought I identified how I get and develop ideas, could I rely on that understanding? Could I use it as a sort of mechanism to plug in material and wait for the output at the other end? I doubt it. And anyway, I don’t think I could be confident that I would come to an understanding of the whole process. And further anyway, I like the idea of having the unknown before me.

There are quantitative thinkers in the world and there are qualitative thinkers in the world. There are engineers and there are artists. I have no doubt that an engineering approach to novel writing can yield results. I don’t doubt that some part of me does think in this way. Certainly when I’m plotting a story I use this approach in part. (The inspired links between plot ideas come from somewhere else though.) It’s just not the way I think my mind works in most of my creative moments.

End of the trail — almost

April 18, 2008

I’m astonished at how much progress I have made this week on Finnegans Afoot. Two chapters just fell into place. I have only to finish up one chapter, and then on to the hard one: the last chapter. That’s going to be tough because it brings in an entirely new character — one who has appeared throughout the novel in memory and consideration — and I must wrap up the mystery, almost all by inference.

I’ve concluded that I’ve managed to have such swift success with these recent chapters because I’ve been envisioning them for so long. The final chapter, though, is one that must be done right, and I expect I will be self censoring and second guessing every word. In other words, it may not flow as easily.

Then a read through to smooth the obvious rough spots. After that, I’ll put it aside to simmer.

What next. Do I take a break or jump right into The Sleep of Reason? That story is so different from my Finnegan stories that it might be nice to take a mental break. I could perhaps work on a couple of short stories that have been knocking about in my brain. Stay tuned.

Do Your Own Thing

April 17, 2008

I like this quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

“Don’t trim your sails to every wind, just go ahead and write and see what happens. Don’t look at the market. Don’t look at the bestseller list to see what’s selling. That wouldn’t help anyway. You have to write what you write, or get out of the business.”

It’s a welcome tonic to all of the advice on various agent blogs that seem to think writing is merely marketing.

Here and there and everywhere

April 16, 2008

Normally, I’m very compulsive about writing in proper sequence. I don’t try to write a scene until I have written the scene before it (all of the scenes before it). I would never start a new novel until I had finished a current novel–or given it up as hopeless. (You may recall that I have written several chapters of a new novel I’ve called The Sleep of Reason while in the middle of Finnegans Afoot. I can justify that by noting that The Sleep of Reason began as a short story and then became a novella. Once I realized it was a full blown novel, I set it aside until I have Finnegans Afoot finished.)

So I am surprised as you are to find that I’ve nearly finished Chapter Fifteen of Finnegans Afoot long before I’ve finished Chapter Fourteen. These are high tension chapters, and they are just flowing from my fingertips. In the last four days I’ve written more than 5,000 words, which is an astonishing pace for me.

My two sleuths are attending business in different parts of the story universe, and each is facing a crisis/revelation moment. All I have to do is stay out of their way and let the action unfold. So I guess it’s not surprising that I could be writing two chapters at the same time. The action in each is independent of the other, so I don’t really need to see how one plays out before I can begin the other.

This high-speed writing phenomenon is something I have seen in the other novels I have written (the two other Finnegan novels and a pair of young adult novels I wrote years ago). It comes as I approach the end of the story. I guess I have imagined this part of the story so long that I know just how to write it. Or maybe I’m so sick of the story that I motivate myself to get it finished. (Honestly, I don’t feel sick of this story.)

In any case, I can see the goal line, and it feels good to be sprinting toward it.

I don’t write books.

April 14, 2008

I state that for the record, and I’ll state it again: I don’t write books.

I write novels. When they are printed on page and bound between covers they become books. And someone else takes care of that part of it. Publishers make books. Writers make novels.

The distinction may seem trivial, but for people who are supposed to be careful with words, the misuse among writers of the word “book” astonishes me. I remember reading long ago in an article about how to pitch your novel to an agent that if you refer to it as the “book” you’ve written, the agent will immediately recognize you as a beginner, and that can’t help but taint their perception of your query.

Yet I see writers talking about the “books” they are writing all the time. Some time ago I wrote about what I consider the difference between a “blog” and a “post” to a blog. I know that my dogmatic definition of those two words is not accepted by all, but I am right about the difference between a “book” and a “novel.”

You can tell everyone I said so.