Posted tagged ‘writing’

I think I need a new narrator

May 2, 2009

My thoughts about my novel-in-progress, The Sleep of Reason, are in a tumult right now. I’ve stumbled upon a new revelation at the very end that will reveal a much larger story behind the literal one in the narrative, and so the creative part of my brain is busy offering me insights on how this could be done and how it would need to be prepared for. (I say I “stumbled upon” this revelation — and I really do think it would be the very last words of the story to be most effective — but I think the story was inevitably going to require this, so I think it’s more the case that I stumbled toward it rather than upon it. I’ve been a little slow in seeing where my story was taking me.)

Anyway, because of the nature of the ending, plotwise, I must have access to the protagonist’s thoughts in order to deliver the full impact of these new final words that give such added meaning to the story. For the last 90,000 words I’ve written, this has not been a problem since my protagonist is the first-person narrator of the story. I have had complete access to his deluded thoughts. But, again, given the nature of the plot at the very end, my protagonist is not going to suddenly be very clever and discerning, and while he could have some intimation of this bigger story, his understanding of it would necessarily be incomplete: thus the reader’s understanding might be as well.

And so, dancing at the dark edge of my consciousness, has been this insistent little idea that I need to change the narration of the story from an unreliable first person to a limited omniscience third person. As the days have passed, the rightness of this change has become more clear (and more insistent), and now I am all but resigned to it. The problem is that I have written 90,000 words in first person narration. Yikes! I have never made a wholesale change in the narrator in any of my writing at such a late stage.

I knew that the rewrite was going to involve some significant reworking to address plot and tone issues, but I never thought it would be a fundamental restructuring such as this.

Nonetheless, this would solve some other issues in the story. I have several instances where the coincidences needed by the plot have seemed too convenient. By having the third person narrator relate them, this unlikely serendipity would be fixed (though I can’t say more without giving away too much). I gave a cursory read to Chapter 13 yesterday, just to see how well it would lend itself to being recast it in third person, and it didn’t seem that difficult. So now my question is should I finish writing the novel in the first person? (I’m inclined that way.) Or should I embark from this point in third person? Given the frame of mind I’ve sustained for the last year of writing, I think I will finish the first draft in the first person. I want to stay consistent with the manifold influences in the story telling so I don’t drop a thread or plot device because I’m in unfamiliar narrative territory. I think it will be easier to redo the whole (rather than parts) later.

This postponement also gives me time to ponder the nature of my new narrator. I’ve long thought that a narrator must have as much substance (at least in the writer’s mind) as any character in the story. My new narrator won’t be a character in the story given that he or she must have access to another character’s thoughts, but I want to know what kind of voice this new person uses, where the story would be told (around a campfire? over drinks at the club? in the witness box?), how intelligent the narrator is, and all of that kind of thing.

A puppy and a process

February 3, 2009

We have a new puppy in the house. He’s a little Pomeranian with the fearsome name of Queequeg. Right now he spends his nights sequestered in the kitchen, and when I make my early risings to write in the adjoining dining room, the light and noise from my activities inevitably wake him, bringing a playful, furry interruption to my otherwise unbroken solitude. And this brings me to Hemingway.

Hemingway’s sparse style has fallen into disrepute in recent years, and I’m all for that. There are anecdotes of his writing process, though, that are instructive. Supposedly, he wrote while standing, using the top of an old refrigerator as his desk. He was also supposed to have removed all other furniture and ornamentation from his writing room (just as he had from his writing). He did not want to be bothered by any distraction.

I don’t know if any of this is true (or more likely, if it was consistently true), but with the new puppy in the house, I’ve begun a little writing space experiment.

Normally when I write in the early morning, I have the lights on in the room. Often I am transcribing notes from paper to computer, so I need the light to read. With Queequeg just down the hall, though, I’ve dimmed the room lights to just bright enough to read by, which it seems is not bright enough to wake a pup. So far, so good.

What I’ve found in addition, though, is that I have been able to concentrate much better without all of the ambient light. My eye is not drawn to the potted plant dying in the corner. I don’t see the magazines and other papers scattered on the other end of the table. My thoughts don’t drift to other parts of the house because I am less conscious of them when they are dark. And so on.

I don’t know how well this will work or if I’ll keep it up, but I suppose as long as Queequeg is sleeping just down the hall, I can give it a try.

Orwell’s Four Reasons for Writing

January 26, 2009

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell spells out the four reasons any writer has for writing. According to him, a writer’s motivation can be,

  1. Sheer egoism.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm.
  3. Historical impulse.
  4. Political purpose.

Knowing Orwell’s writings, as most of the Western world does, this list is not surprising, nor is it surprising that he devotes the most discussion to his fourth reason. He was a thoughtful and reflective person, one who had seen more than his share of the bad things of the world (made even more so by his ability to recognize them as bad), and I’m willing to concede his assertion that these four reasons really do apply to all writers. (The fact that he made them so generic helps with this though.) Furthermore, he says that all four are present in all writers to varying degrees.

By “sheer egoism” he means the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc.” Orwell claims that writers share this trait with the whole “top crust” of humanity, including scientists, authors, politicians, and soldiers.

He interprets “asethetic enthusiams” as a “desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.” He sees it as a perception of beauty in the real world combined with a desire to put the right words in the right order. And though he concedes that some writing — technical writing, journalism — can be feeble in this regard, it is not wholly absent in any human writing.

“Historical impulse” is the desire to see things as they are, to find out the true facts and to store them up for the use of posterity. I suspect that no one and no society can truly “see things as they are” and with the passage of time even getting close to this becomes less likely, but I think it is fair to say that Orwell would credit good writers with seeing things better than the obfuscations offered by governments and entrenched interests.

Finally comes “political purpose.” He says that he means “political purpose” in the widest sense possible. He defines it as the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.” All writing he insists, has political purpose, and to say that art should not be political is a political statement in itself.

I’m not sure where I fall on this continuum. I suppose with different types of writing the mix is different. Non-fiction feature articles would obviously have a different genesis than a work of fiction. Nonetheless, I am reluctant to analyze my own motivations too closely lest such a sterile review might kill them.


May 15, 2008

I didn’t set out to write the Finnegans novels as continuous stories. Now that I have three novels written, though, I’m beginning to see some effect like that.

I realize that any novel has to stand on its own strengths and story line, and I think I’ve written them to do so, but I have plot ideas for a half dozen more Finnegan novels, and I’ve found that I’ve been slipping little set ups for the other stories into the ones I have already written. I don’t suppose that is bad at all. It gives the characters some long-term integrity. I won’t merely introduce some interest or behavior in a character that I’ll pretend is long standing. I’ll have already established it in another story or two.

For example, Greg Finnegan haunts used bookstores. In an event that pre-dates the chronology of my novels, he came upon a novel written by someone he’d never heard of but who wrote a proto-feminist story set in an actual Missouri River town. One of the reasons he visits used bookstores is with the hope that he will find another novel by this author. His quest comes up in some casual way in each of the three novels that I’ve written, but it will be the core of the plot for a novel I am yet to write (probably the next one, which I plan to title Finnegans Deciphered).

One wouldn’t have to read the earlier novels to appreciate the plot of Finnegans Deciphered, but if one had, one would have a better sense of Greg’s character in this aspect. (We really need an epicene pronoun in this language!)

In the novel I just finished, Finnegans Afoot, Ann resolves a long-standing personal relationship problem. I started establishing this problem in the other two novels, but I had no intent at the time to set up the resolution. I was just doing it to give her character some depth. But then Afoot came along and the resolution, which is a subplot that doesn’t drive the central narrative, found a nice fit. Once again, one wouldn’t have to read the other novels to appreciate it, but the set up is there. (Oddly, though, if one read Afoot first and then went to the other novels, the unresolved issue would be there though the reader would know it was addressed.)

Mystery novelist Susan Wittig Albert has used continuous character development in her China Bayles stories. I seem to remember her saying that this hadn’t been her intent originally but that her characters more or less called out for the continuity. I understand that she introduces a pregnant character in one of her novels, but in the next novel the character is no longer pregnant and there is no discussion of the new baby. I haven’t read that far into her series yet, but I’m told it’s true.

Update: I received an email from Susan Wittig Albert correcting my misunderstanding about her series of novels. Although I could swear that I heard her say that she had never intended to write a continuous story across her novels, she says that she had from the beginning. Also, she says she had not forgotten that one of her characters had a baby. Rather, she says, she forgot that the baby’s mother had chosen one name in an earlier novel and gave it a different name in the subsequent novel.

In my defense, I do say above that “I seem to remember,” so I wasn’t really asserting anything. Nonetheless, I’m pleased to know that she had intended continuity from the start.

Short story stuff

May 10, 2008

With the first draft of Finnegans Afoot completed, I allowed myself to get started on a short story. Although unrelated to Finnegans Afoot in terms of character and plot, I have set it in the same community and even made use of one of the core motifs of that novel. It really could stand alone, though.

I’m enjoying the buzz I get from the early stages of creativity. I am immersed in a whole new story with different characters and a different (and a bit more comic) resolution. Plus I don’t feel the weight of 70,000 words ahead of me. This story will come in at under 4,000 words, and I’ll probably trim it considerably from that. In fact, when I sit down and write two hundred words, I’ll have deleted two hundred and fifty from what I’ve already written. So as the story progresses, it gets shorter. (There’s a philosophical conundrum. I wonder what I could do with that as an idea.)

This isn’t a story of a crime so much as one of those impossible scenarios. A criminal is eluding the authorities, and his means of escape is baffling. The resolution of the story is finding out how he did it. I’m having fun fooling around with that.

I expect to have a first draft finished in a week or so, then I’ll let it cool and revisit it later. I’ll also complete the read through of Finnegans Afoot (which I continue to appreciate more as I go). Then I really must get going on Sleep of Reason, which I desire and dread in equal portions.

Writing is rewriting

May 3, 2008

I’ve begun the read through of Finnegans Afoot. I’ve been making lots of notes about things to add or emphasize and things to review for continuity problems (are they hiking up the mountain or down it? is the scene set on a Wednesday or a Thursday?). Plus I want to smooth the areas where I had earlier added ideas long after finishing a given chapter and such. The total word count of the first draft was a little low as well, so I’ve been looking for opportunities to slip in more substantive writing (rather than just fluff). I’m confident that it will all come together. As I noted earlier, I grew to like this story much more as it grew closer to completion.

Even so, after reviewing five chapters (not quite one third of the novel as currently written) I’ve only netted a gain of 147 words. Could it be that the novel is so perfectly written that it requires no significant work? (Of course not! Don’t think I’m being vain.) I suspect that it is the nature of earlier chapters to be better polished simply because they have been around longer and have had regular work done to them during the process of writing the whole novel.

Writing is rewriting. I learned that lesson long ago. Every bit of writing benefits from a cooling off period followed by heartless review and reworking. One ancient Greek philosopher recommended letting a piece of writing sit for something like eight years before coming back to it to revise it. I don’t think I want to wait that long, but I only finished the last chapter a week or so ago, and I suspect that I’ll need to give it yet another heartless review after a few months.

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.