Once again I turn my hand to writing and trying to do something with the stockpile of stories I have unsold and unfinished. Once again I turn to structure templates and books on writing to solve the perennial problem of “what happens next?” Once again I map out plot points and realize I still don’t have enough scenes to make it work.
My latest attempt at re-writing my 2004 NaNoWriMo entry involved reading a couple of books by James Scott Bell that Dale Ivan Smith recommended. His books list 14 structural checkpoints, 5 in Act I, 4 in Act II, and 5 in Act III. I struggle with pacing in all my stories. To have 4 checkpoints in 50-55% of the book and 10 for the remaining 45-50% is frustrating. This is where I fall apart. I need to find other ways to fill this narrative space.
I need scenes. I don’t want to mistake these checkpoints for actual scenes, but my organizational pattern searching brain is trying to map them one-to-one.
I know I am hitting the greatest fault of all would-be writers, in that I’m not writing. I’ve tried pantsing my way through novels and it doesn’t work. I end up hitting a wall where I cannot come up with the next thing. I’ve tried several plotting methods and those still leave gaps in my second acts.
Maybe, after 14 years of this, I should give up.
This experiment has not been a successful one, but I know the external factors that led up to this failure: The election took a lot of wind out my sails. OryCon slowed me down, but no more than the other days.
The internal failures were consistency: I scheduled a 6-7 am writing hour every day and didn’t follow the schedule for a whole week in despair; and I often didn’t get up on the weekends to write. I didn’t make up that writing time, either.
The other internal failure was tracking my progress. I decided to write this one non-linearly. I had a rough outline of what I needed to write and let my mood for each day dictate which scene I worked on. This made for some good writing sessions and for some good drafts. When I knew what I needed to write and let myself go, I wrote fast. 1,800 words in one hour is pretty good, and rereading that material confirms for me that it’s not crap. I think it will hold up through edits.
The not-so-good sessions happened when I wasn’t sure exactly what would happen in the scene and had to pants it a little too much. I also let the despair of the world invade my space, and the despair of being twelve years into this with six sales for maybe $30 total on my biography. The endless stream of rejections has stopped because I gave up submitting. I have no critique group and no beta readers. I have no feedback community. All of these things came into my morning hour and all of them slowed me down.
Because I wrote this out of sequence, my nightly task was to organize the text in a separate file, already prepared with 18 chapters that just needed to be filled in. I did not review my daily work, copy it to the appropriate channel, and take notes. So while my daily writing practice has been somewhat successful and consistent, it has not been a focused writing review. There has been a loss of intention in the process. The best book to every explain zen to me is Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo. I need to re-read this book to re-connect with the content, but I remember something about focused practice, playing with a focus in mind, and I frequently spent my first few waking minutes deciding what to write that day.
Instead, I should have gone to bed knowing what I was going to write, letting my brain sort out the best phrases and the coolest images. On the days this worked, it worked well. I went to bed trying to sort out a Lovecraftian dream sequence and I was able to get up the next day and crank it out. It is not as pretty as I’d like, but it surprised me.
That is something else that did work this year: I surprised myself by my own writing. I invented a character on day two that has to be there in the in the opening chapters, but she never showed up in the outline. A second character showed up as well, brand new and unnamed (like my first-person narrator) and he needs to exist for world building purposes. I didn’t know he was there, and he’s only in one scene but I think he plays a vital role in shoving my guy through the portal this fantasy deals with.
Overall, I think the non-linear technique worked from an inspiration standpoint. Now I need to focus on the process around my writing hour to keep track of the story as a whole.
I asked several published authors about non-linear writing and none of them do this. They can start at the beginning and work their way through. They’ve also written lots and lots of books and sold or self-pubbed them, so their processes are probably kink-free. I’m still reinventing myself, losing focus on the longer stories in front of me and trying to re-write the longer stories behind me.
So I will keep on with the morning routine, and try to keep the weekends in the routine, and I will work on the evening side of things doing the necessary paperwork.
And one day, maybe, I’ll submit a story for rejection.
This morning the plan was to get up at 6, make a cup of coffee, and start writing for NaNoWriMo. My body decided that I needed to be up at 5:30, but I wasn’t aware of the time and after failing to fall asleep, got up about ten till six and made my coffee and managed to start writing by 6:08. Not bad.
One hour later I heard Stephanie up and about and so I called it a day and checked my word count: 1,714.
That had to be wrong. I don’t write that fast. Yes, I’m a fast typist but I average 1,000 wph when drafting. I have a new computer. It’s possible the program I’m using (Focus Writer, damn fine tool) wasn’t calculating it correctly. It’s possible something went wrong with the file. I opened it LibreOffice and it confirmed the count.
On the way to work, Stephanie and I went through the mental math to figure it out: I hit “flow”. I found that spot where I could just keep on writing at a steady pace without worry. We figured I was going at about 30 wpm, which is a slow typing speed. It’s maybe 2 to 3 keystrokes per second. If that pace is kept up and consistent, 1,800 words in an hour is feasible. The scary thing is this means if I was really on fire and really knew what I wanted to say I could get 3K in an hour, and that seems ridiculous. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to do the math all over again.
30 wpm @ 5 cpw = 150 kpm = 2.5 kps. (@ 6 cpw = 180 kpm = 3 kps.)
30 wpm × 60 m = 1,800 words.
Shockingly, this works.
I am taking a different tactic this year. Usually I start at the beginning and crap out mid-way through. After extensive work with Mark Teppo’s Planning, Plotting, and Progress I have a pretty good idea of the pace of the novella and where things need to happen. This year I decided to start right after the midway point where the standard plot crisis occurs. I don’t plan on writing this thing in order, which should help solve my perennial problem of not knowing what happens next.
So, with a sample size of one day, I’m going to look forward to NaNoWriMo this year and I think I’ll have a successful year.
I’m taking a break from NaNoWriMo to write about NaNoWriMo, because this year is a bit more of an experiment.
I have a spotty history with NaNoWriMo. My first try was back in 2004, and I finished the story at 35k. I’ve tried in other years but the NaNoWriMo database seems to only go back to 2011. In 2013 I tried to write Loyalty Oath, which is a story I’ve had in my head since I was a teenager and the novel has been kicking around my someday list since 2005. There seems to me to be enough to this story to warrant a novel, or at least a full NaNo attempt.
So this year I am re-writing it, and I’m trying a few different things.
One, I’m trying to write each major scene from more than one person’s point of view. I have four main characters in this thing, one of which is vital, two are important, and one is optional. I’m not sure about giving the antagonist his own narrative flow, but hell, I’m doing it anyway. I’m afraid some of my characters aren’t all there yet, so I don’t know if I’ll find their voice.
Two, because I’m writing each scene multiple times, I’m afraid the progress of the story will be so slow I’ll get frustrated and give up.
Three, because I’ve started a new job, and there’s an Evensong coming up and a Celebration of Life to sing at and OryCon and Thanksgiving, I’m afraid I won’t be able to carve out enough time every day.
To counteract the first, this is really an experiment in pantsing a novel. I’ve tried manymethods of writing before, and my novels tend to get fully outlined. Unfortunately, plotting is for me like puzzle solving, so it doesn’t seem as interesting to solve the same puzzle over and over again.
As for the second, I’m playing with voice. I just have to let myself play with this. I can’t talk my way down from this fear.
And finally, number three is the ever-present time crunch. I’ve got things to do, and I’m getting to the point of giving up writing because there is more frustration and rejection than anything else, and I’m falling back into consumer habits and not content creation. I may be stuck there. I don’t know, but not writing still hurts, so I’d better get back to writing.
Besides, I can write 600-700 words in a 20 minute session if I have a fairly decent road map. Although it’s mostly dialogue. I wonder if I should try more script writing. I tend to write dialogue heavy stuff.
So I will keep on.
As part of my online writing course, someone asked for a critique of a story that she felt wasn’t working. I offered to blather about it a bit. One of her concerns was the ending falls flat. There was a decent enough emotional ending, but I think I understand her feeling. The rough story: Inspector on unpleasant field work. The draft I have is 8 pages long. The first 6 and a half pages take place in the field, the last page and a half in the office, where the narrator learns she actually suceeded in the external task of the story.
In my commentary, I suggested that this feels wrong because it is only one half of a pair of bookends. If the story started in the office, went to the field, and returned, then the bookends may work better. Alternatively, cutting the setting of the ending and keeping it in the field brings the end closer to the meat of the story. By this point, the world building was well enough established that a few paragraphs of inner angst while driving home were just inner angst, which the narrator could have had anywhere.
Then I looked at one of my short stories which has gone through every major market and several smaller markets. My story starts in the narrator’s office to set up the story problem, then transfers a coffee house date where the rest of the story happens. I, too, only have one half of a pair of bookends. Maybe there’s a way to fix it, and maybe there’s a market or two left where I can send it, otherwise, it’s off to Smashwords if I can figure out what the cover should look like.
This post is part ramble, part warm up. I’ve been taking a MOOC from the Univserty of Iowa called How Writers Write Fiction, because I find taking classes can spur me to write when the rejection letters get too heavy on me. This is week three, and the focus is on plot. Here is the assignment:
Write a story with any number of characters (these can be newly created characters or borrowed from your Class Session 1 and 2 writing assignments), where an external force demands that a character or all the characters jump into action.
No problem there. The thing I wrote for Session 1 was a scene froma story I’ve been trying to write since 2006 or so. Here’s the second part:
Additionally, include in the story a separate decision made by a character/the characters that does not result directly from the external force.
And….this is where everything I think I know about writing and plot goes out the window. From what I think I know, this second bit will simply destract from the story, deviate from what is necessary. I have a rough plot of the story I’ve been trying to complete. I used the Seven-Sentence Story to put together some causes and effects. I had hoped to use this story during this class for source material, but the assignment doesn’t help that story particularly well. At least, it feels like I’m shoe-horning something into the story to make this assignment work. I’ve alse been telling this story in close third person with only one viewpoint, and this assignment feels like I’m going to need multiple POVs or good omniscient narrator, neither of which I have much practice with.
Have I really spent so little time writing this way? I think so. Looking back on my writing so far, there aren’t a lot of experiments. One favorite story of mine had 5 or 6 narrative voices (it also has 12 rejection letters so far, which is almost the point of self-publising for me), but that was written 11 years ago.
I think I can apply this to the story I want to finish, but I think this “random decision” is going to end up being the result of a secondary action, another character’s response to the initial external force.
Or maybe I should give up and take up pig farming.
Now that I have a little more time on my hands, I hope to get back to pet projects: writing, submitting, and reading more. My Better Writing Through Reading project has gone off the rails again, and I hope to get it back on track. This post is about some of the post Hugos fallout, and while the award proposoal by Jay Maynard leaves a sour taste in my mouth, this idea from Cat Valente seems slightly better. Not that I want to replace the Hugos in any way. I’m sure the non-existent problems of pre-puppy slating will be fixed eventually. Cat’s ideas may have some fun ideas tucked away.
As an aside, I haven’t watched MTV in ages, but I seem to remember the MTV movie awards had categories like Best Kiss and Best Action Sequence, not whole movies, but parts of the stories. Certainly the Best Kisses need buildup to be powerful, so the actual Kiss may not matter all that much, but it is a culmination, a moment, that makes the audience react together.
So I am thinking of doing the same thing. Not awards, really, but as I review stories and novels and try to figure out why they work, I need to start highlighting the bits that really worked for me.
The best example that comes to mind right now is a book I just finished by Ayize Jama-Everett. Even though the book is from 2009, I only read it this year, and it has an amazing passage of a character melting down after the mid-book tragedy. It’s a wonderful passage of processing anger with dreams of revenge, specific painful actions of cruelty, and the character is established well enough to make it possible. I loved it. It’s the kind of passage Raymond Chandler writes when Marlowe is on the brink of losing it, which is the point of hardboiled characters for me: they skim the edge of the dark side, it is so close they can touch it, but they don’t go there in the end. (A noir character is one that lives on the other side that edge.)
I hope to collect little things, best uses of various tropes, best minor characters that deserve their own story, best scene setting, most satisfactory ending, most “gotta read the next book NOW ending” (probably going to Devon Monk at this point). Little things that make stories work.
Mostly, I have to get back into writing and do less coding.
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