March 19, 2006

two pages

I'm not sure how it happened. I can certainly tell you I had no intention whatsoever of doing this so quickly, I know it's not proper and besides it's a bit, well, dumb. Or at least foolhardy. But I couldn’t help it. I started a new novel.

See, I'd been trying really hard to develop the outline, the characters, the whole milieu. Working to create the world inside my head. The twists and turns and emotional heart of it. The backstory, the guts, the midpoint, the story of the story, the why of the what, the meaning of life, or at least an approximation thereof in the form of a slice of fictional narrative of a person going through an event. Y'know, working.

At first I couldn't. Just stared at the screen. I know something should go here. I know I can do this. I've done it before. It's not the idea-generating that's hard in writing. It's what comes after. What that idea generates, as it were. The story that grows from that seedling. And my brain wasn't having any. It was flat out refusing to brainstorm.

Stress will do that. I'm trying to do too many things, generate freelance work (or, well, think about doing it), prepare for tax time, look for an agent (a story for another time). Pressure. Hopes and fears. Not good for storytelling.

A friend said forget it, put the other stuff aside, don't worry, just write. So I decided to give myself a week off from fretting and planning and marketing. And lo, it flowed. Plot points, chewy character dilemmas, point and counterpoint, theme and structure. The stuff that draws me to novel writing.

So that was good. But I had a long way to go before writing "Chapter One."

Except my brain, that recalcitrant, irritating writer's brain, it had another agenda. Thursday night I lay down, head on my pillow, relaxed and ready to sleep. I heard the first sentence of my novel, how it could go. Good, nice. But go to sleep. The exact words don't matter, I'll remember well enough in the morning. Then the second sentence wrote itself on the inside of my eyelids. And the third.

By the time I sat up and grabbed pen and paper, I'd written the entire first page. Of a novel that shouldn't be ready to write.

On Friday I transcribed that page and wrote another. I don't know if I'll go back to plotting or move ahead with the actual pages of the actual story.

I'm not altogether sure it's up to me.

December 16, 2005

first impressions

Working on my rewrite, I've become aware of certain things. The way we see people, for instance. How we define character. I recently read Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, a fascinating look at the way we as people size up situations in the literal blink of an eye. We know things even before we go through the logical sequence of steps to arrive at a conclusion. Often our immediate response ends up being more correct than the carefully analyzed answer. Intuition, in part. Also a deep-rooted need to respond right away, to know if we should flee or engage, leads us to analyze without knowing we do so. Thin slicing, Gladwell calls it. You extrapolate from a small amount of data, a part of your brain working overtime.

So how does this relate to writing? Well, it turns out readers do the same. The way you set up a character is what sticks in their minds no matter what you say later on down the road. It's therefore crucial to think about what exactly you're planting in their minds. You can play with this, of course. You can send them off in one direction and give that presupposition a twist later on, a nice shock in a twisty turny plot. But my novel isn't one of those. I need to set up certain possibilities, and therefore I need to give the right flavor early on. I realized that I'd done one character a disservice at the get-go. I was going for the contrast of a seedy environment and a dignified person, but people saw the seedy background and superimposed that over the man. Understandable, completely. But fascinating too.

Another character I set up as mysterious. I wanted him to be a little impenetrable, so readers would feel the same frustration and maybe longing as the one in the story who wants to know him better. But there's a fine balance to this. If I make someone too opaque, you as reader feel a distance, you feel a disconnect. And that, again, can't be made better down the road. Not without a hint or two up front. If he opens the door in his mind, if you feel a connection, you can relate and allow yourself to become more emotionally invested. But how much, how far can/should that go without upsetting the sense of mystery, of layers not yet explored?

Writing is not just art, not just craft. It's also psychology.

November 21, 2005

back to the book

It's been a very long time, far too long, many months away, between freelancing and moving across the whole damned country, but finally, yes finally I'm able to sit down and work on my novel. Which isn't easy because, well, see above.

Many months away. Who are these people and why are they doing these things to each other? How do I write in this voice? What am I trying to say with this story? Worse, I'm not picking up the thread of a narrative, but adding to it, layering and developing some of the characters who were previously sketched in lightly with pencils; now I take oil paints and create a rich luster. Or at least that's the idea. But after months away? I've lost the sense of how to work with these tools, how to create the effects I desire. Everything feels awkward, my metaphors feel clumsy and my word choices too blunt.

But I'm getting better at it. It's been a week or so, not working every day, but a little bit here and there and finally today a bigger chunk of time. Here's how I know I've got the hang of it: I read through a pivotal sequence on Friday, a plot turning point, one I know people have had trouble with – relatively small problems, fixable problems – and realized it was all wrong for the book. The novel has a kind of bittersweet melancholy to it, very interior, very moody. This scene was more like the romantic comedies I used to write, with a bit of bite and a bite of silliness. It stood out. I think it threw readers out of the story, even if they didn't know exactly why.

Today I began writing a new scene from scratch. Different locale, different tone. It fits far better into the rest of the story.

Writing is hard. Rewriting is harder. But when you understand where you've gone off course, when you get that click and knowledge of how to do what needs doing there, it feels damned good.

It's been a long time but I'm writing again.