Monday, December 04, 2006

Writer's Gridlock?

Lately, I've been having trouble writing. However, it's not because I can't think of anything to write, but rather because I've got too much to write.

I do always have the off-and-on problem of starting stories and then never finishing them because they end up falling short of my own expectations, at which point I have the unfortunate tendency to just abandon them forever. Lately, though, I'm stopping stories with the intent of coming back to them, while in the meantime trying to put work into numerous other stories that are either on my list or on my agenda or otherwise just floating through my head.

At present, I've got:
  • a novel that I am finalizing

  • a novel that I am just beginning

  • three other semi-solid ideas for novels I eventually plan to write

  • two short stories that require key revisions

  • three short stories that I am currently writing

  • one (very fun!) cooperative writing project

In the midst of all this, I should point out, I've randomly churned out a handful of other short stories that just seemed to appear from the ether, fly off my fingertips, and end up on the page. I don't quite know how that happened. I wish I could capture the essence of that, though, and channel it towards some of these other items on my list.

Frustration comes when my brain just can't seem to focus on whichever of the above I sit down to work on. I've wasted entire evenings getting almost nothing done on whatever it was I planned to write for, and in the meantime, instead of switching to something else that might better suit my mood, I just kind of stare at blank pages or churn out very kludgy prose that I tend to just cut away later on. I get the impression that this is a problem I need to overcome if I ever want to be the sort of good writer that I someday hope to become.

I did just start a new story today that (at least for the time being) has got my excited and interested. Time will tell if that holds up. (I hope it does, though, because I plan on trying to meet a submission deadline with it.)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Wrapping Things Up

Over the last week or two, I've been doing some editing and polishing on my novel manuscript. After giving it another read-over, and then tweaking a few more bits of it here and there, I think I might have finally reached the point where I'm "okay' with it.

I'm unsure what to think, really; again, having never done this before, I'm not 100% sure what to think, but from what I can tell, I'm happy with the structure of the plot, the flow of the story, the different character arcs, the emotional content, and the resolution. I may still want to pick at a few things, here and there, and I'm sure it could use a copyedit from somebody other than myself, but overall, I don't look at it and think, "This thing needs redoing."

That's not to say that I think it's in its finished form, since I know it probably isn't. After I finished the first draft, though, while I was happy with it, I realized that I needed a redraft to really get things how I wanted. This time around, I don't think a full redraft is going to be necessary, since it looks like I've at least got the story out and on paper the way I want it to be told.

Maybe that's a mark of success: I'm content that I've written something that someone might want to read. I'm not glowing with satisfaction or anything, since I know it's too early to rest on my laurels, but I can look at my manuscript and think to myself, "Yes, that's how this story goes."

Hopefully, that means I'm close.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Patching Holes

After spending yet more time away from my novel manuscript to give myself time to think and to come back to it fresh, I began to identify what I felt were some of the biggest flaws with it (thankfully, I don't think there are that many!).

This novel has a fairly large cast of characters. In particular, there are two secondary characters that don't get a lot of time on the page but who nevertheless play an important role in the story. By nature, these characters are a mysterious sort, and neither the other characters nor the reader ever get the full story behind them.

Still, I did realize (and had some folks point out) that I never did specifically call out just what it was these characters did; it's one thing to not reveal exactly who they were or why they were acting as they were, but I least needed to explain what they were doing, if nothing else. It's a complicated story, after all, and leaving a major part of it unexplained (or even if I'd just left it mysteriously implied) just wouldn't work, in this case.

I was worried (as I often am when writing) as to how I would get this information across to the reader--after all, like I said, it's a complicated bit of story, and the nature of this particular aspect still necessitated some mystery, and so I wasn't sure what to do.

The thing about writing, though, which I often forget, is that it's often very easy to get a lot of information across without necessarily having to write a whole lot.

I found a conversation right near the very end of the book. Beyond anything else, I was always a bit 'iffy' on how this conversation went, anyway, because I always thought the characters should be saying more than they did. It made logical sense, in this case, to have them discussing what they'd learned about these two 'mystery' characters, and in just a few sentences, I was able to get the relevant points spelled out in a way that made sense.

While writing these snippets, I realized that there was also one other point that was major and definitely warranted specifically mentioning, but which was also just a single thought that simply needed to be spelled out. Within the same scene I was already working in, I was able to sneak this information in, as well.

In total, the amount of new material I wrote probably amounts to less than a page, but with just those few paragraphs, I've managed to organically cover up what could have been a gaping plothole, tidied up some dangling threads, and even managed to add a touch of intrigue all at the same time.

I am very happy to have done this!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"I love it when a plan comes together."

So, I've just kind of been sitting on my novel, lately, waiting to put the finishing touches on it. I'm waiting for some additional feedback on my new draft before I make any sweeping changes to it (though I have gone through and done some dusting off based on some more 'generic' editing advice that I found very helpful).

Still, what feedback I have gotten so far has (thankfully enough) jived with a lot of my own thoughts about what flaws still remain in the manuscript. That's definitely a good thing, insofar as it lets me know that I'm probably focusing on the right things; the bad thing, though, is that it mostly centers on the 'wrapup' portion of the story.

Now, I knew from the beginning of writing this novel that I was writing a fairly convoluted story, with a number of characters and plot threads to keep track of; I hope that it's not too confusing by the time one gets to the end, and initial feedback shows that, yes, readers are at least still able to follow and enjoy it. The problem with things are they are now, though, near as I can tell, is that there's still a pretty big mix of key information points that go explained and ones that go unexplained.

The tricky part of storytelling, in that regard, is that all of the 'relevant information' to the mystery behind the plot all exists in my head, and so when I sit down and think of the story, I know how it all goes and how it all ties together. I do not, however, have my manuscript itself 100% memorized, so in turn, I'm not 100% sure what all is and is not explicitly stated or even strongly hinted at. It's for that reason that I know I'm going to need to actually re-read the manuscript itself (it's been a while since I've written my latest draft, thankfully), and really try to look at it from the point of view of someone who doesn't know how it all ends, and see in which ways the ending does or doesn't make sense.

In my first draft, the story went on a big too long after the climax, plodding along clumsily after the story should have been tied up and packed away. For the second draft, I figured that I'd end up overcorrecting for this problem by making the end now too short, and it sounds like that's exactly what I did. Still, knowing that that's where one of my biggest problems lies is very helpful in letting me know where I need to focus my energies first when it comes to finishing this thing up.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Info Dump

When I'm not writing ("You mean you do other things with your spare time, heathen?"), one of the things I like to do is play video games. Lately, the time I get to spend playing them is kind of sparse, though, so when I do play a game, I kind of consider it an investment, and so I like making sure that I get my time's worth.

Usually, this means that I end up playing games that come with a big, enjoyable story.

Well, one of the biggest, most convoluted, most... bewilderingly-complex of stories for a video game in recent history is probably that of the Xenosaga series. After a few months of plodding, I finally finished the third and final installment, and I was doing some reflecting on it (as one tends to do when finishing up a story).

Now, say what you will about pretentious Japanese storytelling (and the general bogged-downedness of Xenosaga in particular): there's still a lot of information, there, and it's clear that the people behind it put a lot of thought into it. The third game goes so far as to include a database (a pretty honkin' huge database), containing just about every bit of encyclopedic detail one could ask to have about the series.

I was thinking about this database after I was done with the game; it contains an awful lot of information that would just be too awkward to shoehorn into the actual storytelling of the game, or which wouldn't ever be relevant enough to warrant mentioning on its own. Even so, it's still there in the database, almost as if to say, "Hey, in case you care or are curious, this is the deal with X." And for some reason, the inclusion of this database resonates with me.

In creating my own worlds for storytelling, I do try to put a lot of thought into them, and how they work. Most notable is probably the world in which my current novel-in-progress is set: I've spent the last several years thinking up more and more details on how the world works, what the political situation is, what different cultures are like, what took place in world history... basically, it's a lot of stuff that is helpful to me in forming a setting that I can write into, but which is a lot more information than I'd ever force a reader to slog through just in order to get through a single story, even a novel-length one.

I guess what it comes down to is that, when all is said and done, only a very small percent of what I think up is ever going to get into something the reader sees, and part of the fun of writing, I guess, is in picking what portions of this world are worth sharing and worth reading about--and, to a different extent, in finding ways to slyly include other bits of information into the story in a way that the reader might not notice until afterwards, because its inclusion was just so subtle and organic that it never drew attention to itself.

Even so, the idea of putting together a big encyclopedic database like the one in Xenosaga does make me smile, just because I'd be flattered by the notion that someone would care enough to want to know that much about that which I'd created.

Then again, I guess the next best thing (or, really, the better thing) to do would just be to keep writing more and more novels in said setting, so that I could make the place as real as possible for the people who wanted to spend time there.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

That Which Fuels the Fires

So, I've learned that the coffee shop that I frequent has its own blog and webpage.

This is where I do a good portion of my quality writing, including my novel writing. I thought that maybe some of you might be interested in seeing where the magic happens.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Progress and Deterrence

So, last night, I completed my second basic draft of my novel.

Strangely enough, I don't really feel any sense of accomplishment for having done so. More than anything, I just kind of feel mentally tired from it. I mean, I know I tried hard, and I know that I made some good changes, but from what I can tell, completing a second draft doesn't feel at all like completing a first draft.

The other thing about it is that it sort of makes me not want to even think about writing for a good long while, now. The inherent difficulty of novel writing seems to have just accentuated the inherent difficulty of writing, period, and so the prospect of working on even a short story, right now, seems very daunting.

It's kind of like how I imagine I'd feel if, for two months straight, I'd been forced to eat chicken parmesan for dinner every night—every night, chicken parmesan, unable to stop until the big huge freezer I had was empty—and then, when I'm finally done, the next night I get offered chicken tetrazzini. Sure, technically, it's different and it's a change of pace, but the last thing I want at that point is more chicken.

Maybe (hopefully) this is all just some predictable writerly malaise. I'd hate to have to feel this way for long. Especially since I still have a lot of work to do.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Complications Through Simplification

In redrafting my novel, one of the primary aims I've had since the beginning has been to trim things down to make the story itself more streamlined. There was a lot of stuff that was either extraneous or which just made things more complicated than they needed to be for the story to be told. I think that I identified most of those points early on, and so from the beginning of the redrafting process, I'd been taking correctional steps.

Now that I'm getting towards the end of the novel (I'm redrafting it from beginning to end in one big, long sweep, first), I'm finding that I'm doing a lot more rewriting because of those simplifying changes. Basically, because certain plot threads were removed or retooled, now that the plot is coming together, there's a lot that needs to be accordingly changed so that these old references aren't still in the way.

At first, I was kind of dismayed, mostly because it just made for a lot more work on my part. After thinking about it, though, I think that it's an indication that the plot of the novel has formed very organically; if by changing something on page 30, I accordingly have to change something else on page 170, then that's a sign that I've kept something coherent together. Thinking it about it still more, I'd be worried if I could swap out some episode in the middle of the novel with a completely different scene and have that interchangeability not have any repercussions on what comes after it.

My hope is that I'll be able to get through the rest of the manuscript by the end of this coming weekend. As I get closer to the end, though, there's a lot more hands-on redrafting to be done, beyond just simple editing and tweaking, so it might be a longer process than I think (after all, having never written a novel before, I don't have a lot of experience to help me gauge this sort of thing). Then again, I have a mostly blank weekend ahead of me, as near as I can tell, so I should be able to devote a lot of time if I need to.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Write What You Know (Or Can Reasonably Pretend To)

One of the things that you hear a lot is that most folks' first novels are autobiographical to some extent (sometimes to a larger extent than others). I can sort of understand why this would be the case: after all, the old axiom is to "write what you know," and the one thing that folks should know better than anything else is themselves (in an ideal world, at any rate).

I'm looking at my own novel, now, and I'm glad that it's not very autobiographical at all, because that would bear with it the implication that some truly horrible things have happened in my life, both to me and the people I care about. I'm pretty sure, though, that such a text couldn't ever really be mistaken for autobiographical, in this case, first novel or not.

I was thinking about the whole "write what you know" thing, and when I looked at my novel-in-progress, I started wondering to myself where I got off on attempting to write about things that I certainly hadn't ever experienced myself (like getting involved with government conspiracies or living the life of a billionaire).

When I looked more closely, though, I realized that the things that really held the book together from an emotional point of view (or which, in theory, should hold it together), are themes that I can certainly identify with very closely, like friendship and social acceptance and self-sacrifice. I'd also like to think that readers would be able identify with that, too, and maybe, in a way, that's where the 'meat' of the story comes, in terms of what's thought-provoking and what leaves an impression.

Besides, if we're going to limit ourselves only to things that we know, thennobody would be writing books with gun-toting animal-people having a helicopter chase.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Addition and Subtraction

As I've mentioned, I'm in the middle of redrafting my novel. It's a pretty unique experience, I have to say; I don't feel like I'm writing a new story even if I am writing a lot of new material.

I think that's a good sign. On the other hand, I am putting in a lot of new material, and I'm not even halfway through the main story, yet. There's a lot of action that happens later on in the course of the book, and part of me fears that I might be delaying things from 'happening' by sticking too much in the front; conversely, there's also a lot near the end that I think I'm going to just rip out wholesale (but, then again, I'm probably going to replace it with something else).

It's been pointed out by folks who read my original draft that I have a story that's driven by an ensemble cast. I'm not sure why I tried writing a novel without one single "main" character, but
looking at the story, I think it would be hard to do tell it the same way if I just had a main protagonist (for you videogamey types out there, trying thinking of Final Fantasy VI). With that in mind, I am a little less worried about developing things more thoroughly in the beginning, because I intend it to be an emotional story, and so I want to reader to care about the characters and to understand them and their motivations. It's probably going to be a longer story, and while I don't think that longer necessarily means that something is better, in this case, I think it'll turn out that way.

I'm also surprised by how little preexisting sections need to change in order to account for the more sweeping changes elsewhere. Naturally, there are some major things I do need to change, but comparatively-speaking, I expected that the tweaking would be more extensive. My fundamental story hasn't changed all that much, though, so maybe it makes sense that a lot of what I've already written can stay the same. Perhaps the second half of the redrafting process will see some very different changes, though; I expect that the path to the story's climax will change pretty drastically, and the dénouement and resolution will need to change accordingly.

All in all, it's a rewarding experience, albeit an unusual one that I'm definitely not used to. I'm under the assumption that it's going well, but I don't think I'll know until I'm finished if it's gone as well as it seems to be going now!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

How to Write a Novel

I came across this rather terrific list of guidelines for how to write a novel. It includes such great pieces of advice as:

  • Alcohol is a writer's best friend. It provides inspiration and confidence, it allows your fingers to fly fluidly across the keyboard; it cheers you up when you're down. It worked for Edgar Allen Poe, it worked for Stephen King and I just bet it will work for you.

  • Indeed, distraction is what life is all about. If you use a computer for writing your book then make sure you've got a good internet connection, and stay permanently connected. The internet is an invaluable research tool and every time you surf you will find hours of non-stop inspiration.

  • No one likes it when bad things happen. Only write about the happy stuff.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"But this is how it *really* happened..."

I believe it was in Stephen Koch's Modern Library Writer's Workshop
that I was first exposed to the notion that nobody, not even the writer, can know a story before it has been told. This is one of those pieces of advice that, while I always thought was interesting, is also something that I never fully appreciated until I saw firsthand how true it really is.

When I was writing the first draft of my novel, I knew pretty much how the story was going to go: I knew the beginning and the setup, I knew the key plot points, and I knew how it was going to end. Over the course of several months, as I went about actually writing it, the spaces in between started to fill themselves in, as of course they are supposed to. Even so, when I was about halfway through the draft itself, there was one moment where I was sitting in an airport, scribbling away halfheartedly with my pencil, when I was suddenly struck with some kind of epiphany, where I just kind of saw how the rest of what I needed to write fit together. It's not that I didn't know (at least roughly) what was going to happen; rather, I just now better understood why my brain had put it all there in the first place.

This is not to say, however, that because I had this magical thought that I suddenly had the perfect course for the rest of my book. I did manage to complete the draft in a frenzy of excitement (which was a wonderful experience, I must say), and when the draft itself was 'done,' I had told my story.

So, yes, now I had told my story; having told my story, I now knew what the story was.

It is from this point that I began my new journey: finding a way to tell that story better. The basic idea is the same, of course, and the plot itself isn't going to change in any drastic sense from what I've already created, but in the telling are the details, and the details are what make the story interesting. I know the story, now, and so now I'm equipped to tell it in a way that is more enjoyable, in a way that makes it a more entertaining read, because I know where it needs to go and (I think) I have a fun way of getting there.

I count myself lucky in that I had an attentive 'test audience' for that first draft. They were helpful enough to validate my idea (by letting me know that I had a story worth telling), and they had their own suggestions which I, in turn, have been working with, seeing what I've already written and then deciding, on my own, how to best tell the story I've already told, again--as if 'for real' this time. It's a very hands-on transformative process.

You can almost draw parallels to telling anecdotes. We all have stories that we tell people, time and again, at parties or gatherings or when you first start getting to know someone--stories about things we've experienced, that we know, and that we want to convey to others. But I'm also sure that all of us, in the course of telling and retelling these anecdotes, quickly refine them in the way that we tell them, and probably have set ways that we phrase certain points of those stories to get across what we think is the best effect in the telling.

That's a lot like what redrafting my novel is like, I think. The only difference is that it's fiction from the beginning, so I can change the 'facts' themselves without cheating. It's still the same basic prinicple, though, of retooling the telling of a story that I (now, at last) already know, just spicing up the right points and leaving out the duller bits so that the audience gets the most out of what I want to tell them.

Monday, August 21, 2006


Back in June, I finished the first draft of a novel. I sort of underplay this accomplishment, even to myself, though in the back of my mind I realize that it is is an accomplishment, since it's the first time I've ever done that.

I'm not sure if you could technically call it a manuscript, since it was never put into official manuscript form, but rather, just done up as a print-friendly PDF for my editor-reader-writer friends to peek at. I call it a manuscript, though, since that's a term that people understand, and it also sounds better than just saying, "I wrote a novel," when, as of this moment, I don't actually have an actual novel of which to speak (I am, of course, working on that, but everything in its due time).

After taking a couple of months away from said first draft (along with getting some very good feedback from a small but dedicated group of readers), I have begun, as of last week, to rework things into a second draft. The prospect is brutally daunting, and altogether very different from retooling and smoothing out revisions for a short story. I'm in good spirits about it, so far, but that doesn't exactly keep it from remaning the daunting task that I know it is (I'm tentatively giving myself until the end of September to complete this new draft, which seems like a reasonable goal, given a steady work pace).

There's a well-known bit of writers' advice about needing to "murder your darlings" (which comes from a saying that's been attributed to just about every writer known for his witicisms, but which seems to really be something said by Arthur Quiller-Couch). For those of you who might not know what this means, this is a bit of 'tough love' advice for a writer, urging him or her to suck it up and deal with the fact that, when redrafting a work like a novel, there are going to be things that they'll want, in their heart, to keep, but which, in the end, need to be taken out. That was always something that was lurking in the back of my mind, and as I look at this draft I already have, I can see how very, very true it is.

I have entire character arcs, actually, that I have lined up on the chopping block, ready to tear their spines out wholesale. What had once been important plot points in my mind as I initially developed the narrative are now, in retrospect, a tad bit unnecessary, and shall be either eliminated or transformed as necessary. On the whole, I'm only about four chapters in on a rough pass, but already, I can see where things are going to end up looking a lot more streamlined and a lot more coherent (and I haven't even begun the major work, yet).

So, daunting, yes, but still something to look forward to, overall, because I know I'll end up with something better for all the work.

Then we'll see about charging all my friends to read it.

A Simple Introduction

I should probably start with some sort of introductory post.

I'm a writer. I think I've always been a writer, really, which is something I'm willing to bet a lot of writers will say they have in common. It's only been over the last six or seven years, though, that I really started taking myself seriously, and even within that time, it's probably been only three years since my serious side has taken itself seriously.

Back in 2000 or so, I made a failed attempt at writing a novel. I kind of liked the idea, though, so I tried retooling the same premise and then tried writing again. Once more, it failed (with less progress made than my first attempt). A third attempt yielded still less. I was discouraged.

In my frustration at my inability to complete any of these novel drafts, I decided instead to try my hand at short stories, just so I could experience the satisfaction of saying that I'd finished something. In the back of my mind, I think I'd always thought of short stories as a "lesser" form of storytelling, and so I never gave them much credence. So, for a while, my idea was to spend time "dabbling" with short stories until I shook the whatever-it-was in my brain loose so that I could go back to writing "real" fiction.

Well, it didn't take very long for me to realize how wrong I was about the validity of short stories. Maybe it's just because I hadn't read very many; maybe it's because I just fell into the assumption that bigger was better. Whatever the case, I eventually got over that misguided notion, and once I got an appreciation for what a short story could be, my ability to write them probably went up accordingly. And so, from then on, for the next many years, I continued to write such stories, enjoying it quite a bit.

I think I first heard about NaNoWriMo in 2003. It struck me as something I should probably do, just so I could say that I did it, and to say that I put a bunch of words down on paper. Well, November came and went that year and I didn't do anything. The same happened in 2004 and in 2005. I guess I just wasn't motivated to write a big huge piece just for the novelty (no pun intended) of having written it--again, the ironic twist of actually enjoying and appreciating my own short stories came back at me.

When I did finally get the idea for a novel that I wanted to write (in a novel-writing sense, not in a '50,000 random words that happened to be written in November' sense), I was struck with the new notion that I didn't actually know how to write a novel. This would explain, in retrospect, why I was never able to get it right the first time, but even before attempting again after having hit my writing groove, I knew instinctively that the process of writing a novel wasn't the same as writing a short story and just making it longer. I don't know if I can explain it to someone who's never written much, but it is both a very different mindset and a very different constructive process that goes into it.

So, I've come a long way, I've learned a lot, and I know I've still got a long ways to go. I've heard people say that you can't really be a writer until you're thirty; if that's the case, I still have three years to go, and I'd be very impatient for all of them. Still, I do recognize that a lot of what I do is far from polished, and I hope that in those next three years I make a lot of progress.

Hopefully, this here blog will help me chronicle some of that, and hopefully, the things I say will be of some interest to the folks out there in the outside world.