Tag Archives: fiction writing

Analysis and Surgery

5 Mar
Stories within stories, wheels within wheels

Stories within stories, wheels within wheels

I just finished editing a neat little short story. The setting is pretty bizarre (shocking, right?), but the underlying emotional content is supposed to be real. It is an element of craft that I find very attractive. How would real characters react when faced with the unusual, fantastic, or supernatural? And more importantly, how can I convey their very real inner lives? It’s the kind of thing I’ve been working on/with since before I ever heard the words ‘slipstream’ or ‘magical realism.’

The first (revised) draft weighed in at just under 3,000 words. Not bad. I was worried about how the story was balanced and paced, so I did something I almost never do: I analyzed my work. Determined to chop it apart – to vivisect, if you will – I broke out the excel spreadsheet. I hacked the text into bits and made notes on what happened in each scene, how many words were in that scene, and where in the story it took place. Then I rendered two graphs, which looked like this:

 

the progression of the word count

the progression of the word count

the word count in each scene

the word count in each scene

It’s not terribly instructive, really, but it gives me a rough idea of structure. And the visualization makes me happy. I can see pretty clearly how the story builds, and what I placed the most emphasis on. If there is too much in one scene/section, but another seems slight, maybe I ought to dive in and carve it up.

Then I had a thought: What if I excised ALL of the fantastical elements? So I did. The work was simple, but time-consuming. Every sentence (or part of thereof) that referred to or described something out of the ordinary fell under my cruel editor’s knife. Here is an example, from early in the story. This scene:

            Five days before, just after midnight, he and Heather had stood in a crowd next to those swings as the giant alien spaceship had moved towards the city. The disk had slid into view from the south, having just destroyed Los Angeles. A million tiny, yellow and white lights illuminated its hull, and it filled the sky like some kind of imported constellation. Pete had wrapped his arm around Heather’s shoulders. Her skin was cold, even though the warm night air felt humid and still. She had pulled away from him, and they watched as the enormous starship stopped in the sky. It shook, fell apart, and the pieces began to rain down to the earth below. None of them knew why or how it had been destroyed, but any relief they felt turned sour as hundreds of tiny fireballs began to hit the ground.

After chopping out any references, it became this scene:

            Five days before, just after midnight, he and Heather had stood next to those swings. A million tiny, yellow and white lights filled the sky. Pete had wrapped his arm around Heather’s shoulders. Her skin was cold, even though the warm night air felt humid and still. She had pulled away from him and the stars stopped in the sky.

The story is essentially about a guy who gets dumped by his girlfriend, because he’s been an ass. The setting happens to be during some strange, alien invasion, apocalyptic events. By chopping out the ‘weird’ stuff, I was able to look at the meat of the story, without any fancy bits – sometimes in the middle of a sentence. In all, I only put in two new words, and I cut out a thousand. That told me that only a third of my story was about crazy stuff. I dug into it again.

This time, I took on Pete’s smoking. Cigarettes are fucking terrible, but they can be very useful props for characters to interact with. After cutting out the cigarettes and all references to them, I had ditched another three hundred words. I was pleased. My story was lean and smooth, but I didn’t enjoy it so much.

I put the crazy/end of the world/alien invasion business right back where it belonged. And then I reworked the start of the tale. Like I said, it’s not hard work, but it does eat up a lot of time. My final draft, after one more edit is right about 2,700 words. It’s not perfect, maybe, but it might be as good as it gets.

What have I learned? That is a damn good question. I think I need to take a more critical look at my assumptions about my work. I will definitely use this graph/analysis technique again. And if I have the time, I will absolutely rip apart my living story and perform home surgery on whatever seems out of place. It makes me feel a bit like a mad scientist, to be honest. I’m building these little monsters, and I want to do my best. I am sure I’m not the first or last to tread this path, but it seems like a good direction to go.

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Solitary Words

17 Jun

Solitary Writer

When I write nonfic, I don’t really care who’s in the room. I can type away, stop to have a conversation, and then return to my thoughts without much trouble or angst. That’s not the case when I write fiction. When I’m working on a novel or short story, I guard my time and space like a dragon guards its treasure, because if I’m interrupted, all is lost. I lose my train of thought completely, poof, and it takes a supreme effort to get it back. And after the third or so interrupt, it’s utterly gone, dead, kaput. It’s bad enough that if I know I won’t get very much alone time during a day, I won’t even try to write, because it makes me more cranky to be stopped from writing than to not even attempt it at all.

I want to be one of those prolific fiction writers who can write in between changing babies or dashing off work memos, but it seems I’m just not wired that way. While my nonfic muse is much looser and free, I need mental space and complete autonomy to commune with my fiction muse. She’s very fussy. So fussy, in fact, that this rule doesn’t even apply across the board. If I’m in a studio with other writers, I can chat about our work every once in a while and then get right back into writing. It’s only when people want to talk about something mundane, like insurance or plans for the weekend, that my muse flees into her deep dark cave and refuses to come out.

I know what you’re saying. You’re pointing to my own previous post and telling me to just give my muse the space she needs, right? And you’re correct, to a certain extent. That’s why I’m setting myself work hours and arranging my office so I can be the most comfortable and letting everyone know I will not text back until I’m done writing for the day. But there is a very fine line between holding something sacred and letting it morph into a temperamental, demanding deity, or even worse, using that sacredness to make it untouchable.

Which is exactly what I’ve been doing. Ever since I began this blog, I’ve been making strides towards writing fiction fulltime again, which is great. Except I’m still not writing. I had one productive period a few weeks ago. I wrote every day and had brilliant ideas and it felt wonderful. Then I was derailed by life, and I haven’t been able to get back into the groove since.

I realize now that, more than anything, it’s ME that’s stopping me. I’m treating my fiction writing as something precious, not just in a protective way but in an avoidance way. I’m holding myself to extremely high standards and using my need for space as an excuse to not even try. My fiction muse demands utter devotion and focus, and when I can’t guarantee that completely (which is always, because, you know, life), instead of fighting for my space or dealing with the problem and then getting back into the work, I immediately throw up my hands and step away from the keyboard, whining the entire time about how I can’t write because people won’t leave me alone. While this may be true a lot of the time, I’ve noticed that even when they do, I can be really creative finding ways to not be creative. I’ve mastered the art of excuses.

And I think I know why. When one of my novels was published last year, there were some…hiccups. Overall, it was not the best experience. So now I’m using every defense I have to avoid going through that again, the most effective being not writing at all, and I’m blaming the distractions around me for my lack of productivity. Conversely, I have a very intense need to prove myself because of that same situation. I must be the most talented writer I can be all the time now, to show myself and the world that I can succeed despite that ordeal. In other words, I must be a perfect writer  (which is a sure way to instantly stifle any creative flow I may have), and I must never write again (because that’ll save me from all pain, ever), all at the same time. Are you starting to understand the twistedness that is my brain?

The solution, I think, is to both go easy on myself and to push myself. As I’ve read in writing books for years (but never needed to hear until now): I must let go of perfection. I have to let myself make mistakes. It’s part of the process. I need to approach my writing as play, like I used to, and enjoy myself. And there’s another lesson I need right now as well: I must show up at the page day after day, despite everything going on around me. I have to make writing fiction a part of my routine again. I need to practice, both timewise and playwise, instead of worrying and fussing and not doing anything for fear of everything.

It’s sometimes hard to see the distinction between protecting a muse and indulging it. I’ve been letting mine act like a spoiled child, buying it off with excuses but not giving it what it really wants: boundaries and the safety to explore that comes with them. I’m learning that without both a firm hand and a nonjudgmental place to run free, my writing just won’t ever happen.

Perfectly Harmless Questions

7 Jun

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Every now and then, friends or family will ask the wrong question. It is a simple, innocuous pit-trap in a conversation, but no one ever anticipates how things can go wrong. It goes like this:

“So, what have you been up to?” Or,

“How’s the writing going?” Or, if they’re being blunt,

“Have you gotten any work done lately?”

These are terrible things to say. There are other variations, of course, but these are common. To most people these don’t seem like problematic questions. And for most people, it would be fine. But I’m a writer, so it’s an invitation to be honest about my work. And that is a terrible idea.

For the record, when I answer, “Working hard,” or, “Doing good,” or, “Just plugging away, ya know?” those are simple, truthful replies. And they are designed to protect you. I don’t really want to tell you about it. Because at no point in time could the answer ever be anything happy, or inspiring. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had very productive times – times when I was kicking out work that I loved – but that’s the aberration. And even then, the terms I would use might seem a bit depressing. There is no way for me to explain why spending a month rewriting a short story is ‘great progress’ for me.

To be honest, even the fantasy isn't that impressive...

To be honest, even the fantasy isn’t that impressive…

I had a friend once ask about my work, years ago. After chatting a bit, he asked me if I was planning on a novel, or book-length work. I laughed and told him there was no way that was going to happen – I liked myself too much to work on a novel! Ah, ha, ha, how we laughed. A month later, I started work on my first novel.

See, I started working on a new novel this month. This is my third (fourth?) novel project, and I’m pretty certain that I can plow all the way through a first draft. I’m approaching the whole thing in a new, different way for me. And, of course, I’m excited and eager to get work done. It feels great, to sit down and pound on the keyboard for hours, actually making progress for a change. I feel like a ‘real’ writer, I guess.

But it is a temporary thing, I know. I’ve done this before, even if I’ve never tried my hand at this type of writing. My overriding concern, of course, is that I’m going to crash and burn, long before I finish the initial draft. And it’s a fear that I have to guard and fight against, every single day. Even if I can’t banish the feeling, I can put it aside for a while, at least until I can get some words on paper.

And in the meantime, I have to plan for the known pitfalls and my bad habits as a writer. That means write now, edit later – stick to the plan and don’t get sidetracked – and keep my eyes on the finish line. The worst thing – the very worst thing I can imagine – would be to start thinking critically about what I’m working on. For now, anyway.

Because the horrible truth about myself is that it is true: I do like myself too much to work on a novel. But the flip side is also true: I hate myself enough to work on a novel. I want to keep the damage to my psyche to a minimum this time. I am well aware that I can’t stop this destructive lifestyle, but maybe I can keep it to myself.

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Next time, I’ll tell you all about my new, super-awesome, totally happy novel writing plan that is foolproof and guaranteed to not drive me crazy! Yeah. We’ll see how that goes.