January 31, 2012

Loaded Dialogue

Last week I wrote a scene that's either brilliant or a ridiculous mess. Perhaps both. I think much of the writing process involves believing a draft is brilliant when you're in the middle of it so that you can sustain the enthusiasm necessary to continue, and then afterwards realizing how much is wrong with it so that you can rip it apart in revision.

Anyway, the scene from yesterday is a conversation between two characters. For the sake of simplicity, I'll call them Barthélémy Göstav III and Vvlkjasfdsmxxxwehny.

(I'm sorry. Really I am. I have very few opportunities for amusement as I sit here alone in my garret.)

So, in fact this scene is a conversation between the narrator of the current storyline and his brother, whose role in the story I was worrying about a while back. In earlier drafts, the brother didn't do much in the story as an adult, though he's important as a child in the chronologically earlier storyline. In this draft, he has a few key scenes in which he makes important contributions. This is the final major appearance of the brother, and I ended up having him contribute even more than I intended.

I'm a little boggled by how much I packed into three pages of dialogue. In maddeningly vague terms, here's what happens in the scene:

→ the brother reveals a secret from his past that nobody in the family knows about

→ the brother discusses an aspect of his life that relates to the storyline that takes place in their future (which the reader realizes but the characters don't)

→ the brother brings up an incident from the narrator's infancy that the reader witnessed in the earlier storyline but the narrator didn't know about

→ during the conversation, the narrator's internal thoughts focus on his current life catastrophe, unrelated to what they're discussing

→ the whole conversation encapsulates several of the novel's major themes

I'd planned for the scene to do a few of these things, and I'd thrown notes into the outline about another couple that I didn't know if I'd really be able to work in. When I finished writing the scene and saw how much I'd done with it, I was pretty darn pleased with myself. And entirely unsure whether there's such a thing as overloading a dialogue. I guess this is yet another thing my critique partners will let me know.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund talks about the concern that you're Writing the Same Story as someone else: "Here's the thing about stories: no matter how much we like to think something is new, it really isn't -- at least on a thematic level."

January 25, 2012

Great Stuff Out There, January Edition

At the end of most of my blog posts, I include a section of links called Good Stuff Out There. These are usually posts or articles by other people who have something interesting to say about writing, books, or related topics. I offer these links because when I find something I like, I want to tell more people about it, as we all do.

Sometimes I encounter undertakings of a literary nature (or otherwise) that I want to highlight more prominently than a link at the end of an unrelated post. So I'm introducing a new recurring feature called Great Stuff Out There. In this first edition of Great Stuff, I have two exciting projects to discuss:

FOGcon 2012 - Last year I attended the first Friends of the Genre convention, and I had a blast. The con focuses on science fiction and fantasy literature, and it will be held March 30 to April 1 in Walnut Creek (in the San Francisco Bay Area).

This isn't a writing conference, but a gathering of enthusiastic readers (some of whom are also writers). My knowledge of genre fiction is limited compared to most of the attendees, and I was a bit nervous about that last year, but I still felt welcomed and able to participate. You can look through the long list of suggested programming to see what kind of panel discussions and workshops will be offered.

I'm looking forward to attending FOGcon 2012, and I hope I can talk a few people into joining me. Interested? Register here!

Flamingo Rampant - My longtime friend S. Bear Bergman is launching a line of children's picture books that celebrate the fluidity of gender. Bear is a wonderful writer (may I recommend his essay collection THE NEAREST EXIT MAY BE BEHIND YOU?), and since becoming a wonderful dad, he's been thinking about subjects that are underrepresented in children's literature. Bear has written two picture books and located artists to illustrate them.

Visit the Kickstarter page and watch the video to learn more about the project and the books. The fundraising campaign has been so successful that almost all the money required to publish both books has been raised in only three days, but pre-orders and donations are still being accepted.

January 19, 2012

Busy, Back Soon

This week I had to do some terrible things to my characters. I arrived at my novel's most horrific event and revised the scene that destroys the characters' lives. As I got closer and closer to this scene, I'd been both dreading and looking forward to revisiting and improving it.

I'm glad that I got through this scene, and I'm pleased with the way it turned out. The aftermath is shaping up nicely, with some good new changes from the previous draft. I have some hope that the rest of this storyline will flow out pretty quickly from here, so it might not be so very long until I move on to the next and final storyline.

All of which is to say, there's been a lot of intense revising around here recently, and not too much else. I'll work on coming up with some more interesting blog content for later in the month.

But I figure this is a good time to ask you, my loyal blog readers: Is there any particular topic you'd like me to discuss? What types of posts are you interested in seeing more of? Please weigh in with any feedback, and thank you so much for reading!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Henriette Lazaridis Power writes at The Millions about acknowledgements: "Everyone reads the acknowledgements. In fact, for many of us, the first thing we do when we pull a book off the store shelf is to flip to the back. The writers among us might be searching for the agent or the editor we can query, or we might be seeking our own name in the list. But we certainly read the acknowledgements for the drama and the human story revealed therein."

January 13, 2012

The Right Amount of Backstory

Last night I finished MAN IN THE WOODS by Scott Spencer, a fascinating novel that deals with issues of violence and guilt and faith. And features a very sweet dog.

Near the beginning of the story, the main character commits an unintended but horrific crime, and most of the rest of the book is about what happens to him and his family afterwards. Occasional sections focus on a different set of characters involved in the investigation of the crime. What most stood out to me about the book was the richly detailed backstories that Spencer gives to every character in the novel.

After I read IF SONS, THEN HEIRS by Lorene Cary, I wrote about how I was impressed that the book included a level of nonessential detail that I would have expected to distract from the story but instead enriched it. Similarly, MAN IN THE WOODS presents many details and events from the pasts of even minor characters that provide no necessary plot information and don't obviously illuminate any specific character trait that needs to be set up. My own editing tendencies would have been to cut most of these out, but in fact I didn't find any of them boring or distracting as I read, and they increased the realness of the characters and their community.

For example, the main character's family is acquainted with, and doesn't particularly like, another family in their small town. This irritating family gets about five small appearances or mentions in the course of the novel, but they could be removed from the story with no impact on the plot. I like that they're in there because it makes the world rich and real: in life, we deal with not only the people we care about and the people who create our main conflicts, but also plenty of people who cause minor annoyances. The characters in the family aren't caricatures but are sketched out in depth, with a whole constellation of traits to bother the protagonist.

Early in the novel's other storyline, involving the detective investigating the crime, the detective meets with a landlord who has some information. In this scene, Spencer lets us into the thoughts of both men, and we see that both of them are seriously distracted from the conversation by a personal problem. The landlord is uncomfortable because he's spotted a man he had a one-night-stand with a year ago, and the detective is struggling to overcome his binge eating habits. I was amazed by the amount of attention given to the inner conflicts in this scene, especially because the landlord never appears in the novel again and the cop's eating disorder doesn't turn out to have any bearing on the plot. But these problems greatly increase the tension of a scene that's otherwise just a transfer of information, and it works.

MAN IN THE WOODS made me think more about my recent musings on giving backstories to secondary characters, and I'm realizing that I can dare to reveal even more detail about my characters' pasts.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond the Margins, Anna Solomon explains Why Princesses Really Drive Me Crazy: "For me, resolution isn't about neatness, or even closure, it's about resonance: the ending of a story has to make everything that came before it ring. Princess story endings seem to deny everything that came before them: whew, that was awful, let’s just forget it ever happened, shall we?"

→ Alex George charts the evolution of his novel from first draft to publication in A Story in Five Photos. (Thanks, Christopher Gronlund!)

January 11, 2012

Back To Work

My holiday travels concluded right after New Year's, but I took all of last week off from writing so that I had time to catch up on various life tasks and tackle some "not urgent but it sure would be nice to have this done" projects that there's never time for. That was the theory, anyway. Mostly what I did last week was sleep and read, but I'm not going to complain about getting to do that.

On Monday, I returned to the novel after more than two weeks away. It was nice to get back to it. Sort of. Writing is rarely more fun than reading and napping, and my brain hasn't been enthusiastic about switching out of vacation mode. I've had to force myself to sit down at my desk. And then force myself to stop looking at Twitter. And then to finish the paragraph instead of looking at Twitter again.

But at the moments when my willpower is stronger than my urge to procrastinate, I've put some words down, and they're good words. I made it through a couple of troublesome scenes and into a section that will change relatively little from the previous draft. I'm writing again, whether I want to be or not, and writing is never as horrible as I imagine it will be when I'm faced with the prospect of doing it. I guess I even sort of enjoy it.

Maybe that's why I've chosen to keep plugging away at the work of writing a novel. Oh yeah, duh.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jonathan Gourlay sends a dispatch from his time In the Land of the Non-Reader: "After a week of non-reading, I said to myself that I was busy. So busy. Too busy, really, to start a new book. After three weeks of non-reading, my brain felt a bit numb. I told myself that I was working so hard that I couldn’t engage with a book." (Thanks, The Millions!)

→ Jennifer R. Hubbard wraps up her series of authors' "second book" stories by sharing the tale of her own upcoming second novel.

January 6, 2012

January Reading Plan

Here's what I have lined up to start my reading year:

MAN IN THE WOODS by Scott Spencer - I put this book on my list for December but didn't get to it then. I started it yesterday and had to drag myself away after 50 pages in order to get other things done. This is going to be a gripping but distressing read.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides - I'm often hesitant to read the books that all the literary media goes crazy over, because I'm contrary like that. But I received this book as a holiday present, and since I loved Eugenides's previous book, MIDDLESEX, there's no good reason to avoid this one. It's partly set at Brown University in the early 1980s, and I must admit I'm curious about that, since I attended college there, though over a decade later.

FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley - Shelley is the Honored Ghost (posthumous honored guest, you see) at this year's FOGcon, the speculative literature convention that I had so much fun at last year. I believe I read FRANKENSTEIN many years ago (actually, I have a feeling I read about three quarters of it), but I don't remember it well, so I thought I'd read it again. Then I should probably read some more recent works relevant to this year's FOGcon theme, The Body.

THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon - Selected semi-randomly from the large collection of books I own but haven't read. It has a great alternative history premise: After World War II, a Jewish state was set up in Alaska. I'm curious to see where that idea goes, and this will be my first Chabon novel.

January 5, 2012

December Reading Recap

At the beginning of 2011 I decided to start planning out my reading on a monthly basis and announcing each month what I intended to read. I said that I wasn't going to commit to finishing all the listed books every month, and I haven't, but stating my reading list publicly in advance has motivated me to make more time for reading so that I'd have more books to report at the end of the month.

I read 30 books in 2011. I know that's not a very impressive number compared to many other readers and writers, but it's a good number for me. It's about the same number of books as I read in 2010 and significantly more than in the preceding years. I didn't read every day, but I read most days, and I count that as a resoundingly successful result to this experiment, which I intend to continue. Maybe my number of books will be higher in 2012, and maybe it won't -- after all, there are books to be written, too.

In December, I only had time for two of the books on my list:

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I finished the final book in the Mars series and enjoyed it just as much as the first two. The story went in a bunch of interesting new directions in this last installment while also continuing with the familiar plots, topics, and characters. This is an incredible saga with well-developed characters in a highly detailed, believable world. The books are a dense read, full of descriptions and scientific explanations, and for that reason I'm sort of surprised that I liked them as much as I did.

I spent just over a year reading the Mars trilogy, while reading many other books at the same time, and I think that was a good way for me to approach such a quantity of challenging text. I'm thinking about taking on another large reading project for 2012, and I'm open to suggestions.

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan - This is a creative and well-written book, deserving of the acclaim it received, but I don't think it qualifies as a novel because it doesn't have a unified story arc or much sense of beginning, middle, and end. I'd call this a book of closely linked short stories, and while I appreciated each story, I didn't feel as satisfied at the end as I do after a good novel. It seems an unlikely candidate to be optioned for an HBO series, but if the network makes it, I'll watch with fascination.

However you categorize the book, it's full of intriguing characters, many of them involved in the music industry and all of them coping with disappointments and difficulties in life. The chapters, or stories, jump around in time and feature a variety of narrative styles, including a chapter consisting entirely of PowerPoint slides. I love that kind of thing, but it's not for every reader. Each chapter features a different main character, who might have appeared or been mentioned in an earlier story or might have a more distant connection. Part of the fun of reading is figuring out how each new story relates to what has come before and finding out more about events that have been alluded to. Taken together, the chapters present snapshots from the lives of a loosely connected web of characters while tracking the development of music and technology over time. Recommended for readers open to unusually structured books, particularly those with a passion for rock and roll.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jacket Copy collected literary New Year's resolutions from writers. I particularly like Marisa Silver's: "Use fewer commas."