May 30, 2012

A Typical Day in My Writing Brain

9:30am: I'm going to get so much writing done today!

11:00am: I guess I should probably stop [reading the internet/doing these somehow urgently important dishes/"carefully planning my week"/reading a different part of the internet] and get started on that whole writing thing.

11:03am: I have no idea where this scene is supposed to go next. I'm not going to produce anything good today.

11:07am: OHMYGOD that is the best paragraph I've ever written! This scene is going in such a brilliant direction.

11:16am: Well, I wrote that one really awesome paragraph. Isn't that enough of an accomplishment for one day?

11:52am: Okay, what if he says that to her, and that sets up the thing that happens in the next chapter, and it's also sort of parallel to what happens later in the other storyline...

12:13pm: Ugh, this chapter I wrote a few months ago is going to need so much polishing. No, wait, I love it.

1:31pm: Is this the best reveal ever, or what? Is it? Is it? Probably not.

1:33pm: Whatever, I'll fix it later.

2:00pm: Wait, what if none of this makes any sense because nobody did that kind of thing in 1963?

2:48pm: Now that I'm positive the situation is period-appropriate, I think I'm not going to use it after all because something else works better.

3:35pm: How is it that I'm still researching this when I thought I'd already decided not to use it?

3:41pm: Okay, it's decided: I'll do it like this, and later I'll go back and add a part to the other storyline where they talk about the same issue.

3:44pm: I will never ever ever be finished with this novel.

3:46pm: No agent will ever consider my manuscript because it's too long. But not like it matters, because I'll never be done revising it.

3:47pm: The time I'm spending on revision is worth it because I'm creating an incredible manuscript, and it doesn't matter that it's long because every word belongs there.

3:48pm: I'm delusional. I will never be successful.

3:49pm: Okay, what if in this scene, they're talking about that other thing, and then I take out that other scene?

4:53pm: Shoot, I spent so long writing that I'm not going to have time to [read/blog/do those urgently important dishes/read the internet].

7:29pm: Oh, I know, I should make that scene take place at the office.

9:15pm: What kind of desks would the office have?

1:47am: Ohmygod have I based that whole chapter on a glaring anachronism?

1:53am: No agent will ever consider my manuscript because of how the story opens.

This is a sample typical day, but not all of my days follow this pattern. On many days, these thoughts occur in an entirely different order! Also, I have totally exaggerated how long I typically spend working in order to make myself look good in this post.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ io9 offers a very cool chart that reveals how science fiction futures changed over time: "Once we had our data, we divided it up into works set in the Near Future (0-50 years from the time the work came out), Middle Future (51-500 years from the time the work came out) and Far Future (501+ years from the time the work came out)."

May 24, 2012

Solving the First Chapter

I've been busy writing (and, okay, also baking cookies), and the beginning of the final storyline is going well. For this part of the revision, I'm dealing with a plot that will stay about the same while a great many of the details change.

One of the things I find fun about revision is that when I'm working on the first chapter, I already know what will be important in the rest of the story. During a first draft, I may have some idea of what will come, but I never really understand a story until I've written it. Knowing the whole story means that I can fill the first chapter with references and hints to everything that lies ahead.

In the first chapter, I like to establish all the character traits that will be relevant to the plot. As much as possible, I have the characters talk or think about the issues that will contribute to the major conflicts of the story. I also consider how much the reader needs to know at the start about the backstory. Then I have to figure out how to work this all in while also creating a first chapter that makes the reader interested to read on. It's like solving a puzzle, and it might be my favorite part of writing a novel.

Apparently I like it so much that I wrote a post on exactly this topic when I started the second storyline. So you can go read that, and I'm going to get back to fitting the pieces together.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Mark Athitakis contemplates how fiction is represented by keywords in the Library of Congress catalog and New Yorker tags: "If you studied English in high school, you know this story: 'Lots; Mob Violence; Small Towns; Stoning'. You probably know this one too: 'Adolescence; Bathing Suits; New England; Supermarkets'." (Thanks, The Millions!)

→ Graphic designer Matt Roeser reads books and then designs new jackets for them at New Cover. (Thanks, Books on the Nightstand!)

May 16, 2012

A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing

Occasionally as I'm drifting off to sleep at night, I jolt awake thinking, "Did I fact-check that?" I always tell myself to stop thinking about it and go to sleep instead of getting up to do research, which invariably means that I lie awake worrying for longer than it would have taken to look it up.

A lot of facts go into a work of fiction. My novel takes place in the real United States in particular real cities at specific times. The basic rules of reality apply to the characters -- that is, my book doesn't involve magic, supernatural elements, warps in the fabric of time-space, or anything like that.

Into this real world setting, I'm putting fictional people and giving them a whole lot of fictional accessories: houses that don't exist, imaginary businesses, made-up books. Part of getting the reader to go along with the fiction is to make sure that wherever it touches the real world, it's consistent with what the reader knows.

For a blatant example, if the characters are all carrying cell phones in 1995 (or even more blatantly, in 1965), the reader is going to notice that inconsistency with the real known world. An unjustified anachronism like that isn't part of the fictional overlay of the story, it's an error. The reader will be at least distracted and perhaps moved to throw the book across the room and never pick it up again, depending on their tolerance level. I want to avoid that.

The actual examples are subtler, of course, but the problem is the same. What kept me awake last night was wondering if it's really reasonable to drive from the Grand Canyon to San Jose in one day. This occurs in the chapter I'm revising, and I supposed that I must have researched it when writing the previous draft, but I started to question whether it was realistic.

Some readers (of this post and eventually of the novel) will be familiar with the distance and recognize if I've made a factual error. More readers will be like me -- they haven't made the drive and have only a vague sense of the geography -- so they might accept whatever I present as truth, but they might just as well question it like I did. This is clearly a detail that I need to get right, and it's one of my easier research problems.

Google Maps puts the drive at twelve to thirteen hours. Okay, that's an achievable single long day of driving, but the story introduces additional factors. The characters are traveling in 1963, before the completion of the interstate highway system, so they might be on slower roads. If I needed to judge the driving time more precisely, I'd do more extensive research on the highways, but I can already rule out a one-day drive due to the other complication: the characters include two five-year-olds. A family with small children isn't going to willingly make that drive in a single day.

I'm a bit irritated with Past Me for writing the chapter this way so that now I have to change it, but it turns out it won't create a huge amount of upheaval to adjust the scenario. I even have a change in mind that might make the story better.

This isn't the first time I've found that needing to accommodate the constraints of the real world results in a solution that improves the story. I've encountered other writers talking about this phenomenon, too. It's pretty cool when it happens.

All of this brings up the issue of when in the writing process to do research. It's easy to put a ton of time into research before or during a first draft and then discover in revision that many of the researched elements are no longer needed. For that reason, it can be better to save detailed research until later, when you know what's staying in the story. But then you run into situations like this where you've written a factual error into the events of the plot, and the fix is more complicated than changing a few words. Though as I said, these fixes can lead to good improvements. So I don't have a good answer about when to do research, except that you should definitely not get so caught up in research that you avoid writing altogether.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathryn Schulz describes her night owl habits in an essay on Writing in the Dark: "Mostly, though, I stay up to write. I started doing so in earnest in college, when almost everyone stays up to write--to the dismay of the remaining few, a.k.a. the roommates. Half my memories of those years are bathed in the blue glow of a computer, illuminating an otherwise dark room."

May 11, 2012

Running the Numbers

This week, in honor of completing the revision of my second storyline (yay again!), I've been taking stock of the manuscript and my process. I already told you how I did the math and discovered the second story is longer than I expected. I also created a spreadsheet to calculate how much time I've spent revising. (Do I know how to celebrate or what?)

The numbers revealed several interesting facts -- some discouraging, some reassuring, and some surprising:

→ Counting the number of weeks elapsed, it took exactly the same amount of time to revise the first and second storylines. I had no idea this was the case.

→ After excluding the weeks I didn't work at all due to vacation or other factors, I spent six more weeks with the second storyline. This was upsetting until I realized how much longer the text is.

→ Since I spend a widely varying amount of time writing each week, the number of hours worked gives a more accurate picture of how long each revision took. The hour total for the second storyline is larger than for the first, and that makes sense given the story is longer. I had hoped my calculations would confirm my predictions and show that relative to the length, the second storyline went faster than the first. Alas, looking at words per hour, it would appear that my progress through the second storyline was about ten percent slower. You may all share a hearty laugh.

→ Back in December, I looked over my record of hours worked up to that point, and I was disheartened to see how little overall time I'd spent writing compared to the number of weeks elapsed. I had hoped my latest accounting would show that as a result of that wake-up call, I'd worked many more hours per week throughout the second storyline. The average number of hours is indeed higher, but not as much as I anticipated, and that's even excluding the weeks I took off. I'm still working fewer hours most weeks than seems reasonable to me. I guess it's time for a louder wake-up call.

After considering all these numbers, I have a new plan to make sure I'm happier with my stats for the final storyline. But we all know what happens to plans.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Bill Morris catalogs The Appeals and Perils of the One-Word Book Title: "At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they're just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand."

May 9, 2012

It's How You Use It

If you're familiar with National Novel Writing Month, you'll know that the event revolves around word count and that the goal is to write a novel of 50,000 words. You may also be aware that 50,000 words is much shorter than most novels published for adults these days. The type of book I'm writing could be twice that, or more. (Speaking very, very roughly, a published book has around 300 words per page.)

Since the beginning, I've been expecting this novel to be on the long side -- and no, for those of you out there snickering, it's not because I have an embarrassing history of producing ridiculously lengthy manuscripts. THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE contains three distinct stories, so it needs a good amount of space for all the plots to unfold. I've put a lot of attention into deciding what belongs on the page and what doesn't, and at this point I feel confident that the book will be the correct length to tell the story, with no excess.

I wrote the first draft of DAMAGE during NaNoWriMo in 2007, so I was keeping careful track of the word count. It came in around 80,000 words, and I was pleased to know that I'd have plenty of room to add more to the story. When I wrote the second draft from scratch two years later, I also kept track of my daily word count (though I'd forgotten about that until I found the spreadsheet today). The second version of the book was 110,000 words, a size that seemed appropriate for the story, with even a some leeway to expand.

During this revision, I haven't focused much on word count. I'm rewriting within an existing document, doing a combination of adding new material and removing old text, so tracking words is a less useful metric. Instead, I've been keeping track of hours worked. I've also been thinking about the number of pages in each chapter and noticing the page count that's always visible at the bottom of the window.

Obviously, there's a relationship between page count and word count. They increase and decrease together, and you can estimate one from the other. But I hadn't been making those estimates, and I hadn't been running the word count feature. And more importantly, I wasn't doing any of the math about how many of the pages in the document (which contains all the novel's chapters) had been added in the course of working on this storyline.

So I was surprised when I finished the second storyline (yay!) and discovered that it's significantly longer than the first one I revised. This isn't a disaster, and I was aware that the second plot was turning out larger than planned, but the actual numbers were unexpected.

See, the story that takes place chronologically last, which is the one I revised first (sorry, this is complicated), serves as a sort of frame for the other two storylines. For structural reasons, the frame story has more chapters than the other two. I also intended to add the most new material to the frame (it's really more than a frame) while keeping the other two plots fairly stable. Therefore, I concluded that the frame would be longer than the other two.

When I revised that first storyline, the chapters tended toward a consistent length. I started the second storyline and was a bit alarmed to find that the chapters were all turning out longer. I decided that was fine, and I guessed that as a result, the two stories might be about the same size. At no point did I do any actual math on this to see how far off my guess was. In hindsight, the page and chapter discrepancies clearly meant I was creating far more words and pages for the second story.

As I said, this is not a disaster, and I'm continuing to stand behind the length of the manuscript. The third storyline will have the same number of chapters as the second and is supposed to be around the same length -- but I guess we'll see how it goes.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Theresa Stevens at Edittorrent talks about how to build complexity into texts without undercutting the integrity of the story: "complexity is built up in small moments, but each of those moments must be clear in and of themselves. If the contradictions in your narrative aren't presented in a clear way, in a way that allows the reader to easily grasp them, then you're not building complexity into the text."

May 3, 2012

May Reading Plan

Here's what I have stacked up to read next:

GATHERING OF WATERS by Bernice L. McFadden - I didn't get to this book in April, but now I've started reading it, and the opening is intriguing. The story is set in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was murdered. However, it begins long before then, with some earlier inhabitants of the town. I'm looking forward to seeing how the tale unfolds.

SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY by Mary Robinette Kowal - The author is one of the hosts of the excellent podcast Writing Excuses, and in addition to being a writer, she's a puppeteer. (This has nothing to do with the novel, but is awesome.) SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY adopts the style and society of Jane Austen's novels and places them in a world that contains magic. Since I recently read and enjoyed my first Austen, I've been curious to read this book.

GONE, GONE, GONE by Hannah Moskowitz - This young adult novel was released a couple of weeks ago, and Hannah posted about why the book is so important to her. It takes place in the Washington DC area during the 2002 sniper attacks. I previously read and was impressed by Hannah's INVINCIBLE SUMMER.

THE LEGEND OF PRADEEP MATHEW by Shehan Karunatilaka - This upcoming release is the next pick for the Bookrageous book club. I know it has something to do with cricket, and this piqued my interest because despite my expectations, I really liked another novel about cricket, NETHERLAND by Joseph O'Neill.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Edan Lepucki reports for The Millions on her experience giving away books on World Book Night: "Others eyed me and the baby skeptically, as if trying to discern if we were members of a religious cult. One guy thought I was offering him a book I had written -- and it was clear he did not want that. I found myself exclaiming, 'This won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago!' -- and I was heartened to see that the phrase made a difference."

May 1, 2012

April Reading Recap

This month I read three of the four books on my reading list:

HOUSE OF DOORS by Chaz Brenchley - As I mentioned, Chaz is an acquaintance, but I believe my recommendation of this book is based only on how excellent is. The writing style and the main character drew me in immediately, and I was reminded once again that I shouldn't avoid books based on my preconceptions about their genres.

Ruth is a nurse working in London during World War II. Her husband was recently killed in action, and Ruth would like to be transferred to the front in the hopes that a stray bullet might end her life as well. Instead, she's sent to a large estate in the English countryside that's housing a military hospital with a mysterious purpose. While Ruth tries to understand what she's doing there, she finds herself haunted even more strongly than before by thoughts of her husband and his fiery death.

HOUSE OF DOORS is a horror story, so the haunting eventually becomes more literal and horrific. But if you're like me and wouldn't normally read horror, don't let that stop you from picking up this book. I was interested to realize how few pages were devoted to supernatural occurrences, even though these events end up driving the plot. This novel is suspenseful and creepy, but it primarily reads like a work of carefully researched historical fiction in which some strange things happen.

Ruth is a great, complex character who is struggling with a variety of internal conflicts. She's highly adept at reading people and situations, sometimes with an almost Sherlock Holmes level of insight, but she's far from perfect. Ruth is very conscious of etiquette and appearances, and her behavior seems very of the time, but she's full of surprises, too. I was glad to have her as my companion through this unnerving HOUSE OF DOORS.

THE GILLY SALT SISTERS by Tiffany Baker - Jo and Claire Gilly grew up farming a Cape Cod salt marsh that has belonged to their family for generations. Harvesting sea salt is hard work that doesn't pay off as well as it used to. After a series of tragedies, Claire abandons the salt marsh to marry the richest man in town, while Jo stubbornly continues the family business alone despite encroaching financial realities. The story moves through past and present to reveal the dark secrets of the Gillys and how their fate is tied up with the town's most established family and with the life of a young newcomer.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't like this book as much as I wanted to. Stories about families and secrets generally appeal to me, but I found this one uneven and not especially compelling. I preferred Baker's first novel, THE LITTLE GIANT OF ABERDEEN COUNTY, a more successful tale of sisters, outsiders, secrets, and love.

THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC by Julie Otsuka - This novella follows a group of Japanese women who arrive in San Francisco as "picture brides" for earlier immigrants whom they have never met. The women find that their new husbands are farmers and laborers, rather than the successful businessmen they claimed to be in their letters, but they make the best of their new American lives, work hard in the fields and laundries of California, and raise children who understand the language and culture better than they ever will. When Pearl Harbor is attacked, they suffer humiliating persecution and are sent away to internment camps.

The best way to explain the unusual style of the narrative is with an excerpt:

We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. We gave birth in dusty vineyard camps in Elk Grove and Florin. We gave birth on remote farms in the Imperial Valley with the help of only our husbands, who had learned from The Housewife's Companion what to do. First you bring the pan water to a boil...

Not all the sentences have the same structure, though there are long stretches when they do, but the entire book is these lists of different experiences. No individual characters emerge, and there isn't much more of a plot than the summary I presented. It's a story composed entirely of details and emotion. The style probably couldn't be sustained for a longer work, but for 129 rather small pages, it works.

I found BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC very moving. It's sad and beautiful and effective, and I recommend it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Colin Nissan offers The Ultimate Guide To Writing Better Than You Normally Do: "Don't Procrastinate: Procrastination is an alluring siren taunting you to Google the country where Balki from Perfect Strangers was from, and to arrange sticky notes on your dog in the shape of hilarious dog shorts. A wicked temptress beckoning you to watch your children, and take showers. Well, it’s time to look procrastination in the eye and tell that seafaring wench, 'Sorry not today, today I write.'" (Thanks, Louise!)