November 22, 2010

Getting the Story Right

There are many ways to divide up the elements of a novel, but here's one: You've got the story, and then you've got the way the story is told.

The story consists of the characters, the plot, and all the explanations of why these characters are living out the events of this plot and why it matters. It's the answer to "What's the book about?"

The way the story is told includes point of view, the style of the sentences, the amount of description and type of imagery used, and how much dialogue there is. You can change all these things and still tell the same story.

I'm currently trying to figure out my novel's story. Maybe you'd expect that I'd know the story after the first draft, or even before. I was hoping the story would be clear by the end of the second. Both these drafts have a story, but it's still not right.

The story isn't right primarily because it falls short in the explanation department. For example, the plot hinges on long-held anger that lacks a believable origin. The concealment and exposure of secrets is sketchily justified. A character makes major life decisions based on an improbable collection of motivations. As a result, I have a reasonably interesting novel that stops making sense as soon as you give it any real thought. That's not good enough.

I gather that there are many writers out there who get the story right in the first draft. They spend a lot of time on planning and outlining before they begin writing, and they make careful adjustments to the plan during the draft. For these writers, revision is all about improving the way the story is told, because they already have a properly assembled story after the first draft. Lucky them!

I suspect that other writers, ones like me who don't get the story right the first time around, are also using the revision stage only to focus on the way the story is told. These writers are taking poorly motivated plots, inconsistent characters, and unwieldy sequences of events and dragging them intact from one draft to another while polishing every sentence to perfection. That doesn't work. A broken story told beautifully is still a broken story.

I understand why writers avoid making story changes in revision. Changing a story creates a lot of work, and it was already enough work writing the damn thing once. Since the pieces of the story depend on each other, adjusting one part could lead to more and more changes. The work needed might be so major that you'd be better off starting over from scratch, and who wants to do that? It's much simpler not to think too hard about whether the story has problems, and it means revision will be completed so much sooner.

But I don't see the point in revising unless the story gets better. So I'm going to keep working on this until I get the story right.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Novelist Holly Black's pep talk for NaNoWriMo participants is full of great advice for anyone writing a first draft: "I know it seems like writing that pours out of your brain in a passionate flood should be better than writing that comes slowly and miserably, but the only person who will ever know the difference is you."

→ Editor A. Victoria Mixon offers 6 Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot as a writer.

November 17, 2010

Why I Quit NaNoWriMo But You Shouldn't

Confession time: I quietly dropped out of NaNoWriMo a week ago.

I did it because I hated my novel and I wasn't having any fun. Now, I recognize that this is a phase many NaNo participants go through (often during Week 2, which last week was) and one I've gone through myself. In fact, this problem is a reality for most anyone writing a novel at any speed. Read Neil Gaiman's 2007 NaNo pep talk for evidence that it happens to even successful writers.

Faced with someone who had never succeeded at NaNoWriMo before and wanted to quit, I would urge them to keep going. I'd say that first drafts often become less loathsome around 15,000 words in and that writing gets easier and more pleasant as the story builds momentum and the writer gets to know the characters. I've found this to be true many times, and it probably would have been the case for me again if I'd kept going (I stopped at 12k).

But I just couldn't get excited about reaching the point where I started enjoying this particular novel. And I decided that was okay.

The value in National Novel Writing Month, and the core purpose of the event, is that it demonstrates to people who have dreamed of writing a novel but never come close that they actually do have the ability to write an entire book. That's what it did for me. I'd been writing my whole life, but I didn't have the confidence to try a novel, so I stuck to short stories, and honestly, I'm not very good at short stories. Attempting and winning NaNoWriMo showed me what I really wanted to be writing. It proved to me that I could do it, and it taught me about the discipline required to keep writing, even when it's hard.

I was a NaNoWriMo winner for 7 years in row. Long ago, I moved out of the category of participants who are proving something amazing and wonderful to themselves. These non-writers, or not-yet-writers, are the ones who NaNoWriMo is really for. They're the reason the event is focused not on what we're writing or how we write it, but on the act of getting words written, and more broadly, on setting a goal and meeting it. These are very important skills for anyone who wants to be a writer, and good general life skills, too.

Some NaNoWriMo participants, like me, turn into year-round writers. That's cool when it happens, though it's not the only way to gain something valuable from the event. So now I'm one of the people who writes all the time but uses NaNoWriMo as a way to churn out a first draft that would have been written anyway, if not as quickly. It's nice to have a month of being more social than usual about writing, but NaNoWriMo is a lot less of a thrill on this side of the fence. Ho hum, another novel.

I don't need another novel right now. I have a third draft to plan, and getting back to work on that made a lot more sense to me than forcing out another 38,000 words just to keep up appearances. So I quit, and I'm not sorry at all.

But if you're in the middle of a NaNoWriMo novel right now and you've never had the incredible experience of writing 50,000 words for the first time, keep going! You won't be sorry, either.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Book Lady Rebecca Joines Schinsky talks about the "serendipitous intersection" that can occur when Reading Across Genres.

November 10, 2010

Talking About Setting

Last night's South Bay Writers meeting featured a great speaker, Tanya Egan Gibson. She's the author of HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING, which I have bought (the novel, not the love of reading), and she talked to our club about world-building and setting.

This topic is of particular interest to me because it's an area I need to focus on in my next draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE. Maybe you thought I was going to say "because my NaNoWriMo novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future." It is, and I'm having a heck of the time with the world-building for that novel, but there I'm dealing with such big, broad questions that it's as rudimentary as throwing paint at a wall, and Gibson offered advice for the detail work of filling all the spots around the windows. (You can see why I avoid similes in my work. Also painting rooms.)

When I wrote the second version of DAMAGE (based on, but vastly superior to, the NaNoWriMo first draft), I deliberately didn't worry too much about fleshing out the setting and description. I left those for the still-to-come third draft, anticipating that details of the world would be my main priority then, since plot and characters would be almost perfected. Well, plot and characters turn out to be rather far from perfected, but along with fixing those problems, I do need to turn my attention to world-building.

THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE is set in the real city of San Jose, California, during three different time periods: 1963-1965, 1995-1998, and 2026. That means I have a lot of work to do. I have to learn about and understand the culture of the early 1960s and research what this area was like at that time. I have to remember and research a time period that I lived through but that's already alarmingly far in the past. And I have to speculate and guess at what will be different in the future. I've already done a lot of this work, so it's not quite as terrifying as it sounds, but so far I haven't shown much of the work in the novel.

I don't intend to fill the book with long passages of description that prove what I know. I'm not a big fan of description, and as a result, my work tends to contain so little of it that readers point it out as a problem. In this novel in particular, I agree that much more setting detail is required, because the place and the times are supposed to be an important backdrop for the story. It's not arbitrary that San Jose is the setting, and I want readers to have a sense of when and where the characters are and to appreciate how their world changes.

At the meeting last night, Gibson discussed how if your characters exist in a full, detailed world, whether it's real or one you invented, the story can emerge organically. Know the world, and you won't have to keep inventing new details that might seem random and forced into the story needs of the moment. The setting itself, when chosen well, can incite the characters to action, producing necessary conflict and revealing personalities by how they respond. Gibson pointed out that when a real location presents inconvenient restrictions that you might be tempted to circumvent by making something up, that's also an excellent opportunity to make the characters deal with another obstacle. I'm going to be thinking about all these ideas as I revise.

Books with a strongly conveyed real settings often get reviews like "the city itself is a character." I'm not sure that I'll ever go from "too little description" to that, but it's the direction I'm aiming in.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ No-longer-literary-agent-but-still-extraordinaire Nathan Bransford offers Five Writing Tips From Reading J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER.

→ Farhad Manjoo at Slate discusses "the anxiety over what to call 'writing that lives on the Web'" in an analysis of the differences and similarities between blogs and online magazines. (Thanks, The Millions!)

November 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo is Go!

At midnight, I started my NaNoWriMo novel. I was aware that I only knew how the opening scene went, and as I began writing, I realized that what I had in mind wasn't even a scene, but a character in a moment. I dragged that moment out to a page. I remembered that there's a dog in the story, and I got another half page out of introducing the dog. I decided that 555 was a nice word count to end on, reminded myself that the post-midnight hours are hardly my best writing time, and I called it a night.

It wasn't my most confidence-boosting start to a month of writing. But when I went to bed, I thought up a next scene that I can write at tonight's write-in. And that will probably lead to a next scene, and then another, and another, and eventually I'll have something vaguely novel-shaped, and that's what a first draft is.

I'm out of practice with first drafts. This was my problem last November as well. I used to be pretty good at suppressing the inner editor who says, "That's a really clunky sentence" and "You just used that word" and "Why are they having this boring conversation?" Now it no longer comes naturally to me to let the words lie where they fall to be cleaned up later, but I really do believe that's the best way to write a first draft. It just takes too long otherwise.

So I'm going to try very hard to keep that editor locked up in the trunk and to write all the ugly sentences, pointless scenes, and other raw materials that first drafts are made of. There's a story in there somewhere, and it's not going to come out unless it can grow wild.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Booker prize winner Howard Jacobson discusses the role and history of comedy in novels: "Show me a novel that's not comic and I'll show you a novel that's not doing its job." (Thanks, Henri!)