October 31, 2011

My November Challenge

As I explained, I won't be participating in NaNoWriMo this year. It's odd to be waiting for trick-or-treaters and not also waiting to begin a new novel at midnight, but mostly I'm content to sit this year out.

However, I was talking to another longtime NaNo devotee who's also taking a year off, and we decided that we should do something to harness the NaNo buzz around us and funnel that energy toward our revision projects. So my friend and I agreed that we'd each commit to a certain number of revision hours during November. We intend to stick to these numerical goals with the same fierce dedication that we've always had for our NaNoWriMo word count.

I've given myself a goal of 65 revision hours in November. It's a number that should be attainable, but only if I buckle down. So while hundreds of thousands of people worldwide start filling in their word count meters, I'll be starting my own count.

Best of luck to all my NaNoWriMo buddies as you embark on your November challenge!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Theresa Stevens at Edittorrent discusses subplots and how to evaluate them in revision: "Whether in foils, themes, motifs, parallels, or any other kind of non-plot element, relevant subplot echoes will relate in some way back to the main plot. That relationship will serve to underscore the element in the main plot -- that is, the subplot serves the main plot by making some aspect of the main plot feel more significant through repetition or reversal."

October 28, 2011

Thoughts on The Submission and 9/11 in Fiction

Last month I read THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman. I've already briefly described and praised it, but I wanted to expand on a couple of points.

I'd read and listened to a number of pieces about this book before I read it, including an interview with the New York Times Book Review podcast (August 19, 2011 episode). I remembered Waldman mentioning that the words "September 11" never appear in the book, so I'd taken away from the interview that the story involved the aftermath of an event that evoked but wasn't 9/11, perhaps in a generic city. Once I started reading, I immediately found that the setting was explicitly New York, and soon I was sure that the characters were choosing a memorial design to commemorate the same events that occurred in the real world. Everything matched, from the description and location of the destroyed buildings to the fact that the attacks occurred on an "insultingly beautiful morning." It's quite true that the phrases "September 11," "World Trade Center," and "Ground Zero" don't appear in the book, but the details are so unambiguous that it might be possible to read without even noticing the omission.

So I was surprised to listen to the Book Review interview again and hear that Waldman actually used the phrase "a 9/11-like event": "The premise is a fictional and entirely anonymous competition to design a memorial for a 9/11-like event. I say that only because I never use the actual words '9/11' or 'Ground Zero' in the book." It's curious to me that Waldman describes the book that way, though I guess I can see why she would as part of the choice to leave out the specific references.

What's more interesting to me is that she made that choice in the first place, and that she's not the only author to do so. The plot of NETHERLAND by Joseph O'Neill has little to do with 9/11 itself, but the story takes place in New York during the months that follow. Yet O'Neill often seems to resort to vagueness and euphemism in order to avoid naming the events. In this case, since the book has a first-person narrator, the avoidance can be attributed to the character's own general reluctance to communicate, the source of many of his problems. Similarly, the young narrator of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer tends to avoid direct references to 9/11 even though that's most of what's on his mind, since his father died in one of the towers.

At this point I have to confess that I have no conclusion to draw about any of this, except perhaps that I've spent too much time during the last decade observing the incorporation of 9/11 into fiction. At least I know I'm not the only one.

Now, putting aside THE SUBMISSION's context and premise entirely, what most impressed me about this book is how carefully and swiftly the story unfolds. The term "tightly plotted" is used a lot in reviews, and this novel made clear to me what it means. On just about every page, a new complication appears. Each new obstacle is a natural, believable development, but rarely could I predict what would happen next. Perhaps most importantly, everything that happens in the novel is connected and no scenes feel extraneous. Not bad for a story that follows half a dozen different characters.

The characters themselves are well-developed, complex personalities. Waldman didn't choose any easy portrayals. The Muslim architect who designed the winning memorial is as patriotic as any grieving New Yorker, but he's also arrogant and self-centered. One of the prominent opposers of the design, the brother of a dead firefighter, gets branded a bigot but is really far more conflicted and confused by his own actions in front of the media.

I hope to someday produce a novel as intricate and well-executed as THE SUBMISSION, and I'll be turning to this book again as an example of how it's done.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bert Archer asks, What’s wrong with a readable book?: "...the best analogy might be livability and architecture. Can a house be excellent if it is not also livable? If you find yourself stumbling on the stairs because they're not big enough for your feet, or if you get wet when it rains because there are cleverly carved holes in the roof, I would say you have a legitimate complaint against the architect." (Thanks, The Millions!)

October 25, 2011

Writers, Show Us Your Scenes!

I keep encountering books in which a crucial emotional scene happens off the page and is only presented to the reader in the form of one character describing the events to another. It seems like a fairly obvious writing guideline that it's always more exciting to show a scene and let the characters react in real time rather than to have someone tell a scene, so I've been puzzled by the author's choice in some of these examples, though in other situations I can understand why it had to be done that way.

The problem with writing a novel that sticks to one character's viewpoint, whether in first or third person, is that the reader can only be shown scenes that the viewpoint character has some business being present for. Sometimes the logic of the plot requires an important event to take place without that character. When this happens, the author has to decide whether to switch to another point of view for a specific scene (as J.K. Rowling does several times in the Harry Potter series, usually at the beginning of a book), entirely rethink the POV choice, or let the viewpoint character and the reader learn about the scene from someone else after the fact.

The last option isn't necessarily a bad one, but it bugs me when the author basically writes the scene the way they would have with the character present, and then encloses the whole thing in quotation marks. A person talking about an event is not going to make the same descriptive choices that the author would in writing a scene, so this comes off to me as phony.

In one example I encountered, a character -- not a particularly poetic individual -- was telling the main character about his visit to a building where he was to receive some potentially horrible news. He described the exterior of the building, including the flowers. Who would relate those details in that situation, even if they'd notice at the time, as a character experiencing a scene might? I had to assume that the author had originally written the scene from the main character's point of view, but later decided it stretched credibility for her to be there, so converted the scene into the other character's account. I sympathized with the difficulty of how to present the scene to the reader, but I wasn't impressed with the solution.

I was even less impressed with a different novel when I came across the same problem of a character describing an event exactly as the author would write the scene, but the character was the book's first-person narrator. And the scene she recounted wasn't some long-ago event that might have been awkward in flashback, but instead an incident that occurred in the gap between the current chapter and the previous one. I'm still baffled as to why this scene, which was exciting and action-packed, couldn't appear in the novel as an actual scene, rather than a clumsy conversion to dialogue.

Writers, please: Let your readers experience the important events in your novel along with the characters. And when that isn't possible, please, please attempt to make your characters believable storytellers.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Vintage & Anchor Books presents The 10 Oldest Books Known to Man: "Typically of Egyptian, Sumerian, or Akkadian origin, the world's first works of literature provide an integral glimpse into how the peoples who initially recorded their histories, stories, and religious beliefs lived out their daily lives." (Thanks, Conversational Reading!)

→ Alicia Rasley at Edittorrent offers great advice on describing settings and character actions: "Filtering through the character ... means presenting [description] as an observation by this person. What would she notice? How would he describe it? This gives the description the secondary purpose of developing the character."

October 21, 2011

Differentiating Narrative Voices

One reason that I'm revising my novel one narrator at a time is to help differentiate the voices. I don't think my three narrators sounded exactly alike before, but I was concerned that they were a little too similar.

When I started in on this second storyline, I thought I might have a lot of trouble switching out of the voice of the narrator I'd been writing for months and months. I worried that I'd given the first character too many of the traits that are important in the second character and that I hadn't left enough room for differences. The two characters are father and son, so a certain amount of similarity is to be expected, but even in my own head, they were merging together, so I didn't know what was going to come out in the text.

To my pleasant surprise, I only had to write a few pages before I started settling into the new voice. And while I don't have the distance to be certain, I'm pretty sure that this narrator doesn't sound like the other narrator at all. He has his own personality and his own perspective on the world, and I think the voice reflects that.

I find that it helps for me to keep in mind a few basic characteristics of the narrator I'm writing. These are big blunt generalities like "he is methodical" and "he has high expectations." I hope the text doesn't scream these messages, because the character's full personality is (supposed to be) more complex, but these bullet points help remind me how the character might react in a situation.

I've also been giving some thought to the specific vocabulary the narrator uses and slipping in some language related to his profession. Again, this is something that could be much too clunky and obvious, so I want to be sure not to go overboard. I'm even considering sentence structure and trying to create some subtle differences between narrators there.

If I can get all this right, I won't have to worry that my readers will ever get confused about who's talking.

October 19, 2011

In the Beginning

Because I've been working on my second storyline, I'm back at a beginning again and musing on all the things that are fun about the beginnings of stories. I love setting things up: introducing the characters, establishing their situation, hinting at what might happen.

I've been writing about two characters who are starting a relationship, and as they fall in love, I'm falling in love with them all over again. And I'm hoping that readers will fall in love with them, too, and root for their relationship to work out.

Throughout this revision, I've been paying more attention to backstory and when I reveal it. My previous draft suffered from the problem that I revealed important pieces of character history too late. I recently linked to a post by Livia Blackburne in which she talked about her changing attitudes toward backstory. I've gone through the same shift.

With my last draft, feedback from readers showed that they often didn't sympathize with characters until later in the story, when I got around to sharing some insight that explained why the character was behaving in a particular way. Duh. I've been moving this kind of information to the beginning of the story, and I can already predict that it's going to make a big difference for the next batch of readers.

I've been pleased to note how many of the narrator's important characteristics I managed to establish within the first chapter, and often within the first few pages. Most of what matters in this storyline has been referenced or hinted at in the beginning.

I've added in some little moments and details that will be echoed later in the story and grow in significance. I love doing this and always feel so clever when I do, which probably means I've created far too many of these moments and that I'm hitting the reader over the head with them. I'm sure my critique partners will let me know.

In the beginning of a story, I'm always very self-congratulatory. All the doubt and despair is hiding somewhere in the middle.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Atlantic features an interview with Colson Whitehead about ZONE ONE, released this week: "Early on my career, I figured out that I just have to write the book I have to write at that moment. Whatever else is going on in the culture is just not that important. If you could get the culture to write your book, that would be great. But the culture can't write your book." (Thanks, The Millions!)

October 17, 2011

NaNoWriMo Is Gearing Up, But I'm Not

The National Novel Writing Month site has been in active mode for a week now, and I still haven't looked at it. That feels kind of strange. For so many years, I've spent the beginning of October eagerly refreshing the site to see if it's live yet or if it's recovered from one of the inevitable many crashes. Usually by now I've made dozens of forum posts introducing myself, making plans for local get-togethers, offering advice for NaNoWriMo newbies, and describing my ideas for my novel. In addition to all that time spent on the site, my Octobers are typically devoted to pondering the first draft I'll write during November, to the tune of 50,000 words in 30 days.

This year, I'll be sitting out NaNoWriMo. I'm a bit sad to think of all that exciting activity going on without me, though I expect I'll peek into the forums eventually and perhaps crash some write-ins next month. But mostly I'm relieved that I didn't come up with a new novel idea compelling enough to make me want to set aside my revision of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE for a month or two.

I'd made a deal with myself that I'd only participate in NaNo this year if I thought up an entire story that I wanted to write all the way through. The past three Novembers, I started with a premise and some characters but no actual plot, and I ended up with a pile of rambling, unsalvageable pages that I didn't care about. Great stories can emerge from vaguely formed ideas, and plotless NaNo-wonders always have some nuggets of brilliance hiding in there somewhere, but these positive results are less frequent when the writer has only negative feelings about the story.

In general, the whole NaNoWriMo endeavor becomes rather painful and pointless if you lose all passion for what you're writing. That's why last year I dropped out of NaNoWriMo ten days in. It wasn't an easy choice, since I'd counseled other people against quitting so many times, but I decided that the event had lost some of its significance for me because I'd already proved to myself that I could succeed at it, seven times over.

I still believe strongly in the concept behind NaNoWriMo. For those who dream of writing a novel but have always been too intimidated to get far, it produces self-confidence in the ability to write huge chunks of text. For more experienced writers, NaNoWriMo can be a great way to quickly get out a first draft and move past all that uncertainty over what a story is really about. I still proudly declare that NaNoWriMo changed my life.

This year, I'm celebrating that change by accepting that it's not always a good idea to spend November writing something new. I'm moving right along with my revision, and I need to keep riding that momentum to the end. By next November, maybe I'll have another new story demanding to be told.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders at io9 diagnoses and treats The 10 Types of Writers' Block: "In fact, there's no such thing as 'Writer's Block,' and treating a broad range of creative slowdowns as a single ailment just creates something monolithic and huge. Each type of creative slowdown has a different cause -- and thus, a different solution." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

October 13, 2011

Off to a Good Start

I'm really getting into the revision of my second storyline now, and as I predicted, I've gained a big boost of motivation from the fact that I'm working on something new. It's still part of the same novel I've been revising all this time, but moving to a different narrator and plotline has eliminated that burnout I was experiencing.

Since I pondered over the backstory this weekend (no dolphins were harmed), the story has been clearer than ever in my mind. This week, I sat down for each writing session sure of what I wanted to say, and the words have flowed fairly smoothly.

It is still, alas, a matter of placing one word after the other until they form a novel. It's going to be a while yet until all the words are in order. But this part is off to a good start.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Mark O'Connell offers an appreciation of bad bookshops: "I live in a suburb of Dublin where the only bookshop within any kind of plausible walking distance is a small and frankly feeble set-up on the second floor of a grim 1970s-era shopping center, above a large supermarket. It's flanked by two equally moribund concerns, a small record store and a travel agent, thereby forming the centerpiece of a sad triptych of retail obsolescence."

October 11, 2011

Pondering the Backstory

I'm often surprised by how far it's possible to take a novel without really thinking through the backstory.

Say I've decided that before my protagonist, Daisy, started her successful chain of hot chocolate restaurants, she trained dolphins for an aquarium show. I probably have some excellent reasons for choosing this backstory. For example, Daisy always loved to drink hot chocolate after a training session, when she got out of the warm water into the cold North Dakota air. And in my novel, Daisy often compares her experiences with managing a restaurant chain to her past teaching dolphins to catch rings on their snouts.

So I tell myself that this is Daisy's backstory. I write the first draft of my novel, in which I tell readers that this is Daisy's backstory. I revise my manuscript to introduce the backstory more gradually, having Daisy think about her dolphin-training days at relevant emotional moments. I research, learning how trainers teach animals tricks and that a dolphin's nose is more properly called a "beak."

I bring my revised draft to my critique partners, an insightful, knowledgeable, and astute bunch. One says, "Daisy always yells at her employees for making mistakes. If she was any good at training dolphins, wouldn't she be more patient?" Another points out, "You make a big deal about how Daisy hates waking up early. I've read that dolphins are most receptive to training right after dawn, so you should have Daisy reflect on how this was a big problem in her last job." A third asks, "Even if it was cold in North Dakota, wouldn't training dolphins be such strenuous exercise that Daisy wouldn't want a hot drink afterwards?"

Back home after critique group, I cry into my pillow for a little while, and then I think about the questions my readers have raised. Each observation is valid and needs to be addressed in the novel. I'm going to have to make some changes to the story, and that will be hard, but the payoff is that the novel will grow richer and more complex as a result.

I turn over and stare at the ceiling, and then I start thinking about Daisy's backstory. Really thinking about it. When I began work on this novel, I'd defined a history for her and sketched out a few specific incidents that shaped her life. But I hadn't given her past much more thought than that. In the course of a couple of drafts, Daisy's character had evolved and deepened, and the backstory had remained as vague as ever.

I think about Daisy and how she behaves in the course of the novel. I imagine a younger, more naive version of my character during her aquarium days. I ask myself some very important questions that I should have asked earlier: Why did Daisy become a dolphin trainer in the first place? Was that her true dream, or perhaps a role she settled for because there were no openings in the cephalopod department? What aspects of dolphin training did Daisy excel at, and where did she struggle? What was her daily life as a trainer like? When did she realize she'd had enough and that her real ambitions lay in the hot beverage industry?

Lying there in bed, I tell myself all sorts of stories about Daisy's past. It's great fun, and so much easier than having to write stories down for the benefit of readers. I realize fascinating details about Daisy's character and come up with exciting new subplots. As a dolphin trainer, Daisy would have experience with scuba diving. What if the restaurant operations manager who betrays her in the novel was previously her diving buddy? They'd have a history of trusting each other with their lives, making his later treachery that much more painful.

I am bubbling with ideas. I can't wait to start revising again.

This example, of course, is unrelated to the novel I'm currently writing. (To read about Daisy's adventures, you'll have to wait for my next book.) But it's an experience I've gone through many times. Just this weekend, I realized how few specifics I knew about a backstory in which two characters meet online. I made that backstory decision when I first conceived of the novel and then worked on the manuscript for years without fleshing it out. I finally realized that I was going to have to know more about their online beginnings if I wanted the story events to be consistent and believable.

So I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, telling myself stories until I fell asleep.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black offers great advice at #Amwriting about suspension of disbelief: "The reader will give you one freebie. They will suspend disbelief for you, no questions asked, exactly one time."

October 6, 2011

That's Better!

Some of my posts from the last couple of months may have made clear that I was feeling kind of frustrated and burned out on my novel. A week's vacation from writing certainly helped my mood, but even better for my motivation levels is that I've moved on to revising the next storyline.

To review, for those not intimately familiar with my manuscript: THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE is about three generations of a family. The book has three first-person narrators, one from each generation, and the chapters alternate between points of view. The slightly tricky bit is that the narrators aren't following the same plot: each narrator is relating the events of his life as a young man, so there are three plots spaced about thirty years apart, all involving the same family.

I wrote the first draft in the order that the chapters appear, and when I rewrote the novel from scratch, I did the same thing. For my current (big, big) revision, I'm doing one storyline at a time to fully focus on creating a consistent character voice and plot. For a variety of reasons, I started with the storyline that occurs last chronologically. I finally reached the end of that story, and it's a thousand times better than it was in the last draft.

And now I get to move on. A new narrator! A new time period! New characters, or at least, the same characters much younger than in the storyline I just finished! It's almost like starting a new novel, with all the excitement and energy that goes along with that. It's been a huge relief.

Let's hope my enthusiasm lasts and that posting is more optimistic around here for a while.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Robin Black at Beyond the Margins compares revision to home renovation: "The thing that trips me up time and time again, is not a resistance to cutting beloved aspects when they aren't serving a story well. I'm pretty good with that. What more often gets me is a complete failure to recognize that doing so is even an option."

October 4, 2011

October Reading Plan

As I recapped yesterday, I'm still in the process of reading two books from last month:

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I'm hoping to make it to the end this month.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I expect I'll be working slowly through this one until the end of the year.

Two more books for this month's list:

LONG DRIVE HOME by Will Allison - I read this Slate essay by the author in May. I was moved, and I was curious to see the book that resulted from the difficult work he described, especially when I read the description. The story involves a family in the aftermath of a car accident.

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead - This zombie apocalypse novel is coming out on October 18th and is the first selection for the new Bookrageous book club. Bookrageous is a podcast about books that I just might be slightly obsessed with. I wasn't necessarily in the mood for any more zombie books, but I do like Colson Whitehead, and as I said, I'm a devoted Bookrageous fan, so what else could I do but preorder this book?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Livia Blackburne shares the strategies she's using to build strong characters and emotional depth in revision: "My opinions of backstory have changed quite a bit over the past year. I used to avoid it because people so often warned against backstory overload, but I'm coming to realize how important it is for character bonding."

October 3, 2011

September Reading Recap

I'm back from a wonderful, relaxing week in Hawaii, where I spent lots of time gazing out at the blue Pacific and almost no time thinking about my novel. Now my view is gray clouds and rain falling on my backyard. While I was away, northern California went from an extended summer directly into what passes for winter around here.

Tomorrow I'll get back to writing. Today was all about many loads of laundry, plus this recap of last month's reading.

THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman - I was really impressed by this novel, which has a fascinating premise and fantastic execution. At the beginning of the book, a committee selects the winning design for a September 11th memorial. (Before I started the book, I described it as taking place in the aftermath of a "9/11-like event," but that was based on my misunderstanding of an interview I listened to.) The submission process for the contest was anonymous, and the jurors are surprised when they discover that their chosen designer is an architect named Mohammad Khan, an American-born Muslim. When this unexpected result is leaked to the press, it sparks emotional reactions from many sides. The story's events quickly spiral out of control, but the writing remains tight and focused throughout.

THE TASTE OF SALT by Martha Southgate - I read most of this book on the flight home from Hawaii, and it kept me distracted from the letdown of returning to normal life. It's an engrossing story, but not a light read. The main character is Josie, a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, where she's the only black senior scientist. Josie has distanced herself from her hometown of Cleveland and the memories of growing up with an alcoholic father. Life hasn't gone as well for her brother, who is getting out of his second stint in rehab. Josie finds she can't stay as disconnected from her family as she'd like and that her own life isn't as simple as she wants to believe. The narration moves between Josie's voice and those of the other major characters to tell the story of this struggling family.

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I read a little more this month, but I'm still less than halfway through. The pace of the story is definitely picking up, and I'm interested to see how it's going to unfold.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I started reading but haven't gotten too far in yet. So far, it's the same mix of personal and political intrigue and intricate scientific detail as the first two books of the series.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ SF Signal has created a flowchart for navigating NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books. (Thanks, Jason Black and io9!)