Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Feeling better

I've been working the plan I described yesterday and generating more material to work with. That's good. Some of it feels right, which raises the question of what's going on when it doesn't feel right. Is that a sign I shouldn't pursue that material? Anyway, my little stack of mud pies is bigger than it was yesterday.

For the most part, I have had energy for morning and afternoon sessions, though I don't always have the time for the afternoon session. It's adding up to 2 - 3 hours a day.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


How to describe what I've been up to in the last week?

Basically, I'm rebooting the project. As noted before, I've let my personal timeline push me into starting to draft too soon. All I really have is a situation -- not a story. The advance work needs more attention. (For the process I want to follow anyway. I know there's a school of thought that says just start writing and work out the problems as they emerge. That's basically how I did my first book. But I'm inclined to plan this one more before trying to draft it.)

One thing I did that actually took a lot of time was to outline a particular book that is both a favorite and a model for this particular project in some ways. Chapter by chapter, I wrote out what was going on in it and every once in awhile paused to make notes on what I was learning that I could apply.

One result was I developed a kind of schematic to help me brainstorm some plot and character development and to ensure that more (if not enough) is going on in the story. It helps me create complication in a way that is integrated. I'm sure this idea has been articulated in similar language a million times before, but this is what dawned on me and that I'm using to guide me for the time being.

Think of it as a triangle, which I won't try to draw here. Three points.

A. PERSONAL/PRIVATE story elements -- goals and obstacles having to do with home and family.

B. PUBLIC story elements -- goals and obstacles having to do with career, work or the outside world.

C. CHARACTER elements -- strengths and weaknesses of the character/s.

Each of these interact and push and pull one another. The desire for success publicly is complicated by the desires having to do with home which are complicated by the character's qualities, which change in response to the ups and downs of reaching for their goals, etc.

These should generate some number of conflicts, some of which are external to the character and some of which are internal to the character.

So, basically I'm going through each of my main characters and doing a lot of brainstorming and story development on each of these points. Sometimes that leads to drafting in the book's voice for a little while, but I don't really take that seriously yet. I just regard it all as note-taking.

I don't know how long this is going to take. I just try to do my best to treat it seriously for a few hours every day, and hopefully I'll have a good story I believe enough in to write soon.

Now, there is a danger of planning it so much that I'm bored with it. I saw a quote from Margaret Atwood recently where she talks about never knowing the endings of her books and never planning them out, because if she had all that ready, she wouldn't be interested in writing it anymore. Maybe the process I'm working on is too controlling. But I'm trying to compensate for another weakness, which is the difficulty of developing plot. I don't want to end up with a draft with no plot, so this is how I'm going about things.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Trough of despair

Hey, I passed 400 entries in this journal the other day.

It's not going well. I'm coming to the realization that I don't have much of a story at all. I'm knocking my head out to figure out one plot issue, under the mistaken idea all along that that one point is so key that it will carry the rest of the book. It's a trifle. I need a lot more story to make the book worthwhile.

It's helped me to remember that the core of the story has to be about relationships. (Did I already say this in an earlier entry?) Even if I know a lot about individual characters -- and I don't know much -- there's no story until they start to get intimate and have conflicts.

Basically, all I have is a setting. An interesting one, I hope, and not just a gimmick. But no matter how interesting it's not going to be a story until I start to pile on some trouble for the characters.

Figuring this out, as usual, is part of the process and ought to count as progress, but I can't help but notice the number of days passing by with not addition to my word count. Instead I'm making lots of theoretical notes.

Yesterday, I spent all day putting what plot I think I know on to slips of paper to shuffle. Boy, did that reveal some gaps.

Today I've been going through the exercise of outlining a book that is a favorite and that is inspiring this one. The point of the exercise is to see how that book works, where the sense of story comes from, the motive power, the interest. That's revealing all kinds of machinery that my story so far lacks.

It's the eternal problem with me. I've always gotten overexcited about scene and scenario without having any sense of plot.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Counting what I tend to discount

I tend to categorize and pigeonhole and to put little mental asterisks next to things that don't resemble exactly everything else in a given pigeonhole. It's a bad tendency toward black-and-white thinking in a process where that is least likely to be helpful. Also, as you've seen, I measure my progress by counting things.

So I'm in a confusing period right now with nothing much to count but knowing that I ought to feel like I'm making progress anyway. I want to think of the work in two different aspects -- the preparatory/notetaking/journaling aspect and the actual drafting. I even keep that work in two separate notebooks, and I tend to count as "writing" what happens in the drafting notebook. But those two different aspects of the work are not so different at this stage. It's a blurry line, and out of frustration that I don't quite know what to write at the moment, I turn to my prep notebook to talk myself through it and end up doing a little bit of writing that I wish had emerged in my drafting notebook.

So for that reason, I can say I've made some measure of progress on the manuscript every day, including over the weekend, and I'm up over 6,000 words.

But still it is all background and character sketching and not yet tackling the present action plot. Which is the main challenge of this confusing period. I'm trying to figure that out still (it goes hand-in-hand with figuring out the characters, by the way) but my personal time line is to be drafting at this point. The story just isn't ready to be written. It's not that it won't be or can't be or that it's a flawed or lost project. My little tugs of despair or really only the result of an unreasonable time line that I've imposed on myself and the subsequent tendency to discount the necessary work that I am doing of finding the story and characters. That has to happen, and I've tried to rush it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Building up stamina

1,700 words today. That usually happens when I've got a scene with a little bit of action and development in it. Once I start finding the story more, I'll have days of 2-3,000 words. So far, it's really just background sketches, which is starting to worry me. I guess it's only a trap if I make the mistake of thinking it all will be a part of the book. It might be a necessary part of the process to write this, but I can't let myself get frustrated later when I figure out that it's unnecessary material. Still, I need to start tackling the actual story.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The joy of creation

I just love writing the first draft. Perhaps if I loved it less I would focus more and not need to do so much work on the rewrites. But I get a kick out of making stuff up as I go along. When I started this morning (900 words today), I really had no idea what I was going to write. I thought I would establish a certain journey that my character makes by car over a couple of days. I didn't have a theme or anything -- no certain plot points to hit, no certain characterization I wanted to weave in. I didn't know what she would do on the journey. I just made up a first sentence, wrote that down and kept going. An hour later I had invented all kinds of interesting walk-on characters and background anecdotes. Doubtlessly, almost all of it will get cut eventually, but it was fun. It's fun knowing I'm able to.

Monday, January 11, 2010

850 words

Nothing special to report. Typical working day - 850 words. Still sketching background material for now and avoiding the problem of plot. I have some ideas, but I also have some problems with the ideas. The same could probably be said of voice. I'm establishing a voice as I do this work, but I have some hesitations about what is being established. Pretty soon I'll have to come to some working decisions on this or I won't have work to do.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I started a novel today

Today is the big day. I was scared as hell, and didn't have any sense of purpose, but I told myself what got me through the first one -- "just add sentences." And I also got to tell myself that I had done it once before. I sat down and wrote 700 words, a pretty light day by my standards, but I'll build up my stamina. So far, I'm ignoring the fact that I don't really have much of a plot, so for awhile I foresee myself writing a lot of overly detailed background material.

I was sitting on the couch in my new short-term rental in Saigon. Plenty to distract me -- it's pretty noisy here -- and I got up once to watch an old couple walking slowly down the street, the man playing some kind of traditional music adapted for Stratocaster and portable amplifier and the woman singing along and holding her hat out. They were tethered by the microphone cord plugged into the amplifier slung over his shoulder. How am I going to compete with that? How am I going to create anything as vivid as what's going on around me?

I think the length of my writing sessions is mostly determined by the natural breaks in the narrative. It's hard to come to a scene and then start a new one, so if it's a long scene, I have a day where I write a lot. If it's a short scene, I have a day where I don't write a lot. If I can train myself to restart again after finishing one scene, I could build up my word count a lot faster.

By the way, for the purposes of this journal, I think I'll refer to this book as BR.

OK, if I can find a satisfying lunch and get some household chores done, I'll have a routine. 100 days like that and I'll have a first draft.