Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Climaxes, false peaks, dragons and other metaphors for the final crisis

I mentioned it's an adventure story, right? I think of the final climb to the climax as battle scenes. The main character has gotten all the tools in hand, knows what the obstacles are and moves toward a direct confrontation with the antagonist.

I plan for that confrontation to play out over three escalating battle scenes, the first of which I wrote today. That brings the story and resolves a kind of climax that I think of as really a "false peak," to a metaphor from mountain climbing with those traditional illustrations of plot lines that look like a mountain peak. When you're ascending the mountain, the angle sometimes makes it appear you're approaching a peak, when actually there is actually a higher point that you can't see until you reach the false peak.

The first "false peak" climax of my story resolves an immediate danger, but a larger overarching danger still remains. Confronting that should be the real peak or climax of the story.

To use another metaphor from my old college literature courses, consider the "romantic model." In the traditional romance, the hero leaves the castle for the countryside, where he slays the dragon and then returns to the castle, where all is right in the world. In my story -- and in many other less traditional versions of the romance, I suppose -- after the dragon is slain, the hero returns to the castle to confront the traitor who let the dragon loose to begin with and who still presents a danger to order.

With luck, I could finish the "false peak" battle scenes within a week, though I don't really know how. But yesterday I didn't know how I was going to do the first of the scenes. I spent yesterday brainstorming and problem solving, and today I write it in about 2,100 words. Here's hoping I can knock out the rest of it the same way.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More or less finished with my new opening.

1,600 words this morning, again on the computer.

I was mistaken on my time line yesterday. I forgot that I needed one more new scene in my new opening before merging into the existing material. That's what I did this morning, so now I have all the new opening.

Kind of . . . depends on how you look at it. The scene will draw on existing material, but it will have to be rewritten pretty significantly to help splice the new material in. I guess there's no bright line where I can say that I've finished all the "new" material. The old material needs different degrees of revision as a result.

Anyway, I'm probably done until after the Thanksgiving break. Not sure what I'll start with next week -- more revision or jumping to the ending to see if I can draft that.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Finished new opening

1,000 words this morning. That's 5,000 since Saturday morning and around 55,000 total, though I already know of a section of about 10,000 words that's going to be cut.

I forgot to time myself to test it, but I'm sure that I compose on the keyboard a lot faster than by writing longhand. More incentive to switch, as discussed before.

All the material from the last few days has been for my new concept of how the book opens, which I arrived at from studying my plot on note cards and drawing paper. Basically this 5,000 will replace about 10,000 words in my first opening and besides getting to the main action sooner, it is has the virtues of including more action of its own and introducing the two threads of the plot sooner.

A good week's work, I think. I can use tomorrow to tackle some miscellaneous scene that needs to be rewritten and then use the Thanksgiving break to stew on how I'm going to move into the climax.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The spayed computer

2,000 words today -- on a Saturday, too, which is rare.

I composed on the computer yesterday and today, which is also rare. I didn't do a formal test, but I'm pretty sure that I write a lot faster that way. (Usually write long hand at about 900 words/hour, and I don't think I wrote for two hours in this session.)

And working that way has the advantage of already having it typed in, which saves a lot of time later.

So why don't I work that way? Mostly because of the distractions. Too much else to tempt me away. I've been over this before, and I'm not the first. Last summer I told myself that I was going to convert an older laptop into a "spayed computer" without access to email or the web to do the composing on. I never got around to that and ended up giving that computer away to someone who needed it more.

So now part of me wants to get my hand on something convenient for this purpose.

My wife has a netbook, which has the convenience of portability, so I could move around to other chairs when I feel antsy, and getting one new doesn't cost much. But I really don't like working on it. They keyboard is too small, and the weight is distributed in such a way that it's always tilting back in my lap.

Anyway, if I can find a cost effective way to get a spayed computer up and running, I might move toward that to help me with the drafting that remains on this book. Especially since the next draft will definitely be on the computer and be subject to distractions.

Friday, November 19, 2010

New opening and getting the plot organized

1,800 words today, which is about the only word count this week, I think.

That material is for a new opening, which I decided on after spending a lot of time on plotting and brainstorming. I started to feel that the problems I was leaving in my rear-view mirror for the time being were too significant to ignore any longer and that pressing on to the end would be a waste of energy given what I suspected about how the opening would change. I just wasn't comfortable having these structural problems hanging over my head.

Basically, there were three big problems that affected the structure throughout -- the secondary plot isn't set up through action and is relying on exposition late in the game, the main action takes too long to get started, and my character's basic motivation was too superficial. That worked to get me started, but it was turning into a fatal weakness.

A few days I couldn't have said all of that so succinctly. I now see these problems because of a lot of work getting organized using notecards and poster size sketch paper. Nothing revolutionary in this. Just clear off the dining table and start trying different ways of drawing the story arc. I spent a full day yesterday going through my draft and boiling it down to note cards by scene. (I found it helped if I had mostly cards for scenes and a few for exposition -- action and information that is provided to the reader.) All of that helped visualize what I have and don't have and to bring the problems to the surface.

I knew I needed a different concept of how I started and got into the first rising action, but I wasn't getting any good ideas how. Put in a lot of time brainstorming and making notes. Finally, this morning I hit on an idea for two new scenes in the beginning that hopefully deals with all those problems I summarized above.

Then sat down to write the first of those. (On the computer instead of on paper, like usual. Felt like the right thing, today.)

So, a good day's work and by some measures a good week's work. If I can get the second of the two scenes written before the Thanksgiving break, then I'll have a sense if my fixes are going to hold and can go from there.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Plot and children's books

Children's books have more emphasis on plot.

Duh or not duh? Is that true?

I don't know for sure, but the process of writing this book definitely has me more focused on plot. Is that because I have a comparatively good sense of my character already? Or is it because I am responding to an innate understanding that a child reader will require a faster pace?

In theory I don't really believe that. Instinctively I think that a child reader expects the same mix of character development and plot as any other reader. They know that some genre books with only plot are just a kind of brain candy, and they fall everlastingly in love with stories that successfully make character development an integral part of the plot complications and resolution.

Probably I'm thinking more about plot not because I'm writing a children's book but because I'm writing an adventure story. I'm working in a genre that promises the reader more than the usual amount of escalation and crisis.

Living up to that promise is probably my biggest challenge in this book so far. I've got a good concept, and I've done a good job of putting the characters in the jackpot a couple times, but I don't have a great sense of how to manage the build up and the exposition.

Let's take the Percy Jackson example again. (I always have books in mind as models that I can learn from, and for now that one resembles what I'm doing in some ways.) In that book, the reader at some point has to learn a lot of "rules of the game." A story can do anything, but it has to live within the rules it sets up. The "game" in Percy Jackson is that the immortal gods of ancient Greece are still among us and have offspring, including the hero of the story, who starts out thinking he is an average middle-school kid at the beginning. The story operates by rules that the reader has to learn -- how mortals react to the fantastic things happening around them, for example. Basically, we need explanations for all the ways the fantastic and the earthly realms collide in order to keep the illusion going.

That takes a lot of exposition, which can bog down the plot, so timing when and how to get it in is important. That's something I'm struggling with a lot in my story. Right now I have long passages where the rules are laid out without much elegance, so I'll have a lot of work to do in the next rewrite to fix that.

Then there's the pacing of the plot. How big and explosive do you start and how do you build up to the climax? I got myself started by writing the best scene I could think of, which risks leaving me with nowhere else to go, potentially. So I have to work on building up the drama from there in ways that are credible but also exciting.

Anyway, this is the stuff that's preoccupying me. Just the basics of what information has to get into the story and when.

Word count at about 50,000 now.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Process and progress on third novel

This book, #3, has one thing in common with the first in that I have only a bare bones sense of the plot, and I'm following my nose from one day to the next, aiming for a resolution that is pretty abstract in my imagination still. That has been good for momentum, but in the first case it left a trail of chaos in my wake that took many rewrites to shape up. There's a lot of that going on here, which is frustrating because in my second novel I was determined to work with a more efficient plan. But the second novel isn't getting written, is it? No momentum. Nothing there to fix.

There are some differences this time, though. First, I have what I hope is a better sense of what the mistakes are that I'm passing by, so I'll be much more ready to tackle them than I was with similar problems in my first book. For example, I have a lot of "throat clearing" in the story's set up, so I know I'll have to go back and cut out about 30 pages and get the story started quicker and with more focus. Thematically, I can see that I'm planting little seeds of interest but not really developing them, so I'll have to go back and work hard on that.

Another difference is that I'm doing a fair amount of typing in of the manuscript as I go. (Dictating it in, actually. See my previous post on the voice recognition software I'm using.) This is because I have been letting myself circle back for quick visits to material already written to work out structural changes before plowing ahead. These are larger concerns like the characters having taken a certain path, and now that I'm down that road, I've decided it's better if they take a different path. I go back and revise the appropriate scene to see how that's going to work, and then return to where I left off. It's hard to do this on the manuscript, so I wanted a typescript to work with, thus all the dictating and typing as I go.

Creating the typescript as I go is slowing me down quite a bit. That's why I churned out "Part I" -- about 30,000 words -- in a month. I've written about half as much in the last 4 weeks. I estimate I'm at about 45,000 words now, counting what's not typed in yet.

Also, the structural problems become more obvious and significant as I go along -- like painting myself into a corner -- so the momentum gets interrupted more for revision.

My initial goal was to keep it under 70,000 words, and I think I can do that. I'd like to get it way under that number. I have two big set pieces to go, I think, though as I said I don't have a real good sense of how they'll work. I just know where I need my characters to be by the end of them. We'll see.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Announcing the third novel

So the main reason I haven't been writing here is because I didn't have the energy to consciously work out and talk through the ambivalence I'm feeling about the work I've been doing.

And I have been working, steadily and with enthusiasm, on a completely different novel than the one I am supposed to be working on. My supposed second novel has been left behind like a first wife.

The ambivalence is partly because of the hopscotch itself. It feels sort of like unfaithfulness. ("The heart can't help what it wants. We just fell in love.") The second novel itself felt like an indulgence, since I really ought to be working on revisions on the first novel. This is starting to look suspiciously like a lack of commitment.

But I got excited about this idea and don't want to stop. I only meant to make a couple sketches to show myself what it would be like. That was in early September. Then I looked up on October 1 to find that I had churned out 35,000 words. It has gone more slowly since then, but I'm plugging along.

The other reason I'm ambivalent is because of the project itself. It's a children's book. (Let's call it a middle-grades novel for now.) Now, I'm not a snob about children's literature. I understand -- at least at an intellectual level --that it the form has all the literary and artistic potential of the kind of fiction I normally read and aspire to write. But part of me doesn't really feel that way deep down. Heretofore, I've never really connected with children's literature as an adult. It's like I can't access whatever it is that allows adults to inhabit the mind of a young reader and get enthused the way children do. The emotional development, even in the most critically lauded and serious children's stories, usually feels just plain childish to me, and not in a good way.

I know that says more about me as a reader than about the "genre" itself. For one thing, there are exceptions, most clearly when I re-read books that I remember from my childhood. When I re-read Tales Of a Fourth Grade Nothing or a S. E. Hinton book, part of me goes back and inhabits the mental and emotional and even physical territory I was in during my first reading. Partly I'm feeling the power of the books and partly I'm remembering the power I felt the first time around. In any case I know the power is there.

And I find that I'm growing as a reader. I think "discovering" the literature is too simplistic a way of thinking about it -- as if I am static as a reader and just need to stumble across these books. The reader has to have the right stuff of some kind. Familiarity with the conventions, if nothing else. I have a similar theory about sports. I can on rare occasions admire an unfamiliar sport -- cricket, for example -- but without having grown up with it almost like a first language, I'm unlikely to really connect to the sport and understand it without a lot of study. I don't connect to comic books or sci fi or any "genre" fiction really, because it's never been a part of my experience. (This is just happenstance, not snobbery. I connect to bad television and Mario Brothers video games just fine.) I think you almost have to train yourself to be readers of certain kinds of fiction. The older you get, the more consciously that training probably has to be.

Of course, I read and enjoyed children's literature once, but it was a long time ago. And I was an advanced and precocious reader who jumped to adult books when I could and never looked back. Also, I think the growth in YA literature is a real difference in the generations. That category just wasn't there. Before YA, when you outgrew Judy Blume, you went to adult books that were comparatively accessible and easy to read (Salinger and Harper Lee and Vonnegut) and to the classics assigned in high school English (Orwell, Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Pearl Buck.) These were considered appropriate for teenagers without being targeted to teenagers. Without the bridge of YA, we left children's literature behind earlier and so its merits are more remote.

I am coming to appreciate children's literature a lot more. (I've been reading a ton of it.) About 8 years ago I made a run at Harry Potter to see what the commotion was about, but I got bored after a few chapters. I tried again recently and really did enjoy the first book, and as a writer I really admire Rowling. I can learn a lot from it.

Another reason I feel ambivalent about this project is that part of me feels that I don't have the right. See, for example, my condescending attitude above. A person like that doesn't have any business writing a children's book. But I swear I'm not slumming, and I swear I'm not dabbling. Well, I guess I got started by dabbling, but I'm taking it as seriously as I can now.

Honestly, I started off in the most insincere way possible short of saying, "How can I cash in on a trend?" A few years ago I was talking with a young friend about the YA novels she was reading -- which re-purpose some classic stories -- and about a week after that I heard an interview with a different children's author whose books also put old stories in a modern dress. That time, I thought, darn, I wish I had thought of that. It seemed like a clever idea. So I challenged myself just to think of a clever idea using the same basic move -- bring something familiar to life again in a new context. After awhile I had an idea, and I filed it away, thinking it wasn't really worth my time. Then a couple months ago a conversation with my wife led me to describing this idea. She asked a couple questions about it. "But how would this part and that part work?" Which forced me to think through the concept a little more and then a little more and after a couple days I had the whole idea in my head.

It was very "high concept" at the time, and I was just curious if it could work on the page. So I wrote a couple of scenes, and away I went. It grew and grew. I ran into technical problems and tackled them and moved on. I still am, actually. The closer I get to the climax, the more lengthy my "stuck" phases are.

Anyway, I plan to finish it and to make a serious rewrite of it. (Because I am leaving all kinds of plot and character wreckage behind me as I race through it. There's a lot that needs to be patched up.) And then we'll see. I am anxious to get back to the other other two books, but I'm respecting the muse. If this is the story coming to me, I'm not going to fight it, and the more I get into it, the less I'm feeling guilty about it.