Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Working for a living...

Oh yeah. Working for the man.

Putting in a 9 to 5 for a couple of weeks to make peace with my bank account. But 9 to 5 is hell on a writing schedule. I have nothing left when I get home. I have to content myself these days with getting familiar with my latest character, a young woman half my age whose heart is breaking. Eventually there will be a murder and other plot elements but while I'm working a "real" job, all I can do right now is get to know this character.

I am only 12,000 words into the first draft; working title: BLOODY THOUGHTS AND VIOLENT PACE. I should be at 16,000 words.

If only I didn't have to eat or pay my mortgage. Life would be a dream....

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The dreaded first draft...

Plugging away at the new novel. I've found a title but for the first time since I started writing 15 years ago, I don't have a fix on the ending. I usually know how a story opens and how it ends. Today I had a glimmer of where my character is going but I'm not sure.

I don't write from an outline because it never, ever works. I'll spend days outlining a story only to have the whole thing go off the rails as soon as I begin writing. These days I begin with a character and try to follow the character's trajectory to the end.

But first drafts are hard. So much is unknown at this stage. Some writers edit as they go along or go back over the previous days work to carry them forward. I write in scenes. Once I know a bit about the character and what his or her problem is, the scenes start to take shape in my mind when I'm walking or doing housework. I write them down in longhand. Each scene reveals a bit more about character which in turn drives the plot. But as the plot isn't clear at this stage, lots of writing is done in the full knowledge most of it will be chucked out.

The first draft is called the Discovery Draft for a reason. The term is from The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray (Dell Publishing, 1994), a book I stumbled across when I first started writing and have used as a reference ever since. Ray breaks down the challenge of writing a novel, explains plotting using Aristotle's Incline and the value of writing your novel in scenes. He covers a number of other facets of the process one weekend at a time, and does so in clear, concise language.

Here's the power of words: by calling the first draft the Discovery Draft, I am liberated from needing to know what I'm doing. Whenever I'm tempted to figure it out, I remind myself this is a discovery, an adventure. Just keep writing and soon you'll know what you're writing about.

This is a challenge. Tossing a thousand words a day into the computer with the vague idea they'll add up to a story one day in the distant future is crazy.

But the even crazier thing is that they always do!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Research and Development

I did 3000 words today in 5 hours but I didn't write at all yesterday. I was dried up. Nothing.

I can't force it when it's like that. The problem was I wasn't emotionally involved with my characters. The danger of pushing for word count at a time like that is I get a lot of words that nobody cares about.

My remedy is movies. I watched 3 in a row. I called it research and development. I watched Ordinary People, the Best Picture for 1980. Tightly focused, nuanced human drama. I can't remember if Mary Tyler Moore won an Oscar for her performance. She should have.

After that, I popped in The Apartment, Billy Wilder's classic (Best Picture 1960) and finished off the day with Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Both magnificent films.

Overall theme? Human breaking points. In all three movies, suicide runs through them. In Ordinary People Timothy Hutton's character has attempted suicide and Judd Hirsch as his shrink tries to help him. Watching it now as a fully grown adult, it finally hit me how high the stakes were for Hirsch's character. His success with this boy was a matter of life and death.

In The Apartment Shirley McClain's character is heartbroken and swallows Jack Lemmon's sleeping pills. His timely intervention brings the two together and into a new life. And Sylvia is the story of Sylvia Plath who eventually gives in to the pull of suicide and ends her life.

Starting the new book, I found myself unemotional about my characters and one of them is suicidal. Life has been too good for me lately--I can't remember what it's like to be broken. But remembering, empathizing with, and translating the human experience into words is the stock in trade for a novelist. If I can't do that I might as well take up ditch digging.

Movies are like a pinch or a slap--they get the nerve endings zinging again. If you want to wreck your heart, watch Sylvia and then read Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters, the poems he wrote to Sylvia Plath after her suicide in 1963. I could barely walk.

Consequently, today, fully awake and every nerve ready to shatter, I remembered why I wanted to write in the first place. And wrote 3000 not bad words.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Eight Rules for Writing Fiction...

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character that he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

--Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1999), 9-10

Cheers Kurt!