bookmark_borderMore comparisons, music to fiction

One of my more recent large projects is revising a 3DayNovel from a year and a half ago, and, at the same time, revising the sequel that I wrote last NaNoWriMo.

These are very plot oriented stories, mysteries, action stories to some extent, and so there is a very definite structure, key points, key activities, key discussions that have to take place. And because of that I notice that I’m really short on character, internal dialogue, and setting, other than the bits that are key to the structure of the plot.

I had a writing instructor who insisted that there are plot writers and there are character writers, like there are boys and there are girls. Not her metaphor; mine, but she was almost that definite. But for me it depends on the writing situation. When I don’t know the plot at all, such as with writing exercises, I happily write building on what I’ve got in front of me, expanding the character, filling out the scenery, plot-less. The difference in this writing is that time progresses much more slowly and the world is filled out much more substantially. I listen to what I’m writing and pick up threads and ideas the same way that I do when I’m improvising jazz well; listening, building on ideas and interesting material, generating something that’s coherent and musical and says something.

The difficulty is how to get that depth of writing in when I’m focused on the plot. When I know I’m here and I know what’s next, how do I not go straight there?

I still remember in high school, Earth Sciences 11, my teacher gave me back my one page report with the grade of B, saying “I’ve never given that high a grade for so little writing.” He went on to add, “You have a talent for saying a lot with a few words.” Maybe I should have been an ad writer, but this still remains a tendency of mine; when I know the points that I want to reach, I focus on them and I get there right away.

And, going back to some things that I said in the previous post, I don’t listen to the story well when I review. I see the skeleton, the framework, I see what it means and how it relates to what has come before and to where I know I’m going,  and I don’t see the missing flesh. It’s like writing a piece of music that consists of only the lead lines and no harmonized or thickened or textured lines, no music for the violas or second clarinet or French horns to play, all first violin and trumpet and one percussionist and maybe double bass or tuba. That’s fine if you’re sketching a lead sheet for a jazz quintet or pop band and you let the other musicians make up their own parts, but not so good when you write for 20 piece jazz band or orchestra. And yet I’ve done the composing and arranging for large ensembles, as well as the MIDI composition where I have to create the bass and drum and piano parts myself. I need to be able to transfer that skill over to writing larger works of fiction.

bookmark_borderPrepping NaNo 2012: How traits present, and Listing moments

As I write, the date is September 24, 2012, and I have just spent the last hour burning with material for NaNoWriMo 2012. Ideas are just popping out and I’m throwing them down in a private blog post for future reference.

This will be NaNoWriMo V for me. I’m planning a sequel to my 2011 3DayNovel story that has grown from 23,500 words into what is now a 60,000 word novel, with further revisions, additions and deletions still to come. A few months ago (while lying in a bath; a great place for ideas!) I got the central plot for the sequel. I’ve played with the ideas off and on by creating a few different pages on ListThings, but now I’ve accumulated those pages into a single blog post, and in the last hour I’ve added about 100% more.

In keeping with the NaNoWriMo rules all these prep materials are only thoughts, ideas, descriptions, characters, plots, and questions because I’m not allowed to do any actual writing until November 1. What I’m finding useful are two things that I learned in the 2012 3DayNovel process:

  1. Look at how characteristics and personality traits could possibly present themselves. These I indicate with “AS: “, meaning that the trait presents itself by the character doing these possible things, or as, and,
  2. List moments or events, rather than thinking in terms of chapters or scenes,

and then I throw down anything that comes to mind, even if they are contradictory or out of sequence. Contradictory reactions could be the same trait presenting in a different situation, or I could build a new contrasting character from it or add the trait to an existing character for tension. And sequence doesn’t matter in the notes because I can rearrange at any time.

And I wasn’t aware how constricting the search for scenes (chapters) is for my thinking process. I wasn’t even aware that I was thinking in terms of chapters until I stopped and forced myself to look smaller, to just imagine moments. “Trips and drops books” is a moment, and later I can add the kind of day the MC was having and/or where they going and/or what distracted them, and then who saw this and what happened as a result of this moment later on in the plotting or in the writing process. If I focus on trying to generate a multitude of moments to write that relate to

  1. the plot, and/or to
  2. the exposition of a character’s personality traits, or
  3. conflicts between characters, or
  4. important characteristics of the setting, or
  5. basically any element of the story,

I can find ways to join them together later, or throw them out, or replace them with something else.

And the nice thing is that NaNoWriMo doesn’t require me to subtract the trashed writing from my total word count.


The other nice thing will be, if I collect enough moments, that I will rarely get stuck in the writing process. Because the moments do not always have a predetermined sequence or connections to other moments I can jump around anywhere and write anything. Now, sequentially some things must likely come before others because some moments will depend on some previous events having previously occurred (can’t throw out the baby with the bath water unless the bath has been drawn, the house has been built, the baby has been born, ect), but I don’t have to join or transition them as I write. And without written transitions I may feel freer to reorder as needed. I can save the transitioning to lulls in the writing process, or whenever I feel the need to glue some parts together to get a better sense of the whole so far.

But, I suspect that one of the keys to working this way is to generate a massive quantity of moments and possibilities, including lots and lots of small daily occurrence types of events. That may be part of the reason that my 3DayNovel ended up being a short story.



bookmark_borderJust writing moments; Doing the 3 Day Novel

Over the September long weekend I did the 3 Day Novel. I don’t want to write about that experience so much (though if you write fiction and have never tried it, give it a go!) but I went through a new, for me, writing experience in the process.

I was uncertain about participating in the competition because 1) I had been struggling to write lately, and 2) I had no plan; no plot, no characters, just a vague idea that I wanted to try my hand at some YA simply because I like to try my hand at different genres.

In the last couple of days prior I researched some typical adolescent worries. Then I took those and thought about how they might present themselves as characteristics or actions. For some I had more than one since any one could present themselves in a number of ways.  For example, take school grades and homework. One person might study and worry, another person might procrastinate and panic, but that same person may in another situation actually study hard. Adolescents are human too, and their choice of action or reaction can vary.

Having a list of possible ways in which these concerns might present (I’ve been watching a lot of old episodes of “House”, btw) I started attaching some of them to three different characters. But as of midnight on Friday, start time for the 3 Day Novel, that’s all I had.

For the novel competition you can prepare as much as you like but you cannot do any writing. I spent the first hour or so of my time not writing but creating “moments”; story elements that are, for the most part, shorter than chapters or scenes. For example, one “moment” was “girl 1 tells the others that she heard that someone at another school committed suicide”. That’s too short for a chapter, but I decided on a number of moments that would present the characteristics of my characters to the reader.

When I started writing, all I did was to pick and choose moments to write, moments to flesh out and bring to life. I didn’t necessarily do them in order of occurrence and I didn’t worry about how long or how these moments would work together. I just made these moments into fiction.

Toward the end I started thinking in terms of balance and time lines and rearranged some of the planned order of these moments. I also started to add to some of them and fill them out into chapters, and in a couple instances joined two moments into one chapter. Eventually I realized that I was pretty much done; all the moments were down on paper. Then it was time to finalize the order and to write the ending and the opening.

As it turned out, this last stage happened during the evening of the second day, meaning that I was way ahead of schedule. It also cut my novel short resulting in a 10,000 short story rather than a novel. But forcing more material into the story would only decrease the quality as the word count increased. That’s not to say that a year from now and after multiple reviews that this won’t be a 25,000 word story, but within the single remaining day I wasn’t going to improve the story and add substantial length at the same time, so I edited it and sent it off for the competition entry as it was.

I think the result is not a bad short story, but more important to me is the approach to writing that I learned; defining characters with characteristics, figuring out how those characteristics might present (or in reverse order; characteristics then characters), designing moments to represent the characters to the reader, then putting those moments down on paper without thinking about chapters or flow or sequence.

bookmark_borderSewing together a new first draft

One of my objectives of having a blog is to track the learning experiences of the process of learning to write fiction so this particular entry is an attempt to log some of the things that I’ve noted recently. Currently I’m working on a second version of the first draft of my 3DayNovel. I don’t consider this to be a second draft as I’m not revising much of what has already been written; this is a second version of the first draft. At least that’s how I see it.

What I have is around 20,000 words to add to the original 23,000 that I wrote this past Labor Day weekend. One of the interesting things is that I feel as if I’ve written some new subroutines and now I have to figure out how and where these run the compiler to insert them in the original program. These new chunks don’t just slide right in; I didn’t have obvious sections that I missed and I didn’t rewrite any material in this second stage of writing so now the old has to be revised to connect properly with the new. New connecting paragraphs and explanations have to be written and some old writing has to be revised to devise a logical connection to the new material. It’s as if I’m sewing new blocks into a quilt or replacing a kidney, or something like that.

It’s also reinforced to me the fact that I’m cheap with words. It can be very difficult for me to write or to say a lot of words if I don’t have a reason to do so. As a result I only came up with 20,000 words over two-three weeks, and, with only one exception so far, I’ve found a place to work the new material into the story. In other words it’s hard for me come up with words, and then they have come through such a difficult filter in order to escape me that it’s hard not to use them when they’re out. Kinda like appreciating the little gems that you produce when you’re constipated?

So, right now I’m doing a little writing, most of it in the form of stitching material together into a coherent whole.

bookmark_borderPost-NaNoWriMo 2011, or, Begining the second version of the 3DayNovel

So I didn’t make the 20,000 words in eleven days to total 50,000 for my manufactured NaNoWriMo for this year, but I did manage to come up with close to 15,000, and have kept at it since then, though at a much slower pace.

But after spending two weeks since then trying to add scenes to my original 23,000 word 3DayNovel I became aware that most of the new material added new characters, something that I had a slight inclination to try to avoid at first because I felt that I had enough characters for the length of the story. I tried to add scenes using the existing characters but found that difficult to do because I was also trying to avoid writing the scenes that I had already identified as missing and needed; I was trying to focus on fresh material only and it was difficult to do so without adding characters.

Is there any point in having the MC have dinner with his friend again? If they go somewhere, do something, does that add anything to the story? These are some of the things that I tried, but came up with dead ends in most of the time.

Then I looked at pushing one of the secondary characters, taking the POV and seeing some of his story. The next two most important characters have to remain mysteries so any POV done from their perspective would have to be deliberately obtuse, and that might be difficult given their secrets; they have huge secrets that they’re hiding with almost everything they say or do. (But then there’s great conflict hiding there! ) And given that it’s a short novel, shifting of POV can’t be treated casually. It’s not ‘War and Peace’ where it makes total sense to spend some time seeing the world from Pierre’s eyes, from Natasha’s eyes, even from Petra’s eyes.

So I may do some POV shifting to tell more sidestory or backstory. But the important thing that I realized is that:

  • My MC is boring when he’s not doing something that he’s good at

He’s also not awful at anything, so I can’t show him screwing things up, which also might be entertaining. But trying to generate more scenes with him by adding scenes that do not have anything to do with the mystery that he will solve is really difficult, which is why I added characters as I tried to spin out more material. Imagine Jack Reacher going for a walk to kill time and not meeting thugs or Kinsey Milhone sitting in a movie theater for no plot reason. I did manage to show more about his history, his personality, and a lot about other perspectives and attitudes about the story that he’s researching so these additional characters add something to the story.

But this is where it ties back to the second charater’s POV for this particular story that I’m working on. There is a huge chunk of material that’s key to solving the mystery that the second character digs up and dumps on the lap of the MC. On one hand this is like material supplied by Garcia to the rest of the BAU in ‘Criminal Minds’ and you don’t want to sit there and watch her trying to hack into systems and then querying databases and then cross referencing her materials, but that’s where the a large part of the information to solve the mystery comes from. The result is that there’s a lot ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, or in this case ‘discovering’ this material, which is a fundamental fiction writer’s error.

How do you write about research and turn it into an activity? Especially when it’s all done from a wheelchair?