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Decisions and Revisions September 23, 2008

Posted by LHK in writing craft.
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I have to erase what’s currently on the Plot Board of DOOM. I know, I know — it’s painful. It’s even more painful to realize that I’ve built a whole novel on a very shaky character arc, and that I’m going to have to go back to the beginning to make it right. All of this started to solidify last Wednesday night while I was slogging through Chapter 18, the next-to-last chapter in the manuscript. I was writing the climax, or trying to.

Hint: If you’re on Draft 6.75, writing the climax should be easy. You should know very well what the climax should be at that point. Based on what you’ve already written, it should be the next inevitable event in the story. If you find yourself pulling plot points out of your ass… wait, no, that’s the inevitable answer. Rather, if you find yourself pulling plot points out of your pencil case, dog food bag, or Vitamin Water bottle, STOP right there and figure out where you went wrong.

I stopped. Chapter 18, and that draft is DEAD. I think.

I’ve been reading Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I didn’t mean to be. I plucked it off my shelf around 5 in the morning two Sundays ago, after being awakened by gunshots, either in my dream or somewhere outside. I turned on all the lights and went into the other bedroom to see what I could find to read. The Jane Smiley book looked fat and distracting. Perfect. Outside, it was eerily quiet — no sirens, no voices. No one else around had turned on their lights. Had I just dreamed the whole thing? Possibly. My dream was that I was training to be a security guard. I had to wear a terrible khaki outfit that made me feel tiny and unsafe.

I turned in the Smiley book to Chapter 10, “A Novel of Your Own (I).” I read that and “A Novel of Your Own (II)” before going back to sleep. By then, it was 7 AM.

Here are a few things I learned, or re-learned, as the case may be:

  • Your novel should have an inciting incident. This should come around the 10% mark in the manuscript, or earlier than that.
  • Your novel should also have a climax. This should happen around the 90% mark in the manuscript.
  • Don’t worry about being a formulaic tool by having these elements. Ulysses had them. Atonement had them. You should, too. They’re a part of storytelling in general, not specifically of formulaic storytelling.
  • The inciting incident and the climax should reflect each other. The inciting incident should make the climax inevitable.

Now, maybe I’m not being kind enough to myself. I do have something in Draft 6.75 that looks like an inciting incident, although in my mind it’s not directly connected — plotwise or thematically — to anything that happens in the sorta-climax. And, yes, I do have a sorta-climax, but it doesn’t accomplish enough, plotwise or thematically, to be satisfying to the reader, much less to the characters involved. They’re probably saying at that point, She’s put us through 220 pages of torture, and THIS is the way she’s going to bring it all to a head?

Preemptive apologies to Mitchell, Caroline, Victoria, Rob, Becky, Mercedes, and the rest of the characters. They deserve better.

So what do I do now? This is where my confidence in what I perceive to be the basic steps of writing fiction gets shaky. I think I need to resist the urge to rewrite from Chapter 1 all over again. This has been my M.O. up to this point. (Don’t like the draft? Click. New document! This leads to rewrites that are about as time consuming as you’d imagine.) I need to make sure I know what that all-important character arc is going in to the next revision, and write it on the Plot Board of DOOM and on Post-Its that I will stick to my laptop, and let it guide the revision. I need to know what the inciting incident and climax will be, and let those pivotal scenes guide the revising of the middle of the work.

It’s tough admitting to myself that I can’t be a fully intuitive novel-writer. No matter how much I love the novel-writing philosophy of putting an interesting character into a tough situation and following him around until he gets himself out of it, I’ve now got six (point-seven-five) drafts as evidence that such a technique only gets me so far.

Weekly Bookstore Jamboree – Week 1: Everything But Books September 19, 2008

Posted by LHK in Atlanta, bookstores.
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Bookstores visited: Just 1 this week- Borders Buckhead (Peachtree Rd. in Atlanta)
What I bought: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami (birthday present for my sister)
What other people bought: CDs, postcards, greeting cards, stickers, an LSAT study guide, and a 2009 calendar

What I looked at: Story, by Robert McKee; Savvy, by Ingrid Law; The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins; and the newly-designed paperback of John Green’s Looking for Alaska (tall and skinny, with an ad in the back for the Nerdfighters site. John and Hank, by the way, are coming to Atlanta on October 21! You know I will be there, ready to sing the Helen Hunt song).

What other people looked at: The coffee menu. Manga. The new Thomas Friedman book. The new fiction shelf at the front. The Shack. A display for a new Brian Wilson CD. Also, there was this one kid – well, picture the sort of kid that comes to mind when I say “someone who has probably never finished reading a book, ever.” This sort of kid was leaning up against a case in the neutral region between the kids’ books and the YA books. He was reading a book so intently that I think if I had knocked over the display table nearest to him, he wouldn’t have looked up. I didn’t get close enough to see what he was reading, but holy hell was I ever curious. (And I still am.) It was a high point of my week. Why a 13ish-year-old-looking kid was at a bookstore at 12:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday is something I’ll both ponder and overlook. Was he homeschooled? Was he skipping school to hang out at the bookstore?

Bookstore notes: This is a cavernous Borders – two floors, with plenty of modes of transit between them (a regular old staircase, plus an elevator, plus an escalator that alternates its direction depending on the time of day, I guess). There’s a nice coffee bar and café with a huge seating area in a fake rotunda. In general, there’s a lot of space taken up with things that aren’t books. I always forget that these mega-bookstores have tons of space still allocated to DVDs and CDs.

There’s been a flickering fluorescent light above this store’s YA section for as long as I’ve been visiting the YA section there. They did recently expand the YA section, so cheers to that – they gave it one whole extra shelf, though somebody forgot to move the shelf labels around. Above the Zarr / Zusak shelf, there’s a sign that reads “Psychology.” Borders segregates its YA genres, which is a pet peeve of mine; one of my favorite things about YA is that so many books are allowed to be comfortably cross-genre. Borders puts the YA fantasy and SF first, and then gives the rest of the shelves to everything that doesn’t fit within the SFF spectrum.

This store used to play music that made me miserable, and at volumes too loud for comfortable book browsing. They played Sheryl Crow’s career-sorta-revival album. They played Jewel’s country album. They played Michael McDonald. This week, though, they were playing some pleasant light classical (which I could not, of course, identify). Perhaps they’ll keep this up.

Narrative Arc, Part 2 – Harry Caul and Me September 18, 2008

Posted by LHK in writing craft.
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Oh goodness – Harry Caul.

Played by Gene Hackman, he’s the protagonist in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), which I watched last weekend. He’s a surveillance expert, inventing his own wiretapping equipment and running his own business from a warehouse in San Francisco. His apartment is a shrine to sterility and anonymity, what with its numerous door locks and its only telephone hidden in a desk drawer. His sometimes-girlfriend knows nothing about his job or where he lives. Whenever he goes out, he wears a translucent raincoat.

But now he’s been commissioned by the director of a large company to tape every word of a seemingly ordinary conversation held on a bright December afternoon in Union Square. Harry does it – with technological flair – and returns to his warehouse workshop to piece together the conversation. His assistant, Stan (John Cazale), begins asking the questions the viewer wants to know (Why these two people? Why was this particular conversation so important?), but Harry rebukes him and sends him packing.

Alone in his workshop, Harry grounds himself in his work by concentrating on photos of the couple while finishing the tapes of their conversation. One line gives him trouble — it sounds like nothing but microphone feedback. At first. With the help of one of his devices, though, he’s able to pick out the words: He’d kill us if he found out. The words stay with Harry, and he replays the conversation both on his equipment and in his head until his drive to get involved with the (perceived) situation of the couple versus the company director overtakes his life.

There’s your story engine right there – Harry Caul’s fixation on the conversing couple, which turns quickly from curiosity to obsession. This is his want, and while it first seems contrary to what we’ve observed about Harry’s personality, we come to learn that it’s born directly from deeply buried aches in his being. And while The Conversation is a thriller, with the possibility of murder looming over the second half of the movie, the real tension of the story comes from character. How far will Harry go? Will he hunt down the couple from the conversation and disclose who’s watching them? Will he try to stop the director from taking revenge on the couple? We, the viewers, come to understand that everything Harry’s doing – or even thinking of doing – is new territory for him. Even though he’s not outwardly a relatable character, nor the sort of guy you’d want to take to lunch, we come to sympathize with him through witnessing this psychological progression that leads him to danger.

I turned the movie on again on Sunday morning and listened to Coppola’s commentary as I was sweeping the floor and doing dishes. Coppola called the movie a character study — that made me put down the dish I was drying and go over to the TV to listen more closely. Coppola said he wrote the screenplay when he was in his mid-20s, and it took into account his love for several literary works – Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (your pal the Weird Quiet Girl hasn’t read this, but should) and Tennessee Williams’s plays, with their comically grotesque characters (your pal the Weird Quiet Girl has read a number of T. Williams plays). I think Coppola’s describing his own work as a literarily-inspired character study drove home a few sad truths about my own recent writing — namely, that I cannot be scared away from plot even though I am, and will always be, a character-based writer. And also that my characters absolutely must have a problem or desire that drives the story. You can have people exploring their problems or having personality conflicts with their friends all they want — but until they start taking real action, there’s no story engine, no narrative arc. This isn’t to say that these things don’t exist in my work. I’m probably not giving myself enough credit here. But I do have a tendency to be subtle with these things, and while subtlety’s great in some aspects of a written work, it can be a killer to others. If the main character’s want isn’t clear, the story’s going to be so quiet as to fade away into itself.
Oh, Harry Caul (and Francis Ford Coppola), you made me realize that I’m going to have to go back to the beginning of my manuscript and revise again. And probably again and again. Will this ever end?

The Narrative Arc September 8, 2008

Posted by LHK in writing craft.
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At Doug Crandell’s workshop last week, I realized that I’ve been writing my novel backwards. Not in terms of chronology — I have a hard enough time keeping track of the forward-facing timeline of events — but in terms of which aspects of the novel were conceived first, and which came later. To someone who was struggling with getting through the first draft of a novel, Doug suggested to follow the narrative arc all the way to the end, and then go back and make the necessary rewrites and revisions. Of course, any person who has taken a writing class, done NaNoWriMo, clicked around on a writing forum, cracked anything in the 808 section of the library, or even picked up a pencil has heard this tossed around as the conventional wisdom and advice given out anytime anyone’s feeling stuck. Just finish the first draft and then go back and edit! I get it, too — from well-meaning friends and various acquaintances who know better than to insinuate that there’s anything new in my life besides however many words I’ve written in the novel since last Tuesday. I got it recently from my mother, too. Well, her wording is a little different. “Just finish it,” she likes to say. “It’d be great if you’re able to publish it, but we really just want to see you get to the end.”

“I’ve gotten to the end,” I tell her. “I’ve gotten there multiple times. I’ve put several drafts to rest. It’s just… still not done.”

And how do you go about trying to explain that incompleteness to someone who’s never attempted this sort of writing marathon? Well, some people would probably like to tell me (politely, of course): You don’t. Don’t explain. Just finish the stupid thing.

Okay, fine. I will. But how do I explain to myself why I’ve written numerous drafts-with-endings that still weren’t complete enough to be revised and edited? Why do I keep having to start over with the blank Word document, writing the same story again and again? The phrase narrative arc clicked with me at the workshop last Friday — that should be the backbone of the story, and yet, in my story, it’s flimsy in so many places.

What’s a narrative arc? It’s what gives the reader that immensely satisfying we’ve-come-a-long-way-together feeling upon the finishing of a story, whether that story is 15 pages long, or 150, or 1500. It’s what makes a story a story rather than merely a recounting of events or a description of a character’s life. It requires some sort of catalyst for change — even if the main character himself doesn’t change (think Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and other characters who are static from book to book), something about his situation does. Of course, I deal in character-driven stories, so I’m working with a character who needs to show growth, and a story that needs to run in a parallel line to that character growth.

I’ve discovered that you can get through a whole ton of drafts without knowing this narrative arc. You’ll have all these great little character details, and you’ll have a bunch of lines that came to you on your nightly dog walks that you were finally able to work into one of your later drafts, and you’ll write chapter after chapter, and things will happen — character-based things, even — and there’ll be something that you and your readers will call a plot. But you’ll stall out on the ending, because the ending is where the promise to the reader should be fulfilled — and if you’ve never promised anything to your main character, much less made a promise to the reader, then the story could, technically, end at any point.

The other day, I used the Plot Board of DOOM to point out to Adam where I was at in the story. Yep, that’s me pointing at a big empty space. I’ve reached the end of my outline and fallen off into a pool of gray dry-erase sheet metal.

Decatur Book Festival, Day 2 – Excuses to be logorrheic September 5, 2008

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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I took the train again, read Junot Diaz again, got motion sick again, and had to book it from the train station again. At least the Decatur Library wasn’t as far from the station as Agnes Scott. Still, by the time I reached the conference room in the library’s basement, there was standing room only for Roy Blount, Jr.’s presentation. I did manage to get a seat before Mr. Blount took the stage, but it was not without luck, guilt, and blood. We’ll leave it at that.

I could feasibly see every single person in that audience as someone who would camp outside the theater in a Chicago for a chance to see a taping of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. And why would it be any other way? I had seen Roy Blount, Jr. recently on a Wait Wait segment on my favorite weekly lesson in nerdishness, CBS Sunday Morning, and it struck me then, as it struck me again on Saturday morning, that his voice sounds like it belongs to someone fifteen years older and fifty pounds heavier than he.

His theme for the presentation was chicken, and certainly he had written enough about chicken, and the eating of it, to fill up the forty minutes. (And I’m not terribly familiar with the Blount, Jr. canon, but my guess is he could have filled several forty-minute presentations with readings of his chicken-related writings.) He also took a moment to reflect on John McCain’s selection of Gov. Palin for VP – “It’s like your dad coming home and saying ‘Meet your new stepmom!’ And you didn’t even know he was dating anyone.”

The next event I attended was a panel of science fiction and horror writers – John Scalzi, Cherie Priest, Tobias Bucknell, and Kevin J. Anderson. Scalzi talked a bit about his decade-old blog, The Whatever, and how it had evolved from a personal project to an extension of his writing career. He even mentioned how he used to call it an online journal! That got a giggle out of the crowd – no, seriously, not a laugh, not a snicker. Really, a giggle. I distinctly remember reading The Whatever using the dial-up modem in my dorm room in late 1998 and early 1999.

Cherie Priest noted that you’ve got better chances of winning a lottery jackpot than having your blog writing noticed by an agent or publisher. I believe that, mostly.*

This segued into a discussion about how to break in to the publishing world. One of the panelists said something along the lines of, “If you do manage to get a contract, it’s probably without an agent, and if you do get your first contract with an agent, then it’s probably not an agent worth having.” I know I don’t have a lot of room to protest this statement, but, seriously – I PROTEST. As a rather obsessive reader of blogs written by agents, editors, authors, and aspiring authors (you see about 10% of them on the right side of the page), as well as a little-noticed well-wisher on a number of writing forums, I can say that many, if not most, new writers breaking in these days do so with an agent – quite often a well-established agent, or a new agent working with the support of a well-established agency — already working for them. And a good number of those agented authors, at least in the world of kidlit / YA lit, aren’t armed with a list of publishing credits – short stories and articles and so forth. If you want to write novels, write novels. And if you do indeed find yourself creating a good manuscript, I think it’s better to go ahead and take your shot with agents rather than a.) sitting on it for three years while you try to build up a list of short fiction credits, or b.) sending it to the few publishers who accept unsolicited submissions.

*= Every time I start to believe it fully, some other blogger with three whole months of archives and that polka-dot Blogspot background winds up with an agent and a two-book deal.

***

I spent part of the afternoon volunteering at the Emerging Writers Stage, which happened in the refreshingly breezy space inside the gazebo on Decatur Square. There were authors of all kinds and books of all kinds — self-published books, vanity press books, and micropress books, that is. Publish America books with curling covers. A small stack of handmade, hand-sewn picture books, each individually wrapped in a printed plastic bag. Mystery novels printed through a writer’s own small publishing company. Horror novels and religious tomes and poetry books and books about the untold stories of the 14th Amendment, the Atlanta Courthouse shootings, and identity theft.

What I had to do was:

  • Find the next author who’d be presenting.
  • Find his or her book on the display tables.
  • Quickly gather some information on the book and the author.
  • Run up to the microphone and introduce the author and book.
  • Watch author’s presentation and give him or her a warning when time’s almost up.
  • During the presentation, run around and find the next author and the next book so that I could be ready to introduce them when the onstage author was finished.

Once the onstage author finished, he or she went to the signing table at the back of the gazebo. Some authors had a bunch of family members and friends come to listen and buy books and have them signed. Other authors sold a few books to strangers who wandered into the gazebo. And still others stood at the signing table for fifteen minutes, pen in hand, only to slink out of the gazebo without having sold or signed a single book.

I didn’t have much time to get to know the books or the authors, but afterwards, when I flopped into a chair at the children’s books tent and remained there, sweaty and tired, for the next hour and a half, I wondered about the Emerging Authors. Some of them, like the courthouse shootings book author, had a legitimate reason to go with a micropress and try to sell their books locally. Others, like the crafter of the hand-sewn picture books, and the guy who wrote and published all of his own mystery novels, really seemed to enjoy the work that went into building their own cottage industry. But others really shouldn’t have given their novels over to AuthorHouse or iUniverse; I suppose there’s a chance they really only wanted their friends and family to read their books, but since they bought time and space at the Emerging Authors Stage, I’m assuming that they wanted their work to reach a larger sphere than that. Your write a general-interest novel, you (generally) want the general public to have access to it. I think there’s a mistaken notion among some writers that you have to work your way up through various publishing houses before you can get that first big contract — like you have to do a couple of vanity press or micropress books before you can move up to a small press and then, maybe, to one of the major New York houses. That’s about as true as the notion that you can’t get an agent until you’re published.

After listening to Sarah Prineas read from The Magic Thief, and watching Cheryl Klein’s Harry Potter trivia quiz, I resisted the temptation to spend the rest of my cash on a frozen lemonade, and instead went home to face down my most recent next-to-last-chapter writer’s block.

Decatur Book Festival, Day 1: Old Faces and Pygmy Goats September 2, 2008

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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The Decatur Book Festival’s writers conference happened at Agnes Scott College on Friday afternoon. I took the train there from work, and got motion sick while trying to read Junot Diaz’s short story “Aguantando.” Then the eastbound train was late and I really had to book it across Decatur to get to the keynote speech on time. I blustered past two girls carrying their dirty laundry in purple mesh bags, and I may have stopped for a second to properly react with a little “aww!” – which loosely translates to, “While there are still about seven or ten sort of cute and nostalgic things about college life, I am so, so thankful that I never have to do that again.”

Anyway, I made it to the keynote in time. When I walked into the conference room and surveyed the place, I thought of that part in “Goodbye To All That” where the twenty-three-year-old Joan Didion’s male friend chokes with laughter at the idea that any New York party would have “new faces.” And indeed, he arrived at the party to find that he’d slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. Now, I didn’t have that sort of close personal relationship with anyone at the DBF writers conference keynote address by Georgia Review editor Stephen Corey, but there was a definite shortage of new faces. Half the people there were from Atlanta Writers Club. There were others I recognized from SCBWI. I sat behind a row of Agnes Scott girls who had come to the get-together I organized for the end of National Novel Writing Month. (One of them had read her novel excerpt in a wavering British accent.) I couldn’t tell if people were recognizing me in the same way I was recognizing them. (If I take stock of the empirical evidence, it seems I really should be recognized — I’m always one of the youngest-looking people at these writing events, and nearly always the shortest in height, and I usually wear a dress and heels and carry my Japanese tote bag that displays a poorly-edited recipe for cherry pie. Surely I am at least a little bit memorable.) Of course, I’m cursed with the ability to remember everything about everyone, while usually being met in return with little more than an eye-squint of hazy familiarity.

After the keynote, the group separated for the individual workshops. I was scheduled for Doug Crandell’s Ye Olde Thyme Writing Workshop and Petting Zoo. It was easy to find – on the quad behind the student center, there were two tents, under which sat two pygmy goats, a cat, and a couple of chickens. Doug himself was wearing a straw hat, denim overalls, and a sleeveless plaid shirt that allowed him to display the numerical tattoo on his shoulder. It was the ISBN of his first published book.

Oh, and there were a few New Faces there, so that was exciting. The main part of the workshop was focused on writing a short piece based around one of the thrift-store trinkets Doug had set out on a table. There were wigs, hats, cassette tapes, porcelain shelf decorations, a bowling ball, and a coffee Thermos that had not been entirely washed out. No one picked that one. I grabbed a cassette on which was recorded a sermon by “the Rev. Dr. Michael Beckwith.” The full title of the recording and Rev. Dr. Beckwith’s religious organization was far more interesting than his name, but… I can’t recall them right now. This is probably why I’m not a published author but rather just a weird quiet girl who can remember everybody who comes to Atlanta-area writing events.

I wrote a page and a half about an unnamed mother and son who were listening to Rev. Dr. Beckwith’s sermon while on a late-night car trip to South Carolina. That mother and son were, in my mind, Mitchell and Caroline Waterson, but since we only had fifteen or twenty minutes to write our pieces, I didn’t have time to be tempted by backstory. This was good. I should make a point to give myself timed writing assignments, even on days when I’m not writing in the company of pygmy goats.

Then, most of us read our pieces out loud to the rest of the group. I’m not usually very charitable when it comes to handing out praise about other people’s writing, so when I say that the other pieces were freaking fantastic samples of twenty-minute writing, I really mean it.

Doug Crandell said some things about short fiction publishing and narrative arc creation that I really need to remember, but I’ll save those for another post — perhaps the one in which I finally post photos of the Plot Board of DOOM (which Adam recently moved across the room. I think this was a strategic move, because now I have to stare at said Plot Board whenever I’m sitting at my computer desk. Ack!). The end of the afternoon at the writers conference found me eating too many cookies and brownies at the reception as I chatted with some of the New Faces and waited for the rest of the conference-goers and instructors to arrive. When it was clear they were taking their time, I intelligently noted my woozy sugarhighishness and decided it was time to head back to the train station.