Thursday, December 31, 2009

Day 8 - Buh Bye 2009

I'll post goals and resolutions tomorrow, but for a quick look back:

Day job: Uneasy truce achieved.

Money: Not enough.

Weight: Too much.

Writing: After a long distracted layoff, I'm BACK, and really really really really happy about that.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Day 7 - Starting a Novel with Disembodied Dialog

I have a confession to make. I was never able to get into Dorothy L. Sayers. I never knew why, because I love the adaptations made of her Lord Peter Whimsey books. The plots, the characters all that.

I finally realized just the other night that the whole reason is because I've been trying to start with the wrong book. And it's not even the wrong whole book, just the wrong first page. Yep, I've got to say that Murder Must Advertise has a sinker of a first page:

"And by the way," said Mr. Hankin, arresting Miss Rossiter as she rose to go, "there is a new copy-writer coming in today."

"Oh, yes, Mr. Hankin?"

"His name is Bredon. I can't tell you much about him; Mr Pym engaged him himself; but you will see that he is looked after."

"Yes, Mr. Hankin."

"He will have Mr. Dean's room."

"Yes, Mr. Hankin."

"I should think that Mr. Ingleby cold take him in hand and show him what to do. You might send Mr. Ingleby along if he can spare me a moment."

"Yes, Mr. Hankin."

"That's all. And, oh, yes! Ask Mr. Smayle to let me have the Dairyfield's guard-book."

"Yes, mr. Hankin."

This is a much better beginning than the one in the book I threw across the room the other day, because at least it does its job of orienting us. It's pretty clear that this is an office, and the relationship between the characters. Given the title of the chapter "Death Comes to Pym's Publicity", we have some kind of idea what kind of office it is, too.

But it does make you work to figure out that setting, and what is going on and why, and it doesn't give back a lot in return. For instance, since we don't have any expectations yet, it doesn't get to play with or against those expectations. Which is what would make the whole "Yes, Mr. Hankin, Yes, Mr. Hankin, Yes, Mr. Hankin, Yes, Mr. ..." thing work. If we had actors and and a setting, it would be funny and subtle. By itself, the words have to work too hard to set the scene and set up the relationship. There isn't time for fun with it. Still, there might be just a little drama in there if he had said something which made her struggle to answer "Yes, Mr. Hankin." But that wouldn't be appropriate to the characters.

So, imho, it would have been better to cut it out altogether, because ALL of the information in this bit turns out to be in the next part of the scene when Miss Rossiter goes off and relates it all to the other people in the office. And Sayers deigns to actually describe them a little, and better yet, they actually have personalities and conflicts.

And in that bit, a page later, we finally get a hint of the "promise" that should have been on the first page, when one of the characters describes this new guy as a "tow-coloured supercilious looking blighter" and now we have some anticipation. If you're familiar with the series, here you think, with a chuckle "Is that who I think it is?" Or if you aren't, you at least get a sense of upcoming conflict.

Usually, dialog carries a lot of meaning in how things are said. But when you have nothing but dialog , what is said is extremely important. In an opening, it becomes a kind of narration in itself. The characters can tell you about other characters the way Dickens told us about Scrooge - but if so, it's better not to make the dialog carry too much other weight. It can't establish the characters who are speaking, AND the setting, AND the political situation, AND the other characters.

In Murder, Mr. Mosley by John Greenwood, the opening dialog is like the chanting of a Greek chorus. We meet a couple of minor characters in an obvious setting but they are there to comment:

"You are not contemplating," the Assistant Chief Constable said, "committing this to Mosley?"

Detective-Superintendant Grimshaw looked his master in the eye with a firmness meant to conceal the fact that he would rather have been looking almost anywhere else in the world. "Chief Inspector Marsters is tied up with managerial crime -- the Hartley Mason business. We've leave and sickness problems. Woolliams is looking after two divisions. Stout's going off on a course. And it is Mosley's patch."

"But damn it, he couldn't even get to the scene of the crime."

"He's been up all night sir: an epidemic of poultry-rustling over at Kettlerake."

This scene goes on for about another page and it is all dialog. Not even a "he said" for the rest of the scene. But you don't have to work all that hard to know it's taking place in the ACC's office, and if not, the location is irrelevant to the conversation.

But the best thing is that the very first sentence introduces conflict. It's a question in the negative, full of doubt. And Grimshaw's reaction shows us that he is dreading that doubt and has to stand strong against it.

From there, the discussion progresses like a tennis match, with the ball in one court and then the other. And in the course of the conversation, we learn all there is to know about the reputation of Mr. Mosley, and about his "patch" or the community in which he works. This conversation continues to build that conflict, and by the end, it has built up to a hook - Mosley is about to be partnered with someone that both sides believe will a poor fit for his personality. ... And that is a perfect set up to actually meet Mr. Mosley in the next scene.

So in the end, I have to say that the disembodied discussion can work as an opening scene, but what it really does is focus the reader on the subject of the discussion. And if you try to hang too much else on these words (or make the point too subtle) you can lost the audience.  At the opening of the story, subtlety gets lost in the reader's search for information.  If you want to write wonderful subtle dialog, save it for a little later, when the audience can absorb it. 

So tomorrow I get back to thinking about what to do with this book, and my goals for the next dare (which I will post on New Year's Day).
Here are the direct links to each post in the series: Intro - how to start a novel badly 1.) In the middle of the action, 2.) Narration or storyteller's voice, 3.) Disembodied Dialog.

Day 6 - Opening a Novel with Narrative

"Marley was dead: to begin with."

That's how Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol begins. The narrator just straight out tells you an important fact. He doesn't tell you why it's important, but he goes for quite a while, and in extensive detail, about how dead Marley is.

We get the idea that this plain fact -- that Marley was dead -- will soon be in question.

This is the great thing about "voice," and it's something you can only get with narration; It isn't just that we're given dry facts, but we are given a point of view.  In this case, you might even call it an obsession. "Listen! He's dead! Remember that or you will miss important stuff later on!" And because we have voice, we not only get facts about Marley being dead, we get with them everything we need to know about the characters and situation for the whole book.

AND, because we've got this wonderful opinionated voice, Dickens gets away with telling us outright about his protagonist: "Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!"

Of course, it was easier to get away with that authorial voice in Victorian times when omniscient was pretty much the norm. But even more modern fiction also uses authorial voice - just a drier more subtle one. I see it more on the hard-boiled side of the aisle, in the dry but intelligent voice of the omniscient reporter.

But right now I want to stick to the cozier side of the spectrum so I'll leave some of my favorite hard-boiled examples for later. What I found in just casting about for an ordinary example of classic and cozy fiction was not really omniscient. In The Emperor's Snuff-box by John Dickson Carr, for instance, there wasn't a strong personality in the voice. It does begin with summarized narration, though:

When Eve Neill divorced Ned Atwood, the suit was not contested. And, even though the charge was infidelity with a famous woman tennis player, it created far less scandal than Eve had expected.

As with A Christmas Carol, this one goes on with the same theme for a bit. If you don't pick it up in those two sentences, you see pretty quickly that Eve is disappointed with how easy the divorce turned out to be. It's not a particularly exciting opening, but it does it's job: it orients you with what the issues are, and who the protagonist is. The subsequent paragraphs give a lot of information about time and place and situation and personalities. It quickly dips into small fragments of scene to keep it interesting and vivid.

But, as I said, it's a slow starter. There isn't a lot of personality there, and the promise the writer is making is subtle and slow. Eve's problem at this point, is that she is dissatisfied, and that's about it. Dissatisfaction can lead to great things, though, and I would continue reading for a while. But it's a quiet interest.

Of course it's a lot easier to have a really strong and interesting narrator's voice if you write in first person. You can be opinionated and seductive and even irrational and untruthful. (You can be interesting, in other words.)

Probably the best example of a cozy narrative voice comes from a series which is not a mystery at all. P. G. Wodehouse was a real master of narration. And he usually did use a first person narrator, although often that person wasn't a part of the story, just a storyteller.  (His stories about golf, for instance, were generally told by an old man in the club house who told stories about other members he once knew.)

Here is the opening for Jeeves (from Chapter 1 "Jeeves Exerts the Old Cerebellum"):

"Good morning, Jeeves" I said.

"Good morning, sir," said Jeeves.

He put the good old cup of tea softly on the table by my bed, and I took a refreshing sip. Just right, as usual. Not too hot, not too sweet, not too weak, not too strong, not too much milk, not a drop spilled in the saucer. A most amazing cove, Jeeves. So dashed competent in every respect. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I mean to say, take just one small instance....

This story does not start with any kind of problem at all, but it's interesting because the narrator, Bertie Wooster, is so dashed excited about how great his valet is. Just as Dickens works to convince the reader to pay attention to the fact that Marley is dead, so Bertie is working to convince us that Jeeves is a miracle man. They are both telling us straight out that this is an important fact. The heart of the story hinges on it.

I think that's why the opening for John Dickson Carr doesn't work as well for me as the other two - because the voice is more neutral, the reader is not really sure if the opening information is just character development, or critical to the story. I think, when you have a narrated beginning, where you are just told information, you have to have a sense that this is important. Even if it's just a teaser that you don't understand.

I think it's possible for a narrated beginning - a summary of facts - to have some of the kind of inherent drama that a dentist dangling out the window of the twelfth floor of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel might have. Drama could act as cover to hook the reader when you don't want the reader to know the real reason you're starting where you are.

One example of that (which I don't have on hand at the moment) is The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey. That book starts with some scene setting - a recounting of the sinking of a cruise ship in World War I and some other historical events. Those events turn out to have some bearing on the story, but for the opening, they are just a dramatic hook to set the scene.

Tomorrow I'll talk about a couple of books that open with dry dialog - exactly the kind of opening that drove me nuts with those books I bought the other day. Only in this case, the openings work.

Here are the direct links to each post in the series: Intro - how to start a novel badly 1.) In the middle of the action, 2.) Narration or storyteller's voice, 3.) Disembodied Dialog.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Day 5 - The First Page - In The Middle of the Action

Back when I was at Clarion (many more years ago than I will admit to) I learned from Ajay Budris that a story begins with a character in a setting with a problem. It's the problem, and solving it, that creates all the interest and suspense in a story.

And so, of course, one of the ways of starting a story is to introduce the problem first and foremost, and the reader comes to know the characters and background along the way. Of course, if you do it this way, the problem has to be obvious and easy to understand.

Here is one of my favorite opening paragraphs, from Stuart Kaminsky's Smart Moves:

I was leaning out of the window of a room on the twelfth floor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, but I wasn't enjoying the view. My right hand was trying to hold on to the sleeve of a frightened dentist who dangled and swayed in the April breeze. My left hand gripped the window sill in spite of the arm behind it, which ached from a very fresh gunshot wound.

You don't have to know who the characters are to empathize with the problem here. (And, frankly, if you don't know who the dentist is at this point, it only creates more tension, because as far as you know, he's just an innocent dentist, as opposed to an annoying one who may quite possibly deserve being dropped.)

The great thing about this kind of opening is that you get an idea of what your character is really made of, what he's capable of. And by how you pick that moment, you may be able to either establish what a typical problem is for the character, and what's extraordinary. In either case, you hook the reader and make a promise as to what the story is about. Once you've made that promise, you get a little more leeway to slow down and set up the rest of the story.

In this case, Stuart Kaminsky is using an old pulp fiction trick: the scene is actually from the climax of the book, and once you're hooked, he goes back to the start of the story. He makes it do double-duty, though, because this happens to be a typical day and a typical problem for the narrator of the story, Toby Peters. The thing that makes it worthy of the climax of the book is simply the stakes. (Which, if I remember right, are the fate of the world, and the lives of Paul Robeson and Albert Einstein.)

However, the beginning doesn't have to involve gunshot wounds and dangling dentists to be a decent hook. This is the beginning of Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie:

Gwenda Reed stood, shivering a little, on the quayside.

The docks and the custom sheds and all England that she could see were gently waving up and down. And it was in that moment that she made her decision -- the decision that was to lead to such very momentus events.

She wouldn't go by boat train to London as she had planned.

In this case, we don't know Gwenda Reed, but we already have a strong sense of a person in transition. Even if we weren't told that the decision would lead to momentus events, she's in a location associated with important changes. She's obviously been travelling or about to travel, and she is taking a step into the unknown. She's deviating from the plan - so she's taking a risk.

That may not be an actual problem, but it promises problems. There will be challenges to be met. Unexpected things will crop up.

When I think about those two books which disappointed me, I suspect that this is the kind of thing those writers meant to do. To start in the middle of something and create anticipation. They failed because there wasn't a promise of things to come.

And that failed because there just wasn't enough quality information. And not every story has gunshots or an evocative setting to set things going, but Christie gives us a hint of the other technique when she inserts the "the decision that was to lead to such very momentus events."

Sometimes it's good to just tell the story and not be coy about the information. More about that tomorrow.

Here are the direct links to each post in the series: Intro - how to start a novel badly 1.) In the middle of the action, 2.) Narration or storyteller's voice, 3.) Disembodied Dialog.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Day 4 - How to Start a Novel Badly

I recently picked up a couple of cozy mystery paperbacks that looked promising at my local independent bookstore. I found I couldn't get past the second page on either of them. I found myself growing frustrated and impatient, and that's exactly the opposite of how I expect to feel when I'm reading a cozy mystery.

(Side Rant: I also had negative flashbacks to why I stopped reading new cozies back in the nineties. Screeching, nasty, whiny and disagreeable characters are not interesting. They do not constitute a real threat, just an immediate one. And frankly, when your main character puts up with them for one second, I lose all respect for the protag and there is no reason to continue reading. If you are trying to establish that your protagonist is non-confrontational, then at least make her clever about avoiding these people. Because even if she does have to put up with them, I don't. I can put the book down, and usually I do.)

Ahem. Where was I? While one of these books did have a negative character problem, the other one didn't. And both of them suffered from the same kind of opening. I call it the "set up via dialog" opening, and until this week, I too thought it was a good standard technique for jumping right into the story.

Here's how the better of the two books went (and I'm changing the details to protect the innocent and guilty): A small group of women are idly chatting while doing some activity - like sorting donated clothes for a rummage sale. There is no authorial voice, nor is there any internal voice of any of the characters. So there is no description, nothing to orient us to time and place except what they say and do. And they're too busy telling us about each other and the other characters who will enter later to actually let us in on the fact that this takes place in a church basement, in Cleveland, during World War I. The dialog is generic in terms of time and place, and so busy trying to tell us that one of them is a free spirit and the other is a conventional but loyal friend, and that there is a certain woman who is out to get one or the other of them, that one really, literally, cannot tell that this doesn't take place in present day in some unknown building of some sort.

Now, if the dialog and description had given me a little more sense of time and place, I might not have tossed the book aside as quickly, but I still would have been frustrated. Because there is no tension, and even though the characters were very interested in the upcoming social events in their community, the author had not given me any reason to be interested. The mention of this other woman who competes with one of the protagonists is not enough. She's not in the scene. She doesn't provide any conflict or tension. (And I have to admit, I started to worry that when she does enter, she'll turn out to be screechy or whiny or just too unpleasant to read about.)

Now, this is a published author, so I am going to assume that the problem with this opening isn't that there is nothing at stake. I'll even assume that the little hints of conflict will pay off really well later. Hey, sometimes a good payoff requires a lot of subtle groundwork to be laid.

But right now, I've got a novel which needs some set up for the "ordinary life" aspects. So I'm really interested in what's wrong with that opening, and what other kinds of openings I could write.

So I pulled six books from my shelves and looked at the opening paragraphs of each. (All light mystery and such, and none of them the more experimental artsy style of some classics.) They seem to fall into three categories, which are partly defined by the old "show and tell" rule:

  1. Action scene which is deeply into the direct experience of the protag - which shows us what is at stake, and leaves the reasons for later.
  2. The storyteller's voice, which dives directly into telling us what is important and what it means - reporter style. (But a good reporter will show us too.)
  3. This "intro-by-dialog" technique which keeps an objective voice, and tries to show us by having characters talk - which is a form of telling.

The truth is, all of these techniques will show up throughout a book, the question is, which do you start with? Because later on, the reader is already oriented. But at the beginning, the reader needs a whole world of information. In a lot of ways, the kind of opening page you chose has most to do with which information you give the reader first.

Stay tuned - I'll be writing about each of these three techniques for the next three days. (Here are the direct links to each post in the series: 1.) In the middle of the action, 2.) Narration or storyteller's voice, 3.) Disembodied Dialog. )

Liminal Zone Day 3 - Pleasure Is My Business

I had an essay written on how it's important to respect vacation time when you're a writer with a day job. In summary: I've tried writing on weekends and vacations and I've tried writing on workdays and leaving vacations as vacations. Neither is really satisfactory for the writer with a day job. However, no matter how you schedule things, one thing a writer needs is time to stare off into space. And sleep. Sleep is good.

Staring off into space, though, is serious business, and I did a bunch of it today. What was accomplished? I got a lot of questions down about the holes in the backstory and identified a few opportunities there. I got a tentative dare schedule for the first six months of the year (though I have to ponder this before I post it).

The big thing I had to think about, though, was voice. I'm still working on the voice of this novel and how it will begin. The past two months was about scenes and characters. The next pass, though, will certainly be about voice and pacing. And I still need to work on how to open the book. I think I will write a longer post about beginnings - in particular about a particular tone of opening that loses me every time (and which, unfortunately, seems to be used a lot in cozies and romances) and how two techniques I see in more hard-boiled novels would have worked better for those same stories.

In the mean time, I baked cookies (peanut blossoms) and watched the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers tonight. So as Captain Spaulding says:

Hello, I must be going.
I'm here to say I cannot stay
I must be going.
I'm glad I came, but all the same
I must be going.
I really must be going....

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Liminal Zone - Day 2 - Goals

By the end of this long week, I must set some goals for the coming year. I've got four things in particular in mind. I'll be posting more extensively on each of them.

1. What's the plan for finishing the novel? One more dare? Two? What's the schedule on it?

To do this goal, I have to first assess where the heck I am. I've just been piling up word counts over the past few weeks. Now I've got to see the overall.

2. My author website.

I need to update it and turn it into the home site for the other things I do. It should not be hard, but there is baggage associated.

3. Fiction Sites. What can I get done this year?

I have one prototype fiction blog for my published short mystery fiction. (Mick and Casey's Mystery Stories - check it out.) I also have a domain for my children's fiction, but I haven't got around to it. The main thing holding me up is that I that I want to do a more professional job of the design, now that I've learned a few things from building the first site. And that is going to be work. And I promised some friends I would get a swashbuckling blog up by Talk Like A Pirate Day next year, although I don't know if I will do original fiction or just reviews and stuff.

I really need a plan.

4. Article Writing

I get a trickle of "passive income" from some blogs and sites like eHow. I need to enhance that income, but the trickle is slow enough that I really have to consider what kind of effort is worth it.

The biggest issue here, though, is that I need to kick start my Dim Sum Primer. I think that is the one actual writing goal of this break - I need four or five articles to start that out. The other goals can focus on planning. But this one needs action.

So ... I've got my break cut out for me. The first job will be to assemble all the material I have right now on the novel, and see if I can figure out not only how much is dross, but also where the important gaps are, etc.

But for tonight, I came up with a long list of post subjects and titles for the Dim Sum Primer blog. About sixteen sets of four posts.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Dancing Your Own Steps - In Competition

At our Christmas Eve Culinary Indulgence Festival last night, we discussed the fact that none of us could remember which DVDs we had any more. So today, I sat down and typed up a spread sheet of my movie titles. (This would be impossible to do with my books, but movies, I can just manage it.)

I was shocked to find some titles missing. Okay, maybe a couple of those Hitchcocks were ones I had in VHS or rented recently enough that I just thought I had them, but I was absolutely SURE that I had Strictly Ballroom. I know I did. That is my favorite writer movie of all time. How could I not have it?

I didn't know what to expect the first time I saw Strictly Ballroom. Friends had recommended it as "beautiful" and I had some vague idea that it was a little art house documentary about dancing. And for a minute or so, the opening did not dissuade me from this belief. Beautiful dancing, music, interviews.... and then it takes a wild left turn into something else entirely. (The opening sequence is worth watching just for its own sake.)

Strictly Ballroom, aside from being a great comedy, a fun fairytale romance (a la Cinderella meets Ugly Duckling) and a beautiful music and dance picture, is also a great writer's picture. I highly recommend it for anyone struggling with the choices that greet a writer today especially in terms of going for professional publication or striking out on your own with self-publication, or some other new media paradigm.

This movie seems to be about breaking the rules and dancing your own steps... but it has a deeper message for the artist. The protagonists of this story could simply leave the world of ballroom dancing behind and dance for love, or on the street, or create their own venue. But they don't, even when pushed to the limit. The lesson here is not that you dance your own steps, but rather that you must dance your own steps in competition. For Real. Before the judges and audience.

So do it for real, whether you succeed or fail. Real dancing, and real writing, should always get its chance before the judges and the audience.

The Liminal Zone, Day 1

It's said that the ancient Romans celebrated the new year as an eight day celebration, an eight day week that was considered to be the thresh hold between the years - a time apart from time. In this period you are outside of ordinary boundaries, so you celebrate, reflect, break rules and do special things.

So every year I celebrate the Liminal Zone - eight days from Christmas Eve to New Years Day (inclusive of both). This year we get a bonus, because New Year's happens on a Friday, so in effect, the liminal zone is ten days long.

So for these next ten days, I'm going to make like the door keeper god, Janus, and look back and forward.

We start with the dare that just ended yesterday. No, I did not reach my goal, but I am not displeased. Setting the right goal is so important, and I think I did set the right goal. The first criterion is whether I wrote more than I would have if I hadn't been doing a dare, and that answer is certainly yes. Fall is a horrible time for me to write. I always start the season really in the mood, because I love the weather. (I know, most people hate Michigan in fall. It is generally dark and dreary, with overcast skies and mold and humidity. But I always find it energizing.)

But fall semester always begins with the nightmare of new computer set ups, new policies, new students, and MORE students. We spend much of fall fixing all of the above so that spring will go better. The holidays also mix in a lot more social duties and such, and that takes up spare time. The best movies get released that time of year.

It can be extremely discouraging to try to get much writing done in the Fall. And nothing is worse than setting goals you have no hope of achieving. The goal I set this fall was one I've achieved before, so I knew it was reasonable. I figured it was ambitious for fall, and I was right. I did not achieve it, but I also did not flounder and fail and give up.

What I accomplished was not a particular word count, but rather I have established critical mass on this novel. I have done that basic exploratory work that allows the story to come to life. That's the great thing a dare can do for you, more than anything else, I think. A dare forces you to dig deep and keep writing - and you almost have to go off on tangents and try things out, just to keep the words coming. They force you to go deeper.

Tomorrow I'll post some goals I have for this Liminal Zone. Happy holidays to all.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Day 56 - 665 Words To Stick a Fork In

So I end the dare almost 3000 words short. Oh well. I've certainly done more at the end of Fall Semester than I've done in a long long time, and that was kinda the point.

I'll be posting a redux and new goals starting tomorrow. In the meantime, happy holidays.

Running Total: 47178 Words.

47178 / 50000 words. 94% done!

Karla explains to Gwen that she is not Steven Seagal. (However, Gwen still seems to think that the safest place in the hall is right behind Karla.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Day 55 - 1184 Words of Exploration

Okay I see I'm not going to make it to 50k. But given that this is the very worst time of year for me to get anything done, I guess I'm pretty pleased anyway. We will see what I get tomorrow.

Running Total: 46513 Words.

46513 / 50000 words. 93% done!

Karla and Gwen meet. Gwen's friend Dahlia makes an accusation.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Utterly exhausted

The last day at work took more out of me than I thought. (I am also still battling that cough.)

So I am going to bed with my iPod Touch, a notepad and pencil. I will probably do some scribbling, but the word count will be folded into tomorrow's total.


Day 54 - 1667 Words in Bits and Pieces

I'm going to be busier than I thought for the next three days so I tried to make it to a higher count, but alas, I did not. I need to go to bed early for one more day at the Day Job. Still, I have less than 5k left, and three days. I think I can make it.

Running Total: 45329 Words.

45329 / 50000 words. 91% done!

Bits and pieces from all over, so no specific teaser today.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Day 53 - 2056 Words of Discussions

I needed to ramp up my productivity, so I pushed hard. I hope to do at least as well tomorrow, because Monday is going to be a tough day.

Running Total: 43662 Words.

43662 / 50000 words. 87% done!

Discussions of: Were the bad guys after Maria or Elias... or something else? Who might Maria really be? Was the wrong number really a wrong number? Karla takes a ride down by the lake.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Day 52 - 1748 Words With Ponies

Stayed up too late, but at least I made my goal. Even though I did shopping and made hot wings and watched Perry Mason, White Collar AND Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Running Total: 41606 Words.

41606 / 50000 words. 83% done!

While taking one of the ponies out for exercise, Karla learns something interesting from a friend. Also, Rosie deals with a phone call.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Day 51 - 1136 Words NOT in a Fever

Six days and 10K words left - so I have to try to do about 1700 a day. Will I make it? Stay Tuned!

My cold, at least, is mostly over.

Running Total: 39858 Words.

39858 / 50000 words. 80% done!

New opening, in which Karla compares the Congregationalist rummage sale to the movie Titanic, and people take it as a sign of her wisdom. (Well, they WERE singing "Nearer My God To Thee", though that wasn't actually the reason.) Also did some fill-ins on the action scene.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Day 50 - 342 Words Eked Out Through a Fevered Haze

Thinking about a novel while sick can lead to some interesting plot developments. I had to spend much of the day dozing, which meant thoughts turned very quickly into dreams. Unfortunately the downside of such thinking while you are sick is that you don't capture the ideas while you have them. They skitter away and all you can actually remember is the yodeling wombat you passed while you were trying to get out of the endless parking garage.

But that other part, that part you can remember? That was a really good twist idea. Just perfect for ... something. Probably.

Running Total: 38722 Words.

38722 / 50000 words. 77% done!

Karla calls her mother, and doesn't realize her mother got the wrong impression about something.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Day 49 - 572 Words and I've been Invaded by Aliens

Not in the book, in my life. Some sort of virus has taken up occupation in my body. Probably just a cold, though it involves weariness and aches. (Family members have had it too and it appears to be following the same arc.)

So I put in extra work at the day job so they could continue on without me, and I have retired to home with a warm cat and hot soup and silly videos. I did get some writing done, and I actually feel rather inspired, as I wrote about the aftermath of Karla's adventure, which includes a bad tumble on a sandy road.

Running Total: 38380 Words.

38380 / 50000 words. 77% done!

George is solicitous. Karla is sore. The ponies don't really care one way or the other. (Actually the ponies don't even enter into it, but if I were to turn the camera in their direction, we'd probably see that they really don't give a rip.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Day 48 - 496 Words More Chasing and Plotting

Today was a rotten day. Began with games by the passive-aggressive receptionist at my dentist's office. This is the fourth time she has made the same "mistake" (which involves outright an outright lie every time in order for it to happen). I did, however manage to do about 750 words of notes on which scenes are still missing and what I need to change in existing scenes to reflect the changes.

In the meantime I have found a really great script to read. This year's "Hollywood Blacklist" is out. It's a list of scripts that are truly wonderful but which won't be made for some reason or other. ("Not commercially viable" is the most common reason, along with sheer bad luck.) At the top of the list is a script called "The Muppet Man" - a fanciful (but somewhat dark) biography of Jim Hensen written by a person who knows nothing about him except what can be gleaned from interviews and public stuff. The blog Go Into the Story tells the story of this script, and how it launched the writer's career, and there is also a link to the script itself. (Here is a direct link to the download page for Muppet Man, in pdf format. It's a site with lots of pop up ads but otherwise seems harmless.)

Running Total: 37808 Words.

37808 / 50000 words. 76% done!

More on the new chase scene, with cardboard, pitchfork and a bad tumble. (But at the moment I don't see how they can end up with George back at his car. Must continue to consider logistics.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Day 47 - 1497 Words With More of a Chase

Still fighting off the cold, but I got some good stuff in today. A lot of it, unfortunately is a different version of things I already have. I also got a lot of think work done on how various changes affect the story. So far all is working out better and better. I am looking forward to the point where I actually get to pull out all the seams and rework this.

Running Total: 37312 Words.

37312 / 50000 words. 75% done!

The curse of the tomato worm. The value of a gallon of spoiled milk (largely weight).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Day 46 - 1546 Words And An Epiphany

I was so excited today when I realized how well it would work if I just abandoned the first chapter or so. This, of course, is an epiphany nearly every writer has on nearly every book. But I had thought I had already cut off the first chapter.

This book really has to start off with Karla, and George and his situation can be a bit of a mystery to be uncovered in the first few chapters.

I also decided to separate my posts about writing philosophy and issues from my pure update posts. Stay tuned for thoughts about characters, actors and point of view.

Running Total: 35815 Words.

35815 / 50000 words. 72% done!

Fleshing out and finishing the flamingo scene. (Which now may well be the end of the first chapter!)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Day 45 - 1568 Words With A Little Chase Scene

The semester has ended! (More or less. We still have work on prepping the labs for next semester to do.) And I think I have a cold. But we had some really great Sichuan food as a treat. Dumplings in Spicy Sichuan Sauce will clear any kind of congestion, and Squirrel Shaped Fish and Double-Cooked Side Pork was plenty luxurious. Ahhhh.

Running Total: 34266 Words.

34266 / 50000 words. 69% done!

Karla hatches an excellent plan to deceive George. Too bad George wasn't there to be deceived.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Day 44 - Exactly 1000 Words!

I actually spent much of today reworking how the first act would shape up. I changed a lot of things and I think it will tie the whole flow of the story together. But I didn't get around to writing as much new material on the book as I'd like. I did, however, write an article on character development.

Running Total: 32698 Words.

32698 / 50000 words. 65% done!

Karla deduces where the picture most likely came from.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Monty Python and Novel Writing

As long as we're on the subject of competitive, goal-oriented novel writing. I have to give you a link to this wonderful radio sketch from Monty Python. (It's from their "Matching Tie and Handkerchief" album - which if I remember right, was a "three sided" vinyl album. The second side had two tracks, which were side by side, and it was sheer luck which one you landed on when you played it.)

Anyway, someone at YouTube has a video up of this sound-only sketch, featuring Novel Writing as a sports event, with Thomas Hardy writing The Return of the Native.

Day 43 - 476 Words of Puzzling About the Picture and About Setting

Tired, but I got some done. I realize I have to do a little more thinking about the inciting event - the picture that sets this whole thing off. It is partly an accidental happening but I think I can make better of it than that. I also think I have discovered a key minor character that I didn't know was involved. But it makes the local geography all that much more important.

You know, once upon a time someone told me about an exercise for personal essayists. It was a great way to evoke memories. You take a large blank sheet of paper and draw a small box with an x in the center. That is some place you lived as a child. Then you draw a map all around it.

This is also a great way to develop your character's surroundings. A lot of writers, especially of fantasy, like to draw maps of a whole fantastic location and then set their story within it, but I think it's more helpful to draw such a map not with overall layout in mind, but as if exploring a memory. What's down the path? What's up the path? Did your character ever go that way? What memories are associated with this room or that tree?

Running Total: 31698 Words.

31698 / 50000 words. 63% done!

Karla and Uncle Rosie sit down and discuss where that picture could have come from. Karla reveals herself to be more practical-minded than Chief of Police Rosewalt. More or less.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Day 42 - 707 Words about Meeting the Child in Question

Here we are waiting for the show/ice storm of the century and I'm writing about a sunny day. It would be nice to have a snowday tomorrow, but that would screw a lot of people up so I suppose I should not hope for it.

Running Total: 31222 Words.

31222 / 50000 words. 62% done!

Elias returns a video to Karla. His reaction to it does not strike Karla as odd at the time.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Day 41 - 614 Words on a Morning Stroll

I am very tired after my long day, but I decided to use this time for more exploring. I wanted more sense of place, so I am newly introducing Karla in a more leisurely way. I don't know if I will use this in the final book, although it did come out pretty well.

And, as usual, important details details cropped up that deepen the story and also lots of stuff that creates new opportunities. (For instance, might the footpath be a better location for the chase and fight than the pony barn? I think so. And what about those unfinished low-rent cabins at the OTHER end of the path?)

And OH LOOK! I found a widget that allows you to have a graphic representation of writing progress!! I am so geeking out here. (If you click on it, it will take you to the page where you can get the code. However, you have to go to that page and enter new information every time you want to show new progress. But it's just what I want.)

Running Total: 30515 Words.

30515 / 50000 words. 61% done!

Karla evicts a tomato worm, and notices some tire tracks.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Day 40 - 263 Words - Showing and Telling and Planning and Plumping

Today went out the window when I had a minor morning emergency which caused continued sleep deprivation. But I did get some planning done, and I started in on something else important: I started recapturing my "voice."

I've been away doing screenwriting for quite a while. And with screenwriting, the the words "Show, Don't Tell" have a whole different meaning. The whole medium is about showing. You CAN'T tell the way you can in fiction. There is no exposition, no internal dialog. So basically you have to stick it into external dialog, or leave it out. You have dialog and action, and that's it.

But worse.... you have to leave the cool stuff to the actors. Humphrey Bogart stands on a train platform, reading the goodbye letter from the woman he loves. It's pouring rain. That's about all you can say. You can elaborate a little for the sake of the producers, and maybe say something like "he's crushed" to give an idea of where the actor will be going with it. But you can't tell the actor how to get there. You also have to leave the timing and lighting and atmosphere and the way the camera directs your attention to this detail or that to the director. And director of photograpy and editor.

When writing fiction, you have to do all of that yourself. And the way to accomplish it, especially without resorting to 'telling' and too much stage direction, is through voice. And it's easy for me to get back into my voice when I have a first person narrator, but when I'm writing a story in third person, I currently tend to rip through it with dialog and minimal action now.

And that's a big part of why I'm taking a break at the end of the month, and then coming back. At that time, I will be going at this story with voice. Right now I'm ripping through dialog and events. It's the scenes with out dialog, or which depend on non-dialog elements, though, that are giving me the most trouble....

So I spent today first sorting out what I have written and what I haven't, and then reading and plumping up layers of voice and language. When I finally got down to it, it didn't take that long, so this might be the best thing to do on those busy work days.

Running Total: 29901 Words.

29901 / 50000 words. 60% done!

Pre-flamingo scene, revisited.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Not to Be Outdone by the Orange Max Cat....

Miss Rita, senior queen of the house, decided it was HER turn to disrupt typing. This as documented again by the built in webcam on my MacBook.

Day 39 - 1909 Words With a Little Action

A lot of plot work done today. In spite of a short term migraine (possibly a combo of other kinds of headache) a little Tylenol and some music helped. Kitties did their best to interrupt, but it did not work. I got my writing done.

Running Total: 29638 words.

Karla comes home to find actual real thugs tearing her house apart. They are impervious to flamingos. Luckily they are not impervious to Starlings.

More thoughtful posting at another time.

Today's tunes: Sinatra's High Hopes, and Chumbawamba's Tubthumping. ("I get knocked down! But I get up again! You're never gonna keep me down! I get knocked down!....")

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Day 38 - 814 Words

As you'll note, I changed the template today. I think it's more readable.

As for the writing, another long day, but I did get some work done. Also some plot noodling. I am going to have to sort out some of the badguy stuff soon.

Running Total: 27729 Words.

George follows Karla to the video store.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Still Worn Out - But Humming

I am still pretty worn out, and tomorrow is the department pot luck so I had to make cookies tonight.

But I watched two old movies today. (This, of course, counts as research for the current series.) First we went to see Meet Me In St. Louis, which was playing at one of the local multiplexes. (They play old movies on many Tuesdays and Thursdays.) It is not the greatest of MGM musicals, but it does feature The Trolley Song, and a good cast, and needs to be seen once in a while on the big screen.

But then tonight while I was baking the cookies, I discovered that Hulu has Ball Of Fire playing free online. This 1941 Howard Hawks comedy is a heck of a lot of fun. It stars Gary Cooper as a linguistics professor who has been living a monastic existence with seven other professors (all played by great long time character actors like "Cuddles" Sakall and Henry Travers) as they write an encyclopedia. And then Barbara Stanwyck sashays into their lives as Sugarpuss O'Shea, a nightclub singer on the lam. (This was remade in 1948 as A Song Is Born, a musical with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo.)

As I said, this is RESEARCH, because Karla sees everything through the metaphor of movies (sorta like Miss Marple sees the solutions of mysteries through the metaphor of small town life). Unfortunately none of the movies mentioned today are suitable for for Book One. But they may give us some place to go in Book Two. (Though I'm thinking I need a little Clifton Webb for that book.)

Off I must go to bed. Another long day tomorrow.

(Humming Clang clang clang went the tolley! Ding ding ding went the bell! Zing zing zing went my heart strings. From the moment I saw him I fell....)

Day 37 - 119 Words

I'm utterly exhausted. It has been a very very long day. Students panicking everywhere. All I want to do is go to bed. This did not stop me from writing a short bit of dialog for an important turning point in Book 2.

Running Total: 26915 Words.

Karla says something. George says something in return. (I'm too tired to write a teaser.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

December Shift - New Goals, 50k Words and the Liminal Zone

I was once a Classical Studies major. It just seems right to me that between one year and the next there should be an eight-day period that is a part of neither year. The previous year's business should be finished up by the end of December 23, and new business should start on January 2.

In between you are on the threshhold (the "limen"). This is a time for celebration outside of the limits of normal constraints. But it's also an excellent time for contemplation and planning. A time to review the past, assess the present and plan for the future. I have long celebrated the Liminal Zone, and I realize that should be a part of my on going novel dare.

So I'm reframing my December goals to reflect that.

Goal 1: Fifty thousand words by the end of December 23.

I have 26k+ at the moment, so this will be about a thousand words a day - but it will be tough, because these next two weeks are the toughest time of semester. So I'm going to start out getting behinder and behinder. Can I catch up on weekends and when the semester ends? We'll see.

I will not do illustrations for the remainder of this particular novel dare. Also, the writing I'm doing right now is pretty raw. Part of this phase of the goal is to pile up the raw material for the real drafting later.

Goal 2: Daily Posts from The Liminal Zone (December 24-January 1).

I hope to keep these posts interesting, as I assess past, present and future not only of my career and goals, but of what I see in publishing, both as a reader and a writer.

This is a time for figuring out where I need to go next, and by the end of this period, I will set up a schedule for the January and February Dare goals.

Day 36 - 1269 Words

Words of many sorts, on two books. I think I've finally got enough scenes noted down for Book Four, and I've also made a small breakthrough on the first book - the main book. It's something that can have great resonance, and cause much coolness later on. I'm still working on those ramifications.

Running Total: 26796 Words.

George's elegant mother reminds Karla of an older Audrey Hepburn... and also of Margaret Dumont. Meanwhile, George lies to some thugs, and Giroux recognizes George's handiwork. (Thug with a black eye and broken trigger finger. Dead giveaway.... or is it?)