The reasons for this blog: 1. To provide basic author information for students, teachers, librarians, etc. (Please see sidebar) 2. I think out loud a lot as I work through writing projects, and I'm trying to dump most of those thoughts here rather than on my friends.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Yesterday, worked on dystopian. It may be coming together, or it may not--I can't even tell anymore. Today, did other stuff, then started thinking out the end of the story, but something doesn't feel right about my train of thought. Not sure what.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Worked on the former GN yesterday. I like the way it's going. It's clear, however, that this is just a personal pet project that can't be allowed to take time away from projects that somebody might actually want to read someday. Right now the ms is dividing itself into three chains of thought that are different in ways I can't succinctly describe. And there's no story, really. I can see that the three chains of thought will come together near the end, then, together, lead to the ending I want, the ending that's always been there. I keep trying to find a pattern to all this so that the whole big picture of the piece will suddenly fall into place and make sense, but I haven't been able to find one. If I could find the correct title, that would probably help it come into focus--but I've never been able to locate just the right name for the ms. The story and characters are fun to think about and play around with, but I can't let this take over my time. It must remain a hobby.

Today I took time to work on the dystopian ms, feeling out the backstory and writing down the current story of the main secondary character--in other words, going through the story from his POV. Nothing big about the plot has revealed itself. I was a little surprised to realize some of his motivations and desires, but they line up with what I already know happens, so I'll have to keep thinking my way through the ms.

It may be that, for once, everything is going to hover in midair until a certain plot reveal gets settled, and that once that happens, the ms will start rolling again. I don't know how to decide on something plotty like that, though--usually I let the emotional story dictate what happens plotwise, and when. It'll be interesting if for once the emotional story can't fall into place until part of the plot is set. Lots to think about, here. Definitely a learning process.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Further thoughts re. Heian diaries and former GN...

I was thinking about all the things the diaries don't mention--like names, and sometimes big chunks of the authors' lives, like, er, their own families. Many times the things the books don't mention are the very things that defined the roles and borders of the authors' lives in the real world, in their society and culture. That's one reason so many of the books have such an ethereal feel to them.

In the former GN, I've got a similar situation, where the MC is completely defined by other people and by her role in her culture/society. I've been trying to create her story...when it's not there. What I need to do--what I've actually already semi-done without noticing--is to create the stuff that's going on around her, and let the blank spaces that are left over define who she is. That's what the book is supposed to be, I think.

I'd already figured out that this is what's going on format-wise--white space helps define the character and tell the story. But I haven't carried that over to the actual choices I'm making about the written part. The written part needs to be like--well, okay, it's like the MC is an empty outline, but the reader won't be able to see that outline until I've filled in everything around her, by telling what's going on with all the other characters. She's a peripheral character in her own story, and the point is that we don't get her for herself. That was truly the point all along, and I've always known it was--I just never thought of being able to come at the writing part in that way.

In fact, I actually have been doing this all along in the writing, only I've been fighting it. All along the ms has kept going off to include everybody else's POV, while I never could quite nail the MC herself. I have continually assumed that this was a failure on my part. Creating sympathetic female characters has never been one of my strong points, so I've been pushing and pushing myself to overcome my weakness, to get this story down in a typical way, to figure out the MC's POV even though she doesn't really want anything because she's never had a chance to understand that it's okay to want something. I think I've been so busy reminding myself what I can't do well that I haven't noticed what the story's been trying to tell me.

I'm even thinking that all the saggy parts may fall out if I can handle this correctly, because I know what everybody else is doing during those times and what they want and need, and how it affects the MC.

It's going to be tough to write, but I've got 200+ pages to go over and "unforce"--to convert to however it's really wanted to be all along--and as I do so maybe I can see how it fits together to make a book. It's all in third person, and some of the formating choices are clear already, but the switches in time and POV will need some serious consideration. It'll be interesting to see how this develops. Essentially I need to try to write a book where the main character is continually a secondary character in her own story, but somehow it works anyway. Yeah, interesting challenge.
Finally was able to start reading another Heian "diary" I got at Xmas, this one translated by Ivan Morris.* It's been a while since I've read any Heian stuff, and so far I just keep rereading Morris' introduction, enjoying what he says, and being reminded down to my bones that everything doesn't have to be written or even thought of the same damn way all the time.

"...sense of genre has always been fluid in Japanese literature...the lines of demarcation between novels, romance, story collection, autobiography, journal, memoir, notebook, and poetry collection were most tenuous...."

" daily record of events but a book in which the material has been deliberately selected and shaped to reveal certain significant aspects of a women's life...dates are rarely provided...there are often large gaps between the events described."

I'm especially interested in Morris' observations that a) the introductions to the poems become so involved and so long that they become narrative flow and include characterization, so that the poems themselves almost become secondary to their own introductions; and b) the poems tend to occur at moments of heightened emotion "as if mere prose were unable to bear the weight."

He also quotes Arthur Waley's idea that you can't translate Japanese poetry, really--all you can do is take the works out of it, like a watch, then spread them on a sheet of paper and hope the reader gets the "possibility" of the poem, the way a watchmaker would see the taken-apart gears and pieces and understand the "possibility" of a watch.

Morris also remarks that in Japanese, some of the sentences he's trying to translate run on for three or four pages, but so smoothly and easily that you're not at all confused or burdened, but feel that you're seeing a scroll being unrolled in front of you.

The trick, I suppose, is figuring out ways to do this kind of thing in American writing without confusing or losing or boring the reader. I'm kind of thinking in terms of the former GN, which I haven't at all figured out yet. I actually like the new beginning I have, but it's only a few pages and it starts with events near the end of the book, and it's only one very tiny block of text per page. I have no idea what to do after that, but I like the idea of not being bound by time, place, names, etc. It's just, you know, I would like other people to want to read it, so it can't just wander around Heian-ly forever. At least, I don't think it can. Hmm.

*As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams, Translated by Ivan Morris, Penguin 1971

Monday, January 24, 2011

I spent a lot of the past semester harping on students understanding their secondary characters' arcs. And I just spent--I swear--three hours worth of workshop sessions harping on secondary characters' arcs. I had planned to do a single one hour session on secondary characters, but then realized how important it was, so I tried to give everybody as much time as they needed to get their own ms thought out and talked out on the secondary level. I let the topic run from session to session till we flat ran out of time.

Then I was talking to a student about the dystopian ms, and Student asked where my secondary character X was during the climactic scene. I gaped for a moment, then realized I had no idea where X was during this pivotal moment. Then I realized character X was probably actually present in the scene. Then I realized I don't know what he's doing or thinking or wanting or dealing with, from somewhere around the middle of the book through the end. I also realized I never figured out exactly what was in his head before the book began--the exact steps he took that brought him into that very first scene, and why he took each one.

I've been pushing everybody else to get their secondaries considered in depth, and that has often seemed to help them get a bead on their stories--yet it somehow slipped my notice that my main secondary character (the one the book is named for!) is still pretty much a blank. D'oh!

Much thinking to do. Must finish two overdue w-f-h scripts, though, so no writing for now. Just thinking, when I can.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Note to self: to get unstuck, rethink the concept of "scene"???

No writing of my own, and there will likely be none until after Jan. 20th.

However, as I think about the dystopian ms and the upcoming VCFA lecture, I'm suddenly not sure I even really know what a scene is, if you think about a scene as a discrete unit. As you're working on them, I mean. After the fact, they're easy to recognize.

It may be that you can understand a scene as a plot unit, or as an emotional unit (my go-to), or as a physical unit, and that the three don't necessarily have to have anything to do with each other.

It may be useful sometimes, when I get stuck, to back off and think from the outside:

1. Is there a plot scene here, and if so, what is it?

  • what happens?
  • how does it drive the story forward?
  • what does the reader find out?

2. Is there an emotional scene here, and if so, what is it?

  • What does the character feel/understand?
  • What does the reader feel/understand?

3. What potential boundaries of a physical scene are here?

  • change of setting
  • characters come in or leave
  • POV character moves, shifting his/her sightlines

It may be that coming at a stuck place from a slightly different angle can jog something loose and help me reconnect with the ms. Maybe coming at a scene from a different writerly perspective breaks it down in a different way than I've been used to looking at it, and forces me to slow down and really think through what everything on the paper either is accomplishing, or what it could accomplish.

Eh, I sense there's more to it than that, but no time to think about this anymore. Too much to do.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Wrote quite a bit yesterday. It felt like I got some good work done. Am wondering why I'm still poking around near the beginning when I gave myself permission to move away from that.

Today Tyson and I walked several miles, and while he sniffed and peed and eyeballed squirrels, I thought about the rest of the the book. There's all kinds of stuff to be written--not just backstory, but actual present-day stuff that happens. I don't know why I'm not writing it, except that there's some kind of gap between what I'm writing now and all the rest of the book. It's like everything hasn't quite fallen into place in the story yet, so that all the later stuff starts happening on its own. I think maybe I'm trying to work my way across that gap. At the moment I'm doing that by slowing waaaay down. I'm stretching out what I've got here at the front of the story, separating the people out, letting them enter onto the scene one at a time, and seeing what they do. I'm not doing this on purpose, it's just happening. It seems to be working okay.

But in that gap between what I'm writing now and the rest of the book lies...plot stuff. I need to pay attention to other people's writing, and talk to other writers, and consider more about how to pull together my characters' worries, the outward dangers and problems that are about to come into play, and hooks for the reader. I need to be very mindful about how I use all three of those things, if I want to crank my writing up a notch.

One big plot thing that lies in the gap is that pretty soon now I need to bring a new character onto the stage (never mind that I haven't actually finished bringing in the other ones yet). This character drives the rest of the story, and is in at the climax. The way I see it now, the climax and resolution of the book aren't possible without him. He's not even on scene yet, in the early pages I have written--but he needs to come in pretty soon, and he needs to bring at least some sense of upcoming conflict and danger with him. does he come onto the scene? I know what he wants, and know how he drives the plot. I think my current gap exists because I don't want to just bring him into play, I want the tension and page-turning to ratchet up a notch, too, when he appears. I want the book to start picking up pace, and for stakes to rise when he shows up, and I want the urgency not to let up from that moment forward. I don't yet know how to do all that. For all that to happen, I need to pay attention to plot, and stay mindfully aware of the presence and function of the three items above: inward stakes, outward stakes, and hooks for the reader.*

I can set up the big story conflict/problem before he even shows up; then the reader will already be invested and understand how dire the situation is, so that the stakes are tripled when he appears on scene. However, I've already played around with that a little, and I'm not sure it feels right. It's okay, but it doesn't immediately spark whatever comes next.

I don't think he can burst on the scene with weapons drawn, so to speak. It seems like too much, to open the floodgates and have him and the big problem appear on stage at the same time.

Right now I'm thinking he needs to be shown, when he first appears, as already dangerous and unknowable, already a sizable problem for the MC. Then...maybe?...end that introductory chapter/scene on a hint that the motivations and goals of this already problematic character are about to meet up with the bigger, newer problem that reared its head in the opening scene of the book--one whose scope the MC hasn't yet fully comprehended. So we meet the new guy, and as he's exiting the scene there's a hook--like, Ruh-roh, Scooby, now the sh*t's about to hit the fan!

Dunno. A few days ago when I cut that other scene in a weird place--cut it to end on a hook rather than where I thought it would naturally end--it opened up some new lines of thought. Except I don't quite know what those lines of thought are, because they're not character driven. I want to pay attention to them, and explore them, and try to figure out what avenues are open to me that I haven't recognized before.

Side note: I've been reading Naomi Novik's Temeraire books, and noticing that they read--perhaps appropriately--somewhat like Patrick O'Brian's, as far as plot and scene construction. A lot of the time, they seem more like an ongoing tale, with scenes running into each other and characters dropping in and out. My question du jour is, why does the reader stay with the story? Is it because of something that's going on inside each book? I believe the first book in each of the two series (Novik's and O'Brian's) may have followed more of a "closed," tighter, self-sufficient structure--was that necessary to hook the reader and make him/her stay with the rest of the books? Not sure. Also thinking about Hunger Games, and what makes people keep reading those books through to the end.

*It sounds so simple, so Writing 101, written out like that. But it's not simple. I can think of very few, if any, writers who can consistently keep all three balls aloft as they're working through a story. Sometimes after a book is on the shelf it's clear that all the balls are being juggled, but that's a book that's been through years of writing and rewriting, and editorial input.