Friday, December 19, 2014

2 things I learned about the novel process while I wasn't writing my blog.

Yeah. I haven't been posting. I've been involved in novel writing. Too involved to actually complete a post. I've started several, but never got around to completing them, or proofreading, or any time consuming sort of thing like that which requires effort.
I was busy having writing epiphanies. Too busy for blog posts.
That's a good thing. That I'm in a period of resuscitation of this thing. But I like actually forming a complete idea on all these little pieces I talk about. It's helpful for me, as a writer, to think about writing in a coherent manner.

(Look how quickly I must get this post written so I can get back to writing! I can't even be bothered with complete sentences!)

Still, that lack of coherence has been a sign of processing. I always told my students that if they were completely confused, it was because they were trying to process something new. You have to go through confusion, take everything apart and figure out how it's working, before you can put it back together to create meaning and get to an understanding.

So, if you follow me, you may have noted that I have been writing a lot about narrators. This is because I am struggling with mine.

It's really a totally inappropriate time for this, too. I'm trying to get through my first and very rough draft. I started out with a clear idea of the narrator. But as I write my draft, I have found that I am writing an overwhelming amount of dialogue and not much narration. I have never been a dialogue heavy writer. This is not how my novel is supposed to look or read, but the dialogue is what is getting me through the draft.

At the same time, all the dialogue is annoying the crap out of me. And it leaves little room for my narrator, who is supposed to add a certain dimension to the story. Further, I have issues with other characters that do not seem to be getting addressed with all this dialogue. At the same time, I've lost several strains in my story because I have only been re-reading what I wrote the previous day.

I know I should just get through the draft, but the narrator is bugging me.

So it has been time to restructure, consider plot, put the novel in an incubator... all that. To process this mess that seems to be stuck, 300 pages inI'm intentionally overwriting, so leave me alone on that pointI'm reading books from the last 50 years with staying power.

No. I am not reading best sellers of now.

What I have read over the last couple weeks is Dog of the South by Charles Portis and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. I intentionally picked books unlike mine.

A couple of important things have happened because of this:

1. I've regained my narrator.

How? First, I read Charles Portis and got annoyed with the first person narrator. Well, not annoyed exactly—more tired of him of his head. The story didn't even offer a vast access to Midge, but I really wanted distance from him at times.

But, hey, I already knew I wasn't using a first person narrator. That wasn't why I was reading Dog of the South anyway. I was looking at how it was put together and what it might be that keeps a book in print for 37 years. (Or brings it back into print.) I was also looking for something fantastic. Something mind-blowing. I'm not sure why I chose Dog of the South for that. It sounded like fun, I guess, though that isn't the same as mind-blowing.

Maybe I need to admit that I wasn't sure where to find mind-blowing and just wanted some fun in reading. If I found something fun, I might escape the problems of my narrator, who I expected to be third person with the ability to go from global to very close into the protagonist. Someone in my novel group suggested omniscience, but this seemed unwieldy. I didn't want to lose focus.

Next, I went looking for Missing Person by Patrick Modiano. Apparently we aren't so into Nobel Prize winners here in the U.S. I couldn't find him in the library or the bookstore. (I guess that's what Amazon is for?) While trying to find something by him, anything, I ran across Annie Proulx.

I'd tried to read the The Shipping News back in the 90s when it won the Pulitzer. I was young then and I didn't have the patience for it. I was also too haughty to use an audio book to get through the first few chapters, which I did this time. Then I didn't bother anymore. It was amazing writing. And the narrator did what I wanted mine to do. He managed to access wider cultural knowledge than Quoyle was aware of, but was able to seamlessly move into him, and then, occasionally, into others... but not as closely as into Quoyle. The narrator seemed to be able to access the kind of information I needed in Leave the Frigging Marshmallows. Man, I loved The Shipping News this time around.

And there it was: a third person limited omniscient narrator. I had it. And it opened up the gates to a rush of writing that had been hidden—suppressed!—by the wrong narrator. Phew.

Lesson Learned: Don't forget to read good writing when you, too, are writing.

2. I've found further conflict that I didn't know about.

Because I had all this stuff flowing out with the new narrator, I became aware of what I didn't know.

Now, you might have noticed that I have written a lot of stuff regarding building characters. I know a lot about my characters. It became apparent that, despite knowing all sorts of desires and motivations and histories and self-definitions of characters, etc., I did not have the coordinated timelines for the secondary characters mapped out. What is going on with them from the time at which they first encounter Arlie? What happens between each scene in which they appear?

So I mapped out timelines for each of the additional six characters that affect Arlie's story, addressing scenes in which they appear and that are important for them (but not necessarily Arlie). This is less time consuming than one would think when you have done all the character building that I recommend. You already know the desires and motivations and histories and self-definitions of characters, etc., plus you've already written a good deal so you know what is going on. It took me from a half hour to 45 minutes for most characters. It also clarified which characters I had much less of a handle on, despite knowing all that I already did.

I didn't know enough. Damn.

But here's the thing that came out of those little 30-45 minute timeline sessions: I didn't just synchronize their timelines with Arlie's so that everything made sense. I realized how these characters felt in certain interactions—and I hadn't necessarily implied those in the previously written scenes. I realized that they had to do additional things that would affect her story. Conflict and tension arose.

Lesson Learned: Timelines for all main and secondary characters open up options for a stuck novel.

I just needed to share that, because both were epiphanies for me and I'm excited. Two epiphanies in two weeks! How often does that happen?

But, seriously, don't try to include in your novel all the information you learn in the timelines. That would be tedious. Use only what affects the story you are telling. Please.

Also, I was talking with another writer the other day, explaining what I had learned. He said, “I'm sure that's the right way to go about it.” I had to be sure he understood this: What I say is one way to go about it.

There isn't a Right Way. That much I know.

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