I’ve been lazily avoiding updating my book pile posts lately. I’d like to claim that was because I was too busy reading the books to writet about them, but in truth its more because of my obsessive interest in Macbook’s and the soon to be ubiquitous iPhone from Apple. I want one!
In between bouts of fetishistic nerdism I have been squeezing in the occasional book. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet came as something of surprise, not least the buying of it. One of the better writing books I’ve read referenced a lot of Follet’s writing, so although he isn’t a writer within my circle of awareness I splashed out on the paperback of this, which to me was his most appealing book. Its about the feuds of three families in 11th Century England and the building of a cathedral, and it has the same architectural majesty as those huge buildings. Its a masterclass in how to write a ‘big’ book, multiple characters, plot threads, grand theme, the works. Its physically a big book as well (1500 pages), and I ground to a halt about 1/3 the way through. Like a huge meal, no matter how well cooked you eventually have had enough.
A similar story surrounds Edward Rutherford’s Sarum . It takes a different approach to big. Its a very male book, in that at times it reads like a non-fiction account of the history of Britain, rather like a literary docudrama. The realisation of ancient Britain is staggeringly effective, and as it progresses it does develop some strong emotional engagement with the characters. But the distanced narrative didn’t grip me as strongly as it might had it brought the drama down to a more human level. Rutherford is sometomes called the British James Michener. I might have to reveisit him soon to see how he compares, having not read anything by him since Space, well over a decade ago now. Just chuck in some James Clavel and I’ll have the set!
Continuing my research of epic narrative I re-read Dune by Frank Herbert recently as well. In abstract Dune seems impossibly absurd. Far, far, far future, family feuds, giant worms, nuns, desert planets, psychic powers, superuman ascendency to Godhood. Which is all the more testament to what a genius Herbert must have been to make all this stuff hang together. It only BARELY hangs together though, and in the later books it comes flying apart. But the first book is really vertigo inducing – the messianic narrative, dark romance, focus on internal psychology and frequent jarring violence make it a very intense read. If you haven’t ever read a real science fiction novel Dune is a good place to start.
Bugger. The Sunday that was supposed to see me crank out another 1000 words actualy ended up filled with distraction and prevarication. I’ve fallen short at about 1700 for Week 6.
I’ve got a grip on the story engine this week, and I can feel the whole thing revving up to take off in its own direction. I have a feeling its likely to tear apart most of the material I’ve written so for on its way out the door. I’ve had this experience quite a few times with short stories. You write through until you hit the ‘thing’ that makes the story work. In my last short the whole thing came together when I discovered a new character lurking in the cracks. At other times its been finding the voice of the narrator / protagonist that has pulled everything together.
Two things have emerged from the novel so far. I’ve been working with multiple viewpoint characters, but I think that is going to boil down to one character with occaissional interludes in other POV’s. That is going to make the story more compact and a more realistic proposition as a first novel. The protagonist has resolved himself as a deeply flawed character who ends up being heroic. Thats always been the intention but I’ve slipped into writing him as an all out hero in two scenes, neither of which will make it to a second draft. I’m also starting to realise that the setting isn’t quite chiming with the story – I need the world to realistically support a certain level of sophisticated political intrigue that I’m not sure the current setting is really comfortable with. Much writing lies ahead to realise any of this however.
I’m starting to come around to the point of view that the most important quality for a writer is bloody mindedness.
Transcribed my handwritten scrawl from earlier in the week to pristine wordprocessed text today. In actuality as often happens when I type up hand written work I also completely rewrote it in the process. Todays wordcout – 1545. Not too shabby and they aren’t bad words either. I haven’t had a week were I made my wordcount yet by simply typing the word ‘Haddock’ two thousand five hundred times. Maybe I’m keeping that in reserve for when the hard times come
I went back to basics this evening and scratched out a few words on paper and pencil (well, biro to be specific). From a productivity standpoint the word processor is significantly quicker, but I still much prefer the physical act of writing for a first draft. The act of creating those little arcs and curves is essentially meditative and helps bring out the dreamer. But there is also something to be said for the discipline of having to order your thoughts before putting them on the page. Its true you can easily move around chunks of text on a word processor but I tend to find that if I need to start moving chunks of text around, the text in question is probably beyond saving. Better off just writing it again.
Threw myself into some heavy exposition this session. I’ve been focusing so much on character and relationships that I was starting to lose any sense of the world that the story is happening in, and the larger power dynamics driving the plot. I’ve stolen an exposition device from the TV series ‘Rome’ and sketched out a scene with an announcer declaring the news to the public that fills in a lot of the back story and setting. I’ve balanced it by exploring the announcer’s small minded right wing mentality and introduced a mob of protesting socialist hecklers, so hopefully the exposition will be mostly invisible.
I think I did about 600 words tonight, but they’ll have to wait to be processed before they get added to the word count.
Urg…this week was a total bitch. By Tuesday I’d convinced myself the entire story was fatally flawed and needed a complete overhaul before going any further. By Thursday I’d planned an entire shift of genre and by Friday I’d abandoned that and decided to quit writing altogether in favour of the much more pleasurable past time of smacking myself in the face with a shovel.
Saturday I gave myself a reality check and returned to writing the scene that had initialy caused my crisis of confidence on Monday. Once I sat down to it things started to flow OK, and I ended the weekend with 2400 words and an angle on two more viewpoint characters. The moto of this story is: you have to write through problems, not think your way around them.
Viewpoint is both the strength and the weakness of the story so far. In each scene I’m doing well at staying limited third person VP. I’ve spent most of the last two years working on this style as opposed to my more established first person limited, and I do at last seem to be getting the hang of it. It has much less latitude for clever tricks than first person, but being clever is a poor substitute for being good, and third person forces you to really think out each character, their relationships and motivations. For me that’s really the heart of the craft, and I’m very happy that my writing is becoming more and more focused on it.
But VP is also a weakness. So far I’ve introduced six viewpoint characters. That’s not an unmanageable number but I would be happier with reducing that to three or four. Its indicative of my general indecision about the story structure I’m aiming for as well – whether this is a true blockbuster epic, or if will condense down to a shorter, more complex structure. At the moment I think I can afford to turn out scenes and get the story told in rough form before nailing this stuff down, so I hope I don’t crash into any insurmountable barriers on the way.
I also have a very major practical issue. The heart of the story has always been the Mimas – a group of wandering actors / adventurers. In previous versions of the story I have sketched out the members of the Mimas but this time around I’ve only really tackled two members, and their stories take them off at a tangent from the main group. I’m now not sure if the Mimas are playing a useful role, or even if I can make make them work at all within the story as its evolving. At the same time they seem quite essential to the plot. I think I’ll make tackling them one way or the other this weeks goal.
I’ve also gone through the 10k barrier this week. Thats good but the mental milestone I have at the moment is 30k, which will be the longest text I’ve written to date. When I get there I’ll be throwing some kind of small party, so keep your diaries free for 7 – 8 weeks from today!
I think I’m going to have to develop some policy on what I read when I’m writing.
I find reading essential for writing. I usually sit and read for half an hour or so before starting to write to kick-start my linguistic imagination.
But sometimes reading the wrong thing can cause a kind of literary interference. I started reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration this week. Its a powerful piece of writing, both in style and content. Powerful enough that I really want to try out some of the techniques it employs. Consequentially when I found an hour to continue to attack this weeks word count I found myself feeling incredibly negative about the entire project, because the story I’m working on ISN’T the kind of tightly composed literary construct that I’d been reading. That’s not to say its better or worse, its just different. It took up most of the weeks writing time to work through the confusion and rediscover the things I was passionate about in the story I’m telling.
Which left me playing cath up this weekend. 1400 words today and I’m aiming to match that tommorow.
Who needs a social life anyway?
Week Four closes and after my shortfall in Week Three I’ve turned things around and gone 600+ words over to hit 3167. That’s a nice feeling.
This weeks writing gave me an introductory scene between the philosopher Hemlock and his great grand daughter Miranda. As I write I realise I’m yet to return to the same characters twice in the first 4 weeks. I’m quite sure already that the story I’m trying to tell is too big for me at the moment. But that’s OK. I’d much rather be dealing with a multiplicity of possibilities than a dead end.
The other tension in the writing at the moment is an ongoing conflict between my narrative drive for action, conflict and passion, and my more literary desire for subtlety, uniqueness and complexity. Or put more simply – is this heroes and villains clashing swords, or humans clashing egos. Different scenes so far have taken different directions depending on my mood a the time. maybe this will resolve itself as a strength, or maybe it will be an editorial nightmare. Who knows.
This week also gave birth to what I’m now calling the stories cosmology, which has been partially conceived as an answer to the clash of narrative vs. literature. Mostly however its about introducing a mischievous streak into the story. I’m going to post it up on the blog, so all commentary appreciated.
An great interview with George R R Martin over on the Weird Tales site. I’m in continual awe of GRRM’s skills as a writer, so I’m something of a hound for anything he says about his approach to crafting stories.
“The real differences, to my mind, is between romantic fiction, which all these genres are a part of, and mimetic fiction, or naturalistic fiction.”
I’m interested by his use of the term romantic to describe whats more usually called fantastic or imaginative fiction. The modern definition of romance is quite far removed from the terms historical root.
The wikipedia entries for romance and romanticism are good reminders of the terms real meaning. Romance is about exploring the outer limits of human passions and emotions. Its that romantic tradition which has lost ground in contemporary literature and finds its home instead in genres like SF and Fantasy.
Because I’m writing. I’m not expecting to write anything more interesting on the blog than ‘wrote 1000 words today’ until I’ve hit my 80,000 word target. You never know however, I might find something interesting to say about the positive benefits of blue over black biros. Now isn’t that worth sticking around for?
Despite the flu bug killing my word count, I’ve also be re-jigging my story outline. The overall story has a three part structure. I only really know what happens in part one and I’ve just tinkered with that a bit. The first 5000 words told me a few things about the story I hadn’t known and I wanted to work those back into the story before going any further. One of my viewpoint characters has morphed from a drunken wreck to a stony hearted missionary, but that’s actually not as big a change as it sounds.
Only 150 words today. I’ll try and get a real chunk done tommorow.
Well, I’ve completely missed this weeks target. I got some kind of flu bug on Thursday and I’ve just been sitting around coughing. I am quite prone to colds but I seem to have got absolutely everything going around this year. Frustratingly although I was off work on Friday a high fever and racking cough just aren’t conducive to imaginative thought, at least in my experience, so I haven’t tried to do any more writing. So only 1000 words this week.