Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How A "Rough" Draft Nearly Made Me Quit Writing

 Take this draft and shove it. . . 
I nearly whimpered my love of writing to death over the past nine months when I started revising a novel.

The least productive stretch I suffered as a writer began last September when the first in a series of distractions kept me from having time or the drive to write. Or so it seemed. It was odd to be so unproductive when I'd just experienced my most productive year as a fiction writer when I started writing this blog in 2009. I finished 14 stories that year; wrote at least 15 minutes every day; completed NaNoWriMo for the second time; won a prize and published two short stories. I felt great and set revising my novel as a 2010 goal.

The novel still has potential but only in hindsight can I realize that was a mistake. I hadn't still hadn't finished what I'd been working on.

It seemed like multiple events contributed to my draft and writing habit dwindling. A cocktail made up of my wife and I moving, the day job demanding much more of me; family issues becoming a distraction; my writing group (where I had my best, thoughtful readers) expired.

Although I didn't realize it during this time, getting lost in my novel draft weighed more than the rest. All I knew is I wasn't writing and it didn't matter very much.

Writer's block is a fairy tale. . . 
. . .but distractions, laziness, and a reliance on excuses are human. I cock an eyebrow when a writer laments being "blocked." It sounds a nearly magical affliction. Were you messing around with pentagrams and The Necronomicon, bub? If not, there's probably a simpler reason why you're not working. I wasn't working and couldn't figure out exactly why, but it wasn't because I couldn't write anything.

Figuring out what's wrong was be hard going and it took me a while to stop concentrating on work, family, moving, etc. I just wasn't ready to revise that novel and went through a rough patch because I'd convinced myself that I should revise the draft that I didn't want to revise.

I'd convinced myself to write what I felt it was time to write even though I had more short fiction in mind and revisions to work on. Shifting my attention to the novel because 2009 had come to an end arbitrarily took me away from the kind of short fiction I'd been writing.

Thoughts?

  • Am I over or under simplifying "writer's block?"
  • Do you struggle shifting gears from short to long fiction or non-fiction to fiction?
  • What helps you overcome those challenges?

Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first pieces of short fiction appeared in THEMA and The Incongruous Quarterly.

He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Friday, May 13, 2011

Year One Favorites: Know Damn Well or Don't Bother

On Wednesday I looked back at a 2010 post about local revision
Another 2010 entry discussed rethinking entire aspects of a work.

I studied draft manuscripts in the English MA and Ph.D programs I attended and,
as a result, became interested returning to writing my own work after ten years writing about other writer's work.

Spend enough time with a draft and its character becomes clear. The annotations characterize what the author realized about his or her draft. The revisions you read effect local parts of the text, but the transformation between draft and published text are global.   

In this case, the issue is voice and the example comes from the brilliant (but wackadoo) poet Ezra Pound. 

2010:
Despite the gap often dividing fiction writers and poets, there's quite a bit our writing process shares. Something I learned from reading the great (yet demonic) poet Ezra Pound is that despite a writer's inclination to show he knows a lot of what could happen, he can only pin a few or just one idea to the page. 


Pound made major edits to T.S. Eliot's draft of The Waste Land. You can look at any page of the draft and see something like this:


The Allure of Indeterminate Language
His comments were harsh but improved the poem. A lot. The most memorable of his comments comes when he slashes out Eliot's use of the word "perhaps" and writes "perhaps be damned" and "if you know, know damned well or else you don't."

Writers often fall into the trap of not seeming to know damn well. I notice narrators using phrases like "almost like..." and "kind of..." and "sort of..." not only in my work but in the work of professional fiction writers all the time. Characters have the luxury of being unsure, but narrators (especially third-person narrators) better know.

These indeterminate phrases can be used, but they should also be vetted. Is my narrator vacillating with reason? From my point of view, there's one reason why they sneak in: fear of being definitive. "Sort of" is easier to write but it won't ignite my reader's imagination.  It's not a commitment to a strongly voiced story.

Sharpen Your Voice
Does that piece of sushi taste "kind of like rust" or does it just taste like rust? Does Lucy "sort of smile" or does she just smile? How does someone "sort of" smile anyway!? What's missing there is the right word. Break out that thesaurus and find it! Like a breeze, your mind is moving an idea in some direction, what you need to do is lick your finger, hold it out and "know damn well" what direction that is.

What's the worst that can happen? Well, nothing. Your voice simply won't stand apart from the rest of the submissions on an editor's or agent's desk. You'll get a slip about not suiting current needs. 

When reviewers praise a writer's voice, a lot of what they're praising is their decisive use of language. Pound's advice was itself written in a decisive tone. Eliot listened and deleted "perhaps." And in turn readers listened to Eliot.

The draft manuscript of The Waste Land was published and is widely available as The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts. It's a fascinating document of one writer critiquing and influencing another's work and is worth a look.

 
Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction appeared in the June 2010 issue of THEMA. 

He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Writing Exercise: Stalking a Physicist

 This is a daily free writing exercise in response to a random Flickr image. Today's continues from what I wrote yesterday and Monday and was prompted by:


Dr. Rotath [I don't like this name. AH! how about Dr. Gatehouse!]. Dr. Gatehouse, followed the slim, balding misanthropic physicist's car. [jeeze that's way too long!] The speed of the car he pursued didn't imply that [this guy needs a name too. Dr. Dinish works; it's weirdish.] Dr. Dinish knew Dr. Gatehouse was behind him.

[OK: Dr. Dinish has suspicious papers. I
n yesterday's bit of this story, Gatehouse saw them and thought, "what's all this?!" Gatehouse seeks the truth!]

Dr. Gatehouse followed Dr. Dinish toward the City Center then out again to where a used goods market became the boundary of an artists' ghetto. He left his car in the market's parking lot and went inside. Gatehouse parked across the street and left his car unlocked.

He saw Dinish leaving a newsstand and followed him through the market to the exit that opened onto the artists' ghetto. Two story homes ran both sides of the road; some windows boarded shut; graffiti sentiments were mostly on the right side of the street: "PORK PIE" marked several of them; something--he couldn't read what--was meant to be "FUCKED IN HELL." 

He walked around an upturned waste can around the corner.  Dinish had turned into a front with "Cafeteria Odeon" flickering in partially lit neon above the door. Mostly only the consonants. The place didn't have a ground floor; only an open glass door at the top of a  poorly lit staircase.

A cafe with a picture window looked directly at the
second floor of the cafeteria, which itself had a large window. Gatehouse crossed and looked up. The other scientist had taken a window seat and was spreading papers across his table.

He slunk out of view into the cafe where there was a stool looking out the window next to a woman in a yellow scarf. He ordered an American coffee and wedged into the seat to her right, apologizing for encroaching on her space. A perfectly fine stool was available to her left 

She didn't acknowledge him at all. A scar ran from her lip to her chin. Exposed for a moment; then, sipping from her cup, it was covered.



Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first pieces of short fiction appeared in THEMA and The Incongruous Quarterly.

He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Year One Favorites: Sobering Up Stories With Drunk Characters

I learned something while reviewing Yingle Yangle posts about revision from 2010. I tend to look at revision either as a local or global effort. "How do I takle a certain scene?" or "How do I fix a wily character's inconsistant behavior throughout the story?"

A project for the rest of 2011 should be to streamline techniques for thinking about my work these ways.

I wrote this post after looking over the NaNoWriMo novel I finished in 2009. 


2010:
Here's an experiment I'm going to try when I'm revising the NaNoWriMo novel I wrote last year.  A significant scene takes place in a bar.  My Main Character has drunk himself into a void and makes a series of very poor decisions.  The scene reads poorly now, because the narrative doesn't fully convey my MC's failure to understand what's going on around him.  It's from his POV. He's drunk. His perspective must be limited.

My agenda when revising this scene is twofold:
  • I want my reader to understand the significance of developments my character misses
  • I want my reader to experience his inability to understand the extent of those developments

    Present Day Me here again: something I could have done at the time I wrote the novel is to free write a bit about how the scene might be revised; put it in a comment or footnote. That way when I looked at it in before writing this post I'd have had some of my own thoughts to take into account.

Here's where the NaNoWriMo process really helps. Details abound in the draft because I had to write so much to meet my word count.  Since he's drunk, he will need to miss most of these. This is a good situation for me to be in to create a nice drunk scene. Drunk people often fixate on particular details or ideas at the expense of others.

I need to take a scalpel to the scene and trim those details.  I want my drunk character to focus on one or two things at the expense of paying attention to what he should.  A sensible, sober person would realize that the other characters' discussion and gestures will lead to unhappiness. But a drunk goofball will spend that same time thinking about the Heimlich Maneuver poster over on the wall or imagine what the bar would look like if it was at capacity. 

Had I come to rewrite this scene in a non-NaNoWriMo project I'd probably be facing the opposite challenge of having to choose my focus from the bottom up.  Rather than have the luxury of selecting slivers of a robust environment my character is aware of, I would have to write slivers. Having written an unrealistic drunk scene first will help me revise it into a more realistic one.

I haven't revised the scene yet but this seems like an excellent example why "pantsing" can be valuable.
  • When have you been glad you had a lot of text to cut when you're revising?
  • Have you used this kind of technique when revising dialogue?  To make it seem more realistic? 
  • When is having too much text a bad thing?

Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction appeared in the June 2010 issue of THEMA. 

He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Writing Exercise: Paperwork After Work

A free-write based on a randomly found image.
(This fed off the exercise I wrote yesterday. So a surprise Part Two)



Image via Flickr (ronnie.yp)

He left work alone or intended to. He'd get into his coat certain no coworker would happen to share the ride down and walk through the parking complex. Blathering about the temperature or sporting heroics or humiliations from the night before. Sycophants from the floor above licking their lips for imagined Sub-basement secrets.

A cafeteria for dinner with reports from the Antarctic division wreathing chicken and white sauce. Reports about radiation bursts; solar panel deterioration; satellite data. Fields of numbers and graphs resembling playthings a child kicked across the floor.

He took a stray folder from his desk and rushed to shut his office. Across the room Dr. Rotath stood over his work station. Logging off? A last e-mail at the end of the day. The reclusive scientist [NEEDS A NAME; he's the same guy from yesterday's writing exercise] lowered his shoulders and passed the other man without a word.

He rushed the elevator without putting the stray folder into his case. It spread across the floor. "Here," Rotath said and bent to help. He held a stapled sheaf of correspondence. It looked like the letterhead from Geneva. Rotath's eyes looked from the top of the cover letter to at the thin, reclusive scientist.

No idea what happens next. Continued tomorrow...
 
Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first pieces of short fiction appeared in THEMA and The Incongruous Quarterly. 

He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Monday, May 09, 2011

Writing Exercise: Solar Array

Twenty minutes of writing inspired by the following Flickr image:



The journalists wrote down what the short scientist said. His companion: taller, silent stood with his back to the group before the rail looking over the field of solar panes. Hands pocketed, hair wispping in the wind coming towards the group over the warm panel compound. The glass and metal groaned in the heat.

Large-scale fires at the far end of the array are quite common. And monitored 24/7 by a safety team. Monitored and controlled. A separate maintenance team monitors the integrity of the panels for cracks or breakage. An uncommon, but inevitable occurrence.

“Everything breaks at some time,” the tall scientist said into the groan; without turning to the reporters.

Some panels reflected a sepia variation of the sky. Others, either the desert or black walls of the center.  An array of this size occasionally malfunctions. Luckily none of the communities serviced will experience even the lightest dim or sputter or power serge. Three quarters of the panels could break without incident. The complex’s energy cache maintains a 2:1 ratio to the volt-per-second demands of the collective population.

Now the tall man turned, “you’ve no call to know the array exists, had we not invited you. Much less question it.” He smiled.

Without warning, a plume of fire rose from the far end of the glass field; after a count of three the noise hit the little group.

Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first pieces of short fiction appeared in THEMA and The Incongruous Quarterly.

He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Year One Favorites: The Blackout Test

Starting next week Yingle Yangle will focus on much more on revision and editing.

I'm looking back at some of my favorite posts from this blog's first year that lead to my decision to focus on what happens after
I put down a first draft.

When I'm bugging over a first draft, pinpointing a problem can be difficult. This post, one of this blog's most read, describes a visual technique to isolate and think about difficult parts of a story.

The draft I wrote about in this post is the same one mentioned in a recent post about balancing dialogue and narration.   That post lead me to think about how Raymond Carver stories do just that.

Before looking at a specific, superduper Carver story, I described what frustrated me about my work.
 

2010
I wrote about balancing dialogue and action yesterday and the day before.  Rounding out the week, here's an exercise I find helpful to get a sense of what my characters are expressing while they talk. 

Take a conversation and black out its dialogue. Ask yourself, what are my characters
doing while they speak? How do their actions advance the plot or develop who they are?

Here's an example of what I'm talking about from the first few pages of a story I'm currently revising.  It's what prompted this week's focus on the importance of balancing dialogue and prose. In this scene the story's two main characters are talking:



That's a lot more conversation and a lot less action.  

As a contrast, here are the next few pages: 



There's an imbalance here that I didn't realize until I looked at the story this way.


I've got an opportunity to elaborate on what my characters are doing and thinking while they talk on the first few pages.  This will help balance the dialogue-heavy opening pages by developing who these people are beyond the ways they speak.


Every writer will learn what editing tactics are productive for them. I find visuals such as these effective as a means of coming to initial conclusions that can lead me to look at how I might begin to revise. Whether you do or not, the principle of paying attention to the balance between dialogue and prose is pretty important.

Check out how well balanced the second page of
Raymond Carver's story "Are These Actual Miles" does when it's given the blackout test:  

What's clear here is that she's well dressed and confidant while he plays with his pimples and follows her around.  Even without the information provided by the dialogue, there's still a clear sense of a big difference between these people.  She's got herself together; he doesn't. 

This scene is actually about a woman dressing up to go sell her car before a lien is placed on it.  She and her boyfriend assume that she's more likely to get a good deal than he is. She wants to look professional.  As a result, this part of the story's focused on the imbalance between them. Why does it work?  Both Carver's dialogue and action use body language and dialogue to establish how different these people are at this point. 

Let's blackout everything but the dialogue and look again:

Oh snap! 

The dialogue alone conveys just about the same dynamic the body language did.  This is one reason Carver's stories are great.  These characters' actions and words make them seem like Real Life People.

Some Questions
  • Does a visual exercise like this seem useful?
  • Do you assess your work visually like this?
  • If not, what techniques do you use to get your characters' movements and words reinforcing one another?




Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction appeared in the June 2010 issue of THEMA. 


He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.