Thursday, August 27, 2009

Topsy Turvy

This is nuts. I can't say if it's the plotting, the stresses of month five of small-business ownership or those of life in general, but writing this novel is completely wonky.

Normally, I sweat and strain and shear gears loose in my head trying to handle sequels and quiet moments in general. It's a real effort to do my 1000+ a day, until I get to the fist fights, car chases, gun battles, etc. when the work simply flies along.

Not this time.

I've flown through these early stages. As this one's a mystery, I'm introducing suspects and red herrings, planting false leads, all that good stuff. I'm even, thanks to having a handle on my plot first, able to think about stuff like vision systems and imagery as I work.

Until I hit the Sequence 1 Climax. It's a small thing, a fist fight. It serves to:
a) establish the hero as at least somewhat tough (to qualify the later stompings he'll receive)
b) frustrate his Plan
c) show a few of his flaws and issues, and
d) wake up those readers who haven't had enough action in the last 5000 words.

Normally, I'd fly through a scene like that. Instead, it was a horrible, painful grind. Best I could manage was 200-300 words a day. For five days!

Once I got past it, I was back on 1000+. Freaking ridiculous.

At any rate, on Day, let's see.... Day 12, the New and Improved, Steam-Powered Daily Wordcount-o-Meter stands on 11,200 words. Not happy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Stage the Second

Yup, it doesn't stop with 3x5 cards. Once those are filled out, shuffled, crossed-through and flipped over to reuse, shuffled and rearranged, a few thrown in the fire and fresh cards begrudgingly trotted out to take their place, I have the bones of my plot. No trying-to-piece-together-a-complete-cromagnon-from-a-scrap-of jawbone for me-- I've got a reasonably complete skellington here to work with!

Now to my lovely notebook. And it is lovely: the wee red beasty has nice creamy paper, hard covers, a pocket in back, an elastic band to hold it shut and one of those sweet ribbons to mark my place. I freely confess to a certain sartorial streak in matters of my stationery. :)

Right, the notebook. Sitting down with trusty, lovely, 50-odd year old fountain pen (that sartorial streak again), I flesh out each note card. Usually 50-100 words, just enough to describe what'll be happening, key points to hit when I finally sit down to write my draft.

At this point I found problems that didn't show up in the note cards: night scenes in the middle of the day, suspects cleared then re-interviewed, a few plot holes. So back to work, shuffling, scribbling, shuffling. The plot hole gets filled but now I'm *awful* long between my Big Midpoint and my Act II Climax. I've become flabby about the middle. Shuffle, scribble, tear up a couple more cards. Scribble scribble, shuffle, scribble.

If this sounds like a lot of work, please remember this is usually a stage I go through AFTER I've written the damn novel. In fact, I'm sometimes finding these problems after several drafts. Compared to that, this is a piece of cake.

One odd bonus I hadn't predicted: I'm writing faster. On the one hand, I'm able to angle language, imagery, etc. to foreshadow what's to come. On the other, these poor characters have been jumping up and down in that diary, scene after scene, mute and waving for my attention. Now that I'm finally letting them talk and act and do stuff, they're going hard.

At the end of Day 3, the New and Improved Daily Wordcountometer (shown on the right) stands at 5,400 words. Now if you'll excuse me, I gots me some writing to do...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Oh Dear... Overboard?

Longtime readers will remember my days as a fierce advocate for writing by the seat of my pants. Recently, I turned a new leaf, gave plotting-ahead a bit of a go.

And like any addictive personality, I took it too far.

Or have I? Those are 80 notecards, 20 for Act I, 40 for Act II, and so on. Roughly one per thousand words of story. Working with them, I've been able to work on pacing, juggle scenes and sequels, space out character appearances/subplots/etc. so that we never go *too* long without hearing from the Duchess of Maldorff and the Subplot to Blackmail her Third Underbutler. Plants and payoffs (the ones I know I need anyway) have been inserted appropriately.

In short, all the headaches I go through in the editing stage are now happening before I write a single line of dialogue or description. If this works, my subsequent drafts will hopefully go a bit easier.

Will it work for me? I don't know. Seem worth trying? Heck yeah. I'll do just about *anything* to get these damn stories out of my head quicker, smoother, and closer to what I see playing on that Private Theatre for One...

PS. Those note cards are all filled in now, but I just had to go with this photo. Just like his siblings, Buddy is much mended and now up to the task of helping me write!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Icepicks and Chainsaws

Recently I've been reading both John D. MacDonald and Ross MacDonald novels, close together. At the moment Ross reigns supreme and JDM is in the shade. Maybe in a few years that pendulum will swing back the other way; I certainly hope so.

At any rate, something stood out reading the two back-to-back-to-back. Both are writing in the late 60's/early 70's, and both Lew Archer and Travis McGee share a certain world-weary, nihilistic, these-kids-these-days way of looking at the world. They deal with it in different way, but there's not enough different about these two heroes to justify the strange shift in favor.

The difference I see is in the writing. More specifically, metaphor.

Ross MacDonald uses metaphor like an icepick, where John D. MacDonald uses it like a chainsaw. Both write elegant, vivid, wonderful metaphors, the kind of images that stick with you a long time after you put their books down. RM uses metaphor like Ali jabbing in his heyday: sticking and moving, sticking and moving. JDM, think George Foreman and his knockout cross...

Right now I'm reading The Underground Man, and it's peppered with lovely little images, a yellow-tinged sky like cheap paper darkening in the sunlight, a pair of pistols gleaming like strange blue jewels, shadows of palms like splashes of dark liquid on the pavements. No one is super-haunting, but like Ali and that jab, the cumulative effect is telling.

JDM's style was more about the single powerful image: that poor, strangled girl with her Long Lavender Look, the showdown under that Dreadful Lemon Sky, walking off into that Lonely Silver Rain. This guy doesn't ladle on the poetic imagery, he picks one single, resonant image and lets it shine. And yeah, that image is usually powerful enough that it gets picked for the title. There are exceptions, sure, but the point remains: when it came to metaphor, JDM went for the knockout punch.

Come to think of it, this reminds me of an older mystery-author pairing: Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Chandler peppered his work with such classic lines as 'she had the kind of body to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window' and 'he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.' Hammet gave us the Glass Key and Red Harvest.

I'm guessing these days, the jab is in fashion, more than the cross. If you're the sort of writer who uses layer on layer of imagery to build a haunting effect, that's awesome. And if you're the sort to go for a single, powerful image, the kind that stays with the reader *years* after covers close, you might have a harder time getting your foot in the door. But if you develop that technique to its fullest, you just might blast that door off its hinges...