Thursday, November 28, 2013

Nanowrimo Part 3: Writing Fiction – 10 Things I’ve learned so far

NANOWRIMOPart 1: Why I stopped writing
NANOWRIMOPart 2: How I started writing again

So, I did it.  I managed to put together almost 60,000 words (50k this month) that in another 20K and with another 20 drafts, might actually be a novel.  The plan is to work the text over the next 8 months (while I read a bunch of books about how to actually construct a sentence and show-not-tell[1]) and give it to my reading group and my friend Tiffany to read at the end of summer.  But over the course the month I’ve been keeping some notes about my process and stuff I learned.  So, here are 10 things I learned.
I didn’t plan it this way, but these start with ‘things I learned’ and moved progressively to ‘things that I seem to be confused about.’

1.    Character maps

One of the best bits of writing advice wasn’t writing advice.  It was this:  [2]

(Seriously, click the link. I don’t even care if you come back.  I mean, I care, I just think your experience of the link will be superior to your experience of the post.)
I mentioned last time that the primary thing I enjoy about writing is discovering characters personality, background, motivations, and choices.  Characters need to be free entities.  Writing is discovery.  But like with almost everything else in human life, freedom happens best on a backdrop of constraint.  Structure allows freedom to flourish.  And I found these temporal, interpersonal charecter maps to be the best way to conceptualize the narrative structure.

Apparently the opposite of outlining in fiction lingo is ‘panting.’  I assume the etymology of that is ‘flying by the seat of your pants’-ing not gleefully pulling the birches of outliners down to their knees whenever possible.  Being a Pantser sounds like more fun than being an outliner…but my experience is otherwise.   And that is because I am only capable of…
2.    Non-linear writing

Maybe somewhere there is someone who starts at the beginning and writes sequential sentences until the end[3], but I have never done that…ever.  Not in thousands of pages of technical reports, not in journal articles, not in talks, not in stories, not even in this post.  The sentence you are reading was crafted after 1,170 words of this post had already been written.  Having a character map allows more freedom because I can write any part of the story at any time.  And if you write yourself out of a character map…you get to draw another one, which is a delightful way to spend 15 minutes.  And part of the reason I have to write non-linearly is that I…
3.    Write to an ending

I hate accidental endings.  Bad endings hide behind ‘non resolution is like artsy and realistic and stuff.’  Whatever.  Until you have an ending, you don’t have a story.  So I don’t put serious work into a project until I at least have an idea for an ending that is promising.
4.    Write your way into inspiration.

Maybe the biggest surprise is how much my disciplines of non-fiction writing (journals articles, scientific reports, talks, blogs and sermons) are exactly the same disciplines.[4]  Mainly, don’t write when you feel inspired, write until you feel inspired.  Almost every author I have read on the craft says something like this, but my favorite was a Nano pep talk by Malinda Lo:
Inspiration is like that hot girl or guy you met at a party one time—and when you talked to him or her, it seemed like you totally clicked. There was eye contact; there was flirting; maybe there was even a bit of casual brushing of your hand over theirs, right? I know. I’ve been there. At the end of the night they asked for your number and said, “I’ll definitely call you. We should hang out.”

But then they never did, and you were left waiting for a call that never came, feeling increasingly like a fool. [5]
Inspiration is not a reliable consort.  She does not call often enough to sustain a relationship.  But if you keep showing up to where she hangs out (for me, every morning at Pete’s between 6 and 8 am), she’ll eventually come over and sit with you most mornings (when she’s good and ready).[6]

5.    World maps

Turns out, consistent world building is hard.[7]  It seems like every time I fix a problem with my world’s realism, it causes another one.  I think that is why so many fictional worlds are so thin.  Because if you burrow down too far, they rest on a turtle which rests on an elephant who answers to the name ‘suspension of disbelief’. 

I have had to change many things about my world because when they played out, they didn’t.  But about 20,000 words in, I was ready for a map.  And that made a huge the difference in the spatiotemporal flow of the narrative.  No more ‘hold on, the elves, totally don’t have time to march on Helms Deep’ embarrassments.  Time and space solidified, and world building gets 20% easier.[8]

6.    My characters are chatty…and lazy (..and have potty mouths).[9]

I find that my characters are really chatty and not particularly ‘do-ey’.  They would rather talk, to each other or even just listen to their own inner monologue than do things.[10]  Don’t they know that it is their job to generate plot for me.  It is LITTERALLY the purpose of their existence.  I need them to explore, discover this totally unique world I have created for them[11], pick fights, create conflict.  But they would rather buy another round of drinks and spend another 2000 words growing relationships.  They seem way more interested in the conversation in the car than the place I am taking them or what will happen there.  This seems like a problem.[12]
Oh, and they do not appear to be constrained to my adopted social conventions regarding evocative language.  The three page chapter I wrote on the first day of Nanowrimo has no fewer than 13 F-bombs.   But I can’t seem to imagine a dystopic society with vice based economies where everyone uses PG language.  My characters are evocative people and use evocative language, sometimes artfully and sometimes artlessly, and don’t seem to care that I, personally, tend to shy away from naughty words.[13]  The upshot of this is that I am writing a novel that my mother will not enjoy (which means I have alienated my only reliable fan).  One the upside, I won’t get questions about it being a ‘Christian novel.’[14]

7.    Write the novel I want to read

This is what people say to do.  So I’m doing it.[15]  But I am peculiar.  So I’m still not entirely convinced this is a good idea.[16] 
8.    Negotiating a word count challenge

I was skeptical about the Nanowrimo’s focus on word count.[17]  Writing is editing.  You may have noticed, my biggest liability as a writer[18] is overly complex sentences.[19]  The first thing I do with any creative or technical draft is to play the ‘can I say that in fewer words’ game.[20]  Usually I can.  This is not in the spirit (or the incentivization structure of Nano).  I refuse to not-edit.  Not-editing is stupid.  Editing both improves your past writing and invites you into your world to put you in the framework to generate new story.
But I was saved by a technique that would be familiar to anyone who has read this blog for more than say 6 minutes.  Footnotes.  If I hate a paragraph or remove a phrase, or find a particular bit of evocative content too evocative but want to ‘count’ the words… Into the footnotes it goes.  This gets the benefit of Nano (create a bucket of narrative raw material and promising if currently unusable sentences that you can shape into something later) while getting a start on the actual work of editing.

9.    Multiple POV

I once read a book that said in no uncertain terms, that your first novel (and probably all the rest of them – or at least all of them until one of them is published) should be single perspective.  This seemed sensible.  Until I tried to write an ensemble piece from a single POV.  And then I read a bunch of George RR, and saw multiple POV done well.[21]
So I added a second POV.  In addition to my initial male POV I started writing a woman as well.  There is a problem, though.  I like writing the woman better.  She is more interesting and more observant and smarter[22] and more sympathetic.   I feel like I am only keeping the male POV I started in as a way of moving the plot along in her absence (without going all omniscient) and because I don’t trust my female voice (and think it might even be a little offensive).  Which leads to…

10.                       I am very nervous writing non-white or female…

I feel like I should be.  I feel like it is preposterously presumptuous for a white dude to try to write black or Asian or female[23] if you are not those things.
But this has a deeply unfortunate result.  All of my main characters are white,[24]  and most of them are dudes.[25]  But my city is supposed to be a cosmopolitan confluence of cultures. [26]  I have one really interesting[27], morally complex character who is part antagonist, part protagonist, who is an African man, and I am having a lot of difficulty[28]  writing him. But I already have white villains and it subverts my premise that all the antagonists would be western.[29]  I’m not really sure what the answer is to this.[30]  By writing another culture I am presuming to understand.  In one sense, writing is a good exercise in ‘imagining the other complexly.’  Writing is an exercise in attempted empathy.  But in another sense, if I am trying to tell a story and not just experience one, I am claiming a perspective I don’t have and can’t truly imagine. So, um, that is not something I’ve learned…unless maybe it is something I have learned is hard.

This post was written while listening to Radical Face's The Family Tree

[1] And most importantly, work my way all the way through the archives of the ‘Writing Excuses’ podcasts (  Without a doubt my favorite discovery in this process that wasn’t actually something I discovered about my imaginary world or characters.
[2] The first thing I did after this…was watch Primer.  Which I highly recommend, with the disclaimer that I spent more time looking at internet charts explaining the film afterwards than the run time of the project.  Also, a $7,000 budget.  Not a typo.
[3] Actually, my friend Bronwyn writes talks like this.  Not me.  I call it the ‘inductive method’ – I write a ton of fragments, find the best ones with a theme through them…and then fill in connective tissue.  This is very similar to how I write fiction.  But to write the scene I am most tuned into, I need to know what scenes are in play.
[4] There are a few new ones.  Like in fiction, if you are hopelessly stuck, I have found 15 minute brain storms helpful.  This is a pen and paper (no typing) exercise where you write down every possible plot development you can think of for 15 minutes…absolutely every one.  No thought can cross your mind without getting at least one word in the notebook.  This is not encouraged in science or exegesis.  But both of those have data you can constantly go back to.  Fiction has no data, so in a sense, these exercises are Monte Carlo data mining instruments to make ‘observations’ and test ‘hypotheses’ about your fictional world and characters.  Oh, and by the way, science and exegesis might progress faster if we did a little more hypothesis brain storming to avoid paradigm bias.
[5] One of the fun parts of Nano is that they mail out ‘pep talks’ from established authors.  My favorite line was from one written in the voice of your novel.  Best line: “All novels have abandonment issues.”
[6] Still, always carry a notebook, because when she does feel like picking up the phone, you want to be ready, because it is usually special.
[7] I’m not sure why I was surprised by that.  I guess it shows that after 2 science degrees and 2 engineering degrees I still don’t intuitively appreciate the complexity of social and environmental feedbacks.  A fictional world is an ecosystem and anything you change echoes through the rest of it.  Turns out creating a world is hard.  I feel like a kid who just tried to do something his dad made look easy and suddenly realized ‘Dad is pretty freaking awesome’.
[8] I started out with the story playing out on a canvas “About the size of Lithuania” before I realized that was way too big and compressed it to a city “about the size of Moscow.”  Which means that even in really bad traffic I can still get any two characters together in 90 minutes.  And yes, the character who sets the spatial context is Russian.
[9] And think and talk a lot about sex and God.
[10] I have one character that literally spent 600 words looking at herself in a mirror.  I tried to pare it down, and ended up ADDING two paragraphs.  This morning I sent my characters on the longest possible point to point drive in my city and was much more interested in what they would talk about on the way than what they would find when they got there.  I think I’m doing this wrong.
[11] Another spiritual analog.  Dorothy Sayers says that the Imagio Dei…the image of God that the creator bestows on people in Genesis 1, has to be something we know about him in those first few verses.  And the only thing we really know is that he creates good things and enjoys it.  So, she argues, creativity is the image of God, the thing that makes humans special.  Therefore, just like with parenting, I am unsurprised to find theological insight in the practice of creation.
[12] Also because I am obstentiably (I’m just going to go ahead and leave that misspelled because I have never in my life spelled it close enough to correct that Word gave me options) writing a ‘science fiction’ novel and using science to build a strange and surreal world, where ordinary people basically talk and have human relationships.  Is that really science fiction?
[13] I am not blaming imaginary people for my choices here.  It is my choice to use language as an aspect of characterization.  But language is an aspect of characterization.  Our selection and use of evocative language is one of the ways we signal to other people what we are about before they know us very well. 
[14] Because caution with evocative language is the primary social signal of Christian fidelity in our culture…which is absurd. 
[15] I actually really enjoy re-reading the novel, particularly the parts I’ve edited 6-10 times.
[16] Hmm, I don’t see an agent on the list under the key words “Christian themes” and “Parental Advisory”…I must not be using this search engine right.
[17] The challenge is to write 50,000 words in a month.  If you do, you ‘win’ and get a pretty icon.  Brains are funny.  You can get them to do amazing thing by deceiving them with surprisingly transparent tricks.  And if you think I am somehow above being motivated by ‘winning’ and acquiring a few pixels next to my name, we have not met.

[18] Technical or creative, fiction or non.
[19] And I think I need some sort of brain procedure that will help me hear and fix passive voice.
[20] This is a blog.  There are no drafts.  So you get my terrible sentences.  Actually, that is a bold face lie.  I edit the heck out of blog posts, which is why the blog is pretty quiet.  I have 6-8 posts that are on a non-first draft but I’m not willing to post them.  But that is the problem.  My sentences are still far too convoluted after several drafts.  Editing is the real work of writing.  At least for me.
[21] In additional to Martain’s multiple POV’s I feel like Duncan’s muti-genre fiction has given me a really effective tool in story telling.  Duncan uses ‘found literature’ (e.g. a story one of the characters wrote in 4th grade, letters they exchanged, journals) to move the stories forward.  This also allows him tell a story in the POV of a character without revealing if they survive (and, in fact, suggesting they don’t since the document fell into the hands of the story teller(s)).  I am more than influenced by Duncan.  I have copied him.  I love Martian but I don’t want to write like him.  If I could chose a contemporary mentor, it would be Duncan.
[22] Is it weird that one of my characters is smarter than another, when if you ask me I’d say they were of about equal intelligence and they are both extensions of my brain.  But she is. 
[23] And my one experience writing gay was so terrifying that it lasted about 25 minutes.  I actually really loved the character (and his story), but didn’t trust my ability to write him.
[24] Don’t worry, one’s from England. DIVERSITY!!
[25] I have even developed a running bit about this, developing a social category called WiDAPs (White Dudes Alienated by Privilege)
[26] Its cultural properties are a direct result of its physical properties.  And yes, I’m being super vague.  I actually love my world so much that I don’t want to describe it on the internet, because it is the projection of actual physical processes and in the hands of a better writer it would make an amazing story. 
[27] To me.
[28] Not technical difficulty, moral difficulty.  He might be the easiest character to write.  Which makes me even more nervous.
[29] In fact, my collection of protagonists can just be a failure of small sample bias or self sorting.  But to make all of my villains white suggest that only white people were clever enough to raise to positions of power which is itself offensive.
[30] Though after writing this I listened to the ‘Writing Excuses’ episode on writing across gender and they had some insight including: “you can get away with mistakes because individuals break gender stereo types in several ways.  But you can't do a lot of them that way.”
And “Learn what the gender stereo types are then don't do them.”  Or as one of them said “What wouldn’t Alan Sorkin do.”  Ouch.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

My Path to NANOWRIMO Part 2: How I started writing again…then stopped…then started again.

Part 1: Why I stopped writing fiction

How I started Writing Again…
Almost twenty years passed since that day in high school when I unceremoniously quit writing fiction.  Then one day I was reading a lesser known Chesterton, I’m not entirely sure which one, and encountered the line:

Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.”[1]
This was kind of a big deal.  Growing up in my house, the line ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well’ was a top ten aphorism.  But that framework doesn’t really allow you to start anything.  Because unless you are a savant, you can only do something well after you have done it poorly...for, say, about 10,000 hours.  So I started writing again, poorly.

…and then stopped…
A couple years into my writing experiment, I passed a story along to one of my friends who is an English Professor.[2]  She had a number of very helpful comments.  The most memorable was ‘I’m not sure you love your characters.’  But the most practical was ‘I feel like you might need to read more good fiction.’  This was an embarrassingly obvious suggestion.  Until that point I had limited my fiction to classic works.  The way my argument went was that my writing time was limited and I only had time for works that had proven worthwhile by the test of time (e.g. I read very few novels less than 100 years old – mostly by dead Russians).   So I took a four year ‘sabbatical’ to lay the ground work for a real shot at fiction by:
1.      Getting an ecology degree.  This seems counter intuitive, but my kind of science is hardly the kind you need for world building.[3]  Ecology (and modern physics, which I studied recreationally during this time as well) is the stuff science fiction is made of.[4]
2.      To read good, contemporary fiction, and develop and calibrate my literary aesthetic senses.
…and then started again.
It worked….incrementally at least.  When I started writing again this year, my writing was much improved.  But the issue of motivation has been a sticky one.  I had to address a couple questions first:
1.      Am I too old? – This was the easiest to answer.  All it took was reading a little (ok a lot of) George RR Martian.  What makes Martian so good[5]?  He world builds like a grown up.  His world feels lived in because he has experience living in a world.  Reading Martian made me realize that I had 10,000 hours to go before I knew if I was good at this thing, but in 10,000 hours I’d just be hitting my prime as an author.  I have come to believe that authors are not like rock bands or mathematicians.  You don’t age out at 30. 

2.      It the risk reward worth it?  Obviously, no one writes a novel for themselves.  I don’t care who they are.  Everyone who tells a story wants to tell the story, not just write it.  And publication is silly rare.  I have a hypothesis that I am good at this.  It is a hypothesis that I won’t fully test for 10,000 hours.  But let’s say my hypothesis obtains.  Let’s say that after a few bad novels and a few mediocre ones, I write a good one...or two.  Let’s say (with absurd optimism) that I’m top 5% good.  Well, the stochastic and probabilistic nature of the industry means that might just give me a 3% chance at being published, and a 1% chance of very modest commercial success…IF, even after 10,000 hours, I don’t suck (which is by far the more likely possibility).  Now, the value of getting to tell a story into our culture is incalculable.  It is the fabric our culture and the stuff the conversation is made of.  That is the extrinsic motivator (not money, I'll never quit my science job) that captures my imagination, the privilage to tell a widely heard story. But the extrinsic motivators are not enough to sustain the experiment.  The risk/benefit analysis fails.  So writing is going to have to have intrinsic motivators for me to take on the 10,000 hour experiment. 

3.      What are the intermediate intrinsic motivations?  And I think that this is what almost every writing book or blog I’ve been reading[6] means when they say, “You can’t write for publication.  You have to write for you.”  I think what they are trying to say, in language I can understand is that the stochastic and probabilistic structure of extrinsic motivators[7] are not sufficient to sustain the experiment.  You have to love it.  Here’s the thing.  I do.  But it is for very different reasons than I suspected.

Why I love to write
I love to write stories for precisely the same reasons I love to read and watch them.  It’s pretty simple.  I love great stories.  And even though I am a charter and a mapper and an outlineer and won’t take on a project seriously until I know how it ends (see next post), writing plays out like a longer, more intimate, more visceral version of reading or watching a narrative.  Just like sitting down to a brand new episode of a great show, when you sit down at your laptop, there is a sense of anticipation.  What will happen to these imaginary people I care about?  Where will they go, what will they see, will they survive, will they fall in love, who will they become?
Here’s a simple anecdote that made me realize why I write fiction.  Every few weeks we have the ‘what are you watching’ conversation at coffee break at work.  People make recommendations about stories they are following (film, television, and even, occasionally, novels).  Besides my repeated attempts to get them to watch The Wire or theirs to convince me to watch Breaking Bad, we often pitch new stories we are enjoying. 
So a few weeks ago we had the ‘what are you watching’ conversation and I kept thinking, ‘I’m watching something I am really enjoying.’ But I couldn’t think of it.  There were characters and events that had knit themselves into my consciousness.  Imaginary people who had captured my imagination.  A story I was totally invested in.  But as I reviewed the videos we had been watching and the fiction I have been reading, none of them matched up with my passion for the story I couldn’t put my finger on…until I realized, that the story I wanted to recommend to them, only existed in my mind and in a word document on my computer.  The characters I loved so much were mine.  The story I was invested in more than Ice and Fire or the BBC Sherlock was the story I was writing.  The thing that surprised me about writing fiction was how much story telling was like a more intimate, more visceral, more fun version of the reciprocal experience. 
So, I’ll see you in 10,000 hours and a couple million words and we’ll see if the stories I am writing have a transitive or communicative property.  But until then, they don’t have to.

This post was written while listening to…still Imagine Dragons.

Next: Writing Fiction – Things I’ve learned so far

[1] A line I have referenced often in this blog, particularly with respect to my terrible poetry.
[2] Being old enough to have friends who are English professors is a little disorienting.
[3] This morning I just wrote 500 words about the energy and water infrastructure of my city.  I found it enthralling.  What do you think are the chances of that making a second draft.  20%?  10?  And I have yet to write a single fictional sentence about sediment, which is science that literally builds worlds, and the only thing I could be said to be an expert in.  But world building is more about building the culture than the geology.  And ecology is the key to building social words of organisms (human and otherwise).  Often in an Ecology class, when we would learn some new process of oganismal interaction I would start speculating about how that would mediate the interaction of fictional organisms.
[4] There are five reasons I got the ecology degree, in order of importance: 1) I do a lot of restoration river engineering and it helps me do my job and steward the God’s world and tax payer resources better 2) I think ecology is enchanting and I was super curious, 3) a rigorous evolutionary education helped me to sharpen and articulate a Christian theology of origins that takes the best scientific synthesis and orthodox theology seriously, 4) It would make my science fiction better, 5) it might provide unusual and interesting job opportunities.
[5] Well, besides his crisp believable sentences and his mercilessness with his characters that gives his stories actual risk and emotional resonance...and two dozen other things.
[6] Here are two of my favorites:
Turns out Roth is a Christian.  I just finished the first novel in her Divergent series (I refuse to start a trilogy until it is finished) and it was good…actually, it was remarkable for her age.  Most of the other girl-in-a-dystopic-world stuff I’ve read was lesser and written by older women.  And I think that the complexity of her moral themes emerge from her world view.
[7] And of course, extrinsic motivators are not sufficient to sustain any creative work, including science and engineering.  This is in no way peculiar to writing.  (See Daniel Pink’s TED talk for a popular statement of this, but the research is well attested and well documented). If you want to be a creative and lyrical engineer, you can’t be motivated by the contract or the paycheck, you have to be motivated by the discovery and the rush of problem solving.  Writers are not as special as they think.