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.


Joel said...

I have to ask: What was difficult about writing a gay character?

stanford said...

Hi Joel, It was the same as writing outside of my gender or ethnicity or socioeconomic class. It isn't my experience and I don't trust my instincts or imagination about what it might be like. But for some reason (probably the tone and history of public discourse on LGBT issues) I am even more concerned about caricaturing the gay experience, particularly as a Christian. So I decided not to try.

jeff ell said...

If I had half the mental horse power you did and one quarter the drive I could have written dozens of books by now!

Tiffany Kriner said...

I have my doubts about the advice to write of the book that one wants to read. Sometimes it seems rather that one writes what one has been given. The spaces and such like that one has received seem somewhat determinant in writing possibilities. I WANT to write richly imagined fiction set in New York City--often associated with Jewish characters or sensibilities, with the gorgeous spastic-ness of neologism and a glut of vibrant research (Foer, Chabon, most recent Pynchon). I don't want those books to end. I have the background RESOURCES to write something more along the boredom/theological spectrum of a hack-derivative of Wendell Berry (don't have the chops of Marilynne). Maybe I need more ambition? Well,then again, since I don't really WRITE fiction, maybe it's no big deal? I'd be interested, however, in your thoughts on the idea of want vs. given.

Tiffany Kriner said...

P.S. Just a thought here on your summer: you've got a much better chance of getting quick feedback if "late in summer" is August 1. Although, would I really be able to resist? Not sure...

Joel said...

I don't speak for all of my people, but I would totally trust you to write LGBT people. Every author eventually writes outside of their race, gender, orientation, identity, etc. You're compassionate and thoughtful enough to be conscientious about it and to be aware that you don't want to veer into caricature or unintended insult.

Also, congrats on hitting the NaNoWriMo word count!

Liz Mallory said...

Footnote 14 made me laugh / I totally agree. Honestly, there is such a fear of language here in the South (is VA the South?) that I am torn between fear of losing all my new friends if I say "dang" and wanting to say worse things like "hell" just so they know I don't care about their silly social rules. But I do care, that's the problem. Which ties in with what else I was going to say...

Good books are all about people. Conversations. Relationships. That is, at its core, what life is about. So if your book is about that (mine is too, by the way), then I think you're just showing another thing about the world God created - and probably coming up with something more realistic than if your characters just ran around *doing* all the time and never stopped to chat/swear/etc.

Liz Mallory said...

Ps. The best written female characters I have ever read were not from Jane Austen or the like, but from Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series. He doesn't follow convention, but I could honestly imagine a bit of myself in each of his female protagonists (he has about 50 main characters and 500 side characters) and believer everything they thought, said, and did as something a woman would think, say, and do.

stanford said...


I agree that fiction is primarily about relationship and character. My concern with characters that are so chatty is that I am not a novelist...I'm an essayist that is trying to smuggle didactic prose into the guise of a narrative (which is a significant fear given that Dostoyevsky, Camus and Lewis were my early influences...and still, in many ways are the dominant influences). It seems dishonest and probably makes for really pedantic (unreadable) fiction. So that is my concern.


What a fantastic question.

Here's how I think about 'given' verses 'desire' with respect to research and I'll expand to writing from there. Sometimes there is a line of research that is moderately interesting but I am uniquely qualified to make an incremental contribution. And so I do. I sometimes do research not because it is deeply needed or inspiring, but because opportunity matches my resources...because it is 'given'. But sometimes research is driven by a burning question. Sometimes I want to answer a question that is big and pressing and that I am not particularly qualified to take up but no one else is doing it. That is the equivalent of 'writing the novel I'd want to read.' I do both. I mostly bang out incremental research where the question matches my resources, but sometimes there is a big question that doesn't match my resources...but it matches my imagination. I have an idea and chase it for years until I find funding and move my family to Mississippi to try to make it happen (for example).

The later is higher risk, but its more fun.

For me, no creative writing (even derivative Wendel-esque non-fiction, which I doubt describes your book) is 'given.' Any attempt I make at non-technical writing is a shot at 'writing what I'd want to read.' I am not qualified to do any of it, so I have the freedom to 'swing for the fences' and write exactly what I want. But in another sense, many of the people and events in my novel are fictionalized accounts of adventures I've had doing engineering in obscure places and the remarkably eclectic cast of friends I have had. So in a sense, even my most outlandish attempt is bounded by a certain 'giveness'.

I think another way to look at it is that we earn our way out of 'giveness.' I did incremental science for a long time before someone gave me a shot to do imaginative work. The difference between your book and mine is that someone asked for yours. Mine is cosmically unsolicited. You have constraints I don’t have because you are doing this for real…I’m just playing at it. For someone to ask for a work from you (especially the first one) it is because they sense that you have actually been 'given' a work. But after being faithful with giveness for a while, something more experimental might be up for grabs.

Also, editing is going painfully slow. It might be next summer. But if you are looking for Beta readers and are interested I’d be happy to preemptively return the favor.