Saturday, August 21, 2010

No Write Way Redux (part 2 Methodology)

(read part 1

    Once you’ve riffed for a while on your characters, it’s time to dig into the foundation of your story. Find a theme, and maybe ask yourself some questions. Why are you writing a story about these characters? What’s at the heart of the story? We will look more closely at this, and I'll give some examples from my own process.
    William Burroughs once said (in his Review of the Reviewers), that “all 'good' writing must get at the human condition, it must have something of 'high seriousness' to it.” It’s hard to say just how literally he intended for us to take the word “high.” All the same, this is a valid point. In theory, fulfilling this requirement should answer the question “why should this story be told in the first place?” Though at the end of the day that decision will likely remain in the hands of feckless thugs with Amazon Prime accounts.
    As I said in part 1, a story isn’t so much about what happened. No matter how bizarre your narrative style, there is still going to be a theme, which is rooted in your ultimate intention in writing the story in the first place. It is only in relation to this theme, and the underlying intent, that you can tell if you’re on or off the bar as you move into the process of actually writing your story, so hold onto it.
    Most intro to writing teachers will tell you at this point to look for the conflict, since that is generally the easiest way to put your characters into motion. “Happily ever after” is a myth that many people have bought for their own dreams, but we all know the story ends there. Regardless of what it says about us, we're bored to tears by a lack of ongoing conflict and resolution. However, these conflicts needn't occur in the outside world: group A and B are vying for the same territory, Man A elopes with Man B's wife (which also amounts to a territory dispute in most cultures), etc. There are plenty of modern novels where very little happens at all outside the minds of the characters. Take Joyce’s Ulysses for instance. This isn’t to say it isn’t rife with conflict, it just happens to be primarily psychological. If you want to talk brass-tacks, it’s about a boring day in Dublin. (On the other hand, not all of us can be James Joyce.)
    This “brass-tacks” approach misses the heart of a story with that kind of intention. Different intentions call for different methods.

    For example, with my first novel (Join My Cult!), I was writing about the plunge into the subconscious that can occur with some adolescents. The entire story, (if you want to call it a story), is centered around that painfully vital, melodramatic and sometimes even terrifying feeling of not belonging, of perceiving a world that no one but your closest friends seem to see. It’s about that, and not what happened at the beginning or end of the story. Those events are just like the glue holding together this odd collage of mental artifacts. If you are telling a story that focuses on the internal, rather than the external, then a clear sense of theme and character psychology becomes even more essential, because there’s nothing else there to move it forward. Most of the content amounts to the deranged ramblings of the characters themselves, whether it is posed in first or third person.
    With my second novel in this vein, (Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning and its updated version, Fallen Nation: Party At The World's End) you have many of the same characters rising out of that state and coming into their own and going out into the world, if in their own bizarre, rockstar-messiah kind of way.
    Even though many of the central characters are the same, these projects seem very different because they are being approached with different methodologies. Again, match methodology with the intention of each project. In a sense, each time you write a book, you have to re-learn how to write a book, if you don't want to write the same thing over and again.
    Every book you write should in this sense be your first. Each theme, each grouping of characters, each intention demands a completely different execution. Different characters demand a different use of the language, and a unique means of exploring the story. Consequently you have a different writing style that is going to arise in the process of bringing that to life. You have to re-discover and re-interpret your voice and your approach to writing, which is why it’s so damn hard to give a step by step process for how to write a novel.
    We may all fall back on conventions, turns of phrase or techniques that availed us in the past, but the more we can avoid that the better. It’s very much like the clichés that musicians resort to when improvising. Some writers will tell you to never resort to cliché. I disagree. However, cliché should only be utilized intentionally.
    A final note on the topic of your theme: if you find yourself purposelessly rehashing, leading with style instead of substance, then it’s time to zero back in on the vital kernel inside your story, and try to be true to that, or there’s really no sense in wasting your time. Or the time of your would-be readers. I know this flies in the face of the marketing sensibility that says that when you find your market, you should just keep shoveling the same shit. Not to come off like a sniveling artiste, but I'm talking about challenging yourself, and constantly endeavoring to be a writer. Not pandering to the desire of a market.
    Back to writing. Now that you have a sense of your characters, and probably a bunch of disconnected scene sketches that you wrote in the process of coming to know them, you can get to the actual story.
If your story does require a complicated plot, I suggest diagramming it out, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. When diagramming Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning, I got out a big ream of paper with a co-conspirator and created a plot arc for each character with a different colored crayon. At the points where events would make different characters paths cross, the lines would also cross. In these intersections, I had to think about what the different characters were bringing to that point in time – the ever repeated character motivation – and how this might catalyze them to work together, in opposition, or simply pass each other by entirely.
    One way or another, start playing around with your story visually on a time-line. I recently adapted Fallen Nation into screenplay format with a regular writing collaborator and good friend, Jason Stackhouse. This process, too, was different. We spent the first few all-night sessions drawing out plot arcs on his kitchen table with dry erase pen, and only when we were satisfied that it all made sense as a composition did we begin divvying up scenes and actually writing. In screenplay format, every beat and every page counts for time. There might be some argument to be made that if you want to write a tight novel, rather than a more meandering one (arguably like my first two, especially the first), then you should plot it out as if you're writing a screenplay. Every action and motivation plays counterpoint to something else.
    We decided on a three act arc, and broke each act into three piece, each of which had between three and five “action points,” most of which became individual scenes. Make flow-charts in Viseo if you feel the need. Your diagram will either come, or it won’t. Make a new method for each project if it suits you. Maybe you want to write a novel where key plot decisions are decided by throwing darts at a wall. More power to you.
If this diagram process is really holding you up, you're not necessarily sunk. You can probably move on to the next step, at least for a short while. Actually writing. You’ve spent quite some time – probably several months – preparing to write your novel. Now comes the part where you write it.
    During this phase, you need to turn off all the critical voices and random impulses in your head. “This is going to suck,” “I should just watch eel porn,” “Should I write it this way?” “I wonder what the etymology of the word bulwark is?” … Show the text to no one that will throw you off track. Share it only with confidants that you trust to not hate you after you've asked them to read three thousand and two versions of the same text. Just be as true to your characters and your theme as you can be, and write. (Remember: this is the fun part. So have fun now, because you may not during the editing phase, and if you're like me, you sure as hell won't during marketing.)
    There is too much to be said about the details of writing a book. For the most part you pick it up as you go along, and if all goes well, your voice will come out of that struggle. However, I want to point out the importance of dialogue. It may be naturalistic, it might be more poetic or formal depending entirely on the intention and tone of the piece as a whole. No one naturally talks like the character's Aaron Sorkin wrote for West Wing, but it's still mostly great dialogue because it matches the tone and intention of the show. My first novel might seem a horrible example of “natural dialogue,” mainly because the primary characters talk like 19th century Philosophers stuck in 18-year-old bodies. You need to be true to the characters… If that’s how they talk, be true to it. If you’re unable to hear their voice, write a couple scenes just in dialogue. Give characters something to argue about or some situation to think through together. Add the other details later. If you still can’t find their voice, you need to get back at your character, and try to find examples of those personality traits in the people and media around you. Find their voice, and come back to the writing process.
    If you get stuck at any point, put down the pencil. (Or the keyboard.) Write something else. Or try this. Lie down, and close your eyes. Do some deep breathing, move yourself close to sleep without slipping away, and then focus in on that character again. Imagine them in your minds eye, at the point that you got stuck at. And just watch. Now sometimes of course you’ll get nothing. They’ll turn into giant pink elephants or you’ll get distracted thinking about crazy zero-G sex or what you’re going to cook for dinner. But sometimes the characters will take over, and that block will melt away.
    This leads me to another point. If in the process of actually writing, your characters feel like they want to go in a direction that wasn’t in your plot diagram, for the love of whiskey let them. If it hits a dead end, the worst thing that happens is you have to delete a couple pages. As a general rule of thumb, if your characters don’t overtake you and your well planned structure and lead it in a totally unplanned direction at least a couple times in the course of writing a novel, you probably need to spend more time breathing life into those characters.      
    Finally, and this one can’t be under-stressed: write something every day. Or barring that, as frequently as you can manage without learning to completely loathe writing. Or alienating all of your friends. That sounds really obvious, right? But you’d be amazed how many people do all the planning, and then peter out when it comes to the work ethic.
    A book is literally built a word at a time. I'm told the average novel runs somewhere between 75,000 – 250,000 words. You may have this romantic idea in your head of an author going in and hammering out his opus in a brief, intensely melodramatic fugue, like Handel in fact did with his Messiah. Every word is perfect, and it comes out full-formed.
    Sure, maybe it'll be like that for you. More likely than not, most of your favorite books were written slowly and consistently, a couple thousand words a day. At the end of the process 30,000 words might have been shaved off, and then another 10,000 added to tie together those desiccated loose ends. Not every day is going to give you a gem, that doesn’t mean you didn’t benefit from the effort. Just get up the next day and keep at it. Good luck!

Next I’ll be getting into the editorial process, branding, and the other intermediary steps between your first draft and the PDF you send to the printer.

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