writerly habits

how I (try to) work

Somebody asked (in a comment to yesterday’s post) how I structure my work day.

When I had a full time faculty position and a toddler, I had to fit writing in with a shoehorn. I got up at five in the morning and wrote for about an hour and a half. Sometimes I could get another hour in in the evening. On the weekend I tried to get three hours in a day.

When I left academia and started writing full time, I stayed on a pretty regimented schedule. Three or four hours in the morning, another two or three in the afternoon. Unless I had a looming deadline, I always stopped at dinner time. I spend the evenings working on whatever mixed media project I’ve got going, usually in front of the television with the Mathematician.

In the last couple years things have degenerated. I find that sometimes I work best at eleven o’clock at night. I used to work best in the mornings at a cafe — the ambient noise provided a nest, and I was productive in that nest. Now I can’t really do that anymore because I have arthritis in my lower spine and tailbone, and the chairs at the cafes are like instruments of torture.

So at this moment, I’m trying to impose structure on myself by sitting in the same place with my computer for the same hours, turning off email and the browser, and focusing on the screen. Where only the doc I’m working on is open. Having mixed results so far.

I’m thinking of going to a hypnotist. I’ve had good luck with that approach in the past.

once again, with feeling: POV and head hopping

First, I can’t remember where I found this link. If it was your blog, I apologize for not giving you credit. Whoever you are.

So here, Therese Fowler’s weblog. She’s got her first novel coming out soon, with a high profile house that’s putting a lot of marketing energy and money into her debut. I’m looking forward to reading her book.

On the other hand, after reading her post on the perennial POV debate and thinking about it for a while, I would like to boil the whole discussion down to a few points and get in my two cents at the same time:

1. POV is one of many technical skill that fiction writers have to master.

2. For some that will be easier than for others. In the same way, all of us have our strengths and weakness (dialog, description, etc etc).

3. Writers reading other writers are far more observant and critical than the average reader out there. In the same way an accomplished tailor will look at a garment and find all kinds of flaws I don’t see, most readers won’t be aware of POV cheats or shortcuts.

4. Nevertheless, I would say that a serious writer works to get these things right.

5. Maybe there’s an annual convention where tailors sit around arguing about hemming shortcuts. I would guess that some of them truly enjoy such ongoing discussions. Authors love to bat around the big questions: POV, present vs. past tense, third vs. first person narration, etc. I’m not such a fan of these discussions, but I can see that they are important to some people.

6. If there is a rule that says: no POV switching within a scene, then that rule is a matter of fashion and aesthetic. Trends come and go in fiction as they do in most things. Minimalism hung on for a long time and has slid away, mostly, into the shadows. The obsession with the semi-colon — fueled to some degree by John Irving in his Garp phase — faded.

7. There’s a difference between breaking a rule, and bending a rule to suit your needs. If you break the rule and the story falls flat because of that, you have not succeeded. You took a chance, it didn’t work. Back up, think it through.

8. Some authors are better at bending the current rules than others.

9. Some don’t care to try, out of fear or laziness or whatever.

10. Rather than contemplating this on-going, never-ending debate, I (and you) should be writing.

Note: In the spirit of full disclosure: I am not Nora Roberts, but I do switch POV within scenes sometimes. I believe that it mostly works for me, but feel free to disagree.

swimming in history

At this stage in planning Six, I’ve got multiple things going on. I’m thinking about the characters themselves, having discussions with the ones who will talk to me. Finding out about Daniel, how best to approach him, what his frame of mind is like given his situation. Getting to know Carrie, who is a very different little girl than Lily was. Figuring out what’s on Elizabeth’s mind.

When I’ve done enough of this, an opening scene will present itself. I’ve got a vague sense of it now, but it’s going to take a couple more days to get to the point where I can start trying to get it on paper.

In the meantime I’m doing a lot of reading

a deceptively simple question

In the forum Dianne asked a question that at first had me flummoxed. She asked: what is the process of writing a novel?

The first thing that went through my mind was that the question couldn’t be answered. It’s a little bit like asking how do you build a house?. I don’t know much about building, but I would answer this question if I had to: You do the research and make a plan. You get the materials together. You start work. You keep at it. When you’re done, you wait to see if it is actually livable, and if somebody might want to live in it.

If you ask a builder this question, you’re likely to get a reaction much like my response to Dianne’s question: too big. Can’t answer it.

The comparison (writing a novel : building a house) is valid in some ways and not in others. In both cases, something is created that wasn’t there before, but then this is also true of tuna on rye, or planting a garden. A novel or a building are meant to have some permanence, of course. They may last a long time or fall into ruin quite quickly. You can work from somebody else’s plan to build a house; you can take a standard plot and tell a story. In this case, the quality of the final product will have to do with attention to detail and workmanship. You can play with form and confound expectation by telling a story in some way that’s rarely done; you can build a house that looks like an inverted pyramid (or at least, you can try).

The big difference is that to build a house you most probably need the help of other people. Even if you’re capable of building a cabin by yourself, you will probably depend on various utilitiy companies to make the place warm and light, to bring in water and take out waste.

A novel is the creation of an individual, built on a lifetime of experience and stories heard in multiple contexts. You can’t farm parts or aspects out to contractors.

Because a novel isn’t a physical thing, the restrictions on how you go about it are few. You don’t have to take the laws of physics into consideration. And this is why it’s really impossible to describe the process of writing a novel. I can describe my process, but I know for a fact that everybody approaches this task in their own way.

Some people plan extensively. They use spreadsheets to break down storylines into chapters and scenes. At the other extreme, some people start with a character and a line of dialog.

I don’t have a standard way of coming to a story. I like the process of reimagining an older story, as I did for Cooper’s The Pioneers, but I also like starting from scratch, as I have done three times (Homestead, Tied to the Tracks, Pajama Jones).

The one constant I do have is this: I draw diagrams and sketch and jot down notes. Characters, and how they relate to each other, houses they live in, lists of the things a particular character has in his or her glovebox, the trees they see every day. My own process is very visual and I need the mind-eye-hand connection.

So I usually start with a lot of information, but some of that (sometimes a lot) will change in the early stages of writing, when the characters are still getting to know each other and me. And then I feel my way. From scene to scene, from dialog to dialog. I have a general idea where things will end up, but how I’ll get there? Usually no idea at all, to start with.

The hardest part is keeping with it and I’m sorry to say, that never gets easy. In my experience, every novel is harder than the one before.