For my first novel, Hack the Yak, I just started writing, mostly character sketches. Then wove the people together into a plot. Call it the Crash Ahead writing method. I loved writing that first draft, typos and inconsistencies included. I’d just sit down and throw myself at my characters and watch ‘em react. The plot suffered. Stuff happened in Spring that should have happened in Winter. Characters ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Subplots wrenched control away from the main plot . But, ahhh, it was fun.
Early in the novel I’m working on now, I joined two writing groups. We’ve had some discussion on the subject. I got fired up about using an outline and began assembling (electronic) index cards to sort out the plot. I just couldn’t get into the outlining business. Too much like work. But I could see that the plot would benefit. So, being a middle-of-the-road, see-both-sides-and-generally-stay-in-the-middle kind of guy, I produced a fairly detailed synopsis, then got back to what I like doing, generally following the synopsis. We’ll see how it goes.
Potholes! Newly returned to Minneapolis, I had forgotten that potholes are an attribute not of winter, but of that brief season between Winter and Road Construction called Spring.
I get potholes in my stories, too. In the chapter of Skins and Bone that I just put up, someone in my writing group pointed out that Nita Solchow, a minor chararacter who is interested (perhaps romantically) in my protagonist Joe Mayfield is far too emotionally fragile when confronted with the fact that Joe’s attention and intention is toward Louise Napolitani. Nita is, after a New York investment banker. It was a point well taken. I was talking about how she felt, not how she acted. So, I’ve got to fill that pothole with some cement and do a bit of a rewrite.
As you have noticed, intrepid readers, I have been away from the blog for a couple of weeks. I have a variety of well-rehearsed excuses, but the real reason is that I have been doing the pick-and-shovel work of writing Skins and Bone, whose plot is based on a somewhat intricate set of financial transactions. My struggle has been how to provide enough background without boring the reader.
The leader of a writing group I’m in suggested that I watch a 2011 movie, Margin Call, which is based on the intricate financial transactions behind the 2007-8 financial meltdown of the financial markets and seems to be channeling the Lehman Brothers story. The movie has helped me immensely. It made me realize that that there are two groups of readers for any book with technical details in the plot: the presumably smallish group that understands the details and will be critical if the author slips up on details, and the much larger group that wants to get on with the story. Margin Call handles this by using technical detail when it needs to without lengthy definitions … in fact, without any definition at all. For those of us that know VAR means Value At Risk, for example, the movie uses the term accurately. Margin Call doesn’t explain VAR or MBS (mortgage-backed security) or counterparty risk, but it develops a plot that depends on those concepts. Instead of intricate detail, it goes straight for the conclusion: Kevin Spacey, looking at a monitor over the shoulder of a junior analyst, says, “This number here is telling me that we’re going under, right?” So, both the critical techies and the interested general readers are given what they need.
Phew! I guess that means I don’t have to get into stochastic calculus in Skins and Bone. It’s just sufficient to know that my character Weezy understands it.
Shoreacres gave a good and trenchant response to my post on writing groups: “Here’s the key phrase in your post: …having a good writer look at your own stuff…. ” and goes on to say, “(I)f we’re going to listen to other voices, we need to choose those voices carefully.” See her blog at shoreacres.wordpress.com
As I said in the first ‘writing groups’ post, I’ve joined a couple of groups. I agree with shoreacres that we need to choose carefully. The hard part of ‘carefully’ has been, for me at least, not choosing just people whose writing I admire most. I love fine literary writing, and there are a couple of people in my writing groups who are great wordsmiths. Their critique of my stuff helps iron out the plodding bits. But I’m writing genre fiction, so I need to listen to folks whose work I don’t read by choice. In my quest for ‘comps’, which is to say, writers I can compare my own writing to in queries to agents and publishers, I’ve been reading a lot of mystery/suspense lately. Right now, I’m reading one by a best-selling author whose writing is considerably weaker than at least four (unpublished) writers in groups I’m in. The characters are square-chinned, chiseled cardboard, and the prose varies from workmanlike to plodding … but the plot drags me along. For me, it’s a lesson learned. Reading other genres exposes me to gag-me-with-a-spoon phraseology, but phraseology that’s appropriate to the genre (we’re talking chick-lit, here), but also to writing that has great mechanics (clear description in the right places, despite the heaving-breast breathlessness). So, I appreciate shoreacres’ insight and would only add that ‘good’ writers’ groups include all sorts of writers.
They always say “Join writing groups”. When I started out, I was skeptical. After all, my voice is my voice. Could other people perfect it? But, ‘they’ always say to join writing groups … So …
There are quite a few groups where I live and work, and I’ve been lucky to find a couple that I really like. Having found them, I’m learning their value. First off, listening to other voices makes one’s own voice stronger, better. At risk of being obscure, it’s a little like the bracing that keeps the soundboard of a guitar from warping. In a fine instrument, the luthier shapes the bracing by shaving away parts that are unnecessary, leaving the soundboard as strong as it was before the shaping but more responsive … clearer sounding. That’s what a writing group does, at least for me. Torturing the musical simile a little more, having a good writer look at your own stuff is a little like listening to covers of a song you know well done by other musicians. You always love the original, but the covers broaden your horizons.
Several Posts ago, I asked for advice on books on writing. I got some great answers to add to my short list. One that I missed is This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley. It’s a great, short, pithy treatise on writing by a skilled and prolific writer. It speaks to my difficulties and aha! moments like no other book I’ve read.
I learned a valuable lesson from author Michelle Hoover during a class at the Cape Cod Writers Conference last August. As I said in the prior post, the draft of my first novel came out pretty easily, but was too large. On the second day of this particular class, Michelle gave us a list of sixty questions we should be able to answer about our main character(s). Some were easy (Name, Sex, Birthplace), but most required complex answers (e.g., What would he/she see about you that you don’t understand yourself?). I started sweating … I
Some character questions
could answer most of them for my two protagonists, but laying out all that material would require another overlong novel. So I asked the obvious question. She smiled a friendly smile, one maybe inclining a little toward the kind she would use with a young child … or a neophyte novelist. “You only put in the story that which has to be in the story, but if you can’t answer all those questions about a main character, the character will not be believable to the reader.” It was an Aha! Moment for me, and most of the 10,000 words I cut out of the novel after that were things I know but that the reader doesn’t need to know and therefore probably doesn’t want to know. It’s still a hard balance, though. I like my characters. I want you to get to know them. But I understand now that there is such a thing as Too Much Information.
I read a very nice article this morning in the New York Times by Lee Child called “A Simple Way To Create Suspense“. Refreshingly free of pretence (yes, I know … ‘pretense’, but Child is British). So far, my toe-dip into the enormous corpus of literature on writing seems to indicate that most of it is not very helpful. This article was a welcome exception. Child mentions that writing instruction is often like explaining the recipe for baking a cake … ingredients, mixing and cooking protocols, etc. He points out that the writer’s more important purpose is to “make the family hungry.”