Friday, May 31, 2013

The lessons in the words

Another week-end is almost here, another opportunity to catch up on some reading and writing after the stress and exhaustion of the work week.  Sometimes I don't take the best advantage of those opportunities, and I need to rectify that.

Ironically, I found a little bit of inspiration in one of the words I posted yesterday.  "Patience" was among the labels I applied to that post, and I realized I needed to have more patience with myself.

I spent about an hour yesterday afternoon on the outline for the book I'm working on and made significant progress.  There's no deadline on this outline, and no limits either upper or lower on length.  I can put in as much or as little detail, scribble out what I don't like, change my mind whenever. 

And in fact I did change my mind regarding a particular plot element.  I realized I had resolved one character's internal conflict too quickly and too easily; he needed to remain conflicted much longer.  How could I sustain and, to a certain extent actually intensify that conflict in a believable way?

The answer was both easy and a bit unsettling.  The character's personal history provided the basis for the conflict to begin with, and rather than resolving it, events could be used to increase the emotional tension.  What was unsettling about this was that I realized I had projected my own personal issues onto this character.

In a way, that realization brought a bit of a chuckle.  I had done much the same thing with my other books in the sense that I had deliberately incorporated elements of my own personality and experience into my characters and plots.  This is the "write what you know" technique, and I'm sure all writers do it to some extent.  Carried to an uncomfortable extreme, it turns characters into Mary Sues and plots into autobiographies.  But even when we're writing about characters and events and situations and places that we have no personal experience of, we still reach into our own store of memories to create that which never existed.

The difference this time was that the projection was unintentional.  But it was also natural in keeping with the character I had created.  And it also had enormous resonance in my current personal situation.

I will, of course, now be much more aware of how I write this character, how I take him through his conflicts and how he resolves them.  There may be a temptation to think of this as life imitating art, but always I know where the words come from. They come from me, and my lessons are my own.

The character, of course, will walk away beyond the last page a better person  for having learned those lessons.  Whether I will or not remains to be seen.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why there were no words

Yes, I've been silent for a while.  In more ways than one.

I'm not sure if I've said it before, but I don't get writer's block.  While I'm no Isaac Asimov, churning out thousands of perfect words every day, something always comes to my fingertips one way or another.  If not on one story/book, then on another.  They may not be the right words or the best words, but they are there.

A couple of months ago I began the task, some of which has been documented here, of bringing my 1985 historical romance Legacy of Honor into digital republication.  I encountered a lot of minor and a few slightly major snags, but the project progressed steadily. 

As I got down to the last few somewhat major edits -- three scenes that had been heavily trimmed without adequately compensating the narrative for those cuts -- I ran into a time crunch.  That was the bad news.  When I needed a couple of free days or at least a few hours at a time to work on it, free time diminished to a few minutes here or there.   The more frustrated I got, the less attention I paid to the project.  Legacy languished.

But there was good news as well.  I acquired a new critique partner, the first one I've had in almost 20 years.  We swapped opening chapters, had a nice long session of going over each other's work and thinking through some of our own weak spots.  I came home invigorated and enthusiastic and jealously guarding any stray moments I could find for writing.  The book I had given her for critique was a new one, with just that single opening chapter completed.  I was eager to get on to Chapter Two.

For several days I struggled to find the right opening for it.  Chapter One had ended on a portentous note that I felt flowed right into the next chapter and the next scene.  Eventually, the right words and sentences came to me and I eagerly added them, but they were few and far between. 

And then they just stopped.  On a day when I had the peace and quiet and privacy to write, no words came to mind.  Fortunately, the incipient panic didn't last long enough to develop into anything serious.  At first, I blamed the lack of words on lack of thinking time.

My day job is unlike any other job I've ever had before.  It requires complete and total mental focus.  There's no giving half my mind to the work while the other half wanders through plot possibilities and character details and potential dialogue.  When I was writing back in the '80s and '90s, I always had that luxury.  Now, even though I work at home and on my own schedule, when I'm working that's all I can do.

Furthermore, that kind of intense concentration requires recovery time.  I've likened it to holding one's breath for a very very very long time.  Just one big gulp of air isn't enough.  The whole body has to recover, with gasps and exhaustion.  It's impossible to go from that state of oxygen deprivation to singing an aria with a single breath.  And that's how my brain feels during my working hours.  There is no mental breath left for the opera.

But that didn't explain why, when given an entire peaceful afternoon to devote to my writing, there was nothing there.  I knew I had to be doing something wrong, something different from anything I'd done before.

I knew what I wanted to do with this story -- it's planned to be the first in a series of related novellas -- so why couldn't I write Chapter Two?  My characters had backstories and complications, there were internal and external conflicts, and I had the ending set so it led logically into the next story.

But what I didn't have, I quickly realized, was an outline.  I knew where the story was going, but I didn't know how it was going to get there.

I'm a staunch believer in outlines, and the more detailed the better.  If not scene by scene, at least major plot development by major plot development.  What had happened to me during the fifteen or so years since I'd last spent any real time on a novel that I'd forgotten that oh-so-important technique?

I don't know.  But as soon as that little flash of memory hit me, I grabbed a cheap mechanical pencil and a cheap spiral notebook and I began scribbling.  This happens and then this happens and then this happens.  Tim is convinced Melissa wants a divorce.  Melissa believes Tim wants a divorce.  Francesca can't imagine a couple happier than Tim and Melissa.  One event led to another, each conversation laid bare more secrets, and the map of the journey started to take shape.

I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn't want to write.  Be a writer?  No, that wasn't it.  I just wanted to write.  The words were always there, more than I could ever hope to put on paper.  The stories burst into my brain without effort, sometimes complete from beginning to end like Firefly and sometimes a bit at a time with major changes along the way like Legacy of Honor.  But I was never without the words.

Even when I took my more or less voluntary hiatus from writing fiction, I never left the words, and they never left me.  So when they seemed to have disappeared, I did feel some concern.  But I also knew it was just a matter of finding my way back, and that they would be there again.

And they are.

       The key turned soundlessly; with just a slight nudge, the door swung inward. Tim glanced around quickly, then stepped back to usher Melissa into the suite.
       "Oh, my God, Tim, this is unbelievable!" she exclaimed.
        She heard him shut the door, turn a deadbolt, and slide the security chain.
       "It's a hundred and fifty years old. What did you expect?"