Friday, April 29, 2011

Sailing and Writing

Sitting for hours at the computer and forcing words to appear becomes non-productive after a while and the writer must find some refuge from the creative impulse.  For me that refuge has always been on Sparrow, my small sailboat.

There is a saying on the Bay that you use a powerboat to get somewhere, but with a sailboat you are already there.  True, but a sailboat does not provide the powerboat's instant gratification. Instead one must prepare the sails, lower the motor (used only to move you away from the dock and congestion), and rig the lines that enable you to control the boat before casting off lines and departing.

When you raise the sails to catch the wind and still the roaring motor's sounds a quiet ensues where only the slap of waves against the hull, the cawing of the gulls, and the creak of sail and lines under pressure from the wind can be heard.  After a time, even those fade away, hardly distractions to your thoughts.  In that silence you can listen to your own thoughts, let your mind drift to wherever it takes you.

Changes of wind and tide, the proximity of other boats, and the need to change headings are the few distractions to interrupt the revery.  Cares of daily life disappear and even the current challenge of whatever piece you are writing fades from your consciousness to be replaced by reflections on the meaning of life, the cycle of civilizations, and how much a larger boat would really cost?  Thoughts trivial and deep, meaningful and incidental, transient ideas and those that you hope you'll remember occur in cascades while I, uncaring of anything but the wind and water, continue sailing into mental oblivion.

I'd like to say that some of my best ideas come from these session but that would be lying.  Instead I find that simply giving my conscious mind free rein has allowed by other mind - the one that guides my fingers on the keyboard - to rest and renew itself.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


When you are a short story writer the pressure to produce is a constant companion.  First there is the pressure to compose something new and exciting that will impel an editor to buy the piece and then, when it finally sees publication, it is only before the publics' eyes for a few brief weeks before being supplanted by something else.  Worse yet is that few readers take note of the author's name, even though they might never forget the story itself. 

Short stories do not generally run into series so each must be individually crafted to make a point or express some line of thought or viewpoint.  Ideas come easily but those worthy of the effort of turning into a short story are fewer.  As a consequence I read articles on science and technology hoping to grasp something I can use.  Other times I aimlessly type random sentences, beginnings, endings, ideas until something clicks. But always there is this pressure to produce, to submit, to have something - anything - in print.

Let's be honest. Nobody holds a gun to my head. There are no deadlines imposed by editors.  There is no outcry by the fans for yet another of my stories.  The pressure I feel comes from within; a nagging, persistent voice that tells me I will be forgotten or worse, that I will be recalled as a semi-literate fin de si├Ęcle hack. Is this fear of mortality what drives me to write; that I write so that something of me will live on beyond the grave? No, that would be too pretentious.  I think I write because it is something that I can do, that I find pleasure in doing, and that gives me a great feeling of accomplishment.  That I might get a check and something to put on my brag shelf is a bonus.

And maybe that's enough.

Monday, April 11, 2011


For too many years I didn't bother with actively and deliberately plotting my stories. Instead i allowed them to grow organically, sometimes going in unexpected directions, often wandering away from the point of the story, and occasionally diverting the characters into doing something different than intended.

The not unexpected result of this sort of garbage collecting was that I wasted considerable time editing and rewriting, often throwing out pages of perfectly good narrative and dialogue that had nothing to do with the purpose of the story. Much of this effort was spent moving blocks of words about to achieve the best possible order.  It was usually the third or fourth draft that achieved some semblance of plot.

My relentless pursuit of plot drove me to develop all manner of tools - outlines, sketches, copying plots from other stories, and even developing standard outlines for mysteries, drama. etc.  For novellas I even cut the printed pages into scenes, spread them on a table, and rearranged them to the order they story needed before taping them together, going back to the computer and cutting and pasting once more.

Along the line I developed the concept of scene theory (see some of my older blogs) as wrote software to help me structure my stories. These ranged from Hypercard, several relational databases ending with FileMaker Pro.  Finally, thanks to Charlie Stross, I discovered Scivener and have been using it as my primary compositional and writing tool ever since.

What I finally realize is that Plotting involves more than simply sequencing reasonably well-written scenes into a certain order. The essence of Plotting is making the story seem "real" to the reader - verisimilitude, in other words e.g. written dialogue is NOT the way people talk.   A good plot requires that there are dramatic high points that capture the reader's interest and explicitly demonstrate character. A good plot makes the reader continually ask "What happens next?" and turn the page.  A good plot carries the narrative along despite the quality of the writing.

And I'm still struggling to find out how to do that.

Why do I do this?

As I write the final chapter of my latest novel I know that act will not mean that the work is done, but that I have merely reached the bottom of a steep months-long rewrite slope, a slope that I must climb while carrying the burden of the work's assumptions and mistakes on my back. Should I go on or should I abandon the work of a few years of on-again, off-again development? Will the finished product be worth reading? Am I just kidding myself that this is worth the effort?

I doubt I'm the only writer to face these issues, not the only one who wonders why they make the effort.

Why do I do it when I realize that I am never going to be as good as the writers I admire, never going to win awards, and probably will be brutalized by those critics who bother to read the finished work? In fact, I doubt that this particular novel will ever see the desk of an agent, much less that of an editor, given the sorry state of publishing and the byzantine process through which an author attempts to reach the reader. Eventual remuneration is, of course, beyond any hope of expectation.

So why push on to finish the damn thing? Why give up time better spent on other endeavors when hope is so diminished? Why attempt the drawn-out novel form when short works provide a quicker response? I ask myself this question at the end of each draft chapter and after each unsatisfactory rewritten passage.

Here is my answer for today, which may be different from anyone elses', and probably different from my own thoughts in a week or two. But for now, for this moment, for this day, I provide my answer.

I keep on working at this novel because I love my protagonist, his tribulations and triumphs and the choices he must make. I do so because I love the sweep of the background and the cast of characters that have exploded from my muse into a reality on the page. I am intrigued by the challenges they face and overcome, the twists and turns of the plot, and the interweaving of story arcs.

I keep on writing this novel because there is a joy in crafting a story out of cold words and giving them emotional voice.

I keep writing because I enjoy the art of making a line parse properly, and of building scenes that contains all of the necessary elements and are a pleasure to read.

Finally, I will keep writing because there is the simple satisfaction of a job well done.