Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Rules of Writing

After publishing a few stories here and there I've developed some hard and fast rules for writing an acceptable* story.

Certainly, the language mechanics are important.  That the story should follow the rules of decent grammar (unless for some reason you chose otherwise) is also a given. The story should also adhere to the rules: of punctuation, and speling (unless there are good reasons to ignore those details.)

Font selection and document formatting used to be important but this seems not so much now that one can change the presentation with the swipe of a mouse, and I won't even go into the ancient use of 20 pound bond and SASE's - most of you can google those terms for an explanation if you need to.

Composition is sort of important, most of the time.  Scenes should logically follow one another, except when you use flashbacks or forewarning, or wish to elide into some discourse on something that might or might not be relevant for the reader to know.

Each scene should have at minimum a protagonist, setting, and activity - although the paragraphs within a scene need not contain all of these and maybe you can leave out one or two of those elements if you feel like it.

Should I mention that dialogue should be as readers think people talk as opposed to the sometimes random nature of real conversation? It helps to occasionally inform the reader of just who (or what) is speaking, has spoken, or is about to speak so their minds don't wander off the reservation.

As in real life, story consequences should follow actions and have some reason for being there.  It is particularly important that characters tend to maintain a single identity throughout the story, at least to themselves, most of the time.  Keeping the character's names straight helps a lot.

The meta is relevant as well.  A story usually attempts to convey some concept to the reader and leave them with a sense that they have been on a journey.  The style of story telling sometimes does this even when the actual intellectual content of the piece is negligible. But who am I to say anything negative about stylists?

Writing in a language the editor will understand** also helps.

*Meaning "good enough" -  I've long abandoned attempting perfection.

**This is usually English.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Second Thoughts

Some time ago I posed a question in The Act of Writing about what happens when I sit down to write and what possible utility (as in rewards) it produced.  My conclusion at that time was that the mysterious act of writing is probably its own reward.*

But the underlying question remains about what happens when I sit down to write? What strange alchemy transforms a rather dull reader into the producer of stories. My first thought is that it might be physically related.  I learned touch typing on an ancient Underwood in high school and to this day find it a physical pleasure to feel my fingers move the keys as the letters march, character by character, across the screen. Occasionally, when I drop into the fugue state that summons my muse, my sense of time and place disappears and my fingers begin to move independently of my conscious mind. My muse, being a fickle bitch, does not let this happen too frequently and my fingers and brain more often than not need to be coaxed into action to do the slogging hard drudgery of piling word on word.

Regardless of how I invoke the muse I still question from what source and by what processes do I dredge images, characters, settings, and actions that fill the pages of my stories? More importantly, what sparks these into being to such a degree that I am impelled to place strings of words on a page? I am barely conscious of the construction under weigh, aside from deciding what logically follows something, much like putting down a course of bricks to build a house, a barn, or a fence. Is there an architect inside my brain that dictates the design and keeps the stories from being completely chaotic**?

Sometimes the story takes form slowly, from a messy first draft through successive edits until, finally, a half-decent story emerges. There's little magic involved in moving scenes about, changing a bit of dialogue here, adjusting a description there, nip and tuck, polishing and highlighting until the bloody thing "looks right."

Which is an idea for another blog.

* although I must honestly admit that selling something written is slightly more rewarding.

** an accusation that has been made on more than one occasion after the story has been published.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Catching Up

My brain has finally achieved near-synchronicity with my current life-cycle.  Almost two weeks back from several time zones east of here and I am finally regaining the full use of my brain and my former energy levels.

Foolishly, and before I realized how foggy I was, I opened the incomplete draft of one of the novels in an attempt to reignite the spark only to find my dastardly former self had emblazoned the draft with vague notes and highlights, rendering it nearly incomprehensible. This was unforeseen.  I left with the plot unresolved and fully expected my subconscious to have produced a solution while I took a full month off. But my writer's brain turned out to be a lazy bastard and did nothing at all.  I am now doubly disappointed by not only the lack of resolution but my inability to grasp the rung where my hand last rested.

In frustration I attempted to resume work on a long novella that has languished desktop-wise for far too long only to discover that I was no more able to untangle the plot lines or advance the narrative than with the novel. "Maybe one of the shorts," I shouted and, with a wave of the mouse, brought forth the most recent only to send it flying when I realized how much work would be involved to bring it to fruition.

But I continued to work, throwing words at the pieces in hopes of achieving some sort of resolution so I could start seriously editing.  I also took a couple of naps, caught up on my reading, corresponded with friends, took brief looks at Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and dove into the writer's black hole - Google! Wait: Those things were not writing, they were just avoidance strategies I  used until, energy restored, I could once again become productive.

At least I hoped so.

*I often wonder if other writers have a problem with keeping their noses to the grindstone. Are they able to produce endless streams of prose without doubt plaguing every word choice or phrase like me; ever a pillar of self-doubt and insecurity?


Friday, September 5, 2014

Return to Plotland

My brain has finally achieved synchronicity with the present time zone, well, almost.  I fully expected my subconscious to have produced a solution to either of the two novels endings since I gave it a full month off.  Naturally, I have been disappointed.  My writer's brain is a lazy bastard and did nothing at all for me.

Nevertheless, my brain cleansed by a month's absence from working on the novel, I return to the keyboard and open the rambling monster the unfinished novel has become.  In a way, examining the abandoned draft is like an archeological dig where I am excavating for clues as to the novel's purpose, dusting off this fragment or that, mapping the corridors and rooms to once again getring a sense of place and time.

The map shows many, many places where I'd left helpful notes to my future editing self such as "What the hell does this mean?" and "Needs more description" or "Needs more dialogue."  If I wrote that why didn't I effing do something about it at the time instead of expecting the future me to know what to do? Was there some expectation that I'd return smarter or more knowledgeable. despite a long history that this would never happen?  Who knows - obviously I didn't.

Then there's the puzzling "Move this elsewhere" note.   Couldn't you have left me a clue, you idiot! I  have no more idea of where this fragment should go than you did!  Damn!  If I had time travel I'd go back and strangle myself, which would solve both problems, I think.  In other places I discover blocks of text highlighted in yellow, pink, and blue which add festive color to the draft but no explanation of their purpose.  Why did I choose those colors and why highlight that text at all?  I haven't a clue.  Perhaps in time it will come to me. I can only hope.

So where was I when I left? I clearly recall jumping around a bit to tune up this or that chapter but where did these three extra chapters of alternative plot lines come from?  Were they from an earlier draft or something new I was playing with just before I left on vacation?  Are they pieces I cut but did not have the heart to discard?  Perhaps further digging will clarify the question.

Finally, at the end of the draft I discover the outlines for the last few chapters I'd tried to nail down.  But before I can write them I have to finish reading all that went before to remind myself of what this novel was about.

After than all I have to do is edit it.