Sunday, September 26, 2010

If It Doesn’t Hurt, You’re Doing it Wrong

I hate jogging.  Hate it.  Congrats to all you runners out there—much respect—but I just can’t make myself do it.  What I do love is weightlifting.  Not the Olympic-style, grunting sort of weightlifting, just me and a couple of free-weights.  When I have a really thorny plot problem to work out, I go to the gym, turn up the volume on my iPod, and lift.  The harder the problem, the heavier the weights. 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been going to the gym a lot, because I’ve been working through some big plot overhauls on my work-in-progress.  It ain’t been easy.  The manuscript I’m working on was “finished:”  It had been through a couple of plot re-writes, then line-edited and copy-edited and polished ad nauseum.  I’d labored over the right phrasing for every line in every scene…to me, every word seemed necessary.

But of course, I wasn’t right about that.  I got some great feedback (and some distance) and identified the weak spots.  Parts of the plot dragged.  The pacing needed to be faster, and that meant slicing out thousands and thousands of my beloved words and replacing them with fewer, better ones.  Some characters ended up being unnecessary, and I had to cut them out.  It hurt.  I had to move up to the twelve-pound weights. 

It's been painful, but in a good way, like lifting that twelve-pound weight instead of the ten.  It hurts, but I know it’s going to make me stronger.  If it was easy, if I didn’t break a sweat, then I might be happy for that half-hour workout, but in the end, I’d be right back where I started.  Nothing really got done. 

It’s important for me not to push it too far, though.  Just like in weight-lifting, pain can be telling me something when I’m editing.  During my manuscript slaughtering, I ran into a character I just couldn’t cut.  It was agonizing.  Every time I tried to write scenes without her, they felt flat and boring.  I had to stop and ask myself: Is this decision going to make my story better, or just smaller?  I suppose I’m learning to walk that line between the good, strengthening ache and the stabbing pain that warns me I’m about to pull a muscle.  I want to be right on that border.   

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Keeper Shelf

I have too many books.  I buy them compulsively and can’t let them go, and all attempts to clear them out end with me sitting cross-legged on the floor, reading.  The Enabler will walk in and ask, “Didn’t you start going through those two hours ago?”  Me: “Shh!  This is the best part!”  Deep-down, I know I can’t keep them all.  We live in San Francisco.  Our apartment isn’t that big.

When it gets really out of control—as in, stacked two-deep on the shelf and taking over the floor—I have to buckle down and clear them out, but some of them are eternally safe: the keeper shelf always has immunity.  (Actually, I have a “keeper-bookcase,” but who’s counting.)  Here’s a random sampling from my keeper shelf, as of this weekend:

     1)  Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey  
This was the first science fiction book I ever read.  I think I was fourteen.  My mother brought me on a book-buying trip to our town's only used bookstore, and I found it in the woefully understocked science fiction corner.  It was already beat-up when I made it mine, and now it’s in critical condition, but I could never trade it in.  

    2)  My college copy of Pride and Prejudice

It’s still marked up with all the notes I took in class, with important scenes indicated by dog-eared pages.  For my British Lit. class, I wrote a paper on how Austen uses laughter and smiles to differentiate the characters of Lizzy and Jane, so every time I go back and read it, I encounter underlines everywhere they do either one of these things.  (Note: It’s often.)

     3)  A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
I think my mother bought me this book before I was born.  I certainly don’t remember a time when I didn’t have it.  Every so often, I go back and open it at random, just for fun.

     4)  Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost
I loved this book so much, I read it cover to cover two times in a row.  It’s funny and sexy and perfect escapism.  Ironically, I don't have a picture because I lent it to a friend.  (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!)

     5)  Moo by Jane Smiley
I found this hardcover first edition in a Salvation Army store for one dollar.  I was in my senior year of college at the time, and the whole book cracked me up (It follows a handful of people on a college campus: students, professors, secretaries).  Years later, I read A Thousand Acres, and I was blown away by how equally brilliant and totally different it was.

     6)  The entire Harry Potter Series.
Honestly, who could get rid of these?  (Number Six is out on loan, but this time I'm not sure who I gave it to. Anybody want to confess?)

There are more, of course, but that’s a cross-section.  What’s on your keeper shelf?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

William Gibson and the Creative Process

William Gibson is one of my favorite authors.  I’ve read everything he’s written, starting with the science fiction classic Neuromancer, which a mentor of mine gave me in college.  His more recent novel Pattern Recognition is set in our own disturbing post-9/11 world, and it's one of my top-ten favorites in any genre.  When people praise Gibson, they usually talk about his ultra-sensitive ear for cultural weirdness and technological trends, but I think his knack for weaving multiple plotlines together is equally admirable.  He’s also crazy for detail, which makes his books creepy and atmospheric in a Blade Runner kind of way.  Just check out this description of a young Japanese girl encountering London, from the opening chapter of Mona Lisa Overdrive:
The snow fell more thickly now, and the featureless sky was lit with a salmon glow of sodium lamps.  The street was deserted, the snow fresh and unmarked. There was an alien edge to the cold air, a faint, pervasive hint of burning, of archaic fuels.  Petal's shoes left large, neatly defined prints.  They were black suede oxfords with narrow toes and extremely thick corrugated soles of scarlet plastic.  She followed in his tracks, beginning to shiver, up the gray steps to number 17.
He doesn't describe everything about the street, but this paragraph engages multiple senses, and I feel like I'm shivering on the steps with the main character, wondering what's behind door number 17.

Mr. Gibson is promoting his new release, Zero History, and this week he came to the Bay Area as part of his book tour.  Feeling very lucky that I live here, I went to The Booksmith to get my signed copy and hear him speak.  Maybe it’s his recent attraction to twitter (@GreatDismal)--he calls it "the most efficient novelty aggregator yet invented"--but he’s got the one-sentence profundities down.  (My favorite one-liner: “The most intimate parts of human behavior, we know only through self observation.”  I’ve been trying to decide if I agree or not.)

Gibson talked about how he’s grown as a writer, saying he looks back at his earlier work and sees all the “duct tape and paste holding them together.”  He said, “When you first get started writing fiction, you get really good at leaving out the parts you can’t do.”  This made me think hard about what I leave out in my own work—what am I avoiding writing because I don’t know how to write it?  But, according to Gibson, these avoidances led him to some interesting stories, because he’d take his characters in different directions based on what he could or couldn’t get them to do.  And I have to admit, it's reassuring to know that even my idols are always trying to get better, always evolving.

To me, the most interesting part of an author event is when the author gets to talking about his or her creative process.  Everyone is so different in this respect, and I love hearing how people describe their unique methods.  Gibson talked about casting his books in his head, thinking of a warehouse where he’ll construct the story and asking his characters to show up for a “casting call.”  He claims to know almost nothing about how his stories will progress when he begins them, saying he lets the plot unfold subconsciously.  His books get the “prose equivalent of airbrushing” when he’s finished, which is where he says he folds in all those brain-searing details. 

I like Gibson's "construction" analogy for the creative process, but I tend to think of a new story as a big chunk of raw stone.  I chip away at it until I've got a rough figure, then I sand and polish until I've got a finished statue.  What about you, fellow writers?  How do you visualize your creative process?  And as a reader, do you care how the book gets made, or does it destroy the "suspension of disbelief" that makes fiction so absorbing?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Plotting Technique

Lately, I've been getting interested in plotting technique.   I'm doing a plot revision on Book One, coming up with ways to pick up the pace and make those necessary-for-character-development scenes work harder.  I started by cutting over 20,000 words.  Then I took everything that was left—the big, dramatic turning points; the quiet, emotional realizations; the snippets of backstory—and started shuffling things around, asking how I could make each moment have the most impact.  I realized pretty quickly I was going to need some visual aids.

Usually, I use a spreadshseet to keep track of my plots, writing down each event under a column for the plot or sub-plot it's part of.  I like how easy it is to change things in an electronic format, but this week, I wanted something more tangible to work with.

So, I took all the scenes I was keeping and wrote down two- or three-word descriptions of them on little slips of paper.  My plot was a disorganized pile of color-coded scenes, ready to be fit into a story.

Next, I printed out a page with 34 lines on it, one for each chapter plus a few extras.  I knew I wanted certain really big events to come at specific points in the book (around Chapter 10, around Chapter 20). Those are my anchor points—I put them down first.* They’re farther to the right (and in red ink) because they’re high-impact.

I put down the more minor plot points next: stuff that’s important, but not totally game changing. I moved things around as I went to make sure every chapter had a reason to live. (Or rather, a reason for me not to kill it.) Then came the subplots, color-coded, of course.**

Looking at my plot, there was a bit of a hole around Chapter 13. I’d also come up a little shy of 90,000 words.  I decided to expand one of my subplots, so I shifted things around to fit New Subplot in.

Then I took a deep breath and taped everything down. I’ve got my roadmap; now I’m editing and re-writing and forging new scenes. Having been a “pantser” in the past, I’m finding I like this mapped-out version of plotting, at least for this project. What about you guys—what’s your plotting technique?

*Picture has been blurred to prevent spoilers!
**My geekiness knows no bounds.
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