Revisiting older work

With Wine Bottles and Broomsticks entering the long and epic end-game of writing a book, my extreme sense of procrastination is starting to kick in. Aside from mocking up fake magic cards and poking about with a program I’ve been working on, I’ve started thinking seriously about other stories. While I want to, want to work on the sequel to Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, I just can’t seem to stay focused. Part of that probably has to do with a healthy dose of self-doubt about Wine Bottles. I mean, just because I think it’s a good book and that everyone should read it doesn’t mean anyone ever will. One of those avenues of procrastination happens to be my last attempt at a novel.

The War of Shadows was the first book I’d actually completed. I even proudly sent it out to beta readers. As these things tend to go with first books, my friends mostly finished it and had encouraging things to say. However, the truth of the matter is that the book sucked, something my wife tried to say in constructive terms. The idea that it was broken finally started sinking in last summer. I don’t know that it’s broken beyond repair, but it was pretty clearly beyond my skill to correct. The core (not the entire) problem was the two main characters and especially the main character. They were bland, weak, and had no chemistry. Some of the other characters are a bit better, but in general they’re bad. My conclusion? I’m awful with characters and character arcs.

With that failure solidly under my belt back in August, I decided to take a short break from revising my broken book and work on a concept that came to me after a flippant remark. The phrase ‘The problem with witch hunts is that sometimes you find one’ actually comes from something I told someone. I’m not sure how a sentence can become a book, but there it is. This story quickly became my main writing focus, almost to the exclusion of everything else in life. What’s the main strength of Wine Bottles? Ironically, it’s the characters. This has made me revisit the conclusion that I can’t write good characters. In fact I can do it, furthermore, I knew what was necessary to fix it, but I couldn’t seem to make it work. This was, of course, because much of the action surrounding the main character was built according to his reactions, which meant a full and complete re-write of the book, something I didn’t want to do. Now I’ve finished a second book, I actually WANT to to rewrite it. I want to make that character the way he should be. Having concluded a character arc, I can see how it’s supposed to work and I’m ready to tackle it again.

In fact, I’ve already started. On Thursday night I crawled into bed, exhausted and ready for the day to be over only to be drawn to my iPad, where I clacked out the new start to the book. I only made it five-hundred words in before calling it a night, but the gauntlets were off. I’m going to completely gut and re-write the book. So far, I can say that this is much, much easier than the first time. I’m about half-way through the new first chapter and while it’s still rough (it is a draft), it’s a million times better and the characters are already more interesting and likable.

What’s interesting to me about this is that I didn’t stop writing or take a ton of classes, and I didn’t pick up dozens of books to carefully study them for techniques on how to bring out a strong character. No, I kept writing. I wrote something different, something that was supposed to be a throw-away, not a serious effort. You know what? I learned something. Not only did I learn more about how to put a story together, but I also learned about my own writing style. Just playing to my strengths has made the process of writing much more enjoyable and move along much faster. I may still have a lot to learn, but I’m now much, much further along than I was last year at this time.

Now I’m off to work on that first chapter again. Hopefully, it’ll make for a readable book this time.

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Over the hills and far away

Last week, I went to Kansas City for training. I rarely go out of town, in fact I don’t think I’ve gone out of town for work in over a year and that last one was a very short trip to Fairbanks. Living in Alaska, everything is far away. Even stuff up here is far away. From where I live, the capital is about 1 ½ hour flight and it can’t be reached by road. I’m actually closer to Seattle from where I’m at than I am from the farthest corner of this state, and I’m a three hour flight from Seattle. Anyhow, a trip to Kansas City, which is generally a few hours of flying time at worst (unless you’ve got to take a really wacky series of layovers) from most parts of the country. For me, however, we’re talking a minimum of 8 hours travel time involving at least 1 layover. To put icing on that cake, most AK to lower-48 flights leave sometime between the hours of 11pm and 6am.

The moral of this story is that not only do these trips trap me on an aircraft for two full days, it results in serious jet-lag and exhaustion. It’s true this trip was for business, and I committed myself to carrying out those responsibilities and talking shop for many extra hours too. One would think that I’d be too tired for creativity – which is something I hear a lot during the procrastination process. While I believe ‘too tired’ is a legitimate reason to put the writing down for a bit, after all we all get there, I feel that there are strategies for dealing with it. In any case, being away from home I was left without many of the usual distractions and responsibilities. So, even in my state of ‘holy crapamoly I’m tired’ I was able to take what little energy I had and focus it.

From the perspective of writing I learned a couple of things about myself and writing on this trip. The first is that I really need to have coffee to write. At 6:00 am I was on the plane with my iPad and couldn’t bring myself to turn it on. Once they came round with coffee I fired that bitch up and didn’t stop until the wheels hit the ground. Lesson learned: If I’ve got a warm cup by my side, I’m a lot more productive. In the evening, when coffee is a bit dicey, a beer or whiskey also seems to fill the niche (herbal tea or decaf works through the week when I’m being good). The second thing I learned about myself is a bit more involved.

Ahead of the trip, I had decided that I would focus my free time on writing, so I planned to stay off of Twitter, avoid much on Facebook (I did flip through a few times), and not even open Wordpress. I’d say that I was fairly successful there. However, I’m not convinced these are actually the source of most of my distraction. Sure I can kill an hour very rapidly by sifting through various blog posts and wipe out 5 minute spans of time keeping an eye on twitter, but those actually don’t really tear me away from what I’m doing like other sorts of things. I also didn’t turn the TV on while I was there. With that noise box silenced the hour in the morning and hour or two at night I had for writing (the same as I have now, incidentally), was uninterrupted.

The most important thing I learned, however, was that over the course of those three days last week I found that if I’ve got a strong idea, and few real distractions (and even if I’m exhausted) I can write – a lot – not polished, ready to share work, but solid rough draft material. I don’t ever recall having written 6,000 words over the course of three days while still putting in 8 hours of work plus a few hours of work-place networking before. Hell, I don’t know if I’ve ever written that amount during time off. If I hadn’t been so fried on Friday I’d probably have knocked out another 2-3K on the airplane, which would have been about half of chapter 9 of Wine Bottles and Broomsticks.

Now I’m back home and back in my usual routine and I’m not entirely sure how to apply these lessons to my day-to-day writing (except the coffee – that’s easy) given that when I get home it’s time to cook, clean up and manage children, those TV free hours are lost anyhow, it’s later that I’m still working out. I do like being able to unwind with a little TeeVee but I’d also like to get done with my book. I suppose though that just knowing that I can produce a lot feels like a personal victory and knowing more about how I work best is helpful. With that in mind, and because I’ve been kicking the idea around for a while, I signed up for NaNoWriMo. I’m planning on tackling a project other than Wine Bottles and Broomsticks. However, in order to ‘win’, I’ve got to write something on the order of 1700 words per day. Anyhow, we’ll see how it goes. For starters, I need to be well prepared so at some point soon, I’ll start outlining like a fool and sketching characters.

So, there’s my thought for the week. I should probably think them out on this blog more, but too many distractions. Off to that cup of coffee and the last ten minutes remaining to me this morning.

Writer’s improvement hell – developing themes.

Notes Mess

I have precious few hours remaining before Sunday is over, concluding my week off for writing. I didn’t manage to accomplish my goal of having a first full draft. I just stacked too many other things on to the week. It’s not that I didn’t make progress, because I did, I just didn’t make it as far as I wanted to. Part of the problem though wasn’t life, it’s that I continue to get hung up on things that need to be fixed. As I’m some 82K words into the book, going back to make some edits that work in various elements every time I think about them is no longer practical. I’m better off writing the idea down and setting it aside to include for the next pass-through of the draft.

One of the things that has begun to really take hold of my mind is theme – or themes, I suppose. In writing the War of Shadows so far, I haven’t been focused on theme, instead concentrating on hitting plot elements, character development, and increasing tension. Theme hasn’t been at the front of my mind. Now that I can go back and think about the story as it is, I can start to pick out weak threads of theme that are running through the book. In moving toward the climax and resolution, as well as set-up for book 2, I’m finding that theme is becoming an essential component for the story to hang together.

In every literature class I’ve ever taken (you can count this on one hand, I’m a computer programmer by training, and research analyst by profession), I’ve hated the discussion of theme. This originates, I think, from high school lit. classes where a book is read and discussed with inadequate context. Now that I’m older and can combine much more knowledge of history and politics, I can now better see what some of these books were trying to do. However, as a young person, they made little sense, and digging out any sort of meaning was a tedious and sometimes painful experience.

So if I hate discussing theme so much, why have I brought it up?

Because, as a writer it’s important. It’s important for the reader too, even if they don’t realize it. For the writer, the themes you choose help to guide the characters and plot. It acts as a bit of glue for the story as it progresses, themes also give a ‘feel’ to the story. I’ll offer up all of the Middle-Earth work by Tolkien as an example. A theme of change or diminishing of the world is present throughout all of those stories. This theme helps to tie the stories together, and also helps to make the change feel vaguely sad, but not tragic – much in the same way that we wish we could go back to places and times that are gone, like a child that has grown and left the house.

For the War of Shadows, and it’s associated series, I’ve got a few themes in mind that I’m looking at developing. There are several options at this point, because it’s still a fairly early draft. The one that’s at the front of my mind right now is the concept of ‘perception of choice.’ I suppose you could call it destiny, but it’s not quite like that, it’s not a pre-ordained sort of situation, it’s more that the characters are being pulled into a much larger conflict, while believing they are acting in their own interest for much more limited goals. It’s less along the lines of the chosen one, and more like the situation in Star Wars Episodes 1-3. Each side believes they are fighting a war for their own interests, but it’s not like that at all. The Chancellor is acting the puppet-master to reach his own goals. Really what’s going on is that the protagonist believes s/he has a choice, or is somehow in control of events, but in reality there is no choice. Another example comes from  the Harry Potter series, though it’s really a very minor theme. An example of how it shows up is near the end of book 7. Harry has the choice of chasing the horacruxes or uniting the deathly hallows. He chooses the horacruxes. In the book, you have the sense that this is a real choice, but it’s not. Harry will still have to destroy all of the horacruxes and face Voldamort. It’s only an illusion that he might have a choice.

The question that comes up for me as I consider this and attempt to work out how to go back and include it, is how do I pull this off? First off, I’m going to try and be subtle about it. The theme is generally present, but a few conversations muck it up a bit. I need to go back and revise those so that they don’t tread on this concept. It’s not anything like a major revision, just modification of dialogue, and motivation. The next thing that needs to happen is that I need to play the concept up a little bit in places where it’s missing. In those places where it’s not present, it will result in a certain amount of discontinuity in the story.

The next question, I suppose is why am I picking this theme and expanding it? Does it even matter? Yes, it does matter, the main reason I’m expanding this theme is because it’s going to be the backbone for the plot across the books. It’s not going to be spoken to directly, but the motivation of certain characters and the reactions of others will depend on this theme. It provides a framework for the plot and characters. So, I may dislike the discussion of theme, but it’s starting to seem so essential to me that I’ve got to master it, and understand how to use it in my favor as a writer.

 


photo credit: Spring via photopin (license)