Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Proving Process

This is my first post of 2010, late February, which means really? I need to decide if I'm going to keep this blog and tell people about it or give up the idea. Or make a schedule for myself to keep with blog posts that doesn't involve writing them in my head while showering or driving, because people can't read those, and that's a good thing.

I've been thinking all along the focus of this blog needs to be on something I understand and have done. I understand process, though what I mostly understand it for is its mystery and the curious fact that it changes with every project, and I do mean every project. Write an article on Nevada's economy for a business magazine in January, process is This. Write an article on Nevada's economy for the same business magazine in February, even understanding that the economy has not changed a whit nor has the magazine, and the process is That.

But this blog is about fiction, because that's my first love. I could actually write, possibly endlessly, about writing articles, finding article work, querying articles (I was quite good at it as long as we're not discussing the actual sitting down and doing of it), outlining, interviewing, finding the experts to interview in the first place, working with editors (much more pleasant in almost every case than most new writers are led to believe - writer and editor are supposed to be on the same side.) I could do this, but my heart's not in it. Plus, truth to tell, when it comes down to the writing of those articles? The process changes every time. Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I follow my questions (provided I was asking questions logically and not randomly.) Sometimes I have a thread interview, someone who answered every question logically, guided the interview in a coherent or chronological manner, who was quotable in the extreme. Sometimes it's a jigsaw puzzle, the way I used to do term papers - spill my subject headings all over the page, type in every person who talked about it, then start cutting (those are not fun articles, it means no one was the really clear, coherent one or, just as difficult, every interview subject was and they all said very similar clear, coherent things... just a little differently.)

Fiction process, though. Ask a random writer how he or she wrote the last novel or short story. Most likely, they'll tell you. Ask them how they're going to do the next, especially if they're standing at the beginning of that process, gazing into the abyss of words and plot logic and character steadfastness to come, and you might send that writer screaming in terror.

Of the writers I've known and talked about this with, the majority of us have no idea how we wrote the last novel, at least not when we're facing the next one, because we have even less idea how we're going to write this one. I'm not even sure how each of mine started. The first two came out of nowhere, as if I'd challenged myself to write the hardest thing possible for me: a created world quest-type fantasy.

Really? That's really what wanted to be written? Complete with horses and swords and long distances to be covered without use of modern transportation or modern calendars (my moons bloomed and waned really unpredictably until I got the hang of writing down the calendar I was using for that world - which was pretty much about the time I was done needing to move my characters through time.) The idea came out of nothing more than a couple images and ran for two books, and the process, this being my first and second novel, was this:

Panic. Type some pages. Hand write some pages. Put the thing down. Write some fiction of another sort (I didn't write nonfiction then.) Forget the book for such a long period of time that I eventually found myself wondering how "my people" were doing and, more strangely, since they were my people, what they were doing, which generally wasn't much if I wasn't there to make them do it.

This continued for the whole of the first book, but it was also when I learned that when the writing got smaller and smaller, the details less and less important but more and more plentiful, and I was spending three paragraphs or an entire page on something as minute as a character going somewhere in a car with nothing eventful happening, that I had come to the end of what I had plotted and it was time to write another single spaced page with three fat block paragraphs that outlined the next 30 or so pages of actual story. Then I had to back the character up so whatever hadn't been transpiring on the page but just hanging out there, clogging up book with words, would stop and the character would do something useful which, like as not, was to go away and let another character out on deck.

The first book took me either one and a half years or two and a half years and I have - almost definitely, almost for certain - stopped trying to figure out which. I started it during a hot dry lovely summer spent in a dark dank dingy and stinky law office in a terminally sagging building where I worked for an attorney I called Fungus (not with affection) who screamed a lot and then left to play golf (according to even people who pretended to like him, that was not the game he was actually abusing.) I didn't have that much to do because the attorney didn't have that much to do (no one liked him, not even the people who like to assign pro bono cases) and during that time I started wondering if, since I'd been writing fairly seriously for four years, was I ever going to write a novel. And the reason I can't pinpoint whether I started it in one particular summer or the next is that I worked for the Fungus Amongus for two years (making me the third longest staying secretary there - in 9 years he had 14 1/2 secretaries. One stayed five years. The half left after lunch on the first day.)

But the first novel taught me things. My process involves writing by hand a lot, because I can do it faster and with more words that look like words than when I type. It also involves having a separate notebook where I can, if I try very hard to remember, write down things like character eye color and the names of people we're not going to see again for 50 pages.

I only write this down if I have mentioned it, because otherwise I'd just spend all day making up characters and also because I sense I'm usually wrong. I assume I know how my character looks after we've spent a number of pages together - this is how it usually works. I write the character by starting with traits or a specific problem the character might be in. Then I wonder who would have a problem with that, and start developing the person. Then I look for the person's name, which involves much wondering about the house and wandering amongst the cats, saying things like, "He's a lot like you, Thud, but I can't call him Thud." Because how many people do you know named Thud? And eventually familiarity with the character leads me to believe that Thud is six feet tall, a little pudgy, has strawberry blond hair and dresses in t-shirts a lot.

Which I'm sure is wrong. Because when I do interviews with people, I start thinking what they must look like. I imagine age, hair color, expressions, mode of dress. And routinely the article comes out with photos of the person I talked to (it doesn't occur to me usually to Google the person) and low and behold, the pleasant faced older man with brown hair is a cross looking 30 year old with jet black hair. Which is why I know if I ever ran into my characters on the street, I'd walk right by without knowing it.

This was the process for book 1 of Sarodyn or possibly Sarodyn City. Those first two books need very much to be redrafted (which for me, means I want to reread them, then start over without reading them anymore) now that I have a grasp on point of view, which was pretty slithery for me back then. The process for book 2 was to type The End at the end of book 1, have an idea, leap into it, find a temp job where the women actually yelled at me if I finished my work too quickly. It took me a week or two to realize I was destroying the status quo; they had trained management to think they could only work So Fast and if I could work 4x faster, they could too...

Once I figured out why they kept snapping at me I fell into a pattern. Fifteen minutes of work for the cranky ladies followed by, eventually, 45 minutes of work on my novel. and that worked until the missing cranky lady (I'm sure she was) returned from her hysterectomy seven weeks later or so, by which time I was well on my way with Sarodyn City 2 - which took 4 months.

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