Sunday, January 29, 2012

The (Rules) of Writing

The first rule of writing is there are no rules of writing. 

That's clever, but not exactly true.  The word I probably hear the most from other writers is 'rules.'  It's also the most political aspect of writing as well; usually the subject falls along one of three lines:
  1. There are no rules.
  2. There are, and these are the ones you never break (Show, don't tell).
  3. You have to know the rules before you can break them.
This article over a io9 last week spoke to 10 generally well known rules about sci-fi/fantasy fiction; rules in writing generally being not what you should do, but what you shouldn't.  The article makes a case for breaking every single one of them.  I thought it would be fun to talk about each one in turn as I'm facing some of these decisions now in writing the new novel.

1) No third-person omniscient.
I'll be honest - I'm not sure if this is actually a rule.  As the article points out, the omniscient perspective has long been the default perspective in most fiction.  Maybe it's not fashionable any more, but fashion is most often momentary; writing never should be.  It depends entirely on the type of story you're telling, and how you want to tell it; if you're writing grand space opera or major fantasy, you probably don't want to limit yourself to a single first person narrator, which will limit the scope.  But then you can see by what George R.R. Martin is doing in A Game of Thrones, and you see immediately why rules are only rules until someone decides they're not.

The Book of Elizabeth employs the third person omniscient, as most of my work does. In my work in progress, the SciFiJohnHughesNovel, I'm using the first person.   The novel takes place on an alien world over the course of a single night; I could have chosen to create more distance, and see more of the world/plot/backstory, but in this instance this is one character's story, and I wanted her to be the lens we saw this world through.  She is a reflection of it, as it is of her. 

You're never limited to one or the other, though.  There are numerous examples of novels that employ varying points of view simultaneously.  Frankenstein is a great example of shifting first person narrators; the book follows a succession of storytellers that nests the overall plot.

When choosing which point of view you're going to use, you have to consider the pros and cons of each.  David Madden's Revising Fiction, which I've discussed here before, will help guide you in making that decision.  And there are cons to the third person, the biggest of which is typically a tenedency towards excess.  Since the narrator knows all, they can sometimes tell all, and that isn't necessarily a good thing.  An omniscient narrator also allows for explicit authorial commentary, and even judgment.  This is generally what modern writers object to with the third person.  Objectivity is essential when telling a story this way; let the facts and the story itself make whatever case needs to be made.

Next time I'll discuss whether to prologue or not to prologue.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why Write Novels At All?

Usually when people ask me why I write books, I tell them because I have to.

It's a pretty good answer and I can't think of any other way to describe it.  For whatever reason, there is this narrative engine within me that compells me to try and tell stories.  This engine is missing a belt or two sometimes, but you know what I mean.  There is a very interesting article in the NY Times this morning that poses the question in general: why write novels at all?  In the face of more popular entertainment, specifically movies, why the novel and not a screenplay?  What motivates a writer to write?  A reader to read? 

The novel faces the same challenge that the play did when the novel took over the mainstream consciousness.  I don't think the novel or literature is in any danger - more people read now than have ever read.  The book will be fine.  In fact, the book is experiencing something of a revolution.  The e-reader and digital publishing hasn't so much changed the way we read as how we write.  Or who writes.  The most interesting part of the article today was this:

The roots of this question (why write novels), in its contemporary incarnation, can be traced back to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who at the dawn of the ’80s promulgated the notion of “cultural capital”: the idea that aesthetic choices are an artifact of socioeconomic position. Bourdieu documented a correlation between taste and class position: The scarcer or more difficult to access an aesthetic experience is — the novel very much included — the greater its ability to set us apart from those further down the social ladder. This kind of value is, in his analysis, the only real value that “refined” tastes have.       
Now this is why there has forever been such resistance to self-publishing in literature, and why producing and marketing your own work is a cardinal sin when it's not - when it's expected - in nearly every other medium.  Literature above all other mediums has been the distinction between not just socio-economic status, but education and intelligence as well.  Reading and writing were not popular things, in the most basic sense of the word, until only recently.  The novel itself helped spur a wider, more general literacy.  Digital publishing makes literacy viral.  The class perspective - represented in literature in the distinction of terms like 'literary,' 'genre,' or 'vanity publishing' - continues, but faces a democratic avalanche in the form of digital publishing. 

I'm glad I have the opportunity to share what I write.  I would write even if I couldn't publish it traditionally.  I just have to.  Storytellers have voices.  At the fire, at the dinner table, no one has ever said, you can't share your story.  You don't have the appropriate education or class. 

People tell stories.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Writing In The Light of Day

“From the midst of this darkness, a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous.” - Victor Frankenstein

So after about a week of solid panic and lamenting the ruin of my art, I put it out of mind for a day.  Then I did what Anne Lamott did in Bird by Bird.  I sat down and just thought about what I liked in the story.  What the story was, not necessarily what I wanted it to be, or what others might want it to be.  I wrote down the characters, the places, the scenes, all of it in the journal there on the left, and I discovered something: all the pieces I liked, all the varying aspects of the story I tried to view it through, they all existed within the draft I had been writing.  They co-existed rather well.  This story - it's not fair to call it a story, really - this world has always been bigger than what I could get my arms around.  So many lenses existed to view the world through that I tried one at a time, certain this was it, and then finding out it wasn't.  Ultimately, I went back to the beginning.  Why did I want to tell this story?  Where did it come from?  As I wrote down this piece and that piece in the journal, the story revealed itself. 
And I found out something else: I really liked this story.  This is the story I wanted to tell.  I don't think my struggles with the novel are over.  In fact, I'm still pretty unsure how it will all come together, but I feel a lot better than I did the other day.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

No Write, No Write

I think back to the scene in Bird by Bird, where Anne Lamott finds out her editor doesn't think the book she has invested everything in and depends on for her livelihood will not be published. He tells her he thinks it's competent, it's... capable, but what's it about? Why did you do this? She stages a passionate defense of the book (after some drinking) and in her rant, discovers the book in her heart is not the one that came out of her head. That's how I feel right now.

I am disgusted with myself and the book at this point.  I went from feeling lightheaded with the tipping point a few weeks ago to the stark realization the other day that I am probably on the wrong track with this.  Again.  What's worse is I feel I was on the right track before. 

Day after day I chip away at the book, and I feel, this is it, this is progress; this is the end finally for this story which has hounded me for 10 years.  The book radiates this fatigue, let's say; this near persecution of creative unfulfillment.  What bothers about this draft - in my meek opinon, this very capable draft - is that it radiates nothing about the passion or the even the interest that first informed this story.  The architecture of the book mimics the theme, figuratively and literally; it has become a ghost.  A reanimated corpse.  As a literary exercise, I suppose it's, again, capable.  It contains my best, sparest and sharpest writing.

It doesn't contain any of my soul.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Writing Update

I thought I'd update on where I'm at in my writing on a couple different pieces since I haven't really done that here in awhile.  Twitter seems to have taken over my daily updates on my progress.

Novel In Progress aka GhostofBigDamnEpic aka ThatWhichRefusesToDie:

Actually pretty good progress here.  252 pages as of today.  I expect the novel will be close to 400 at that end.  What's it about?  It's about a man alive at what appears to be the cosmological end of the earth - not the end, like OMG, it's the Mayan apocalypse - THE END end.  He has seen the world floruish and freeze.  He has seen every trace of humanity in the world and in him expire.  When he decides to meet his own end, he discovers the story of man - his story - is not yet over.  I hope for this to be ready for the fall.

Story Collection:

This is done, more or less, in the sense I've settled on the content.  Sort of.  I've debated on the Elizabeth story in it, because it has become the foundation of what the sequel will be, and I'm not how much of that I want to give away yet.  But it's an experiment.  What the hay.  Just need to cover this and format and it should be ready for February.

Elizabeth Sequel:

Like I was saying, the Elizabeth story in the collection ended up providing a way through for me on the sequel.  I am approaching the sequel somewhat as a level setting of the story.  It will assume no one has read the first book.  Partly this is due to Miranda's emergence as the main character; partly it is due to the nature of the story itself.  One of the themes of the first book is reinvention.  The sequel takes the form, broadly, of a murder mystery.  The mystery expands into a conspiracy thriller, of sorts.  You'll see this - and the big giveaway - in the story.  I always wanted to write a murder mystery.  My mom loves them and I grew up watching Perry Mason and Columbo... I don't think she had something like this in mind, but I always have to be difficult.