Writer’s Block?

by Intermittent Rain ~ July 23rd, 2014

If I search this blog it tells me that by January 14 of this year I was already stuck for the ending of my current novel. That means that I’ve been stuck for over six months.

The four novels I’ve completed (three successful NaNoWriMos and one 3DayNovel) all came in around 60,000 – 70,000 words (the 3DayNovel finished at 23,000 and was expanded later). This current WIP stopped at about 65,000 words and now has over 70,000 in the main document, plus some bits for later insertion. It feels as if it should be complete with another 20,000 – 30,000 words.

The NaNoWriMos were all complete as first drafts after 30 days. This WIP began over a year ago, has been stuck for over six months, and yet the ending eludes me. Does that qualify as writer’s block?

I could finish it, if I had to. I was headed toward an ending when I decided to put it in neutral because if I continued to write I would have been committed to that version and I’m not confident that it was the right way to go. The more I wrote, the more difficult it would have been to dump 20,000 to 40,000 words and take it another direction.

Some of the things that I’ve tried:

  • used sticky-notes (listthings.com)
  • analyzed, in note form, the major characters
  • interviewed all but one of the major characters — using a best friend/journalist/shrink to ask questions — as a means of doing a psychological analysis of the personalities and to spend more time with each characters’ individual voice
  • listed any and all possible endings, and as many slight variations or combinations that I could think of (dozens and dozens of possibilities)
  • wrote an analysis essay, as if I were a student in a literature class writing an essay about the novel
  • reviewed the backstories and existing storylines to see if I can copy or build on one of those. There is the main story plus two chunks of backstory from the protagonist and one chunk of backstory from her mentor
  • built numerous tables and spreadsheets to chart similarities and parallels between stories and characters and situations

And now,

  • writing a blog post analyzing my situation

I’ve left one of the major characters plastic, malleable, and only vaguely defined. He is the victim of the crime and I don’t plan for him to ever appear in the story, at least not alive. At this stage in the writing I need him to remain flexible because his personality needs to fit the plot that I choose. That, of course, is part of my difficulty because were he clearly defined, the crime options would be narrowed. Odd, that the specifics of the crime depend more on the investigators and perhaps the family and friends of the victim than on those directly involved; the victim and possibly even the perpetrator(s)?

My artsy inclination is to make the victim as much a doppelganger of my protagonist as possible, tying their stories together for comparison and contrast. That was my thinking at the inception, except not to the degree that I’m considering now. I can make his story a copy of her story but the opposite, strengthening her story by telling his, and let the reader see how they are at once the same but different. There are logical options for doing this, well within the range of what I know about gambling and what I’ve researched about immigrant kidnappings.

The other good option would use the jealous/money-hungry guardian choice, with or without the victim’s co-operation, with or without the mentor’s complicity, or alternatively, the mentor’s manipulation by the guardian. This convolution is probably the plot that best satisfies a typical mystery reader’s expectations because it has hidden motives, duplicity of some characters (opposites again; character charged with guiding is bad, victim may be complicit, mentor may be bad or outwitted), and twists.

Maybe I can do both, some combination of the two.

But one element I’ve lost is that I wanted to force the protagonist, through the course of the investigation, to relive some of her own story, to make her travel through her past again to get to her future. Because that element is missing, she has become an observer. A questioner and an instigator, to be sure, but not a physical or emotional participant. She’s not accomplishing, re-experiencing, evolving, making the hero’s journey, she merely develops confidence and skills to be a better Poirot, a better Marple, a better Holmes than she was at the opening, and in the process, solves the mystery. But that wasn’t the primary purpose of the novel.

One theory why Dan Brown writes so badly

by Intermittent Rain ~ July 11th, 2014

Dan Brown is infamous in the world of grammarians. One of my favourite resources, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences, criticizes the first sentence of “The Da Vinci Code”

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

The author, June Casagrande, questions whether “vaulted” adds anything useful to “archway”, but she has a bigger problem with whether “renowned” has any right to be in this sentence. She’s not alone.

For a better analysis of the first problem than I can offer, as well as a post showing Dan Brown’s propensity to repeat the same error with other novels, see the Language Log links. The first link says that using job titles as modifiers for proper names is appropriate for journalistic reports but not for narrative writing. The second says it is different if the job is a title, such as “Cardinal”. (I won’t comment any further than to say I wondered whether the pairing of “fertilizer salesman” and “Cardinal” was intentional, or whether the use of a “fertilizer salesman” as an example in a post about Dan Brown was also intentional or not.)

 

My point in rehashing old news is to look at what I think the author is thinking when he makes this error.

When I read Dan Brown’s sentence, I see an author falling into the trap of trying to slip in background information all too easily. Inserting the job title and his standing in that position as modifiers (curator, renowned) is the quickest way of dumping that information into the story. Those first four words don’t read badly either. Journalists write like this; death notices, for example, use this style, summarizing a person’s entire life in a few sentences. As Language Log points out though, this is not generally acceptable in fiction writing, and the fact that the character will be dead by the second page doesn’t mean you can compress his description to match the ratio of his lifespan in the story.

Star Trek gave its expendable crew members, at least the ones with personality, an opportunity to do something. Kirk doesn’t say, “Short-tempered Security Officer  Saunière , go check it out.”

Dan Brown is trying to do just that.

His solution is fast, it’s economical, and on it’s own it’s not awkward to read, but it’s inappropriate and stylistically wrong, though, perhaps not as obvious as my theoretical Star Trek example. The rest of the opening paragraphs are heavy with adjectives and I suspect this is more evidence of Brown’s desire to squeeze as much additional .. anything: characteristics, background, metaphors, anything he can tack on without having to write properly. Language Log criticizes him in other posts for using inappropriate alternatives for ‘said’, which I take as further evidence of a lazy writing shorthand.

 

If it’s important, it needs to be worked into the story naturally, not just dumped in or tacked on as a modifier. Even a best-selling author can’t escape the old “show, don’t tell” axiom by being quick and by using only one word, and hope the reader doesn’t notice. Though, if you’re Dan Brown, you have more than one reason for not caring.

 

Writing in Sentence Fragments

by Intermittent Rain ~ June 16th, 2014

Sentences are supposed to contain a subject and an object. Incomplete phrases should be included in the same sentence as the main clause, joined to it by commas or semicolons or the like. Paragraphs should be built from related sentences, and split when you change speaker or focus. Them’s the rules.

 

A deception.

 

Not a complete sentence. Used — not only as a complete sentence — but it also sits as a complete paragraph. It must be important?

Next paragraph:

 

This was the near mythical monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups. The home of two dozen cloistered, contemplative monks. Who had built their abbey as far from civilization as they could get.

 

This could easily be one or two grammatically correct, complete, smooth, flowing sentences. Instead, it’s two short, choppy sentences followed by an incomplete phrase masquerading as a sentence. If you take the paragraph by itself, it’s a perfect example of the writing of beginners; untrained, unedited, wrong.

Still, any grammatical rules are subject to modification or complete rejection, if the value of the result outweighs the loss in clarity and the offense to the reader’s sensitivities.

 

A deception.

This was the near mythical monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups. The home of two dozen cloistered, contemplative monks. Who had built their abbey as far from civilization as they could get.

It had taken hundreds of years for civilization to find them, but the silent monks had had the last word.

Twenty-four men had stepped beyond the door. It had closed. And not another living soul had been admitted.

Until today.

Chief Inspector Gamache, Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Captain Charbonneau were about to be let in. Their ticket was a dead man.

So obviously a mystery, though the reader likely would have known this before starting. This is from The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel. I suppose the author, Louise Penny, is intentionally being blunt and choppy because it’s a detective story and because the protagonists are likely tough, no-nonsense guys (I couldn’t get myself to read too far so I’ll never know). But it’s just too hard to read. Chop, chop, chop. Sentences as well as paragraphs cut into chunks and dumped on the reader, as if she’s slicing meat that’s frozen too hard and ravenous dogs are waiting to be fed. Maybe I wasn’t ravenous enough.