Novel development

by Intermittent Rain ~ August 31st, 2014

With the help of NaNoWriMo and the 3DayNovel I have finished four novels, but after a year and a half on my current main WIP, I’m still stuck.

If you don’t mind, I’m going to have a discussion with myself, using you as the audience.

 

It’s a big challenge. The character now has far more elements to her than any other character that I’ve written—the result of having danced with her for longer than any other character—but the biggest problem is that the story doesn’t fit a structure easily. It also doesn’t fit any genre easily, which is another problem, one that keeps coming up for the local writing group that is being bashed over their heads with it.

And another issue is that it’s two stories in one. Actually, many stories in one if you consider the three backstories that are thrown in, and in one case I really mean thrown in. One breaks in and is titled ‘Memoir’, and the narrator meanders through some of her early history. Fine. Another comes from another character, but is told to the narrator as they sit in a car killing time. Really fine; that’s how backstory should be naturally slotted in, but the third appears out of nowhere and it jumps into 3rd person for the first and only time in the novel, and the central character’s name is never given. The reader has to assume at some point that it is a 3rd person retelling of the narrator’s backstory.

All of this is melded into a telling of the current situation of the narrator.

But what genre are we in? Lit? Fake memoir? Coming of age?

It’s really closest to a fake memoir.

Maybe that means that I should write it like a memoir, selecting incidents from a plethora of situations that will best collectively tell the overall story that I want to tell. If she is now five, ten years older and reflecting on her youth, on how she began in the business, how would she write her story?

That in and of itself wouldn’t be the worst thing, but the problem is that the second half of the novel is a mystery/detective story because that’s what the narrator is becoming; a PI. See, the entire story is kind of a prequel, showing where she came from and how she became the PI she would be in subsequent novels; a prequel to a novel that hasn’t been written yet. So to finish the novel I have to write her first mystery, but the problem is that the first half of the novel is not a mystery.

On top of this, I feel that the mystery part has to parallel, mirror, yet also be the opposite of her own personal history, which really constricts how the mystery itself can unravel.

 

After writing to this point, I caused a minor epiphany, and took a break before coming back to this post.

I realized that it would be entirely possible to write this novel as a stock detective genre novel. All I need to do is start with the end, run the story in two timelines, and let the history catch up to the beginning of the novel. A stock format. One that tricks the reader into the story by starting with excitement. If I did this I would prune the first scenes of the story down to bare minimums, just enough to set up the characters and to play out the parallel back stories, but that means two things: 1) the ending mystery better be good; something that can stand on its own, and 2) I”m ‘selling out’, turning my prequel into a genre novel.

That last thing disconcerted me. It doesn’t really matter whether I am selling out or not, only that I feel as if I am doing so.

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.