Scene Building via Dialog

Here’s the thing, I set out to write this next project without an outline. My plan was to just blast out the words as they came to me and see where the characters took the story. I’ve heard this works. Not for me (so far, anyway). I kinda need to know what’s going to happen or I can’t come up with the connective tissue. So instead of writing a bullet point outline, I thought I’d build scenes one-by-one, but instead of just writing a sentence for what each scene does or going too far and writing it full out and unattached, I tried splitting the difference. I wrote only the dialog.

It was pretty fun, actually. I basically transcribed important conversations between the main character and others in the book. My main concern was that it might end up completely disjointed and random. Or that these conversations would end up being the negative space and no story would develop. In fact, the opposite happened. The conversations all ended up being pretty intense and took me places I never intended to go. In a good way!

So I’m moving forward with this approach. Dialog scenes with little or no description or internal monologue that build into the story. Naturally, not every scene will make it into the final story, but for now, it’s a great way to get a lot of words down fast and generate building blocks for the narrative.

Forking Ideas!

I’m over the one year mark on my first book. In that time, I’ve changed jobs, remodeled my house, traveled, taught classes, played Skyrim and Mass Effect 3, cleaned up surveillance videos for a private eye, shot a movie, edited part of that movie, and read a lot of books. Even so, I had plenty of time to work on Progeny. I can’t use time as an excuse for not being finished, even though it’s a handy one that I can reach from the couch. On average, it has taken me 3 hours to write a 2,000 to 2,500 word chapter. 16 chapters, 48 hours, right? Even if we double it and round it up to 100 hours, then calculate for 3 hours per writing period, then add a few for contingency and doubt, all I needed was 50 writing periods over the past year. I’m talking just for a first draft, not a polished version, but still, that’s barely once a week. Three hours once a week? Feels like I did a lot more writing than that. Why isn’t the book done?

This book is my first attempt at a long-form prose narrative. I can’t really call it a “novel” because it’s going to come up just over 30,000 words. I’ve seen charts where people call a novella anything between 20,000 to 50,000 so let’s call it that. The internet has also informed me that novella length is ideal for electronic publishing. A positive! And positives are important when venturing into a new personal frontier. When I start anything new (a script, de-hoarding project, etc), I want a lot of yes men around. People who are there at the launch of the ship. Thing is, support is easy to come by in the early going.

“Can’t wait to read your novel!”
“Novella.”
“What’s a novella?”
“Not as long as a novel. Ideal for electronic publishing.”
“Oh… Yay!”

But now it’s a year later, and people have stopped asking about the book. Actually, they stopped asking six months ago. Scratch support as a motivation to get the book done. But I can’t blame that, either. I’ve always preferred to work under the RADAR, then re-emerge with a first draft. Sometimes I reveal the completed draft to people who didn’t know I was writing it instead of the people who were asking about it way back when. It’s like refreshing the promise. If I give it to someone who asked about it last year, they’re not as pumped as those who never knew you were trying for it. But that hasn’t really affected me one way or another. Let’s do the numbers: chapters written in first six months = 4, chapters written since people stopped asking about the book = 10. So I don’t need external motivation, why isn’t the book done?

I’ll tell you why. All these forking ideas. Yes, I’m being funny. And yes, I’ve thought of all the other ways of using “forking” to hilarious effect. I will giggle each time I use it in a sentence, but the truth is, as I sit down to write Progeny, I get distracted by all the other stuff I want to write. A full year ago, I wrote this entry about managing ideas. I was really good about sticking to my “Not Main Idea Day” for a really long time. But in the past few months, I have not only had trouble with distractions from other ideas, but these ideas are splintering into more ideas. I feel like every time an idea forks, I end up with two or three different ideas that might even work together. Complicated! The whole concept behind Progeny is that it was simple, self-contained, and digestible for both reader and writer.

It’s gotta be anxiety. I’m anxious about finishing this book. I’m anxious about what to do next. I’m anxious about how much energy my new Dean of Education job is burning. All that anxiety is bad for focus. The only thing that has helped so far is reading. Reading helps me focus and reminds me of the satisfaction of completing something.

I read the first three Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) books in the past month. Really good. Even if you don’t like fantasy (which is light in these books), they are great reading. The style is casual and immersive. Since then, I’ve tried to get into other books, but it’s obvious when the author is trying too hard. The description will be clunky and forced, the dialog is that times ten, and the plot is either overly elaborate or non-existent. Why can’t all books have the sustained tension and satisfaction of Game of Thrones? GRR Martin’s background in TV is evident. He can interweave multiple story lines and keep you reading. But that was with the first three books. It is said that he was stressed out writing the fourth book and it shows. Even though I’ve just started it, the style is different. The confidence and constantly-moving story is gone. In short, GRRM was anxious and his mind wandered. In the first four chapters, it’s apparent that he wasn’t focused on his story.

Am I comparing my skill to GRRM? No. But it does feel like a distant camaraderie has formed with someone who struggles the way I do. Read Feast of Crows and see if you agree. Then keep that in mind if you ever get the chance to read Progeny.

The Terror by Dan Simmons & Dan Simmons, The Terror

First off, my apologies for the month-long blog hiatus. Not sure what happened. I haven’t been on the video games. I haven’t been watching TV. I guess my time has been just reading, writing (not blogging), and the day job. In the past month, I’ve read The Windup Girl, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, a novella called Wool, and The Terror by Dan Simmons. It’s this last book that I’d like to talk about.

I’m not a huge buff of nautical themes, but I always appreciate a book that integrates research into the story. The key word there being intergrates! I’m not a Tom Clancy guy who enjoys chapters and chapters that read like a military technology manual. The Terror is a great example of how the writer’s research is actually part of the story and not just the surrounding environment. The story is a fictional account of what happened during the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin back in 1845, but the theme is how technology and preparation can be absurdly off-base. Simmons doesn’t merely talk about the cold and the ice, but the clothing and the supplies and how much crap they carry around when they try to move across the ice. If that weren’t enough, he deftly contrasts the over-loaded English operation whose men are freezing and starving with the Inuit tribe who live almost comfortably in the same environment. It’s great stuff. A highly recommended book for pretty much anyone. Literary-grade historical genre fiction.

But don’t judge the creator by the creation.

Throughout my life, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of artists, filmmakers, and writers. It’s great when you love a book, meet the author, and they turn out to be really cool. Examples? Comic book writer Ed Brubaker is a good guy. Happy to chat and not in that fake-y, “buy my books” kind of way. Terry Brooks handled the crowd at his signing with charm and patience. In fact, I don’t even fault writers like Greg Rucka or Neal Stephenson when they get impatient with fans who ask a lot of crazy questions. Or when people are just plain crazy like David Peoples who I met briefly at a screening at the San Rafael Film Center back in 2000. He was really, really out to lunch. Remember this, kids: drugs are bad for you.

Anytime I take an interest in the writer, I like to find out more about them as people. I’m pleasantly surprised more often than I’m let down. I’m a left-leaner when it comes to politics, but I don’t usually come up swinging against mainstream republicans. I take the “to each his own” approach. However, fringe crackpots on either end of the spectrum really bug me. Dan Simmons is pretty much Glenn Beck who writes horror and sci fi. Here’s the difference, I truly believe Glenn Beck is an act like Andy Kaufman or Joaquin Phoenix. He may be around the bend, but it’s only for the attention and the paycheck. Dan Simmons really believes this stuff. He lives in a cabin in the mountains and believes he’ll be in the better position when Obama destroys the world. So he’s a nutcase hater, but can I ignore that and still like his books? I’m not the only one who wonders about this. And this guy says the same thing.

My problem is that once I know a media creator is a dick, I can’t look at the work the same way. I was in the room when Michael Bay screamed profanities at one of the assistant editors over a nothing issue. As a result, I relished his Pearl Harbor failure. Now when I think back on The Terror, a novel I respected for its research, I wonder if all Simmons did was watch the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander. I’ve seen the movie a half dozen times and as I read The Terror, I noticed a lot of similarities. When I was indifferent toward Simmons, I thought, “Of course there are similarities, how different can English nautical adventures be?” But after learning all this annoying stuff about the author, I think, “He lifted all this stuff from that movie and/or O’Brien’s series of novels.” And seriously, every little moment in M&C is mimicked in The Terror. A guy gets shot, make sure you get the piece of shirt out. Doctor is hurt, he better operate on himself. Guy gets smashed in the head, make a metal plate out of a coin for the hole in his skull. The list goes on. And don’t even get me started on Simmons’ Hyperion series which is lifted directly from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The question is, why does finding out about the author’s political fanaticism spoil my reading experience? It’s because reading a book or watching a movie feels like a connection with the person or people who made it. When they’re making the work, they’re thinking like me to make it appeal to people like me, and when I consume it, I know how they were thinking when they made it. It’s like we’re thinking the same things! So when I enjoy or respect a Dan Simmons book, and I know he’s not just crazy, but mean and crazy, I don’t want to know that on some level we think the same way.

Maybe that’s a short-coming on my part, but lucky for me, there are plenty of books by nice folks out there to read. Check out anything by Mary Roach if you’re a non-fiction fan or the Criminal series of graphic novels by Ed Brubaker or sci fi by Richard K. Morgan and William Gibson. With the exception of Mary Roach, I’ve met these folks. And I like to know they think like I do.