Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Subject to Subjectivity

There has been a great deal of recent talk on various blogs and boards about NaNoWriMo and, as a natural following point, the rights and wrongs of writing fiction. To an extent, I find the more pontificating posts laughable. We aren't discussing mathematics here. There aren't clear right and wrong ways to learn to write, or clear right and wrong ways to compose fiction, so long as the end result--not the first draft--is good. And even that is too subjective for any bold statement. "Good" is what is enjoyable to your target audience, whether that be a family member, fans of a particular genre, or just you. Beyond the technical details of grammar, vocabulary and spelling, there isn't a simple way to measure good prose. Just as a single example, I happen to despise Hemingway--despise is not too strong a word here. Both his style and his content completely rub me the wrong way. I do admire him for having such a distinctive style, and I think everyone should read at least one of his books just to glimpse that style--I'd recommend The Old Man and the Sea, which I almost didn't not like (double negative intended)--but I would never want to emulate him. His writing, to my mind, isn't good literature. I find it all but unreadable, and constantly wanted to rewrite it as I went through. Obviously, plenty disagree. His books sell; he has legions of fans. It doesn't really matter that I, personally, don't like his writing.

The process writers use--real writers, not just folks like me who write primarily for amusement--varies as greatly as their text. Again, an example: let me refer one more time to the Tess Gerritson comments I referenced a few posts back. She writes about teaching writing workshops with Michael Palmer. Both are successful authors in the medical thriller genre; both are what I would consider to be good writers from a technical standpoint. But they approach their stories from wildly different angles. Michael Palmer plans extensively, down to the smallest details. Tess says she has no idea where the story will go, and that she finds it impossible to plan ahead. They both get great results, in my opinion. Who's right? Wouldn't it be better to try both approaches for ourselves and see what works? Some writers write by hand or using a typewriter; some only use computers. Some writers produce a paragraph a day, some produce pages and pages; some edit extensively as they go along, some do major revision when they finish the draft in its entirety. If it works for them, it works. I get the impression that many of those who put NaNoWriMo down are those who have found that it is absolutely wrong for them. It isn't an approach that works for them; it makes them uneasy and uncomfortable. Maybe they are the sort of people who edit and revise as they go, perhaps, or who don't write every day, who mix projects, whatever the case might be.

But for me, I have to say, it was a revelation. I admit that I'm currently turned off a bit by the cult phenomenon it has become, with some participants trying to outdo one another in extremes; but the basic concept is sound: set a date, set a deadline, and commit to writing steadily, every day. And for all the talk about sleep deprivation and marathon caffeine-fueled writing binges, we really aren't talking absurd quantities here. We're talking well under 2000 words a day, every day for a month. This post comes to about half the daily total all on its own. The daily word count for NaNoWriMo can be completed in a few hours worth of writing, spread throughout a day.

Prior to my first NaNoWriMo, I'd never written anything that extensive. I was one of those geeky kids who always had a journal going, who carried a notebook and documented anything and everything, wrote poems, wrote stories, wrote. And I'd written technical documentation for work. But a longer fictional work--a rough draft for a novel--this was something mythical, something unreachable, something one had to be born to do. When a friend talked me into doing NaNoWriMo for the first time six years ago, I thought she was insane. But I battled my way through it, and finished the story. It isn't something I would show to anyone, but it taught me a great deal, nonetheless. I knew I was capable of that first step in novel writing, of producing the raw material of writing: the rough draft. I understood the ebb and flow of writing something of novel length. No, it wasn't a finished product. And I admit, although it's a semantic detail, I don't care to see the word "novel" used to describe works in progress. I always just say "story," which sounds juvenile, but at least not pretentious. To me, the word "novel" bespeaks a finished product, polished and published.

But many people would never achieve that raw material without NaNo to give them a kick in the pants. It's a good start. It won't make one a writer overnight--and I think anyone hanging out at the website would understand that most don't believe it will. If you don't care for it, so be it. But dismissing it entirely is shortsighted.

This post was drafted by hand, with pen and paper, and then typed and edited, 'cause that's what works for me....

Monday, November 10, 2008


I'm somewhere in the vicinity of 15k words now. Which puts me right at that stage when the shine starts to wear off my story. The realization dawns that as cool as it was in my head, all vague and swirly and brightly colored with lots of interesting characters and a few really awesome plot points to aim for, on paper it's plodding and pedantic and my characters don't do anything but talk in cliches and even *I* don't believe the rationale behind their actions. Not to mention I always tackle topics I know nothing about, without bothering to do any research. Last year, for example, I wrote a crime novel, despite knowing absolutely nothing about police procedures or court proceedings.

This year, I'm topping that by writing about brain science; about a future where memories can be eliminated. Yeah, very "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", but to be fair, this is a topic I've tackled repeatedly since well before that movie came out. It's a subject that fascinates me because of the philosophical and moral questions that arise from it: can there really be experiences that only affect us in a negative way, or do we have the ability to learn something, to bring something positive from all experiences? How much of who we are comes from the sum total of experience, good and bad? Would it be wrong to eliminate almost all memories in order to start over, and if wrong, how wrong? And would we be the same people if we did, or something else entirely?

There's no way to answer these questions, but it's fun to play with them. At the same time, I'm really struggling just because it's all very complex: what would drive a person to do this? What kind of people would allow it and help them accomplish it? How would it affect their families and friends? And what about practical concerns: how would they establish a new identity from a legal standpoint if they completely started over? How would they make a living? In my own world, I can sort of make that up as I go along, but I'm feelin' a bit overwhelmed, and the story isn't the wonderful shiny thing I would like it to be.

But I'll keep plugging along, hoping I can polish it up in the next draft. I gotta keep repeating that to myself. Otherwise, I'm gonna go nuts. It's all very traumatizing. Maybe could do with some memory erasure myself.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Procrastination: who needs internet?

I can procrastinate marvelously even whilst on restriction. *sigh*

This gives another point to the Neos and typewriters. Can't do much with them but write. Well...except make typewriter images, but I'm not artistic enough for that.

Now I'm off to a coffee house to write for a bit before work. With a bit of luck, I'll more than make up having a slightly skimpy day yesterday.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Day two: why am I doing this again?

Actually, the story is going pretty well. I underestimated yesterday's count slightly--I was pretty close to 2000 when I typed it up. I probably added another 1500 over the course of the day today, maybe a bit more. And everything is moving along nicely. I still did more procrastinating than writing, but I'm getting into the swing of it. If I get in an hour before work and another hour in the evening, with a few stints at lunch if I fall behind, I should be able to finish this thing one more time.

But here comes the rant, and one reason why I considered not doing this at all this year.

This year I want to write something *good*. Not "good" as in finished--I realize this is a first draft, and as such it'll be lumpy and rough and have scenes out of place and scenes that should be removed entirely and characters' names will change (one guy has had three names so far) and much revision will be required. But I want it to be the start of a story that actually deserves revision. For me, that means taking my time, thinking about what I'm doing, walking around or reading other things between writing stints, and accepting that I will get in an average of about 1500-2000 words a day if I keep at it. And this is supposed to be a personal challenge. I should be OK with these facts. I should embrace my own strengths and weaknesses and work with them.

But every year, I watch as certain friends end the first few days with over 5k, or over 8k, or 10k, or 12k, or more (not joking), and I feel like throwing in the towel. I couldn't write like that, at least not without serious compromise and a lot of stream-of-consciousness blather. This obviously isn't true for all participants. And does it matter? No. This isn't a race. If that style of writing works for them, I should be OK with it.

But I'm not--not entirely. I end up getting competitive and feeling miserable about my lack of speed and my inability to sit and just write for hours at a go. Logically, I know that not all writers write that way, and my own way is OK if it gets results. But illogically, I don't like being lapped. Repeatedly.

And then I get mad at myself for being mad.

It all makes me very cranky. I wish I knew the solution. Ice cream, maybe. Or chocolate. Or both in one.

I'll leave you with a link I came across while procrastinating today. It's a wonderful post on writing from an author I only recently discovered: Tess Gerritsen. It is so nice to know that I'm in great company when it comes to my inability to plan!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

First-day-of-NaNoWriMo thoughts

Well, I'm doing it. Wasn't sure if I'd actually start or just bail for the year, right up until this morning. I had no characters, no settings, and about a micro-millimeter of plot. As I posted elsewhere, I knew this was going to be like driving at night. In a heavy fog. I could only see about ten words ahead of me.

Tonight, I still can't see more than ten words ahead, but I have three characters: two scientist dudes, who are partners in a memory research venture; and a gal, who has only been very vaguely hinted at, but who exists nonetheless. This seems potentially promising.

And of course, this being me, I'm already in love with one of the scientist dudes. *sigh* He needs to lighten up, but it's the gal's job to help with that a bit. Lucky gal.

I had a late start compared to some. I was *not* one of the ones who had a sentence (or first chapter!) all ready to go at midnight. I slept in until seven or so, got up, drank coffee, ate toast, paced around the house for a couple of hours, read a bit, checked every typewriter and fountain pen site a few dozen times each, and wrote three pages of a journal entry about how hard this was going to be and all the things that could go wrong.

Then about ten I finally sat down and started. I've repeated the above activity (substituting tea for coffee and other edibles for toast) about four or five times now, and I'm just about at the daily goal, I think...I'm just guesstimating word count for the time being. I've started off writing longhand with fountain pens, on paper that will be bound in my Circa notebook. Heresy for a member of the Typewriter Brigade, I realize...but it's still the most natural form of writing for me, and until I have a good flow of ideas to work from, it'll be easier. Since I can put whatever I want in the Circa notebook, I can switch back and forth between methods at will. I am totally digging the Circa thing.

Here's to twenty-nine more successful days!