On Killing Characters, or the Joy of Writing Mysteries #amwriting

While waiting on my beta readers for my NaNo Los Angeles submission to get back to me, I picked up the novel that I’ve been working on two. Freaking. Years. Now.

But I’m not frustrated… much.

The problem is that I started the novel about three outlining methods ago. My most recent notes are Story Genius (Lisa Cron) character background scenes. (I’m still using them—very useful and I’ll never start a novel again without them. Don’t need them for short stories, though.) Less recent notes are Save the Cat (Blake Snyder) (40 chapter “scene” cards), all of which need updating at the least. I even have some very old notes that date back to Rock Your Plot (Cathy Yardley).

What I’m finding, to my sorrow, is that I never used the logline template from Save the Cat! Strikes Back (Blake Snyder.)1 Since I started the work, I’ve learned that if I can’t fill out the logline template, I don’t have a story—yet. When I filled it out Wednesday, I realised that one of my favourite characters has to die.

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at http://FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at http://FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In fact, she needs to die about 20% of the way through the book. Dammit. But keeping the poor woman alive was twisting my story. I’d begun to dread writing her scenes. I couldn’t figure out how for her to interact with anyone else.

That’s because she was supposed to be dead already.

When I showed my new logline to my son, his reaction was, “Of course.”

The good news is that I doubt I’ll need to throw out more than about 3K words out of my 90K target. She has that little impact on the story.

That’s how much she needs to die.

Excuse me while I go make my murder mystery more murderous.


Camp NaNoWriMo Week 4 Begins

Chapters with Scene Lists Complete:

20 / 20

There is some good news this Camp for me: I finally completed the list of scenes I started back in June.

. . . OK, it wouldn’t warm the heart of a Traditional Publisher. It doesn’t really warm mine. But it’s progress from where I was this time last week, when I was so ashamed of my lack of progress that I couldn’t even post to this blog. All the scenes I think I can salvage from my first draft have been dropped into the new, complete structure, so my progress through yesterday looks like:
Screenshot 2014-07-22 16.21.13

I’ve made a great deal of progress as well on the ADHD v. productivity front. It’s a lot easier to say I’m going to manage myself better than to do it. One of the things I’m not willing to do anymore is to operate from a place of fear, and finding things to replace that and implementing them consistently is a bitch. If I’m not going to operate from fear of peer pressure in NaNoWriMo, how can I motivate myself?

Well, I’m making more use of the Rewards structure in HabitRPG — I really hadn’t set up rewards that motivate me outside of the inherent rewards of the game. Now, I reward myself with things like time to soak in the tub, an 85% cocoa chocolate bar, and similar items. One of the difficulties is that I can’t sabotage other goals I don’t talk about much on this blog — goals like losing the sixty-three pounds I need to lose, improving my fitness level, ad infinitum — the ordinary goals of health and strength that half of the USA needs to work on. I’ve been making progress on those since May, as well as on writing. And of course, I can’t use things that would take inordinate amounts of time away from writing, thus sabotaging my writing goal.

Well. Two steps forward, after the backwards step last week, and moving on.

Going Over to the Dark Side

© 1977 LucasFilm.Ltd
© 1977 LucasFilm.Ltd
Yes, I have seen the Dark. I now see the folly of my Pure Inspiration belief. I once believed in sitting down at a keyboard in November and starting to type. I believed that somehow, someday, if I wrote 50,000 words with roughly the same characters throughout, they would magically become a publishable novel.

I have converted. I am no longer a Pantser. I have become a Plotter.

A novice Plotter, I’ll admit, barely beginning on the Dark Path, but I have been convinced by looking at those I truly admire in the writing world. Whether traditionally published or self-published, NONE of these people sit down at a keyboard with NO PLAN, and a few weeks to months later a finished novel comes out.

Not one.

No. If I want to write novels for a living, I have to plan them. I have to face the fact that if I’m writing without a plan, either it’s a bit of short fiction, or it’s just an exploration that may or may not be worth building a novel on.

So, yeah, my current Mars “novel” is 50,000 words of exploration. It’s not a novel. Not yet. Not by a long shot.

On the other hand, I sat down with my premise (a premise! An actual one-sentence premise!), my sparse notes, my research and 50K worth of scenes and started serious world-building today.

I haven’t had so much fun at work since the bullying boss got covered with copier toner.

I’m excited by writing again! Despite having read three books about writing that clearly told me I probably needed to rewrite from the beginning, I’ve been trying to avoid it and salvage the old draft, but no more! I’m having more fun than puppies, and I’m looking forward to being able to build this thing right!

The Righteous Way of Pure Inspiration may give eventual rewards, but the Plotting Dark Side has more fun.

Revision Progress!

20140107-121950.jpgLeticia is beginning to come into focus from the pile of undifferentiated scenes. I’ve gotten about three-quarters of it into the scene chart/outline now, and I anticipate doing character descriptions over the next week.

I’m gradually getting past the paralyzing fear of “no right answer.” It can still strike me at odd times, but it helps if I just get off my butt and take a walk.

After all, once you get out of school, the “right answer” pretty much goes away. As a software developer, I accepted the fact that there would be flaws in my product — indeed the most interesting part of the product life cycle for me was “maintenance” where, like a detective, I would track down those nasty bugs and stomp them. I suppose that “revision” is the equivalent in fiction writing. Maybe I really will look forward to revision, once I’ve done it a few times. I can hope, anyway.

Now that I think about it, this is not at all unlike writing a major chunk of computer code. The first phase, which I hated, was designing and structuring, and writing the initial lines of code. Then I would compile it, find out that it didn’t work, and the fun would begin. Really. I never minded being told I was stupid by a machine; I knew I could out-think it and it was only doing what I told it — not what I thought I told it, not what I wanted to have told it, but what I really told it.

Now that I have a process (thank you, Ms. Yardley,) novel writing is not dissimilar. I write the first draft, which process I dread so much that (so far) I need NaNoWriMo to do it. Then I start the revision process, in which I retroactively structure and design (yuck) and also find out what’s broken. Once I get THAT done, I get to find and stomp the bugs (yay!).

Meanwhile, life is good. I spent a bundle for a full-time month at Kleverdog and a 2014 Metro transit pass (one of the perks for Kleverdog full-timers.) As a result I get to come to Chinatown every day, and will have a year to go wheresoever I will in the L.A. County Transit System. I look forward to much saving of gasoline. And Chinatown is a delightful part of urban Los Angeles, with old buildings and clean streets designed more for pedestrians than for cars. Every time I get off the bus here, I smile. I’ve never had a job I could say that about before.

I hope I never have to be an employee again.


Finished the scene chart! Onward to the story-level character GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) charts for all my major characters.

In the Wind Tunnel of My Brain

20131210-160641.jpgImagine a neat stack of printer paper about an inch, maybe an inch and a half tall (2.5 to 3.5 cm for those who live in countries with sane measurements.) There is about half a ream of it, or two hundred and fifty pages. On that paper are words, averaging two hundred per sheet, neatly typed or printed in Courier, twelve point, double-spaced. There are no page numbers.

Now, take that neat stack and put it in a wind tunnel. Turn on the tunnel. Turn off the tunnel. Sweep the result into a pile.

That’s my mental image of my novel’s first draft. Any of my novels’ first draft. I have three now.

This is not surprising. That was my image of my Ph.D. thesis, many years ago, and is why it never became an actual thesis and I therefore have no cool three-letter code after my name. Honestly, I never got it mentally organized enough even to do research.

Now, I am grateful to have three first-draft stage novels. I couldn’t have done it without NaNoWriMo. It helped get the spaghetti tangles of ideas out of my brain and into Scrivener projects, with lots of encouragement, caffeine, graphs, a hard deadline, and tactical nuclear devices.

But NaNoWriMo doesn’t help me make sense of what I’ve written.

When I am trying to make sense of what I’ve written, Scrivener helps and doesn’t help. The scriptwriting class I took a few years back helps and doesn’t help. I understand story structure; I have a vague idea of what I want this mess to look like at the end. I can break it into scenes (see the pages metaphor above.) But my overall view of the project remains stubbornly binary: I either see an amorphous pile of pages, or I see an individual scene. The mid-levels (acts I, II, and III; below that, chapters) elude me. I can’t bring them into focus. My grasp at this point is more appropriate to a thirty-page script — short story sized. Say, about five thousand words, not these fifty thousand word monsters.

What I need is my old scriptwriting teacher to go through my draft and say, “Cut that. Punch up the conflict there. And why is your heroine acting like a street tough here, and a nun over here? And who the hell is that?”

Short of hiring a really good editor (no funds, no track record to get me funds) my nerdly first impulse is to pick up a book on how to revise. I’ve looked at several well-recommended ones, which I will not name. Many people like them, but I think of them as “MFA-in-a-box”; they really don’t help me get a handle on the process of revision, just what to do when I encounter various problems within my draft.

That’s assuming I recognize the problem for what it is.

Instead, I am currently reading a “revision how-to” book with a different approach. The book in question is Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley. Ms. Yardley describes her book as a map; for me, with my technical background, it is more of a process manual. It mentions all the things the other revision texts do; in addition, it gives a chronological ordering to them that seems to makes sense. Tentatively, it is much more my style — a definite process to follow, at the end of which a decent book, presumably, emerges.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.