Monday, April 27, 2009

Feeling a Draft

Current Reading: Marching as to War, by Pierre Burton

Inspirational Quote: "I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top." -- An unknown English professor, Ohio University

A month ago, I finished a decent draft of the Magnus Somnium. Yay me.
I was overjoyed, and bought myself lunch because I was hungry and I deserved it. I then sealed the draft in a charred oak cask to age and mellow. Like Orson Welles, I will rewrite no work before its time.

I've found that there is no faster way to mess up a good work than to finish a draft and immediately go back to the beginning to start another. I end up missing obvious tone, character and plot problems because I'm too familiar with the work, too close to it. Instead of reading and understanding the story as it exists on the page, I'm reading and admiring the story as it exists in my head. It's like trying to rewire your house while referring to a plumber's manual. It doesn't matter how good your work is, the result is going to be terrible.

So I set it aside for a few months, long enough to desaturate my brain. The best way to get rid of all thoughts about a work is to replace it with another, so instead of taking a break, I turned out a couple of short stories, then started a new book that I'd been thinking about for quite some time.

It's weird, but after all the time I've devoted to the Magnus, I'd forgotten what fun a first draft can be. I mean "fun" in both the ironic and the literal sense. A first draft is like exploring new country. You don't know what you're going to find on the page. You don't know the characters or the setting or even the plot, although you may already have written copious notes about them. It's only when you start writing about the characters and their actions in context that the story comes alive and you realize that you don't really know what's going to happen next until you've written it.

On the other hand, it's not easy to crank out new words every time you sit down at the keyboard, especially when you have the feeling that they're the wrong ones. I think I've spent too much time describing what it's like to take a long road journey under a cart. I also think my antagonist is so slow to react to the actions of the hero that he looks like an idiot. The hardest part of this is fighting my natural tendency to go back and rewrite things immediately before continuing on. If I give in to that tendency, I usually end up rewriting a small section over and over: spinning my wheels until I stall. So I force myself onward, repeating the mantra "I'll fix it in the next draft," which is, I think, really the only philosophy that allows anyone to get anywhere with writing.

I don't know if two months is going to be enough time to let the Magnus lie fallow. Most of my head is now filled with the new work, but a small percentage of my thoughts still turn to the Magnus, thinking about scenes and plot twists and toying with the idea of starting the next draft early. It's hard to resist the urge to tinker, but I promised myself I wouldn't. Two months, at least, exiled from the Magnus Somnium.

... and it's nice to explore some new country.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

One Year Out

Current Reading: Marching As To War, by Pierre Burton

Inspirational Quote: "Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results." -- Einstein's definition of insanity.

This post is just a nice little marker. Like a tombstone, or pee on a hydrant. One year ago yesterday (see posts on procrastination), I brought forth upon this forum a blog dedicated to... well, I'm still not sure. Vanity, possibly.

Anyway, my first post was April 22, 2008. It doesn't seem like a year.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Dying is Easy. Comedy Requires Gas.

Current Reading: Marching As To War, Pierre Burton.

Inspirational Quote: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." - Sir Leonard Wolfit

Apparently, four-year olds believe there is nothing funnier in the universe than sitting in the bathtub making flatulence bubbles.

Normally, I shower, but Cassandra laughed so hard that I wonder if I'm missing something.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why I'll Never be an Agent

Current Reading: Marching As To War, by Pierre Burton

Inspirational Quote: "I just think there are some people who ought not to be encouraged." -- Mordecai Richler, on why he doesn't teach at writing schools.

I've just finished Nathan Bransford's Agent for a Day contest.


Well, curiosity of course. What's it like? I've heard about how difficult it is to read the query pile. I've also heard about hurricanes, but that doesn't mean that I know what it's like to be in one. I've learned a great deal, more than I expected.

Here was my process:
I read all the queries.
I noted which ones appealed to me.
I read through the ones I had noted again, comparing them to the others I'd chosen.
I kept only the five that appealed to me most.

Stuff I learned:
There's not enough time. Really. I read through the queries and I'd just like to send back constructive suggestions, giving some idea why it didn't work for me, or what sold me. But doing so on fifty queries? Who has that much time? And if I did so, what kind of reaction would I get? I've heard a lot of horror stories about responses to unsolicited query feedback, and I certainly don't want to provoke anyone who may take my comments too personally. There's a reason rejections are short and uninformative.

I feel bad having to turn down so many of them. It's hard. It's wearing. I don't feel qualified to make the judgements I'm making. I'm making them because I have to (it's not my job, so the obligation is entirely voluntary, but still). So much work, so many people. Yes, sometimes I turned down some because I really didn't think a good book lay behind the query, but maybe I was wrong. Most of the time, though, I turned things down just because it wasn't the kind of story that interested me, or I'd seen it before, or it just didn't appeal to me enough to bump out something else.

I didn't want to miss something good, but I had to go through the queries quickly and guess based on those whether the book would be good enough. I could almost feel good stuff slipping through my fingers, but couldn't do anything about it. It had to go. I had to move on.
I can see why it's important for an agent to specialize, to represent only certain types of books. I found some of the ideas interesting, and the writing good enough, but I didn't know enough about the genre to know how fresh the approach was. I didn't know if it had been done before. On the other hand, some of the queries that appealed less to me still got a pass because the subject interested me.

An agent's judgement is far more subjective than I had thought. Some stuff I knew was good, but passed on because it just didn't appeal to me as strongly as other stuff.

And this was EASY compared to a real agent's job. Not only does Mr. Bransford get more queries in a day than he posted for the week, but agents then have to turn around and sell those books to editors who are also short of time and short of budget. I picked the stories that interested me. I don't know that I could sell any of them, or that any of them would be commercially viable.

Stuff that influenced my opinion:
A writer's conclusions and opinions about their own work. Sorry. I don't feel an author has a sufficiently objective point of view. Whenever I came across these, my interest went down because I got the feeling that the author didn't think their work could stand on its own merit and needed a cheer leading section to bolster it.

I ignored any personal details that did not illustrate writing ability or some background knowledge about the material. I don't much care if the author was an avid gardener when their book was about murder in a chef's school. However, if they were a teaching chef, THEN my interest went up because it was likely that insider knowledge informed the story, lending it verisimilitude.

I ignored blurbs from people whose names I didn't recognize.

Sample chapters are a good idea, but BOY do they have to be strong. The few samples that were attached were very revealing. Little things like spelling mistakes and grammar trouble REALLY dropped my interest.

Other Stuff:
My one other take away from this exercise was compassion for both sides of the author/agent relationship. I didn't read all the comments each entry generated. Partly it was the time thing. Mostly, though was the sympathy I felt for those who had offered their work to this contest. Each query had upward of two hundred comments. Some, most or all of those were rejections. I can't imagine how it would feel to take my labor of love, distill it down to a query, post it, and then read through four pages of "Not right for me."

At this point I have no idea if I picked any of the books that eventually went on to publication. I don't see how it could matter. As the Zen master teaches us: the value lies in the journey, not the destination.

Monday, April 6, 2009

A Principle

Current Reading: Marching As To War, by Pierre Burton

Inspirational Quote: "Once you have invented a character with three dimensions and a voice, you begin to realize that some of the things you'd like him to do to further your plot are things that such a person wouldn't, or couldn't, do." -- Thomas Perry

Dr. Carnage plans to kill off much of the city by poisoning the water supply. Ryan, a shape shifter, and Rachael, his intrepid reporter girlfriend, infiltrate Carnage's lair through an unguarded side entrance. They are captured and Ryan is knocked unconscious. He awakens tied to a chair in time to see Rachael being lowered into a vat of poison. Ryan struggles to free himself before Rachael goes for her last swim.

It's dramatic, but it's also proof that Ryan's an idiot. An intelligent hero wouldn't storm the villain's lair without an army for backup. A shape shifter would sneak in for reconnaissance before making a move, and he'd never take along a character who couldn't do the same. But then, Dr. Carnage ties up someone who can change shape, then waits for them to wake up before threatening someone else. Ryan's not alone in moron-land.

Thankfully, so far as I'm aware, this is not a real-world example.

I've seen worse, though.

I've been encountering a lot of examples of Plot Induced Stupidity lately. Most of them show up on television, or in comic books, which are not known as bastions of intellectual entertainment. However, I'm ashamed to admit that I've seen some examples in print as well. The writer has a plot in mind, and the actions of the characters are restricted by what the plot requires. They'll make stupid choices, forget things they know, and refuse to take advantage of powers or resources at their disposal.

And I wish they'd stop it. It's frustrating.

I believe every writer should stick to the Principle of Maximum Character Effort: every character must use all their abilities and resources to attain their goal. No holding back, no convenient amnesia.

The corollary to this is that plot should never be imposed on characters. If a writer finds they must rely on Plot Induced Stupidity to tell their story, then either they're writing with the wrong plot or with the wrong characters.