Archive for the ‘novel progress’ Category

A Little Hero Worship

August 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Part of the original goal of this blog was to post some fiction. Oddly, the first short story I actually sat down to write turned into something more, and now I’m working on it as at least a novella, and possibly a full-length novel. I’ll tell you right now that it’s probably not very good (as most writers say about the work up until it starts paying good money) and it’s in a genre rife with people both trying to get published and eager to tear new works into tiny shreds: science fiction. It’s not what those in the industry call “hard science fiction.” I’m certainly not Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. I’m not pushing the boundaries of scientific thought, I’m just using a sci-fi setting to create the scenario for my characters to live inside.

There are a few notable practitioners of this sort of thing, and three of them are easily some of my favorite writers ever: Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, and Warren Ellis.[*] Most of their work falls into the much larger realm of “speculative fiction,” and I suppose that’s what I’m doing with the story: speculating.

As this post is probably going to end up as more of a journalistic logging of progress, I’m going to go a step further with those three writers. I’m noting that not only is my writing in a similar vein as those writers above, there is a definite slant toward using the structure they tend to follow. King and Vonnegut, especially, write in quick, clipped vignettes or scenes within chapters. Stephen King even goes so far as to organize those chapters into books, and sometimes those books into volumes of a longer work, in this case, The Dark Tower. Ellis, in his one and only prose novel, Crooked Little Vein, uses a similar structure, only instead of organizing into larger chapters, each scene or vignette is simply given a numbered chapter all its own (some of them only consisting of single sentences… some only a few words long.) And his comics work is certainly structured that way. Some number of scenes form some number of issues which form some number of story arcs of some number of larger works.

What I’m not trying to imply is that my work is nearly as good as authors on the level of Vonnegut. Far from it. I doubt my first novel will set any hearts a-flutter, nor will the sci-fi community shit its collective pants in amazement. I’d like to think, though, that the visible influences of other writers of pedigree will help out a little bit in making what will seem to some readers as a very loose structure seem a little more pedestrian. Not that I’m hoping anyone critiques my work as “pedestrian,” of course. Or derivative, for that matter.

I don’t think that it was my reasoning, starting out, to make structure out of some sort of disjointed scenes, though. I think that my brain just works that way: scenes come out of the ether fully-formed, and when they end, they end. Maybe they come out that way and end abruptly because I’m not very good at transitions. Looking at, say, Slaughterhouse-Five, though, one discovers that almost all the bizarre, disjointed scenes end up meshing with the larger theme or plot point later in the book. King uses his sections to tell his stories from other points of view, not unlike Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Ellis uses his breaks to control the tempo and rhythm of his stories.[**]

So I guess I’m sort of trying to do all those things, even if it ends up seeming like doing too much. Maybe when I complete my first draft (at the rate of about 3000 words a week–if I’m lucky–maybe that will be by the end of the year) I’ll go back and organize the breaks numerically. As it stands right now, I’m not even sure how many chapters I’ll end with, so maybe that’s just a pipe dream. Maybe when I’m done I’ll just leave it without arbitrary chapter breaks. We’ll see.

Finally, I get a lot of comfort out of words from Vonnegut, King, and Ellis. Vonnegut and King rarely sat down to write a specific story, and King even goes so far to say he doesn’t care about plot unless he’s stuck. Which kind of shows in his writing sometimes. Which he admits to. Ellis, on the other hand, has proclaimed loudly that he “hate[s] everything [he] writes about two weeks after [he] write[s] it.” And every writer that actually gives a damn about carrying on their craft, and talking about it, and helping others, seems to put across the point that they’re always insecure, even after many years of success. But there’s also a persistence, a stick-to-itiveness, the desire to just keep going and writing stories. King’s On Writing just drips with this feeling, and pretty much any time Ellis seems to get asked about the any subject on the process he’s willing to speak at length about it. Like this nugget (probably NSFW):

My point, I guess, is that I’m not trying to take things too seriously about this whole “writing” thing. That clip above makes me smile every time I watch it. Writing is something everybody struggles with. In Roger Angell’s introduction to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, he talks about his stepfather E.B. White’s writing habits:

When the copy went off at last … he rarely seemed satisfied. “It isn’t good enough,” he said sometimes. “I wish it were better.”

Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time.

I read passages like that, and it makes me feel good knowing I’m not the only one. Countless freelance bloggers out there (and thousands of authors before them) say that writing is a solitary act. Somehow we all connect, though; we all know the trials and difficulties we face when a scene just won’t work, or when a line doesn’t flow properly, or even when we can’t remember the word that fits just perfectly for that emotion we’re trying to express. It makes me feel good to know that even the people that I admire and I’m trying to emulate have the same problems I have.

And it drives me forward a little bit. Being successful at writing, to me, is being able to finish what I’ve started. So far, by analyzing what I’ve done, and how it’s structured, and where that structure is coming from, and the attitudes that helped define that structure, I’ve been able to feel like I can finish this one. It will take me a long time, but one day I’ll be able to say that I competently wrote a full-length novel. Even if it’s not well-received, at least it will be done. And I can’t fault myself for finishing that goal.

Maybe once that first one is out of the way I can write something that someone else will want to read.

[*]One could argue that Ellis deals as much in hard sci-fi as not, but indulge me here.
[**]This probably comes from his background in comics. A single comics panel is a single slice in time. How you control those slices sets the pace for reader. You can check out more on the ridiculously complex world of writing for and structure in comics by reading Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics.

Categories: novel progress, writing