One of the reasons I’ve been writing flash fiction (3 weeks, now… maybe 49 to go, maybe more…) is because I’m fishing around the little pools in my subconscious for a new book, and the short bursts of fiction not only help me hone my craft, they’re a way of baiting my hook and hopefully pulling a bigger idea out. And while I’ve finished 8 novel length manuscripts, I’ve only recently learned what works and what doesn’t. So, here is a list of things not to do in a first or second or tenth novel. Yes, I’m guilty of a few.
Today’s story is more a character exploration than a full story, somewhere between a vignette and flash fiction. The seed came from a prompt on the excellent Reddit writing forum, Writing Prompts, though I have yet to read any of the other submissions to that prompt. (I will once this hits the streets.)
Coming up in the next week or two is my next foray into Southern Gothic. About a year ago I read a tweet on an agent’s wish list that said she’d love to see a YA Southern Gothic novel. It’s taken a long time for that spark to truly ignite, but my next few stories will be my way of fanning the flames. I always have considered William Faulkner and Eudora Welty to be two of my influences, so it wasn’t too difficult to encourage my Muse to focus her efforts in that direction for a little while. And my sword and sorcery novella, featuring, in the role of brawny manly-man Nordic ultra warrior hero, an overweight teenage black American girl who was taught to scrap and survive by a friend of the family, is about ready for public consumption as well. I’m somewhat excited about that one; that novella forced its way out of my head in just over four days, and now that I’ve cleaned the blood and brains off of it and made it somewhat sensible, I’m eager to go back to her world and write some more.
Well, Story #5 is done save for the final polish. I took this one down to the wire but I was able to finish it in time. Maybe Friday or Saturday I’ll sneak in and edit it a little but the point remains that I was still able to hit my goal of writing a story a week. And next week’s is virtually finished; in fact, one of the problems I had was pulling myself away from the hot new idea I had and finishing the one I’d started.
I also learned that I don’t want to put up one of my old stories in place of writing one a week, if at all possible. I might write two this week so I have something in reserve, but that’s different. Around about Monday evening, when I’d not yet started on this story because of OH MY GOD IT ITCHES IT ITCHES and other concerns I had, I started going through my files, thinking that I had good cause to do such a thing. But for some reason, it just didn’t seem right. Probably an adverse mental reaction to the medicinal cream I’m using.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that, more than before, I feel like a craftsman as I write these stories. Since I first set out to write (and finish) novels some time ago, my method was always: Write a set amount every day; Let it rest; Edit and rewrite. Yet there were problems with this method, problems I’ve seen for a while but am just now paying attention to. For starters, I always sucked at editing. Oh sure, I could find tonnes of problems with the manuscript. I just had trouble sitting down and fixing them. I’ve since come up with a few ways of addressing that, and I think my current novella is all the better because of those changes.
But the other thing I realized is that charging ahead, blindly committed to word count and finishing the book led to sloppy work. Whenever one of my Muse’s editor friends would stop by my head and start flipping through the pages I’d written, I’d slap him or her away, and scream my commitment to write ten pages/ two thousand words/ whatever my commitment was. No. Matter. What. And yes, sometimes I’d be stuck but I’d keep writing and keep writing, hoping to get out of the rut. Sometimes this would work. Sometimes it led to sloppy piles of camel dung.
Writing a story a week makes me use my craft in an entirely different fashion. I have two to four days, tops, to write a rough draft. That’s more than enough time from a typing perspective… my raw writing novel days taught me to be able to write four to ten thousand words in that amount of time. Ten thousand words is about the top end for a short story, so physically, I knew I could do it when I began this project. But now, all of a sudden, I have other considerations. I have to consider plot, and character, and intertwining the two, making one push the other and carry both to a resolution. I have to make every line of dialogue mean something. I have to have a damn good idea of where the story was going, something I didn’t always have when I was writing a novel. More and more, I’ve begun to feel like I’m taking an item and turning it over and over in my hands, adding something here, removing something there, and slowly letting it become a work of art beneath my fingers. By the time I finished “A Shaggy Dog,” I realized that I feel like I’m making things, not just spitting a long story out of my noggin until it looks like it’s finished.
I also realized that it’s a pretty cool feeling.
Alright, back to my final polish job and then perhaps more time alone with the cat and my book.
Well, I have a few things to talk about for Inspiration Tuesday, today. First, I’m at work trying to keep the rash at bay but otherwise doing alright. I’m next to positive that it’s not contagious; I think my guinea pigs… err, roommates would have noticed by now. Still not sure what’s causing it, and the itching is only getting worse. In fact, the picture below, blatantly stolen from Weird Tales’ Facebook feed…
Inspiration has been showing up in the strangest places, lately, not just below the rock in my back yard where the writing Elves usually hide my week’s worth of ideas. This week’s story is about a street magician, and it’s a fantasy story in the sense that I always wanted to be at least a sleight-of-hand artist, if not a magician, when I was younger. (By younger, I’m including last Friday, when I found three balls of about juggling size and decided to show off to the cat. She still won’t speak to me.) And even though my efforts to learn to palm cards and double-deal and produce coins led to nothing more than my own image in the mirror doubling up and laughing at my practice, I kept trying, and kept thinking about it. A few days ago, a regular character strolled on to my stage, one with a rather tragic story that he was trying to escape from, and in her attempts to give him a backstory, my Muse found my old copy of Huggard and Braue’s Expert Card Technique and, well, poof, my character was made flesh.
In a way, I suppose it is like stage magic. I clasp my hands, smile, proclaim to the audience that I have nothing up my sleeves or between my ears, and then out of nothing, a group of people are walking and talking and sharing their stories with the rest of the world. Maybe I did learn sleight-of-hand after all.
Though I still would love to do a good Four Aces trick.
The new story is scheduled, I have another chapter finished on my final draft, and I’m about a third of the way through Witchfinder, which I’ll review for the blog this weekend. (Preliminary review: Intriguing, and definitely an interesting setting. I like the main characters. Seems like a romantic fantasy novel of intrigue, though not overly heavy on any of those factors… in other words, nicely balanced.) All in all, it was a productive day.
In other news, I sketched out two ideas for next week’s story, and even wrote a little exploring one of them. And two more ideas cropped up while I was doing that. Interestingly enough, when I first conceived of doing this project, I was worried that I would write my small stock of ideas and freeze, like when I would teach a fifty-minute class and finish the material in forty minutes. And yes, writing books always say to have faith in your muse, and if you write every day, you will rarely be completely blocked. (This is true for me, in the sense that I might get blocked on the main project I’m working on, but if I have a couple of things spinning, I can shift to the other one until I figure out what went wrong.) And in fact, whenever I wrote a novel, new ideas would wash up like driftwood on a beach or that unavoidable ring in the bathtub after you spent three hours in there with a bottle of brandy and a bunch of candles (two of which fell in the water at some point) crying over your current block and refusing to look at the other projects. But I never expected anything like what’s happening with my stories.
Picture this: I sit down to flesh out one idea and in the middle of the story, another one jumps up. So I jot down that idea and go back to writing. Then I get to the other idea, and two more jump up. So I jot those ideas down and another three ideas come up. And then… and then…
You’d think this would be pleasant, but it’s not. By now, I have four stories up on my page, written in four weeks, and ten idea jumping around my desk like little ducks on crystal. And I know the minute I pick one up, set it on my desk, and tell its story, he’s going to spit up another three or five or twenty.
I guess the only solution is to write faster.
Today is a day of halves:
- I’m halfway through my final draft of the ‘Agata’ novella, and I think I might have made it through the hardest part. Even if I haven’t, well, I’m halfway. It’s taking longer than my (originally quite naïve) schedule said it would take, but I’m moving forward and coming ever closer to finishing it.
- I’m halfway through the story for Thursday, though in this case, I know I’m through the hardest part. The story’s finished; I’m just adding flair to it, now.
- The storm that’s been pummeling the southeast is about halfway finished. Or at least it is according to Accuweather. No serious flooding where I live, though the cat keeps reminding me that she never signed up for this thunder crap.
- And I’m halfway through Infinite Jest. I’ve read a lot of meta-novels (a good chunk of Pynchon, Ulysses, Remembrance of Things past (it might not be the most accurate translation of the title, but it’s the most poetic English version, I think), and the ever-awesome Tristram Shandy, which the movie version described as “a post-modern classic before there was a modernism to be post about.” Oh, and House of Leaves. This is, so far, my favourite of them, and it keeps getting better. Yes, it’s a slog and a third in spots (Tennis, anyone?) but I’m starting to see how everything is coming together, and if DFW does pull off the ending the way I think he might, it will be worth it. It’s definitely not a book for everyone, and no, I don’t subtly mean ‘A lot of people can’t handle the way the book’s written because they’re just not advanced enough.’ There is that matter of taste, and in that, I really do mean that it’s not for everyone. As far as meta-novels or post-modern novels go, it’s no Finnegans Wake, though as much as I like James Joyce, I’m happy about that. But it does have quite a few quirks. For example, I’m actually right around page 490 of 1080… but if you count the fifty-odd pages of footnotes (some lasting 18 pages of 8 point type, some with footnotes of their own) I’ve definitely made it halfway. The references are sometimes obscure, and while there is a good Wiki to help you keep everything straight (such as the corporate sponsored names of years) there were some days when I would read 30 or 40 pages in an hour or so, and some when I was happy to have made it through 5. Still, the story’s entertaining, the characters are definitely one of a kind, and I don’t think the book could be written in any other way. In between, of course, I’ve also read a couple of Moorcock books (taking a break for the nonce), two YA books, and most of a collection of Flannery O’Connor stories. But I’m getting there.
So that’s where I am today. Well, that, and digging into the guts of this website. I really don’t like the way it looks, and now that I have a little more content on it, I feel it’s time to fix that. Suggestions are
demanded requested at gunpoint politely entertained.
Just when I thought that my hard weekend was last weekend, my to-do list crawled out from under my desk and started giggling madly at me. Let’s see what’s on the agenda…
- Another four chapters of the novella’s final draft
- Finishing the rough of next week’s story, which is about half-done at 1200 words
- Playing with an essay about writers as cheerleaders, including sections on why I often find lists of random writing prompts anywhere from distracting to insulting. (I have one exception, but that’s because it’s set up like a huge creative writing site, and not just a random list given to writing students like they are some sort of magic.)
- Play and perhaps plan the next story, which is either another novella in this same world, or a new novel.
- Sleep, if possible.
I do hope everyone reading this has something planned for the weekend. Let me know what it is so I can live vicariously whilst sitting in the corner, feeling punished, and banging out my sentences.
I do have a few links to share, and those will come later. Feedback on the stories, even if it’s bad (especially if it’s bad) is definitely requested. Next week will see me hitting the 1/13 mark, and that’s far enough in to start making changes, if changes need to be made.
Awesome article from Chuck Wendig. The only thing I’ll add is:
1) I cannot afford all the books I wish to read, either. Too bad no one’s invented this neat system where there are books for the taking, for a few weeks at a time. I’m sure if someone did come up with such a thing, they’d be so popular we’d have more of them in this country than McDonald’s restaurants.
That said, he does a good job of refuting a lot of points an anonymous book pirate gives him without coming off like a dickhead about it. (Unlike the pirate… “Now, take a deep breath and re-read 1 & 2.” Come on.)