Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Making a Mash Of It


Having seen several 70 Days and NaNo participants displaying celebrity pics on their blogs as representations and inspirations for their heroes and heroines, I decided to give it a try when I was having trouble visualizing my hero, Graham.

I really had no idea who in famedom might fit the vague image I did have. I saw him as tall, lanky, slightly stoop-shouldered, thick dark hair shading to gray at the temples, a bit bashful, stern professor but capable of humor and tenderness. I knew he was of Italian and Jewish heritage and fifty give or take four years.

Not many remembered icons floated through my mind before I hit on Alan Alda. By the time I'd read the first sentence of the Wikipedia article on Alda I was fairly sure I'd found my guy. He was of Italian heritage. From there I went to alanalda.com where I found his personal photo album and when I saw this picture I knew I would find nothing better if I spent a week looking. Sorry, but I can't post that pic here as I don't want to infringe on copyright or anything. So please follow the link, it's worth it. Remember, my Graham is a Literature Prof.

While I was on Alda's site, I went exploring and found a link to an article by Alda with a title that was hard to resist. I'm glad I didn't. In, Learning To Write With a Sledgehammer, Alda talks of how he learned the value of knocking the excrescences out of his manuscripts and of those moments when you make a breakthrough and have the urge to get up and dance.

On first reading, I passed over the sledgehammer reference, thinking it only a post NaNo, post 70 Days, editing consideration. But I glommed onto the reference to those moments which inspire a celebratory dance, for I've had a one of them and it was exquisitely sweet. I haven't had any yet with Spring Fever though I came close in the week before NaNo started when the plot concept first began to gell and I began to believe I had story worth telling.

But Alda's reference reminded me of the time that I did get up out of my chair and dance about the room over one of my stories. It was the moment I typed the last word of Making Rag Doll Babies and Million Dollar Maybes nearly ten years ago. It wasn't even the end of the novel. Just the end of a chapter in the intended novel. But it had been an intricately plotted 16,000+ word 'short' story that was intended to serve as a chapter and to be able to stand alone--as all the chapters in my novel, The Substance of Things Hoped For, are intended to do. I was ecstatic when I finished it and literally could not contain my self. I wasn't even alone in the room at the time.

Requiring each chapter to be able to both stand alone as a short story and serve to advance the plot of a novel does, of course, add an extra complexity to the construction of that novel which made it that much harder to keep a 1K a day pace with it during the first round of 70 Days this past summer. That and the fact it is tangled up with the similarly complex plots of six to eight other novels. This was why I had chosen to run with a fresh story for NaNo. One that was not entangled with the Fruits of the Spirit story world nor restricted by a complex structure. For the first two weeks I worked with Spring Fever, I was confident I was writing a fairly straightforward love story. But by the end of the first week of NaNo I knew different.

My decision to structure the novel around 22 chapters based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot was exciting when I hit on it. As was the decision to alternate POV among three equally weighted characters. But these restrictions were the source of the constriction of word flow in the second week. I was, and am, still thrilled with those choices but after about four days of zero word count following those first six or so of exceeding expectations, I began to panic and I really haven't stopped. Though I got the words to flow again, intermittently, the fun had gone out of it.

All of this was on my mind and apparently Alda's talk about taking a sledgehammer to his manuscripts began to work on me unawares as I put together my virtual scrapbook of Graham-conjuring images. I tried to remember when was the last time I had junked a huge chunk of one of my manuscripts. And I couldn't. I don't think it is faulty memory. I'm fairly sure I've never done it. I've thrown out words in the hundreds but never in the thousands. I've deleted sentences and paragraphs or severely reconstructed them but never whole scenes or chapters or sections of a novel. This is mostly because I am such a miser with the words until I am fairly certain of what I need a scene for. In other words, most of the story is contained in my head like a scene in a snow globe that shifts like scenes on the silver screen--like watching a movie in 3D while holding it cupped in your hand.

Ah, I thought, a bit pleased with myself to be sure, I've never had to take a sledgehammer to excrescences in my stories because I never put them in. But before the thought was complete, I recognized what a conceit it was. What was it Alda said he had danced for joy over?

I was dancing because, after hours of rewriting one of the scenes, I had finally solved it and had crashed through to something I knew would work.
Which meant that something he had tried had not been working. Something he had written had not been working!

So, I thought, what happens when something I'm working on stops working? I stop working on it. Indefinitely. As long as a decade in the case of several of the stories in my Fruits of the Spirit story world.

The thing that isn't working for Spring Fever right now is my insistence on trying to hold 22 themed chapters, 3 POV characters, a 30 odd year time line in my head while refusing to commit to writing scenes that aren't perfectly envisioned and locked into place on the three story arcs. No wonder I am feeling half crazed. I don't dare stop thinking about the story for one second. Not even in my sleep. Because if I do? I might drop the snow globe and shatter the story.

That is simply not working. And most especially for a NaNo project or a 70 Days of Sweat project. I have to start writing some of this down even if it is not in a form that will make the final cut. Even if I have to break all the rules of good form to do so. I need to infodump folks. I need to write long passages of description of people, places and things that aren't, for now, broken up by dialog and plot advancing narrative. I need to experiment with scene concepts, writing it one way and then a second and a third until I feel that certain click when something snaps into place. And I need for those words to count toward NaNo and 70 Days even if they sometimes feel more like note taking then story writing. Because that restriction, added to my natural perfectionism served to strangle my word flow as thoroughly as a garrote.

I'm so far behind now, at just past 20K, there is little hope that I will earn my NaNo win icon. But little is still not no. And besides, regardless if I can keep the new 3K per day pace for the next ten days, I still need to keep the 1K per day pace through mid January for Sven.

My goal now is to have 40-50K and several excrescences to take the sledgehammer to by midnight November 30th. And then for the final six weeks of 70 Days to add another 20-30K, possibly split between Spring Fever and The Substance of Things Hoped For. To do this, I need to remember Alda's words:

Hemingway said that writing is architecture, not interior decoration. I was learning that, even with all the rewriting, it wasn't renovations, either.

Now I was taking a sledgehammer to the foundation itself; redesigning it time after time from scratch, lopping off clever little inventions that caught your eye but gave you nothing of substance to build on.

After all that, when I would finally crash through to something that worked, I would feel -- and every writer must feel something like this -- a thrill, a rush of joy, a desire to dance around the room.

I still feel it. And, once in a while, I still dance.



I need to remember that the victory dance is the reaction to a breakthrough after struggling with something that isn't working, which means there has to be something there to struggle with; something more substantial than concepts and daydreams no matter how vividly envisioned; something written down even though it might be an excrescence fit only for smashing with the sledgehammer.

I need to remember and be sustained by the memory of my one victory dance resurrected by Alda's story, to hold it like a promise in a snow globe, a promissory note guaranteeing an abundance of victory dances, measured this time in months instead of decades.

4 tell me a story:

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