Thursday, May 06, 2010

Writers Retreat

Well, daily postings of words written didn't work out, partly because I did not have reliable access to Internet, partly because it was difficult to generate reliable word counts. The first couple of days I wrote only three to five hundred words of final copy, because I kept having false start after false start, so spent a lot of time rewriting the same scene or otherwise spinning my wheels. This is a fairly common pattern in my writing, where it takes several days immersed in the task to get any traction. By the third and fourth days I was getting a bit more written, but I was also throwing out more of what I had written up to then. I would produce a chunk of something, kind of like it, but realize that logically it could not come here -- the protagonist had to know X before Y made sense, or that if I went with A in this scene, I would have to abandon B in that one. And so on. Slowly, slowly, it started coming together. I started having 1500 word days (my minimum target) and more importantly, some of the pieces started to fit together; some of the scenes I had thrown out I could bring back, though this time it was that character saying X rather than the protagonist. And so on. In the end I came away with three more or less finished chapters, or about 15,000 words. That averages out to about 1500 words a day which is what I set as a minimum (the level one has to maintain to successfully complete NaNoWriMo). I had hoped for more, of course, but I often have unrealistic expectations and the key here is that I managed to cover all the scenes I had written in my head; that is, what I have written down has once again caught up with what I had worked out.

Not that what came out on the page what as all like what I thought it was going to be. I find the writing process fascinating. My characters often refuse to speak dialog I hand them, and say something completely different. I used to think that was a metaphoric kind of thing when authors would say that, but now that it happens to me on a regular basis, I totally get it. (Not all authors subscribe to this view of course: I recall the late Phyllis Gotlieb saying in effect that her characters did damn well what they were told and that was that.) But I am largely writing this novel freefall. I have only the vaguest outline, and just throw my characters into one situation after another and then sit back to see what happens. So, this can be an awful lot of fun, because my characters keep doing and saying things that take me totally by surprise. The most amazing to me is how characters discover clues and reinterpret events I've already written to solve mysteries I hadn't actually known I had written into the book. Some tossed off line I just had someone say because it seemed like a funny bit of repartee turns out 60 pages later to be a vital clue to what's really going on. And even more astounding, my characters seem to be undergoing development, and have motivation and characteristic speech patterns I hadn't actually thought about consciously. So that part's pretty cool! Hopefully the same excitement I feel writing this stuff will be there for the eventual reader. (Well, I am talking first draft here -- obviously drafts two through seven will more consciously refine all of that so that it does work for external audiences.)

On the other hand, the down side of not knowing precisely where I'm going is that I get lost a lot. I write something for this character, and that character responds, and the next thing I know is that the conversation has written me into a corner from which there is no escape. So I often have to back track, throw scenes that don't make sense out, or at least put them aside until later when I may be able to salvage some of the dialog or action. Other times I have to stop and realize the characters are acting on a scene I cut two months ago and that they do not in fact know any of what they just said. Or that it wasn't this character that figured X out, it was this other guy. And so on. So exciting, but highly inefficient.

But that is the nature of this particular novel. Others novels I have in my head have much more developed outlines and often very much more developed scenes -- I've had one novel in my head since Grade 9, and I know exactly what happens and why -- but those are for another time. This novel was my practice book to see if I could (a) finish a novel (in contrast to all the previous 1 chapter false starts), (b) manage the basics of plot, dialog, action, character, and (c) enjoy the process in spite of the frustration that comes when things don't flow. This story had an okay general outline and a couple of vaguely developed scenes here and there -- just enough to give me a general direction and tone -- but not enough invested in it that my emotional investment in it working out would lead to paralysis if it didn't work out entirely as I imagined. I know I am not yet a competent enough writer to pull off my two or three more 'literary' novels; and I have too much invested in my two deeply developed novels to try to commit them to paper before I am ready. So I chose the simplest storyline with the most straight forward characters and just went for it.

And I am enjoying the process more than I ever thought possible. And so far at least, I am pretty happy with what I have written.

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