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Archive for December, 2017

Talking about fiction writing and how it is done is difficult. English simply lacks the vocabulary. Instead of choosing the correct word and moving on to a more detailed analysis, discussion is stranded in attempts to explain what I am talking about. Increasingly, I find myself resorting to similes and metaphors.

For example, in recent months I have found myself making comments like these ones:

  • Writing non-fiction is like juggling with three pins. Writing fiction is like adding another couple of pins. In fiction I have to worry about things like characterization that simply don’t exist in non-fiction. Also, I frequently suspect that fiction does not add additional pins so much as chain-saws.
  • Planning a novel is like having a compass, but not a road map. I only know the general direction I am heading, not the details of the route to get there.
  • My process of revision is like painting a canvas with increasing layers of paint. I begin with rough sketch, and begin filling in colors. With each pass, I add another color or layer of paint, adding texture and more of a mixture of colors. Every now and then, I pause to scrape off paint, or to touch up some corner of the canvas.
  • Writing a scene begins with choreography. Before I can write it, I have to know how each character will move during the scene. In the early stages of composition, I chalk in the marks each writer has to hit. Sometimes, I have to scuff out a chalk mark or two because the one I originally try just doesn’t work.
  • Part of the secret of developing characters is to find the rhythm of how each one talks. Until I find each characters’ rhythm – what they can say and can’t say, the tones they use, and their favorite ways of talking – I can’t begin to write the musical score. Once I know these things, my role is largely to conduct, choosing which character takes the lead and which is backup at any given moment. This role as conductor is relatively simple for a duet, where only two characters are talking, and becomes more complicated as the number of characters in a scene increase. In particular, as I write the score, I have to be careful that who says what or who replies to whom is always as clear as possible.
  • Writing is like playing the bagpipes. I can’t actually tune my words; I can only keep adjusting them until the resonances are close to the note I hear in my head.
  • Revision is like the last stages of wood carving. Knots have to be carefully planed away, and I have to keep sanding until I bring out the beauty of the grain.

Whether such metaphors make sense to anyone other than me is questionable. All the same, I keep developing the metaphors and similes, partly because I want to talk about what I am discovering, and partly because talking about the process seems safer than talking about what I am writing, which I suspect would keep me, like so many wannabes, from actually getting the words down.

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I have been listening to Richard Thompson for decades, so I am probably pre-disposed to like a group called Red Molly – it’s the name of the woman in “Vincent Black Lightning, 1952,” the song that Thompson describes as “a love story complicated by a motorcycle.” However, although the name was what first drew my attention, I quickly learned to appreciate the group for its harmonies and musicianship, as well as its versatile selection of materials.

Red Molly consists of three women: Abbie Gardner, Laurie McAllister, and, more recently Mollie Venter, who joined the group in 2010 when Carolann Solebello moved on. In both incarnations, the group characterizes itself as playing Americana – meaning everything from traditional folk songs to blues and country, along with its members’ own compositions. The band takes full advantage of its versatility, its members harmonizing on everything from poignant ballads to rock, and alternating on vocals and guitar. Gardner often adds a unique sound by playing the dobro, often in genres other than the bluegrass with which most people associate it, and the other members have also been known to pick up other instruments such as the bass and banjo.

Perhaps half the band’s material is covers, many of which rival the original, including a version of “Vincent Black Lightning 1952.” Their other covers include an arrangement of “Homeward Bound” that captures the yearning homesickness of the original, and a rocking version of Lucinda William’s “Can’t Let Go.” Their version of Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” is especially chilling, more than enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

However, I am equally fond of their original songs. Venter’s “I am Listening” is a sweet, understated description of the early stages of love,” while in her “Willow Tree,” the tree becomes the symbol of a long-term relationship’s joys and sorrows. McAllister’s original songs, such as “This Farm Needs a Man” are equally memorable, although to my taste she does not write nearly enough of them. However, the most prolific in the current lineup is Abbie Gardner, whose solo albums not only show a fondness for old reinterpreting blues standards like “Ain’t Misbehaving” and “Comes Love,” but also the ability to write songs like “Break It Slow” and “Bang Bang” that mix so indistinguishably with such standards that they might have been written in the same era. Gardner also writes in a more introspective style in “The Mind of a Soldier” and the wistful “Copper Ponies.”

I didn’t plan for Red Molly to become one of current listening favorites, but the more I heard, the more I liked, until I now own eleven of their group and solo albums, and am intending to buy more. In particular, I still have more of Venter’s solo albums to enjoy. No doubt the fact that many of their songs are available in .flac format helps, because I can hear them to best advantage. Yet even without that audio advantage, the way their voices blend and the variety in their songs would easily keep me listening.


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“I don’t remember the author or the title, and what it’s about is hard to explain, but it has a green cover.”

With difficulty, I refrain from directing her to the store’s Green Book section. “Can you tell me anything else about it?”

“It was on a talk show this morning.”

The information is little help, since I have been at work since eight this morning. Desperately, I scan the best sellers’ display at the front of the store, but none of the covers include the slightest tinge of green.

“Sorry,” I say, feeling more apoplectic than apologetic. “But without more information, I can’t help you.”

“Fine! Be like that!” She says, and sails off on an air of self-righteousness.

I turn away and continue unpacking an order of books from a local publisher. It’s four and a half hours before quitting time on Christmas Eve, and the nearest I can come to a carol is The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” – which may not be seasonal, but is a truer expression of my feelings than the two Christmas albums that the mall has been playing on rotation for the last six weeks. I might have stopped consciously hearing them after the first week, except that one is a Smurf Christmas Special. The best that can be said about the other one is that it isn’t.

I get maybe thirty seconds of work done before I am interrupted again. This time, it’s a man who’s aggrieved by the fact that he has been in the store for five minutes and none of the clerks have approached him. The fact that they are all busy is irrelevant.

Fortunately, a toddler tearing up books in the Children’s section gives me an excuse to rush away. I place the books out of reach, but no parent is to be seen, even when the toddler starts wailing. After twenty minutes of wailing, the mother shows up. Apparently, she left her offspring with the book store while she popped into The Bay.

And so it goes through the afternoon, my only break the five minutes needed to take boxes out to the compactor. The service corridor is probably the only place in the mall not crowded with increasingly frantic people, which makes the stench of the garbage the nearest thing all day to an uplifting experience. I manage to receive less than half the book order I have been working on since my lunch break.

Yet somehow I survive without suffering a stroke or a lingering death by diplomacy. Just get me to the airport, Put me on a plane, Hurry hurry hurry, before I go insane. At this point, the Ramone’s old hit has become my life’s theme song.

Fifteen minutes before closing, the staff starts walking up to customers and explaining that the store is about to close. Even so, the front door only closes twenty minutes after closing.

The women clerks are just sliding off their high heels when a man starts pounding on the door. His hat is askew, and he is so frantic that his cheeks are an unhealthy red.

“Please, I need to buy a present for my wife!” he pleads.

At this rate, I think, next year he won’t have that problem. I think of the spiced cider I can have tonight, and how I have nothing to do except show up on time at my parents’ tomorrow and maybe set the table and do the dishes. I think of how much I want to be alone, if only for a few hours, and the moxy of the man outside.

“Please?” he says. I think of smirking at him and walking away as he swears at me. I have the right, and if he complains, the rest of the staff is sure to back me up.

“Pleassseeee!”

Sighing, I unlock the door and let him in.

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At a time when most people my age are planning for retirement, I am spending increasingly longer amounts of time beginning a new career as a novelist. This new career is one that I have always wanted, but until recently I could never seriously consider it. I remember once I was so desperate to learn why I was having problems that I asked a professional writer how to begin (he told me, truthfully but rather unhelpfully, just to write). However, each career I’ve undertaken has brought me closer to the goal, as I’ve moved from academic to technical and marketing writing to journalist, and now I am finally taking the final step.

I don’t suppose that I qualify as more than a promising beginner, and there are times I doubt I rate so high. However, I am learning more and more about the craft of novel writing, at least as applies to me. For example:

  1.  Joining a writer’s group helps with morale. If nothing else, having mostly finished work being taken seriously by ten or so people is an incentive, even if the criticism is not always to the point or you suspect that some of the others in the group may not be the audience you were assuming. Writing implies an audience, and having one encourages me far more than working in isolation.
  2. When a scene stalls, adding another character to the mix can usually get it started again.  That is a less dramatic version of Raymond Chandler’s suggestion that at such moments, you should have two men break down the door and enter waving guns.
  3. As a plotter, I am a combination of a careful and impulsive planner. Knowing the general outline of what I want to happen in each chapter gives me confidence, and allows me to move back and forth in the novel, and to know where certain deals are needed or can be placed. The closer I get to actually writing a chapter, the more detail I need, but if I work out every single detail before writing, the impulse to write tends to die. Just as importantly, I miss the pleasure of discovering new twists and  background details that come to me as I work.
  4. Adding details or characters is more than just a matter of immediate color, the way it would be in poetry. Instead, both details and characters can change the course of the plot later on. For example, during one critique, someone mentioned that they would like to hear more about the mysterious builders of an old fortification. I hadn’t intended to follow up on that bit of color, but her comment made me realize that I should explain just who those builders were later on. Similarly, having mentioned a character in passing, I realized that I could use her later on, which lead to the idea of her living in a building that once housed a Roman-style bath but has since been divided into apartments. Having the protagonists visit this character, I realized, would also help tie up a loose end in the plot.

  5.  All the talk I’ve heard from published writers about characters taking over is true. Once I have found how the characters talk and act, writing them is extremely easy. For instance, if I were writing a scene for the Marx Brothers, I would hardly need to think to have it start with Groucho trying to get everyone to do something, then a series of exchanges with Chico who would not understand very well, giving Groucho a chance to make some smart remarks, then ending with an appeal to Harpo, who would end the scene by honking his horn or pulling some unlikely object out. Once I know the dynamics of character interaction, writing almost any scene becomes easy. It’s very gratifying.

    However, the gratification doesn’t mean that I should allow characters to take over. At times, I have to prune back the exchange, no matter how I enjoy it. At other times, I need to edit carefully so that the plot doesn’t get totally derailed. Possibly, the character’s revolt will suggest interesting changes of direction in the plot, but, at other times, giving the characters full control will be self-indulgent and require some restraint.

  6.  It is appalling easy to write in clichés. There are countless actions, motivations and phrases that hundreds of writers use all the time, especially in genres. For instance, in science fiction and fantasy, characters are always “shaking their head to clear it.” Yet I have never seen anyone do that, except in parody. These clichés are fine as placeholders in rough drafts, when I want to avoid getting bogged down, but if I want to have any originality, I have to go back and consider what I actually mean where they occur.
  7. Writer’s block in fiction is a signal from the unconscious that I am doing something wrong. If I consider an alternative, I can usually continue writing. I work best when I consider writing as a series of problems to solve. Announcing that I am blocked focuses on the problem, not the solution.
  8.  The best time to work out difficulties or figure how to describe something is when I wake in the middle of the night. The usually barriers between the conscious and the unconscious are thin then, and I can trust my unconscious to provide a solution — sometimes, admittedly, after several tries.
  9. Choreography matters to me as a writer as much as it does to readers. Until I know where characters are standing and where they move to, I am unable to write a scene.
  10. Revision is like painting a canvas, adding one layer after the other until a satisfying level of complexity is achieved. Occasionally, I may discover a corner of the canvas where a detail can be added.
  11. My final draft can lose 10-15% of the length of a section and will only improve as a result.

Almost certainly, these discoveries apply only to me. Other would-be novelists probably discover different truths that hold true for them as strongly as the ones mentioned here do for me. However, each of these discoveries teaches me more about myself, and, being in late middle age, I’m tickled by the fact that I can still surprise myself.

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