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Most of the first pieces of writing I sold were poems. Most were under forty lines. In these short poems, I might use an organizing metaphor, but I never had to develop the metaphor beyond that. For years, I wrote fiction the same way, introducing details for color and ignoring them after I moved on from the passage where they appears. However, now that I am trying to write fiction on a daily basis, I realize that approach is inadequate. Instead, I have started practicing parsimony, hoarding details to return to them later on.

What I call parsimony is a restatement of Anton Chekhov’s old adage that, if a gun is hanging on a wall in the first scene of a play, it needs to be fired later on. It is a way of trimming the unnecessary from my writing, and of providing a structural unity.

Recently, though, I have started to appreciate how much parsimony can help with the struggle to plot. So far as I had ever thought of the matter, I imagined that writers carefully conceived of the details that they would need later on, and planted them early in a work. As they edited, perhaps they might go back and add details that a new plot twist required.

I’ve done my share of that, especially after receiving criticism in the writing circle I joined a few months ago. Yet far more often, that’s not how I work at all. More often, I still add details as they occur to me, just as I do in poetry. Then, when I take out the sketchy outline I made as I started writing, I find myself solving plot problems by referring back to the details I mentioned earlier.

For example, in one chapter of my attempt at a fantasy novel, I threw in the bit of color that the culture identifies streets not by signs, but by statues appropriate to the name of the street. In the next chapter, I needed to give two characters a place where they could watch events from the back of a crowd. Remembering those statues, I knew at once where they could stand. The statues, I realized, were a much convincing vantage point than a convenient window ledge or roof top, because the characters would not want to trap themselves if found by their pursuers.

Similarly, I needed someone with whom the protagonists could take refuge. I could have invented a new character, and inserted a few mentions of the character earlier in the narrative. Instead, I dusted off a character who had played a minor point, and the protagonists took shelter with her. I didn’t even have to go back and add anything, because she shared a grievance with the protagonists that would make her willing to help her.

In each of these instances, I avoided the complication of another character and increased the structural unity as well. Moreover, by looking back at what I had already written, I solved plot problems that I otherwise would have agonized over.

I still add bits of color as they occur to me, of course. Now, however, I make a note of them as I do, so that I can recall them later. The parsimony is not just in the structure, but in the economy of effort as well.

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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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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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Last Friday, I attended the VCon novel-writing workshop. I came looking for encouragement, and found it in the comments of the two professional writers, Eileen Kernaghan and Robert Sawyer. Many of the negative comments could be disregarded as a sign of careless reading, although, Sawyer, to my embarrassment as an ex-English teacher, pointed out at least two places where I should have used the subjunctive.

However, the comment that I have mulled over the most was Sawyer’s complaint about the main character’s name. In reviewing a couple of entries to the workshop, he mentioned a dislike of invented names like Luke Skywalker. I am thinking about the comment because I at least partly agree with him, but changing a character’s name is a serious step. To my poetry-trained year, changing the character’s name means changing their personality as well, which can require a complete revision of the manuscript.

On the one hand, I dislike the surnames often borrowed from role-playing games, especially from elvish characters. Often these names show either a lack of imagination, such as (to invent an example on the spot) Inglorion Far-Traveler, or (to invent another quick example) an embarrassing attempt to sound mystical and exotic, such as Glorfindel StarDweller. My character’s name fits neither category – or so I believe – so I am not exactly pleased to have it lumped in with them. Yet considering that Sawyer is a successful, better than average professional writer, I want to think twice before disregarding his criticism – always keeping in mind that one writer’s opinion of your work can sometimes mean no more than they would done things differently.

On the other hand, invented or obscure names are used by many writers. Charles Dickens, for example, had Uriah Heep, Oliver Twist, Whackford Squeers and dozens of others. Thomas Hard had Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Stephen King had Dolores Claiborne. And if you include semi-allegorical names, like Mrs. Malaprop, the examples jump from the dozens to the hundreds. From these examples, I conclude that unusual names are acceptable in popular literature, and are even more so in fantasy and at least sometimes in science fiction. Granted, though, they may not be to everybody’s taste.

I have considered some alternative names, and found one or two that seem acceptable to me. All the same, I am glad to be some ways from a second draft, so I have time to think more about the issue.

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I have always had misgivings about trigger warnings, the labels for movies and books that are supposed to allow the traumatized to avoid any unpleasantness. To my way of thinking, they are a presumption, a judgment on an artist’s work that is all too likely to be based on an out-of-context summary or an arrogance like that of an American complaining about being unable to get a hamburger on a gluten-free bun in Paris. I have started to explain my reaction once or twice, but never got around to finishing the explanation – which is a good thing, because recently I discovered that A. E. Housman had made a much more graceful explanation than anything I had drafted.

These days, A. E. Housman is not a fashionable poet. He wrote largely in ballad-like quatrains, often affecting a kind of pastoralism, neither of which fits into modern poetic conventions, and he is usually discredited as not being a profound thinker. Yet, despite this reputation, he retains a certain popularity, and school anthologies often include his poems “To an Athlete Dying Young” or “With rue my heart is laden.”

Housman’s tone is often melancholy, if not world-weary. Apparently, he was well-aware of the fact, since he wrote explaining his own defense of his tone. His defense appears in the poem known by its first line as, “Terence, this is stupid stuff” – Terence being the imaginary shepherd who wrote Housman’s poems.

The poem opens with Terence’s friends comically complaining about his music, and pleading with him to play something happier. Terence replies that he enjoys a drunken carouse himself, when “the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.” But the trouble is, when he wakes in the morning, he realizes that “the tale was all a lie” and all that is left was to return to the daily routine.

Under the circumstances, although:

the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would.

Hearing his melancholy, Terence goes on to say, his friends might find something to sustain them when the inevitable time comes when they are troubled in their own lives.

To reinforce his point, Terence makes a comparison with Mithridates, the great enemy of Rome in Caesar’s day. According to legend, to avoid assassination, Mithridates gradually accustomed himself to various poisons, until he had developed an immunity to them, confounding his enemies as he swallowed the arsenic and strychnine they slipped him without any effect.

Houseman does not belabor the point, ending simply with, “I tell the tale that I heard told, / Mithridates, he died old.” However, the implication is clear enough: Just as Mithridates developed an immunity to poison by taking small doses, by first facing the gloomy parts of life second-hand through art, people better prepare themselves for the inevitable time when they face similar experiences in their lives.

In other words, unlike those who favor trigger warnings, Housman does not believe that art is simply for enjoyment, or – I might add – to please members of the audience by reinforcing their viewpoint. In fact, to do so is to present a false view of the world. Instead, the purpose of art in Housman’s view is to prepare people for life, and that means dealing with subjects that are sometimes distasteful and uncomfortable.

Housman does not mention catharsis, the purging of emotion and the sense of renewal that comes from tragedy. However, the concept fits well with what he does say, suggesting yet again that what matters is the interaction between the audience and art.

Reading Housman, I realized that those who favor trigger warnings are like the people for whom music is what Frank Zappa called “aural wallpaper” – something in the background of their lives that reinforced their existing conceptions and left them unchallenged. But for me (and, I suspect, Housman), the point of art is not to reinforce prejudice, but to experience life from the artist’s perspective. The perspective may be troubling, and in the end you may reject it as false or offensive, but, even then, your experience does you more good than simply hearing what you prefer to hear.

Not that there is anything wrong with light entertainment. Most of us, if we are being honest, prefer light entertainment at least some of the time. But the limitation of trigger warnings is that they imply that is all there is to art, and that is an over-simplification, and as much a lie as Terence’s joys of drinking.

Yes, experiencing art that is challenging can be unpleasant, and sometimes more than you can endure. Yet I can’t help remembering that, more than any other generation of soldiers, those who fought in World War I resorted to poems and fiction as a way to endure the realities of war. In the same way, I recall a man in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic who survived a storm by singing Stan Rogers’ “The Mary Ellen Carter,” with its refrain of “Rise Again!” over and over. I did much the same in the first days after being widowed. And when I think of such examples, I suspect that advocating trigger warnings, far from sparing people pain, in the long run deprives the traumatized and risks doing them serious damage, like parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated.

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In “The Naked and the Nude,” Robert Graves points out that, while the two words are generally treated as synonymous, he personally makes a distinction. To him, the naked are honestly and unconsciously clothed, while the nude are sly exhibitionists. In the same way, I make a personal distinction between “author” and “writer,” two words that in theory have the same meaning.

The distinction is more than academic to me. For thirteen years, I have made a living mainly by selling my writing, and I have had both “author” and “writer” used to describe me. However, over the years, I have come to prefer “writer” and to use it to describe myself while shying away from “author” altogether.

Part of my preference is due to the fact that “author” carries more weight to my ear. To me, authors are people who write books, and, although I have one book to my credit – my reworked master’s thesis – that was twenty-five years ago, and the rest of my publications have been articles or at the most chapters in other people’s books. Nor am I the only one to define the words this way – wannabe writers, I notice, usually prefer to call themselves “authors,” given even a small justification.

However, for me, “author” sounds too grandiose. As the first syllable suggests, both “author” and “authority” have a common origin in the Latin word “auctor,” whose various forms can mean “promoter,” “originator” as well as “expert” or “holder of power.” In other words, an author is someone who originates thought, or is the source of others. Echoes of this meaning can be read in Mathew 7:29 of the King James Bible, where Jesus is described as having “taught as one with authority, and not as the scribes” – that is, as someone with original ideas, and not someone simply repeating what others have said or someone making a scholarly article full of citations.

To claim to be an author, then, would seem to be a declaration that nobody has had thoughts similar to mine or expressed as well as mine, and that people should therefore listen to me. Yet while that should be the level of excellence to which I or any other writer should aspire, I feel uncomfortable making that claim for myself. If made at all, such claims are the rights of readers. Undoubtedly, too, the pressure of deadlines and the effort to make a living has encouraged at times to write at least than my best. In fact, I am sure that the distinction between original writers and the rest of us is not nearly as clear as the word “author” possibly implies.

By contrast, “writer” is a humbler term. It simply means someone writes, with no reference to quality or originality – and that I unarguably do. For that reason, I prefer to express no pretensions, and simply call myself a writer instead of an author.

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Shortly after 4:35PM on Saturday, March 28, I finished my manuscript for “Designing with LibreOffice.” It was the end of two years of work, stolen from my efforts to make a living and from my leisure time, as well as the start of the next stage in bringing the book to market.

At eighty-thousand words, the manuscript is the largest I’ve prepared since my master’s thesis twenty-five years ago. This time, no lightning strike directly overhead took out my hard drive a few weeks before a critical deadline, but other obstacles impeded me instead. Unlike with my thesis, I couldn’t take the time to do nothing else until it was done. Grief, repetitive stress injuries, and bad knees took their toll, dragging out the writing far beyond what I had expected.

Then, too, I confess there was mission creep. I was aware of the problem, having tried to write a book on OpenOffice.org over a decade ago, only to lose the control of the scope, but it happened again anyway. This time, while I wanted to avoid too much detail, I soon understood that,while I started only with the intention to explain styles and templates in LibreOffice ,the exercise would never serve readers unless it also explained typographic conventions and standards.

Fortunately, having worked as both a technical writer and a graphic artist, as well as a free software writer, I was well-positioned to write such a book.

However, the form it needed took a while for me to understand. What I wanted to write was only partly a technical manual. It was also an explanation of typography, mixed with advice about how to – and how not-to – use LibreOffice. Finding the voice and structure for all these aims was much harder than the physical act of writing, which is why some of the chapters only took their right form in my third draft.

I finished, tired and satisfied, and smirking just a little at having overcome everything when I finished sending the last of the files to my editor. Had I been living with someone, undoubtedly we would have gone out to dinner and so to bed, but instead, I floated vaguely around the townhouse, imagining vast panoramas of spare time opening around me in the days to come.

That won’t happen, of course. Next comes the corrections requested by my editor, the selection of the cover, and the building of the concordance for the index. At some point, too, I have to divide into small sections to sell separately from the hard copies of the entire book (the downloads are free). Already in the past two days, this new stage is starting, so I feel like I am at the tip of the crest, feeling the roller coaster starting to tip inevitably downwards.

Time now to disengage from the book, to re-frame it in my mind as no longer mine, but an object to prepare for others. Time to lose the ego’s perspective, in which criticism feels like an attack, and to become detached and business-like.

Still, even as that next stage begins, a sense of accomplishment lingers. Not the meaninglessness of self-esteem, but the sense of accomplishment of having finished not only a long project but one which very few other people have the background to do.

I suspect it won’t be another twenty-five years before I write another book length manuscript. Possibly, I may begin a new project by the end of summer. Meanwhile, I’m going to surf the crest of the wave of accomplishment, believing for a while that I’m not so useless as I sometimes believe.

Will the return to reality will feel like toppling headlong into the waves and losing all sense of direction? Probably. But for a moment I’m standing tall, doing handstands on my board, waving to those stuck on the beach.

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