Connective Tissue

Last night, I sat down and wrote the 2700 words necessary to put me over 50K. Officially, in NaNoWriMo terms, I am a winner.

The trouble, of course, is that the book isn’t finished. I estimate it’s somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 done. I’ve got a lot of setup, and a little action, and thanks to a NaNoWriMo inspirational email, I’ve got most of the ending.

Of course, what happens in between is kind of important, as is presenting it in a way that keeps the reader’s attention.

As it happens, I have always had a tendency to write vignettes. I have whole stories in my head for which I have never written anything more than a handful of key scenes, over and over. I am good at this, but in fairness, it’s pretty easy to start a scene when you can assume all necessary information has already been provided to your reader. If I find myself relying on a fact or event that I hadn’t considered before, I can simply tell myself “Yeah, okay, I’ll have to cover that somewhere else.” Scene is done, lots of words written – and no closer to an actual novel.

Connective tissue can be a real bear to write. It can be tedious. It can feel contrived, especially in those first drafts when you know you MUST provide particular details, and you end up stuffing a lot of data into a scene that really isn’t structured for it. For me, at least, it’s the hardest part of writing: keeping the path between scenes interesting, organized, and informative.

When I started on November 1, I was writing the story linearly. I wrote an introduction, most of which will have to be scrapped; but I wrote it, and it taught me a lot about what I did and didn’t need as setup for the story. In threading together some scenes that I had already outlined in detail, I ended up handing the point of view off to a character who was previously intended to stay in the background. He has helped me say some things that need saying without getting too dry and literal about it all.

(The trouble is I like him too much, and he’s sucking up more of my attention than he should for this story. Maybe I’ll write him a book next year.)

But then, a few days back, on the advice of someone I don’t actually know, I wrote the ending, and I outlined four interim scenes. I’ve written one and a half of those interim scenes, and I’m already over 50K.

On the one hand…yes, it is nice to have an ending. I always knew where the story was headed, but to have it on paper, even as a first draft, is really useful. On the other hand – boy, did I have to assume a lot of connective tissue to write the ending.

Between now and the end of the month I plan to write every day, but perhaps not so much (life, after all, must resume at some point). I figure if I set aside half an hour each night, I can write based on time rather than word count.

I still won’t finish this novel by November 30. I won’t even come close. But I might be able to write the scenes I have already sketched out…and then, maybe, I can outline the bits of connective tissue I am still missing.

It’s been a fascinating experience. Generally when I would stop writing, I would despair over the quality of what I had just done. But then I would read it over, and find it was not so bad. None of it is of anything like finished quality…but I am building a structure, a mood, an emotional arc. It’s not there yet, but I can see where it’s going.

The next four months of my life are going to be insanely hectic for a batch of non-writing reasons. I don’t know how much attention I am going to be able to pay to this new baby I have just produced. I will say, though…I like this one. It suffers from many of the things my writing often suffers from, including Too Many Nice People, and a need to have a happy ending. But I like my characters, and I think in the end I leave them in a reasonable place. They interest me, and I am hoping I can make them interesting to other people as well.

I will try to carve a little writing space out of my life, even if it’s not much. We’ll see where this one goes.

The Best Laid Plans

So I’ve been doing the tweeting thing, and it’s been a little different than I anticipated.

I had an idea that I’d have some obvious choices for really good or really bad sentences; but apart from some egregious typos (and there aren’t even that many of those – I tend to reflexively correct typos as I go, even when I’m scrambling for word count), sentences out of context tend to be far more mundane. The ones that I like, that seem to fit the rhythm of the prose and evoke exactly what I want, are meaningless without the surrounding words. Similarly, the ones that are awful tend to be awful because they are vague, or they break the narrative in the wrong place. I’ve found a few egregious untethered pronouns and some annoying redundancies – but on the whole, the sentences I’ve chosen are unlikely to stand out to someone else as either good or bad.

What I think might be interesting is how the 30 sentences read in sequence (once there are 30 of them). Right now, the story reads very strangely. It’s clear there is liquor involved, and some guy apparently named for a playing card, and possibly some fighting. All of this is true (although he’s not actually named for a playing card; I’ve bastardized some Russian/Slavic names for my characters, and it makes a practical nickname), but it’s not in the least bit descriptive of the story.

One thing I do know: I am enjoying the writing of this one. Last year’s was rather random. I had a character I had come up with in another story, and I thought he was nice, so I set out to find him a girl. I did, and they fell in love and lived happily ever after, and it was about 53,000 words of happy people and not much conflict.

It was BORING. I needed some bad guys. I needed protagonists who were not quite so two-dimensional. Now I have bad guys, and protagonists who get stuff wrong a lot.

It is much, much easier to write about people who get stuff wrong.

I’ve set myself a personal goal: 2000 words a day. I started this on (I think it was) the 6th, and so far I’ve been keeping up with it. I like it, because it gets me ahead – I can skip a whole day now if I want to, but I won’t. I also like it because it’s personalized. It’s proving I’m doing it for myself, and not just for NaNoWriMo goodies. 2000 words take me between 80 and 100 minutes, depending on how sticky the scenes are. It’s a big chunk of time, but for a month? Piece of cake.

Of course, there is no way this story will be done in a month, even with the 32,000 words I’ll be writing between now and then. But that is a problem for another day.

Back in the Swing

Well, I was worried, but I did it. I wrote last night, and hit my word count. I stopped in the middle of a scene, so I’ll have some momentum when I start back up this evening.

I’ve read a lot of books on writing, and listened to a lot of professional writers speak. Anne Perry, for instance, revealed that she outlines each chapter in extensive detail before she writes it. Dennis Lehane amusingly confessed that when he gets too full of himself, his friends and family call him up and read his first drafts to him over the phone.

Books can be useful, and anecdotes are fun to collect; but I quickly found that what works for one writer isn’t necessarily going to work for another. I could never do Perry’s level of meticulous plotting. And my first drafts, for the most part, never leave my computer (or often, unfortunately, the inside of my head).

But it was John Irving, who spoke to my writing class when I was in college, who gave me a useful tip: If you have to stop writing, stop in the middle of a scene. That way you’ll pick up at a place where your brain was moving, instead of having to start from a dead stop. If you forget where you were, he added, you’ll probably find that any new idea that comes to you will be better than your original.

This one works well for me. It was especially useful at last year’s NaNoWriMo, when I was writing and plotting at the same time. (I’m doing less of that this year; but still.) It helped to be able to return to something that was already partially built; it reminded me more quickly where I was, and where I had been planning on going. Last night I got through my hated introduction (I’ll have to redo the whole thing, assuming I decide to nurture this book; but at least I got a lousy first draft down), and into a scene that I’ve actually laid out already in some detail. It’ll be easy for me to pick up and keep going.

Irving said one other thing that day in my class that has stuck with me. He said that in his experience, there are two kinds of writers. There is the writer who, if he is unsuccessful as a writer, can do something else with his life: be a doctor, or a homebuilder, or something that will allow him to live pretty much normally. And then there is the writer who will either write, or be a bum. He spoke of a student of his, a kid who, he said, was the sort of person who’d be followed down the sidewalk by a cop waiting for him to do something. He said this kid was a truly amazing writer.

This was the guy. It seems a lot of people ended up agreeing with Irving on his ability.

When Irving spoke to our class, I was maybe 20, and a hopeless romantic. I desperately wanted to be the sort of writer who had┬áto write, or end up in a cardboard box. Now I’m a software engineer, and I am hopelessly enamored of of indoor plumbing.

Go figure. But there is, I have learned, art in everything.

And really fabulous character fodder embodied in the people you work with every day.