Tuesday, September 22, 2015

5 Really Cool Novel Writing Tools

Sometime earlier this year, I encountered James Patterson's online Master Class in Novel Writing.   I had read a positive review on the course from Joyce Maynard, who is the kind of novelist who has actually written and sold some novels, and I was inclined to try something new to help me figure out how to move forward my book, currently code-named, The McGuffin.

I hemmed and hawed, and eventually, I proposed to my fellow amateur novel writer friends (I'll call them "Bonnie" and "Andy," to protect their anonymity) that we band together and all take the course.  Bonnie and Andy were not as enthusiastic as I about this idea.  As Andy politely put it:
You know, when I think about writing seriously, I imagine sitting behind an organizedly cluttered desk in Paris, looking back on wasted romances with the detached sensualism and hyper-involvement of a Marguerite Duras... (private FaceBook comment, quoted with permission)
This is why Andy might be a less amateurish a novelist than I--don't you wish you had written that description yourself?  And of course, Andy is right.  It is hard to imagine Marguerite consuming wisdom from James Patterson, especially delivered via the internet.  Even if she had had some kind of steampunk computer setup or a time machine.

From the excellent http://steampunkworkshop.com/lcd-shtml/
Worries like this delayed me for quite a while, but eventually I went ahead and signed up for the course.  I am enjoying it quite a bit.  In fact, I feel helped by it, and not in a "dumbed down" sort of way.  So that is today's Cool Novel Writing Tool Number 1:

1.  Go ahead and take a course if you want.  What the heck!  I won't spoil it for you or release Jim's intellectual property for free.  (Maynard says she started calling Patterson "Jim," in her head, by the end of the course, so of course I am doing that too.) Jim suggested some really practical writing aids, in order to move things forward if you're stuck.  It seemed like fair game to post these for you, since they are in the public domain.  Plus these ideas might even better than re-reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces to brush up on the stages of the classic myth quest!

Hang on, hang on, let's not be hasty.  That's a reasonable piece of advice, depending on the writer and her situation.  Quickly, then:  Tool 2:

2.  Re-read The Hero With A Thousand Faces and plot from there.  Your mileage may vary.

Jim himself suggests some idea generators to help you get un-stuck as you create a rich, imaginary world.  Which brings us to Tools 3 and 4:

3.  Inspiration Finder.  There is a site called Chaotic Shiny - Inspiration Finder to help with just about any dimension of your novel.  For example, here's a random "rune" it generated for me:  Ezykeij is formed of seven lines in roughly the shape of a chariot. It is associated with a legal problem, air and vanity  

I hadn't thought of including a rune.  But now not only do I have a rune to consider, but I can link it thematically to some of the key McGuffin themes!  I am so entranced by this site I have permanently linked to it from my blog from the gadget in the upper right.  Sure, you will run the risk of being so entertained that you never get back to writing at all, but isn't that fantastic?  Patterson also suggests:

4.  Seventh Sanctum.  This is another generator, with links to even more generators!  In particular, Patterson suggests the "What-if-inator."  A clever what-if concept does not a novel make, but if you are facing the dark night of the typewriter, and you're not sure what your heroine's best friend should be like, give it a whirl to stimulate your own imagination, even if you don't see a role for:
Name: Kenneth Davis
Age: late 60s
Profession: cashier

Height: tall
Body Type: lean
Features: hard
Eyes: pale brown
Hair: long, straight, light brown
Annoyed by: fast cars
Sucker For: political discussions

Favourite Sin: gluttony
Favourite Virtue: generosity

Household: birds, wife

Lucky number: 11
5.  The Point Is.  This is your novel!  You should have fun with it.  As Maynard points out, all jokes aside, Patterson has the same kind advice for you that Duras would have had, or that Maynard herself gives to her own writing students:
Even if a person never finishes her novel, or finds an agent, or gets her work published, James Patterson will no doubt leave her feeling fired up to write a story. It will inspire people, and make them happy. It will not put them down. What James Patterson is selling here, as much as anything is a glimpse at the dream, and the feeling that it might actually be possible.  (Maynard, "An Accomplished Writer Takes a 'MasterClass' From a Gargantuan Selling Writer," August 4, 2015)
Your novel is a product of your passion, expressed in the discipline of sitting down to write for an hour a day, if you can't get more time than that.  Learn the tips!  Learn the tricks!  But just keep going.  As Maynard says Patterson says:  "reach for the stars."

From the lovely http://stressfish.com/astrology_stress_meditation_woman_stars.htm

Friday, September 18, 2015

For the Love of It

The interwebs are full of scorn for "the amateur novelist."  Experts opine online about amateurs making "fatal" mistakes that should be "punished."  Discouragingly professional writer Charles Finch supplies "The 5 Differences Between Professional and Amateur Novelists."  Marg Gilks requires quite a few chapters of warm-up before she even gets to "Fundamentals of Fiction, Part X:  Avoid Those Beginners' Blunders." Do not, she says, set the red "amateur flag" waving for agents and publishers.

This is the old gentleman who used to walk in front of steam-driven carriages on the King's highway. He carried in his hand a red flag which he waved.  --From The Motor Car Dumpy Book, T.W.H. Crossland, 1904.  
It is apparently dangerous out there.

This is the old gentleman getting out of the way of a motor car.  Ibid.
And that is why I never, ever, thought about writing a novel.  

One time I wrote a whole bunch of technical documentation in haiku form, but that was about it for me.
If you do not think/About your test data now/Quality will suck. (-emy)
In 2011, I had an epiphany, in the form of a brief stint working on a software development team led by Scott Newton, whose birthday it is today.  Before I was sent home from Canada in disgrace (not his fault--I'm pretty sure he felt worse about it than I did), I had enough time to ferret out that this amazingly blunt and incisive technical project manager, a man who routinely makes technicians cower and executives cry, is a novel writer!  To date he has published two novels, and I guarantee he is writing another one now.  He is my hero.

It turns out Scott just goes ahead and writes these novels.  Apparently, there's other stuff, and he publishes them and so on, but the key is that the writing happens, and it's a matter of sitting down and typing away.  I had no idea.  Later that year, I discovered "National Novel Writing Month," (NaNoWriMo), an annual world-wide endeavor of like-minded amateurs to write a complete novel during the month of November.  And in 2011, I sat down and wrote the first 75 pages of my novel!  
The NaNoWriMo Crest!
And here we are in 2015, and I'm clear up to page 81!  

This remarkable lack of progress is not for lack of engagement.  I was doing some other things (colonoscopy! elopement! moving across the country! gum surgery! construction of IVAR shelves!) plus I ended up spending a lot of time on research which went beyond the strictly necessary for my plot.  One wouldn't think a book set in 1796 would require such a FIRM grip on Druidism, for example, as I seem to have acquired.  And then I had to learn how to structure a novel, and I did a whole bunch of graphs with "story arcs" in them, and then I spent a month worrying about my characters, because I wanted them all to be likable, but that turns out not to really drive a story along. That problem is still not solved, actually.

"Elena," you are probably thinking, "you are waving the red flag of amateurism."  Yes!  Yes I am.  But I'm following that flag with a motor car of determination.  And I thought I would go ahead and try to carry you along with me.  Why?  Because novel writing is wonderful.  You should try it!

When you write a novel, you create an organizational structure in your brain that helps you learn about history, and people, and art, and retain that learning.  When you travel, you have an excuse to go to special collections and read specific letters--or tramp around in obscure corners of the world to take photos of neo-gothic family burial vaults or indoor-outdoor carpeting through which you can barely see the outline of a trap door.  When you write about the Georgians, you can turn up your nose when people send you an interesting article about the Tudors.

No matter where you are or what you do during the day, you  can take the opportunity at your convenience to stretch yourself by creating something new.  If you're an English Literature person, you can see a whole technique around writing and structuring novels that you never would have dreamed about, especially if you were educated in the 1980s and all you had to read was postcards and comics.  You find out, as a new friend of mine put it, about what you convey by what is not said.  By you!  You can talk with your other novel writing friends about your novels, and see the whole world in a new and interesting light.  You can be an artist on super low gear.

This is a motor car that is being driven too fast.  The Motor Car Dumpy Book again.
Wayne Booth, who took up the cello at age 31, wrote a whole book about the conundrum of making a serious attempt to do something well, starting from scratch.  He already knew his musical skill was not in the same class as his international reputation as a literature scholar.
"....when I tried to think about it, the questions became more puzzling. Why bother at any stage of life to work for some new skill or know-how instead of dwelling comfortably with skills already mastered? If you can be certain that you'll never even come close to professional competence, what's the point?"  (http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/065863.html)
Booth's book is called For the Love of It:  Amateuring and its Rivals.  And that's what I'm going to blog about--adventures in being an amateur novelist.  I naturally don't want to rule out the possibility that I am writing the Great American Novel, although the complex inner and outer narrative and the presence of the lesbian secret society in Georgian Britain might mitigate against the necessary wide readership.  But I love this!  It's hard, and it's super interesting!  And I want you to write novels too, and love the process, and tell us all about it!