Sunday, May 6, 2007

Faye Made Me Do It: A Survey

Pharaonic Faye L. Booth (whose last name rhymes with soothe not tooth, by the way) has tagged me to answer the following survey questions and then tag five others. Sort of a survey Pyramid scheme, but with no money involved. As I understand it, according to six-degrees-of-separation logic, this means that in a matter of a few months it would in principle be possible for us to have these 20 questions answered by every writer on the planet. Well, every writer with a blog, anyhow.

In furtherance of that noble goal, here's my block in the big Pyramid:
Copy the questions into your blog and answer them. Then tag five other writers to do the same!

1. Do you outline? Not before writing. When I finish a chapter I log the word count, chapter title (if there is one), POV(s), and a few key events into a list on a spreadsheet. So, by the time I'm done with the first draft, I have something that looks like an outline. This helps me see the general shape of what I've written. (I also change the font colors in the spreadsheet to reflect the POV character of the chapter. Geeky, huh? Creates a hue dilemma--no, not huge dilemma, hue dilemma--when I have two POVs in the same chapter.)

2. Do you write straight through a book, or do you sometimes tackle the scenes out of order? Straight through--though sometimes in revision I change the order of scenes for matters of pacing and proportion.

3. Do you prefer writing with a pen or using a computer? I know a writing teacher who advises against handwriting because he claims that everyone's handwriting looks convincing in their own eyes, and that it gives the prose a credibility in the writer's mind that it hasn't earned.

I have to disagree with his theory. Perhaps he is enamored of his handwriting, but there are infant Bonobo chimps who have a better cursive style than I do. The closer I can get to something that looks like the printed page, the better a sense I have of how the prose is working.

By the way, I don't touch-type. I use index and middle finger on right hand, and index and thumb on left (thumb is for the space bar. I do have opposable thumbs, which is one area where I'm ahead of the Bonobos). I am probably the fastest four-fingered typist around. Since I write fiction so slowly, the speed of my fingers isn't a limiting factor anyway.

4. Do you prefer writing in first person or third? I have no preference; the story usually chooses how it needs to be told. That said, much of my third-person stuff is written from a very intimate POV; a good friend misremembered one of my third-person novels as being first-person.

5. Do you listen to music while you write? If so, do you create a playlist, listen randomly, or pick a single song that fits the book? No. I wish I could, but it just doesn't work. Not only does it play with my mood, it interferes with the rhythm of the prose. When I write, I sit and mutter the words I'm writing under my breath, trying them on for size, backing up to scan for clunky repetition or unintentional rhymes, all the while rocking slightly and mumbling and probably looking as though I'm about to have a seizure. I'm sure it's not a pretty sight.

6. How do you come up with the perfect names for your characters? I often don't, I'm afraid, though when I nail one I get a sudden little trembling 'yes!' sensation. I do have a number of baby-name tomes, the Oxford Dictionary of Surnames, and a bunch of telephone books.

In some cases, I confess to having constructed a name for symbolic purposes connected with the theme of the book. In my first novel, the protagonist was a hard-headed materialist--a geologist by trade--who refused to believe in anything that couldn't be touched and measured. I wanted a name that reflected his earthbound and prosaic nature. "Walker" was an obvious first name (what could be more literally pedestrian?), but it took me longer to come up with the surname "Clayborne". This sort of nonsense is risky, of course, and I haven't yet gone as far as Vonnegut went with Billy Pilgrim, but I admit it sometimes plays a role.

The co-protagonist of Shock and Awe stole her surname from a guy my girlfriend was working with, a bright, affable fellow named 'Smukowski.' I was delighted the first time she mentioned it--what a broad, open, in-your-face, thumper of a name, a name that's fun to say and even more fun to shout--Hey, SmuKOWski, c'mere!--a name at the other end of the spectrum from, say, St John-Smythe (pronounced SinJinSmuuuuthhhh...). I filed it away, and a few months later a woman stomped into the opening pages of my book, and there was no doubt that she was Carla Smukowski.

7. When you're writing, do you ever imagine your book as a television show or movie? The parts that I like best about novels tend to be the parts than can't really be filmed, so, no, never

After the fact, though, I often try to imagine how it would have to be changed to be a workable screenplay. (Answer: usually impossible.) And I don't imagine what actors would play the roles, either, since my characters look like themselves. (Though I have to say that Hilary Swank would be the only logical choice for Carla in Shock and Awe. I really ought to send her agent an ARC when I get one...)

8. Have you ever had a character insist on doing something you really didn't want him/her to do? I'm not totally sure I understand this question. I've had characters do things that surprised and appalled me, but they felt natural. My opinion didn't really enter into it.

9. Do you know how a book is going to end when you start it? No. But I usually have a vague idea of what will be at stake for the main characters at the climax--what sorts of choices will be laid out before them. (This can often be pretty generic in nature--say, sell out or rebel; look inward or react.) I don't always know what they will choose because I don't know the characters well enough until I am deep into the book, and I once had a character come up with a third choice when I thought there were only two.

10. Where do you write? Mostly at home, but I've had some marvellous stints in sterile hotel rooms. Especially when there's nothing to see out the window. Most especially if the windows don't open and the air all comes through some giant HVAC system. The closer I can get to writing on Moonbase Zero, the better. This is one of those facts about myself that worry me.

11. What do you do when you get writer's block? I'm not sure I've encoutered this demon yet. I can always write. The problem is that if I "just do it," I will often write things that take the story in a wrong direction, or are too obvious, or are just beside the point. So sometimes I'm stuck to know how the next scene ought to work, or what the next scene really ought to be.

A long walk sometimes helps, but a long drive in high-speed nighttime freeway traffic works even better. My mind becomes incredibly fertile when it knows I will have to steer with my knees to scribble down ideas.

12. What size increments do you write in (either in terms of wordcount, or as a percentage of the book as a whole)? Usually three pages per day, which is about 660 words at my average wpp; this typically takes me about three hours. When I'm really in the groove, five pages a day. In the last third of a book--when there is little room for manuever--this can get up to a dozen pages a day or more (but it still takes about a page an hour. Sigh.)

13. How many different drafts did you write for your last project? A second after giving the first draft to readers, and before sending out to agents. A third, minor tweak after discussion with my agent. A fourth and final during the revisions with Will Atkins.

However--I revise continuously on the page as I write, and before I begin work each day I read the previous day's output aloud and make amendments. So, I could legitimately say four drafts, four hundred, or anyplace in between.

14. Have you ever changed a character's name midway through a draft? Oh, sure. Especially secondary characters. I'll realize that I've got Leslie and Lisby and Lorrie and Lynley, or Karen and Kristen and Katherine and Koalabear. I often don't spend enough time thinking about secondary character names in advance, so they are often sort of placeholders until I realize (1) that the names all sound alike, and (2) that there is a better name for a given character.

15. Do you let anyone read your book while you're working on it, or do you wait until you've completed a draft before letting someone else see it? Well, I've been in many writing workshops and critique groups, so showing chapters comes with the territory. But I generally find this most useful when I am beginning a novel, and I want to see if the whole idea seems interesting. Usually after the first few chapters, no one sees it until I've finished the first draft.

What I never do is discuss the story or where I think it is headed. Sometimes people get frustrated at how tight-lipped I am about what I'm writing (people in critique groups can be very bad about this, demanding to evaluate what you've written on the basis of where it's headed), but I want all of the material to be on the page, not wasted on the desert air.

16. What do you do to celebrate when you finish a draft? Sex, booze, sleep. Sleep uninterrupted by the book, which in the last third almost never lets me sleep through the night. Oh, and I clean up the house and throw out the houseplants that have died from inattention while I was writing.

17. One project at a time, or multiple projects at once? One, I'm afraid. If that.

18. Do your books grow or shrink in revision? To date, they always get bigger, but I'm about to start revising one from a few years ago that will probably involve massive cutting. (Still, I can't swear that the final result will end up being shorter...)

Most of the time when I decide something can be cut, I'm wrong and my subconscious is right. In my editorial process with Will, he asked if I could add a scene that he thought would be important for understanding character. Easy to do--I added back one I had, apparently unwisely, cut.

My big additions in revision always come in the last third of the book, and usually involve making the story more complicated--adding bigger obstacles and scenes. The biggest action scenes in Shock and Awe were added in the second draft. (Now that I think of it, some of my faithful first-draft readers are going to be pretty surprised.)

My opening chapters almost never change from the first draft, which I am told is 'unusual' (and I'm typically informed of this in a voice which suggests I am either lying or have formed a pact with Satan. Exactly what is so reprehensible about starting in the right place isn't clear to me. Since I never start writing until I'm about to explode with intent, it doesn't seem surprising to me that my beginnings stay intact. It's where we go from there that poses the problem!)

19. Do you have any writing or critique partners? As I said above, I've been in various workshops. And, once a year, I go to the Ranch Mirage Writing Retreat. In the desert. In June. (Cheaper lodgings, and zero distractions: you can't survive outdoors.) 12-14 writers and a workshop leader (Raymond Obstfeld, who has been leading these retreats for about 25 years). We write. We critique. Repeat every day for a week. Instant feedback--very satisfying, and Writer's Heaven, but obviously not the sort of thing that can accomodate more than a chapter or two.

And I've been in a few critique groups, but they really stopped helping me after a time. What DOES help me is my intrepid bunch of first draft readers. Writers David Thayer and Kimberly Cole, as well as normal, ostensibly healthy, people Pamela Blake and Peter Guyer, have read everything I've completed; other folks have read one or more of my books.

I really want input only on the big stuff--shape, pacing, proportion, interest.

20. Do you prefer drafting or revising? Oh, drafting, drafting, drafting. Did I say, without a doubt, drafting? I deeply loathe revision, because I have to try to keep in mind every thread of the web of the story when I change something. It makes me nervous to the point of prostration. (Carolyn See prescribes a calming diet of red wine and tomato soup, taken in separate mugs. At least you get plenty of colorful phytochemicals.)

Revising under the guidance of an editor makes it much easier, as I can tell myself that someone has a grip on the whole shape of the the story--even if I don't.

There. Sorry now that you asked?

I'm going to see if I can play tag largely outside of the MNW Usual Suspects (since I suspect they'll all get roped in as this progresses, though I am going to tag Lucy, not only for the fun of it but to keep it going inside the Sacred Band).

David Thayer
Charles Lambert
The FictionBitch Herself, Elizabeth Baines
Patricia Wood
Lucy McCarraher

You're it!


Faye L. said...

Now, is that pharaonic as in pharaoh-like, pharaonic as in enormous or pharaonic as in cruel and tyrannical?

David Isaak said...

That would be pharaonic as in pharaoh-like--e.g. the sort of person who commissions pyramids, be they literal or figurative.

I am not assuming that you are monummental in personal stature, though for all I know you might be.

I've always figured the 'cruel and tyrannical' usage was a bad rap. Some Pharaohs were probably quite nice fellows. Yeah, yeah, so they often slew the bearers of bad tidings. Who hasn't?

Charles Lambert said...

Thanks for tagging me, David. I'm flattered and slightly fraught (for other reasons) and I'll be doing this as soon as I get the chance. I enjoy this kind of picking fluff out of the navel activity, though I'm not sure how healthy it is (unless honesty is kept to a modicum - but that may always be the case).

David Isaak said...

As to the mental health aspects of this activity...

My girlfriend has a dictum that the two major ways people go wrong is by either 1) assuming that everyone else in the world thinks and feels very much as they themselves do, or, 2) assuming that no one else in the world thinks and feels as they do.

I think this kind of exercise is useful because it shows that both these assumptions are wrong, even in the case of other nutjobs. Sorry. I meant 'writers.'

Plus I have a neverending fascination trying to guess in advance who writes longhand and who types.

Lucy McCarraher said...

Hi David,
Nice to have yuo back from your travels. When is your book actually coming out - MNW's website has been considerably reduced now it's been subsumed into Macmillan's and they don't do the "Coming up for takeoff" pages any more. Cate and I have agred that we will show our (rejected) faces at your launch, if we're invited.
OK, I'm a sucker. I've copied the questions and I'm about to answer them on my blog - but I don't know how you do the tagging thing. Technologically inept, or what? If you give me instructions on mine or yours, I'll do it.
Lucy x

David Isaak said...

Hola, Lucia! Good to hear from you.

My book comes out around Sep 7. I'd love to see you and Cate at the launch (or any other time), though I'm hardly impressed at your rejection credentials. I have reams of rejections, squads of rejectors, a PhD in eliciting negative responses. I am the Rejectionator, and you are a pair of naifs. (Try to remain that way. Rejection isn't so bad, but it's not that great either.)

Ah, the tagging thing. The problem is that it's hard to show how to make one without creating one--and when you've created one, you can't see the mechanism anymore!

What you need to do is edit one of your posts that has a link, and click the EDIT HTML tab. If you look where the link is you will see a long bunch of nonsense that starts with '<' and an 'a' and ends with an 'a' and a '>'. The stuff in double-quote marks is the link. Following this is the phrase you highlighted. The other stuff is HTML gobbledegook that just has to be there.

The easiest thing to do is copy this nonsense to your word processor and then replace the link with the link you reslly want and the phrae with the phrase you really want. Then paste the whole mess wherever you want it to go--for example into COMMENTS..

Believe it or not, although it will look like nonsense at the time, when it next comes up it will show as a highlighted link.

I probably didn't explain that very well. It's easier than I made it sound. But it's also utterly nonintuitive.

(You may or may not know that copying is CTRL-C and pasting CTRL-V when all other keystrokes fail.)