Thursday, July 31, 2008

Walking, Drifting, and Staying Lost

Alis has a recent post where she talks about walking and thinking about theme, and layering, and fabric--all the big issues. She calls this "helicoptering" over the book. But then she bemoans the narrowing of vision that comes when one arrives back at the keyboard.

I too love walking to think about writing, and it's nice to get the big picture. But I don't come home and sit down until I've narrowed back in on the scene I need to write. It's good to see the forest, but to write I have to get back down to the trees, and then to the leaves, and then to the pumping osmotic pressure in the veins in the leaves, and I don't sit at the keyboard until the big picture has been replaced by the twitchy obsession to write a particular bit.

I don't even try to remember why I'm writing the scene--I just remember the general idea and the atmosphere and effect I'm striving for. I don't try to remember the big picture while I'm writing. I just trust that it made sense while I was out walking, and that now I have to sit down and do the little task at hand...and pray that my subconscious, instead of wandering out into the yard and snapping at flying insects, hangs around to furnish me with the thematic underpinnings, symbols, subtext, and all that jazz.

I'm sure some people can be deep into a scene and also be consciously aware of all the subtle interconnections of the elements of the scene with all the levels of the book as a whole. There are also people who can tap dance while playing a musical instrument and simultaneously juggling plates. More power to them, but I am not in the ranks of either of those groups.

When I'm writing, I am deep down in my burrow, working in the dark in a very small space on some tiny little problem, and I fear to pop my head up into the sunshine because I'm certain some predator's claws or jaws are waiting for me. For me, while at the keyboard, the big picture is sure death.

So I walk to look at the big picture, but zoom in before I get back to my desk. The only problem comes when I can't zoom in on the scene that needs to happen next. This can result in what Pooh would call Some Very Long Walks.

You know those people who walk or jog across continents, or around the world? I'd guess some of them are novelists who can't pin down the next scene.

Of course, lately I can't do the big picture or the small. So I haven't been walking.

I've done some whacking at plants with garden shears, though. I think of it as editing the botany in our yard.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

To Hyphenate, Or To Hyphen-hate?

I'm trying to fit in final editing of Tomorrowville (the novel, not the blog) between extended bouts of programming, and it doesn't fit well. The programming is complicated, and you need to breathe it during all your waking hours, and dream about it a bit, too. The program I'm writing has to call a commercial optimization routine. Here's a sample of the instructions for the data arrays I need to pass to that product:

If matbeg, matcnt, and matind are non-empty, the array matval contains the nonzero coefficients grouped by column (ie all coefficients for the same variable are consecutive). matbeg(i) contains the index in matval of the first coefficient for column i. matcnt contains the number of coefficients in column i. Note that the indices in matbeg must be in ascending order. Each entry matind(i) is the row number of the corresponding coefficient in matval(i).

There. About as clear as a passage in one of John Hawkes' early novels--and yet dull. You might think that impenetrable and boring are hard to achieve at the same time, and you might be right. But they sure aren't fun together.

Anyhow, I've stolen a little time for my editing. And my editor is great. But we seem to disagree on one topic: Hyphens.

Now, I don't care for them. I use them when they are required to form a compound adjective from two erstwhile nouns, as in "dirt-bike riders", and I can appreciate that they are needed in Tom Wolfe's Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. But, in truth, I prefer to collapse them into a single word when possible.

For instance, I prefer "crosslegged" to "cross-legged." At one time, "cross-legged" was preferred; now, dictionaries are neutral on the subject. I suspect that in the near future, "crosslegged" will be the preferred form. English is a Germanic tongue, and the tendency is to smunch words together. We have even generally gone from "co-operation" to "cooperation," despite the weird-looking and unphonetic "coop" at the start.

Moreover, I think hyphens are most appropriate when you are putting together an unlikely combination of words. When they occur together so frequently as to be a single word, they should consider losing the hyphen. For example, everyone writes "bullheaded" rather than "bull-headed." "Dim-wit" and "dim-witted" have undergone the same gradual compaction.

And I write "hamhanded" rather than "ham-handed." Writing "ham-handed" not only looks cluttered to me, but seems as if I am suggesting that I've arrived at an enchanting new phrase, when in fact I'm deploying it as a single, obvious word.

My editor disagrees. She thinks that "narcoterrorist" is confusing to the reader. while "narco-terrorist" isn't. (Ironic note: "Narcoterrorist" entered English as a single, unhyphenated word; it was coined in the early 1980s by the President of Peru.)

Hyphens. What say you, dear readers?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Minor Victory for the Humanities

No, I'm not done with this silly programming project yet.

I did, however, manage to write a subroutine that pleased me. There is a place where I needed to invent this subroutine:

Public Sub BedOfProcrustes(ByRef strCurrentLine As String)

It's a subroutine that looks at a line, and if it's shorter than n characters it stretches it out to n characters; if it's longer than n characters, it chops it off to n characters.

I thought it was sort of clever. (Hey, I'm hard up for amusement.) But as it turns out, the idea of a Procrustian String variable was already introduced by Sinclair (remember them?) back at the dawn of the PC age. It just never caught on.

As the Barenaked Ladies song laments, It's All Been Done Before.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Important info about "Commas"

A while back, I quoted Bill Brohaugh's famous observation that the only rule in writing is never begin a sentence with a comma.

To my great surprise and pleasure, Bill Brohaugh himself recently dropped through the Comment Trail on that post. I thought you folks might be interested in his comments, so I've promoted them to the body of this post:

David: Your advice is dead on, and all writers should pay heed. Creative rule-breaking can make for some dazzling writing. And writers should heed Raymond Obstfeld's advice, too. Raymond wrote a few articles for me when I edited Writer's Digest years ago.

I don't think you have to pay heed to my bit of advice quoted at the beginning of your post, though. I discovered while writing Everything You Know About English Is Wrong that beginning sentences with commas is not only acceptable, it is common. For those of you interested in an example, this very sentence begins with a comma--and that comma is the phrase "For those of you interested in an example." The first use of the word comma in English was a borrowing from Latin and Greek. A comma was a short phrase, not quite a sentence. (In fact, the OED gives as the definition of Greek comma “a piece cut off,” which might make a good model for people looking to tighten their prose.) The word comma in this definition, tracing back to ancient literature and in use in English by the 1500s, was subsequently transferred to the punctuation symbol that set off the short phrase, the piece cut off.

This language never ceases to surprise and fascinate me.

Now that falls into the category of truly arcane.

I'm off to find a copy of Everything You Know About English Is Wrong. It had a pub date of early May, 2008, so I'm betting it's on the shelves locally. If it isn't, Amazon US has it. And, for those Across the Water, Amazon UK has it as well.

And, thanks for dropping through, Bill--it's an honor to meet you.

Friday, July 18, 2008

When Life Gets in the Way

I'm supposed to be doing the final edits on Tomorrowville (the novel, not this blog), as well as writing my next book. But suddenly a steady stream of day-job work has turned into a flood.

You see, some of the modeling software we use was written way back in 1988. And now, in the middle of a big project, it has reached an upper limit on "heap space," a limitation that results from having been written back in the days of 16-bit processors.

So, guess what? I have to rewrite the program that creates the simulation models from scratch, in a different programming language. Quickly.

I'm old enough that my brainstem works in Fortran, but I grudgingly became a Pascal maven, and gradually realized it is the Queen of programming languages. So naturally it has fallen by the wayside, abandoned in favor of C++ and Visual Basic. I've written some big programs in VB, but the last time I touched it was around 2000. That was Visual Basic 5.0. Now they're up to VB 9.0, and everything has changed.

So I'm frantically trying to learn all the ins and outs of the new version of the language--which is wildly different from VB 5.0--and learn the new Visual Studio Development Environment, and write this arcane program in the next couple of weeks (I'm in Chapter 5 of the software manual; there's 19 more to go). Oh, and I'm editing T-Ville. And writing the current novel. Anybody know a good work/life balance consultant?

Luckily, the protagonist of Tomorrowville is a computer geek. Maybe I'll be able to channel him.

(PS That whistling sound? That's me, whistling in the dark. How do I get myself into these messes?)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rotating POVs

I’ve completed five novels, of which three are in apparently perpetual revision. Two of those five have been first-person narratives; the other three are third-person, multi-POV.

In third person multi, I tend to establish a pattern of POV characters chapter-by-chapter and stick to that pattern until fairly late in the book (where I let it collapse under the story momentum—I let some POVs vanish, let more than one into a single chapter, etc.). In Shock and Awe, if the characters were letters of the alphabet, then the pattern is a simple rotation: A—B—C—D, A—B—C—D…(although after some point I ease in character E and ease out character D).

Tomorrowville takes place in 2088. The protagonist, Toby (sorry, Alis—but I wrote it back in 2002) is someone from our own time, but the other POV characters are all from the world of 2088. In this case, the chapter rotation pattern was Toby—Toby—Somebody Else 1—Toby—Toby—Somebody Else 2…which is a lot of Toby, punctuated by some radically different viewpoints. (Indeed, some people who’ve read the book remember it as being first-person from Toby’s POV.)

Why am I blathering on about this? Because this rotating narrative structure isn’t working for my current novel.

I think I have three third-person POV voices in my current work-in-progress. But try as I might, A—B—C, A—B—C isn’t working for this one. For starters, the three story lines are not immediately connected, and any time you juxtapose two apparently unrelated chapters, readers start hunting for the connections. This can be a good thing, but spinning round and round through the pattern without any clear intersection can make the reader crazy after a few iterations.

A related issue is that I have big backstories with dramatized scenes. So we start with character A in the present, but at some point we need to drop back for a long chapter into character A’s past. Fine. But jumping in time and also rotating POV characters not only dilutes the impact of each story, but also may be downright confusing. As in the earlier post about musicals, it would be nice if these characters could just stride onto stage and get their backstories and motivations out of the way…but novels don’t work like that, do they?

Which has brought me to a horrible realization. My standard policy of rotating POVs isn’t going to work—at least not on a chapter-by-chapter basis. I need maybe eighty pages, four or five chapters, from character A; and then a similar amount from character B; and then again from character C; all of these, as sort of novellas, before I let the three stories collide.

This is making me very nervous. Each time you pull the reader away from one POV to another, you are asking them to make an effort, but if you keep this up in a predictable pattern, they will adjust. On the other hand, writing a novella's-worth and then yanking them away into another novella may really make them frustrated. I don't know. I've never done it.

Another fear is that I don’t have all my wares on display at first. With rotation, you get to meet all the POV characters early, and see the POV span of the novel. I have three very different POV characters in this one—an American male doctor, a Canadian female biologist, and a Peruvian male revolutionary—and each of the POVs has a rather different voice and emphasis. If I don’t rotate early on, people may think they are reading a book about just one of those characters

This book is making me crazy.

Nothing About Writing

We just arrived back--days early, for various reasons--from a short vacation. At the moment, I'm a little dazed, but I promise a post about something substantive tomorrow.

Meanwhile, take a look at these fine pictures of the annual Fire Arts Festival put on by The Crucible in Oakland, California. Some friends dragged us along (we'd already seen The Crucible's astonishing production of Stravinsky's Firebird earlier this year), and the Festival was a truly mind-altering experience.

All of us like to play with fire, right? Chimps and parrots can use language, any number of animals use tools, but there's a primal, uniquely human trip.

The Fire Arts Festival covers acres with flaming art pieces, gargantuan Tesla coils, and live performances. The whole affair is right at the edge of danger: a gazillion volts of crackling blue arm-thick lightning shooting from a car-sized discharge coil to a man in a tin-woodsman outfit, a thirty-foot-high flame tornado twisting up into the night sky, or a gout of flame rushing up through a 300-pound block of ice--everything about it feels uneasily out of control yet pulls you closer.

Toward the climax of the evening, some fire artists dragged in an upright jet turbine, and started it whining...whining...whining, the pitch rising until people clamped their hands over their ears, and at last a spout of flame shot skywards and everyone backed away. And then backed away even further, and then sort of stumbled into retreat before the raw intensity of the heat. Even fifty feet away, it was barely tolerable. I've been at an active volcanic eruption where it poured into the sea; this is the only heat I've ever felt that compared to living lava.

Some people, of course, are too mature to amuse themselves by watching people play with matches. For those folks, the amazingly sexy, in-your-face dance troupe The Nekyia are always on hand, en masse or in twos and threes...

Did we have a good time?

Does the Pope wear a hat that looks like the space shuttle?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Those Dicta: Tension (first in an occasional series)

Bill Brohaugh once declared that the only reliable rule in writing is "Never start a sentence with a comma."

So far I haven't had cause to question that one. You also probably shouldn't start with periods, colons, or semicolons, either.

[Warning--pointless digression contained in these brackets. In Spanish, of course, you can start a sentence with a question mark (upside down), which has always looked to me as if the writer wasn't merely asking a question but was vastly, urgently confused, and perhaps a touch overwrought:

¿What was that?

¡Spanish can also start with an upside-down exclamation point!

And, although it seems unlikely, when you have a question that is also an exclamation of surprise, you are supposed to use the inverted bang at the front and a question mark at the end:

¡Why on earth am I writing all this?

In English, of course, if you're James Joyce or Alan Paton writing dialogue, you can even start with an em-dash. But commas, periods, colons, and semi-colons make a poor start to a sentence, and that's an iron-clad rule.]

My problem with rules about writing is that they generate in my writerly ego an overweening desire to break them, just to show it can be done successfully. "Never open a story with a dream." Ha. Done that, and the book will be published next year. "Never have a villain whose only motivation is that he's 'evil'." Done that, too, and he's my favorite villain. (He's a god who feeds on anguish. It's his niche in the metaphysical ecosystem. It's not a bwah-ha-ha-ha sort of thing. It's science.)

I know this attitude of breaking things becasue they're there is contrary and childish. I have my own rules (I don't put adverbs in dialogue tags, for example), but they are part of my little personal code of conduct, not something I assume to be universal. And whenever I'm exhorted to follow some precept as a necessary key to readable writing, I dig in my heels.

Here's one I've heard a lot lately: Tension on every page. (Lit agent Donald Maass--a very good agent--is usually credited.)

Do we really need tension on every page? I don't think so. I can point to many pages in many great novels that I would say are totally devoid of tension. And while writing I certainly don't stop every hundred words and ask myself is there something I can do to ensure there is tension on this page?

Of course, one of the things you quickly discover is that the adherents of such rules tend to engage in redefinition. Show them a passage where the author has clearly succeeded in maintaining the reader's interest despite the fact that it's a scene intended to show that the characters have arrived at a moment of safety and comfort, and they will reply--ah, but that's the calm-before-the-storm, a classic kind of tension. Show them a funny scene, a tender scene, a lyrical scene, and they'll find tension in there somewhere. Basically, in their view, Interest = Tension. It's like arguing with a religious fanatic--everything that agrees with them proves their point, and so does everything that contradicts them.

This redefinitionist tendency results in some pretty silly situations. I've seen people assert that all first-person narrators are the protagonists of their novels, and then watched them try to wriggle their way through to demonstrate their theory, rather than simply conceding that their idea was a little flaky. (I don't know how the hell they try to prove that Watson is the protagonist of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but I'd like to watch them weasel through that one.) But that's another complaint, and I shouldn't get distrracted from my current diatribe.

Why do I care about this tension contention? Partly just that childish streak, and partly because I've seen too much amateur writing lately that is clearly striving to put tension on every page, and it gets damned annoying to read.

Novelist and teacher Raymond Obstfeld sets a goal I find more reasonable--a gem on every page. Might be tension, might be language, might be a perfect line of dialogue, might be just about anything that makes the reader glad they read that page. Make every page sell itself.

Now there's a rule I can endorse (if not always succeed in obeying).

Friday, July 4, 2008

Self-publication Urban Legends

It’s like a scene from Night of the Living Dead: you shoot them, they fall down, and then they slowly climb to their feet and stagger towards you once more. Yes, I’m talking about internet misinformation about surprising self-publication success. I’m sure you’ve heard them before:

1. John Grisham self published his first novel and sold it out of the back of his car.

2. Robert James Waller’s Bridges of Madison County was self-published, and Waller actually sold it door-to-door

3. Christopher Paolini wrote and self-published his bestselling novel Eragon at age 15, and created a brilliant self-publicity campaign

4. After his first novel was rejected by every publisher in New York City, Tom Clancy decided to publish it himself and it became an instant bestseller.

Etc. Sigh.

Grisham’s first novel.

No, John Grisham’s first (and possibly best) novel, A Time to Kill, wasn’t self-published. Wynwood Press published it, and paid Grisham a $15,000 advance. The print run was 5,000 copies. Sales were sluggish, and Grisham bought at least a thousand of those copies and—yes, as the legend says—sold them out of his car and wherever else he could. (Who wants 50%+ remainders on their resume?)

If you happen to have signed first editions, they fetch about $4,600 these days. Grisham should have kept the copies he bought and signed them.

The Bridges of Madison County.

I’m not quite sure how this persistent legend began. Waller’s earlier works were all published by University of Iowa Press, but when he wrote Bridges of Madison County, he sent it to one of the top agents in the US, Aaron Priest, who sold it to the third publisher that saw it, Warner Books. (How the “door-to-door” aspect of this story emerged is a real mystery.)

Christopher Paolini’s Eragon.

This is a particularly messy story, as parts of it have been misstated over and over again, and Paolini himself has given interviews where he makes slightly misleading statements to embellish the Cinderella aspects of the legend.

Paolini finished home-schooling high school at age 15 and began writing Eragon some time after that. He didn’t write and publish it at age 15; the writing itself took a number of years.

His parents owned and operated the small press Paolini International LLC, which was established in 1997 (Eragon was published in 2002), and had already published a number of nonfiction books. His parents edited and revised the manuscript and then printed 10,000 copies.

They used their existing publishing connections to get the book in local bookstores, and also arranged and financed—and brought the family along—on his book tour. The real Cinderella moment came when Carl Hiassen’s stepson Ryan Lindberg read the book and raved about it to Hiassen, who contacted his publisher, Knopf, about the book.

It’s a pretty amazing story even without embellishment. But it’s not exactly a story about self-publishing. (Do your parents happen to own a small publishing company, and are they willing to sink, what--$30,000?…$60,00?—into printing and promoting your book? And, while we’re at it, are you done with school and also not working?)

Tom Clancy’s first novel

The Hunt for Red October—the only Clancy novel I’ve enjoyed—was in fact turned down by many publishers before it was published by the Naval Institute Press. Although this was itself an unusual development (NIP had just decided to branch out into fiction when Clancy’s book arrived), it’s a long ways from self-publishing. There is a considerable difference between the personal finances and marketing clout of an insurance salesman (Clancy) and the United States Navy (the publisher).

As an irrelevant aside, despite all the pictures of Clancy in fatigues beside or astride various pieces of military ironmongery, he never served in the military. Hey, it’s fiction, okay?

I have nothing against self-publishing (though I’d be disinclined to try it myself; it's enough trouble to write the damn things). But what puzzles me is that the legends persist when there are so many true success stories out there. The redoubtable MJ Rose really did self-publish her first novel as an e-book and used the sales and buzz to hook up with a major publishing house. Zane really did start out self-publishing erotica on the web, and then in book form, before Pocket Books picked her up. Gay Afro-American writer E. Lynn Harris really did self-publish his first novel and sell about 10,000 copies through beauty salons and impromptu signings before he hit the big time. And there are plenty of self-published nonfiction books (well, arguably nonfiction) such as The Celestine Prophecy or The Christmas Box, that were later picked up and promoted into bestsellerdom.

So do we really need the Grisham/Waller/Paolini/Clancy legends?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

My Broadway Show?

Stravinsky, my favorite orchestral composer, hated the use of music to underline non-musical points. He was particularly vehement in his belief that music should only appear in movies when someone in the movie was playing music.

Obviously the world of film paid little attention to old Igor, but I understand what he meant. In life, we don't get ominous music before we open dangerous doors, or love themes when our eyes meet across the room (though both would be very handy clues in making decisions). Movie music is appallingly artificial, but like a laugh-track on a television comedy, it's the kind of intrusive thing that becomes unnoticed with time. (Imagine how audiences would react to a laugh-track on a comedy released in the cinema...)

This nervous feeling about artificiality spills over for me into the area of musicals. I like musical comedies, because having people suddenly burst into song is inherently funny. That fact, however, tends to undermine musical drama for me; I can't take it as seriously as it would like. (I don't have that problem with opera, but in opera they don't burst into song--they never stop singing in the first place. And call me a barbarian, but I'd rather listen to opera than watch it anyhow.)

Okay, there's some sneaky exceptions to my dislike of musical drama, and they conform to Stravinsky's rule. Two of the best, Caberet and All That Jazz (both directed by Bob Fosse) have people singing and dancing only in situations where they'd really be singing and dancing. This is having your cake and eating it too--getting the power of musical staging without having it be an intrusion.

This is not a topic I usually dwell upon, but a post from the ever-stimulating Emma Darwin has had me stopping at odd moments (and most of my moments are odd) over the last month to think about the form of the musical. Why? Because Emma points out what ought to have been obvious to me, though I'd never considered it:

"...there's no denying that the basic simplicity of the novel-like elements of a musical (the time-frame of the experience so relatively short, the music/set/choreography doing much of the work that the novelist has to do for themself) can mean that the big bones of the storytelling can be seen and discussed amazingly clearly."

No kidding. The "big bones" of the story in a musical are "told" rather than shown, but they are told through song, and they are deployed unabashedly. Often the opening number gives the overall backstory of the setting as well as the theme (e.g. the song "Tradition" in Fiddler on the Roof, or "Skid Row" in Little Shop of Horrors).

Once this is done, the various characters jump in and tell you, without reservation, who they are, what their problems might be, and what they think they want. For example, in Avenue Q, the male lead puppet, Princeton, wanders onto the stage and sings:

What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree...

I can't pay the bills yet, 'cause I have no skills yet
The world is a big scary place--
But somehow I can't shake
The feeling I might make
A diference to the human race...!

Exit Princeton, and on comes the rest of the cast to tell you who they are and what their central problem is, in a long song called "It Sucks to be Me."

Wow. A single song, and we've already established all the characters in a thoroughly memorable way. Most novelists have faced the problem of introducing a whole corral of characters and their backstories and desires all in one go, and it usually turns into what I think of as The Party Scene Nightmare. Or consider the acidic backstory economy of "Aldonza's Song" in Man of La Mancha:

I was spawned in a ditch by a mother who left me there
Naked and cold and too hungry to cry.
But I never blamed her, I knew she left hoping
That I'd have the good sense to die.

So economical, in fact, that we have more verses to spare for an assault on the theme of the story and an emotional crisis.

An odd thing about musicals is that once character, setting, and theme are established in song, real plot developments are often spoken; further songs are reserved for how people react to plot events. This puts plot into perspective: the precision of plot is so important in making a feasible story that it needs to be spelled out in speech...but the big moments of the story are the responses, refusals, and epiphanies. Such as Seymour Krelborn's moment of choice in Little Shop of Horrors's song "The Meek Shall Inherit:"

No, no! There's only so far you can bend!
No, no! This nightmare must come to an end!
No, no! No two ways about it, old Seymour my boy
Although you'll be broke again and unemployed
It's the only solution, it can't be avoided,
The Vegetable Must Be Destroyed!

As you can see from my rambling, I'm still mulling this over. I think Emma is right that novelists can learn a good deal about the "big bones" of story from musicals--and I believe that the spoken interactions are the sinews and tendons that knit those bones together. Unfortunately, we fictioneers are condemned to layer in character and backstory in a perhaps richer but certainly less economical way.

On the other hand, we don't have to write all those pesky scores, nor collaborate with someone who does.

n.b. The mug shot of Stravinsky is after his arrest in Boston for adding a rather nice but slightly unexpected seventh chord to his arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The charge was "tampering with public property." The Los Angeles Philharmonic plays this version sometimes. I've never seen it result in an arrest, though.

At a performance of Stravinsky's "Octet for Wind Instruments" we attended a few years back, composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen answered some questions about Stravinsky, and responded with some heat to an audience member who argued that Stravinsky was a little intellectual and "dry." Salonen said, "If you listen to his music with your heart, you will find that Stravinsky was even more passionate than a 'wet' composer like Rachmaninoff."

I like Rachy, too. But I freely admit that he's a little wet.