Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Writing, Writing, Writing

Is what I am doing, every spare minute of the day as well as the un-spare ones where I just shuffle my priorities aside to make a way through them. Making the ones that are semi-urgent wait. Listing everything that needs doing but doing them only 'just in time'.

I'm writing, in long hand and every other pen on paper style I've ever used. I'm writing a long short story. I'm writing it in the first person. I'm being in the skin of the main character, feeling his frights, feeling his feelings, his hunger, his thirst. He's been abandoned in the woods. I'm forgetting to eat and describing how I feel when I realise. I've got a dry mouth right now, I need to take in some more water.

I doubt I'll be in bed in time for my needful eight hours because my character is having to sleep in the forest tonight and I need to go out and feel it with him. What the moon looks like at midnight. Where it stands above the planet. What insects his planet has invented for him to hear. What animals. What do I hear in the undergrowth. What do I feel/do when a cane toad hops into my path.

He hasn't found any water yet. His planet doesn't know about creeks and brooks. He might have a dream. He has the blood and bones and stories in him of two people. The invaders have got to be good for something other than what they're trying. Their planet died.

These also are words I should be writing down in my scrapbook. Which contains the words with which I will construct the story. First I tell it to myself. Then I live it in the skin of the character. Then, with the help of a previously designed structure, required by the gatekeepers of all story that seeks to be published, popularly called a scene map, I mix and match, stir and trouble.

Finally, I smoothe the places where I lost my concentration or had an interruption longer than ten minutes, and forgot to feel this or that, lonely or burdened with too much knowledge, or forgot to smell the earthy mushroomy scent of the mulch  the boy slept on. When I have finished all that I will tell you his name, and the way of his story.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

An Intermission with one of the Masters

I'd finished the Ahni SkinGifter part of the Lodestar Saga but when I turned to the second part I wasn't happy with it. I figured I need to start much closer to the beginning of the action. Plus I don't like the flavour of who Srese, the main character in this section, has become. I've lost something of her that I had before. I've tried to make her older -- as in maybe 17 or 18 -- and maybe that was a mistake.

In short, I've put her aside and I'm having an intermission. I've started on a much shorter, completely different project, and I am re reading the Ender's Game series by one of 'my' masters.  I believe every writer has a bunch of them. These will be the authors who they are most influenced by, or whose stories they most admire, or from whose writings they've learned.

Of course each of us learns from every other writer we read. Even excessively bad writers have something to teach -- how not to do something is as useful as learning the 'right' way. I consider Orson Scott Card one of my masters though it is only through his books that I know him.

While I love the Ender's Game series, the first Scott Card novel I came across was The Memory of Earth of the Homecoming series. For a long time I was dependent on secondhand books picked up in op shops. I read mainly other people's cast offs but found some sharply cut gems among them. I believe The Memory of Earth series taught me more about the possibilities for me in writing science fiction than anything else I'd read up to that point.

Not that any of my work is anywhere nearly as intricately plotted as any of the above.

Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy is another, more recently acquired favourite. Just the explanation of his 'MICE quotient', knowing which of milieu, idea, character or event is the most important in a story and allowing it to be shaped accordingly has really clarified a lot for me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More on Paragraphing

I've decided that the possibilities of formatting for a 3rd person's POV are points along a spectrum. It's the only way I'm going to be able to distinguish between different practices.

Things aren't just black and white in a spectrum. Shades of grey, and colours are important. It's the reason I find them very useful.

In the POV situation, one end of the spectrum is 3rd person omniscient. The other is the most severely limited 3rd person. This is where a character's own experiences, and all actions by the supporting cast, as observed by the primary character are formatted as all his/her own. Where the supporting characters get only to say things. All else is part of the primary character's experience.

A little like in Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006). Which is a gripping read. But minimalist in punctuation. Capital letters, full stops, the odd question mark. Even an apostrophe -- on page 107, in 'But we're not dying.'

Often the boy's experiences are paragraphed as part of the man's. As on page 113.
               There were mattresses and bedding arranged on the floor in front of the hearth. Papa, the boy whispered. Shh, he said.

On page 114 on the other hand, the boy gets his own agency, in a new paragraph.
 ...a large padlock made of stacked steel plates. He stood looking at it.
                Papa, the boy said. We should go. Papa.

I haven't yet worked out the reasoning for the two different treatments but with McCarthy one gets the feeling there will be one.

One definition of 3rd person limited I've come across -- I've still got more pieces of paper in my house than data on memory sticks -- states that, 'third person limited is the inner and outer world of the main character and the outer world of the rest.'

I take it to mean that 'the outer world of the rest' is being described from the point of view of the main character. (The main character can't know the inner world of his fellows.) But theres's no mention of how this should be formatted. No recognition that describing 'the outer world of the rest' from their own point of view -- how this is usually formatted -- might sound like head-hopping.

The only thing even partway definitive on paragraphing that I have found, is by Sarah Endacott of Edit or Die in her Style and grammar Notes, page 12, Speech or Dialogue ---
            "starts a new paragraph. This must occur when there is a new person speaking, and should occur if the person talking commences a new train of thought, his/her own new paragraph. If in doubt, start a new paragraph. For every new speaker start a new paragraph. Never have two people speaking in the same paragraph, even if they are interacting."

While  "If in doubt, start a new paragraph," gets me over the hurdle, though I still don't know why that hurdle.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Paragraphing as a Function of 3rd person POV

A discussion (telephone conversation ... no net links) on paragraphing led me to look at my own practice. It's interesting how and where you/I/your average writer gets her self-doubts from, isn't it? The fact that paragraphing was discussed, as in how to format them in Word for Mac, sent me to look at my own practise with a fresh eye. Despite the fact that I don't use Word 2008 for Mac.

Neither did I start with worrying about the how-of-the-formatting. I'll just sit down one day with an expert and get it shown to me; or I'll email someone and get a blow-by-blow account of how to do the modern style sheet. I used to know and love style sheets a few versions of Word ago. But they keep changing and I've been left behind.

My worry was that paragraphing should be a function of Point-of-View (POV). In the Lodestar series I'm  telling the story of an Artificial Intelligence, who doesn't have its own mobility or agency, through the third person limited POVs of a series of human characters.

Everything that is observed, thought, thought about, felt, heard seen tasted touched is from the point of view of the third person limited POV. Even things said by others are heard and observed by the POV  character.

Paragraph usage for fiction dictates that a new paragraph is started every time a new speaker has their say, and that's about all. Everything else, being the POV's characters life on the page could essentially be  one paragraph, except of course where she (the one I'm working with is Ahni) starts again after someone else has held the floor.

This method leads to observations of actions by the supporting character SanaSister, being attributed to Ahni, the POV character. For example:

They clambered over and around stones from the walls, that had fallen. 

"I see you thinking, Ahni," SanaSister said.

Inviting her to think aloud. "The tower looks like one of those spiralling spines of a shell stuck upright in sand in a game."

Where previously I might have structured it as follows:

"I see you thinking, Ahni," SanaSister said, inviting her to think aloud.

"The tower looks like one of those spiralling spines of a shell stuck upright in sand in a game."

It seems a simple little difference, but now seems to me that in the second example we're briefly out of character. 

Since I am on my final draft of part 1 of the Lodestar Series, the third last chapter, I can see another final draft coming on, to fix paragraphing in the first three quarters of the book.

If I'm right.


My Reading-Canterbury-Tales-project is advancing slowly. I am still mired in the Prologue. Page 16 -17,  Line 529, about to start reading about the Plowman, brother of the Village Priest.

I've also met -- as it were -- a Knight, his Yeoman, two Nuns, a Monk, a Friar, a Merchant, a Clerk, a Sergeant of the Law, a Frankeleyn, a Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver and a Tapestry-Maker, the last four having brought their own Cook, a Shipman and the Good Wife of Bath.

I had no idea Canterbury Tales has so many characters. I realise most will be minor, but still, they are all fully described.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Reading Chaucer in a Time of Disasters

The real world is doing it again, topping any horror you can read/hear/see with its own, earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear explosions. With wall to wall descriptions of unfolding events, holding back on none of the griefs and personal disasters.

In fact, it seems to me the media is a vast mob-like mentality that individual practitioners claim they can do nothing about and saying they must, to keep their jobs, push their mics and their camera eyes where people are most in need of private moments to work through their emotions.

One interesting effect of this set of misfortunes happening in a country with its own (very different to Australian) strong language and strong culture and its own media organisation, the intrusive quality of the rest of the West's media pack seems to be blunted.

When everything has to be translated, when media getters look vastly different and out of place and talk an incomprehensible language and the victims don't particularly need to be noticed by the rest of the world, the media experience has a vastly different flavour. Which is good to see.

Reading any of the usual stories only replicate the real, and look pale as a result. I found myself with a loss of apatite for nearly anything. I wanted something with difficult words, that I couldn't just gloss and walk away with only an unsatisfying story.

When one of my circle had a medieval banquet for his birthday, with entertainment by the guests, I picked up an Everyman's Chaucer. Published in 1958. In the original but with plenty of foot, side and end notes. And what makes reading Chaucer's Canterbury Tales an even better experience for me are Old English's similarities to Old Dutch and even to more modern forms of Dutch. I 'get' about 80% of the meanings without having to refer to the notes, sometimes getting slightly different meanings that sound more accurate.

But it is not a fast read. I'm lucky if I do two or three pages a sitting. And it's essential to read aloud. Only then can I hear the similarities between the two languages. It also feels a lot like reading science fiction. I need to do a lot of extrapolation. I need to wait sometimes for a sound or meaning to sink in. When a concept is so foreign I can't hang any meaning on it, I have to accept and go on without expecting resolution. Maybe next time I meet it, in a different context, I'll get it.

But, I hear people saying, what about the story? Why bother reading if you can't get the story?

I know the outlines. References to them are everywhere in Western culture. We are all acquainted with the Wife of Bath. The Merchant's Tale. The Miller. The Nun. What I'm reading now for is the intricacies. The play of language. The need to keep all my wits about me when supping the day-to-day media allows, even demands, that you don't think too much.

Page 7 here I come.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Plot and its Lack

I'm interested at the moment in the question of plot and what it is, because my book club is reading Regeneration (1991) by Pat Barker this month. This is a novel about shell shock as caused by conditions in the trenches in the First World War. The main story is about Rivers, the fictional psychiatrist engaged in curing the soldiers sent to his hospital. The novel describes his methods in great detail.

To me, 'plot' is a well constructed framework of causes and effects. Reasons why things happen. What things happen as a result. A plot takes you by the hand and leads you through the novel. A plot organises the excitements in the most potent pattern. No plot made me feel bereft, like something was missing. Like the account would continue and continue. It made me feel distant from the characters, not caring all that much about them. I'm astounded that a novel without a plot would make it past the publishing gate.

Novels like Regeneration always make me doubt that I know what the words 'plot' and 'narrative' and 'story' actually mean. In fact, Regeneration reads like a psychiatrist's journal of case notes. I've got another account treating the same subject, The Battle for the Mind (1957) by William Sargant which is the real deal, an actual account of the study of war neuroses and related peacetime conditions, based in part on observations of men returning from the trenches in the Second World War.

Reading Regeneration I suffered a bad case of deja vu and was hard put not to compare the stories. Because that's what they both are. The story of shell shocked men being treated in Regeneration and the story of treating people with peacetime as well as war neuroses in The Battle for the Mind.

There's no plot in either of them that I can discern. The Battle for the Mind is a non fiction discussion of the research into different neurosis, and so doesn't need a plot. Regeneration is a fictional account of one man's treatments of shell shocked men. Where's the need for plot one might say.

Fine. Plot is may not be a necessity in literature. I was interested reading it, but, as I say, I was doing the deja vu thing. I'm looking forward to hearing what my fellow readers think about it.

what have you been reading lately?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Real Life, What is it?

What is real life anyway?

An account of what I do in a typical day? Get up, have breakfast and write in the meantime ... pen on paper, get outside and weed around the vege garden, sit in front of the computer and write, wash the dishes, eat my lunch -- and read, write, go for a walk, check my emails and so the day marches to its close.

A description of a typical writing day? Get up, thinking about what I will attempt to achieve that day... which probably makes me an A-type personality, achievement oriented. At breakfast time, while slurping down three mugs of tea and eating my muesli, I write down/draw/plan/chart the ideas a good night's sleep, if I had one, generated. Pen on paper, whatever colour comes to hand. In a scrapbook journal, number 43 or thereabouts.

Wander outside. Weed halfway around the vege garden, exposing again the track for the two nearside mower wheels, throwing back onto the woodchip path all the bits of tree bark loosened by me ripping out the weeds. Thinking meanwhile what I'll do tomorrow.

Do the other half of that job? Or will I make a start on the paths inside the vege garden enclosure? Or plant a couple of things, that midgin berry bush for example? Before I do that I should shift the koda, and before I do that I'll need to take out the lime berry and pot it.

It doesn't matter in a garden, there's always something and all of it is constructive.

But something is missing. It's just an account. Where's the real?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Editing Real Life

Editing is what I have been doing this week, attempting to 'do' a chapter a day of Ahni SkinGifter, part one of the Lodestar Series. Managing it until I hit chapter 9 which previously was from Kes's point of view.

Due to the new structure I've decided on, I need to write this chap from Ahni's point of view. I slowed down. Can't hurry over a scene where the lovers meet and proceed their relationship, all in the dark and with three, counting the implant, extremely antagonistic elders in the picture as well.

Then real life interceded. I attempted one of my reads-in-one-sitting. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. A great deal of turgid prose that I skim-skipped. Dialogue is so rare and special, it's italicised. The primary plot, the part that's sign posted as the 'thriller' often is almost subsumed by the way the 'perfect society' (Stalin's Soviet Union) re interprets its people's experiences. (This second part generating the turgidity.)

All of it fatal to my schedule. I sit up till the small hours and when I finally do go to bed, I can't sleep for thinking about it. Thinking that trying to integrate it into what I know about Stalin's scene is not what i should be doing at 2.30 a/m.

The next day, today, is a wash-out. Especially since there was a lot of other real life stuff to do as well. I'm just glad I was able to get to the blogs.