How Charles Dickens Did It

I realize that Dickens is not our mentor of the month, but I came across something very interesting in Edwin Drood, his last and unfinished novel. Namely: the notes on the book he didn’t finish.

In the back of the Penguin version of the book it gives his final notes–the next few chapters. I’m not going to go into mad amounts of detail because this is a blog and not a dissertation but: what I found interesting is that he had the next step very clear in his mind. Chapter by chapter he described what was supposed to happen in those chapters. The first three or four chapter notes following where Drood leaves off are very detailed. After those it obviously gets pretty fuzzy for him because there’s only a sentence, maybe even a fragment, of what should happen around that point in the novel.

Why did I find that interesting? Because I don’t ‘outline’ but I do something verrrrry similar to what Dickens did. Last night I wrote out the sections that I needed to complete Part 1 of the La Llorona novel I’m working on. I have some vague concept of the pieces that come after that because I know what needs to happen by the time I get to the end (because I know the end of my story…and according to a letter that Dickens wrote, documented by a contemporary biographer, apparently he knew whodunit at the end of Drood–the ‘twist’, now old-hat, being that the criminal was writing the whole thing from jail).

The notes show that, even though Dickens didn’t have a computer, or even a typewriter, stories are developed as differently for every writer then as it is now. I know people who outline, who fly by the seat of their pants, who write a section and then skip to another section and paste it all together at the end.

For me, writing a scene/chapter list as I go gives some control, but I can still blow it off or adjust it because it’s just as in flux as the novel itself. I’m creating both at the same time. Helps me know where I’ve been and where I’m going. Helps me decide what’s important or if two scenes that cover similar ground are too close together.

What do you do? What’s your process? Is your process the same process for everything or have you mixed it up a bit?

For those of you wanting more information on our Mentor of the Month: Edgar Allan Poe, please check out this site by fellow blogger Robert. Any inaccuracies that I’ve presented will certainly be accurate here! Enjoy. There’s lots of fascinating posts. Here I am calling Poe mentor and I didn’t even realize it was his bicentennial year! Thanks Robert.

Mentor of the Month: Edgar Allan Poe: Author as Rock Star?

A new letter of Poe’s has emerged. It was written to his editors and is a record of Poe apologizing for drinking to excess. This is just another part of Poe’s ‘legend’. An alcoholic, freaky kinda guy who wrote macabre poetry and short stories.

In many ways, Poe’s persona adds to the reading of his work. You can imagine him sitting down in whiskey-induced (perhaps absinthe induced) haze and creating these dark places. He, of course, always wore black. He visited cemeteries everyday to see his long lost loves, who have died tragically young. But, if we take Poe away from his writing, do we still have the same body of work? Does “The Raven” have nearly the power if we don’t know that Poe lost a love early on?

The debate about separating a writer from their work has been around for a while, partly because of the ‘rock star’ status given to early writers like Byron (think Beatles-level popularity) and Poe (think of more cultish bands).

In this month’s issue of Poets and Writers there is an article asking (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have the magazine with me at the moment) “Where have the bad (as in misbehaving) writers gone?” It’s written by an MFA grad who says that her experience with writers, they’ve been a buckle-down, stick your hands on the typewriter-types. The drunks of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Poe, etc. and the wild child Wildes aren’t at the schools teaching their work. It’s nose-to-the-grindstone.

Now, my question, is this a good thing?
To me, not so much.

There has to be a balance. Poe definitely wrote some articles on writing that would make your hair stand on end thinking that you would never be able to do it. The articles read like mathematical treatises. So, you definitely have to have a work ethic. You also have to have something else:

I think, in a small way, to write interesting things, you have to be fairly interesting yourself. I think you have to be tormented by certain demons (I am not confessing mine at this moment). Poe=alcoholism and the loss of a young love. He wrote wonderful work about it. It was a well that did not run dry for him.

Put the beer bottles down, guys. You don’t have to be an alcoholic or a womanizer or a druggie to be interesting. Note the mega-bestselling standouts:
J.K. Rowling, a regular ol’ student of language.
Stephanie Meyer? Graduated w/English degree from Brigham Young.

But I bet you know these authors’ stories. J.K. Rowling: welfare mother who walked to coffee shops and wrote while her daughter slept in the pram (stroller, for us Americans). Stephanie Meyer: Mormon whose inspiration came in a dream. Rowling’s personal story is classic Cinderella, rags to riches. Meyer’s is the envy of every writer on earth and stretches back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein inspiration. (Interesting how Rowling’s Harry goes from zero to hero…and that Meyer’s story is about misunderstood ‘monsters’.)

Their stories are strong to start with, but I think the reading experience is enriched by knowing more about where they came from.

Okay, so I probably should’ve read a lot more agent blogs more closely…here’s what I think went wrong and it falls into the ‘basics’ category.
1. Formatted email query wrong: according to Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog-where she lambasts people who send her queries to be dissected-she says not to format it like a real letter. You start w/Dear Agent’s Name and proceed to your letter. Put all your contact info after your ‘signature part’.
2. The sum-up part of the letter I did not feel was detailed enough. I started with the set up and then added the first five pages of the novel=you read what’s about to happen just before you read what’s about to happen=yawn. All of the other successful query examples I’m reading tell almost the whole story. Like a really, really flash synopsis.

There is much debate about this last bit–if you have queried successfully, or know what’s worked for others, please let me know what you/they did. I want my package to be an A+.

And the smackdown came fast.

Rejection #1 for the year. Short, polite, and to the point.

Glad that’s over with. I thought I’d feel more, I don’t know, dejected or whatnot. Yet suddenly it is just like short stories. Reality checks are healthy and now I’ve been brought back down from daydreaming.

Time to submit and then submit again.

I’ll throw in some short stories too.

Oh God, Oh God, Oh God

I just hit the ‘send’ button on the query/five pages submission, and about passed out.

My brother is laughing uproariously in the backgroud–ranting about how the first submission is always rejected.

I’m trying to think of it all as a short story submission. I’ve just been working on this short story for a couple years, that’s all. Right? Right. And it’s just one submission. One thing in one space of time. You can’t win it if you’re not in it. Cowboy up. Suck it up. Move onwards and upwards. Etc. Etc. Etc. Yeesh.

But, hey, I did it!

I’m struggling. Not afraid to admit it.

I’m supposed to be working on my Llorona story but I have been, for want of a better word, blocked. That’s because I really, really want to start submitting FJR to agents and see what happens. I’ve spent my time on the business side of the writing gig and I’m having a really difficult time getting back into the creative side of it.

However, I have just written a query letter–my very first complete draft of query letter. That=progress. Progress is good. I’m hoping good enough to move on to the new piece…especially since I have to submit new pages soon.

Feels like a wasted day. The bulk of my morning was supposed to be dedicated to spending time with my son and writing once his dad picked him up. Only his dad couldn’t pick him up and I had to drive 45 miles to do the dropping off. While I did get to listen to a Nancy Drew Notebook book, the day was not productive. At all.

I’m posting now, risking being late for work, so that I can feel like I did something writer related….

Mentor of the Month: Edgar Allan Poe: The Process

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would – that is to say, who could – detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say – but perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with omission than any other cause. Most writers – poets in especial – prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy – an ecstatic intuition – and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought….”
–Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition.”

Is the author’s process secretive? Not nowadays, I don’t think. Anyone can find Stephen King’s process in On Writing and the bookstores are full to bursting with writers trying to tell other writers how they did it.

But in a lot of cases we don’t know what we were thinking while we were thinking it, so how are we supposed to write about our process?

For example, in FJR the whole thing was originally supposed to be a road trip. ‘Crazy girl finds out that her fiance was madly in love with another girl in the past and sets out to find her. As she crosses the country, she meets various wise people who tell her to get over herself.’ For those of you who have read the novel, I’m sure you’re now wondering where the road trip is. And after a while it became less about the girl Anica was trying to track down and more about the fiance.

I started the stupid thing fifteen times before I finally settled on starting it at the end of the road trip (which really isn’t a road trip). Part of that is because David Keplinger once said that the start of a story starts with the knock on the door. I was trying to force her down a long stretch of interstate before that happened. Instead of knocking, Anica pitches a cinderblock through a window, but I think the thought process holds true.

And that’s just to start. I stalled out halfway wondering what the hell I was doing. Once I figured out that Dan had to have his say, the story picked up for me, and ironically, all my first readers have said it’s like a train picking up speed at right about the same point.

I have also had to:

  • turn Anica’s best friend into her sister
  • change a son to a daughter
  • cut random suspense-killing sentences
  • be less flip throughout
  • turn all my ‘THE’ into ‘The’ because I hold the shift key down too long
  • get rid of the word “Hon”

(And these are just the minor fixes….)
I guess ‘autorial vanity’ does have a lot to do with omission. If we all talked about our process like this, our readers would think us insane. ‘Why on earth would you work on that for so long when you don’t even know what the hell you’re doing?’

Part of the trick of writing is to make it look easy. It’s much more impressive that way–unfortunately, that illusion passed down through the centuries, also makes anyone think that they can do it. People: it’s not a ‘fine frenzy’ or an ‘ecstatic intuition.’ Maybe the first draft. But first drafts suck. You must be willing to be cold and calculating as well for the drafts to come.

And that’s a whole other part of the process.

A different kind of critique…

I handed my ‘finalized’ version of FJR over to my mother to check for typos and so that I would have a cold reader to go through it. Recently she gave me the first half.

You know how we talk about constructive criticism? Well, my mom is hilarious. She definitely circled typos and did her bit. But scattered throughout are her personal pet peeves.

Part of my novel is in first person, next to one of those pieces is the note: “I hate first person.”
The novel is not linear, hence the note: “I hate time jumps.”
And my personal favorite…there’s a spot where I wax poetical about the distances on maps and how far away one person is from another and she writes: “Guess it’s time to get a GPS.”

That kind of honesty is actually strangely refreshing.

There was a good critique though–normally she hates the stories that I tell. They’re just too dark for her sensibilities (and I write in first person every now and then and don’t tell things in a straight line). She said that she spaced out on the critiquing/typo check and read because she was actually enjoying it. I guess if she enjoys a story that contains a lot of her reader pet peeves, I think I’m okay. We’ll see what she thinks about the end.