What I’m Learning From This Race

For those of you who may have missed the last couple posts, or may not have understood them, my friends Deb, Ali, fellow blogger B. Freret, and I are all in race to see who can get the most words written in two weeks.

I’m not going to talk about our word count now.

Right now I’d like to talk about this process and what it does to your brain (or, at least, my brain because I’m not entirely sure what happens to other brains….)

1. Focus. This is probably the whole point of any writing contest. Like National Novel Writing Month, you just move your focus away from time-suckers.
2. Little bits count as much as big bits. A lot of writers feel they don’t have time to write because they feel they have to have big blocks of time to create. While bigger blocks are certainly more helpful, they are not necessary. Many professional writers talk about how they write now–not how they wrote when they were 9-5 jobbers like us, so please keep in mind that a lot of great novels were written bit by bit, in the moments that could be stolen as well as planned. And trust me, if you feel you can’t get a lot of words out in a day, it’s because you’re plotting to spend a couple hours at a desk. Since this competition began I’ve averaged 6 pages a day…and I have not had more than an hour in front of a desk at any given time.
3. If you’re struggling with a plot point, you’re pushing too hard. Cut loose a little bit and see what happens. Speed fixes a lot of blocks.

All right. Enough with this mini-lesson. Back to writing!

The Desk: Take 3: Smack Talk

So, Shane and I (and Matt) have just moved my desk in anticipation of the word race that will commence on Monday.

Now it’s in a cubical style layout with Shane’s desk downstairs. Hopefully this means that I won’t wake anyone up while working late/early hours. You know…those hours where I’ll be writing so many words that Ali and Deb will be crying by Thursday night, wondering how they’ll ever, ever catch up.

Does a novel really need to have a story?

I’m reading World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. I’m loving it so far (I’m a little more than halfway through). But it occurs to me that it’s not really a story in the traditional sense of the word. There’s characters. And stuff happens. But there’s no one protagonist to latch onto. It’s designed so that we are given the information through a series of interviews with fictional characters. We spend a couple pages with a person and then move on, gaining a piece of the puzzle as we go.

The puzzle piecing is what makes it interesting. And it is really interesting. You start wondering where you’d be in the grand scheme of things. Would you be one of the survivors? One of the dead?

There’s a part of me that’s like an itch I can’t scratch as I read it, though. I want to either come back to a character or two, or have someone (like the person doing the interviews) as a focus character. Because, while Brooks has done an amazing job with the characters who have been telling the story bit by bit…I can’t remember a single person’s name or title. It’s all one big blur. So I have chaos on top of chaos on top of chaos. Which, ya know, is effective for a zombie story, but still!

Which brings me to my main question: Does a novel need to have a main character, with an arch, in the traditional sense? Or is what Brooks writing not really a ‘novel’ but a ‘fiction book’? Does it even matter in the grand scheme of things? (And apparently, in this book, not a whole lot matters in the grand scheme of things.)

Additional September Goal:

Stomp Ali and Deb!

We’re going to officially start next Monday. As there are more takers this go-round, the consequences of failure increase exponentially. Because not only to you not want to lose–but you don’t want to be last. And there’s a difference. If you’re last that means two people came out ahead of you and you’re a slacker. Plus you have to buy dinner for two, not one.

Feeling the pressure guys?

Have I mentioned recently that writing stinks and that anyone who tries to make something really good should just give up?

Shut up, Jenny. That kind of thinking is very negative and accomplishes nothing. You are just looking for sympathy and you won’t get any here.

But it’s hard.

Get over it. Life’s a bitch and then you die.

Well, that’s not very inspiring.

Never said this was an inspirational speech. You want something bad enough, you’ll do what you need to do. That’s all. And if you need to write a goofy dialogue with yourself on a blog, then that’s whatcha gotta do.

You Too Can Be a Writer’s Hero

The other night, on the evilness that is Facebook, I wound up chatting with a friend that I haven’t seen in months. (I’m pretty sure the chatting was cutting into his writing time, but he didn’t complain.) Adam exudes the impression that he writes pretty consistantly and doesn’t whine about not finishing something on time and doesn’t sweat it too much, where as I have been having difficulty with this short story that I need (okay, want) to finish fairly quickly–and thus was whining about it.

We were both ‘writing’ right there around midnight and I’m not managing to actually write a word. Which is why I was annoyingly chatting with whoever might be up…poor guy. But he was up to the challenge of being the Writer’s Hero. How does one become a Writer’s Hero?

By recognizing a writer who is struggling and getting them to shut up and do the damn work.

Phase 1 of the Jenny Intervention: The Race
When he says “Race you to 500 words.” I can’t back down–I have writerly face to save.

Now, he could’ve been just trying to get me to leave him alone for a couple minutes and I do not hold that against him. However, it had this blissful side effect of me being held accountable for work that I had not produced yet. Which meant that I didn’t care what I wrote. So I hashed out what’s gonna be two scenes in that troublesome short story.

He claimed to be finished first. I called him a liar because I was only at 300 words. He recounted, recanted, and we went off again. Then I said I was finished. Basically, he let me win and finish what I’d hastily started.

Phase 2 of the Jenny Intervention: The Quiz
So now it’s pretty late. We start talking about life and then we talk about the short story directly. Adam says “Let’s talk it out.” The he starts bombarding me with question after question. The questions are about the character and the story so I start thinking about it that way. He throws in questions about physical sensations, the senses, and thought process. But throughout there are also questions that seem directed at me personally and my brain starts going all loopy–like I’m the one being psychoanalyzed. So now I don’t want to answer on a Facebook chat, ya know? He must’ve noticed my hesitation (and perhaps one of my sarcastic answers…my fall back when I get all mixed up) because he asked if this was helping.

Yes, it helped but I don’t think it worked the way he meant for it to work. But it worked. I wasn’t close enough to the work and I realized it right then. Realization: If someone quizzes me about what a character is thinking or feeling, I should always feel like I’m the one being bombarded. It means I’m dealing with something I care about. Suddenly I was invested in what happened. I don’t think Adam meant for that particular outcome, it might’ve been more a ‘characterazation-y’ exercise than what it wound up being.

Perhaps we do this quiz instinctively with the writers we work with. I know that I’ve quizzed Ali and Deb at times, inserting issues that I knew were personal. Because deep down I think that the biographical critiques of work have some merit. Not with the facts of life, but the emotions of life. We will (or should) always write about what truly makes us feel.

The Result of the Writer’s Hero Intervention: Interesting Stuff.
I’m working on the short story.

Now that we’ve heard about Adam’s Writer’s Hero Moment for me…who has worked the same magic for you? Who went out of the way, when they were busy, and helped you. It can’t be “Everyone in my group supports me…blah, blah, blah.” Name a person. And thank them.

Thanks, Adam.

Different Genres, Same Difficulties

This past month I have had the opportunity to read a biography written by one of my friends. As this bio was not her own, she had to do all kinds of interviews and research. Last night she was telling us all what she had to do/had done and I was 1.) impressed that she had done the quantity of work involved in that process and 2.) struck by the difficulties the non-fiction genres create.

Nowadays there’s a certain trend in non-fiction to make it read like fiction–using all the techniques of fiction to create tension that’s already happened, atmosphere that’s long gone, and to bring characters who are dead to life. And in doing that, the non-fiction writer adds the extra hurdle of the story having to be, well, true. They can’t just make it up (well, in some cases they can…). If you’re writing about the Mayflower, or Gettysburg, or Abraham Lincoln then the audience is aware of certain factual occurences, which puts a restraint on how much you can do.

Having read this biography and taken a little while to think about it, here are some of the difficulties that non-fiction and fiction writing have in common:
1. First person narratives, whether they be fiction or non, are tricky because the person speaking must always be more observant/intuitive about the real world than normal. Otherwise the reader will think the narrator a selfish asshole. It’s all me, me, me, all the time. (And while some of us are like that…not everyone wants to hear about it.)
2. There must be a climax. In a history narrative, you lead up to the main issue that will illustrate whatever it is your trying to say the best–for example, a narrative on the Civil War could end at Appomatox or the assassination of Lincoln or in any number of places, depending on what you’re trying to express. In a memoir, you lead to the highest point of crisis that is resolved–Maya Angelou ends I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when she’s still a very young woman (I won’t tell you the end) because it’s a turning point in her life. A work of fiction must do the same thing, only the writer gets to make up what the climatic point is.
3. An initiating event. You must go from point A to point B. We just talked about the climax. The beginning however–how long is the non-fiction narrative going to last? In a biography do you start with the historical figure’s birth? Their first memory? The landing on Plymouth Rock to the 1960s? Like a novel, in non-fiction you have to pick your timeline–it helps determine the level of tension and how that tension will be used.
4. Characterization. Here’s a punch in the gut: even with journals and articles and photos and portraits, the historical creation in a non-fiction piece will always, always be just as made up and influenced by the writer of the piece as a fictional character. Why? Because as much as we think we know a person, even ones we live with, let alone ones who have been dead for years or centuries, we just don’t know some things. We don’t know the conversations that were overheard, or the little bits of food that they tasted, or how itchy a certain pair of undershorts were. People just don’t write about those things in their diaries. Sure, you may know they went to jail or that they died drunk in a gutter, but you don’t know what was in their minds when that happened–because odds are the character/person didn’t know himself. But the writer knows and must always know. Even if it’s fake, the writer must know or the narrative, the story, will seem fake.