Original Sin

It’s difficult  to come up with a completely original idea. I have some faint recollection of Aristotle and Jasper Fforde saying much the same thing, in their different ways and in different millennia, which may prove the point.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and, time and again, I’ll be reading some other writer’s book and come across a twist or bit of business that I’ve recently put into one of my stories. It’s been happening so often that I’m starting to worry about mind melds and ESP.

Sometimes it’s something small, like someone crying by a fountain when I’ve written my heroine crying by a fountain.  No big deal; I can just move her, although I’ve done some nice work describing the way her dress was getting wet which I’ll have to cut if I move her across the street. Oh, the heck with it, there are a lot of fountains in the world, I’ll just assume my girl is standing next to a different fountain and leave it at that. After all, she has to be standing next to something, and it might as well be a fountain as not. And in any case I need the sound of the water to cover the sound of her sobs and I like the metaphor of the falling water as her tears. Okay, the fountain stays.

At other times it’s a more significant duplication, like a book’s heroine who does the same work as my girl at the same kind of work place when I was hoping to give my reader an unusual experience.  Once it was a character who is not only similar in appearance to one of mine but shares the idiosyncrasies of his speech patterns, too.

Do I have to give serious thought to changing these things or will a reader forgive the occasional commonplace if  the rest of my story, its characters and the action is engaging?

The truth is, whether I change them or not, some of my pleasure in being their creator has dimmed because someone else thought of them first.

In a way it’s akin to wearing hand-me-down clothes or buying a chair at Goodwill. Shopping at Goodwill because I can’t afford Macy’s is different than shopping at Goodwill (and wearing hand-me-down clothes) because I love vintage things.

There are two ways to go here: I can think of the parallels as commonplace ideas that a reader will find boring because they have come across them before. Or I can choose to think of these serendipitous parallels as ideas so good they bear repeating.

Case by case?

Works for me.

“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgement.” — Josh Billings

 

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Paying Attention. It Builds Character

I SPENT A DAY recently hiking with a friend. We were taking it slow and enjoying the day when a Park Service truck pulled up next to us and the guy inside stopped to chat.

He had what is sometimes described as “a shock” of white hair and a white beard.  He’d have no trouble playing Santa Claus is all I’m saying. He was wearing a Park Service Smokey Bear hat and one of those bright orange safety vests and the passenger seat of his pick-up was filled with loose rolls of toilet paper. A lot of them. Maybe two dozen.

My first thought was: what kind of person buys loose rolls of toilet paper by the dozen? And then I realized he was probably making the rounds of the park’s outhouses to re-stock them, which was just as interesting in its way. I’m not sure I’ve ever given a thought to that particular job, or that it would be Santa Claus in a pick-up truck who did it.

Our conversation, which started with a discussion of my red hair and his formerly red beard, quickly moved to the Vikings (who had red hair) the design of the keel on Viking ships and the contributions to sailing technology by the ancient Phoenicians.  In short, our conversation was a tribute to the efficacy of the History Channel.

Our hike that day was within easy reach of the city, but it occurred to me that in a different kind of park, perhaps more like the national park where my heroine finds herself, he would probably not only pick up his toilet paper in bulk, but his evenings would be long and dark and tv would be a welcome diversion.

I happen to be building a new character into my novel.  I want him to be a bit of a mountain man, but not uncouth or strange enough to cause anxiety, and I want him to have an unexpected hobby or interest to give him some depth.

My Park Service friend had quite a number of interesting quirks I could borrow for my mountain man. For one thing, those rolls of toilet paper are hard for me to relinquish. Or maybe my new character has made a study of Viking and Phoenician ship building. Or maybe he just watches a lot of the History Channel during the long dark evenings. Or maybe all I’m taking away from the encounter is that my mountain man has a white beard.

This is what fiction writers mean when we say our characters are not real people.  We pay attention and we use bits and pieces of real people. A white beard. An interest in ancient history. Buying toilet paper in bulk.

These are real things to build a fictional character on.

Every Delicious Byte

IT’S PART OF THE WRITING GAME that every word, every keystroke, feels important and deathless, at least for a while.

I don’t spend my days in a struggle to the death over every word, but there’s no doubt that’s how it feels for me sometimes. Writing can be less like Robert Browning’s “first, fine careless rapture” and more like carving words into stone with a rubber mallet. Thomas Mann said it well: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”

After struggling in the first place to wrestle them onto the page, it’s another struggle to cut these precious words and phrases, even when I know they have to go to make room for better things.

I had a good writing week–a couple of very productive writing days and a couple of so-so ones.  Most important, I made a significant change I’d been postponing for some time in my murder mystery.

I resisted doing the deed in part because it required some confusing restructuring and editing. I hate doing that stuff because the opportunities to mess things up are rife; I even color code at-risk passages so I know which ones still fit together before doing the dreaded cut-and-paste. At times I resort to actual cutting and pasting–I print out the pages and have at them with scissors and a glue stick.

This week, the result of all this meant cutting (and not re-pasting) about 2,000 words from my tale.

I  like to know a lot about my characters; I write biographies for them and fit the details into the narrative. This is helpful to me, but the reader doesn’t need it all. Some of the eliminated words were this kind of back-story, not really critical to the action of the book.  But most of it was good material that just didn’t work.

When Word tells you to the byte how many words you’ve written so far and you know how many words you need your book to be (65,000, give or take) it’s really tough to dump the equivalent of a full day’s work with one keystroke and feel good about it.

But when I was done, and I’d written new words, I did feel good about it. The new stuff I wrote was better than the words I’d cut. Much better. The resulting passages got into the action more quickly without leaving the reader confused. They’re good.

As usual, I was sorry I had waited so long, and agonized so hard, over changes that turned out to be for the best.

Alas, this is a lesson I’ve learned many times and so I have every confidence it won’t stick with me. The next time I am poised with scissors and glue stick (either literally or virtually)  the angst will be the same.

It’s not all time wasted.  At some level the “bad” passages are due a kind of respect. They have the right to stay if they can persuade me they are value added to my book.  And persuasion takes time.

Outline Or Michigas

Thanks to my friends Graham Beattie and Lia Matera for this wonderful quote from Raymond Chandler which fits so well with my thoughts today:

“I am having a hard time with the book. Have enough paper written to make it complete, but must do all over again. I just didn’t know where I was going and when I got there I saw that I had come to the wrong place. That’s the hell of being the kind of writer who cannot plan anything, but has to make it up as he goes along and then try to make sense out of it. If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me.”

**

IF WRITERS ARE TELLING THE TRUTH about their process—always a risky bet—then a lot of us develop an outline before we begin to write, while an equal number eschew the restraint that an outline imposes and just wing it. (Can you tell I’ve always wanted to write a sentence containing ‘eschew’? The opportunities are less common than you might think.)

For years I was a dedicated camp follower of the wing it brigade.  It felt more creative to just let things happen. I’m not such a devotee nowadays, but I still jump-start a new novel by writing a dramatic scene for my heroine without bothering with context. This isn’t necessarily the opening scene; it can eventually end up anywhere in the book. Sometimes, it doesn’t make the cut at all. But  I develop the story and characters organically using that scene as a platform. And then I reverse engineer an outline to guide the rest of the novel.

This is a result of techniques honed during my master’s degree in writing and afterwards, teaching writing to others in a workshop setting. Writers throw challenges at each other as part of the learning process: “Invent a new god for Greek mythology. Two minutes”  “Write a scene with your main character eating a meal alone. Five minutes.”  “Describe a Christmas tree. Three minutes.”

Unfortunately, when applied to a novel this method tends to produce a series of unrelated scenes, character sketches and plot lines which then have to be linked into a coherent whole.  No carefully-drawn outline survives the mishigas when the book can go off in any direction at any moment.

I’ve worked like this, (Chandler, too, apparently) but it’s not ideal for me.  It was fun and challenging in its way, but it was a bit like doing a jig saw puzzle with the pieces turned over. I had the shape of the pieces as a guide but no idea where I was headed. The “picture” at the end was a surprise to the reader (a good thing) and to me (less so).

For a murder mystery (almost always a highly disciplined type of novel) I really need to work from some sort of outline.  Sure I always have at least one corpse, which makes the dramatic center of the novel a sure thing. But it’s a good idea to know how it got that way and why and by whom before I get too far in. I can still incorporate unexpected characters, scenes and action I run into along the way.

It’s a bit like having a sculptor’s steel armature; when it’s rock steady I can be as carefree as I like throwing clay at it—the thing will stand up and hold together.

Indecisive? Maybe.

HONESTLY, THE DAY AFTER I began this blog didn’t go well for me in a writing sense.  I’d spent the best part of a day setting up the site, writing the first post, then blabbing about it on Face Book.  There was no writing getting done on the novels, but I felt as if I was priming the pump, which felt good.

The blog was serving one of its purposes; it was keeping my writers’ muscles flexible. And of course I got the strokes of having written and published, no matter in how limited a fashion.

But the next morning, instead of leaping to my laptop to work on one of my novels, I found myself practicing some fairly advanced avoidance techniques. On-line shopping, Face Book, gardening, checking out my first blog post in case something had changed since the last time I checked it, and then admiring how it read and how it looked on the page.  (Very cool actually.)

A trip to the drug store was suddenly imperative.  It’s important to have two extra tubes of toothpaste and some hair conditioner in case you run out. A read-through of the past week’s work to date—this is one of my best avoidance techniques—gave me another hour’s distraction.  And then suddenly it was time to get ready for a dinner date with friends and the opportunity to crow in my next blog post about how productive I’d been was lost.

The truth is, I’m at the stage with all three novels when I have to buckle down and get serious about the next stage in the action and I’m postponing the commitment. I’m facing a junction with multiple roads heading off to all points of the compass.  Almost any journey is possible now, but the next step will limit the roads I can travel, and the step after that will narrow down the route even more as I get closer to my destination.

I can’t decide if I’m excited and enthralled by the number of paths open to me, or if I’m just really, really indecisive.

In one view I’m empowered by the possibilities; in the other I’m sort of a coward, unwilling to commit, right?

Difficult to decide which.