Friday, December 4, 2009

Easy reading is damn hard writing - Nathaniel Hawthorne

My first couple of weeks as a writer

I’m now two weeks into my first novel. In that time, I’ve written every single day except maybe one (I think I might not have on Thanksgiving, but I don’t remember for certain). Last night, I paused to reflect on how it’s going so far, and decided that this blog, having been started as an online writing journal, was the right place to capture those thoughts.

But first, a few more of my favorite writing quotes:

If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.
- Toni Morrison

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
- Anton Chekhov

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author .
- G.K. Chesterton

I knew going in that I’d be challenged with this new undertaking. I’ve never written anything longer than a long short story, and I’ve barely written at all in the last fifteen years. Though that’s not my concern – I never “learned” to write in any really formal sense, I started with some greater or lesser amount of natural talent and simply refined it a bit (if at all). So it never really occurred to me that I might have “forgotten” how to write. I did suspect, briefly, that being out of practice might have dulled my edge a bit, but to put my mind at ease I whipped out the short story “If the One Doesn’t Get You” and posted it on this blog back in August. It’s not my best work and surely needs a serious rewrite, but it helped to give me comfort that I was still reasonably adept at composing an interesting story.

My concern was that the first story I’ve sat down to write has been in my head now for a year and some months, and I’ve given it considerable thought in that time. Which is a challenge for me in two ways that are essentially opposites of each other. First, I have taken copious notes on the story, its characters, its setting, major events, themes, motivations and all manner of other elements that are very useful to have considered when you’re telling a story. But this work creates one problem of its own and leads directly to the other one that I’d mentioned.

The first problem is that all of that information has been captured in moderately useless ways. Most of it had been written down, by hand, in various notepads. Some of it I had emailed to myself from work or on my blackberry. And a sizable chunk of it had been captured in a Word document that I had updated whenever I was at a computer and had a thought I needed to record while it was fresh in my mind.

And all three of these formats, as I said, are useless. The notepad is nice when you’re sitting in bed and need to jot something down, but it’s not at all helpful when I need to search for a particular idea. The emails are at least in an electronic format, yet they’re spread across dozens of separate memos and are thus equally disorganized, even in if they’re technically searchable. And the word document, while entirely searchable, is just one long list of ideas sorted by the date I typed them in. It’s very searchable, but not good at connecting the idea that I had about Character X on March 12th with a contrary idea about the same character that I’d had two months earlier.

Moreover, all of these documents contain “stream of consciousness” notes. Each is a medium in which I recorded whatever thought popped into my head, with no consideration, analysis, or review of any kind. Thus, some of the ideas are just plain lousy, many are half-formed at best, and quite a few of them directly contradict other ideas. They not only need to be organized, but once they are they really need to be read and judged for quality.

So I’ve got thousands upon thousands of words worth of information for my book. Sounds great, right? Organize it and get writing! Well, yes and no. You see, there are enormous gaps in my notes – aspects of the book that I never came up with ideas for, including huge gaping holes in the basic storyline. Which, for me, is worse in some ways than if I just sat down and started writing without much of an idea of where I planned to go. You see, I like many of the ideas I had, but to use them I’m now bound to write in such a way as to fold them naturally into the larger story without creating huge continuity gaps or otherwise creating a scenario where the later parts of the story don’t fit with what I’ve already written. It’s a huge puzzle where various parts are already assembled, but the remaining areas not only aren’t assembled, but actually need me to cut the pieces out of cardboard and make them fit.

Still, I’m enjoying the work very much so far. I’ve written the better part of three chapters, plus an extra chunk that might replace a chapter, or be folded into that chapter, or be expanded to be a chapter on its own. These chapters are all more-or-less in the “first draft” category, however I’ve come up with a writing process that mitigates that somewhat. Each day that I continue a chapter begun previously, I re-read and revise that chapter from the beginning. If a chapter takes me multiple days to write, it will get multiple revisions before I get to the last paragraph. Periodically, I also plan to go back and just sample random chapters to look for any weak writing or just to keep them fresh in my memory if nothing else. So by the time the “first draft” of the book is done, I should have each individual chapter in more of a “second draft” state. It won’t necessarily address issues of continuity, pace, theme or other elements that permeate the entire work, but it’s better than just letting the words dribble from mind to fingers to keyboard without ever going back to see what the hell did I just write and is it any good?

I’ve also made tremendous progress transcribing my notes. I completed my first notepad and set it aside, and I’m roughly 70% of the way through my second. The third one is actually only half-full, and I’ve discovered that the notepads I used most recently were rather wide-ruled and had fairly thick paper, meaning that there’s slightly less room in each of them than I’d initially thought. It’s still an insane amount of work, but I’m making strong headway on it.

I was initially torn between entering all of these notes into Microsoft Word, with which I’m exceedingly familiar, and Microsoft OneNote, which I’ve used a bit, but not nearly to the same extent as Word. I had to go with OneNote, however, simply because it’s MADE to do exactly what I’m doing, while Word is not. I’ll still write my books in Word, but OneNote is all about taking, organizing and referencing your notes. That’s all it does, but it does it pretty darn well. I’m even using the latest version – the Beta of Microsoft OneNote 2010 (which I downloaded as part of the overall Microsoft Office 2010 package). And so far, I’m almost totally thrilled with it. I’m disappointed that they had to make the 2010 version of OneNote incompatible with OneNote 2007, especially since there doesn’t seem to be any functionality loss at all when you save your notes in “compatibility” mode, meaning they can be read in the 2007 software. Otherwise, however, Office 2010 has some really fine changes that I approve of and am enjoying quite a bit. I plan to write a review of it sometime down the road when I’ve really had time to pull it all apart and examine it from every angle.

One minor gripe with OneNote – and one that typically wouldn’t be a factor at all except for the sheer volume of information that I’m currently pounding into it – is that it doesn’t seem able to tell you how many words are in a given workbook. When I’ve typed all of my 15+ months worth of notes into the software, I’d really like to see just how much there is in there. For bragging rights, if nothing else. Hey, it’s a significant effort, I feel I’m entitled.

So that’s where I stand so far – three chapters into the story, plus a bit more, and around half of my total notes entered into OneNote. I’ll need to then review all of the notes and pull out just the ideas that reflect where I currently want the story to go (since, as I said, some of the ideas weren’t necessarily well thought-out, plus I’ve refined my concept of what the book’s about quite a bit and some of the older story ideas no longer fit). And I’ll need to sit down and fill in some of the blanks about how the story’s going to get from Point A to Point F to Point K, when points B, C, D, E, G, H and I are as yet unwritten. I’m not a person for whom outlines are an optimal tool – I find that the more of the story I plan out in advance, the less excitement I feel about actually writing it – but I will need to figure out why some of the stuff that happens later is able to happen or why anybody would care that it happened, and that will necessitate at least some minimal planning on my part.

It’s slow going at first, though I’d suspected it might take me a bit to build up a head of steam as it were, but it’s exciting to really be doing it. And best of all, I know that when I’m done, I’ll have written a story that I’ll really enjoy. I like stories, and I like telling stories, and for the first time in my life I’m devoting myself to doing exactly that. There is a book that I very much want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet. I must write it.