Robert Gryphon blogs on learning the novelist's craft to pay for better quality cat food. All writing-related conversation welcome.
Tying back into my earlier heartrending story about learning to walk again after a motorcycle crash—with which I kicked off this batch of blog entries—I find myself in the completely unsurprising position of having to learn to write again. Not how to put words on the page, per se, but to get back into the routine of writing, and being effective about it. The last time I did this, at the very beginning of this blog, the key factors in forming that habit were as follows:
Thus, after months adrift, in a different place, and in many ways a different person, I am now in the process of doing exactly the same things once again.
It will take some time to get the old engine fired up, but the lazy and shiftless aspect of me that insists upon making this difficult is fast running out of excuses.
In fairness to, uh, me, I guess, I haven’t gotten absolutely nothing done. Over the last few months, I’ve implemented hundreds of tedious small-to-mid-sized edits that the book’s alpha readers indicated were needed. I made notes pertaining to numerous key character and plot issues plus many new ideas that came to me over time in conversation, in the shower, in bed (including dreams), while driving, and in other random contexts. I’ve organized my long lists and stacks of notes pretty well, and even implemented some of the ideas contained within as changes in the book.
Perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve come up with what I feel is an interesting and fairly unique solution to the major dilemma I’ve known about for over a year, an issue similar to the “story question” in the (great) movie Stranger than Fiction.
So in summary, I won’t be restarting things from scratch here. It’s not a clusterfuck. It’s just work. A lot of work. With most of the easy fixes done. Meaning, most of what’s coming up is the hard stuff.
On a positive note, I’ve had conversations with various “alpha stage” readers corroborating the idea that the project is worth seeing to completion. In other words, most of them like it. In fact, the ones who like it, seem to like it rather a lot. Given that that’s how genre fiction operates, I couldn’t really ask for much more.
All right, that’s enough of an update for now. What it boils down to is this: over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be enmeshed in the process of flogging myself back up to speed.
As I mentioned earlier, before I could have any hope of resuming the productive routine I’d gotten myself, I had to weather a veritable storm of life changes.
To kick the whole thing off, I had to sell the house I’d lived in for 14 years, which was at least 4x longer than I’d ever lived in one place before. When it sold more quickly than I expected, I had to move out abruptly, cramming an unbelievable collection of stuff (and collectibles) into storage. Then, not knowing where to move to, I bailed to Europe for six weeks, leaving the famed Bernadette in the care of friends. I spent that time walking miles a day, trading fat for muscle with the help of some push-ups and sit-ups, and curing my back pain almost totally. In the process I lost about 12 more lbs., putting me a good 30+ under my peak of grotesquery a couple of years ago.
After various wacky adventures, meeting new and old friends and burning a couple of bridges along the way, I returned to find that the problem of where to move to had not gone away. (For the record, America’s Nuclear Landfill—Nevada—is still home, but I needed another place to spend some time.) Stabbing in the dark, I found Portland to be a suitable venue in which to finish my book. Then the real moving hassle began. Three different accommodations in quick succession, endless furniture and housewares shopping, and multiple trips back and forth culminating in an interminable drive involving an RV and a frightened, morose runt of a Burmese cat.
And then there were the dental problems: two root canals, several crown replacements. Joy by the boatload. And my old career is refusing to leave me alone as completely as I’d envisioned.
Most of that is settled now, except for the parts that aren’t, and I’m writing this from a Starbucks across from Powell’s famed bookstore (which I haven’t been in because I only read on a Kindle now). This is one of a handful of suitable coffee shops I’ve located in the area, and the only one thus far that’s in walking distance.
Unfortunately, the deliberate breaking of my writing habit went a little too far, and I’m finding it quite hard to get things started again.
A few years ago, I was, uh, “involved” in a major motorcycle crash that, incidentally, destroyed my favorite Harley ever. It also broke my arm nastily (think “extra joint”); nearly put out an eye (saved by Oakley), scarring my otherwise flawlessly complected (it’s a word) brow in the process; and fractured the sides of my knees, as well as my sacrum. I couldn’t walk for a while, mainly because of the sacrum, which is the most painful thing you can break, at least in my experience, because while the hip bone may indeed be connected to the thigh bone, every damn bone is connected to the tailbone. Five months of physical therapy later found me largely returned to functional, having accumulated a bunch of new scars to add to my prodigious collection. (The one on my knee looks like an autopsy scar, which naturally makes it my favorite.)
There is sort of a point to that story, in that I liken my current situation to the physical therapy stage. I have done very little on the project for the last few months, for…reasons, and…
Fine; here’s the reasons. To make a long, largely dull, and tedious-to-live-through story fairly short: a few months ago I realized that my carefully formed habit of writing every day, as documented in the early entries in this blog, had become a rut. Not so surprising, really, given that the habit had lasted me a good 18 months and seen a thousand-plus solid pages written: a complete first draft, with a good 2/3 of the manuscript brought up to a 2nd-3rd+ draft level. But a rut is a rut, and my productivity was in the toilet. I’ve always been a proponent of productive obsession, but sometimes you just have to pop your head up or something will grab your hair and do it for you. I, of course, waited till something did it for me: specifically, the obvious fact that it was time for me to make some major lifestyle changes.
Guest post by Wil Forbis
Pulp fiction is, as most authorly types are aware, a genre that was especially popular in the 1930 and 1940s. The magazines printing such stories used wood pulp paper and featured eye catching cover art and action packed tales, usually orientated towards adventure, science fiction and suspense. Pulps were the birthplace of many still popular characters such as Tarzan, the Shadow and Doc Savage.
Pulp fiction has long been accused of having little literary merit. Despite the existence of many pulp authors who were talented wordsmiths, these accusations are not entirely unjust. Pulp stories were not meant to be prose-rich pontifications on the complex nature of man, they were meant to be a quick and dirty form of entertainment. And pulp authors were bound to the whims of a marketplace which demanded prolific output. There was often no time to agonize over finding the right word or perfectly detailed exposition. To feed the raging beast, pulp authors developed a number of writing tools and techniques for writing fast.
Writing quickly is not every author’s goal. Some writers have no deadlines imposed on them by either a publisher or themselves. Others simply know that to do their best work, they have to take their time. It’s up to each individual to decide what their objectives are. However, if you are an author who would like work faster, the techniques of pulp authors may interest you.
Our first discussion centers on author Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970). Gardner is best known as the author of the Perry Mason novels (which inspired the hit television show of the same name.) Mason, as many know, was a fictional defense attorney who would, while defending someone wrongfully accused of a crime, unmask the real villain.
Gardner, like his character Mason, was a practicing lawyer. He entered the pulp market partly as a means of making extra money. While he had some early success, his stories often went unpublished as editors complained of his lackluster plots. Realizing that he would need to master the art of plot generation to achieve quick output, Gardner began to analyze his problem. This post from crime writing blog The Kill Zone elucidates:
After much study [Gardner] said he “began to realize that a story plot was composed of component parts, just as an automobile is.” He began to build stories, not just make them up on the fly. He made a list of parts and turned those into “plot wheels” which was a way of coming up with innumerable combinations. He was able, with this system, to come up with a complete story idea in thirty seconds.
Gardner’s plot wheels became his secret weapon. The web site for the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin has several on display and notes:
By using different combinations of possible twists and turns for both major and minor characters, Gardner was able to construct narratives that held his readers rapt for several decades.
How did the plot wheels work? They were, in essence, random idea generators. Gardner had broken down plots into individual components. For example, one of the wheels on display at the Harry Ransom Center is a list of “Hostile minor characters who function in making complications for hero.” Some options in the list are: Newspaper Reporter, Attorney, Spy, and (my favorite), Hick Detective. You can see how with a spin of his wheel Gardner could fill in a needed plot element.
Now some writers would complain that this method is limiting. It is and that’s precisely the point. It’s great to fully explore all the possible options for every aspect of a plot, but it’s also time consuming. By limiting his options Gardner was working faster. He was also avoiding a sand trap for many authors: analysis paralysis. By exploring every available option, authors can often overwhelm themselves with choices. Writing blog The Daring Novelist argues that this issue can be avoided by opening up the creative process to random idea generators such as the plot wheel.
The more you know about something and the better you are at it, the more you see a million options. Decision making is harder, because you can see many benefits and problems with each direction you could go.
So randomizing choices with what you’re good at can actually be a time saver. It only requires a minimal short hand, and you jump straight into solving that problem; put your energy into pushing it in a new direction. The fact that you’ve artificially limited your options just forces you to be more creative.
When your options are limited, working with what you’ve got becomes a matter of necessity. And necessity is, as they say, the mother of invention.