Tuesday, June 29, 2010

That is, "recently asked questions."

End of last week, I was featured over at Edited to Within an Inch of my Life, the blog of Heather Kelly. She asked some great questions, and I supplied adequate response . . . most of the time! Some of my answers were totally inadequate! Hence, there were some follow-up questions in the comments. I will now, using my great powers of eye sight, insight, and foresight, answer those questions!

1. The title

That crazy title of mine! It's a catchy, intimidating mouthful, isn't it? And until recently, I had the darnedest time discussing it intelligently. But lo and behold, at BEA, I recorded the podcast linked in the previous entry at this blog, and on the spot as I was, I managed to produce a pretty decent answer. To sum up: The Absolute Value of -1, or |-1|, simply means 1, mathematically. More poetically, the idea is that the three main characters of the novel (Lily, Simon, and Noah) are dealing with a new absence. The title implies a question: what is the value of that absence, and how does it begin to shape Lily, Simon, and Noah into new adults?

As to how we came up with it, this was a group effort on the part of the Aforementioned Editor, me, and my wife. We each made a list of ideas. The Absolute Value of -1 appeared on my wife's list, and after a couple of rounds of voting, let's call it, was chosen.

2. The process

Heather asked me about how I write, and I only answered with regard to |-1|, really rather an oddball book, process-wise. So now I'll try to expand that answer a bit, since I will (hopefully) never write a novel using the |-1| (fifteen-year-long and terribly confusing) method.

(We all know what a pantser is, right?)

I have a couple of distinct methods, depending on what I'm writing. If I'm outlining, chances are good I'm doing a work-for-hire job. My outlines usually work like this: I have a vague idea what I need the story to be about (a recent example is a horror story that takes places in a movie theater). In a very pantsery way, I start an outline. I type "chapter one," and write a few sentences on what will happen in chapter one, including characters who need to be introduced. At this point, since I am at heart a pantser, I have no idea how this thing is going to end, or which characters I really need, so I wing it.

Here is a sample opening chapter in outline form:


NAME is walking to school, very slowly because it’s early. His friend meets him and they walk on. Both are slow and tired. It’s winter. Their hoods are on, their eyes are sunken and dark. Everyone’s are, after all. In homeroom, the principal, who sounds very tired, He announces the typical mumbo jumbo, and then says the head lunch lady, to brighten up our day, has added hot chocolate to the menu, free of charge!

Notice no names have been chosen yet. Also notice a little bit of set up has already happened, specifically that these students appear to be the walking dead, and that there's free cocoa. (Doesn't sound like much, but when you consider this is the opening chapter of a middle-school zombie chapter book, it begins to add up.)

At some point during this pantsery outlining method, I'll actually realize how things need to end, what people's names will be, and other important details like that. Then I can go back and add things. Since it's such a succinct form, that isn't the headache it would be if I simply pantsed it (more on that in my next process section). For example, though I don't save outline drafts, so I can't prove this, I suspect the line about free cocoa was added when I was already halfway done with the outline, since it would not be like me to predict the Chekhov gun I'd need so handily.

So, once this outline is all done and the dots connect, it's simply a matter of adding lots of flesh to the bones: give characters voice and shape, build the setting, write the action scenes where needed.

Did I just gloss over a hard part with that whole "simply a matter of" stuff? If so, I apologize. To me, that isn't "process" itself anymore.

Okay, moving on.

Process the second: writing a novel. I'm a pantser for like 20 or 30 or even 40 or 50 thousand words. There was a time not long ago that I would simply give up when I realized I was out in the middle of the ocean with no paddle and no clue where the shore was anyway. Friends used to tell me to simply gather all my lost novels into a collection called Beginnings.

What I do now, as opposed to what I did with |-1| (which I won't dwell on), is to back-outline-- write a synopsis, even. That is, with lots of good scenes written, I put that aside and start building a proper skeleton. Could I do this first? I think probably not, because I can't get a good idea of the story I want to tell without a well fleshed-out character, chock full of voice, attitude, conflict, loss, and whatever else shows up when I'm pantsing.

Creating the skeleton at this point is certainly the most difficult aspect of writing a novel for me. Two cases:

YA MS the Second, which I started around Christmas 2008 and which is still unfinished-- I wrote about 40 thousand words on this one before it began to fell apart. It took months, I think over a year, to get a synopsis that I was fairly happy with. I've now finished a draft, but it is still not right, because the synopsis is still not right. It's going to take a lot of thought to figure where I need to make changes or put my protagonist down a road I was afraid to before. (More on that right now:)

YA MS the Third, which I started about a year ago, came as quickly at the beginning, and again I found myself drowning. But this time I got lucky: while hunting for inspiration, looking at photos of Greenpoint, Brooklyn (the novel's setting), I stumbled on a news story I had missed when it was news, having just left New York. In 2006, a warehouse (one I was already using as a major location in the novel) had burned for two days. Everything clicked then, and I knew what my protagonist had to go through to bring the book's arc where it needed to be. Outlining at that point was relatively easy. The problem then was putting my protagonist through it: suspicion, arrest, social workers would have to get involved. This was more than I'd ever intended when I'd started. I don't know a thing about social work, police stations, criminal negligence! So I hemmed and hawed, I did everything I could to avoid researching and writing those difficult scenes. The whole time, though, I knew that if I could just push through that material, I'd have a finished plot! So why did I resist? I can't say, but I do it all the time, and if my crit group comrades are any indication, so do a lot of other writers. Check yourself: my guess is that you do too.

The solution for me was, eventually, was to remind myself that "testing out" a road by writing a few scenes, even leaving out that which I did not yet know via research, would not hurt me. It would not hurt the finished novel of the future. It would not hurt my protagonist. It would just take a couple of hours. Big whoop! It's well worth that and much more to find the right arc.

One other point when it comes to novel writing. As I mentioned, the "outlining halfway through to be sure I ever reach the end" is the hardest part for me. Don't get the idea I get this done in an afternoon, simply thinking about my characters, the 40k words I have already, and what the overarching conflict is. No no. With YA MS the Third, for example, I divided the existent work into distinct scenes. Since the book contains a buttload of flashbacks, as is my wont, I then arranged the scenes (printed out and everything) in chronological order. I then synopsized each scene, thereby creating an outline of what I already had. I shuffled the scenes around quite a bit to maximize tension, to withhold some information while revealing other information--always to maximize tension. Only when that was done (it took weeks) was I able to see where my protagonist had to go (the lock-up!) to give me the climax I needed.

Oh man, I nearly forgot! If not for this advice from Cyn Omololu, I sincerely doubt I would have finished YA MS the Third even yet. It is invaluable, and I suggest referring to it often.

3. Schedule

I am very lucky. I do not have a full-time job (unless you count stay-at-home dad, which you totally should, for crying out loud). I do, however, have in-laws, and those in-laws have been very generous with their time. That means babysitters, people, and babysitters mean coffee shops for me, and coffee shops for me mean work time.

I do have one set day every week (Tuesday, as it happens) on which I will get at least six hours of work time, thanks to a SIL. I'll use that time to write freely, work on a work-for-hire project, write a blog entry like this one, or struggle through any of the steps in the processes described above. Most weeks, I'll also take a Saturday morning or afternoon. Many weeks (especially during the summer), I'll get a second week day, thanks to the MIL.

So is it a set schedule? Sort of. One thing is for sure: I will always get 10 to 12 hours per week with which to write or do related work. I'd like more, and someday I'll get more. Even this fall, when Sam starts pre-school, I'll get a nice twelve hour chunk right there, and I will use it to write assuming I can concentrate while I'm worrying about my son in pre-school!

Okay, I think I managed to answer the questions in the comments on that interview. That process answer was hell of long. I hope it made sense.


2 Responses to “RAQ”
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Blythe said...

1) I assume you have already done but--you ought to kiss your wife for that title. It's brilliant.

2) I thought I was a pantser, but it is now apparent that I wear no clothes at all.

Finally, Chekhov never lived in Montana, third most armed state in Montana, with NICS background checks for 26% of the population--and that doesn't even take into consideration "legacy" guns, cross bows, and atlatls. Can you tell that the gun in my WIP is being problematical? It is.

June 29, 2010 at 5:03 PM
Heather Kelly said...

Steve--thanks so much for the thorough answers to the questions over at the interview! No matter how awesomely people do the interview--we always have a question or two--we're tricky that way! :)

And Blythe--I'm LOL over your nakedness. I think I'm naked too, when I write...

July 1, 2010 at 1:26 PM