Thursday, November 28, 2019

Narrative Drive

So, a valued mentor let me know that the work he has seen from me lacks "narrative flow". As I have mentioned (!) before, I had to look that phrase up. Me being me, INTJ, I needed to understand what this odd phrase might mean. After severe and prolonged introspection, I discovered that diversions, reflections, and non-sequiturs are my natural place to come from. And I do believe that the best writing, from all of us, emanates from our natural place. At the same time, I am also acutely aware that our weaknesses are often, not always but often, our strengths overdone. So, I decided to look at this newest phase of my apprenticeship as a writer by addressing this. So, I looked around (yes, some more) and decided that if any form of fiction required 'narrative flow' it was a crime novel. So -- you can see the punishing logic driving me here -- I decided to write a 'mystery' while at the same time maintaining as best I could my own 'voice.' A short novel, no less.

Here's my observation so far. I have committed to progressing from swimming a few laps in the pool, -- passably, mostly, some of the time, if you don't look too close -- to swimming the English Channel.

I have actually begun this Quixotic journey with the usual mix of terror and enthusiasm.

I like it and I am just so uncomfortable. Sound familiar?

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Plot vs Narrative

Thank you, Mary Daniels Brown

Plot is the main character's actions in pursuit of a goal, listed in chronological order.

  • Includes aspects such as "why's", linkages between events, causes and effects, motivation

Narrative is the order in which the author presents the various events that make up the plot's chronological timeline.

  • Structured so that the telling of the story is and interesting read.
Narrative + Description + Characterization = Story. 
[a version of what Stephen King says]

See also Novel Writing Help for some sensible comments

There. I'm done for awhile. Now back to actually writing stuff.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Hoo Da Thunk It?

Well, really, I should have anticipated this. "Great oaks from little acorns grow" and all that. Plus, I can see through my personal observation that trying to organize writers is like, as they say, herding cats. Plus, and I must confess I remain astonished at this every time I observe it, which is often enough thank you very much, writers can have the most determined and emotional disagreements with each other over matters that, to an outsider appear not worth the stalking out of meetings and conversations, or unfriending. Or criticism to anyone who will listen.

But even though we may disagree on various points, you'd think, I mean wouldn't you, I mean really, think that we could all agree on some fundamental definitions or, at least general descriptions, of certain words we all use to describe the parts of our mutual craft.

For me, it all started when the supportive editor of my Guest Column contributions to a local newspaper, used his kind but clear voice to let me know I needed to re-work a particular submission because the "narrative flow" didn't, well, flow. As I said in an earlier blog, I have never given much thought to anything that might be called "narrative flow".

Then, I read a Stephen King quote that said a writer's priority is to "keep the ball rolling".

So then I decided to write what I considered to be the most plot-driven of all the genres I might have some chance of writing -- a mystery. (This even though a colleague of mine -- who actually writes mysteries and has recently had on e accepted for publication -- says she is a 'pantser'. That is, a writer who lets the characters and situations determine what happens next.  "How," I thought, "could you write a mystery and not know the plot?" Still, I pressed on.

Then, I acquired King's book On Writing which, by the way, I recommend with an exclamation mark. In it, he said:
"In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life.
You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer - my answer, anyway - is nowhere. I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible."

Then (thanks for sticking with me. I will make the next post much shorter.) Then, after flailing around, I Googled the difference between "plot" and "narrative".

After hours of this that and the other thing, looking at disagreements and mysterious assumptions, I discovered what I should have suspected. 
  • Writers don't agree on the differences among plot, narrative and story.
  • And, when they do say something useful, it is useful only in retrospect of figuring things out by locating a truly useful resource.
I should really check this post for narrative flow -- suspect I should re-work it. Think of it as a draft.

For the answer to plot vs. narrative, see next, short, post.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Old Thomas Stearns and I Have the Same Problem

". . . The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless . . .
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate . . .
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

-- T.S. Eliot. The Four Quartets (East Coker)

In other words, I'm back to Plan A and have worked my way, slogged my way, through a substantial bit of what I felt (thought would be too strong a word) I should be doing to outline  the mystery I plan / intend / hope to write.

On my own 'graph' of how to measure 'success' as a writer, this effort would qualify as discipline / effort. There is nothing in the rules that says I can't be grumpy about it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Creative Process - Really?!

As a reaction to my dismay about the amount of learning and work ahead of me in writing this Mystery, I tried to wriggle out of it -- partially -- and with some semi-credible honour.

What I chose to regard as a message from the universe came by way of an interview in the Book Review section of the New York Times. The person interviewed cited When You Reach Me as an example of one of her favourite and most highly-regarded books even though it is a Young Adult mystery. Aha, I said. Then I read somewhere that the one category of novel where sales are increasing is Young Adult. Double aha. 

So, I have now partially read the book and have determined I have no business whatsoever in this space. (If a science fiction mystery can be called a 'space." At least not now. I don't understand the references, the tone, or much else. No doubt this is, as they say, me not Rebecca Stead's. She won the 2009 Newbery Medal for it.

So, OK, back to Plan A.

And thanks to Don for this:

I have to say, though, that, for me and this project, the first two positions on the diagram are closer to:
  1. I have an idea that is probably over-reaching and I know is going to involve some pain. But I'm also hopeful that I will have learned a enough along the way about narrative drives and plotting and so forth to make it all worthwhile. And in the end,  make me glad, and proud,  I did it.
  2. Then -- my goodness, this is turning out even worse than what I was capable of imagining. And, I just know it's going to get worse before it gets better. Oh, goody goody.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Good Grief

I just started the outline for my proposed mystery novel. Already I can see problems, problems, problems.

I have far too many characters for, say, 80,000 words and, even worse, far too many subplots.

The process of starting an outline, though, pointed all that out to me after about 3 hours plodding. 

Now what?

Giving up, at the moment, sounds good. I know it's not the right answer but the neither is chocolate cake. Another good, but not correct, answer.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Writing Ain't Binary Part 2

Are our stories -- mine, yours -- "literary" or "commercial"?

Funny you should ask. A question I recently tripped over in the dark. A question that, in retrospect, and no doubt for many writers, is "as clear as day".

"Plain as the nose on your face."
"The elephant in the room."
"The moose under the table."
"If it had been any closer it would have bit you."
"Huh? You didn't know that? Really? Seriously?" 

And so forth.

It all started when a highly respected member of our Writing Group shared her rejection note for a short story. It said something to the effect of "We regret blah blah. This story is more of a literary piece than is suited to our publication". It was a wonderful story written by a skillful, highly-regarded and much-published writer.

Then, on more than one occasion, another experienced, highly thought of and much published writer made, on more than one occasion, a comment like this: "Of course, you wouldn't do it that way if you needed to generate income / make money / sell a lot of pieces." And, then, noting the work of another writing colleague she said, "He's more of a literary writer than I am. But a good kind of literary writer."

Then, I received feedback from an editor who said, "I made a few changes to improve the narrative flow. Let me know what you think." What I thought was -- narrative flow? Up to now, I have used the 'narrative' as a coat rack where I can hang my kindly (more or less) insights into human nature.

Then (we're almost finished) another writing colleague posted this quote from Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: "In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring', the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling."

Now with, as they say, 20/20 hindsight the fact that the majority of readers are seeking a rattling good story that speaks to them and lifts them out of their world, is obvious.

At the same time, it does not mean that we all need to write mass market paperbacks. Or free verse with no capital letters or discernible rhyme schemes. Or 800-page novels with tragedies spilling our of every rat infested tenement. 

But, for me, it has been an eye-opener that in my own development as a writer I need to focus more on plot.

I have decided to investigate how to write a mystery novel. And maybe even do it. Or start it. Or something.

My new goal is to write a longer work that is, by its very nature, plot-necessary. One that is not plot-exclusive though. With both literary (character; craft; thought) and commercial (plot; action; entertainment) aspects.

"In for a dime, in for a dollar."