December 05, 2003

This and That, or Why I'm Running Myself Ragged

I go through cycles.

Sometimes there will be weeks or months when all I do is go to work, play with the kids a little, talk to Jane a little, read books, and sleep. I'll have projects hanging fire, and I'd kind of like to work on them, but I don't have the energy or the inspiration, and I know it.

And there are times when my head is just buzzing with ideas, and that's when the problems start. I spend the day at work--and then I come home and (so far as is consistent with being a husband and father of three) spend the evening working too. And when I get tired of one project, there are (it seems) three more clamoring for my attention.

That's how it's been over the last couple of months, and especially the last few weeks. I keep needing to remind myself to slow down and relax now and then. So I thought I'd sit down and take stock by writing a blog post.

Trust me--at times like this, sitting down and writing a chatty blog post counts as slowing down and relaxing.

First, there are my programming projects, Notebook and Snit. Notebook's getting most of my focus at the moment; as I commented a week or so ago, I'm finally managing to get to make changes and add features I had in mind over fifteen months ago. Getting the program back in my head so I can really dig in and work on it is tough, and once I get there it's a little like riding a tiger--I want to hold on and ride it for as long as I can, because once I fall off it's all over.

I couldn't be doing what I'm doing with Notebook if I hadn't written Snit, but I made the mistake of publicizing Snit. Now I've got users with ideas for extensions, and the occasional bug fix. And it's just as hard to get started working on Snit after a hiatus as it is to get to work on Notebook.

Then there's my writing group. Some while after I finished writing Through Darkest Zymurgia I attended a creative writing class at a local bookstore. A group of us from that class formed a writing group; we've been meeting about once a month since then. Since we started I've written a few short stories, and started three new novels, one of which I've abandoned for the time being, one of which I was obsessed with until I started working on Notebook again (I'm up to chapter nine) and one for which I've a complete rough draft.

The one that exists in draft form is entitled The King of Elfland's Nephew; it's my own idiosyncratic take on urban fantasy. And I made a major blunder when I wrote.

With my first novel, I revised the text as I went along. If I found a rough spot as I re-read it, I'd fix it immediately. If I found that I needed to change or add some earlier details ("Foreshadowing--your guide to quality literature!") I'd just go back and insert the needed changes. When I finished the last chapter, all I needed to do to call it finished was to read it through once, and fix any typos or detail bugs I found.

With The King of Elfland's Nephew I decided to try something different. Instead of going back and fixing things I'd simply make notes about what needed to be done, and forge ahead. The plan was to finish the draft, and then go back and write a second draft on the bones of the first one. Some writers work that way, and it seemed worth trying.

Unfortunately, it seems for me to be something of an unnatural act. It was more work than I was prepared for, and I was unable to stick to it. And as I write I've got about 110,000 words of rough draft and about 5,000 words of revision completed. I've been meaning to get back to it one day, but it's been really easy to put off, because I've been reading the rough draft to my writing group.

Somehow it's become very natural just to bring my laptop to my writing group, and give them around fifteen or twenty pages of my opus. It's easy for me, and they want to know what happens. And I've been telling myself that I can get back to working on the revision when I finish reading them the draft.

So last night I finished reading them the draft. No more excuses; I'm going to have to get back to work.

It's unclear to me at this point how much revision is really needed. My goal with my fiction is to entertain the reader with my story, not dazzle him with my writing. To that end I try write prose that's clear and flows smoothly, as tested by reading it aloud. And since I invariably read new chapters aloud to Jane as I finished them, I was able to fix any major infelicities immediately.

Most of the changes on my list involve inserting some little detail here and there. And I need to re-read the whole thing carefully and tighten it up; I avoid excessive adjectives and adverbs, but I'm sure I can cut out a few more.

But then there are the opening chapters--say, the first 30,000 words or so.

The way I write, I get a neat idea--in this case, it was the title--and I ask myself where I could go with it. And I start writing it down. And I usually don't have a very good idea of where I'm going. I'm just following the characters into situations and seeing what happens. And that means that the opening chapters are likely to be poorly structured, and are equally likely to fail to provide the needed foundation for the rest of the tale, no matter how smoothly they flow. And that's where I got bogged down last time.

I'm kind of looking forward to digging into it again. But in the meantime I'm still riding that tiger. We'll see where I end up.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 5, 2003 08:34 PM