• About Quota

    Bookmark and Share

    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

  • Recent Tweets

    Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

  • Categories

  • Add to Technorati Favorites
  • Recent Comments

    Elisse on The First Year of Grief Is as…
    The First Year of Gr… on Postmortem
    The First Year of Gr… on A Eulogy for My Father
    The First Year of Gr… on Keep on Truckin’
  • wordpress stats plugin
  • Advertisements

Showing Can Be So Telling

In my writing group’s weekly call, I had a breakthrough about writing detailed scenes, an A-ha/Duh moment that allowed me to internalize something I’ve known but didn’t quite know-know.

Elizabeth had us select a character and put him/her in a setting that the writer knows but the character doesn’t. I wrote a scene in which one of the characters in my novel comes to visit me at work. I called up all the complaints I’ve heard about the space: it’s in a basement; it’s hard to find; it’s ugly and depressing; it’s hard to get into my office because the door collides with another door. (I’m going to share; don’t diss.)

The director’s office is in the basement far from the stairs through a set of doors and I miss the sign telling me where I need to go, finding only bathrooms one way and a bunch of seemingly forgotten books the other way. I turn around and walk through the first open door. A student reads at a table not noticing me at first, so I say hello, louder than I mean to. The room is small with boloney-colored walls. There’s a piece of equipment, an old compact CD player maybe, stuck to the ceiling, which feels low. I reach up but to my surprise can’t touch it, even give a few swipes to make sure. The student looks up and sees me waving my arm above my head. “Is everything alright, sir? Can I help you with something?” “Looking for James Black.” “He’s in his office.” She points, and I look to where she points, but all I see is a woman in an office, stepping around her desk, approaching me. She, the admin asst, asks to help me and apologizes for not noticing. I understand given that her desk is back in a corner sort of behind a pole. Mr. Black is located in yet another office off her office. She checks to make sure Mr. Black is available, then steps out of the way. Her office door bonks into his office door. There’s enough clearance, but it’s a bit precarious getting by them.

Most of the details came together pretty well considering we only wrote for a few minutes. But Elizabeth pointed out that “[A] student” in the third sentence isn’t descriptive, especially compared to the other details. I got what she meant. My character might be able to infer that the person in that room is a student, but why would someone in a new space jump to that conclusion? The character is just taking in sensory information. Processing the information leads to more information gathering (e.g., is the ceiling low? can he get past the weird doors?).

FYI, I decided to revise “[A] student” as “[A] young woman in a lumpy aqua sweater.” For the sake of the exercise, I think the change offers more information. If I decided to use the scene, I’d play with the colors and what they suggest about mood. I’d probably also change the description of the object on the ceiling. It’s just a wireless router, and although it does look like a compact CD player, that image seems confusingly specific.

The point is not simply to show rather than tell, but to show in a way that develops character along with setting. In this scene, the character isn’t quite ready make assumptions without testing them, which the reader probably appreciates, being as new to the setting as the character is. A different character would take a different approach, perhaps bringing more knowledge to the experience or comparing this setting to a similar setting. Showing would still be important, but it might involve more telling.

Advertisements

Resolution: Form Fits Content

I resolve to set reasonable minimum expectations and meet them. This approach isn’t new to me. I’ve used it for years, finding it motivating to say, “Well, at least I’ll do five pushups” or “Writing one sentence shouldn’t be too hard,” and then blast past the ridiculously minimal goal. To push past fear or indifference, I’ve had to mess with my head, but it’s become a very silly game. Some parental part of me treats myself like an irresponsible child, and then the childish part of me proves the old guy to be a suspicious jerk. It’s like I’m doing a one-person version of The Breakfast Club. Continue reading

Off the Treadmill

The first two-thirds of December was a treadmill system of processes. Do some grading. Step off that treadmill to go to a meeting. Work with a student freaking out about finals. Back on the grading belt. When all those belts reached their termini, jump on the neverending deal-with-those-piles-of-papers-littering-your-office treadmill, on which I do what I can, make a little progress, then happily leave. All of these things had to get done, and I got them done.

In the second third of the month, I’ve been in vacation mode. It’s usually a pleasant time of maintaining daily/weekly chores, making sure I exercise, and otherwise figuring out what to do with time that is as yet unscheduled. I’m grateful for this time and understand most people don’t get so much; I’m not going to whine about that. But the openendedness messes with my head. I spend most of my life wishing I had time of my own, then when I do, I don’t know what to do with it. I’m not unusual in this way; lots of us feel this frustration. We’re too busy being busy to plan what we’ll do when we’re not busy.

Having more time has not resulted in spending more time on the novel, but I’ve maintained my daily time commitment, occasionally putting in a little more. If anything, I feel less optimistic about the project, which has become a small city of treadmills–imagine That OK Go Video but filmed on a backlot. The process is enormous. I know what I want to do, and it takes as much time as it takes. Having a windfall of time doesn’t speed things up. It’s like winning a $5000 scratch-off and thinking you’re going to buy a house with it. It’s a good thing, a minor boost, but when you land, you’ve got to keep pace so you don’t get tangled up in the conveyer belts.

Actually, the treadmill metaphor fits novel writing only if I add that I have to simultaneously ride the bike that powers the conveyance for the entire small city. I toss people on the belts, and they move along them, between them, among them, straight line to straight line. So much complexity devolves into tedious complication over years of this process, interesting like a puzzle, but where’s the story? Continue reading

MyNoRevMo Day 26: Weaving

With only a few days of November left, I’m struggling to maintain my usual working pace. For months, I’ve been doing about 1.5 hour per day. I definitely haven’t stopped, nor have I slowed considerably, but between dealing with narrative problems and distractions from real life, I feel as if I’ve trudging through mud during most of MyNoRevMo. Better to keep going than give up, so I’ll keep going.

The problems are opportunities. My first draft includes many lengthy scenes that need to be sliced apart and woven into other scenes. I’m trying to connect past and present. Instead of dropping some clunky flashback into the text, the characters remember relevant past events as new events unfold in the present action, emphasizing the “flash” in flashbacks rather than just dredging up the past.

As a writer I have been warned away from using flashbacks of any kind because it supposedly prevents the story from moving forward. But as a reader, I see this notion ignored all the time. And as the protagonist of my own life, I do this all the time. Past experiences inform choices I make in the present. New experiences inform my interpretations of past events. I’m constantly revising and, probably, fictionalizing my memories.

In both my reality and my fiction, revising reveals a lot of information that I can cut. It’s for me to know, to help me envision an arc or remember how the character go from then to now, but no one else needs to know. The information would distract a reader.

I learned this process as an art student. In high school, my teacher suggested I tear one of my abstract watercolors into strips and weave it back together. Doing so would get rid of what didn’t need to be there and reshape what was–a new approach to what felt too obvious. Continue reading

MyNoRevMo

Tomorrow is the first day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), during which participants attempt to write a 50000-word novel in 30 days. Anyone who finishes is a winner regardless of the quality of the product. Success is in the doing, not what is written, which makes perfect sense considering a writer’s failure usually comes from not doing enough writing. I know too many would-be writers who just don’t take/make time to practice writing.

That was true for me for years, and I credit my participation last year in NaNoWriMo with helping me start to figure out how to make time for practice and to push through the first draft of a big project. Actually, I bent the rules a little. You’re supposed to write a novel from scratch, but I focused on the third part of a novel I had already started. I did start that part from scratch and played along as much as I could, imagining that the piece could be a novel of its own. I ended up with a novel-length draft of that part with a lot of material to play with.

This year I’m not going to be able to join the NaNoWriMo fun. I’m chest deep in the second draft of my novel. I’ve been working on it almost every day, the kind of pace I kept up last November. But it’s difficult to quantify my daily results. It’s not the kind of work that requires a word-count goal. I’m cutting and revising what’s in the first draft, and although I’m adding a scene here and there, there are no empty spots within the narrative that could justify devoting a month to exploring 50000 words’ worth of possibilities.

After far too many years, I’m learning to deal with my process, which fits my particular strengths and needs. I don’t proceed in linear fashion from beginning to end. I’m bouncing around, but for me, that’s a well organized process. I’m deepening the story and characters. I just need to put in my time every day, and because I’m enjoying the work, I make sure to do it.

I’m on a roll, so I’d best keep rolling. For me, November will be My Novel Revising Month (MyNoRevMo)–one of many, and hopefully one of the last for this draft. If all goes well, I’ll celebrate the new year with a freshly completed second draft.

Take-it-to-the-next-level-ness

I’ve been reading Ethan Mordden’s Buddies about queer life in 1970s Manhattan. It’s inspired  numerous guffaws and clutch-the-pearls moments because, to be sure, I’m an easy mark for stories that involve queens dishing. But that’s a small part of what this book involves.

Mordden develops the characters fully, and their banter peppers conversations that go much deeper than sit-com chat. He uses dialogue not as redundant commentary but to push his stories forward; the characters are talking because conversation is the activity they do most. Exposition works into the dialogue through characters’ lines and narrative comment. To put it in rather simple terms, the balance of showing and telling is about perfect.

That’s pretty much exactly what I want my dialogue to do, and the whole of my writing. But more often than not, my dialogue doesn’t. Dialogue happens to be where I begin in my process of building a scene. I suppose what I do is transcribe what the characters say and note what goes unsaid. In a first draft, when my characters aren’t talking, they’re pointing, raising their eyebrows, turning away–all kinds of pedantic attempts to show, not tell.

It’s potentially interesting stuff, but doesn’t make for engaging reading. So in revision I take out excess words (there are many) and add information that’s missing, gradually shaping it all into something more, I don’t know, full-bodied, maybe. But something about the writing still seems kind of empty. I’ve heard a lot of writers say they feel their work is strong, but it’s lacking a zing or a punch or a something-or-other-to-take-it-to-the-next-level-ness. That goes for me, too. Continue reading

A Gregarious Introvert’s Guide to Writing

As a tween and early teen, I spent a lot of time alone. Everyone in the family was busy but me, and I got sick of joining them. There were no structured activities that interested me, certainly not sports. In early elementary school, I had tried gymnastics and was the only boy in the class. Once the girls started on the uneven bars, they more or less kicked me out, probably afraid I’d end up odd. (Resisting the obvious follow-up to that.) They didn’t understand that I wanted to give it a try anyway, nor did they care.

I would have gotten into theatre if there had been a program, but there wasn’t. So once I was old enough to stay by myself, I stayed at home most every evening of the week, arriving at my house by bus after school and hanging out until my parents and sister came home, usually 9 p.m. or after. During all that tween time, I did homework, mastered the preparation of boxed macaroni and cheese, discovered the fleeting distraction of masturbation, and organized my life around the prime-time TV schedule. The TV had to be on and blaring. When my hands weren’t otherwise occupied, I wrote in my journal a lot, mostly about how lonely I felt, how I felt I was being punished for something I didn’t understand, sometimes creating abstractions that I wanted so badly to be arty. When my family came home, I didn’t know what to say to them, so I usually grabbed my journal and went to my room. It was about time to go to bed anyway.

In high school, I got into visual art, which was a relatively social experience compared to my experiences with writing. I got to study at the Kansas City Art Institute for three semesters in their high school program and spent a lot of time around black t-shirt-wearing, Cure-adoring teens. Besides being artists, we also had in common that we revised our own clothing with paint and graffiti. Whereas they went for morose colors and patterns, my hacked-up sweatshirts looked like they’d been distressed at a Skittles factory. My arty acquaintances were as kind as they could allow themselves to be without losing their status as non-conformists. They liked my artwork, though, and that was the point.

Socially, it wasn’t much different than being in school. When we weren’t elbow-deep in our art, we stood outside, where they smoked and I coughed. In The Breakfast Club terms, we were overstocked on Ally Sheedies and Judd Nelsons. Meanwhile, I was Anthony Michael Hall’s dorkier younger brother who wasn’t cool enough to get detention but who sneaked in anyway. I waited for something to happen that would make them want to be friends with me, because trying and failing would have devastated me. All of this went into my journal, where I attempted the textual version of the cool, nonconformist thing, albeit while listening to Duran Duran.

Near the end of high school and a few years after, I did theatre. I was constantly around people and usually the backstage dramas didn’t interfere with the feeling of family that develops when a group of people spends a ridiculous number of hours creating what we hoped were works of art. If the audiences and critics hated a show, that was almost better, because then the group could rally around itself, with plenty of self-deprecation and martyrdom to go around. The experience made for war stories our little ad hoc family would share for years. I loved that I was never alone, that I had the luxury of so much time with people that I got sick of some of them, and I even enjoyed the discomfort of missing them when a production ended.

But even then I was writing, and much more compulsively. Even though I was rarely alone, I felt lonely. Filled with angsty ideas, I had to get them out of me. Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: