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    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.

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MyNoRevMo Day 28: The Good News Is I’m a Slow, Forgetful Learner

I’ve been writing for about 35 years. I don’t mean simply forming letters with ink on paper. That’s how long I’ve been trying to communicate ideas that are at least somewhat “mine.” All that practice hasn’t left me feeling confident about what I do when I write. I have come to enjoy the process of exploring, but I don’t feel like an expert at/of writing. If I want bleeding stopped, an E/R nurse knows a procedure for doing that. If I want a room built on the back of my house, a contractor knows a procedure for making it happen. All I want to do is write some words to communicate ideas, and if feels like a mystery to be solved every time I try.

My current frustration is that I’m not sure I know what a story is. Yeah, I know: Protagonist. Point of view. Rising action, climax, falling action. Show, don’t tell. Blah, blah, blah. Those are elements to look for when reading a story, but I’m not convinced they’re present, or at least clear, as a writer writes a story. So, you tell me, I have to read the story and revise it again and again. I know. About twelve zillion writers/teachers have told me to do that, and I do it. They’re the “apply direct pressure” and “lay a solid foundation” of writing. And I’m almost completely convinced they don’t work very well most of the time.

Because I’ve read some great stories that don’t dwell on that stuff. The writer carves a not-necessarily-narrative-but-nevertheless-fascinating path. In some stories, it’s even less definite, more like the writer has rubbed a finger over a steamy mirror. The piece of writing has structure and tells some kind of a story, but the way it unfolds, you know the writer didn’t overthink the process.

Example: Sam D’Allesandro’s “The Zombie Pit.” The narrator ponders how a current boyfriend is and, mostly, isn’t like the perfect boyfriend who got away. It’s a gorgeous mix of past and present, of truth-telling and truth-withholding, as much an essay by a fictional character as a story about a fictional character.

Stories like this, the ones that fascinate me most, go against advice I’ve received to offer vivid details about characters and their actions. As a reader, I don’t care a lot about characters’ appearances, nor do I need to be able to picture every action in my mind. The experience of reading a book doesn’t need to feel like watching a movie. To the contrary, communicating via written words allows a writer to inspire the reader to imagine not just what might happen in the world but in the minds of others as well. I want to know what characters think and feel; that kind of information will probably tell me more about them than their hair color will. Maybe that’s what some of my teachers have meant when they’ve asked for vivid details, but most have indicated that it’s physical details they want.

But written stories are not movies. The purpose sharing information in a story is to give the reader a sense that something happens. It’s necessary to offer a few physical details to establish the characters exist in the world of the story. If you feel you don’t need quotes around dialogue and the reader plays along, it’s a story. If you mixed tenses and an editor plays along and approves it for publishing, it’s definitely a story. And even if I, the lowly writer, feel strongly convinced by what I’ve accomplished and refuse to change it, it’s a story. As long as I feel that way when I read it again. Even as  flaws become obvious (which happens with published work), it’s possible to see the success that no one else did. What I’ve learned from the attempt will inform the next attempt, but hopefully I’ll internalize the important parts of what I’ve learned and forget the rest. Focusing too much on the prescribed parts pulls us away from writing an interesting whole. Most of my writing time is spent translating personal, preverbal language into what others might understand. It takes an enormous amount of time. As frustrating as it is, I accept it as part of the job.

The rules are mostly bullshit. At best, they’re guideposts that are true often enough to keep the masses convinced they’re true, but in practice, they don’t lead you to where you need to go, nevertheless to places you want to go and probably need to invent. The guideposts are small and poorly constructed, obviously a bureaucratic excuse that help was offered. You can’t see the next one from this one, and there’s so much room between them, you can get lost, which is exactly what I’m trying to learn to do. I could bleed to death and die of exposure, but there really are so many other ways the story could go.

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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

When I Make Time for #amwriting, I #amwriting.

I’ve become an avid follower of the hashtag #amwriting on Twitter. Writers typically use it to indicate they’re currently in the process of writing, although some add it to anything they post about the practice of writing.

Of course, a lot of #amwriting tweets are structured around the verb phrase “am writing,” e.g., “I #amwriting until I have to go to work.” Tweeting grammatically correct sentences with any particular verb phrase is harder than you’d think, even for writers. Because I’m a writer, I #amwriting a lot, (I lucked out there) and I have more to say than obediently adhering to “am writing” allows.

Twitter’s 140-character limit encourages creative usage of grammar, such as trimming unnecessary words and abbreviating spellings, but #amwriting tweeters go even further. Someone might write, “Kids woke early from nap; #amwriting time got cut short.” In this example, #amwriting replaces the noun form of “writing,” again to identify the practice of writing. The word “writing” would make sense in this context, but #amwriting leaves little doubt, emphasizing that the verb in this noun is not mere residue. Continue reading

Felt Sense of the Story

I’m taking a course with the wonderful Elizabeth Stark to help get cranking on my novel. After writing pretty diligently for two months, we paused in January to read up on craft and figure out what makes the novels we love so lovable.

We return to our own novels next week. To prepare, Elizabeth asked us to write letters to ourselves to revisit what inspired our novels and what is central to them now. Here’s mine:

Dear Me,

You started writing this book on a generous dare, sort of to impress a new friend, which is the kind of nudge you’ve always needed. For the past two years and seven months you’ve been tapping keys, meandering down pages, expanding what was an incomplete short story into what is as yet an incomplete novel (a fresh rough draft, actually). You started with a thread of situation–a gay man trying to support his straight brother who has sought refuge as the victim of his wife’s abuse–and braided in a few more threads: the gay man’s partner is stationed in Iraq, and after his partner’s return, the teenage niece becomes a confidante to her new uncle.

You can’t remember exactly how you acquired the new threads. Maybe they came from other ideas that have ended up being minor plot points or aspects of character. Whatever, you wrote your way through it all, whether you were in the writing zone or scribbling ideas in your Moleskine. You’ve always been pretty good at finding possibilities through a process of writing, sifting, writing, sifting, which is really about exploring what you know of lived experience (yours and others) because you like stories that are believable, not merely possible. This novel, your novel, is packed with characters and situations you believe.

When you started writing it, the novel was about Blaine, the unacknowledged partner, but you wondered if you should give Henry, the soldier, just as much page time, maybe more. Wouldn’t it be gutless to try to write around his experience? And the brother and his kids–weren’t they important, too? Why were they in the book if they weren’t? Everything and everyone became important, including the characters who didn’t appear. And were you representing women fairly? Besides the niece, there’s an abusive wife and absent best girl-friend? Was something about writing the book turning you into an old-school, misogynophobic queen? Were the complexities of gender identity and expression coming through but not distracting as they are in real life (instead of the flat, Mars/Venus-style garbage that clogs popular culture)? These questions were important to ask, right? You weren’t just asking them to slow things down and avoid the writing, right? Continue reading

Structure: Thinking It / Feeling It

I get plot and structure when I *see* them; I don’t seem to be able to fully realize their potential when I *do* them. Like anyone, I know how to tell a story, to get the job done. I’m really trying to understand what I already know, so I understand why authors I admire get away with things I’m trying to do.

Analyzing the design of stories really does thrill me. I love tearing them apart to see how they work. I was an English major because I wanted to be; I wasn’t one of those students who ended up in the department by default. But analyzing stories (including novels) that have been praised and loved is different than analyzing a story (especially the novel) I’m writing.

Structural design is, for me at least, the algebra of the writing process. I got through algebra, but I had to go over lessons again and again. The work made my eye twitch and I had to keep it in my mind at all times so I wouldn’t lose what I’d learned. Algebra fulfilled my math requirement, so as soon as I got my A, I ran (did not walk) from anything math-related beyond balancing my checkbook.

When I try to apply principles, theories, rules to my own writing, I feel as if I’m doing algebra, which, considering I’ve forgotten so much about algebra, is probably not even an effective simile.

How about this: it’s an attempt to quantify what has been qualitative, to give my lump of literary clay some form. Which is a good thing, but fucking frustrating. I need to know if what I’m *trying* to communicate is making sense *at all*.

It reminds me of that episode of Golden Girls when Blanche spends 72 hours writing her memoir. She scrawls her life story in numerous spiral notebooks and, upon finishing, enters the kitchen to share her work of genius. Blanche’s brain is on the verge of collapse from lack of sleep, but she’s so cranked up on arrogance that she can’t wait to have Rose read it. Rose can’t make sense of the sprawling text. Continue reading

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