Sunday, December 4, 2011

A miner question - or, What Did I Learn this NaNo?

It's been a busy couple of months, to say the least.  The fact that it's been a full month between entries is a good indication that I've been otherwise indisposed.  And what, pray tell, should have absconded with so much of my time?

Darned if I haven't been asking myself the same question.  "Dog" and "data reruns" come to mind, but I know there was also a NaNo involved.

This morning, I was thinking, "Man, am I glad to get back to other projects again!"  I thought of Mummer, and how much more I love the story - I mean, the characters are really coming through now, the plot makes more sense, the historical details are cleaner - in fact, the sheer amount of work I've done so far makes rewriting the end just that much more intimidating!  I'm terrified that the ending won't do the beginning sufficient justice!

And I thought "You know, I've got some great feelings about Lady Butcher, too!"  That one just seemed to come together all by itself - granted, with a lot of research, but it all fell together.  The characters came alive in the very first draft, the plot was solid - the ending was rushed, but I would expect nothing less.  Starting and finishing a novel in under four months will do that to your story.

And yet, this last NaNo...oof.  Technically, the piece has some superb moments.  See, the whole thing was designed to be a series of vignettes, or even chapbooks, each with unique and individual characters and their own stories, leading up to a final conclusion.  It was supposed to be about the rise of two new species and the sunset of the human race.  In fact, there are some parts I hope to salvage - the opening vignette, the second vignette, and the fourth (that one involves a train wreck, some explosions and a horrific revelation).  Each of those have a certain lucid-dream quality about them that gives me the willies (in a good way).

But overall, the whole story sucks!

Die, meandering and pointless tome!  Die!

I finished my NaNo on the last day of November, which is highly unusual for me.  For my second NaNo, I wrote a total 177,000 words in 30 days, the equivalent of 3 short novels - and it goes without saying I can muscle my way through a 72-hour marathon pretty well, too.  It wasn't entirely a case of my energy and motivation going AWOL (though that was partially the case); it was because there was a lot of heavy lifting involved.

I actually said to my mother "I love this idea, but man, I wish someone else would write the book for me."  She suggested Tobin Elliott.  Tobin, we should talk.  (*Call meeeeeee!*)

It's not the first time I've written something I didn't enjoy, and it's not the first time I've quit a project after or partway through the writing of it.  As a matter of fact, during the last 72-hour novel marathon, I actually cut out about 50 pages during the marathon because the story was going the wrong way.  There were details I need to use in another book, but I'd been trying too hard to wedge them into the one story.

So I've begun to realize that a good story - the one with the most potential - is more often mined than crafted.  Even Stephen King said in On Writing that a good story is found.

Well actually, what he said was "Your job isn't to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up." 

I would disagree a little.  I would recognize a 1944 aircraft worker's dance ticket if I saw it, but I think I'll have a better chance of finding one in an antique shop, and a non-existent chance of stumbling across it in a pile of salty Montreal slush.

I would rather say, "Be present, be open-minded, and even if the ideas is half-baked, write it down so you can judge its merit later."

Writing, I have discovered, is a lot like pulling a dirty, shapeless lump of minerals out of the ground and seeing what you can make of it.  But you have to go mining first.

Coal for diamonds

Let's say you hit something that's harder than the dirt around it.  You pick it off, rub off some of the dirt, and you realize, yes, you have "something." 

It could nothing but a chip of granite wrapped in clay. 

Or it could be a precious mineral you're not familiar with, like Boron or Cobalt:  very useful, extremely valuable, but on the surface, it looks like pretty bland stuff.

Sometimes you fail to recognize its potential for all the dirt and inclusions, so you toss it over yours shoulder and pass over a perfectly useful mineral.  People who say "Oh, I can't write, my writing sucks, I'll never be good enough, no one is ever going to read something I wrote" are the ones who mistake diamonds for coal.

But there are those who experiment with what seems like an obscure and relatively useless substance - like the people who discovered that galena could be used not just in kohl (ancient mascara), but also in batteries and in the earliest wireless communications.  It took a long time and a lot of experimentation to get from mascara to crystal radios, but someone did it, because someone experimented with a seemingly innocuous idea.

So be not so quick to assume that what you've found is worthless.  Sometimes it only needs another element, or better refinement to make it useful.  Sometimes its worth is utterly unknown - for now.

These are the plot ideas I often come back to, time and time again, viewing it from this angle, from that era, with this combination of characters - such has been the case with Her Poison Voice.  The only way I can know for certain if it's a good or bad idea is by writing the whole thing out; and as I get closer to what I want, I can salvage more and more of the story, transmuting it, adding as-yet-undiscovered elements, until I hit the sweet spot. 

I know there's something here, but I just can't seem to make it pull together.  Yet. 

These are the stories that require a lot of delicate cutting and polishing to bring out the inner light; but it's worth it.  It is so, totally, worth it - because these are the ones that you've worked for, the ones you can be most proud of.  When I get it right, I think Her Poison Voice will be my favourite, even if it isn't my best.  It'll be my favourite, because I haven't given up on it.

Semi-precious gems

Even if you are a fantastic writer, you're not always going to be able to put out diamonds.  You have to mix it up sometimes.  And deliver coal instead.

Ellis Peters wrote 20 books in the Cadfael series alone.  The eleventh in the series, An Excellent Mystery, was such a beautiful story that Edith Pargeter (Peters' real name) has successfully ousted all past and future authors as my all-time favourite.  There's simply no room on that pedestal for Peters and another author.  I have to create more pedestals, like one entitled "Favourite New Canadian," or "Favourite New Author who Should be Canadian but Hasn't Had the Good Sense to Move North Yet".

But my word...I think Peters had an aversion to the number thirteen, because the 13th in the series, The Rose Rent, was so strangely written (and so sappy, and so un-Cadfael-y) that I swear, she let a ghost-writer tackle it for her.

Fortunately, she regained my adoration with the 16th in the series, The Potter's Field, which is in part inspiration for Lady Butcher.

That's not to say that The Rose Rent was badly written.  Technically, there was nothing wrong with it.  It just stands out from the rest of the series.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if some people said that The Rose Rent was actually one of her best.  So long as the story is logical, well constructed and well written, then the only difference between "good story" and "bad story" is the reader's point of view.

Still, because the story seems so out of place from the rest of the series, I didn't like it nearly as much as the other nineteen.

So perhaps it wasn't a lump of coal in place of a diamond.  Maybe it simply didn't suit my tastes.



<-- Still semi-precious.

But not my favourite. -->

Flashes in the pan

Sometimes you get onto something, but there's never enough substance to make it worth your while.  It's like finding flakes of gold, when you're really after the nuggets.  But you have a flash in the pan.  You know there's something here.  Maybe it's an indication of vein; maybe it's an indication that someone further upstream has sneezed too hard and lost his gold filling.  Who knows. 

The best you can do is patiently collect what particles you can find - a scene here, a character there - and melt it down into something you can use.  No inkling should go to waste; two partial ideas fused together can create an epiphany. 

Or, as King said it, "There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun."  I'll agree with that one.

That's basically what happened with Mummer's the Word.  Random protons and electrons I'd been collecting for years suddenly came together and created a new atom. 

I'd been experimenting with other characters who'd been robbed of their ability to speak; I'd also gone a year and a half without being able to fully open my mouth, and I was just at the point in my learning of French where I could understand everything that was being said, but not enough to reply.  I'd always had a fascination with Camp X, I'd long ago developed a love for all things '30s and '40s, and I had just come off a writing jag for some old radio plays I'd been working. 

Then on October 31st, 2007, the title came to me, and without realizing I'd been collecting little bits of story for the last few years, blammo - everything came together in one neat and tidy package, and I wrote the story in 9 days (hence, "Nine Day Wonder").  I even stole a character directly out of one of the radio plays, personality, name and background intact.

But even though all the elements smashed together quite suddenly, I was already in the process of trying to think up a story.  There was an active, creative process involved, followed by nine days of intense writing, and four solid years of reworking, editing and polishing.  And even when this story is accepted somewhere, there will be more work to do.

So if there is a flash in the pan, even if it isn't a fat nugget of literary goodness, write it down somewhere.  Use it somewhere; use it multiple times, if you need to.  Maybe it doesn't go in this project.  Maybe it's a puzzle piece out of a different box.  Maybe this character or plot device belongs in another project, one you haven't conceived yet.

But you'll never know what will become of a half-idea, if you don't actively collect all the little pieces and blend them together to see what you get.

Hikaru Dorodango
And then there are times when you feel like you're polishing a big old ball of dirt.  The Japanese have made an art of it. I'm not trying to say anything at all against Japanese writing, either - I mean it most literally!  The Japanese have made an art of polishing big balls of dirt.  The final results are actually quite compelling.  Very shiny.  Very smooth.

But underneath all that hard work, it's still just a big ball of dirt.

Or worse:  on Mythbusters, they actually turned a big old pile of dung into a work of art.

That glimmering ball of scat is exactly how I feel about my latest NaNo Otherlings.  Sure it's pretty, sure it's technically well put together, but it's all flash and no substance, like a Michael Bay production.  Well - not quite.  Like a Michael Bay production, it has substance, but unfortunately, that substance is putrid and can only be handled under controlled circumstances, with gloves and a gas mask.

You can spend a lot of time polishing one project and one project alone, and you'll get a very shiny project; but be sure that when someone cracks the surface, they'll find something other than poop at its heart.

Sometimes, it's okay to let go.

Just don't quit mining.  Because...

Diamonds in the Rough

Every once in a while, you stumble across something truly special, something that cannot be made, but must be, in some ways, unmade - shaped, cut and polished with extreme care to bring out, not the artist's own quality, but the true, inherent value of the story itself.
 Sometimes, you pick up a black rock, chip away at the ugly exterior, and discover a dull gleam of light within.  With rising curiosity, you scrape off more of the inclusions, more of the crusty exterior, and discover with growing excitement that you really, really have something here - something that's well formed and symmetrical, something that seems to glow with a light of its own.  The idea's so good that you're afraid to speak it out loud until the whole story is written.

Sometimes you can see the nascent story for exactly the way it is - the way Michelangelo could see the figure of a man in a formless block of marble - and all you need to do is chip away the extra bits, polish it, and put it on display.  With all the flushed obsession of a maniacal genius, you carve out the plot, nick out the characters, sand down the grammar and pacing and research; and when the moment has passed, you blow off the last bits of dust and wonder that this thing, this marvel of art, came out of your own imagination, and not someone else's.  It is a thing removed from you, like a child prodigy you brought into this world.

That was the case with Lady Butcher.  The whole thing just came to me in one chunk, characters, plot, place and all, like Athena springing forth fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.  And yes, partway through a marathon, I had to chip away enormous pieces of the story because they were leading me astray.

But it wasn't a plot so much written as it was discovered.  I intervened here and there (partially to add length and suspense to the mix), but the essential story itself I was able to capture betwixt carefully chosen words.

I still have some polishing to do (these things happen when you've only been working on a story for 4 months), but the core value of the story is there, its potential value already visible.

But again, I found this gem because I was already mining.  I wanted a story to write for the Muskoka Novel Marathon, and I actually had two or three competing ideas; it was Lady Butcher that had the most potential, and boy, am I glad I didn't ditch it when it first came to mind.

So what did I learn from this year's NaNo?

First, that it's okay to let some projects fall by the wayside - so long as you gave it the benefit of the doubt for as long as you could.  Better to go back to the mine, rather than wasting your time polishing your one and only ball of dung.

Second, you can only measure your quality by comparing your own works against each other.  If you have only one project, you can't tell whether it's your best writing or not.  If you have two stories, you can only say "this one is better than that."  But if you have a few ideas on the go, you can line them up in order of highest potential, and work on only those that are worth your time and effort. 

The more you write, the better you can measure the value of one story over another.

Thirdly, today's half-baked idea is one half of tomorrow's great idea.  There are parts of Otherlings that will be reincarnated somewhere else, I'm sure of that.  I just don't know what the missing elements are yet.

Finally, I realized that the more ideas you have, the easier it is to let some ideas go.  The premise of Otherlings is great.  The premise of Her Poison Voice - even the plot itself - is great. 

But Mummer's the Word and Lady Butcher are two great and complete stories, with well-developed plots, and awesome characters, and the writing is solid, if I do say so myself.  Those are worth my time and dedication right now. 

Once they're done, I can look at Her Poison Voice again, or Allua, or Helix, or The Fog of Dockside City, or even Otherlings, working from the story with highest potential and interest, down to the ones that need the most work - unless I stumble across another gem, as I search for the solution to another story.

So yes, sometimes, a flash in the pan could be fool's gold, or somebody's lost tooth, or the reflection of the sun.  All that glisters is not gold; and no matter how well written or how much time you put into them, not all of your stories will be great. 

That's what makes great stories so precious:  their rarity. 

But sometimes...if you're lucky, if you're patient and if you are present, you'll get what you're looking for, and so much more.

So yes, there will be disappointments.  But unless you get out there and dig, you'll never find what's gold.


  1. My NaNo this year (Patchwork) I think my heart just wasn't into. Try as I might, I don't think my heart was into it enough to write more than I did, even though I tried hard.

  2. Then there's the sneaky ones. Long ago I wrote an interesting little story about a squirrel who met with a bad little girl. Years later, pressed to come up with a novella-length work, I tripped over this old, faded mineral (I wouldn't go so far as "gem") and, by combining it with new ores and some other stones I had kicking around, the whole thing came out tighter and stronger than any of the component parts...

    Oh, and no, I won't write OTHERLINGS...I can't even get to my own darn stuff!

  3. @ Jeff: I can honestly say, I have never seen anyone give more heart or soul in his NaNo - even if his heart wasn't in the story itself. You encourage me just by sitting there, typing. You keep me humble.