Because the only thing more terrifying than velociraptors are velociraptors that can fly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Treat Yo Self (With Words!)

Recently, a work friend of mine offered to lend me a book of his that he thought I might enjoy. It's called, The City of Dreaming Books. He described it to me and since it sounded pretty cool, I took him up on his offer. As it turned out, the world of TCDB is one I'd been in before, although I'd not read that particular novel. The story takes place in a place called Zamonia, a fantastic isle where strange and sundry creatures live, and is the creation of a German man and illustrator, Walter Moers. 

I've read two other books by Moers, The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, and Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures. Both of these novels, like TCDB, are what is knows as "picaresque" novels, a word whose meaning I had to look up. A picaresque novel is one that is characterized by an adventurous main character, usually of low social status (but not always) who journeys through a corrupt society having all sorts of adventures. Moers's books are also known as "random event plots" in which much of the story just sort of happens.

But don't get me wrong and think that last sentence is a criticism of the plots of Herr Moers's stories. Far from it. By focusing in intense detail on his richly-embroidered world, Moers makes Zamonia come alive, in some cases, the world seems more real than our own.

On almost every other page, a reader of Moers's works is treated to descriptions of wondrous things, whether its Bee Bread--warm bread spread with honey and roasted bees (not always de-stinged), or Trombonphone music--a scientific form of music created by blowing through the discarded shell of a specific crustacean that can interact with the brain and cause listeners to experience intense hallucinations.

In short, Moers has firmly established himself in my Hall of Literary Heroes. I often hear that one (an author) should ask oneself with every section of a story, "Is this relevant?" "Does the story make sense if I remove this?" (Whatever this may be.) Essentially, editing as pruning--removal of extraneous literary branches so that the whole might thrive. And I see the value in this idea. Getting too bogged down in perfectly describing something completely irrelevant to the plot essentially wastes the reader's time. If they are forced to expend serious mental energy only to realize what they've been pondering is basically fluff, the author has irritated his reader.

However, "fluff" is almost the point of a picaresque novel. Focusing on vast numbers of strange things in the course of a normal story is not a good strategy, I admit this. If the core of the story is the plot, then anything that supports the plot must stay. Everything else (to a degree) must go. Just look at Hemingway.  That man made a career, almost a complete literary school, out of cutting his stories to the bone. They remind me of those Zen paintings where the artist is able to capture the essence of a forest in only a handful of strokes from his brush.

I am not a Zen painter, though. Stories like Hemingway's are not what I aspire to create. I aspire to be like Walter Moers or Jack Vance, writers whose work is full of richly embroidered details that aren't necessary to the plot, because some of the best things in life aren't necessary. Cushions on couches aren't necessary. Fine wines aren't necessary. Pampering yourself, with physical objects, delicious food, or magnificent words, isn't necessary. But it's delightful. And I think we could all use a little a bit more delight in our lives, don't you?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stressed Out (but Feeling Better)

Well, I had a bit of a stressful day yesterday. I feel much better about it now, but at the time I was pretty freaked out.

As you may or may not know, I'm getting my master's in creative writing. I just finished my last regular semester (passing with distinction, no less) which leaves me with one semester to go before I get my degree. Unlike a normal semester in which I'd go to the residency and then spend the practicum exchanging work with my mentor, all one does in the manuscript semester is (you guessed it) work on a manuscript.

When I got into my program, the guidelines for a fiction manuscript specified that it had to be longer than 150 pages, which is nothing, really. I'd say most kids books are around 200-250 pages. 150 is a pretty low bar to get over. 

Also, I was even more prepared in that I came into my program knowing what book I wanted to use as my manuscript, For My First Trick..., a novel I wrote a few years back. It's (currently) 308 pages, and needs a fair amount of editing to get it to publishable quality, but I had a plan.

You see, if, at the end of the manuscript semester, the mentor you're working with doesn't feel like the work is ready, then you come back for another semester. This also means you pay for another semester. Knowing this, I've been doing a lot of work to get my book ready so that I could get it done in one semester: I chose a work I'd already written and felt confident about, I'm taking a leave of absence from school next semester to polish said book and to save up enough money to actually pay for that semester.

But a friend of mine warned me earlier this week that something was brewing, something that might affect me and my plans. This friend is also in my program and is working on a fantasy novel of about 500 pages. She explained that her mentor was concerned they weren't going to be able to get it finished one semester, which is understandable. Our mentors are mostly professors who have jobs besides their duties to our program, among other obligations. They can only read (and intelligently comment on) so many pages in a given period of time. 

Then I received an email from my program saying that from now on, all fiction manuscripts have to be between 150-250 pages in order to be done in one semester. Anything over 250 pages will also have to be pre-approved by the mentor before beginning the semester. 

Now, I understand why this happened. As I said before, our mentors are doing their darndest to make sure the works that we give them get polished to a glossy, publishable sheen. They want to help our work become as good as it can be.

It still irks me, though, to find out that the novel I've been planning on using as my thesis for the last two years will no longer work. It is a solid 308 pages. If the limit was 275, I might, might be able to cut it down a bit, but that's 308 pages with scenes that still need to be added to give the book emotional depth. I cannot add those and cut out 58 pages and still have this book make sense.

So that leaves me with a few options. I could stick with this novel, knowing that it will take a minimum of two semesters to work on (thus doubling the amount of tuition I was planning on paying), I could polish the book during my upcoming LOA, do a manuscript semester, then take another LOA, polish and save money, then go back for another manuscript semester, (doubling the amount of time before I get my degree), or I could choose a different manuscript altogether, one that's under the 250 pages limit.

I've decided to go with the last option, knowing full well that I might get to the end of that semester with my mentor only to find out that he/she thinks I need to work on the story more, but I see this as the most palatable option. I've just finished (for a given value of "finished") a manuscript I enjoyed working on for NaNoWriMo about smugglers on a magical flying pirate ship. It stands at 39,000 words now and the minimum for the manuscript is 45K, but I don't see a big problem about expanding sections of it. I skipped parts this month that will definitely need to go in there.

True, this novella is probably the least polished of all my work, seeing as how I wrote it in nineteen days, but fixing it will certainly be an adventure. As was pointed out to me yesterday, my manuscript semester is still a ways away, and I have time to edit until then.

I'm planning on finishing out NaNoWriMO by writing another story I've been pondering lately, and then it looks like I'll have quite a bit of work to do.

Time to get to it, I guess.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Can't Blog, Must Write.

Sorry for the brevity today, folks, but self-imposed NaNoWriMo goals are swift approaching and my story is progressing more slowly than I would like. Luckily, I have today and Thursday off (thinking about going to a write-in) so I'm working on it.

Colin away!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The NaNoWriMo Ship has Set Sail!

Hello, hello, oh readers of mine! And how are you all today? Good, I hope. I'm getting ready to put in my day's worth of words for NaNoWriMo. 

For those of you who don't know, November is National Novel Writing Month (thus the abbreviation) in which people are challenged to write a 50,000 words novel (about 220 pages) in the month of November. That's thirty days at about 1,667 words a day. A challenge, certainly, but not impossible.

I started NNWM a few years back, when I was still in school at the University of Georgia. I knew I wanted to be a writer by that point, and I'd even heard about NNWM in one of my creative writing classes the year before I started, but wasn't sure it was for me. I mean, 50,000 words in only 30 days? It seemed impossible.

I'd written but a few stories up to that point, and my only novel took a good fifteen months to get down on the page. Doing all that work in one month seemed the height of madness. But, as some feats are apt to happen, my girlfriend of the time broke up with me in early October of that year, leaving me with much more time on my hands than I'd had lately. Suddenly, NNWM seemed possible. 

So I found a friend who was interested in doing it too, found a kickoff party that doubled as a Halloween gathering, brought a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, and got to writing. I don't remember how many words I got down before we all started asking each other about our stories, but I remember it was more than almost everyone at the party combined.

Before that, I didn't think of myself as a very fast writer. After all, fifteen months. But at that moment, when people were saying they'd gotten a few hundred words down, and I'd already passed 2K, I felt good.

I know that quantity isn't the same as quality, and I bet at least one person's hundred words was better than my thousands, but it's a first draft. There will be time for "a hundred visions and revisions" later. First, the words have to get out on the page. And I am good at that. Why not be proud of what you're good at?

I ended up writing five thousand words by the time we called it quits for the night, and since I had that day off of work, I went home, slept, and went to Starbucks that afternoon, where I wrote another 5K. And that day is still my all-time record. Ten thousand words in twenty-four hours, a bit more than 30 pages.

I didn't break my record this year, getting in a little bit more than 3K, but I've been keeping up a fairly steady level of output, which makes me happy. I do so enjoy this time of year, when I don't have to care about what my final product will look like, if what I'm writing makes sense, if whatever my characters are doing fits with what I just had them talking about.

NaNoWriMo is my chance to just write for fun. Writers put so much effort into making our stories look effortless (and believe me, they are not), as though they just flowed out of our head and onto the page. And that work can be tiresome, even dreadfully boring. I don't particularly like editing, personally. But during NaNoWriMo, I lock up my Internal Editor and hide the key until December. Right now, all I need to worry about is filling up my word-count meter.

And I'm off!