“Whenever I begin a novel,” he said, “the beginning never stays at the beginning. It ends up in the middle, or near the end. It never stays put where I started.”
That is an interesting quote from Philip Graham’s latest post on writing a novel and how to approach it. It’s eye opening to me because I have always assumed novels sprang mostly fully formed into the minds of their authors. In thinking about that though, it seems silly in the same way that thinking fully formed software solutions spring into the minds of software architects. What instead most likely happens is that you begin writing a novel and realize along the way that this feature needed to be added before, or this character needed to be fleshed out or one of any number of other things. Or maybe you see the end of a piece of the plot so you write that and then return to the beginning.
This concept of creating pieces of a novel and then tying them all together is intriguing to me. I think it’s why my writing instructor used to say to not worry about the plot and instead develop characters. The plot may be drastically different from what you originally conceived but if you have strong characters, the reader will still be interested.
This also ties into my previous post on writing a lot, regardless of quality. The more I write, the more ideas I have for writing not only on blogs but in fiction as well. When you develop characters, you begin to see how they might fit into their world, what issues they might have, what stories they might have to tell. If you just wait for a plot or story to develop in your consciousness, I don’t think you’ll write very many stories.
The idea of pieces of the novel communicating with each other over time is fascinating, an almost iterative approach to writing a story. As characters develop, their stories will start to reveal themselves to the author which leads to the plot of the novel developing around the characters instead of the other way around. The stories I have always been most interested in are ones that have interesting characters. I become attached to the character and thus the story takes on meaning through their eyes. It only makes sense that a novel would be written around the characters, allowing the plot to develop naturally as the characters become deeper and more involved with each other.
Create interesting characters and you will create interesting stories.
I ran across this post today on Hacker News. The short synopsis of the post is Sebastian explaining how he writes so much but it’s definitely worth reading the whole thing. I wanted to consider a couple of thoughts he brings up. For the 4 or 5 people who still regularly check in here, it comes as no surprise that I haven’t been writing much lately. There are a variety of reasons for that but one of the key ones is the self-censoring critic that lives in my head and deems most things as unworthy of human consumption. I’ve been struggling with need to write good stuff all the time and what actually happens is nothing gets written. The problem is, as Sebastian explains, if you want to make excellent stuff, you have to make a lot of crap.
This is not to say that if you make lots of crap, you’ll eventually make something excellent. No matter how long a single monkey types, his chances of producing the entire works of Shakespeare are so minute as to be considered impossible. You still need to be trying and improving the crap that you produce. But without that output, the chance of actually producing anything worth consuming at all is very small.
I’ve fallen into the rut of expecting things to be very good. That perfectionism has caused my output to dwindle to next to nothing. That’s got to stop. This happens in my software life too, the need to do things that are good becomes overpowering and causes me to do nothing at all. That need to be my best will almost always lead me to do nothing. Perfect stands in the way of progress and all.
Of course, the problem with all this is that if you’re writing a blog and producing lots of content, people are going to see the good and the bad. Before the Internet, writers still produced a lot but only their best stuff got published. Now, with the click of a button, everything gets published. I’m not sure that’s a good or bad thing but of course, it contributes to the body of work that people have to sift through to find out if you constantly put out crap or actually have good stuff occasionally. I’m lucky, most of the people who read my stuff think I’m a good writer. I’m always humbled and flattered by that. I’m also lucky that writing comes easier to me than to most people. I think that’s because in general, we are social animals and people express themselves socially with others. I’m much more comfortable sitting down and hammering out my thoughts on paper (or in bits and bytes). I love long discussions via email or letter though those things never happen much in our busy world. So I guess I’m lucky.
This is a lot of self-indulgent navel gazing but it seems to me that it’s applicable to any realm of creativity. You can’t become an excellent software developer unless you produce massive bodies of software. You can’t become an excellent musician unless you practice fundamentals and basics for years. The creative endeavor is almost alway backed by thousands of hours of what is essentially crap. When you stop producing crap, you stop being excellent as well.
That’s all I need. Regardless, I’ve signed up for an online fiction writing class that started today. I’ve been toying with the idea for quite awhile and finally took the plunge. I’m not exactly sure what I plan to get out of it other than an impetus for regularly writing “something”. I’ve discovered that my new WordPress theme encourages me to write longer, more thought out posts which in my world translates to “not writing at all.” I’m hoping the class helps with my writing discipline. If I get undisciplined, I hope it spanks me.
But apart from that, I’m really hoping to understand a little better how the fiction form works, how it’s created and built. I don’t typically have trouble spewing off 500 words about almost anything but my talent for making stories up seems to have ceased about the time I got out of junior high. I’ve tried writing a little fiction here and there but the results have been so poor (and by results I mean “thrown before the high throne of my internal self-critic only to be summarily executed by fingernail pulling”) that I haven’t really tried to improve them much. But I know that I can write fiction, it’s just a matter of discovering how again and that’s really why I’m in the class.
I recently ran across Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on late bloomers and that was the catalyst for actually signing up for the class. I’d like to be a writer, at least in the sense of the word that means “I can sell enough of my work to enough people who actually like it to pay my bills”. With goals that low, I don’t see how I can’t succeed. More seriously, I think I have a modicum of talent for the craft, fleetingly displayed though it may be, and I’d like to foster that talent. I’m hoping that with a little instruction, maybe I can figure out what the hell I’m doing with all these words that keep popping out of my head.
I’ll probably blog semi-randomly about the experience for those of you scoring along at home.
A couple of weeks ago, the 10,000th visitor found their way here to The Experiment. I’ve been considering how to mark this momentous occasion (even though those visits aren’t particularly reliable and certainly, my sitting at home hitting F5 trying to drive up my visit count doesn’t help. Not that I would ever do that). I decided to celebrate in what can only be described as an odd way. I’ve changed the theme of the site to the current one, The Erudite by Soma Design and I’ve taken the tracking code for both Sitemeter and Google Analytics off the site.
Let me explain. I’ve been thinking about a new theme for a little while. The old theme was really cool and was certainly an improvement over my past ones. However, it wasn’t quite “me” and it tended to be a little too busy for my tastes. About the same time I started thinking about a new theme, I started to think about what I really wanted to get out of writing here. Many of my posts aren’t particularly thoughtful and while I will probably never stop posting human Taser guinea pigs and people falling down escalators while a cat plays a keyboard, I’d like to focus more on my writing, on my thoughts on a variety of subjects and how I express those. Essentially, I’d like to improve my craft of writing and find out what my voice really is.
In a supreme case of serendipity, WordPress had a notification of some new themes up on the WordPress dashboard and I happened to see The Erudite one. It’s billed as a theme for writers and readers and clearly, it lives up to that billing. It’s very clean and the only thing to focus on is what’s written here. I decided to update to it and in the process, to stop worrying about how many people were visiting my site or what my daily average was (big decision for a data junkie). I’m just going to write and see what happens.
I hope that people continue to comment because I won’t really know you’re reading anymore (Hint: I knew some of you came here because I had your IP address or incoming domain name logged in Sitemeter. Like say if you came in to check out what I was writing while you were supposed to be working at SMU. 🙂 ) But even if people don’t, I’m hoping that by moving to a very clean, word focused blog design and removing the distraction of how many people were visiting on any given day, I can focus more on what I have to say. I’m attracted to other voices on the web who have thought provoking ideas and I’d like to join that small chorus with particular ideas of my own. We’ll see how it works out together.
Have you ever done something stupid after drinking 3 or 8 beers? Me neither. Most of my decisions that result from 3 or 8 beers are exceptionally insightful, often times witty as well, and result in me showing off how awesome I can dance. For example, I’m pretty sure I decided to run a marathon after a night of drinking. I’m sure that if you know me, you can think of many other great decisions I made after drinking.
All this leads up to the fact that since no one has ever stopped me from making excellent decisions while drinking, I decided to write a novel in the month of November last night. Yes, I know that this seems like a dumb thing to do when you first look at it but I’m sure that after 30 days of writing at least 1667 words per day on a novel with no current plot, characters or anything else really, it will seem like a really smart thing to do. I hope. But I do have a badge (see cool badge in the left hand sidebar.)
Anyway, the point being, I’m telling God and creation that I’m writing a novel in the month of November. I have no idea what it’s about yet and in the spirit of the horrible student that I’ve always been, I’m not even going to start on it until November 2nd! How daring is that? Wish me luck. Or send me a bottle of scotch. I’ll probably need both.