Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Writing a Novel: Week IV

I've been at this novel business for about four weeks now, and I must say that it's going, well, pretty much like I thought it would, except perhaps a bit easier. I mentioned last time that, once I saw the plot laid out in my mind, the thought of writing it all down seemed a bit cumbersome and drudgerous. However, I managed to reignite my enthusiasm for the novel by applying two basic principles:
  1. Just write!
  2. Hone your craft

Just Write!
I've heard Napoleon referenced as having said, "No battle plan survives the first incursion."

Although I haven't drawn up or executed any battle plans, I have developed business plans, marketing plans, vacation plans, system architectures, furniture designs and the like, and I believe the Napoleonic principle applies. If you're any good at execution or if you're not perfect at planning, you always end up doing something other than what you anticipated. Once you dig into a project you discover better ways of approaching things that you couldn't have anticipated until being there or you find gaps and challenges in the initial plan that require the plan to be reworked. It's par for the course.

That being the case, when I write software, I tend only to think through the architecture long enough to provide myself a framework that lets me begin coding. I don't think through all the details or exactly how the pieces all fit together in the end; I just think about what all the pieces are and what each of them must do, then I start writing software. I don't worry about the parts I haven't yet figured out, but instead believe that I'll figure them out when I need to.

The thing I've enjoyed so much about writing has been just writing and seeing where the story takes me. As I write, I have a general sense of direction, but no idea of what specifically will happen next. It's as though I were telling myself the story. I'd made the assumption that writing a book was somehow different, that I needed to lay the whole thing out before starting, but it's not. So, I threw out most of my plan and kept the general framework for my book. I have an idea of who the characters are, what their goals and challenges are, and where the book is going generally. That's it. Now I just write. It's fun and interesting.

Craft Honing
The other component of my reinvigoration has been honing my craft. Over the past months, I've stocked a workshop full of writing tools that I've picked up from Jenny Laird. I've explored the use of each of them. The novel provides me the opportunity to hone my skill.

For example, one of the things I've been learning to do is to make everything vivid with the fewest words possible. I've found that one of the easiest ways to do this is to incorporate all the senses when describing a situation. For example, rather than viewing someone leaning against a wall, you can describe the cool marble pressing her sweat-drenched t-shirt against her back. It's amazing how often we stick to the visual domain and ignore sounds, tastes, feelings and smells. However, when we incorporate them into our writing, it can make the writing pop.

A second tool I've been thoroughly enjoying is dialog. The basic principle is: never tell your reader something that could have been said by the characters. To develop this skill, I spent weeks writing nothing but dialog. Each time I found my self wanting to express something in narrative, I started again and express it through my characters. For me, the writing becomes much more interesting and I get to better know my characters. Further, the characters help me filter superfluous description by only sharing what would be important to each of them.

A third tool that is simple and easy, and yet makes a profound difference in writing is to put everything in the present tense. Even if a character is describing something that happened on the way to work, he can do so in the present tense.
"I got onto the bus and went to pay the driver,
when I noticed that my wallet was missing."


can become

"So I get on the bus and go to pay the driver. I notice that my wallet is missing."


Try it out with something you're already written and see what it does.

On Track
I have to thank Jenny, Jonathan and Iris for guidance and inspiration. This book-writing stuff is really fun.

Happy Tuesday,
Teflon

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