Monday, February 28, 2011

The Novel, Guerrilla Style Part 4: The Reprieve (First interlude)

Janice and I made our way out of the woods and headed downtown to see Corrie and Tor. They are good friends from Denver, and an outing is an outing. And it's good to be with good friends.
I felt inclined to introduce them to Anna Banana's. I still love the place, even after all these years. In a way, the place is rather like an old friend too.
We got our coffee and sat in the next room and started to catch up. I work with Corrie, and we have worked together on a few projects before the current one. We've worked on Umbrella Factory stuff, and she was the one who got me started on the blog. Currently, if you haven't seen Sand and Asbestos, I hope you do. She's publishing this novel in installments on her Sophia Ballou site. Needless to say, I know Corrie. Tor, however, I always feel like I should know him better. Have you ever had friends like that? I suppose Tor and I share a few common experiences: we've both traveled around, worked menial jobs, taught college composition. It's not enough.
So, as we were talking at the coffeehouse, our conversation moved over a few recent publications to the small press to the horrors of book distribution. We come to the point of Barnes and Noble and Borders. Before we go further, I do like Barnes and Noble. I always have. Admittedly, I buy almost all of my books used, I buy them at garage sales, thrift stores, used bookstores and when I can find him, I buy they from a man sitting on a piece of carpet on the street corner. If I'm not buying books in these ways, then I'll buy them new. A new book at a new bookstore happens rarely. In that hierarchical order, I like Barnes and Noble.
So the horrible idea? What will happen if Barnes and Noble consumes Borders? The idea is horrible to me for the obvious reason: variety and diversity decreases. Having one bookstore is like having one grocery store or one restaurant. It limits options.
Tor assures me this will never happen. He assures me that there will always be the small press. There will always be freedom with the little guys.
Then he tells me about Borders. He tells me about how he worked at one, long ago and in other place entirely. If I haven't said it before: Tor is one real cool cat. I admire him, and I enjoy his stories.
I was so taken with the Borders story that after Janice and I left our friends and began out long drive back to the east side, I suggested we stop at a Borders. She agreed, poor thing, to her, it was just another excursion to a bookstore. For me, I wanted to learn something. I went to a Borders once, years ago in Longmont, Colorado. I was with Janice then too.
I wandered over the shelves and rows of books checking over a thing or two. It was not too much different from any other bookstore I'd seen.
I picked up The Nymphos of Rocky Flats by Mario Acevedo. I haven't read it yet, but Mario Acevedo does have it right: an ex-combat soldier turned PI mixes with nymphomaniac vampires at Rocky Flats? Cool. This book has to be fun. It's got to be fun to read. And then it occurs to me that the book was probably fun to write.
It was fun to write.
Well, we're here for some of those things, right? We're here to write. In the last few weeks, four weeks today in fact, we've been here to write a novel. Sorry I haven't brought up PIs, Rocky Flats and nymphos. Well, it is already written. I digress.
In the bookstore, a few steps later, I found the reference section. Janice and I looked at the girls on the language programs. The Japanese girl looks like the Chinese girl and for that matter they both look like the Italian and Spanish girls. “Put a pretty girl on anything, and you'll sell,” I said.
“Sure, who wouldn't want to learn a language to talk to a pretty girl?” she said. Janice is great. She put the Chinese language program back down and stepped away. I was already looking at calenders or some such thing. My mind was blanking out, a perfect thing for a bookstore excursion on a dark Portland afternoon in winter.
When I noticed Janice again, she stood blankly too and just stared at some generic looking book spines.
I saw Ray Bradbury's The Zen of Writing right away. I opened it and read a few paragraphs. We laughed at Poor Mr. Bradbury's experiences typing “The Fireman” and the comedy of plugging dimes into a typewriter. I love Ray Bradbury. He would probably understand the Guerrilla Novel.
And during this brief interlude on week four, I think you'll fully understand the Novel Guerrilla style too.
Back to Bradbury, when I shelved the book, I noticed the sheer volume of how-to writing books. There were at least sixty of them. “Look at this,” I said. I pointed to all of those how-to manuals.
“Look at these,” Janice said. Behind me on the aisle, the how-to manuals continued. In a range of $7.99 to $46.99, a person who desires to write a novel can purchase a manual and go. I've compared the novel writing process to an exercise regime. More so now, right?
So here we are. This is what we're doing:
1)the novel: we know what that is, it's already been defined.
2)the guerrilla: a member of a band of irregular soldiers that uses guerrilla warfare, harassing the enemy by surprise raids, sabotaging communication and supply lines, etc.

So? Waging war? Hell Yeah. Attack it. Do it. Write it down. Take no prisoners. Just write. We're in week four. If we wanted to write 50,000 in 16 weeks, then at week four we should have 12,500 words committed to the page. Isn't that tremendous? If we just write and learn a few tactics during the process, why would we bother reading a how-to? I don't know. It's nothing worth studying, it's not worth the deconstruction of it all, and I only say this because too much thought about anything can raise doubts and cause bad things.
Don't self-edit, self-censor, or self-stifle. I've said all this before. I still mean every word of it.
If you read these books, please shelf them during this guerrilla novel excursion. We have our own style. We know enough to get started and hopefully enough to make us dangerous.
I did not feel dangerous looking at all the how-tos. I felt nothing really. I was at Borders with Janice on a day we spent with old friends.
In my interlude week, I've thought about the novel, I always think about the novel. When writing, just write. Know that you can. Write it down, it's the only thing we can really do as writers and as humans. You really don't have to follow any formula. Leave the following up to the monkeys. When it comes to this: wouldn't you rather be a guerrilla than a gorilla?

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Novel, Guerrilla Style Part 3: Plot and Subplot

And then?
And then?
And then?

I don't know how to continue this conversation and keep from pulling out my hair. Plot. Have we beat this point to death? We talked about it in the Jumpstart. We came back to it at least once in the Short Story for the Editor. Yeah? And I feel like I've brought John Gardner's “Chapter &, Plotting” from The Art of Fiction more times than I can stand.
We all know that plot exists for us to understand a story, as readers, viewers, listeners and as writers. So, there we have it. We will not continue with this anymore. Plot. At this stage of the novel, guerrilla style, we're three weeks into. Three weeks, and if we don't have at least a small understanding of where the plot is heading, well, in the most easily understandable guerrilla terms: we're fucked.

Subplot? A smaller plot line that furthers our story, or a secondary plot? This warrants some discussion.
Should you have a whole cast of characters, subplots will work well for you. I always thought a gig writing soap operas would be great, for the same reason as why subplotting is great: more options, more opportunity. Imagine this, we talked about the theme of the road novel and the theme of the family history: if we have a track that plot follows, let's think about all the side stories.
Ian McEwan's Atonement can fall into this family history theme? The subplot? Well, think about the second part of the novel in which Briony follows her own track separate from the earlier and latter course of events. The second portion also gives us two smaller plots which I find very fascinating: one, the portrait of London before the blitz, and two, the British soldiers retreat to Dunkirk on the continent.

Another option along John Gardner's Fichtean curve is the notion of a mini plot, or small plot. Although Gardner suggests that there be smaller peaks within a plot, I'm suggesting a story inside a story. The best example I can come up with is Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The plot: Toru Okada looks for things like a job, a lost cat, a lost wife, meaning. As a plot of a 30 year old guy looking for stuff, well, it's not terribly interesting. Then he meets, by which we meet, some secondary characters: Malta Kano, Mr. Honda, May Karashara and Lt. Mamiya. Each of these characters have an interaction with the protagonist Mr. Okada. But each of these characters has a plot of their own that from which Mr. Okada must learn or grain something. Smaller mini plots to enhance the over all plot of the book? You bet.
Plot, subplot, small plot, cemetery plot, who cares, right? This is the novel guerrilla style. What does all that mean to us?
Two points to consider. First, you have to consider yourself trained on the craft of plot. You have been exposed to it. You have read John Gardner or others. Walter Mosley, for instance, is a great writer and great crafter of plot. His teaching on plot include the Fichtean curve. You've been exposed to this Fichtean curve. You know how plot works in the books and stories you've read because you notice it. And second, you will know if a plot works because you apply every consideration from point number one.
Now, let's think about the subplot and smaller plots. You have been working on your novel for three weeks. You must have more than one character, and you must know the direction you want to go. Now, consider a smaller story within your story. Take a secondary character and introduce them to your main character. Make this new character at once part of and not part of the overall plot. An intense exercise, no? This activity may propel your writing when you get in a rut down the road somewhere.
When I wrote Dysphoric Notions, I had two major characters and 20 or more secondary characters. All the events with secondary characters had the ebbs and flows of plotting events Gardner suggested but for me, they were merely a tool to move the major plot along.
As we continue into week four, analyze your plot. At this point, I hope you've got a direction. Does your plot have interesting cycles within it like Gardner suggests on the Fichtean Curve? And do you have subplots, or smaller plots embedded already, or the opportunity for them to be there?
Spending sometime with this now should focus your direction to come.

As always, good luck and happy writing.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Creativity and Unrest

While walking around the old neighborhood, I found myself grateful for the lack of rain. As always the case when walking, right? To be honest, I don't really mind the rain. I think Portland, at least the old northwest neighborhood is beautiful no matter the weather. But don't things look better when wet?
I'd come from a relaxing time sipping coffee at Anna Banana's. Somehow drinking coffee there makes me feel like the old times are here again, only now they are more interesting and promise a greater reward.
The unemployment rate here in Portland is pretty high. It might be high all over Oregon, or the entire Pacific Northwest for that matter. In Portland proper, I've heard two figures. 10% from some and over 20% from other sources. It's grim enough at the lower figure. I suspect that the rate of underemployment is pretty high too. So, I wonder why things aren't worse? I mean, I was walking through the neighborhood and the shops were all open, it looked like people were dining in the restaurants. Who knows?
The questions remains: what are people doing with their time?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Novel, Guerrilla Style Part 2: a Few Definitions

The first post in this series brought one pertinent statement to the table: you can write a novel.
There are any number of ways to do it, as we know: write one in a month, or write it in a year.
We concluded last week with an entreaty to begin the whole process in a pre-writing stage of things. We agreed to write down all we know, sketches, vignettes or the designing of characters. These little exercises, which I hope were lucrative, are probably very small next to the enormous project ahead. I say enormous because of the size and the time involved and the depth of it.
Let's define the novel a little bit more today, and I hope this definition makes the whole project more manageable.
Word counts:
Flash Fictions: less than 1,000 words.
Short Story: between 1,000 and 7,000 words.
Novelette: between 7,000 and 17,000 words.
Novella: between 17,000 and 50,000 words.
Novel: between 50,000 and 300,000 words.
Epic: 300,000 and above.
Obviously these word counts are a strange way to define fiction or works of literature. Besides, who's ever heard of the novelette? How about “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” by Alice Munro? “Disquiet” by Julia Leigh? “Brokeback Mountain” by Anne Proulx? All of these were between the 7,000 and 17,000 word count mark. They are all wonderful stories and at least in the case of two of them, they made big enough impacts that they were made into beautiful and commercially successful films: Away from Her and Brokeback Mountian.
The Novella is possibly my favorite form of fiction. The novella for me is the ideal way to spend an afternoon. In a novella, the reader gets the character, the task and the plot very quickly. Novellas are typically one story line, no subplot, little subtext. “Things that Hang from Trees” by T.A. Louis, “The Saddest Summer of Samuel S” by J.P. Donleavy, and “Kneller's Happy Campers” by Etgar Keret are great examples of the novella.
But the novel? That's why we're here. There is more going on than the other forms, right? Much more than mere word count. In fact, the only real thing in this word count nonsense is that it is a tangible way to track progress. As we said last week, for this project, we're going to focus on that 50,000 word mark. If we break this word count down, this project goes from now until the end of May, 17 weeks, 119 days, or 420 words a day. That makes it pretty easy.

Let's consider the type of novel we want to write. In our pre-write, we came up ideas, characters perhaps, even a sketch or two. First, let's look at the narrator's point of view. Is the most prevalent narration in first person, third, or something else?
First person narration is potent. Many writers use this well. The I narration is personal, I is direct, I is present in the story and clearly part of the action. The I can be limited only because I cannot know the intricate or intimate thoughts of others.
The third person narrator may or may not know certain things. Third person can follow a character for a spell and switch to another. Third person can know the deepest thoughts or secrets of everyone involved. The third person narrator will know what the reader knows too. This narrator really does have the greater flexibility.
A combination of these two types of narrators will work too. The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham is a first person narrator who introduces the story and characters and makes a seamless shift to an almost omnipotent third person narration.
Alice Walker or Daniel Keyes in Color Purple or Flowers for Algernon, respectively made compelling narration through first, second and third person narration by using confessional/diary or letter correspondence. Rabih Alameddine uses all sorts of narration in I, the Divine.
The point is, your narration is the translation for the story. You, the writer can use narration to translate your thoughts to the story, and in the story, your narration translates to the reader. If you cannot shape the point of view or the narrator just yet, don't worry, and don't stop writing. It will work out.
If you need to study these types of narration concepts, recall all the novel's you've ever read. I've kept a literary journal for reference sake. If nothing else, a journal as such will help recall.

Theme comes next. Theme is not plot, theme is more broad, more vague. As you look over your notes, do you find any common themes? Clearly we can put theme as synonym to genre, but even genre fiction themes can be broad. Here are a few I can come up with from the reading I've done in the last few years. (I'm referring to my literary journal.) These themes are by no means the only ones out there.
1)the road novel: traveling to get somewhere or find something. Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky. David Brin, The Postman. Cormac McCarthy, The Road. Travel becomes a central theme because the characters must learn something, or they must gain something. I would consider the Bowles novel as classic literary fiction. He paints a portrait of Africa and a clash of culture as theme too. Brin's book, science fiction, post-apocalypse, fun stuff. The Road? I was not a fan. The story is somewhat compelling, I still can't figure out what the resolution was.
2)Family history: a portrait of a family or group of people. This theme focuses on one central conflict and the way the characters resolve the conflict of events. Ian McEwan, Atonement. J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace. Jeffery Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides. Each of these are the following of a single family and the conflicts are within the family (or group).
Some other family history themes that cover long periods of time: Willa Cather's My Antonia, Richard Yates's Easter Parade; Art Corriveau's Housewrights, Evan O'Connell's Mrs. Bridge. These novels cover years and years of the development of characters and their conflicts.
3)the boiling pot: part mystery, part community, part chase. I love the boiling pot because everything is on the move, and the pot can boil over at any second. The boiling pot theme may have any additional theme, and be in any genre. Characters must figure out something that we readers (hell, we writers) may or may not know. These adventures can be physical, mental, emotional. Some examples: Jim Kurose, The Girl Factory. William Kotzwinkle, Christmas at Fontaine's. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. The boiling pot adds a bit of mystery, a bit of satyr, and some emotional spike. Thematically speaking, the boiling pot must have an element of surprise, plenty of hooks set and then realized. Remember when you read Bram Stoker's Dracula, and it took almost two hundred pages before you met your first vampire?
4)the thin veil. The thin veil is just that. We look at life or society through the thin veil of a story. These characters and these stories point to us, to our flaws or our triumphs in life. They can be scathing. E.M. Forrester's A Room with a View. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. George Bataille's Story of the Eye. These stories have an element of society in them and they're generally never favorable.
As I've said, there are many, many themes and they differ in flavor because of society, writers, readers' preferences, history or circumstances. The ones listened above are a few guides as your novel develops or even as a guide to your prowess as a reader. You will see and shape themes of your own. If you think about a literary journal, perhaps noting theme, and narration may be part of your regime.

Before we begin this week's work here are a few things you should already have:
An idea which needs developing.
Some characters to help develop your idea.
A sense of your narration.
A theme as a general guide.

This week, your novel begins. Start the story now. Start in the middle of conflict, and write through it.

Good luck and happy writing.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Novel, Guerrilla Style Part 1: the introduction

I was in a bar in Manitou Springs, Colorado. I was mindlessly drinking gin martinis when I met the white, hockey player, teacher from the south. He was, at that time anyway, a local. I was the tourist from Denver squatting in a summertime cabin. It was not the tourist season yet, so the rent was really cheap. I'd been holed up for three days assembling my graduate school thesis: From Ansbach to Color. I had wandered into this bar because the end of a very long work day warranted a bucket or two of gin.
“What do you do?” he asked.
I love this question, I always have.
“I'm a waiter up in Denver,” I told him.
“Why are you here then?” he asked.
“I'm relaxing,” I said. This was true, at least in a way. I was at the bar relaxing.
I've been in the bar for a long time. Many of you know me. You know I spent a great number of years working bars starting with the Green Goose in Ansbach, Germany back in 1991. Many of you know that I'm no stranger to drinking in bars either. I feel like I know bar etiquette. I understand the importance of the bar mate. The instant friendship that can happen over such questions as “what do you do?” or “what do you drink?”
I decided this guy was all right. We were strangers, who would know when I'd be back in this particular bar? That was a warm day in April of 2008, and I still haven't been back. He and I would always be strangers.
“I'm spending a few days putting together my graduate thesis,” I said. Honesty felt okay to me. “That's why I'm here.”
“Wow,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What do you study?”
“Like journalism?”
“Fiction,” I said. “I write novels.” At this statement I expected him to nod, glass over and be done with it. Many conversations about the writing of novels leads to end of a discussion or a discussion of reading. In recent years, the discussion of reading has been strange stories mixed with vampire children or memoir people bring up. Not having read these books, I smile and nod.
“Novels?” he asked.
“I got this idea. I wish I could write it down. You can have it.”
“I wouldn't do that,” I said. And all of you reading, you wouldn't do it either, would you?
“Okay. It's the modern day. The south won the civil war and so their lifestyle stayed the same. They still have plantations and slaves. So, they get involved in the winter Olympics. Their hockey team really sucks, you know? Do you follow hockey?” he asked.
I shook my head. I don't care about hockey, and I was appalled that the south would still have slaves in the modern day. “I don't know a thing about hockey,” I said.
“Well, this team is really bad. So, they get a player from the north, and he'd black.”
Whoa? What did he just say? A black player from the north? Now, we're getting somewhere. Here we have some great conflict, and any number of interesting stories. The old boy, my bar mate, was getting somewhere. “Cool,” I said.
“Yeah, well.”
“What happens?” I asked.
“I don't know.”
“What? This premise is so great. What do they do to the black player?” I asked.
“Well, I guess they learn from him, and they win games, and they see him as an equal and they think maybe slavery is wrong.”
“What a fucking great idea,” I said.
“Well, you can have it,” he said. “I'll love to read it, but I can't write it.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, you can.”

Anyone can.

I believe that too. Writing a novel is easy. All anyone had to do is write it down. Writing a well written novel may be a little harder to do. Writing a publishable novel may be a little tougher still. But to write one is very easy. It takes only two things: an idea and a committed schedule of writing it.
There are several ways I've heard of to draft a novel The two extremes I know are: 1) write one page a day and in a year you'll have a novel. This method is the slow and steady wins the race approach. And 2) the National Novel Writing Month in November. November has 30 days and they suggest a writer write 50,000 words in that time. This is the hare approach, fast and furious. Both could work for anyone. Obviously, a page a day breaks down the enormous project into a management piece. It breaks the fear of the task too. And the 50,000 words in 30 days can be intimidating. It is more intensity over a shorter duration.
Now, before I go any further, of all the how-to novel writing programs out there, you may ask, which one works? I feel like a novel how-to guide is a bit like the diet manuals available. None work. They all work. Only an individual can decide what works and what doesn't. I will tell you what works for me and we'll outline a guide together.

Welcome to The Novel Guerrilla Style.

My first few experiences writing long fiction were in fits and bouts. I'd written cheaper versions of novels in my youth, long pages of endless nonsense. We all must start somewhere. I would write from beginning to end without a break. I chose vacations spots in places were I could write a novel. Looking back on those pieces, they were hardly novels at all.
Then there was graduate school. Grad school worked for me. It may work for you too. It is an investment of time and a tremendous expense. But it's regimentation, and some of us need that. It took me two years and two days to write my thesis which was a manuscript of a novel. Two years and two days. I also had three professors telling me what to do. Their guidance was wonderful. It was a project from idea to completion. Fortunately, I'm going to subject anyone to that in this series: idea through completion. Let's take is slow and develop a process, a personal process. As we work, we'll come to some elements of style and as we wind down, we'll come to format suggestions.
Now, a few givens: let's consider a novel as 50,000 words which is about 250 pages. To begin the process with this mindset will make it easier to handle. Second, during our process we will not self-edit, self-stifle, or self-criticize, this leads to bad things like leaving a story untold and not complete. Last, we're going to strike a middle ground with our time line. I can say this: two years and two days on From Ansbach to Color was too long. A page a day is too long. I also think the 30 day sprint may be too short a duration. I can develop an idea write a novel in about twelve weeks, that equals a first, second and third draft. We're going to slow that down even more and do our project in 15 weeks. It may seem like a daunting task, but the sense of accomplishment at the end of it will be the biggest pay off of all.
As our stories begin, we'll shape them with elements of good fiction construction. We'll shape our stories as we go. Between now and next week, try to sit down everyday and sketch ideas. These can be vignettes (or little stories) involving your characters. You can try outlines, they never work for me, but they might work for you. You can develop your characters using a dossier system. And if you have a story in mind like our hockey player bar mate, write down all the things you know. This is the pre-writing phase. In this phase, we decide a number of things. We discover a few things, we'll figure out a character or get a whole group of them. If you need something to get started: consider an anecdote, find inspiration in other pieces, novels or short stories. Think about a single conflict and develop it. In short, start thinking. Start writing. Start setting time aside for this project.
Good luck and happy writing.